By Adam Warren
Dark Horse Comics – softcover, $14.95
Adam Warren is known for his manga-influenced art style, drawing cute girls, bringing a techie flavor to his stories, and being very, very rudely funny. Empowered has all of these qualities, some even more than usual.
Empowered is the story of a young heroine who gets her superpowers from her skintight, incredibly revealing supersuit. It doesn’t work if it’s covered by something like a cape and it displays every detail of anything underneath it, say underwear or pubic hair, so she embarrassingly has to go without all of these things. As you might imagine, this does wonders for someone with body issues (at one point she is rejected by a harem-building alien because her butt is too big). To make matters worse, the costume rips easily and loses more of its power the more torn up it becomes. Not surprising, being tied up and nearly naked is something of a recurring theme.
Sounds pretty crass, and I think Warren would happily admit that it is. Empowered grew out of a series of one- and two-page stories he drew in response to the many requests he got for sketches from people who wanted images like those described above as unironic keepsakes. Over time, the characters developed more personality and depth. Reading through the entire 250 page book is the experience of seeing that development from gag to real series across the 36 stories presented inside.
The art is also notable for being reproduced directly from Warren’s pencils, which are very detailed and richly textured. The result is both beautiful and appropriate to the work, lending it an innocent, sketchbook quality that heightens the humor and playfulness of the material. The page borders and gutters are all black, which makes the pencils and textures pop, and are nicely contrasted by the white-backgrounded chapter headings.
The stories start out very short, with nearly as many pages devoted to the cute and funny chapter head pages as to the stories themselves. These are more or less what you’d expect: silly excuses to get the blond Empowered (her superhero name – I don’t think she gets a real name in this volume) tied up and her costume in pieces, generally with a villain or other hero there to point and laugh. Just when the jokes threaten to get a bit too one-note, Warren starts introducing the supporting cast. Once Thugboy, Ninjette and Demonwolf (all villains now reformed to various degrees) show up, their interaction with Empowered starts to really make the book.
At this point, the stories start to get longer, now that they’re character-based rather than gag-based. Which is not to say that the gags go away; some of the best jokes in the book involve things like Thugboy showing the girls his old henchmen uniforms and the secret origins of Empowered’s team, the Superhomeys. Interestingly, about halfway through the book, the tattered supersuit shows up less and less, as Empowered and Thugboy’s rocky relationship and the mysteries of men and women start to take over. Warren doesn’t abandon the revealing outfit and heroine-in-distress gags, continuing to use them to satirize things like slash fiction, but balances them with other kinds of jokes and filling in the characters’ backstories.
On the question of whether Empowered is simply titillating objectification or if it’s actually, well, empowering, it seems to depend on which of the stories you’re reading at the moment. It’s a fine line to tread, and Warren is on both sides at different times. It’s evident that Warren’s aware of the line and has fun with testing and questioning the concept of objectification. He achieves this both through Empowered’s own complaints (including her fourth-wall breaking chapter headings, in one of which she implores the reader to not look at her naked butt in the following story) and his ability to poke fun at the disparity between the portrayal of men and women in superhero comics, as when a man steals Empowered’s suit and finds it just as revealing on him (though a double standard is revealed here, since he’s fat and minimally endowed compared to the fit and buxom Empowered, allowing his exposure to be purely comedic and not at all sexy like hers).
It seems to me like you have to test the line a bit to find out exactly where it is, and it looks like that’s what Warren is doing in Empowered. Over 250 pages, he finds it a lot more often than not. Of course, there’s no denying the taboo pleasure in occasionally jumping over the line for the hell of it, and Warren definitely does that, too, but has the sense to pull back at the right moment. I’ll be looking forward to volume two, which promises to reveal several more embarrassments related to the suit and, if it’s anything like volume one, will have more to say than just that.