Eynd of Empyre

Carla Hoffman looks back at Marvel’s Empyre, both as a game-changing “event book” and from a story perspective.

With the world in flux, we can at least count on a major summer event to remain a constant for comic fans. Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night will keep our Big Two from their appointed rounds of throwing their entire universe (or multiverse, as the case may be) into flux to determine the definitive path for their respective companies. At least until next year.

Let’s look at this year’s Empyre by Dan Slott, Al Ewing and Valerio Schiti, and see if a comic can rock our world harder than real life already has. WARNING: spoilers ahead for the basics of the main Empyre series, so if you’ve read all six issues, grab your comics and read along!

Why do we have these events?  What is their purpose in the grand scheme of Marvel Comics?  What do we expect of that $5.99 price tag?  What even qualifies as an “event book,” anyway?  At heart, I think event books are for problems larger than one team or faction of heroes can face alone.  Sometimes this leads to odd bedfellows and groups of heroes or villains working together… or maybe they just fight each other, but in any case, you need two big groups to tango.  You need a threat that is large and threatening enough to actually need this unique group to focus on coming together; a sky beam isn’t going to cut it.  Event books should be an event, not just a crossover, not just a big bad — something that echoes into forthcoming issues for the participants. 

That idea has been around for awhile, but really came into regular prominence in the post-Civil War era.  Comic event books could sell better if they promised to break the internet in half and change all of the Marvel Universe forever.  For the most part, they did in the 2000s: from Avengers Disassembled to Siege, we had about 10 years of can’t-miss storytelling that would radically change the Marvel Universe as mutants were depowered, Skrulls invaded, Hulks declared world war and more; for a few years, it was a good guarantee that there would be a miniseries in the summer that was going to radically change something.  Maintaining that kind of consistency is difficult, if not impossible.  Not to say that there weren’t some bangers in the intervening years (Original Sin, Death of Wolverine and Secret Wars, to name a few), but you can’t rely on breaking the rules and ultimate change every year to bring a new audience into your continuity.  

So between breaking the internet in half and say, Fear Itself, where does Empyre fall?  Does it create a new dynamic for the Marvel Universe?  Change characters drastically?  Let’s try and look at each issue of this six-part series (no tie-ins) and see exactly what happened in Empyre.  Please note that this is a basic-ish outline; there are so many players in this space war that I assume you’re aware of the major players.

In issue one, the Fantastic Four are headed back to Earth and find a Kree/Skrull alliance hovering around the moon. Both sides of this never-ending war have come together and want to vanquish an old mutual foe under the leadership of a new joint figurehead, Emperor Hulkling. The Avengers are on the moon with what is assumed to be the target of this new coalition: the Cotati.  As the Avengers help the Cotati grow their garden on the moon and ally themselves with the plant people, it turns out the Cotati were actually looking to wage war on all  “animal life” and want to defeat the Kree/Skrull armada — and Earth itself.

The second issue is all about context; a lot of things happened in issue #1 and we’re learning the motivations of why they happened. Celestial Messiah Quoi lays out his plan and the Cotati’s true intentions: the annihilation of animal life in order for plant life to thrive again. Meanwhile, Captain Marvel and other heroes left on the Kree/Skrull main battleship defeat the Cotati advancing on them, and Carol Danvers is given the rank and weaponry of a Kree Accuser (like that Ronan guy from the movie).  To stop the Cotati’s rampage, both alien races offer the idea of destroying the Earth to take care of the problem.

War rages on in issue three. The main Cotati forces want Wakanda for their vibranium in order to gain more power and Mantis (Quoi’s mother) arrives to try and help the Avengers talk her son down.  Back on the Kree/Skrull ship, extreme measures are debated, from a suicide run by Captain Marvel to the death of Earth’s sun, putting a lot of weight on Emperor Hulking.  The final pages show that there is deception and intrigue behind the scenes as the former Empress of the Skrull and the Kree Commander Gla-Ree plot to take more drastic galaxy-conquering measures and have no intention to keep the Kree/Skrull alliance.

In issue four, Emperor Hulkling agrees to blow up the sun. Captain Marvel and the Human Torch try to disagree, but are teleported away before they can act.  They arrive in Wiccan’s apartment back on Earth, and he explains that the person that agreed to blow up the sun isn’t actually the real Hulking. He would know as Wiccan and Hulking are now bound together in a more esoteric fashion because they had officially gotten married before he left Earth. Mantis tries to stop Quoi from killing all humans but with Kree and Skrull willing to blow up the sun, it doesn’t work. It is revealed that Hulk (Jennifer Walters flavor) was actually killed in Empyre #1 off panel and a Cotati agent has possessed her dead form to infiltrate the Avengers. 

