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A fate worse than death – Empire #3

April 6, 2011

Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s Empire is one of those “blink and it’s gone” series that sticks in your head for a while. A cancelled independent book that DC picked up and saw through to the end, it was something I had wanted to read since I had first heard about it about eight years ago. A hiatus from comics awareness and never seeing it on a shelf or in a bin anywhere combined to put it on the backburner — it was still bopping around the subconscious, but that was it.

Well, I finally found it, and I finally read it. Verdict? I enjoyed it immensely. Now, I’m going to go into “spoiler” mode in a moment. I don’t usually warn folks about this, but things are a little different when you’re dealing with a 40 year old issue of Daredevil instead of a relatively recent mini-series. Here’s a non-spoiler meta-take. The examination of the villainous rule of Golgoth, a Doctor Doom/Iron Man/Monarch/Darth Vader fusion who has eliminated the last hero (Endymion, a Superman proxy) and consolidated control over the Earth, is unique. Perhaps its greatest success is adding depth to and understanding for a character that at no point is truly sympathetic. While other tales would take an evil man and add a cuddly layer with a Road to Perdition humanization, Empire shows an evil man living an evil life while the evil world he has created crushes him with evil bushfires sans end. Even the one thing that might make him relatable, his outwardly tender feelings for his daughter, is twisted by his cloistering of her, his desire to keep her pure.

And that mask (wisely) never comes off. There’s something of the New Hope and Empire Strikes Back Darth Vader, i.e. the guy who was the relentless uber-villain and not the wavering papa with qualms, in Golgoth. That’s a good thing.

There’s one final angle. I was less than enthused with the film adaptation of Watchmen for a variety of reasons, but a big one was that it took something perfect and in distilling it lessened its potency. With Empire I think there could be a great — and I mean great — film carved out of certain elements, because things could be built upon without stomping on the original. This is not a perfect mini-series, but parts (anything Golgoth) soar.

Now for the one element that really grabbed me by the balls. Spoiler time.

The fiendishly ingenious way that Golgoth keeps his scheming minions (now essentially Cabinet secretaries in his New World Order) loyal is the use of something that amounts to a steroid/heroin hybrid, an addictive drug called called Eucharist. Doled out in a quasi-religious ceremony in which recipients pledge their fealty to Golgoth and receive their fix like a good Catholic would consume the transmuted body of Christ, this little pill gives those favored with it Charlie Sheen-like tiger blood. But the true nature of Eucharist is a mystery, and only Golgoth holds the answers as the series opens. One character (his chief assassin) gets a little too nosy and discovers where it comes from, and this issue more closely examines just how awful that Eucharist secret is.

And what is the secret?

Eucharist is the blood of Endymion, Golgoth’s last, most-powerful and thought-dead foe:

The Empire-verse champion of truth, justice and the American way was not killed. He’s alive, locked and bound in what amounts to Golgoth’s basement, a doorless room that only Golgoth’s teleportation powers can easily access. There, on a regular basis, Golgoth drains his blood and picks his brain for information he can use to further his conquests. The only thing the prone, restrained Endymion has left is his mind, and all he does is replay his final free moments over and over again, dreaming of the things he could have done differently to prevent this tortuous end.

Let me pause to note that, along with drowning, immolation by spontaneous human combustion, being buried alive, and going to a Dixie Chicks concert, getting chained up in some nut’s basement is something I never want to happen to me or mine. Remember that Fritzl case out of Austria? Yeah, I’ll pass on that, thanks very much.

This issue is that writ in a superhero context.

The day of this comic’s events is like any other. After goading a reluctant Endymion into helping him more easily invade one of the last unconquered lands (under the extortionate guise of saving lives by making the victory quicker), the hellish process begins:

But there is one thing that makes this day different. Endymion has finally reached his breaking point. And there’s one weapon he has, one last hope, his “hole card”:

When I was first reading this, my oversexed 21st century synapses immediately leapt to the thought that Endymion had boinked Golgoth’s missus, and that he hoped the revelation of said schtooping would provoke his foe into blessing him with the release of death. The cover certainly helped that leap along. But no. Endymion lays out a detailed case (and some needed backstory), relating how the apparent suicide of Golgoth’s wife changed the game, making this big bad’s tactics more fierce and his eventual triumph inevitable — but for this tragedy, there would have been a stalemate. And Endymion has come to one conclusion:

Someone knew Golgoth needed a kick in the ass and murdered his wife, and that person is likely still hanging around, perhaps in his inner circle. Then comes Endymion’s (pathetic) plea:

The answer?:

Dagger.

The whole interaction has a cinematic feel to it, with the wide panels mimicking a film screen and the pauses and beats providing the sort of pacing that characters need to really sell their lines. Reading it here in 2011, it’s hard not to think about The Dark Knight and the Joker/Batman interrogation scene. The dynamics are obviously very different, but the face-off has some of that same electricity. And the whole point of the series (if a villain actually won and wasn’t the usual moron that squandered victory within moments) is made all the more haunting by Endymion’s degraded state. I see him and I can’t, for obvious reasons, help but think of Superman, and watching him beg for his life makes me cringe. Cringing isn’t something I like to do, but I can doff my cap to a comic that forces me into it.

There are also some subconscious things going on here, things that aren’t overtly laid out but one can very easily read into the panels. One gets the impression that Golgoth doesn’t simply use these “visits” as forays to drain off his Eucharist, gather information, or even to gloat, but instead is perhaps visiting Endymion as a person might visit a long vegetative loved one. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, and he might very well yearn for those days of yore, when he was on the march and the man whose shadow is draped in front of him gave him battle. A simpler time. Also, the etymology of the characters’ names provides an added backdrop to their fictional history, and gives Endymion’s almost crucified pose a bit more resonance. They’re worth a Google search if you’re unfamiliar.

Solid drama all around.

The Endymion situation isn’t resolved by the conclusion of the series. Though he seemed a broken man in every sense, a part of me hopes that he might one day make it out of that hole. Waid appeared to leave things open for sequels, and perhaps that would have been a thread picked up in a subsequent arc. Alas, it’s been eight years now, and there’s been nary a rumbling from anyone about Golgoth and company. Though I might even settle for a slipcased Absolute Empire, I’m not going to hold my breath for either a rehash or a follow-up.

But I can dream. Just like poor Endymion.

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