“Empire,” the creator-owned series by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, is finally back after 10 years on hiatus — and it has a new home and format. The Thrillbent digital platform debuts the first installment of “Empire’s” second volume this week, and it’s been a long time coming.
“It’s been 15 years in the making — it’s something that Barry and I have been wanting to do for years and years and years, but the stars hadn’t been in alignment,” Waid told CBR News. “Now that we have all the rights back from DC, now that we have Thrillbent as the perfect platform for it, it seemed to be the perfect time.”
The first volume of “Empire” — published originally with Image Comics, then with DC Comics — followed a world where evil armored despot Golgoth has won, defeating all the world’s heroes. It’s a tale of political intrigue, science fiction and violence in a world where no one is safe from death. The first volume (which wrapped in 2004) has been out of print for years, but now that Waid and Kitson have the rights back, it’s currently being offered as a subscription bonus for Thrillbent.
CBR News spoke with Waid about his return to the world of “Empire,” the advantages of the digital format specifically for the story of Golgoth and his rule over the world, the evolution of collaborator Barry Kitson’s art, the freedom of creator-owned and much more.
Mark, it’s been a while since you played in the world of “Empire.” What was it like for you to jump back in to this project to continue the story?
Mark Waid: It was a little daunting in the sense that I re-read “Empire” for the first time a couple of years ago for the first time in years. I had forgotten how complex a story it was and how nuanced it was. For those just joining us, if you’ve not heard of “Empire,” it was a series that Barry Kitson and I co-created in the late 1990s through Image Comics and then through DC Comics — a creator-owned series that told the story of what happens when an armored despot named Golgoth manages to do what no other villain has done: he manages to take over the world. He wins. That’s happened before you open the cover to issue #1. Now, he has succeeded in ruling the world, he owns everything, there is no opposition, he has his fateful ministers beside him, he has his not-so-faithful ministers beside him and there are no challenges left to be met. So, what happens next? What is the next chapter of that story? What happens when you are the ruler of the world and now there are no heroes to oppose you?
What new experimentations with format are you using for “Empire” Volume Two? Does it being published via Thrillbent open some doors for storytelling?
It creates more suspense — that’s the biggest thing. This is a story that’s tailor-made for surprises and shocks and suspense, because it’s less of a bombastic action-thriller and more of a geopolitical story of intrigue and a more personal story. The beauty of digital is that you get to surprise readers with every page turn, with every flip of the screen. You get to drop in elements, you get to subtly tweak the pacing and timing at which the story is told. “Empire” lends itself quite well to that. I think it creates more of a sense of urgency to the story. You never know going in how many pages are left in the installment or what’s going to happen next.
Tell us a bit about where the series picks up at the beginning of the second volume. How long after the end of the first volume does it begin?
It’s been one year to the day after the end of the previous volume. Without giving anything away for people that haven’t read Volume One, there’s a traumatic event in the last act that sets the tone for the next volume. This is one year later and we’re dealing with the repercussions of it. The world has changed subtly — not enormously — but from Golgoth’s various advisors and ministers’ point of view, Golgoth is changing in some very ugly and disturbing ways. That is saying a lot given that he was already a ruthless super villain with no compunction against taking human life. Even they are a little disturbed at the lengths he has tried to fill the void that was left him when this tragic thing happened.
It’s interesting that you’re avoiding spoilers for that one traumatic event — it’s definitely a lynchpin of the first book.
I know, it feels weird giving spoiler alerts on a 15-year-old story, but it’s been out of print for so long, I fully expect it to be a surprise to people that haven’t read it yet.
Part of what made the first series so successful is that Golgoth still had an edge of humanity to him — especially when you saw him interacting with his daughter. Considering the circumstances under which the second volume opens, how much of that humanity is going to be there?
Oh, not much. Not much at all, which is really problematic in terms of — we don’t have to like him as a character, we definitely need to be interested in his goals and we need to empathize with him on some level. I think we’re able to reach him as readers in this series — the thing that keeps him connected to us and keeps him a character worth following — is loss. He dare not, for one second, show a single crack in the facade because even those closest to him will be on him like army ants to tear him apart. But the problem with having the crown is that you’re not allowed to show any weakness or any sort of yearning or doubt. Frankly, beneath that mask, he’s not sure what he wants anymore. Why is he doing what he’s doing and who is he doing it for?
How smoothly have you and Barry Kitson been able to get back into the swing of things in terms of your collaboration? How do you think his work has evolved since the series finished in 2004?
Let’s take the second one first! His work has evolved enormously, and that is in no way to say that he hasn’t always been brilliant. But, my God! The way he’s able to tell a story — there’s a poetry in his line that I’m not sure was even there 10 or 15 years ago. He’s just gotten better as he goes, and like all of us who keep pushing, keep trying to succeed at our craft, he’s really set a new bar for himself. It’s a joy. I got a nice e-mail from Chris Sotomayor, the colorist, the other day saying what a joy it is to color Barry’s faces. Among other things, he’s really digging the gig, but he really loves the faces. There’s something about the way Barry draws people, the subtle ways that the acting is all right there on the page that makes it a delight. He’s only gotten better.
