Empyre #6 is not the kind of book that's likely to impress many people. Its scale feels off, as so many characters take care of smaller pieces of the plot in tie-in books. The villains of the conflict make the story a bit of a riff on the Kree/Skrull War but with a different powerful artifact at the center (the Starsword).
In name and a couple of plot elements, it's hard not to remember Secret Empire, and the Celestial Messiah is so similar in design and approach to a longer standing cosmic Jesus in Adam Warlock that this book feels like a cover song.
Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott
Art by Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
Marvel has built a reputation for big, cosmic events but in recent years, their efforts have felt lacking. Whether or not editors wanted to admit to some level of synergy with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, events like Infinity Wars and Infinity Countdown still felt like they were going for something recognizable rather than something new. In a lot of ways, that's just indicative of the cyclical nature of superhero comics - if you grow up with characters wanting some macguffin or another, you'll inevitably want to write your story about that macguffin. I'm not putting the concept on trial here but I do think it has conditioned our reactions to these stories.
Al Ewing and Dan Slott are fine storytellers. Ewing's Immortal Hulk and Slott's longlasting run on Amazing Spider-Man are appointment reading at their best. But I think there's a bit of a clash in philosophies here.
The cover says 'Avengers and Fantastic Four' on it, but the focus on Slott's somewhat rudderless Stark changes the dynamic of this event. It often feels like a castoff Iron Man story guest-starring the Fantastic Four rather than an event meant to reshape a portion of the Marvel Universe.
I don't think Ewing gets the room to dig into the things that have made his best work so memorable. There's definitely some heart here with Hulkling and Wiccan's relationship pushed into the spotlight in a way that no other queer relationship has in a major event. But there's a lack of tangible stakes in the plotting, and there are no surprises. And ultimately, very little has changed by the end of this story.
Valerio Schiti and Marte Gracia certainly do their best to make this look like a marquee Marvel event though. Similar to R.B. Silva and Pepe Larraz's handling of House of X and Powers of X last year, Schiti brings big, bombastic superhero action to the forefront when necessary but is able to balance out smaller moments as well. I do think some of his characters end up looking a little too similar. Tony Stark and Reed Richards are indistinguishable once Reed puts on his Iron Man suit. And sometimes there is a looseness to his linework that makes characters like Johnny or Sue Storm (arguably two characters with very little to make them stand out from other Marvel characters) almost unrecognizable save for the '4' on their chests. But that same loose linework helps add to the energy of the fight scenes. And Gracia's coloring is stellar throughout the issue.
Does Empyre represent a new era for Marvel's cosmic titles? It's hard to say. It doesn't feel like Quoi and the Cotati are a particularly memorable threat. The alliance that comes out of this book could have some legs. But it likely won't be long before some enterprising young Skrull or Kree warrior decides to fight Teddy Altman for the throne.
Moreover, I don't think our heroes have really learned or changed from this outing. Whether that's because a pandemic severely affected the publishing schedule or this was only meant as a minor event before this Fall's X of Swords epic, we'll likely never know.
Empyre may not have gotten the chance to really be what it was supposed to, but if you're looking for a fun and fairly straightforward adventure, you could do worse.