Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artist: Mark Dos Santos
Release Date: August 6, 2014
I’ve never been good at jigsaw puzzles. I think the problem is that I don’t have the patience. With those 1,000-piece monstrosities, I’d try to jam various pieces together and convince myself that they fit. Those problems would build on one another until I was completely lost and could no longer recognize the picture I was trying to make. Unfortunately, Image’s Imperial #1 shares a similar weakness.
Written by Steven T. Seagle and pencilled by Mark Dos Santos, Imperial is a story about superheroes, or maybe it’s about becoming a superhero, or maybe it’s about having daddy issues, or possibly being a good husband, or denying fate, or having faith in yourself, or pee jokes. It’s everywhere, and it’s also nowhere. But we should probably start somewhere, so let’s go with the beginning.
Our protagonist Mark McDonnell is a normal guy living in a world of superheroes. Within the opening pages, Mark spreads his recently-deceased father’s ashes into a ravine. This solemn ceremony is quickly interrupted by Imperial, a Superman-ish hero with a crown and a different color palette. These first few pages stumble and stutter over Mark’s muddled internal soliloquy. Tinged with some type of accent, our hero seems compelled to comment on every single little word Imperial says, giving the impression that Mark might be kind of an idiot.
One awkward pee joke later, we’re finally let in on this book’s major plot point: Mark is destined to assume the mantle of Imperial. This development pushes Imperial #1 into painfully predictable territory. We have our hero, immediately portrayed as stupid — or at the very least, a little mentally unhinged — suddenly thrust into a situation where he’s told he has great potential. I could give you a list of stories that begin that exact way, only much more effective, but I’ll just stick with one.
For a second, let’s compare Mark to Luke Skywalker. In his opening scenes of the Star Wars saga, Luke is also annoying, complaining about going to the academy and throwing passive-aggressive shade at Uncle Owen for not letting him go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters. We get a sense that he’s young, immature, and inexperienced. From this untested teen, we see him grow, change and assume this new role that, much like Mark, was randomly thrust upon him over a natural time span. In Imperial, this entire subtle interchange happens so quickly that it almost inflicts narrative whiplash — Mark feels more like a caricature than a real person because of this rushed execution. By the end of the issue, we still don’t know why we should care about anything that’s happening on the page. That’s a problem.
Mark is also a personality chameleon. When he’s with his fiancée, Katie, he’s bearable, even somewhat likable. In fact, the couple’s scenes provide some lively interplay and are genuinely fun and playful. But all this further obfuscates Mark’s personality — and even after the comic’s conclusion, I still don’t have a real understanding for any of these characters or the world they live. Is Imperial one of many superheroes or a lone protector of Earth? Why does Mark keep his new superhero stalker a secret from his fiancée? What happened to Mark’s dad? I’m aware that a first issue doesn’t have to answer each and every question it raises, but the characters just act so unnaturally that you wonder if the book even sees these simple inconsistencies at all. This all leads up to the issue’s conclusion, which (like the rest of the book) comes out of nowhere.
However, Santos’ pencils are strong throughout the book and tonally match Mark own eccentric personality. This art reflects a style similar to Image’s growing superhero aesthetic seen in books like Invincible, Tech Jacket or The Guardians of the Globe.
Art aside, all these criticisms fall to Image’s credit. The publisher has proven to be an assembly line for Eisner-worthy titles. It’s among such quality writing and visually stunning artwork that Imperial simply falls short. I hope that Seagle and Santos prove me wrong because, despite all the negatives, there is something here worth reading, even if the pieces don’t quite form a cohesive picture.
Darren Orf is a freelancer comic writer and tech journalist. He also spends his day-to-day as a staff writer at Gizmodo.