There is no better time to start reading ETERNAL EMPIRE than with the release of the volume 1 trade paperback. This book collects the first five issues of the series that came out between May and October of 2017. It is the work of Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna, creators of the sci-fi/near-future series ALEX+ADA. If you follow Image Comics, that name may ring a bell.

ETERNAL EMPIRE is an ambitious series that I’m glad I was able to read back-to-back. The series tells the tale of a world 120 years into a continental war spurred on by the reign of the Eternal Empress. In fulfillment of a prophecy, she has united — albeit through violence — all of the nations of the world, except for one. Within this backdrop, the story focuses on two humans — known as “haam” in this story — who together may have the power to stop the hegemony.

The story is ambitious since this world — or Saia — is completely different from our own. Building this world took effort, and the first 5 issues serve to establish it. Within, we learn about how the people worship the three suns in the sky as gods. We learn that the world contains dragons (“daraka”) and the “we-won’t-call-them-draconic” synnians. Race determines one’s role in society. The haam serve as forced laborers, whether in agriculture or erecting statues of the Empress. Meanwhile, the synnians, known as the Crimson Swords, serve the Empress’s conquering armies and make sure the many servile haam stay in line.

ETERNAL EMPIRE #1 Review: A Journey into a New Fantasy World

The Setting Is Integral to the Plot — For Better or For Worse

The series opens with the fall of Kadel, one of the free nations outside of the Empress’ rule. This means that only one nation, Nifaal (beyond the Aris Mountains) remains in the fight against the Empress. It is in this world that two very different haam find themselves before they start having visions of faraway lands and the suns’ alignment. The visions call them to each other from their worker camps into a forest clearing in Amdor.

ETERNAL EMPIRE
A map of Saia, essential for understanding the geography. From ETERNAL EMPIRE VOLUME 1; image courtesy of Image Comics.

The protagonists are the haam duo Tair and Rion. Tair, from the frozen land of Essla, has pale skin, white hair, and ice-blue eyes. Rion, with his yellow eyes and orange skin, is from the hot, desert-like midland of Qaara. Their visions call them to escape their labor camps and wander until they meet each other. When they do, their hands produce flame, their pupils turn into vertical slits — and they have no clue why. Regardless, they recognize their power makes them targets, and they resolve to go to Nifaal to escape the empire.

The plot of this story hinges on the setting. This lets the world exist on its own regardless of the protagonists. We see the constant threat of the Crimson Swords patrolling the countryside. We see the haam, inured to their station, kindly refuse Tair and Rion’s call to flee the Empire. This creates a setting antagonistic to the goals of the characters, making their world all the more believable.

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Yet despite that, the setting becomes a hindrance to understanding the story. Luna and Vaughan made a complete world, and they clearly want to share that. Thus we get characters enmeshed in the society, who share regions, names, species, and slews of other information. Though this allows realistic immersion, it’s confusing as all get-out for an outside reader. The advice I’ve always been given for world building is to create 100%  and only share 1%. You will need a map to understand parts of the story — which the trade provides — but that is one of the book’s weaknesses.

Despite Having Superpowers, Tair and Rion Struggle — A Lot

A strength of ETERNAL EMPIRE, however, is its characters. Although we learn the most about Tair and Rion, it doesn’t mean other people in this world are any less developed. Villagers and synnian Crimson Swords alike show autonomy and independence of will. When Tair and Rion try to get Kadelan prisoners to join them on their journey to Nifaal, they refuse. Even though they lost to the Empress, occupation provides peace, and that’s more important than freedom. Crimson Swords aren’t just enemies for our heroes to slaughter. They fight for their lives.

ETERNAL EMPIRE
Tair struggles against a Crimson Sword synnian in Issue #2. Image courtesy of Image Comics.

