No one knows how it started, how you get it, or how it got its name; according to Special Agent Walter Langford, “The Empty Man” — a pandemic, or at least something similar to one — seemed to simply will itself into existence. With the number of cases on the rise across the country, Langford and his partner Monica Jensen found themselves assigned to track the disease and its mysterious cultish offshoots, landing them in a bizarre world of quarantine tents and perverse murders. In “The Empty Man” #1, Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey weave an ominous tale with meticulously laid ground work, a fast-paced script and atmospheric artwork.
Although Bunn and Del Rey reveal a glimpse of the series’ main players, this issue spends much more time introducing the Empty Man itself — and that’s exactly what makes this issue so riveting. In fact, Langford and Jensen don’t get introduced until the midpoint; instead, the focus stays firmly rooted in following the incidents and the Empty Man’s reputation. The execution of the Empty Man’s notoriety is particularly well-handled, as Langford and Jensen go from house to house to interview neighbors about a recent disturbing case. As such, the reader not only gets a sense of how the public perceives the disease but how it moves, eerily instilling the idea that it may have a mind of its own. This results in a slow build, with suspense mounting throughout the issue for a dramatic and gripping cliffhanger that teases a bloodcurdling surprise for all the characters involved. This issue strikes the perfect balance between exposition, ambiguity and revelation to keep a reader’s interest piqued.
In building tone and tension, Del Rey’s style just works. It’s rough around the edges, casting a lot of the book into shadow, which ultimately creates the sense that something could always be lurking somewhere in the darkness. She includes some rather stunning panels, ones that both startle and impress; for instance, Reverend Markoff looks directly at you only a few pages in, inviting you to become part of his congregation in an unnervingly personal kind of way. She keeps her on the more subtle details, particularly reflections, which breathes life into her murky world. What’s more, she includes some clever layout work, especially on the first page where a panel cuts in a triangular shape that mirrors Markoff’s religious symbolism. However, she slips a little bit here and there with perspective shots that don’t quite work and action that’s hard to follow due to book’s dark overtones. Colorist Michael Garland contributes wonderfully to this eerie atmosphere with a dim pallet, but he does experience the same pitfalls as Del Rey concerning the action.
“The Empty Man” #1 reads like Slender Man meets “The Happening” (if the movie had a much better execution, anyway) with mysterious murder/suicides, a supernatural disease, and an entire population swept up in something new and dangerous. Cullen and Del Ray’s work is instantly palatable, combining action and exposition fluidly for a quick, climactic read. Once you start this issue, it’ll be over before you know it — and its cliffhanger will leave you craving more.