lessons in telling a serial story…

…or any story, really.

(This post contains spoilers for the comic book series Empress.)

I don’t know why I started reading this series, and I sort of lost interest partway through, but I kept buying it because it was a seven-issue mini-series. I would have felt pretty silly stopping at issue five or six in a seven-issue series.

But I just read the last issue, and it really impressed me in a couple of ways — and now I want to go back and read the series from the beginning.

In very broad strokes, this is the story of a huge galactic empire, ruled by a king. One day, the king is in a restaurant (or some such place) and takes a fancy to his waitress, deciding to make her his queen. She explains that she’s not really a waitress — her real job is quite a bit more disreputable — but the king stops her, saying that what she was before doesn’t matter. Her life is starting now.

Years later, she has had three children, ranging from a teenage girl to a baby, and she’s decided that life with the king is no longer tolerable (I forget the details, but he’s evil and despotic and cruel and evil and so on). So, she runs away, with her three children, and an officer of the king’s guard who’s devoted to her. And a very short guy with a mustache — I’m not sure who he is.

Anyway, the series — including the issues I never read — involves the captain guy flying them around in various space ships, shooting various of the king’s forces with ray guns, and other thrilling space opera events as he protects the queen and her children. And there are some quieter moments, like interactions with the queen’s sister, who is not really friendly to them (she disapproved of the queen’s former, disreputable, occupation).

In the final issue, the king finally catches up to them. Along with about a hundred of his elite, heavily-armed soldiers.

The captain guy stands up to defend the queen, as usual, but the king beats him badly — not surprising, given that the king is much larger and also armored. But before the king can kill the captain guy, the queen tells him to stop — it’s her that he wants to kill, so he should fight her.

He starts to laugh at this possibility, but then she challenges him, asking if he wants to be known as the king who was afraid to fight his own queen. He tells his soldiers not to interfere, and asks what weapons she prefers. She says no weapons — she wants to fight him with her bare fists. He says that this will be fast, and then she knocks him down.

The next two pages are her beating the crap out of him. At the end of the second page, as he’s lying on his back, stunned, he asks her how she’s doing this.

Then there’s a page of flashbacks of the various times in the series when the subject of her disreputable former occupation was mentioned, but never actually described, and, at the top of the following page, she explains that she was a cage fighter, the best cage fighter. 400 victories, no losses. “I can’t fly a space ship, and I can’t hit a target. But when it comes to fighting? I never lose.”

And this works because the king, and most readers, I’m sure, assumed that, because she’s a woman, her disreputable former occupation must have been something related to sex — a prostitute or a stripper or whatever. But this was never stated — it was just an assumption we were allowed to make. That’s playing fair, like introducing a character and allowing the readers to assume that the character is white and straight — until you tell them otherwise.

The king points out that if she kills him his soldiers will kill her and her children — but she says this will be worth it, and she kills him.

So, there’s the queen, her children, the badly-injured captain guy, and the short guy with the mustache, surrounded by a hundred royal soldiers who are realizing that the “Do not interfere” thing probably doesn’t apply any more. And she says that one thing she has learned as a queen is how to accept whatever happens. They are about to die, no matter what, so they shouldn’t fight or beg — they should accept it.

And her older daughter stands up.

Nobody is going to die, she says, and that’s an order.

She faces the soldiers, telling them that the king is dead, so she is their queen, and they should drop their weapons.

And this works also, because it’s right there in how the story is built, though even the queen didn’t figure it out.

And then, in the ultimate serial story twist, on the very last page, the queen, who recently started sleeping with the captain guy, learns that her devoted protector and lover is not at all who she thought he was. But that’s all she (and the reader) learns, because they’re setting up the seconds series of Empress. Which I will pay more attention to. After I go back and read the first series all the way through.

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