When Empire appeared in print from Gorilla Comics in 2000 (a creator-owned company formed by Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek and others), it was a comic ahead of its time for many reasons, not least of which was that it featured a villain as a central character who not only succeeds in his endeavor to take over the world, but leaves readers rooting for him against incredible odds. The comic was picked up by DC from 2003-2004, totally 6 issues in a substantial arc suitable for a graphic novel collection, but Empire became increasingly difficult for fans to get a hold of–until now.
Since the rights to the comic have now reverted to the creators, Mark Waid and Barry Kitson are ready to tell the natural sequel to Golgoth’s world domination, finally answering the question: what comes next for someone who has everything? Not only is the second volume of Empire appearing digitally on Thrillbent in installments that will total more than your average comic issue’s content monthly, but for those who subscribe to the series, the first volume of Empire will be available digitally as well. And Empire’s original fascinating concern for the life and times of a villain who has all but stamped out heroes and consolidated his power will continue in this new story as the perpetually masked and enigmatic Golgoth faces threats and challenges far beyond his wildest expectations. Will we still find ourselves on the side of an unlikeable character? And what will the possibility of Golgoth’s overthrow mean for the citizens of a one-world government?
Mark Waid talks to us here at Bleeding Cool about the trickier aspects of working with a supervillain protagonist, the elements of literature and history that inspired he and Kitson to take up such challenging subject matter in the first place, and also what developments in Empire’s storytelling we can expect as it appears digitally for the first time.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Mark, what was the original impetus behind Empire and what did you feel that you could do with that book that you couldn’t do elsewhere at the time?
MW: First, off, you can have evil triumph, which was not something comics were really set up for, back in the day. When the original idea came about, it was “What if one of these arch-villains…what if one of these world-bending set on domination supervillains won?” What happens then? What is the state of the world in which there are no more champions, there are no more heroes? It’s not necessarily a world of villains, but more like it’s the court of the Borgias at that point. And my take on the main villain, and this is going to sound comical, but it’s not meant to be, but there’s no better way to describe it: he had an immutable plan. He knew that he was eventually going to conquer the world. It was a 10 year plan. And the problem was, about 5 years from the end of it, he knew he was going to succeed, but about 2 years from the end of it, he knew he didn’t want the job anymore, but it was too late. The machine was already set in motion, so now that he has the ultimate throne, he understands the reasons why nobody wants it.
You have ultimate power but you also have every adviser that is in your court with a knife hidden behind their back, and every antagonist wants to come after you because you’re the seat of power in the world. And if aliens decide to land and take over, they’ve just been waiting for awhile because they just figured that they could wait until the world’s governments were under one power, because that would be easier. I don’t mean to make it sound like he’s a victim or that he’s comical in any way, but to me that’s more of a tragedy. Be careful what you wish for.
HMS: And what are the difficulties and problems of making a villain a central character for you as a writer, and were you one of the people to do that first? It’s certainly popular now.
MW: It is pretty popular now. I don’t know that we did it first. We did it early on. I think that Warren Ellis did some stuff with Doom 2099 that was similar, but it was the first major project that I was ever involved with that centered around a supervillain rather than a superhero. And the challenges of maintaining that story are not as hard as you think. I’ve been asked repeatedly what I think the most important part of the story is, and my answer is, it’s the part where you care about what happens to the protagonist.
That is not the same as “I have to like the protagonist” or “I have to empathize with the protagonist”. I don’t really empathize with Holden Caulfield either, but that doesn’t make The Catcher in the Rye a bad book. The beauty of Mad Men, the TV show is that, at any point in that series, someone’s the asshole. Even if it’s Don. You don’t have to like someone to want for them what they want, or to be invested in their trials and their challenges. So, that was the big challenge with Empire, was making sure the characters were interesting and you cared about what they wanted without having to make them softer-edged or sweet or villains with hearts of gold, because they are really not.
HMS: Now that you’re saying that, it really does remind me that we do have a long tradition of this in mythology and literature, otherwise why would we care about some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, or even some of his history plays, where the characters are unlikeable?
MW: Exactly. People still read Richard III after 500 years. I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing our audience because there are villains. It doesn’t matter whether they are a villain or a hero. It matters whether they are a compelling character, and I took a little bit of Citizen Kane, and I took a little bit of Game of Thrones, and I took a lot of science fiction and Barry Kitson and I put them together in a stew, and this is what we came up with.
HMS: One more question about the character of Golgoth: there’s been a lot said about whether or not he has any humanity left in him. Are we going to see any of that in the new volume?
MW: That’s the big question. The problem is that he did have some humanity left in him, but now it’s been taken away from him. The big question is: what does he want? Because as I’ve said, we’ve never said that point-blank, because he’s not a character whose head you can get into. It’s not clear what he ever wanted, and now that we know that he doesn’t really want to be ruler of the earth, but he has no choice. So that’s the question that drives the second series. If this is not what you want, but you’re not inclined to commit suicide or step off the throne, and you feel trapped. It’s that edgy paradox of being a character who is in charge of everything and rules the world, and yet feels trapped in a way that nobody else in the world can.
HMS: Do you have any thoughts about why comics have been reticent to feature a villain as a central character before you created Empire, or why comics didn’t push that envelope more back then even if they do more often now?
MW: I think they didn’t because comics were very much locked into inertia and especially superhero comics. They had the sense that everything was in service to a grander universe and in a grander service to the superhero tropes. But it was fun to break out of that and leave all that behind and just do purely speculative fiction in a world that was ours.
