Stemming from Marvel's ongoing 'Empyre' crossover, Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah #1 (opens in new tab) focuses on the villainous Quoi who leads the Cotati forces. This issue focuses on a psychic battle between mother and son, as Quoi seeks to prove his loyalty to his father and the ways of the Cotati through a drug-induced gauntlet of the mind. Unfortunately, while Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah #1 adds some interesting wrinkles to the conflict, it fails in elevating its titular character above the mundane.
Written by Alex Paknadel
Art by Alex Lins and Matt Yackey
Lettering by Ariana Maher
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Robert Reed
'Rama Rating: 5 out of 10
After three issues of the main Empyre title, writer Alex Paknadel has the unenviable task of trying to shore up Quoi beyond the bland motives he's already shown. The issue opens with Quoi preparing for his 'Rootquest,' a trial he must undergo before leading the Cotati forces. Quoi’s father, the Swordsman, explains to him the importance of this trial, and while Paknadel does their best to lampshade the basis of the trial, this territory already feels familiar. Quoi finds himself with a psychic battle with his mother, Mantis, and the Oedipal nature of the story plays out as Mantis and Quoi battle over their memories.
The flashbacks form the meat of the issue, and while the journey to them feels a bit rote, the flashbacks are not. Paknadel and artist Alex Lins present the flashbacks in an emotionally effective way. While much of the 'Empyre' crossover has dabbled in '80s-era nostalgia, the flashbacks here are poignantly selected and communicated. When Mantis comforts the Swordsman, we see over his shoulder his memory of holding Captain America hostage — a note by editor Darren Shan points readers back to Avengers #20, but the context isn’t needed due to the way Lins has framed the shot. We know that Swordsman feels ashamed and guilty by his past actions, and we know that he should feel that way.
The flashbacks are further elevated by Matt Yackey’s color choices. Adding a muted palette to Lins’ rugged line art gives a suitably faded tone to all the flashbacks. Through Quoi’s eyes, we see the actions and mistakes his mother made, and see his inability to reconcile with them. There’s a sense of loss in the flashbacks that give the issue an emotional weight that so much of the overall event has lacked. The modern sequences are less visually arresting, but they are largely in service to the flashbacks. However, Lins and Yackey come up with a haunting image as Quoi solidifies his choices and he finds a gift for his mother. It’s a visually arresting image that is far more interesting than Quoi is.
That is ultimately the pitfall here. While Lords of Empyre: Celestial Messiah #1 helps add to the relationship between Mantis and Quoi, it fails to make Quoi compelling. The big issue here is that Paknadel has chosen largely to explore Mantis’s memories rather than Quoi’s. In an attempt to provide context to a character with a convoluted history, Paknadel is mining continuity, as opposed to developing Quoi’s motivation beyond some unresolved mommy issues. Information is revealed that helps drive Quoi further down his chosen path, but because we don’t get to better understand why he’s down that path in the first place, it feels inconsequential.
Despite the title of 'Celestial Messiah,' Quoi is still no more interesting than any other would-be despot — but to this creative team's credit, that’s a problem hanging over 'Empyre' as a whole. Alex Paknadel, Alex Lins, and Matt Yackey make the most of what they’ve been given, but there’s a sense of been-there, done-that to the story being told. Event comics are hard. Creating new, effective villains is hard. But unless you’re really enjoying the Empyre event, this tie-in doesn’t have much to offer.