What’s better, we see Tair and Rion respond to the threat of murder or capture by the Crimson Swords. Though they are capable of summoning fantasy lightsabers out of the air to fight, they don’t take their safety for granted. We see the two train with their swords and learn from their mistakes. They don’t rush into battle with passing Crimson Swords unless they think they can win. What’s more, the heroes behave with a certain amount of realism. My favorite scene by far is when Tair rips off strips of cloth from her shirt before a battle. Why? To tie up her long hair. As a long-haired martial artist who regularly struggles with his hair, I appreciated that insight.

ETERNAL EMPIRE
In anticipation of what’s to come, we see the Eternal Empress practice her sword fighting. From Issue #5; image courtesy of Image Comics.

ETERNAL EMPIRE offers a good, clean adventure story, and its characters support that. I don’t anticipate seeing deep psychological development with Tair and Rion— but that being said, I don’t think it’s necessary. The adventure of their story is external — the odds they beat, the mystery of their visions.  Our heroes face terrifying threats and unpredictable situations with keen intelligence. That’s all you need for a compelling plot, despite advice to the contrary.

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The Minimalistic Art Lets the Important Details Shine

What stands out more than the characters or the setting in ETERNAL EMPIRE is Jonathan Luna’s art. As I understand, you can either love it or hate it. However, I loved it.

One word comes to mind when I think of Luna’s art: minimalistic. There is no excess of information in either the line art or the colors. This gives the comic a certain asceticism that makes clear what he is trying to present. Character’s emotions, for one, are unambiguous and clear. The reader can feel the pain, annoyance, weariness, and fear without descriptive text. Similarly, action, especially with the sword fights, is easy to follow and to-the-point. Without flashy effects, the blocks and strikes had an impact that felt visceral and clear. This is rare, in my opinion.

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Notable about Luna’s art is his use of scale to affect tone. There is a lot of wandering in ETERNAL EMPIRE — after all, the characters travel by foot. Yet by using scale and zooming out from the characters, Luna creates empathy for the plight these characters face. In another striking shot, we see a mass grave containing Kaldens and Crimson Swords. To show the size, Luna zooms out until we can barely see Tair and Rion. As the grave stretches from one side of the panel to the other, the effect is moving in its devastation.

ETERNAL EMPIRE
Before the reveal of the mass grave. Image from Issue #4, courtesy of Image Comics.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one other effect of Luna’s art: color. Color is clearly a clue towards some mystery in this story. With the minimal art, color and light are all the more dramatic. We notice the color of Tair and Rion’s eyes. The fact that it matches the color of two of the suns — what could that mean?

ETERNAL EMPIRE
Tair and Rion power up their fire for their first sword fight. From Issue #3; image courtesy of Image Comics.

Final Thoughts on ETERNAL EMPIRE VOLUME 1

In the end, I recommend reading this series, but only if you can read all of the issues at once. There’s simply too much going on to understand the world or scope of the series from Issue #1. This becomes clear when you realize Issue #1 is really just one-half of a story that Issue #2 finishes.

ETERNAL EMPIRE
The covers of Issue #1 and Issue #2 form a full picture when combined. Images courtesy of Image Comics.

Yet if you read this series with the first five issues in hand, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. ETERNAL EMPIRE, as a series, is going somewhere — but, like an albatross, it needs some space to take off. For now, you can get ETERNAL EMPIRE Vol. 1 from your local comic shop, bookstore, or Image’s website. Issue #6 — sure to reveal more information — will be out January 10, 2018.

Interview: Thoughts with Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn on Their Newest Work, ETERNAL EMPIRE

ETERNAL EMPIRE Vol. 1 by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna
Art
Characterization
Plot
Summary
ETERNAL EMPIRE Vol. 1 is the best way to experience the start of the series. Seeing the first five issues in one compendium lets the full drama of Saia unfold in a much more complete way. Although the world is complex, having the information needed to understand our heroes and their shared situation makes that complexity manageable. Even still, the characters and the art show the competence of the creative team in comics. Although this series does take its time to build, once you finish the last issue in this volume, you’ll want to see what happens next.
87 %
COMPLETE INTRODUCTION

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