Interview: Comic Writer Mark Waid Talks the Long Awaited Empire Volume 2

Over ten years ago, writer Mark Waid and artist Barry Kitson brought us Empire, the tale of a Doctor Doom-like villain named Golgoth that has finally done what so many others have failed at in comics: conquering Earth. Now, all these years later, Waid and Kitson have reunited to bring us the long-awaited second volume for the Eisner-nominated series exclusively from Waid’s digital comics platform Thrillbent. SuperHeroHype had the pleasure of speaking with Waid about the new volume, discussing the world of Empire and where we find the notorious Golgoth just one year after the events of the first volume. You can read our full interview with Waid below and read the long out-of-print volume 1 and the brand new follow-up over at Thrillbent by clicking here.

SuperHeroHype: Just to familiarize our readers with this series, can you give us the elevator pitch for Empire volumes 1 and 2?

Mark Waid: Absolutely, the elevator pitch is: what happens when the bad guys win? What happens when an armored despot named Golgoth manages to succeed in his ten year plan to take over the world? The bad news is there’s nothing left for him to fight at that point. Once you get the trains running on time, once you get the power of the throne condensed under one crown you think you’ve won, but in fact you’ve set yourself up for a whole new barrage of challenges, because now everyone wants your job. Those closest to you have the sharpest knives hiding behind their backs waiting for you to misstep so they can take your gig. So that’s the basically the concept of it, the high concept is it’s a science fiction “Game of Thrones.” There’s your elevator pitch right there.

SHH: How long has the idea of releasing a second volume been in the cards? Was it something you’d thought about with the first volume? Had it presented itself as an opportunity over the years?

Waid: Oh it’s definitely been something we’ve wanted to do ever since the first volume. The trick is that DC had the publishing rights, we owned it but DC had the publishing rights so we had to get the rights back. But now that the rights are back in our hands we could have gone anywhere with it but we decided, you know what, Thrillbent is right there and it’s mine and that’s the best place for it, and better yet because we’re rebranding Thrillbent as a subscription service by which there will always be some free comics to be found on Thrillbrent. I’m a big believer in free and a big believer in additional media, but by rebranding it as a subscription service and asking people for the price of one print comic a month to be able to get access to hundreds and hundreds of chapters of material and all the new series that we’re going to be launching starting with Empire, it made sense. If we’re going to ask people to pay we better give them something of value for their money and this seemed like the best bet, the series that ever since we launched it and ever since it has been in print Barry (Kitson) and I have been asked at every single convention and every single store signing ‘When are we going to see more Empire?’

SHH: Now it’s been over ten years since volume 1 but within the story it’s only been one year, what can you tell us about the world of Empire as we find it in volume 2? Has Golgoth finally conquered everything?

Waid: Yep! He’s finally won. He’s got EVERYTHING, and you would think that would be enough but then the question becomes okay, well what next? Once you’ve created an empire out of the planet Earth it’s not like there’s a flotilla of spaceships ready to take you to other planets, this is all there is. So what are your new challenges? And then worse, how do you deal with the fact that now you’re being persecuted by all of the people who you counted on to help get you where you are today. All your most trusted ministers and trusted advisers, they’re out to get you too.

SHH: I thought it was really remarkable how you made Golgoth such a complex and interesting villain in just a few issues with the first volume, as compared to some other comic book villains that may have taken years for people to really put on that level. Was this a character that lived in your head as a writer for a long time before you sat down and hammered out who he is?

Waid: Yeah, a little, some, though honestly part of the fun was building that character as we went. The biggest inspiration was always Charles Foster Kane, because Citizen Kane is my favorite movie and that was always my favorite complex character in all of movies. The idea that there is a man who is always reaching, always grasping to try to fill something inside him that no matter what he acquires he can’t bring himself to peace. So if you translated that into a super villain world, taking it to its logical extreme what you’re left with is a character named Golgoth who had a ten-year plan to take over the world and at about year 7 or 8 he knew two things decisively. He knew: A. That he was going to win and there was no stopping him, and he knew B. He didn’t want the job anymore, because you realize ‘Oh my god, I can win everything and it’s not going to bring me what I want, because I’m not sure what I want.’ To me that is the real tragedy of the character right there.

SHH: Another thing I really love about the series is how it is the kind of story that can only really be told in comics, but I assume with the popularity of movies there’s been interest in someone adapting Empire for the big screen. Was that a discussion you’ve had with someone or did you feel protective of it being in this medium?