For issue five, the possessed Hulk fights the Thing.  Black Panther continues to fight the invading Cotati to protect the vibranium mound that Wakanda holds, but is struck down by the Cotati Swordsman and assumed dead. Wiccan joins Captain Marvel and Human Torch to teleport back to the Kree/Skrull ship to reveal that the Emperor Hulking currently in charge is an imposter;  they found the real one trapped in an iron mask off panel. Imposter Hulkling reveals that he has already set up the sun destroying device and he challenges the heroes to a rite of combat. Tony Stark makes Reed Richards a suit of armor.

In our last issue, the Kree and the Skrull are incapacitated by a carrier wave that makes them want to fight each other. Real Hulkling sends Wiccan, Captain Marvel and Human Torch to stop the sun from exploding. Mantis, Invisible Woman and the Thing fight the corrupted Hulk. Valeria and Franklin have to stop the carrier wave device from sending out its signal to the Kree and the Skrulls. All of this is accomplished by coming together and working as one with all factions (minus the Cotati of course). Black Panther isn’t dead, and he and the Iron-suited Reed Richards defeat the Cotati Swordsman and Quoi. The Cotati Swordsman is destroyed and an unrepentant Quoi is taken under custody. Empress R’Klll and Gla-Ree’s deception is unveiled, and the rightful Emperor Hulking takes charge of the alliance. The day is saved.

As an event book, I would say that Empyre has failed. At the end of the series, I don’t see much radical change for the Avengers and Fantastic Four as we know them. The Kree/Skull Alliance is new and can affect stories in the future, but it’s also easily hand waved away off panel to allow those forces to fight once more in never-ending conflict. As storylines goes, I would rank this as more of a crossover; an effective use of both teams to challenge a threat that didn’t really need too many people involved. Not internet-breaking, maybe just a few forums or fansites. The major changes left at the end of the book were Emperor Hulking now leading the Kree/Skrull Alliance (this time for sure) and Captain Marvel as a Kree Accuser. Hulkling and Wiccan’s marriage was told to us in this series but will be shown in a separate follow-up book (out today!), so I don’t exactly call it part of the main Empyre series. Hulk is alive, as far as I know, and will mostly be elaborated on in another follow-up title and the Immortal Hulk ongoing; her sudden and shocking death is put to rights within Empyre itself.  Plenty of other characters or clean up of the war will drift into individual titles and their own story arcs. Empyre has left a soft indent on the Marvel Universe at large and collectors will be bummed at the lack of money issues.

Is that so bad, though?  Do we need event books to blow our minds and rock our worlds? If you read a comic storyline, whether that’s in single issues or collection, if the story is interesting and gets you thinking about our heroes in new ways, isn’t that enough of an impact on the Marvel Universe?  I chide Empyre on its ending not having some echoing impact on the characters and the worlds they inhabit, but if a story makes you, the reader, feel something, get inspired or take a moment to reflect, then that’s a bigger shakeup than all the character deaths or reveals ever published.  There’s a lot in Empyre, from the all-as-one heroics of the final battle, the lynchpin being the reveal of a union between two openly gay characters, even Cotati’s distaste for animal life and the ugly mistakes we make can make you think and look forward to further discussion. Personally, I think the pacing from issue to issue was a little uneven and could have been shifted around for better effect, but that’s not going to be the same problem in a trade collection or a single-issue binge.  The artwork for the series is absolutely stellar (no pun intended) and Valerio Schiti is worth the cover price alone for his designs of the Cotati and various space ships, suits and aliens. 

Just because Empyre hasn’t shaken the status quo or brought about major change in the Marvel Universe, this doesn’t discount it as a great story full of cosmic adventure at home and abroad. It’s a very classic Marvel story, a return to form for emotional growth and reflective metaphor for our own lives. I mean, it’d be pretty cool if we all worked together as one to stop an impending threat to our planet. In this new decade, it is perhaps time to retire the idea of “event books” and instead find a new way to measure the merit of grand Marvel adventures — less by how many characters are killed and more by the quality of those characters who live on in the Marvel Universe.

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