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The Avengers and the Fantastic Four on the cover of Empyre #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Jim Cheung, Frank Martin/Marvel Comics

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Empyre #1 opens Marvel’s summer crossover with a big twist

Kree vs. Skrulls? Avengers vs. Fantastic Four? Or something more?

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Although the world may be changing drastically every day, one thing stays the same: Marvel is releasing a massive crossover event that will define most of the company’s line for the next few months. This year that crossover is Empyre, and after numerous preludes and contextually fitting reprints, Empyre #1 has arrived to lay out the landscape that readers can expect from Marvel in the second half of 2020.

The frankly fantastic news is that whatever you were expecting... Empyre #1 is likely not it.

Who is engineering Empyre?

Al Ewing is Marvel’s current king of the cosmic and anyone who’s been reading his Immortal Hulk book knows that he’s a creator who can put a unique spin on an idea that might be tired in another’s hands. He’s joined on writing duties by Marvel stalwart and current Fantastic Four scribe Dan Slott. The otherworldly art comes from Valerio Schiti and colorist Marte Gracia who craft a visual landscape that plays perfectly into the story’s one-two punch reveal, and Joe Caramanga does a brilliant job at translating all that alien-chatter to well laid out letters.

What is Empyre #1 about?

Empyre #1 is ostensibly about the Avengers and the Fantastic Four coming face-to-face in deep space with the gay, green, half-Kree, half-Skrull, one time Young Avenger, Teddy Altman. (When he’s superheroing, he goes by Hulkling.) After embracing his birthright as leader of a newly forged Kree/Skrull Alliance, the hero now known as Emperor Dorrek VIII sits upon a throne in the far reaches of the cosmos, apparently planning to use the might of both the alien races’ armies to conquer Earth.

Teddy Altman/Hulkling/Emperor Dorrek VIII on his throne in the Kree/Skrull flagship, in Empyre #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Al Ewing, Dan Slott, Valerio Schiti/Marvel Comics

At first glance it feels like a retread of the classic Kree/Skrull War stories that have shaped much of recent Marvel lore and even made it into Captain Marvel. But there’s another force at play here, the alien race known as the Cotati. These peaceful plant creatures also hail from Hala, the Kree home planet, where their civilization was ravaged by the violent feud between the two warring factions. After Tony Stark suffered a terrible vision, he pledged the Avengers’ aid to protect the Cotati, and stop Teddy and the Alliance... but at what cost?

Why is Empyre happening now?

On the publishing end of things, Empyre is Marvel’s big summer event. But due to the global pandemic essentially shutting down the comics industry for months, it’s been heavily delayed. The line-wide crossover has also been severely truncated with the recent reveal that multiple tie-ins seemed to have been scrapped. But even in the face of all that, the Empyre title is storming ahead, aiming to bring even more cosmic mayhem to the Marvel Universe.

The bigger picture would point to these cosmic characters playing a larger part in the future of the MCU; Marvel often teases concepts and characters they’re planning to use in the movies via their publishing line. The Eternals is Marvel Studios’ next big release and there have already been some nods to the cosmic Celestials in the lead-in to this event. There’s also the potential introduction of the Young Avengers into Marvel’s live-action universe. With the rumored inclusion of Teddy’s boyfriend and fellow Young Avenger, Billy Kaplan, in WandaVision, and Kate Bishop confirmed for the Disney+ Hawkeye series, centering the lesser-known Hulking in a massive event to refamiliarize readers with the character makes a lot of sense.

Is there any required reading?

As with pretty much any Marvel event book, there have been a truckload of tie-in comics in the build up to Empyre #1. Also, as this appears to be another in a long line of Kree/Skrull War stories, there’s a lot of cursory reading that you could do to get up to speed. But after reading this issue I can safely say that Empyre #1’s creative team does a good job of explaining where we begin our story. Doing a deep-dive into that decades-long intergalactic war — as fun as it can be — is in no way a necessity.

That said, you could get a little more context on the wider conflict by reading reading Empyre: Avengers #0 as well as 1975’s Avengers #133, from which this event draws heavily. Plus, the issue begins directly where Empyre: Fantastic Four #0 left off, so if you haven’t read that it could be a little jarring. Still, the first few panels of the book do a solid job of filling in new readers on what they need to know.

Is Empyre #1 good?

Actually, yes! Though just the idea of line-wide crossovers can often send a wave of existential weariness over me, Empyre #1 delivers something that’s both bombastic and surprising. Despite the fact that, as usual, we’re working with genocidal stakes of potential death, there’s a humor and understanding of the ridiculous nature of all of this that belies the often serious tone of contemporary cape comics. That’s not to say there are no consequences for the all-out war that the Avengers embark on, however, as in the very effective third act the creative team fully commits in the strongest possible sense to what will surely be its major conflict.

Teddy Altman/Hulkling blocks Thor’s hammer Mjolnir with his sword, in a blast of white hot electric light and a ringing “TUNNG-G-G-G,” in Empyre #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Al Ewing, Dan Slott, Valerio Schiti/Marvel Comics

The smartest thing about this issue — and the framing of this entire event so far — is that Marvel has committed an impressive act of misdirection. It’s not just the heroes of the book, but also the readers, who believe the crossover will be one thing, only to realize that we’re actually dealing with a far more interesting and scary scenario. Although the first act is a little heavy on exposition, once the alien-battle-ball gets rolling this is an action-packed read that features Ghost Rider ghost-driving the Quinjet, and Black Panther in a mech-suit flying through space. And still both of those moments pale in comparison to the issue’s biggest reveal.

Without giving away all of Empyre #1’s power, I’ll just say that Ewing, Slott, Schiti, Gracia, and Caramanga deliver a gut-punch ending that leans into the horror storytelling that Ewing has been playing with in Immortal Hulk but with an Annihilation-inspired twist. One of the things that the comic book industry struggles with most is getting new readers to pick up issues past #1, but after reading the final few pages of Empyre #1, I highly doubt that the series will have that problem.

One panel that popped

An Avengers quinjet bursts into demonic flame as Ghost Rider takes the helm. “Ghost quinjet,” he says, “Nobody freak out,” in Empyre #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Al Ewing, Dan Slott, Valerio Schiti/Marvel Comics

Reader, I did in fact freak out.

The Avengers and the Fantastic Four on the cover of Empyre #1, Marvel Comics (2020).

Empyre #1

  • $6

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Featuring action-packed extras including a Cover Gallery, Script, Inked And Color Pages and more! The Kree and the Skrulls have united under a new emperor – and their war fleet is on a collision course for our world. On the moon, the Avengers are ready to strike with the full power of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Approaching from outer space, the Fantastic Four are seeking a diplomatic solution. If the two teams can’t work together to save the day, things can only get worse...

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