After five issues of steady suspense, Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey's "The Empty Man" #6 finally answers some of the series' most burning questions -- just before posing many more in a climactic, if rather unsatisfying, conclusion to their first arc. "The Empty Man" #6 continues the tense build it established in its very first issue, making it just as good as its previous issues in that read-the-whole-issue-in-the-store kind of way. However, with a brutal cliffhanger, this issue may leave readers wanting more.
Regardless of that ending, "The Empty Man" #6 gets a lot of things right. Its answer to the question "Who -- or what -- is the Empty Man?" defies expectation, and the 5 issue buildup towards that answer is rewarded with an entire installment dedicated to exploring the Empty Man in full. That does not mean, however, that we get an issue-long infodump; rather, the issue pairs the reveal with plenty of disturbing action and stunning visuals. Although the reasoning feels a little out of left field with its psychic angle, it absolutely fits the tone and the motives of the troubled antagonist. As Jensen's condition worsens, her actions become increasingly eerie, but in such a way that this development feels like the only desperate option left for her. Further, the use of the news stations as part of the narrative is a powerful tool that quickly encapsulates the speed in which the Empty Man has spread. As a horror comic, though, "The Empty Man" exceeds all expectations for a delightfully dark romp.
The conclusion, as I've mentioned, might leave readers a little discontent. As it stands, the arc is marked like a miniseries, with this final issue listed as "6 of 6" on the cover. That said, Bunn has stated in interviews that he has plans for this series on the long term. However, the final page makes no mention of this and the ending leaves off on a dramatic note. Granted, the core mystery -- where the missing children have disappeared to -- is solved. On the other hand, Langford striding forward into the great unknown with a gun in hand is a whole other story begging to be told. With no indication that the story might continue, this ending feels like a buried lede; before I turned to the internet, I flipped through the back couple pages a few times to confirm that this really was the ending. As relieved as I am that it will continue, its cruel cliffhanger -- with no hint that it will be explored at some future time -- will leave some readers confused and unsatisfied.
Del Rey's artwork has a wonderful knack for instilling dread with its frenzied, murky inks and prevalent shading. This works especially well in the opening scene, where the Reverend Markoff interprets the Empty Man's world for himself. Del Rey and colorist Michael Garland seem to take inspiration from classics like Dante's "Inferno" and Greek mythology to paint this uncanny landscape, filling it with an ominous red hugh, an abundance of leafless trees, and its very own River Styx, which gives the scene an eerie and ethereal atmosphere. What's more, Garland highlights the more supernatural sequences -- like the floating dead body of the Empty Man's sister -- in this same husky red, where he rarely employs it elsewhere. Though Del Rey excels with close up shots of these characters, the details become a little fuzzy and hard to discern once the perspective pulls back, making it difficult to get a read on characters like Markoff when he's in a distressing situation. However, her layouts -- which utilize a triangular format increasingly as the conclusion nears -- culminate in a revelation that feels like a sucker punch; as the meaning behind the choice becomes clear, it feels as though you too are a victim of the Empty Man, watching Jensen and Langford through the portal between the physical world in and the mysterious aether. Her choice is simple, yet overwhelmingly effective.
As a whole, "The Empty Man" is the kind of comic that leaves you on the edge of your seat with an ominous, genuinely shocking plot that feels as though it is still slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Though its confusing conclusion weakens the effectiveness of the story overall, its excellent pacing and astoundingly apt artwork makes this a book to be remembered.