Interview: Artist Barry Kitson On The Birth and Rebirth Of ‘Empire’ With Mark Waid
As part of the short-lived Gorilla imprint of Image Comics in 2000, frequent collaborators Mark Waid and Barry Kitson launched Empire, a creator-owned title about the reign of a supervillain who succeeded where so many others failed, and actually conquered the Earth, uniting it under his brutal, iron-fisted rule. The initial run only lasted two issues, but a few years later, Waid and Kitson finished the first story arc under the DC Comics banner, and in so doing created something of a cult classic that some fans still regard as their best work together — work that includes The Legion of Super-Heroes, JLA: Year One and Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold.
Now, fourteen years after Golgoth first took control of the world, Waid and Kitson have returned to Empire, releasing it as a webcomic through Thrillbent‘s monthly subscription model, whereby you get access to the entire Thrillbent catalogue for $3.99, and a free download of Empire volume 1.
To find out more about the return of Empire, we spoke to Kitson about the initial idea, how he approached designing a world that had been conquered by evil, and where he and Waid intend to take the very long awaited Empire volume 2.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s start with the creation of Empire, back in 2000. How did it come about? Was it something you and Mark Waid had talked about doing for a while?
Barry Kitson: I wish I could remember clearly! I know we talked about doing a creator-owned project for a while before that. It may have even been that Mark had the idea in his head of doing a Doctor Doom story at Marvel, and from that sort of germ, he went to creating a separate character and a whole new world. I honestly can’t remember how it first came about, it just seems like it almost came together fully formed, really.
CA: It certainly reads like it. I was a big fan when it came out, and I remember being really bummed out by its abrupt stop after those first two Gorilla issues, and then being so glad when it came back in 2003 at DC.
BK: Unfortunately, it stopped because of the problems with Gorilla as an imprint, we wanted to get the book out. Luckily, DC were enthusiastic about it and offered to publish it for us, but the underlying problem was that it was something owned by Mark and myself rather than DC, and at the time, they decided they would prefer to use our talents on their own properties rather than continue with Empire.
CA: Right, because that was right around when you relaunched Legion of Super-Heroes. Was Empire something that you’d wanted to come back to just to finish it, or was it a story that you were interested in continuing beyond that first arc?
BK: Oh, we always wanted to carry on with it. There’s a load of things in the original volume that we planned to address long-term. We know the whole backstory, we know everything about the aliens, we know exactly what we wanted to do with Lohkyn, and we wanted to concentrate a lot more on some of the ordinary people outside of the Citadel as well.
BK: We’d always wanted to continue it, and one of the things that has always amazed us was how, at every show we’ve gone to in the ten years since it was published, I don’t think either of us has been at a show where someone hasn’t come up and asked us if we’re going to do more Empire. It’s always been in our minds that we wanted to do more.
CA: Doing a superhero story that’s about the bad guys winning is always a risky proposition, because you run the risk of just going way too dark and depressing and horrible with it.
BK: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true, but one of the central things you always have to remember is that the bad guy at the center of it always sees himself as the hero.
CA: And I think you do a really good job with that. What really makes Empire work, aside from just being a really well-done comic, is that there’s so much strong character work. There are so many great visuals, and all the intrigue that’s going on is carried really well.
BK: Thank you. At a show recently, somebody said to me that it pre-empted Game of Thrones, in a way. I’d never really thought about it like that before, but I can see similarities.
CA: It’s a book that has a lot of superheroic action, because obviously Golgoth is a supervillain in the mold of Dr. Doom, but a lot of what’s enjoyable about it is the intrigue, and that comes across well in the body language and facial expressions. Was that something you were eager to try out, as opposed to standard superhero action?
BK: Yeah, absolutely. That’s at the core of the story, and I think that’s what made it a bit different. The real shocks come through the character interaction. I mean, yeah, it’s fairly shocking when Golgoth wipes out a whole roomful of people, but you get most of the shocks through how one character interacts with another than you do from the violence.
CA: Do you feel like that played to your strengths as an artist, or was it something you had to develop?
BK: Well, it’s hard for me to say what my strengths are. [Laughs] Certainly, drawing characters to be individuals and making sure they all have their own individual body language and gestures and expressions, that’s something I try to do to the best of my ability. I don’t think I’m really a cartoony-style artist, so I have to try to work more on the… I hate to say “realistic” because it’s obviously not really realistic, but giving the impression of realism in the expressions of the characters.
CA: Doing Empire around the same time as Legion is interesting to me, because Legion was a reboot from the ground up that obviously involved a lot of new designs. I’m curious as to how you approach the design elements of a book like Empire, which is all based around villains and assassins in this world where evil won, as opposed to Legion of Super-Heroes, which is all about youth and optimism and hope for the future.
BK: I approach every character with the same basic premise of asking what would that character want to look like, and what impression would they want to give? One of the things people often ask about Golgoth is how come such a baddie is dressed in such bright colors, but he sees himself as a hero. A lot of the design came from looking at a lot of tribal and native designs for gods and demons, and working from that, whereas other characters in Empire, like Tumbril, the torturer, obviously wants to look like an evil badass and goes out of his way to try to do that.
BK: Basically, that’s what I try to think of with everything. The same thing applied with Legion of Super-Heroes. Their costumes tried to reflect each of their characters in some way. Plus, with the Legion, there was also the idea of each one having something symbolic as to their power, which you don’t so much get in Empire.
