Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Vanesa R. Del Ray
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Generally speaking, I scare easily. I don’t think I slept for a week after I cracked the child-safety locks on my parent’s TV and caught fifteen minutes of Silence of the Lambs. There was a night in my teens where I was convinced it was unsafe to be in the same room as my copy of The Da Vinci Code, and looking back I can’t even remember if that was supposed to be a scary book.
As you can imagine, I don’t seek a lot of horror as a result, but I’ve always found horror a challenge in comic books. For all the wonderful uniqueness of the medium, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the pacing and suspense of a well-crafted horror shot. I’m aware that there are a million examples that defy this line of reasoning (Sandman! Locke & Key! The mere existence of the Clone Saga!), but I think it’s particularly tricky to deliver a shock when the reader can literally see the action coming in the next panels. While I’m one part wimp, three parts scared of my own shadow, I’m never really worried a comic book is going to give me nightmares.
“The Empty Man #1″ from Boom! Studios might have me sleeping with the nightlife on and Jello smeared all over the kitchen floor (for the monsters—listen to your Cos, kids). This is a genuinely creepy, sinister, and, yes, HORRIFYING first issue from Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Ray. And it’s wonderful! There’s a deep-seated lurking evil at the heart of The Empty Man, and the scariest part is that nobody seems to understand what form the titular disease really takes. Is the Empty Man a virus? Is it a spirit? A psychic parasite? From the opening prelude, where Michael Garland’s colors establish a fried threat looming in the heart of an Arkansas church, we can sense that a dark power is right around the corner.
It’s not until the first Empty Man reveal, though, that it’s clear just how terrifying a book this is going to be. Vanesa R. Del Ray’s scratchy, violent depiction of forced madness is bloody, striking, and above all haunting. This is my first glimpse of Del Ray’s work and the kinetic energy of the more shocking moments is gloriously distinct. Along with Bunn’s script, this is obviously a creative team with a clear vision of a world in which the threat of the Empty Man virus is spreading. People are losing their lives to this disease, but it’s apparent there is some effort by the FBI and law enforcement to keep these deaths under the radar. After all, you can’t proclaim your efforts to catch a serial killer when the cause of the death is an unidentified mental implosion.
Bunn has been on a bit of a hot streak lately, with Magneto for Marvel Comics and The Sixth Gun for Oni Press. “The Empty Man #1″ should only serve to boost that streak. This is impressive work, playing with themes of religion, rebirth, mental illness, and cult. As I mentioned early, in an effort to truly horrify, many creators often fall back on gruesome art and tired attempts to shock readers. The problem with this approach is that it’s been done so many times it’s familiar, and it can also never quite live up to the sheer horror of what you conjure in your imagination. For example, the scarring of Dr. Doom’s face is always at its worst when his hideous injuries are never revealed. Try to depict the scarring and the illusion is lost. Through one issue Bunn and Del Ray have navigated this balance perfectly, with a handful of disturbing images scattered among what ultimately becomes an FBI procedural.
“The Empty Man #1″ begins with a minister celebrating the power of the church even in reduced spaces and comes full circle by the end to see a similar vision twisted into celebrating the power of the murderous Empty Man. It’s a deft touch and one that allows us to see that the mystery of The Empty Man has raised it above the level of mere disease. This is a dark power loose in the world, that some, like our FBI agents, will choose to fight and some will choose to worship.
It’s not easy to pull off horror in comics, but the “Empty Man #1″ is all kinds of scary. This is a mysterious and gruesome disease in the vein of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, and watching Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Ray build this world together is thrilling so far. Highly recommend this new first issue from Boom! Studios, whether you enjoy a good scream or not.
“The Empty Man #1″ earns 9.5 / 10