In The Empty Man, the world is caught in the grip of a strange, viral epidemic that leads its victims to fits of rage, depression and suicidal thoughts, and, ultimately, death or catatonia. Scientists and doctors are at a loss to explain the cause or to come up with a cure, while local governments are struggling to contain the growing panic and the formation of doomsday cults. In an attempt to find a solution to the problem, the CDC and FBI form a joint investigation team headed by Walter Langford and Special Agent Monica Jensen, tasked with getting to the bottom of the mysterious illness.
Reading The Empty Man is very much like reading a “What If?” version of The X-Files. A dark and moody sci-fi/horror series featuring a by-the-books, no-nonsense female agent who gets paired up with an eccentric older male with unconventional theories to investigate a strange phenomenon and end up encountering the paranormal? It’s The X-Files all over again. Just like that show, The Empty Man benefits from a strong, central premise and the promise of stranger things lurking below the surface. Unfortunately, The Empty Man doesn’t quite live up to that promise.
While Bunn has crafted an interesting concept and has a good grasp of dialogue, there are times where the writing feels rushed or like he wasn’t sure what kind of world he was creating. The gaps in the internal logic of the story make it hard to follow the plot, and the gradual shift from horror-mystery to metaphysical treatise makes it difficult to stay invested in what is happening. In the first chapter, for example, the story seems to be set in a world much like our own (except, of course, for the global pandemic), while the team is looking for a concrete, scientific basis to explain the illness. In later chapters, though, everybody is completely blasé about the existence of psychic powers, demon fighting, and talking to ghosts. If this is a world where these things are known and accepted, why weren’t they considering them as possible explanations sooner?
Problems like these might have been fixed with a little more world building to explain the setting, but the absolutely baffling decision to end the story right at the moment that should have been the climax would need a lot of work to fix. I honestly thought that my copy was damaged and missing the last chapter or two because I couldn’t imagine it was deliberate choice to end a one-shot this way. Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any plan to provide the final act of the story at this time, leaving the central conflict unresolved.
While the writing is uneven, Del Rey’s rough, scratchy artistic style is an excellent fit for this story. The limited color palette, heavy use of shadow, unconventional panel layouts, and unusual perspective shots are very effective, although the repetition of triangular panels and the use of large amounts of negative space in the layout do feel excessive near the end of the book. That said, Del Rey has a clear grasp of visual story-telling and hardly a page goes by without visually reinforcing the moodiness and dread that Bunn’s story is striving for.
The Empty Man has scenes of strong, graphic violence and occult themes, making it unsuitable for younger readers. Fans of supernatural horror stories (like Rachel Rising, Revival, or Locke & Key) or of stories about strange illnesses (like Black Hole or Uzumaki) may find some value here, despite the narrative flaws.
The Empty Man
by Cullen Bunn
Art by Vanesa R. Del Rey
BOOM! Studios, 2015