I've been impressed by Empty Zone ever since I saw the Kickstarter art for the series and learned about its long history as Jason Shawn Alexander's haunting personal project. Now that the series is rolling out from Image Comics, it seems like my impression of the series changes with each issue. In the opening issue, I was blown away by the art style and the eerie qualities Alexander brought to the narrative, and as the story progressed, his choice of moments to build tension was impressive. Now that I've gotten to issue #3, which is hyper-violent and gets closer to some of the mysteries of the story, I feel like I'm totally bound to the rise or fall of central character Corinne. And that becomes pretty frightening because Issue #3 explores the ways she is or is not human anymore.
[*Warning: some revelations about the character below might be spoilers to you if you haven't read #3!]
It's a strange thing—identifying with some one, like becoming friends with someone very quickly, and then learning something seminal about them that changes everything. Maybe you feel a little betrayed. Maybe you feel a little challenged. Are you so flighty that this new knowledge puts you off? Maybe this is your problem, not theirs. This issue takes through the stages of encounter, confrontation, and rockets you right through acceptance to take it or leave it.
We always knew that Corinne has a prosthetic arm. We knew that she can see and analyze things in a machine-like way from time to time. That she has some kind of military or para-military background and has been glimpsing what seem like ghosts of her comrades, particularly a past lover. But Alexander's artwork and his choice of moments have also presented Corinne to us in a crucially emotive light. Her facial expressions virtually make the book. I don't mean to downplay the achievements of the book by saying that, since another remarkable thing Alexander does is freeze characters in dramatic motion in a way that really leaves a strong impression of having "seen" something "happen". But Corinne's seeming humanity is so important to the book—it becomes everything to us the crazier the world around her becomes. We become afraid of its unpredictability and admire her reactions to the predatory and chaotic environment of the "Empty Zone" she's moving through.
In Issue #3, Corinne is coping with the fact that her robotic arm has been destroyed and she needs another. The artwork on the House of Choi, which she visits for emergency "cosmetic" surgery really expands our sense of the world of the comic, as well, adding new and grittier pop culture aesthetics. The fact that Corinne turns down a top of the line arm and goes for a clunky functional one to remind her of her dark past (and some events, still vaguely contained therein) is another strangely humanizing element. She's so guilt ridden or haunted that she literally carries it around like a load. Still more points for "human" Corinne.
But then we get the weirdness. She's able to take friend Hank into her mindspace to examine some files there regarding her past. Wait, what? To be fair, Hank is only mildly freaked out and he is more organic than Corinne. At this point, Alexander throws out an interesting visual question which I think is placed there to balance our perception of Corinne. It's an x-ray panel of her body, luminous green, which shows her skeleton, missing arm and if you look closely, the chips on her skull that are enabling this computer-based interaction. She then describes herself as having "core drive" and "storage". She finds "data" and footage that seems to have been placed there by the beings she's been glimpsing, but it goes so far into the unknown for her that she's freaked out. We do learn before she calls an end to the session that her machine elements are more widespread than we might have thought, and for all the "seen" things we can judge her cyborg-nature by, it's the unseen elements which really affect her. She's full of nanomachines that can't be removed.
I'd like to point out the very interesting tension that Alexander establishes and the fine line he's treading with Corinne's characterization. Not only is she overwhelming robotic in ways we didn't realize, but she's describing that state in ways that only a human being could. That dichotomy is kind of excruciating and very, very interesting. It makes for an even more emotionally engaging character and is a kind of main-line for reader response.
All these little machines under my skin. It didn't hurt when they put them in, but sometimes I think I can feel them moving around and it burns…
Wow. We have words like "hurt, think, feel, burns". Words even young children might use to describe their state and it clicks with the reader. And yet she's "patented" she tells us.
Now the rest of the comic issue gets even more extreme for both Corinne and the reader. Having confronted the really painful aspects of her past in trying to unravel this mystery, she goes on a kind of wild and possibly self-destructive binge of fighting that ends in a sexual encounter. Both of those prolonged sequences are told almost wordlessly and in great detail and have a similar layout and pacing. And they both, unanimously counter-balance all the machine aspects of Corinne we've just learned about.
Alexander either just has great instincts for storytelling or he thought this one out as the Issue where we could potentially become alienated from Corinne by learning more about her machine aspects and instead gives us a full dose of that revelation followed by a double dose of convincing us of her extreme humanity.
Empty Zone is a seriously impressive comic that explores storytelling in ways I haven't seen before and this issue exemplifies how much of the weight of a story can be built around a central character's interaction with the reader.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter