If there's anything that's most exciting about Marvel's new Empyre event, it's that Teddy Altman — better known as the Young Avenger Hulkling — is getting his long-overdue spotlight as the star-spanning prince of the Kree and Skrull empires. It's that long-standing affection for the character that gives Lords of Empyre: Hulkling #1 its breezy energy, even if the overlong story itself occasionally drags.
Written by Chip Zdarsky and Anthony Oliveira
Art by Manuel Garcia and Cam Smith
Lettering by Triona Farrell
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
But as far as a day-in-the-life of Hulking — one that quickly dovetails into the overarching Empyre storyline — this is solid work, even if it takes a bit to get there. Zdarsky and Oliveira err on the side of caution by introducing Teddy's Kree/Skrull parentage early, and while the exposition was likely necessary, it hurts the momentum of the book, as readers have to sift through the intricacies of Skrull royalty in order to understand the greater plot.
Yet Teddy himself is a compelling character to follow, with his dynamic with Wiccan and his desire for the greater interstellar good giving him some noble motivations. (Also, the fact that he's awkward enough to fake a selfie with Spider-Man just to keep up with his boyfriend is a genuinely endearing moment.) While some of the dialogue feels a little creaky, bouncing between earnest emotion and ironic Star Trek gags that never connect as much as the writers might hope, there's a genuine sense of internal conflict about Teddy's role as a king to two distinct alien species. But it's also there with his loyalties as an Earth-bound superhero, not to mention Wiccan's better half, which results in the book's better moments for character work and representation.
But every time Zdarsky and Oliveria veer away from the character work, the story drags — every burst of action feels obligatory and rushed, sort of hitting with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it tempo, while the backstory involving the various Kree and Skrull factions can't help but feel like homework. Additionally, while I understand the parallels the writers are trying to establish with a one-liner about Kree and Skrull fanatics attacking a gay bar, it still comes across as uncomfortably flippant, even four years after the Pulse shootings in Orlando.
The art also ebbs and flows with the story's energy. Artist Manuel Garcia and colorist Cam Smith are a good match together, particularly when they're able to zero in on Hulkling's moody energy. An introductory shot of the listless Young Avenger lounging in bed feels like a character study even without dialogue, and at times Garcia's energy channels that Alan Davis springiness, particularly with dancer Krystal M'Kraan. And Garcia also deserves a lot of credit for some interesting layouts, being able to fit six-panel pages in a really intuitive way, especially a sequence where Wiccan teleports into Hulkling's throne room.
Zdarsky, Oliveira, and Garcia went into Lords of Empyre: Hulkling with a lot of goodwill involving their titular character, and for the most part, they're able to pull out a win despite some missteps. Unfortunately, a book like Lords of Empyre: Hulkling feels like an exoneration of a fan-favorite character like Hulkling just as much as an indictment of a continuity-heavy storyline like Empyre — the actual factions at war here don't evoke a lot of emotional connection for readers, and even longstanding affection for characters like Hulkling might not make it out of this event unscathed.