Review: The Empty Man #1

So I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. Everything from the mildest case of the common cold to the most virulent strain of gonoherpesyphilAIDS sends me cowering into the corner with a fistful of echinacea and a twice-blessed crucifix. But I’m also fascinated by disease, of the mind and the body, both of which I own and operate... with varying degrees of success.

It’s a lot like insects: if I see those disgusting little fuckers anywhere near me, bug death and high-pitched screams are sure to abound, but if I view them through the un-bitey safety of YouTube videos, that shit is like science porn to me. It’s that same morbid fascination that drew me to The Empty Man.

The plot of this Boom title follows a world that has fallen sick to a viral madness which exists outside the realm of science’s comprehension: think a more restrained Crossed at its outbreak, but without all the visible tells, mass zombie rapes and gruesome deaths by horsecock. Time out! Isn’t it great that we all exist in a world where I can legitimately write “death by horsecock” and most of you will know what I’m talking about? We truly live in a golden age, you guys.

Anyway, not only do the big heads not understand how this virus is transmitted, but it is so powerful as an agent of fear in this society, so ubiquitously creeping and mysterious, that the virus itself has gained its own cult following from those who think it is alive (believing it to have actually named itself the titular “Empty Man”), with some even worshipping it as a god. Because that’s how we humans do! Something scares the shit out of us? God. Then again, who the fuck am I to talk? I pray at the temple of crazy-ass YouTube spider videos, even though I’m severely arachnophobic. Go figure.

Of course, religion is a big part of The Empty Man, and not just because a virus has its own church. Writer Cullen Bunn has framed this story with a one Reverend Markoff, corresponding the virus’ outbreak with the nationwide explosion in popularity of what seems to be his (no pun intended) grassroots pagan faith. It’s still early days, so it’s not clear how these two factors exactly correspond, but I think Bunn is setting us up for something that could be soul-itchingly creepy. And I am down with that.

As is true with much - though not all - of his work, I find Bunn makes a compelling first infection in The Empty Man #1, if for nothing else than the premise he is setting up here, not to mention how well he has already populated this book with his own infectious bodies: the characters.

Empty_Man_001_coverA copy 2I’m a big fan of the background having a voice in books like this, and I really liked how Bunn succinctly yet satisfyingly summed up the world’s various reactions to what could be a sentient god flu, especially when he sends the two government agents - our navigators through the story, who are already undergoing their own paradigm shift  - to interview possible witnesses in a small neighborhood in Georgia, where they are reviewing their latest case of Empty Man. It’s not universe building as such, but what he is doing is creating an atmosphere, which is more important in a book where the unseen is the killer, and terror, its superpower.

Art duties here are left in the capable hands of Vanesa R. Del Rey and the ever-impressive colors of Michael Garland. Del Rey has one of those styles you might not immediately like, but in this book - especially after multiple readings - it indeed becomes all the more infectious. Personally, I loved it from the second page, where she shows the still unknown Rev. Markoff and his congregation hunkered with their beliefs in an old gas station while a colorful yet haunting sunset collapses over their shadowy, almost scratched-out faces.

It’s a great bit of visual foreshadowing, and I thought it led well into the fetid, shredded meat of the book that picks up a year later. There were a couple of pivotal scenes (like the readers’ first experience with Empty Man in the shower) that could have been clearer, but for the most part, I really like this book’s look and think it fits well with the story.

My one and only gripe is the ending, and I’m nervous that Bunn could potentially be leading this into a John Carpenter’s The Thing kind of ... thing, but I’m willing to wait it out and see what happens in the second issue before I even entertain the thought of giving it up.

Okay, this is not the first time we’ve seen living viruses. Even Bunn’s current charge, Sinestro, has in his employ a sentient infection (Despotellis), while Sublime of X-Men notoriety is an “aware” bacteria, and even last week in Moon Knight, we got a glimpse of a more fungal type of insanity. However, The Empty Man still has its own special kind of catchy crazy, and I’m more than happy to have caught this bug early.

Score: 4/5

Writer: Cullen Bunn Artist: Vanesa R. Del Rey Publisher: Boom Studios Price: $3.99 Release Date: 6/11/14 Format: Mini-Series, Print/Digital