Set in a timeless ”Five Years Ago” and ”Now,” The Empty Man reads like a late 1970s early ‘80s word-of-mouth artifact of found horror, a castoff paperback or something a seventh-grader brags about having seen on VHS while visiting a distant relation. On its face, the empty man causes paranoia, fanaticism and leaves orphans in its wake, an unknown that requires multiple agencies to investigate ”the disease and the criminal activity associated with it.”
Writer Cullen Bunn exhibits a high horror IQ. He sets a shrewd pace of wordy — or in the case of the prologue, preachy — exposition (perhaps a hair too much) followed by intense moments of shock. This push-pull tension and release gives The Empty Man its narrative bones and establishes the pledge of horror fiction: what’s next.
After she announced her authority with Hit in late 2013, followed up by a Creepy stint and a Zero issue earlier this year, Vanesa R. Del Rey has fast become a cartoonist to watch and envy. In The Empty Man Del Rey may have found her true milieu. Her lean lines and kinetic compositions of broad-shouldered square-jawed men, tough-as-nails women and blond-haired shady revenants render Bunn’s eerie ideas into something much worse and much more malicious.
How Del Rey composes the first two pages demonstrates The Empty Man’s sly horror. Bunn imagines a Carcosa-like image of three upside down interlocking triangles made from sticks and bound by rope. Del Rey takes this image of a closed envelope and uses it as an arrow to guide the eye down the page to reveal a (not-so) meek preacher and his humble flock. On the following page, Del Rey utilizes six stacked rectangular panels. This time she lets the compositions themselves tighten the screws as each image narrows its focus to uncover a shadowy congregation where all the women wear veils — a kinky (and welcome) detail of serpent-handling backwoods religious vigor — except the woman in the red dress who slouches towards Bethlehem. To put a fine point on it, colorist Michael Garland soaks both pages in the color of welts and third degree burns.
Suffuse with its peripheral glimpses of mangled flesh, acute madness and overall terror, Bunn, Del Rey, Garland and letterer Ed Dukeshire allow The Empty Man to prey on the reader’s anxiety of what’s happening and for the sake of all that is holy … why.