Almost 15 years later, Mark Waid is getting to finish one of his earliest creator-owned comics, as the former DC title Empire is moving to the Thrillbent digital comics showcase, getting a long-awaited second volume by Waid and Barry Kitson.
The fan-favorite and critically acclaimed original series tells the story of Golgoth, a supervillain who tries to take over the world — but he succeeds. What follows is a story of dramatic intrigue, as Golgoth's iron grip on the world is threatened by everyone from his formerly loyal comrades to his overprotected daughter.
Empire was first released in 2000 via Gorilla Comics, but then got picked up by DC Comics. The six issues were collected in trade paperback, but have been out of print for awhile now. Eventually, the publishing rights for the title reverted back to the creators, giving Waid and Kitson the chance to finally finish what they started.
Now Thrillbent will offer the first volume of Empire along with the new volume 2, so readers who never got a chance to read Waid and Kitson's tale can catch up. Empire Volume Two will be serialized on Thrillbent beginning today and continuing twice monthly. The company is offering a subscription to Thrillbent for $3.99 per month, which includes both the original Empire and the twice-monthly sequel.
Newsarama talked to Waid — in a spoiler free interview (in case anyone hasn't read the first volume) — about the return of Empire.
Newsarama: Mark, did you always intend for there to be a sequel to Empire?
Mark Waid: Oh yeah, no question. Barry Kitson and I have been working on it together for a long. We always knew that we were going to do something with this — the question was, how do you tell that story in a way that has weight and significance. And we really didn't have an opportunity for awhile because we didn't have the rights. We didn't have the publishing rights.
Now that they've reverted, we get a chance to really explore this world.
Nrama: The first volume, to me, in very general terms, the idea was "if evil wins, and somebody does everything they intended to do as a supervillain, what happens next?" For people who might not have read volume 1, can you clarify how you'd describe the story, and can you explain (spoiler-free) what we'll see in volume 2?
Waid: It is the story of what happens when a world-conqueror actually manages to conquer the world. It's what happens when a supervillain wins, and there is no opposition anymore. There are no secret superheroes skulking in the shadows to win the day in the third act to save the world.
The story is about Golgoth, who is our central character, the ruler of the empire, the man who had a 10-year plan to take over the world, and five years in, he knew that it was inevitable, and he could not lose. About seven years in, he realized, secretly, that he didn't want the job anymore. The closer he came to the throne, the more he realized that all this really does is swap out one set of problems for another set of problems.
Now you're no longer fighting superheroes and world armies and the police — you're fighting against your own insiders. You're fighting against your own people, as well as anyone on the fringes who might want to take you out.
When all the world's power is condensed into one throne, then that becomes the most dangerous place on Earth.
Nrama: It's also a story about trust, isn't it?
Waid: Right, that's part of the lesson. If you're ruling the world, you can't trust anybody. Because even those who profess to be working in your interest — those are also villains in and of their own right. The people who could lead were the people you got out of your way. The people who are left are naturally inclined to align their interest with yours, but that doesn't mean that they're not selfish and bitter and evil and villainous in their own right, which means you can't trust them. Everyone's holding a knife behind their back, ready to stab you.
Nrama: When does this take place, as it relates to the end of volume 1, and what's changed?
Waid: The second volume takes place exactly one year after the end of the first volume, to the day, because it's the anniversary of a certain death that had a great deal of significance in the story. And that is where this spins off of.
Golgoth is still around, and some of his advisors, who survived the first one, are still players.
My favorite continues to be Lucullan, who is this big, giant, beefy general of a guy whose sort of personality tick is that he thinks he's much smarter than he is, and it shows in his vocabulary, because he's constantly misusing words, and he's constantly having people behind him roll their eyes. He's not stupid. But he's one of those guys who's trying very hard to give the illusion that he is the second in command, when in fact, he's not capable of it.
There are other assassins, other ministers, other people in the story who have survived, and they all have their own personal challenges.
One of them knows the secret behind the drug Eucharist, which is what gives Golgoth and his court and his ministers their ability — the drug that Golgoth feeds his closest soldiers that enhances their abilities and makes them what they are, but it is incredibly addictive and it comes from a very secret source.
And she knows what that is. That does not bode well for her, because she's not supposed to know. And now she has to worry about whether anybody else knows that she knows.
Nrama: You mentioned before that you've had this in mind for years. But it's been what… 14 or 15 years since the first volume? Has the story evolved since then? After all, you're a little older, the world is a little different, and you've got a bit more experience with writing.
Waid: The broad strokes were always there, which Barry Kitson and I had always envisioned.
