“Empress” launches from Marvel Comics’ creator-owned Icon imprint this April with the first of three planned six-issue miniseries. The series tells the story of Emporia, queen of Earth’s first galactic empire — one that existed during the age of the dinosaurs — who escapes her abusive overlord husband with three children in tow. And while much of the talk around the project has thus far focused on Millar’s teasing of an eventual movie, the creators assure CBR News that they’re both focused on making it a comic unlike any other in the Millarworld line.
Gents, I’ve gone looking through everything I can think of to see if you’ve worked together before now, and I’m finding nothing. That’s seems crazy to me! From DC in the ’90s through Marvel in the ’00s until now, you’ve worked near each other and shared collaborators, but never teamed-up. What took so long to make this happen?
Mark Millar: It’s like DeNiro and Pacino finally getting together for “Heat,” or that moment in “Roger Rabbit” where Daffy and Donald were playing the piano together — except we actually did very briefly work together when I was starting out. Stuart kindly asked me to come in and do some dialogue on a few issues of “Superman” he was plotting, and a couple of them were actually drawn by him. So I had a little taste of what it was like to see my words and his pictures together. I’ve craved it again, ever since.
Stuart Immonen: Same goes for me, obviously. I wouldn’t have reached out to Mark on “Superman” if I didn’t think he was a top-tier talent. Life’s too short to work with people you don’t respect and admire. But circumstances of one sort or another had always gotten in the way of us getting the band back together. Until “Empress,” of course.
Mark, you’ve said before that you always conceive of a project and then go in search of the right artist for the story. What made Stuart right for “Empress”?
Millar: Nabbing Greg Capullo from DC and Stuart Immonen from Marvel for big projects this year has me incredibly spoiled, but they weren’t just chosen because they’re the biggest artists at their respective companies. They each bring a certain set of skills appropriate to the projects, and when we announce the Greg project at the end of April and show the first cover, you’ll know what I mean.
For “Empress,” I just knew I needed someone who could draw anything. And as crazy as that sounds, it’s actually true with Stuart. I didn’t need someone who could draw New York or Metropolis — I needed someone who could give us a convincing Earth 65 million years ago and then flit across 20 alien worlds and make me believe each one was a functioning society. He can do that. Lots of people have strengths like storytelling or facial expressions or composition or figure work, but Stuart has no weaknesses. He’s the master of all of these. I think every pro I’ve ever known regards him as the best living artist working in comics. He’s certainly proven it with these pages. This could have looked very wrong if my partner in it couldn’t cope with what I was asking for, but he gave back pages that made the visuals I had in my head look like cave-drawings. The guy’s amazing.
Stuart, more than anyone I can think of who’s found success drawing for the big corporate publishers, you always seem to have a few more personal and/or independent creator-owned projects cooking alongside the superhero or Star Wars work. How did “Empress” scratch a creative itch for you that fit into the wide variety of work you do?
Immonen: Let me count the ways!
Kathryn and I had just finished touring with “Russian Olive to Red King,” and I was on my way to completing my arc on “Star Wars,” so, purely from a logistics standpoint, it couldn’t have been a better fit. More importantly, however, once Mark began describing the broad stokes of “Empress,” it was immediately clear that it was wall-to-wall my jam, something I could put a personal, perhaps even lasting, stamp on. From designing alien tech and culture to orchestrating epic space battles to composing quiet moments of tenderness, it’s literally a story that has everything. To be a part of creating something with such depth and scope was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Mark hasn’t held back in the idea department — I only hope I’ve risen sufficiently to the challenge.
“Empress” is the first Millarworld book since “Hit Girl” to feature a female lead. As so many of the books in the line tweak classic archetypes, I wondered if there was any though during the series’ inception of this book being built for the modern female comic book fan in some way?
Millar: No, it’s not even something I noticed, actually, until a few weeks back when one of my friends pointed out that “Empress” has a female lead, our new “Hit-Girl” series coming in October obviously has a female lead, the big Greg Capullo project is a female lead, “Jupiter’s Legacy’s” sequel (starting on June 29th) has a female lead and the big new thing I’m planning has a female lead. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Maybe it’s just living in a house full of women, but somehow the idea of creating a new concept starring a big, white male doesn’t seem terribly interesting or innovative right now. If you look around the comic stores, they’re somewhat well-represented.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of it all, there’s a lot to unpack about the story. Let’s start with the idea that this story takes place on earth 65 million years ago. What does setting a fantastical sci-fi space opera in our own imagined past add to the series?
Millar: Almost all sci-fi is set in the future, so it seemed interesting to go into the past. Even when we do go back in time it’s very rarely pre-Victorian, or maybe Roman times, so going back 65 million years just felt unique. I’ve read a lot of pre-history theories, the notion that the human race was artificially conceived by alien cultures 450,000 years ago and so on, and I enjoy all that. It’s great fun. So there’s little of that and the desire to have a link to something that’s obviously incredibly over-the-top. Starting on Earth slightly anchors the concept, and it came to me when I was in the Natural History museum and saw the scale of how small our time on Earth has been compared to everything else. The opening page explains all this, but it’s a bit like swimming in the ocean and knowing there’s miles of things beneath you. That just felt really interesting to explore.
