May 4, 2017

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REVIEW: Eternal Empire #1

Eternal Empire #1
Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Illustrated by Jonathan Luna
Published by Image Comics

I'm not a huge fan of fantasy stories. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books and movies, but I'm much more drawn to stories involving time travel or robots, rather than dragons and wizards (and you lose me with Elvish poems). So, it was with a little trepidation that I learned that Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, creators of Alex + Ada, were going to be creating an epic fantasy for their next collaboration. Now I love Alex + Ada (it cracked my list of top 25 favorite Image Comics books) so I was willing to give Eternal Empire a chance, and I'm glad I did. It's a strong debut that, while very much an opening issue, gives a sense of a vast, interesting world, and immediately creates emotional stakes for the main character.

Eternal Empire begins, like many fantasy stories, with a map. The story proper starts with a sequence where, it's not entirely clear (I think intentionally so), but a woman appears to be taking power in order to lead a battle or group of people. There's chanting and dragons involved, so this scene immediately helps to put the reader in the right frame of mind. The story then jumps ahead 140 years and follows the travails of an oppressed collective farm worker who's not even given a name, only referred to as "snow hair" (I'll call her "Snow") in the service of the Eternal Empress. The story makes clear the terrible conditions under which these farmers labor, subject to violence and meager accommodations. Snow decides she's had enough, and by the end of the story she's taken steps to change her destiny.
I enjoyed the first issue of Eternal EmpireIt's subtle storytelling - after the first read through, I wasn't sure that a lot had happened, but upon reflection, there's a lot of strong world-building going on here, and it's done so by closely focusing in on the actions and emotions of Snow. This is a world in which magic exists, along with mythical creatures. There's an oppressive empire in power, using force to continue to oppress the people of this region of the world; there's also a caste system separating different races/cultures. This empire is hungry, as we hear in passing about the conquests of other lands and the desire to conquer still further lands. 

All of this world-building is done organically and deliberately through the course of the story, and Luna's art really brings this story to life. If you've read Alex + Ada then you know that Luna has a distinctive, appealing, and highly accessible style. Luna has a clean, thin line (no 90's Image cross-hatching here) and it's a style that worked perfectly for the near-future, sleek world of Alex + Ada (a world of devices connected to your brain and human-like androids). I wasn't necessarily sure that Luna's style would fit with "epic fantasy" but if there's anything that I've learned over a few years of reviewing comics, is that non-obvious choices often end up working great. Just because this is a fantasy story, it doesn't mean that the art has to take on the appearance of aged parchment. 
Luna's art in Eternal Empire works quite well here, not only setting the tone of the world and (perhaps even more importantly) helping the reader establish an emotional connection with the main character. The world that Snow lives in is spare and somewhat barren; her collective farm appears to be growing something like a carrot or turnip, but there's not much else to see in that setting. It's a world that feels cold and desolate, regardless of the temperature outside. And throughout the first issue, Luna gets to stretch his artistic muscles in a way he didn't quite have a chance to do in Alex + Ada, showing a number of different backgrounds. Luna's character work is also quite distinctive; it's deceptively simple, but he's quite good at showing emotion in the eyes and facial expressions of his characters. In Snow's face in the first few pages, we see sadness and fatigue and resignation. One of the key strengths of Luna and Vaughn's work in Alex + Ada was that it felt like such a personal, intimate story and I came to care very much about the characters; I think they're off to a similarly strong start in Eternal Empire

Luna does more than just strong character work in this comic; he gets a chance to flex his muscles in depicting a number of different sorts of locations and does so with terrific, strong color work. From the almost-tangible radiance of the sunset of 3 suns (they have 3 suns in this world) to blindingly bright snowscapes to the dark blur of a nighttime snowstorm, there's some terrific color work on display that sets the mood and builds the story. One page, in particular, stuck with me. As Snow is making her way through a blinding storm, there's a twenty-panel page showing her hopeless trek through the snow. At the beginning we barely see her, and eventually, we don't see her at all, only hear her slightly delirious thoughts and recitations of prayer. It's ambitious work, and the art really conveys her sense of desperation and we as the reader feel Snow's sense like she's going to be completely lost in the storm.
Luna and Vaughn seem to be taking a very ground-level approach to establishing story in Eternal Empire primarily by establishing character. We don't know a lot about Snow but we are shown enough to see that she's grown up in a life of oppression, but she senses that there's something else out there that's calling to her. Through her hardship and her determination, even only in a first issue, I get a sense of both Snow's grit and her fear. She's on a journey to do something other than live out the brutal life that was handed to her by accident of birth; she seems more afraid of what's behind her than what's ahead of her, and so she goes beyond what her world has told her she can do. 

It's a story that's been told before, but it's done so compellingly here by Luna and Vaughn, such that I care about Snow after this first issue. For an engaging, emotional story with a lot of promise as an interesting take on the fantasy genre, I recommend Eternal Empire