It was October 1978 that Empire, the first graphic novel, appeared on bookstore shelves. That’s the same month Eisner’s A Contract With God made its début, and Empire is one illustrated story while Eisner’s work is a collection of short stories. One can argue either way but I’m going in support of Empire: it’s dust jacket states “a graphic novel” while the credits indicate “a visual novel”. A Contract With God is black and white while Empire is fully painted in vibrant colour.
This project was put together by Byron Preiss, the leader of graphic novel production during the 1970s and 80s. He provides a wonderful forward that defines what a visual novel meant to himself and the creators, Samuel Delany and Howard Chaykin.
Not a graphic adaptation but a science fiction novel written expressly for this new medium. Chaykin handles the art as fully painted scenes reminiscent more of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant than any comic books of the day. The dust jacket states “over 300 full-color illustrations”, promoting this work to book readers in general and not comic collectors.
In its 9.25×12.5″ glory Empire was offered as a softcover, a hardcover and a limited signed hardcover edition. It appears one had to order the limited edition directly from Berkley Books for $24.95. I was fortunate to pick up the limited signed edition on eBay in 2003 for #39.95. Currently signed editions go for around $75; all seem to have some dust jacket wear. The interior pages are thick stock but the dust jacket is a thin paper that doesn’t seem to stand up to the test of time.
No illustrated signature plate, just this page indicating 1500 copies and the signatures of the creators.
Empire is an important work as the first visual novel and true graphic novel, making it a must have for all.
Berkley / Putnam, 1978, ISBN 399-12245-1 (hardcover)
First published at Comic Book Daily.