But the point of view of a 52-year-old comic writer versus a 35-year-old comic titer is slightly different. Not more cynical, but just a little more world-aware.
When I first did Empire, it was a severe break from everything I'd written up to that point, which is all very continuity-driven, super-heroic, and ethics and morals-infused. Empire was a chance to break away from that.
Now that I've had a little more of a chance in my career to write non-superhero material — I'll still always write superhero stuff, because I enjoy it, but I like the flexibility of being able to come at it from a slightly more nuanced perspective, if you will. And the same with Barry.
We would have told the same story 15 years ago, but it wouldn't have been told the same way, because frankly, I think we're better at our jobs now, and I also think there's a new perspective on what villainy is, what world-conquering means.
Look at all the changes that have happened in the world around us in the last 15 years, geo-politically. We get to take a lot of that and factor it in.
When we first wrote Empire 15 years ago, nobody knew who Bin Laden was. That doesn't play into our story, but it plays into our — as writers and creators — it plays into our understanding of what empires are, of what geo-political consequences are, of what conquerors are. So that's just one example.
Nrama: It's a superhero story — or rather a supervillain story — so Barry's art fits that genre. But how would you describe what he's doing on Empire?
Waid: Stylistically, it's recognizable as Barry, but it's just better. Barry is always great. And I've probably done more comics with Barry than any other comics artist that I've ever worked with, so I treasure his work.
But knowing that this is really his, and feeling that sense of investment that comes only when it is fully creator-owned, he's upped his game.
And it's just phenomenal. I don't know that I'd call it a superhero style, per se. There's not a lot of punching action and flowing capes and powerful gesticulating. There's a lot of political intrigue, there's a lot of character work in this book. And that's one of the things that Barry does better than anybody, is the subtle moments, the subtle, quiet moments that Barry can sell in a way that doesn't make it dull on the page.
Nrama: While the first volume was in print, the second volume is all digital. What's the thought process behind doing this digitally? Is it something that makes sense for Thrillbent?
Waid: It makes sense for Thrillbent in the sense that, not only do we get a chance to play around with some of the digital storytelling that we've created, which makes it a different experience from print, but also, frankly, once the publishing rights freed up and it became a question of "who do you go to" to continue the story, well… duh! I'm a publisher!
I realized pretty quickly that, if anybody was going to release Empire, it ought to be Thrillbent, because that's my home. It's where I've been doing my creator-owned stuff, so it's where I should continue to do my creator-owned stuff.
Nrama: You said that you and Barry have been working on it awhile, and I know he's also got another creator-owned title coming up later this year. Is Empire Volume 2 completely finished and ready to go?
Waid: Not exactly. We're ahead, but we're not that far ahead. We know where the story's going. We thought we'd be further ahead, but frankly, the thrill of the digital storytelling and the ways in which we can tell this story that are different with this medium opened up some new avenues for us, and it became a lot more fun to explore those avenues.
Nrama: It's coming out twice monthly — is it shorter chapters than people might be used to in print? Similar to other Thrillbent comic?
Waid: No, they're actually slightly longer chapters than what you normally get with Thrillbent. They probably clock out, my educated guess, would be about half a traditional comic's worth, per installment. So you're still getting at least a comic's worth of Empire every month — probably a little bit more.
Nrama: And then you're offering, as part of this subscription to Thrillbent, the first volume of Empire. That's because it's been out of print?
Waid: That was really it, yeah. The material's been out of print for so long that no one had access to it, and it seemed odd to launch a volume 2 with volume 1 not being in print and not being available. So this made perfect sense to us, that we would collect it as a stripped down, no bells and whistles, trade paperback with a complete story. That still leaves us the flexibility and the elbow room to get it back into print, because there's all sorts of ancillary material and sketches and behind-the-scenes stuff that we could put into a print edition. But the important thing here was, we didn't want anybody to not read volume 2, or not want to follow Empire because they felt lost.
Nrama: So this is something you'd like to release in print someday?
Waid: Yeah. But this goes perfectly to my example about why certain projects, under certain circumstances, creator-owned stuff, may work better digitally first and then in print — not because we're trying to withhold anything from comic stores, but because we have to pay the colorist and the letterer and production, so there's overhead expenses just to create this stuff. If we had to pay for printing at the same time, it would take us forever to get that money back. Even if the book sold gangbusters, you're still having to invest, right off the bat, tens of tens of thousands of dollars of your own money, hoping you're eventually recoup it, if you don't have somebody like DC or Marvel or Dark Horse or Image or whatever footing the bills.
If you want this to be purely creator-owned and creator-published, then digital makes more sense, because digital allows us to spend some money for creative overhead, recoup that money, and then turn it into print from there.