With Empress Mark Millar returns to the sci-fi territory that he had previously explored with other Millarworld titles like Starlight and Chrononauts. The recently released Book One hardcover, just released, collects issues #1 through #7 which were published last year.
Much like Starlight before it, Empress is swashbuckling space opera geared towards an all-ages audience. Back in March of 2016, Millar wrote an opinion piece on the need for more family-oriented science fiction, what with all the dark dystopian sci-fi that’s dominating the genre nowadays. It was a good, well-argued piece. Very shortly after the publishing that article, he released Empress #1 in April through Marvel’s Icon imprint as if to say, “Here, this is what I mean. This is how you do it.”
This isn’t to say that Empress doesn’t have violence. We’re hardly into the first few pages of the first issue when three hapless subjects of the the story’s ruthless antagonist, King Morax, become a tasty snack for a dinosaur, but the gore is never shown directly. As action-packed as this book is, it’s all pretty bloodless. So, yes, this is family-oriented entertainment.
But Empress is family-oriented in more ways than just the age-appropriateness of the content. This is very much a story about families—or rather one very special family.
Emporia was once a waitress at a “pleasure bar” when she meets King Morax who is right away smitten with her beauty and intelligence. He asks her to become his queen under just one condition: whatever her past may entail she is never to speak a word about it going forward. Not very happy with her life, Emporia accepts the proposal, seeing it as a chance to start again fresh.
Flash forward a number of years and three offspring later and Emporia is now miserable. While Morax isn’t abusive to her or the children, he is a tyrant who rules over his subjects with an iron fist. Much like Darth Vader in that other space opera, he employs terror, brutality and mercilessness all under the pretext of preserving peace throughout the galaxy. And while there’s no mistaking that his methods work, Emporia comes to find them unacceptable and is particularly worried for her children, with their gentle temperaments, who must someday inherit this kingdom of fear.
With the help of her trusted personal bodyguard, Captain Dane, who is loyal to her and only her, along with a couple of Dane’s friends, Emporia and her children make a Mad Max: Fury Road-esque run for it, only instead of a desert wasteland they have to traverse their entire galactic planetary system, hopping from planet to planet, encountering one danger after another virtually non-stop.
Where Empress truly excels is in its massive worldbuilding. Each planet Emporia and her team pass through is given its own vividly unique characteristics, beginning with our own planet Earth. There are a number of panels, like one of an arena early in the first issue, that convey a breathtaking sense of expansive space. The plot setup of Emporia and her band of royal refugees running from planet to planet really gives artist Stuart Immonen a chance to show off his design muscles. (Check out his interview with ComicBook.com where he talks about the months and months of preparatory design work that went into Empress).
Immonen and inker Wade von Grawbadger’s art is given an immeasurable boost here by Ive Svorcina’s colors. Somewhat unusually for a sci-fi comic with strong fantasy elements, in Empress the reader often feels as if he is physically present in a living, breathing world. This is particularly so in the indoor scenes where Emporia and her team enjoy their all-too-brief moments of respite. This sense of immersive presence is certainly aided by Immonen’s detailed, realistic art and von Grawbadger’s precise inking, but Svorcina’s colors imbue the scenes with an ethereal ambience that is at once otherworldly and yet feels real and familiar.
Mark Millar’s script is about as relentless and breathless as any he’s written. It’s no wonder that Hollywood picked this one up so quickly. Much to Millar’s characters’ woe (and the reader’s delight) he really does not give these poor heroes a break. And while we never really feel that they’re in any absolute peril, due to how ultra-capable they are, we are at least busy guessing how they will get out of each and every new predicament.
But, again, this is a story that all comes down to being about family. Even the domineering love that Morax has for the family he is hunting down, as oppressive as it is, is kind of touching in its own way. Being a family man as Mark Millar is himself, you could say that Empress is a comic about a family, for families, written by a guy who understands what makes families tick and how, despite how challenging and even infuriating they can be at times, it is the love of family that makes risks worth taking, danger worth facing and a queen be willing to sacrifice a life of power and luxury for a life of potential hardship.