Writer Max Bemis has filled his series about the dawning of a new American revolution with no shortage of surprising plot shifts, and "Evil Empire" #4 amps up the magnitude of head-turning twists to the point readers might have a sore neck by the time they've finished. This issue is a little different from its predecessors, as it's is fully drawn by new series artist Andrea Mutti, and the story is a mostly calmer affair, after the latest shocking turn of events last issue. While the violence has died down, the tension remains high, and Bemis continues to engage readers by convincing them that they need to keep looking around the corners as they turn the pages and to expect the unexpected.
As he's done throughout the series, Bemis leads off the issue with a disturbing flash-forward of Los Angeles a quarter century into the future, under the reign of the so-called Evil Empire. This time readers get a glimpse inside the E.E., as it's also referred to, and a command center with a murderous and shadowy leader-figure and minion cops dressed in outfits seemingly inspired by the Hitler youth corps. This inward look comes at the expense of the world outside, shown in past issues, where Americans now apparently have the right to do whatever they want, which also comes with the right to face the vigilante street-justice consequences that might stem from it. Nonetheless, it shows the kind of leadership that's essentially turned the country into a deadly anarchist, anything-goes state, and still makes it clear that America has become an evil empire, indeed.
In present day, where the rest of the issue is focused, the social order is still a familiar looking one, with things calming down after the recent demise of former presidential candidate and political activist Kenneth Laramy, who sparked the flames of dissent presumably igniting this dystopian future. His opponent Sam Duggins is on the verge of becoming the next President, and this is where Bemis opens up and shakes out the book of revelations. There are not one but two revelations about Sam's sister, and then an even bigger one regarding Sam himself that finishes off the issue.
It's all plenty shocking, sure, but the weight of these revelations piled up at the back of the book practically makes it do a wheelie; any one of these genuine surprises would have been enough to deliver the intended shock value and bring readers back next issue, but by packing them together Bemis makes it feel as though he's rushing the story, and brings forth a mood more akin to sensationalism than the genuine serious social/political thriller that the comic has been through 3 ½ issues. Bemis has made the series exciting by shaking things up, but here he sprays readers in the face by shaking things up a little too hard and a little too quickly.
Even with the heavy-handed shock treatment, though, Bemis sets up next issue with a whole new status quo, and makes a case for picking up that issue even if readers are still recovering from whiplash. Ironically, the whirlwind developments in the issue's second half are sufficient enough to detract from some of the story's other shortcomings. Bemis has shown a knack for some clever and rather bitey dialogue, but just goes way over the top and down the cliff sometimes, as demonstrated by puzzling lines like "I'm sick of seeing a dude who could take in-his-prime Michael Clarke walking around like he's been on his period for months on end." The line is from Sam in reference is to Theo, the bodyguard for celebrity rapper Reese Greenwood, who has also been Sam's love interest in recent issues. The dynamic between Sam and Theo has inexplicably softened, while that between Theo and Reese is oddly tense.
Reese is probably the most well thought-out character in the book, perhaps helped along by Bemis' own career in the music industry as lead singer for indie band Say Anything. Sam and Theo are fairly well-developed as well, but characters like Sam's sister and mother don't really get the same kind of treatment.
Mutti is a good choice for artist, with varying styles that fit the changing mood of the story. In calmer scenes, his characters are rendered simply and are easily recognizable. He uses an interesting technique in other scenes, employing darker tones to characters' faces during moments of action, and especially at the moment of a big reveal, highlighting its impact. The layouts are superb in one particular scene focusing on a shell-shocked and heartbroken Reese, with a series of panels gradually moving in closer and capturing her emotions as a voiceover provides a sad dichotomy between her feelings and those of just about everyone else. Cover artist Jay Shaw provides an understated but somewhat sinister political propaganda-esque cover.
"Evil Empire" #4 contains some notable shortcomings but is bolstered by a bold and engrossing story that largely benefits from its shifty and unpredictable nature.