Innovation & Jimmie Robinson's The Empty [Close Read]
October 9, 2015
In the world of THE EMPTY, life sucks. The lands are barren, the sky is unforgiving, and a creeping poison spreading across the area is slowly making sure that, as bad as it is, life is going to continue to get much, much worse. There is nothing, until suddenly there is something: life. New life. A young woman washes up on a beach, vibrant and shining. She is not from the empty. She's from a land of verdant forests, good health, and easy living. And, with but a touch, she can bring life to the empty. She is Lila, and she might be the cure for what ails the empty.
Figuring out what role this series plays in Robinson's career is a fun puzzle. His three most recent series couldn't be more different from each other. In reverse chronological order, it goes THE EMPTY, FIVE WEAPONS, and BOMB QUEEN. FIVE WEAPONS is the story of a boarding school for budding assassins, each of which are trained in one of—wait for it—five weapons, while BOMB QUEEN has a very simple premise: what if a cruel supervillain ran an entire city in the United States? THE EMPTY is straightforward sci-fi/fantasy, FIVE WEAPONS is action-oriented and kid-friendly, and BOMB QUEEN is a bloody mature readers title with a blend of deeply irreverent humor and pointed social commentary.
You can't pin Jimmie Robinson down, and in my book, that makes him a creator to watch. Rather than being The Crime Guy or The Fantasy Guy, Robinson is the guy you can rely on to give you something new every time out of the gate. BOMB QUEEN was horrifically violent, usually in a darkly comic way, but FIVE WEAPONS was safe for teens. They both feature violence, but while BOMB QUEEN has a wanton approach to hurting people, FIVE WEAPONS is much more focused on effective strategies for either avoiding or ending fights than triggering gigantic spurts of blood from a foe.
Robinson shows, rather than tells, the differences between Lila and the people of the empty by what they do and how they do it. In THE EMPTY, violence is approached practically, though still according to the rules of fantasy stories. If you live in a near-lifeless, barren world, and you have a near-suicidal disregard for yourself and your life, then you would fight differently from someone who hasn't known a life of hardship. Tanoor, a resident of the empty, wears bandages and blades. She's Lila's polar opposite, a carnivore to Lila's herbivore in terms of temperament, but she is fascinated by what Lila represents.
Artistically, too, he keeps pushing against what he's done before. BOMB QUEEN looked busy and chaotic, the perfect approach for such a mercurial and cruel character. FIVE WEAPONS was much more constrained, consisting mostly of wide horizontal panels. The layouts give the series a markedly different pace than BOMB QUEEN, and speak to the efficiency that permeates the series. FIVE WEAPONS isn't just about fighting. It's about finding the best way to fight, rather than flailing. THE EMPTY is more varied over the course of the series, as Robinson selects layouts that fit a story that's fundamentally about a trip through the darkness toward paradise. When he needs to pull back and go big, he goes big.
One thing that's remarkable about THE EMPTY is the anatomy. The characters aren't necessarily humans like us. They certainly look human, but they're different. Tanoor has freakishly long arms, and she uses her extended reach to great effect in battle. Lila, on the other hand, has an elongated neck and enormous eyes. She looks much more delicate than Tanoor, while Tanoor looks much more ferocious than Lila ever could. It's brought up on occasion, but no one ever sits down and says "Tanoor has long arms because ____" nor "Lila is weak because ____." You can just look, pause for thought, and then realize, "Oh, wait, they look like this for a very specific reason. Robinson is telling us about the world even by way of character design, in addition to the plotting and dialogue.
Robinson is a good guy to pay attention to. It's fun to see where he goes next, and to compare where he's been with where he's going next. Some of the fun in comics is looking what happens on the page, but the happenings behind them can be more than worthy of examination, as well.