Jason Shawn Alexander’s new series “Empty Zone” is all about mood and tone. It’s a look at a dark future filled with noirish thugs and tinged with dystopian and supernatural elements that come together to make a gritty and intense whole. The books’ protagonist, Corrine, is a hardened contractor who seems have waking dreams involving dead men and passionate sex that ends with limb removal. Alexander’s narrative finds her swimming through an insomnia-laden fog that gives her trouble determining what’s real and what’s an illusion. Though it’s visually fascinating, the unreliable narrator and lack of visual distinction between the two can leave readers feeling lost amid the gorgeous art.
Alexander’s style, a combination of Alex Maleev-style realism and Ashley Wood-style fantasy, is a big selling point for the issue. The environment and characters are all hardened and gritty, yet the creator still makes it look attractive. Corinne is independent and sexy, unafraid to use any of that to her advantage to complete her mission. His page layouts are slightly challenging, asking the reader to make their own connections, as scenes flash back and forth with nothing that really separates the time jumps from the hallucinations Corinne experiences, like when she heads to her roof to confront someone who was spying on her through her door. It’s a great way to visually convey the disorientation Corinne experiences from her combination of drugs and insomnia, but the script winds up suffering because of it.
Alexander does render the explosive sexual confrontation between her and a dead man with a softer, more painterly feel before snapping back to sharper linework in reality, but colorist Luis NCT gives both realms the same color palette, which also makes the distinction difficult. Alexander helps maintain the harsh feel of the book through Sherard Jackson’s lettering. This makes for cool visuals but, in the digital version used for this review, some of the thin, independent comics style balloon tails blend into their backgrounds, forcing readers to really concentrate to discern who is speaking in panels with multiple characters.
The book’s plot is just revving up, as Alexander takes this opening issue to really explore the environment and tone of the series. The ending — a cliffhanger involving what looks like the extraction of ghosts from mutilated bodies in a science lab — is the first big plot move of the entire issue. The writer lays out a few different narrative strings that will most likely be pulled closer and closer together as the series progresses, but the mystery is still being introduced. Creating a mystery in a comic is a risky storytelling move, as it really requires a tight creative grasp on where the story will land in order to give a satisfying ending.
The debut of “Empty Zone” will stand and fall on a reader’s opinion of either the mood or the characters; it’s stylish and well-made but still has a lot of work to do before it becomes a compelling, top of the pile series. The gorgeous art will draw in some, but Alexander will have to tease out more of the story in the next issue to keep them around.