HMS: What was it like for you waiting so long to get another take on this storyline? Were you working on it all these years, or did you just put it aside, not knowing if you’d ever be able to come back to it? How do you feel now, given this chance?
MW: I feel great, given this chance. Because Barry Kitson and I have been percolating on it for years. But we were just never in the right place at the right time to do it, and then once the rights reverted back to us a couple of years ago, we knew that we had to make time for it because it was important. And both of us, hopefully, are much more skilled storytellers now than we were 15 years ago. I still like what we did, but I’m enjoying the fact that I feel smarter and wiser now than I was in my mid-thirties when I was first tackling the subject. I think there’s a little more nuance to it. I think there’s a lot more intrigue. And Barry is just like a fine wine. His work gets better every year.
HMS: And you’ve had more experience dealing with characters who are not necessarily likeable over that time, so it must have really honed things.
MW: I have written 2000 comic books and statistically they are all about good guys doing good things, and if I live long enough, I’ll probably write another 2000. But I like the fact there’s probably some flexibility to be able to write a character whose motivations, ethics, and morals, are not necessarily things that are terribly familiar to me.
HMS: To what extent is this the story that always had to be told? Had you always intended for this to be the second part of Empire? It seems like a natural development from the first story.
MW: It’s absolutely a direct sequel to the first graphic novel and it’s picking up the elements there. Because we always knew that with that first graphic novel we had left Golgoth with unquestioned sovereignty over the earth, but there was a threat percolating in the background of which he was unaware. And now it’s a chance with a potential alien invasion to do something that puts him way out of his wheelhouse. He was unquestionably powerful and virtually omnipotent in the original graphic novel. He’s still the same character, but now we get a chance to throw challenges at him that are far, far beyond anything he’s used to dealing with.
HMS: You mentioned some influences a moment ago, but could you give us some more insight into what sort of cultures or histories you might be drawing on here? It reminds me of medieval stuff. It reminds me of Asian history. We have the princess who is locked away and kept out of things, as well, which reminds me of Japanese literature a little bit.
MW: All of that and more. A lot of it is very Shakespearian. A lot of it is from Japanese mythology. The beauty of pairing up with Barry Kitson is that he is a million times more well read than I am, and I am pretty well read. It’s Barry who will come to the fore with influences from outside of Western European culture. And conversely, it’s taking other myths and other stories of great conquerors throughout the world and it’s a case of translating them over into what Golgoth can do. We did a thing in the original graphic novel that was very much the story of Hannibal. Basically, what you do is you go back and you look at the “greatest hits” of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, and all those great world powers in history, and look at their myths. You not only find the monomyth that unites them that you can then translate to Golgoth and his empire, but looking at anecdotes of those characters throughout history and how they play out in the 21st century.
HMS: How do you feel, at this point, to have complete creative control over this book? I know you started off that way with Empire, and hopefully retained that through the publication with DC, but in this case, this really is totally in your hands, and this is an original story with original characters. For you, what are the benefits of working with characters that you have created and you don’t have to follow any kind of canon or continuity with them?
MW: The beauty of that is pretty obvious in that Barry and I can decide who lives, who dies, what happens, and what the consequences are. And not have to worry about paying homage to an outside universe. And not have to worry about whether that character is merchandized on a beach towel or has had a Macy’s Parade balloon or a Broadway play and therefore we can’t do anything substantial with it. The creative freedom it gives you is terrific. It’s almost scary because you also have no existing continuity and mythology to draw from, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way with this sort of thing. Because we’re doing things that no one in the right mind who is an Editor-in-Chief at a major comics company would let us do.
HMS: And this is coming out digitally, which will be the first time that Empire has been digital. You’re also collecting the first volume for people who subscribe to the new volume?
MW: Right, we’re collecting the first volume for people who subscribe and we’re also launching digitally starting this week and every two weeks thereafter. And every month you’ll probably get more than a standard comic issue’s worth of material. Because digital is a great, expansive medium to work in. And somewhere down the road, we may or may not put that in print form. There are no plans for that right now. We’re still just concentrating on the fact that this will be the only place you can get it. We want Thrillbent to be the place you can get Empire because we’re really proud of it, and it also serves as a really great entre to the other 300 chapters worth of comics that we’ve had on Thrillbent for the last couple of years, if you want to explore the Thrillbent library.
HMS: So, it’s a very good jumping-on point for people who might not have tried Thrillbent before?
MW: That’s what we’re counting on, yes.
HMS: How do you think that this will be a unique reading experience because it’s digital, in terms of extra features from Thrillbent?
MW: It has the extra features, and also the things we can do with digital storytelling are different than print. But more than that, actually, it’s just a little more rapid-fire. Because the fact that it’s coming out every two weeks changes the way you pace a story, and I think it gives it a little more urgency, so that you’re not losing any momentum. I think that if we do it right, there’s a surprise every single installment. We want to leave you with an idea of “Oh my God, what happens now? I must have the next chapter immediately”.
HMS: So, when you construct a story like this, that you know is going to appear digitally so quickly, do you think that you construct it with more frequent beats and with more cliffhangers because you know that experience is coming for the reader?
MW: Yes, exactly. You know that you’re not limited to one cliffhanger every 22 pages. In fact, the beauty of digital is that you can sort of have a cliffhanger with every screen turn, like every page turn.
Empire Volume 2 launched this week on Thrillbent, and you find more information about subscribing to the new series here. Alongside co-creators Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, the book’s team consists of Chris Sotomayor on colors and Troy Peteri lettering.