Evil Empire – The 2015 Weekly Writer Challenge: Max Bemis (Part 2)
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Max Bemis, having emerged on the comic scene in 2013, has found a home with Boom Entertainment. With his first mini-series, Polarity, being published by Boom, Bemis has since then released two other titles under the imprint, as well as having done some work for Marvel Comics and Avatar Press on the side. Bemis’ other two series, Evil Empire and Oh, Killstrike, were well received efforts released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Still a relative newcomer in the industry, Bemis’ work with Boom Entertainment has quickly made him a must-watch creator for any series he plans to put out over the next few years.
Evil Empire vol 1
Reese Greenwood is a successful rap artist, producing politically charged hits that resonate with the youth as they take aim at the “system” and expose the glutenous ways of the American Government along with its President. Sam Duggins, a hopeful presidential candidate and massive fan of Reese’s music, pulls some strings to meet the young artist backstage after one of her shows, pouring out his affection to her and revealing how her music really speaks to him even though it’s technically insulting to him. As these two characters begin to forge an unlikely friendship, a call comes in that rocks the United States to its core. President Laramy’s wife has been murdered in cold blood, discovered bleeding out by their daughter in the kitchen of their home. Reese is unexpectedly thrown in front of the tumultuous scandal just as her relationship with Sam Duggins begins to strengthen. These are all the first steps towards a slippery slope that leads to the rise of the Evil Empire twenty-five years down the road, with America becoming a country run right into the ground by its mysterious and benevolent leader.
Max Bemis unleashes a captivating political thriller on the world through Evil Empire, with a glimpse into what could happen to America if the power shifted into the wrong hands. It’s a brilliant start to a series that has the stakes to legitimately surprise you, which is equal parts disturbing and oddly relieving in an industry that is known for producing cliffhanger endings every twenty pages or so of an issue. The truth is, in superhero comics, a lot of things are tried and true, being done repeatedly to the point where you get diminishing returns. What’s refreshing about Evil Empire is the fact that it does things that you’ve likely never seen in a political thriller comic, with that genre still remaining a gold mine for storytelling potential. That might be why Evil Empire feels so rich, providing you with a stark glimpse at a reality that might not seem that far off while also giving you something fresh to sink into as Bemis cultivates the world around you.
The unfortunate truth with this series is that it’s hard to talk about the story beyond doing so at a surface layer as it’s easy enough to spoil all the major twists. The book itself doesn’t necessarily rely on these moments to push the narrative forward, with the underlying ideas all constantly at play, but it’s still nice to be surprised when you read a comic. The comic takes the idea of the “evil empire”, a term coined by President Ronald Regan to describe the Soviet Union decades ago, and twists it in a dark way that reflects the United States as the villain. Each issue begins with a glimpse twenty-five years into the future, seeing the initial street level layer of this Evil Empire. You’ve got “police” who patrol the street and dole out their own punishments as they see fit, effectively fitting into the role of judge, jury, and executioner. It’s dark, brutal, and harrowing to see where Bemis is pushing the story towards, using his present day storytelling to keep you guessing as to what the catalyst for the rise of this Evil Empire is. It all establishes a clean dual plot line where you’re as equally interested in the life of Reese Greenwood in the present as you are with the state of the world in the future. What’s also interesting with this first volume in terms of its storytelling is the fact that Bemis doesn’t necessarily focus on a centralized character in the future plot line. There are hints to who the face of a resistance force may be (and in one instance, a dead giveaway as to who it truly is) but you never get faces put to the leader of the Evil Empire or said resistance. Instead you just largely follow around random members of the Empire police force, seeing their cruel and unusual ways impacting the terrible streets they walk. It’s a storytelling choice that again keeps you guessing and interested, with it being clear that the smoke and mirrors isn’t a viable long-term choice. Sooner or later, the reader will get answers (with some big answers coming your way in issue four) but for this first volume, it’s best to enjoy the ride and keep on guessing as to what might actually be going on instead.
As I stated in the previous paragraph, there is no truly central characters during the future storyline. There is one instance where you get a scene with an implied figure of power but even then their face is covered by shadows. What this means is your main cast all exist in this past plot line leading up to the future, with Bemis providing plenty of interesting characters for you to follow along with. Your clear protagonist is Reese Greenwood, the emotionally charged rapper who uses her music with hopes of pushing for sociopolitical change. Her lyrics are sharp and scathing to those in power, being strong enough to influence more than just the youth with her music. She’s a great character who deals with a few curveballs early on that paints her music in the wrong light, igniting the opposite of the political movement she envisioned. As a result, you get a lot of Reese reacting to the current state of things before really taking it upon herself to be the change she wants to see. It’s great to see Reese grow as the story progresses, shucking off the weak elements of her character in four short issues to become a character you truly enjoy following. This is typically the part where I’d divulge about some of the other players in the plot but, yet again, it’s best for you as a reader to discover who these characters are and formulate your own opinions on them. It’s easy enough to sit here and say Reese goes through one heck of a ride but it’s her interactions with characters during some of these surprising moments earlier on that truly affect her in fascinating ways. In other words: No Spoilers.
Nitpick time. There’s only one part of Evil Empire I didn’t absolutely adore and even then it’s a minor part of a larger piece of this story that works so well. It’s the dialogue. Bemis’ dialogue is so on point for 98% of this comic. His characters are articulate, emotive, and, at times, down right chilling with the humanity (or lack there of) they bring to the page. But then there are rare moments where the dialogue just doesn’t hit the right way and comes off corny because it’s stereotypical. This problem largely befalls the character of Reese and her bodyguard, Theo. Bemis throws in a few simple but great scenes that establish they have a platonic, brother/sister like relationship with zero sexual tension. The interactions they have together are usually on point but it’s the interactions with other characters that are quite telling of both of their demeanour and characteristics. There are a few odd scenes where Reese and Theo will speak to each other though and sound like your stereotypical black leads. At no point in the story is it really explicitly stated that these two black characters are from the “hood” or had some exceptionally harsh upbringing that should suggest that they speak like they’re based out of the rough end of the Bronx. Both characters speak somewhat intelligently throughout the duration of this first volume so it was disappointing to see that, with their dialogue being perfect for nearly the whole collection, stereotypes had to creep in during a scene or two to kill some of what Bemis was trying to say with these two characters.
Collects: Evil Empire #1-4
Best Character: Reese Greenwood
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “Reese…I can’t thank you enough.” – Kenneth Laramy
Best Scene/Moment: The reveal at the end of issue 1
Best Issue: Issue Two. Issue two shows the fallout from the stunning conclusion of the first issue. You watch the world start to erupt into chaos, with Reese caught right in the thick of it. It’s an emotionally powerful issue that moves the reigns ever so slightly. In terms of plot, it’s not like all that much happens. It’s the emotional resonance of this issue that’s important, seeing how the world reacts to the horror that has been unleashed upon it. Perhaps one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire series happens at the end of this second issue. There’s no crazy twist, but if you don’t feel a chill crawl up your spine during that last scene then you simply aren’t human.
Why You Should Read It: This is the right kind of political thriller for this generation of readers. It has a message that can speak volumes, some incredibly strong dialogue, plenty of twists you won’t see coming, and it’s just a solid read all around. A central theme to Bemis’ comic work is music and how it makes people think or feel, something he keeps alive with this first volume of Evil Empire. This story is twisted and dark in ways you just won’t expect, but it’s the surprisingly powerful scenes chalked with emotion that will keep you reading until the end.