Max Bemis and Ransom Getty’s “Evil Empire” #1 is a rocky start to a book that seems to have a minor case of identity crisis. Tonally, “Evil Empire” feels like a bunch of comics, movies and television shows thrown into a blender (“Bulworth,” “House of Cards,” “The American President,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” and “Crossed” all immediately spring to mind) but not one of them is at the wheel and driving, making it impossible to understand what Bemis is reaching for. Unfortunately, beyond the tonal issues, there are just some essential basics that don’t come together.
Readers get such a brief peek at “the future” in the opening hook that it’s completely unclear what that world is actually like. The narration is heavy but lacks clarity, aiming instead of poetry and metaphor. There’s the suggestion of some things — a (more) violent world, fascism, thugs, etc., but it’s such a brief and unexplored few pages that it’s impossible to grab hold of anything real. The art does not help matters as it lacks specificity. Either it’s not clear enough in its details or “Evil Empire’s” fictional future is really just not that bad. For example — people’s clothes are in good shape, so are buildings and streets, both of which appear to be open and functioning. People appear well fed, and they have real weapons (as opposed to more dystopian “weapons made out of other things” kind of weapons).
The best visual clue we get is one shot of the “police,” who are indeed interesting and trend heavily toward fascist. It’s the most intriguing aspect of the whole book. Unfortunately, directly following that moment, readers are plunged into nearly 20 pages supposedly demonstrating how the world got to that point — only it’s mostly a politician trying to date a rapper/activist and another politician suffering a tragedy that’s apparently going to change the world and none of it is remotely as interesting as that one shot of the police. It’s a lot of long-winded speeches that are supposed to impress us (and Reece, a rapper/activist being wooed by a politician) but it all falls rather flat.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare, but “Evil Empire” is lacking in the kind of distinctions that make great political writing so magnificent. Modern political fiction like “House of Cards” is brilliant in its ability to contrast a subtle intellectual tone with shocking brutality. It’s a blend that raises the stakes on every moment in the best possible way. By contrast, “Evil Empire” has no subtlety or nuance. As a result, the cliffhanger, which will definitely compel some readers to come back, feels unearned and not very shocking as it has the same broad strokes as the rest of the issue.
Getty’s art is capable. It’s occasionally beautiful and there are moments where he really shines, but he doesn’t feel particularly suited to a book about politics. He excels when designing fascist police uniforms or cutting loose with rapper Reece. The character’s design is great and her appearances are the best pages in the book. On the other hand, her politician suitor feels out of place and his clothes are oddly rendered. Similarly, while Getty really nails some of the more interesting faces — like the “homeless guy” in the beginning and Senator Laramy — and much of the acting is very strong, some of the expressions and body language don’t work or are outright confusing. Panel layouts and storytelling work for the most part, but again, there are some glaring negatives that stand out — a scene where the background drops out and is filled with random crosshatching, for example. The art is clearly lovingly detailed (and colored by Chris Blythe), but it ends up feeling overworked on all fronts.
I think there’s actually an interesting story in “Evil Empire” #1 somewhere, but it’s not presented in the best way. Had Bemis and Getty presented a better destination, a better opening hook — then perhaps the lack of nuance in the journey might have felt worth it. Unfortunately, as presented here, clunky and heavy-handed and with an unclear destination in mind, it’s hard to invest in the journey, regardless of cliffhanger ending.