Empire of the Dead #1
Writer: George Romero
Artist: Alex Maleev
Color Artist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterer: Cory Petit
Review by Joey Braccino
I’ve reviewed a lot of zombie comics for Talking Comics over the last two years.
Like a lot.
Like, I’ve reviewed more zombie comics for Talking Comics than Rick Grimes has “stuff” and “things.”
And that Rick Grimes joke is more relevant than my feeble attempts at humor may let on, because one of the reasons I’ve reviewed so many zombie comics is the super successful, decade-long-running comic and subsequent uber-hit TV series, The Walking Dead.
While we can debate whether The Walking Dead success has essentially resulted in an over-saturated market for zombies, there is no question the comic—as well as other successful zombie media franchises like Resident Evil and cult classics like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later—owes much to the Living Dead franchise kickstarted by the legendary George A. Romero back in 1968. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is and was the prototypical, archetypal zombie story. The images of ambling, sallow, moaning undead figures lurking in the shadows that have become a staple of zombie horror, zombie comedy, zombie action, zombie film, zombie games, and zombie comics are derived from Romero’s iconic work.
Needless to say, when Marvel announced George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead, the latest in the Living Dead franchise, would be published as a comics miniseries with Romero himself as writer, interest was piqued. Adding the ineffable Alex Maleev (Daredevil, Spider-Woman, Moon Knight) and gritty colorist Matt Hollingsworth to the bill merely added to the intrigue: in a world where The Walking Dead has surpassed Living Dead in the pop cultural zeitgeist, how would Romero’s work hold up?
Unfortunately, the answer is “not well.” Aside from the aforementioned over-saturation market for zombie horror, Romero’s Empire of the Dead fails to either capture the original trilogy’s pulpy cultural awareness or present any fresh, engaging ideas to the genre. Not that I’m comparing Empire of the Dead to a 1968 film—rather, I’m suggesting that the premise here doesn’t have the spark to really fascinate, enthrall, or terrify readers.
Empire of the Dead is set five years after the events of the original film. We open in New York City with a character appropriately named Pete Barnum; Barnum wrangles zombies for his circus maximus (a coliseum and zoo constructed in Central Park) where he displays them for entertainment. Penny Jones is a doctor embedded with Barnum’s team in order to observe his interaction with the zombies. Her motive? She wants to determine whether she can “tame” a zombie, capitalizing on their apparent deep-memory retention. From there, we get some classic undead action and some beautifully illustrated dystopian landscapes. Ultimately, however, the “big reveal” of this first issue feels a bit shark-jumpy, and really drives home my largest issue with Empire: it’s too familiar and too reminiscent of other, more contemporary works to really engage its audience. he includes plot points similar to recent episodes of The Walking Dead—gladiator walkers—and the film Warm Bodies. Furthermore, the one “interesting” development is so pulpy and, frankly, goofy that the book almost can’t be taken seriously.
Now, Empire is plenty dark. Alex Maleev’s scratchy realism and Matt Hollingsworth’s naturalistic color palette paint a somber, distressed New York City literally graying under the weight of the zombie apocalypse. Stark blues and grays clash with flat oranges to establish a tone of listlessness. I’d almost say read the book just for the artwork, but in the end, Romero’s characters and premise don’t capitalize on the imagery.
Hardcore Living Dead fans might want to pick it up just to reminisce a bit (and get a kick out of a “retcon” moment at the climax of the book), but in all honesty, Empire of the Dead is probably a SKIP for most readers. For a book by the godfather of the zombie flick, Empire of the Dead offers very little in the way of the genre. Maleev and Hollingsworth kill it on the artwork, but Romero’s script hits too many beats we’ve seen done before in more relevant, more current stories. Bummer.