Waid: Well, honestly I wouldn’t shoo anybody away, and in fact we’ve had people discuss with us over the years how to develop it into other media, and I would be okay with that because as long as the integrity of the story is kept that would be fine. But what I do like about it it really does feel like a story that’s best told in the graphic novel format. It really feels like that’s the place to sort of explore and explode some of the superhero, supervillain tropes that we’re dealing with.

SHH: Going off what you said of exploring superhero and supervillain tropes, there’s certainly been shifts in the industry since the first volume where I think we glorify the villains more than we used to. Is that something that you put into when writing volume 2?

Waid: To some degree actually, and that’s a good point. I think that’s actually an accurate thing to say, but it’s pretty scary. It’s not something we ought to be doing. It’s…I.. Hmm… Good question. I haven’t been asked that one. You’ve stumped the man. Here’s the thing, to me it’s not about glorifying them in the sense that I disavow this truism that you hear from time to time which is that characters have to be likable. That’s crap. Richard the III is not a likable character, Holdon Caufield is not a likable character, but that doesn’t mean you’re not interested in what they want. That’s what you’re asking of the reader, not I want you to like my guy, I just want you to find him interesting enough so that you are invested in his journey, and you can tell that kind of story with a superhero or a supervillain or a milkman or a tree surgeon or whatever you want. As long as they’re interesting I don’t care whether they’re likable or not.

SHH: Going into volume 2 of the story, where there any characters that maybe what happens with them changed significantly from what you thought might happen with them at the end of the first volume?

Waid: Actually, Yes. Golgoth was the best example. Especially because it’s been nearly 15 years since we’ve approached this character, and that’s 15 years of perspective on a 52-year-old Mark Waid writing the character much differently then how a 35-year-old Mark Waid would write the character in the sense that I have a better understanding of the loss that he’s been through and a sort-of better understanding of the nuances of human nature. So a lot of the long term plans that we always had for volume 2 were in place, and they stand the test of time, but a lot of the more subtle character developments especially of Golgoth, that’s stuff we sort of had to adjust, because we, Barry Kitson and I both, are just more sophisticated storytellers than we were 15 years ago.

SHH: I can only assume that volume 2 will feature the Qaran aliens in a more expanded role. Are they involved in the story?

Waid: Oh yeah. Oh absolutely. Again, even a villain, a guy who won needs somebody to fight against, and one of the dangling plot threads, one of the leftover plot threads of volume 1 of course was the idea that there are others out there. That there is another civilization keeping an eye on ours and looking for a chance to swoop in now that power has been consolidated. So it’s not just threats from outside that Golgoth is going to have to deal with it’s threats from inside, threats from the world around him.

SHH: It also gives the reader, and goes with what you were saying earlier, this idea of ‘Well when you’ve conquered Earth, what else is there to conquer?’ Well, if there’s aliens out there that you can conquer, what’s stopping Golgoth from conquering the aliens as well?

Waid: Right, but the temptation is also ‘You know what, these guys want to take over the world? Why do I care? What am I defending if I don’t even know what I want? What am I defending if I already have everything and it hasn’t brought me peace?’ So the idea that there are forces beyond out there, the question becomes: Does Golgoth look at that as an opportunity to extend his outreach or does he look at it as an opportunity to hand the car keys over and retire? We don’t really know, and that’s a big part of his quandary throughout volume 2.

SHH: Another of my favorite things about Empire is the sheer amounts of totally unexpected bat-s**t surprises. 

Waid:[Laughs] Well thank you.

SHH: Did you feel like you need to amplify that for volume 2 or are there equal amounts of insanity?

Waid: Oh I think it’s equally as insane as volume 1. I think even that said there’s still some really surprising moments coming. Again, that’s the fun of writing something outside of continuity, outside of a shared universe, you know? That you’re able to do whatever you want, you’re able to surprise readers because they don’t know what’s coming.

SHH: Before I let you go I have to say I’ve really enjoyed your work on The Hulk, so it bummed me out to learn you’re wrapping up your run soon.

Waid: Oh well that’s nice of you to say, thanks. I enjoyed it too. It just became a point of ‘Man I just need a little break.’

SHH: Totally understandable, but please don’t leave Daredevil anytime soon.

Waid: Oh no, no, out of my cold dead hands. They’ll have to pry that out of my cold dead fingers.

You can read both volumes 1 and 2 of Empire, along with many more comics, at Thrillbent.