That’s actually one of the fun things in Empire: I get to have them change clothes every once in a while if I want to. The head priest always wears the same thing because that’s like a uniform, but others very rarely have the same outfits from one scene to the next.
CA: I really love those designs in Empire, because they’re sort of like Cobra from G.I. Joe. They all almost have this uniform, but they dress differently to fit their specialty. I’m a big fan of Xanna, for instance. Golgoth in particular is a really cool design, because, even if people aren’t familiar with your research, he definitely has that majestic and terrifying edge.
BK: That was exactly what I was going for. The larger premise for their costumes and their look was wanting to establish that they aren’t the ordinary people, and they don’t want to look like the ordinary people. When we see the kids on the street, they tend to be generally grubby and look like they’re having a fairly hard time. The leaders, what they want, is a bit like the royalty or nobility of the Middle Ages. They want to stand above the general populace. The more you appear divorced from them, the harder it is for the people to feel like they can challenge them.
That’s the theory, anyway. As we all know, bad guys are often deluded in their beliefs, but that’s what the thinking was behind it. They want to appear as something above the normal people.
CA: You mentioned that you’re often asked about Empire at conventions. Was that the motivation to go to Thrillbent, just getting it out to as many people as possible?
BK: We’d been talking for years and years, saying we’d do it again, and it’s one of those things that just came together. I figured that I needed a regular book again. Having bounced from one title to another at Marvel for six or seven years, I wanted to have books that I felt I could invest in. I think one of my strengths is getting to know characters and getting to know how to tell stories about them. I don’t think I’m at my best when I only get two or three months on a book. Hence, doing Empire and the other projects I’ve been working on recently, one of which has been announced. It’s a book at Image with Bill Willingham called Restoration.
It’s the opportunity to actually feel like we can invest long-term in something and actually guide a larger story. That was really attractive, and as Mark pointed out, he owns a company, so it would be kind of stupid to not do it with the company he owns.
CA: Did he have to talk you into doing the web stuff at all?
BK: It’s something I was eager to try. He didn’t exactly have to twist my arm, but it’s something that I’m aware I’m having to learn as I go along. It’s more different than I originally imagined, but it’s interesting, and it’s better to be interesting and learning rather than plodding the same way. Also, I can admit that I’m so tied to the print medium that I do want to see it in print, so I’m doing it in such a way that we can restructure and print the pages perfectly as well. There’s a grand plan behind it all.
CA: What was it that took some getting used to?
BK: Partly the orientation, but also the pacing is slightly different, because you can do things with the web that you can’t do in a print comic. You can reveal different elements at different times. You can have a character in the foreground and slowly reveal the background, as opposed to seeing it in print, where it’s all there at once. You can begin the whole screen with a picture and overlay other panels on top of it, like how 24 does on TV. You can show things happening simultaneously. You can do that on the web, but you can’t do it in print.
Obviously you can show several things happening at once, but you can’t reveal them in the sequence that you want the reader to see.
CA: As a veteran comics artist with 30 years in comics and as someone who’s tied to print, was this interesting for you to have that level of control? Did it seem like a hassle at all?
BK: I’m still kind of learning it as we go along. Dave Gibbons and I were actually discussing this very topic last week, and we’re both intrigued with this new medium and trying to learn what we can. The jury’s out until you learn it, really. I don’t feel like I’ve learned everything I wanted to learn about print comics yet, so it’s going to take a while longer before I totally feel comfortable with the digital medium. It’s fun and it’s intriguing, it’s something to learn about, which is always good.
I don’t think I’m giving any secrets away when I say that when Mark approached me about doing this on the web, I was still saying “Yeah, but we are going to do a print version, aren’t we?” In my head, I won’t feel like it’s really there until we get a print version of it.
CA: A lot of what’s on Thrillbent is up on the web for free, but Empire is behind the paywall, available to subscribers for $3.99 a month. Was there a discussion about putting it up that way?
BK: I wasn’t really involved in that decision. That was Thrillbent as a company, As I understand it, the idea is that you don’t just get Empire for the cost, you get everything on the site. I don’t know whether the rest of the site is still going to be free — I think somehow they have to make money at some point — but for the $3.99, you don’t just get Empire.
CA: One of the bonuses, though, for the subscription, is that you get Empire Volume 1. You’re the selling point!
BK: One likes to hope so! [Laughs]
CA: How long are you planning on keeping up with Empire? This is volume 2 that you’re doing now, and it’s been going off and on for a while. Is it something you could conceivably do for the rest of your life, off and on, or is there an ending that you have in mind?
BK: It’s something that I can see doing for a long, long time. We don’t have an ending in mind at the moment, but whether an ending comes up…
One of the things about the nature of Empire is that the characters have their own stories that we have to tell. We never intended to kill Sebirus — the bearded gentleman who died in #1 of the series– at all, until we wrote the first issue and realized he had to be killed at the end. I actually had to re-draw some of the second issue because he died in the first one. We’ll probably plow ahead thinking that it’s going to go on forever, but we’ll probably be surprised by reaching a point where we have to end it. But I hope that won’t be for a long, long time.
Empire volume 1 and the first issue of volume 2 are available now at Thrillbent.