It takes a special kind of writer to spend 15 pages building up to a Plants vs. Zombies joke. But it takes a pair of geniuses to pull it off… twice.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from Empyre: X-Men #1, but writers Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard - along with some winning art from Matteo Buffagni and Nolan Woodard - are able to take this low-yield high concept and still pull off some major fireworks. Easily the biggest surprise of Marvel's releases this week, Empyre: X-Men #1 is a quirky, funny tie-in that's actually fun to read.
Written by Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard
Art by Matteo Buffagni and Nolan Woodard
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
"They are meat, captain. Never mythologize the meat."
The thing about Empyre as an event is that while Al Ewing, Dan Slott, and company are focused on the mythology of Kree/Skrull history and the massacre of the Cotati, Hickman and Howard aren't nearly as invested in all that messy, loopy continuity… and instead, use this opportunity to poke some casual fun at the self-seriousness of the main Marvel event.
As a result, they give the Cotati a personality that's way more engaging than the force-of-nature revolutionaries of the flagship title — these are some weird, hilarious would-be invaders, who often just vibe at the biological makeup of a tomb-like Genosha ("There's also a shocking amount of ash in the soil," says one "leafy disaster of a soldier," in one of the more pitch-black gags of the book.)
The problem is… the Cotati are also not the biggest bad in this book. While it feels a bit counter-intuitive given the X-Men's heavy reliance on the Resurrection Protocols these days, there are still millions of Genoshan mutants who are no longer with us… that is, until Hickman and Howard deal with a long-standing loose end that doesn't quite go the way they planned.
And stuck in the middle of all this is a hapless team of X-Men, which the writers wring for maximum dysfunction and hilarity — namely, Angel trying to prove himself to Charles Xavier with a motley crew of Magik, Penance, and Multiple Man. It's a team that clicks together instantly, with Justice League International-style chemistry, particularly Madrox's efficiency at fixing a Krakoan gate winds up backfiring spectacularly in their faces.
And the artwork here is honestly fantastic. Artist Matteo Buffagni takes a concept that I think a lot of creators would roll their eyes at, and really makes a meal out of it — his designs for the Cotati are expressive and downright hilarious, showing just how awkward this leafy species is as conquering invaders, while the zombies in the book are never so far gone as to be distracting.
There's a weight to his characters and his linework that lends legitimacy to a downright goofy high concept because he typically plays it straight — especially with some truly bad-ass moments like Magik and Penance getting ready for battle, or even Magneto laying down the law to life-long rich kid Angel.
As somebody who's read a lot of tie-in comics over the years, I honestly did not expect to enjoy Empyre: X-Men #1 nearly as much as I did. But it's proof there is no such thing as bad concepts, only bad execution. Armed with a rich sense of humor, gorgeous artwork, and a team of largely underutilized X-Men — not to mention a mash-up of some gloriously weird villains — and you've got a tie-in comic that honestly reads better than the main event itself.