By Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, James Pascoe,
Comicraft, Alex Bleyaert, and Chris Sotomayor
Published by DC Comics; $14.95 USD
Sometime in the '90s, when Mark Waid first conceptualized Empire, a villain-led title may very well have been the "novel notion" he claims it was in the introduction to the trade, but these days there’s no shortage of bad guy books on the shelves. There are at least a half-dozen ongoing titles featuring bad guys, former bad guys, or kinda-bad guys, as well as the occasional mini-series, but if you’re looking for the continuing exploits of an actual, honest-to-badness villain, you won’t find it in any of those titles. The writers always find some shortcut to turning the bad guy you love to hate into the not-so-bad-guy you don’t hate so much. Either they transform the villain into a hero, guaranteeing some good sales since a villain-turned-hero will necessarily be higher on the bad-ass scale than most, or they pit the psychotic bastard in question against a more psychotic bastard.
The result is that what makes the supervillain story a promising concept is precisely what the reader is denied. You’re just getting a slightly skewed superhero story. There may be a little more blood than usual, but it’s still just a superhero story (and during a time when one of comicdom’s most popular heroes deals with bad guys by punching steel claws through their flesh, what’s so special about a little blood anyway?).
This, more than anything, is why it’s a good idea to read Empire. Golgoth is the subject of the series; an imposing armor-clad baddie who wrestles control of almost all the world’s nations, slaughtering the Earth’s super-powered protectors along the way. The story follows Golgoth’s battles to bring the remaining free nations under his control, the attempts of the few brave souls left to resist him, and the dangerously ambitious exploits of his lieutenants. While Golgoth is the main character, what keeps you turning the pages is the intrigue between his followers. Kept loyal to Golgoth only by a powerful drug of unknown origin, the villain's underlings are constantly at odds with each other, sometimes for power and sometimes just to fulfill their decadent cravings.
What distinguishes Empire from pretty much every supervillain story to come before (and probably after), is that it is actually a supervillain story. Even in the brief moments where some minor endearing quality is attached to Golgoth, there’s no threat of redemption. He’s not just a deluded guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing, or a tragically misunderstood madman. He’s a genuine, power-hungry evil mofo who’s got the world by the short ones, and the only question is whether or not his grip will fail. This story is the reason the Comics Code included the "good guys always have to win" rule.
While there are better stories out there, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better supervillain story. Empire is a suspenseful, dark story about power, secrets, and the price you pay for both, and it's the closest the industry has come to making a Godfather for the supervillain.