[Comic Publication Date: 1/22/14]
George A. Romero. Just the name alone elicits some of the most ghastly images of his storied film career as a zombie auteur. His first and most influential film, Night of the Living Dead, created a pop-culture phenomenon in term “zombie” without a single character in the film uttering the word (only in the follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, is the word actually used for the first time). Yet in acknowledging his reputable legacy throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, we must also come to terms with the fact that Romero’s grip on the genre has not been so strong in the subsequent decades; his first foray into comics, Empire of the Dead #1, is further evidence of that. Empire of the Dead #1 does not suffer from the same disappointment felt in his post-Day of the Dead films, but rather, the downfall of this leadoff issue is that it feels too much like an amalgamation of what’s come before. Designated as a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Empire of the Dead #1 takes the ideas established in Romero’s Night, Dawn, and Day films and rolls them up into one gorgeous looking, but ultimately familiar, package.
As the series’ writer, Romero serves up a post-apocalyptic zombie survival narrative set in New York five years after the dead first walk. Penny Jones, younger sister of Barbara from the Night film, acts as the reader’s introduction to this world, though the sights and sounds are all too familiar, especially to those that engulf mainstream zombie culture regularly these days. Romero populates this first issue with a lot of characters, each of them the kind of hero or villain we’ve seen before, even in Romero’s own movies. Paul Barnum is a hired wrangler that gathers the undead for a Gladiator-like event where zombies square-off against one another for entertainment; you can just hear his typical grizzled I’ve-seen-it-all-voice when he introduces himself (“Barnum. Paul. Hello.”). Mayor Chandrake is introduced as the wealthy, seedy type sitting high up in his ivory tower; he’s basically a ringer for Dennis Hopper’s character in Land of the Dead. Chandrake’s nephew, Bill, just screams villain from the get-go with his eye patch and cape, and his reveal is as obvious as it seems when he draws his cape back in a Dracula-like fashion.
Complaints with the habitual nature of Romero’s story aside, Alex Maleev’s art on Empire of the Dead #1 achieves a precedence in capturing the book’s mood and tone. Maleev’s thick, dark lines and rough character configurations bathes the issue in a grimy overtone perfect for the post apocalyptic setting. Coupled with Matt Hollingsworth’s muted, almost watercolor-esque painterly colors, it’s one of those perfect pairings of artist and colorist that allows the world to fully come to life, even if that world is filled mostly with things that were once dead. Romero’s Empire of the Dead belongs in this medium, and although it might feel familiar in so far as the introduction, the art will surely be something special to behold each month.
Empire of the Dead #1 is a difficult recommendation to make especially to its target audience of George A. Romero enthusiasts. Chances are if you’ve seen Romero’s films, the setup presented in this first issue won’t feel entirely like a new experience, but at the very least it’s presented in a new medium under the gifted hands of an excellent artist. Give the first issue a try if only to see what Romero can do outside his film presence.
GNN Comics Grade: GOOD (6.5/10)