Of course, the heart of the story concerns the couple that is Queen Emporia and her abusive, tyrant husband. While the premise of a woman leaving an abusive marriage is direct and relatable, what can you tell us about these characters and their empire that exists outside that core hook? Who are they and how did they get to this point?
Millar: That’s all explained within the course of the story itself, but again I like to ground big concepts and make them relatable. Stan Lee was amazing at this. As a kid, I might not have known a huge amount about Asgardian mythology for example, but I got the idea of a father having two sons and one of them being problematic. Superman is a huge concept, but the fictional construct of Clark Kent gives readers an entry-point to the best comic-book character ever created. Rod Serling grounded the strangest ideas in real-life dramas, and we’ve done the same here. Everybody gets the idea of a dangerous husband and a woman taking off with her childhood for their own safety. That’s the crux of this book even in the craziest moments.
The other big factor in this story are the kids. I think a lot of people will be curious about Aine, the teenager who would rather stay with her father, but how do all three complicate and complete the story in your eyes?
Millar: A pal of mine from the Millarworld boards was saying there’s so few comic books based around a family dynamic now, and he was absolutely right. This was a big inspiration, here. There’s really very few child characters at the forefront of many stories, and so doing something that felt like “The Incredibles in Space” felt very refreshing. As a kid, I loved reading about heroic kids, and Spielberg was great at doing this kind of things in his late ’70s and ’80s movies. I always try to get a good hero kid in there, whether it’s Space-Boy in “Starlight” or Jason in “Jupiter’s Legacy” or these guys. They’re just fun.
Looking at the design of characters and their world, Stuart, it seems like you’re getting to draw on a wide range of visual influences, from ’70s sci-fi movies to the prehistoric trappings. What influenced you most in developing the look and set dressing of this world?
Immonen: The short answer is that the primary influence was the script. A lesser writer would have been satisfied to have come up with one of the score of concepts at play in “Empress,” but there are curves and cleverness in every scene. Mark did all the heavy lifting — it fell to me to merely flesh it out and make it pretty. Frankly, my greatest obstacle has been designing a universe of infinite variety in a genre crowded with inventiveness. It’s like dodging raindrops. But the real universe is full of things that are too bizarre to believe — my go-to resource has always been the natural world. Ideally, no matter how weird or alien the concept, my goal is to ground it somehow so the audience can relate.
Of course, you’ve also talked about the style of this project in terms of its cartooning, calling your approach akin to “ligne claire” style. I assume that working with Wade Von Grawbadger and Ive Svorcina has an influence on how this will develop as well. What is your impression of how your art feels that’s different than something in a slightly similar wheelhouse we’ve seen from you, like “Star Wars”?
Immonen: My reputation precedes me, I’m sure, in my willingness to drop the style associated with a previous project in order to seek new horizons and find the look that suits the script at hand. And I’m more than happy to fine tune what I’m doing to suit a particular collaborative dynamic. The art isn’t precious to me. It’s there to be manipulated into a shape that best performs it’s function — to tell the story.
The work for “Star Wars,” while I’ve seen it called “cartoony,” for me was very grounded in naturalistic approach, which suited a project based on real actors, real sets and props Because nothing but the words were pre-existing on “Empress,” I was freed up from those constraints and therefore more confidently able to open the line art up and abstract it from reality in a way comics is uniquely suited to doing.
You guys have said that you’re looking to make this story three six-issue arcs — an epic to be sure. What about this story demands that breathing room, and how are you planning on building a publishing schedule for this considering the other projects you’re both working on?
Millar: Well, the history of planet Earth and the origin of the human race needs that space. [Laughs] Kirby would have done that in three pages I’m sure, but this felt quite monumental. I wrote the whole thing last year and will be jumping onto the sequel after Summer. I’m not sure when Stuart is available, but it’s a project we’re really excited about. I’m just finishing up the Capullo project next month, and I wrote the “Jupiter’s Legacy” sequel 18 months ago so it’s really just “Chrononauts 2: Futureshock” for me after Easter, and then in the Autumn I’ll be getting into these characters again.
Overall, what do each of you think is the element of this series that maybe hasn’t been discussed, yet you think is a vitally important part of what makes “Empress” the comic you want it to be?
Millar: It’s a thrill-ride. I will put money down right now and say it’s the most exciting, non-stop action comic you will read this year. It’s relentless, and I got breathless writing it.
Immonen: Mark broke away from the peloton early, and I’m still trying to catch up for the sprint to the finish. Readers are going to be left breathless, too, and hungry for more.
“Empress” #1 arrives from Marvel’s Icon imprint in April.