In terms of collaborating again, that was just falling into lockstep. I’ve probably worked with Barry as much as I’ve worked with any other artist in comics, if not more. We know what our strengths and weaknesses are, we know how to collaborate. We’re very much interested in pushing forward and telling the same story in conjunction rather than pushing against each other. It doesn’t mean that we weren’t a little intimidated trying to get back into this world, because it has been a while, but we felt familiar with it pretty quickly. Watching Barry draw and reintroduce some of the characters that he did such a great visual creation of 15 years ago has been really spectacular. He’s really into it.
One of the things that struck me about “Empire” Volume One is how many similarities it had to something like “The Walking Dead,” where no character is safe — even Golgoth. Clearly, no main character is safe — many of the main characters of “Empire” died in the first volume. How closely are we going to be following the survivors and how soon will you be introducing some new characters?
Oh, we’re immediately introducing some new characters into the mix because this is the delight of working on this when you’ve got characters that are not bound by merchandising or common universes or publishing plans. The first thing these characters realize is that this is a very dangerous world to live in. I love putting characters in that position of realizing that, “You know what? The closer you get to Golgoth, the more dangerous your life is and the more fragile your life is.” It would seem like you want to be in good with who rules the world, but the reality is, the closer you are to that level of evil, the more jeopardized your own soul is.
There were quite a few lingering plot threads from the first volume that I’m sure you’ll be picking up on, but since it’s a ‘one year later’ situation, how did that affect your approach to picking back up on some of them?
I really did have to think — and Barry and I did talk at great lengths about this — about how the world has changed for these characters. The world of “Empire” moves pretty quickly if you think about it. We established in the first series that it’s really only been two years since Golgoth essentially took over the world — not very long; 700-some odd days. This is only one year further along, but that means that a lot can change in that time. We really had to go through character by character, talk about where they are — the big wildcard for us is Lokhyn, who in the original series was a double agent sent in — or perhaps he was a rogue agent, we’re not saying. He clearly was a man with an agenda of his own, and at the end of the series in Volume One, he is an outcast and wanted for crimes against the empire. It’s been a year. Has he found refuge? Has he gone underground? Has he mounted a counter-offense? Where does he fit in the world one year later? He ended up being a really good fascinating point-of-view character.
What about Endymion and the Eucharist? How large a role does he continue to play in furthering Golgoth’s rule of the world, and to a greater extent, how he’ll drive the plot for Volume Two?
It’s interesting that he does drive the plot even though he’s a mute captive held in the deepest sub basement of the empire and doesn’t have any dialogue. But for those who read Volume One, the secret that Golgoth is holding is that Golgoth holds his closest advisors and ministers with an addictive, performance-enhancing drug called Eucharist. The secret of Eucharist is it’s the flesh and blood of Endymion, who was Golgoth’s greatest enemy and one of the world’s greatest super powered defenders. He lost, and now he’s chained in a basement. Every day, Golgoth runs the machines, drain the blood, drain the flesh and voila: addictive drug.
Xanna, one of the court assassins, we establish in Volume One that she found the secret of Eucharist. Be careful what you wish for, because once you achieve finding a secret like this, it’s a very dangerous secret to have. You don’t want Golgoth to know that you know it, because he’ll kill you, but you don’t know if he knows you know it. If so, is he playing you? Is your very life in danger at any moment? That’s the level of intrigue we get to deal with, and we get to do that in a world where all the characters are vulnerable, anyone is expendable and anything can happen to anybody at any time.
What’s it like working in that kind of environment for you? I’m genuinely curious — you’ve worked for corporate comics, you’ve done creator-owned, but to work in a world where nothing is off the table — what’s the experience like?
It’s very liberating. I don’t want to over-characterize it, because there’s a drawback to it that people who do creator-owned comics don’t address very often: the downside to it is that you have no shared mythology of 75 years to draw from. You have no established tropes, you have no established continuity from which you can build, so it’s different than telling a Fantastic Four or Superman story because there’s always something that’s come before you that you can build off of. With something like “Empire,” it’s of its own. It’s of a piece and it’s all out of our heads; so we have to build it from scratch, which is more work. At the same time, the upside that more than makes up for it is the freedom — the freedom to be able to surprise the readers at any moment, and again, the idea that no one is safe. That’s the idea that makes it really exciting and really rewarding.
Wrapping up, how far ahead in your mind do you see “Empire” lasting? Is it a trilogy? Is it two volumes? More?
Honestly, we don’t know! If you’d asked me and Barry a couple years ago, we might have said a trilogy, but we are finding that being able to tell the story in a digital medium and the expansiveness that gives us, the added canvas that gives us, is really intriguing. What we originally conceived at 7 or 8 print comics could very easily become a year’s worth of Thrillbent stories. We don’t really know, but we’re going to get in there and we’re going to find out.
“Empire” Volume Two #1 hits Thrillbent on May 28.