Welcome to The Pull List, a weekly column where we check out a first issue of a new series and tell you whether or not to follow the comic based only on that. This week I read Empty Zone, which seeks to blend urban sci-fi with urban horror to engrossing effect.
Jason Shawn Alexander reputedly worked twenty years on this story, and the effort certainly shows in the level of compelling detail and the curls of sooted smoke that reek from the pages of Empty Zone #1. I found myself genuinely compelled by his vision of a blend between two claustrophobic visions: a tech-rotted, futuristic cityscape, and an urban sprawl teeming with nooks and crannies where the supernatural can hide. The horror elements give this debut issue a distinct identity, and the series should progress nicely if it can distinguish itself from its influences.
In Alexander’s world, we chase fleeting visions of the dead into the streets, and are violated by hallucinations that reach from the dark corners of our cramped homes. All of this is painted against the backdrop first immortalized, of course, in Blade Runner–darkened slums teem with cyberpunk subcultures, body modification fetishists, hacker vigilantes, robotized bounty hunters, while the dregs of society get plastered on engine fuel in a grimy hut that’s welded to the wall of a factory that probably breeds cloned organs for plutocrats to cheat death with, while the rest of the city dies over and over again.
All of this, Alexander expresses in deeply compelling, thickly layered brushstrokes and panel-transgressing lines that recall smokestacks as well as streaks of blood. His style definitely reflects his fine art background, and goes a long way towards selling this as a piece of his own mind, rather than just another cyberpunk title. It also certainly recalls the grime of 90s Vertigo titles, a style I’m admittedly sick to death of, but Alexander’s deft pacing and panel composition held my attention rapt.
Empty Zone follows bounty hunter Corinne White, your standard, broken and jaded protagonist staving off psychological breakdown, by virtue of her rusted iron reflexes and a very specific set of skills making her marketable to the right dangerous people. She’s beautiful, dead-eyed, able, and sports a punk-inspired look and a robotic arm, a la Imperator Furiosa. She’s definitely modeled on heroes like Rick Deckard, but where Alexander breaks with that character trope is the depth with which he paints their despair.
As a rule, the darkness of cyberpunk detectives is just a general reflection of the settings around him, but Alexander instead chose to delve into an extended snapshot of Corinne’s ghosts in a personal and visceral way, in a sequence that forms the centerpiece of the issue: Corinne follows a shadowy peeping tom to the rooftop, where she encounters a loved one who should by all means be in the ground. Then begins a reverie that starts off sexual euphoria, but veers deep into nightmarish territory with shadowy spectators, a chorus of skulls watching, and at the moment of climax, one of the wraiths tears the arm from her body–you barely notice that in these visions she is physiologically whole, and the moment drives home the sense of raggedness in Corinne.
In the rest of the issue, we follow Corinne along on an assignment that fleshes out the surrounding urbana and character of the Empty Zone cityscape. We get a peek at Corinne’s unique talents, including her ability to ‘convert’ hostile technologies, and the book ends with a hint of exposition regarding Corinne’s rooftop ghosts.
Alexander’s primary goal with the issue is to say “Yes, this is the grimy futuristic urban landscape you’ve seen before, but let me show you how much further I can take it with horror.” To a large degree, his execution of these elements definitely piqued my interest, but I certainly hope the rest of the series breaks from the visions that came before it, and comes into its own as the supernatural sci-fi book that’s missing from my collection.