What do you do if you are breaking the law and the violent mob are at the door? Run and hide or fight to the death? Can you ever escape from The Empty Man?
In issue 3 of Cullen Bunn’s virus based horror comic, The Empty Man, all of the main players come together to create mayhem. It is a violent and disturbing sequence of events which resemble something from The Purge movies.
Bunn used the first two issues of The Empty Man to introduce the characters and their affiliated groups. In this third issue, he has brought them all together and allowed the inevitable conflict to spill out across the pages. But, before he does this, he gives the story a human, sympathetic face, for the reader to identify with.
In the opening pages we are introduced to Renee, a woman desperately wanting to be accepted and, unfortunately for her, she is being manipulated by Karl, the leader of the an obsessive religious cult known as the Whisper Oracles. Bunn introduces the character and shows how easy it is to twist the truth to make it seem acceptable, even reasonable. As a reader, we know what the Whisper Oracles are really about, but poor Renee is blinded to the truth by the need to be accepted. The script references her blindness and there is a stark contrast between the descriptions in the caption boxes and the images drawn by Jesus Hervas.
The reader automatically has some sympathy for Renee because she is identified as a victim of the Cult, just as Melissa Kerry is a victim of the Empty Man virus. The heart of this issue is comparing the central characters, especially the victims, and how they deal with the situation they are in. Renee is a victim of the Cult and embraces it in desperation; Melissa is a victim of the disease and unwilling succumbs to it; Monica Jensen, the FBI agent, is also a victim of the disease who is fighting it in every possible way she can.
This issue of The Empty Man is about what you do if you are a victim. Do you embrace your lot, accept the inevitable, or do you fight back? The narrative stretches beyond the confines of the page and reflects the current state of world politics. This is illustrated via the masks worn by the Whisper Oracles because, just like the bank robbers from Point Break, they wear Presidential faces. This elevates the confrontations from street brawl to political defiance.
Hervas picks up on the sympathetic qualities of the script and produces some outstanding emotional characters. The emotional attachment that a number of the characters have with each other is only possible because of the believability of the art work. Characters such as Renee express some raw emotions and are totally engrossing. Despite the fact that Renne is ‘on the wrong side’, as a reader you find yourself rooting for her, hoping that she will see the error of her ways or break through the lies that she is being fed. This reaction can only happen because of the expressive quality of Hervas’ face and figure work.
The tension and, eventually the horror, in The Empty Man is mostly provided by the colorist Niko Guardia. The majority of this issue is set during one night and Guardia gives the sky a harsh modernist look with block colors of blues and purples. It’s slightly oppressive and disconcerting especially contrasted with the more realistic foreground art work. The only time that Guardia changes this gloomy backdrop is when he needs to accentuate an element of the story, such as a particular gruesome moment or a defining character moment.
For example see the penultimate panel on page 4 (below) where it’s Renee’s final chance to back out but instead she wholeheartedly opts in to the madness. Guardia has colored every other panel on this page with the oppressive blues, deliberately making it hard to pick out details in the darkened street but on this single panel he has dropped the color entirely, leaving the background white. It draws your eye and makes you realize this is an important moment for the character and the narrative. Simple but extremely effective.
If Guardia’s colors provide the atmosphere, then Ed Dukeshire’s lettering gives the comic its pacing. He breaks up speech with linked speech bubbles which both slows the dialogue down and adds emphasis to certain words. On the very first panel the name ‘Karl’ is separated from Renee’s speech showing that she has an intimacy with the leader of the Cult and that she is expecting something specifically from him. That break makes the reader stop and contemplate the relationship between these two characters from the very first moment.
Dukeshire’s decision to use a shadowed box for the captions throughout Karl’s speech not only provides an extra layer of separation between the words he says and the actions taking place but it also reminds the reader that he is speaking duplicity; his words are covering up the truth.
And finally, the sound effects are designed to be jarring against the otherwise quiet and empty setting. When there is a knock at a door or a car alarm blaring, the sound shatters the uniformity of the panels. The design of the font, including its color, is a harsh intrusion on the page, working in the same way as a ‘scare jump’ in a movie. It breaks the tension for a moment and allows the reader to take stock of the situation.
The Empty Man is an exciting, heart thumping read which embraces the medium to tell a brilliant horror story. Cullen Bunn has been proving himself with other off-shoots of the horror genre, especially in his haunted house series Cold Spots, and he brings his A-game to this virus/zombie influenced narrative. Everything about the art work, from the pencils and the colors to the lettering and design, works in tandem to produce the greatest effect on the reader, whether that’s to build tension, shock or create sympathetic characters. There are some amazing sequences towards the end of the comic which are surreal in nature and have to be seen; it has an element of David Lynch about it in the best possible way.
The third issue of The Empty Man is a glorious success of storytelling and leaves the reader begging for more. If you are a fan of the Purge movies or Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain comics, you should be reading this comic from BOOM! Studios.