Writers: Chip Zdarsky, Anthony Oliveira
Artists: Manuel Garcia (penciller), Cam Smith (inker)
Colorist: Triona Farrell
Letterer: VC’s Travis Lanham
Cover Artists: Patrick Gleason, Mart Gracia
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
With the long-delayed Empyre finally off the ground, readers should prepare for an (albeit truncated) onslaught of tie-ins that begins in earnest with this week’s Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling #1.
Set slightly before the kickoff of Empyre, Emperor Hulkling recounts the events leading up to Teddy Altman’s crowning as the new leader of the Kree-Skrull alliance. As you can probably assume, it’s not the smoothest transition of power—not just politically, but also personally for our stalwart Young Avenger.
In my previous reviews of Empyre-adjacent material, I’ve spoken to the idea of “essentiality” in event tie-ins, and I think Emperor Hulkling more than qualifies itself as being required reading for the main story. While it doesn’t offer much plot progression to the overall saga, it does establish what Teddy’s stakes are moving forward—both micro and macro.
One thing that’s often missing from bombastic superhero stories like Empyre is the lack of feeling that actions will have consequences. When we first see Teddy in this issue, he’s literally laying on his back and not doing much (Shady meta-commentary on Marvel neglecting its LGBTQ characters? You decide). Then he’s suddenly made into a lynchpin of intergalactic politics as the new Kree-Skrull emperor, forcing him to leave Billy—and their comfortable life together—behind on Earth. He’s effectively being burdened with responsibility over not just one but two races of people without regard to his personal life (Superheroes! They’re just like us!).
A big part of Emperor Hulkling’s charm is the writing team of Chip Zdarsky and Anthony Oliveira, the latter of whom made his Marvel debut last year with a Wiccan-centric story in the War of the Realms: War Scrolls tie-in. Their script is appropriately witty while also allowing its protagonist to be vulnerable, which can be hard to do in sweeping epics like Empyre. In a poignant interaction with Billy, Teddy expresses his doubt that he can be “strong enough to be cruel” as the Kree-Skrull emperor. I think it sums up what’s at stake for him throughout Empyre, which we may not actually get to see in the main series itself. It’s not just the love of his life who’s at risk here, but his moral compass also. I know I’ve seen Billy/Teddy shippers concerned about the way he’ll be portrayed in Empyre moving forward, but this issue gives me enough reason to believe everything will be just fine on that front.
Emperor Hulkling also feels like a revelation in how unabashedly queer it is, despite being a crucial part of the company’s latest crossover event. Marvel is often criticized for being reticent to embrace its LGBTQ characters, so it feels pretty momentous when a crucial fight scene takes place at a drag show attended by four queer-identifying superheroes. And that’s not even mentioning the sprawling two-page spread of Teddy and Billy lounging (nakedly) in bed together, which is presented as plainly as it would be with a straight couple. Too often LGBTQ characters are de-sexualised to make them “palatable” to the straight gaze, which makes any moment of queer intimacy in mainstream superhero comics feel like a big deal (even if it shouldn’t be). It would be a real missed opportunity if Empyre isn’t succeeded with a Hulkling/Wiccan title or new run of Young Avengers, because I always forget how much I love those two until I’m actually presented with new content of them.
Like I touched on previously, the art of Emperor Hulkling is all-around fantastic (done by Manuel Garcia and Cam Smith on pencils and inks, respectively), but I’d like to single out Triona Farrell for her colors, which really elevate the visuals on display. The aforementioned drag show two-page spread is pretty much draped in every color of the rainbow, wherein individual panels form a rainbow gradient befitting the overall queerness of the issue. It’s simple yet highly effective, clever coloring for that one scene; however, Farrell’s vibrant spectrum carries the issue and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
If there’s anything I would critique about this issue, it’s occasional moments that feel too “quippy” and inorganic to the action unfolding. There’s one panel in particular referencing a favorite meme of gay Twitter that I appreciated, but felt it out of place coming from the character in question (not as bad as the gratuitous Baby Yoda reference in Empyre #0: Fantastic Four I somehow forgot to mention in my review, though). If anything, I’m amused by the thought of a straight person being utterly confused by what it means, which is almost enough for me to come back around to liking it.