|Empowered vol. 2
By Adam Warren
Dark Horse – Softcover, $14.95
ADAM WARREN IS BACK with his “sexy superhero comedy” focusing on a young heroine whose skin-tight costume grants her both superpowers and body issues, and who too often finds herself bound and gagged when the costume gets torn and becomes useless. Back when I originally did my review of Empowered vol. 1, I wrote that the development from the first half to the second made me very optimistic about vol. 2. When it came out, I was happy to find that the second book mostly lives up to that promise. Explaining the high concept out of the way, the trend continues toward more character-driven stories, and the book has several laugh-out-loud moments.
Empowered vol. 2 sees Warren settling comfortably into the book’s formula. About half of the action now takes place at Empowered’s home, where Thugboy, Ninjette and the Caged Demonwolf are perennial visitors, giving the book a sitcom-y vibe. True to its manga form, the second book is still setting up the characters, giving each a few moments, including a chapter each focusing on Thugboy and Ninjette. But book two also starts more seriously planting the seeds for larger stories down the road, introducing a threat from Ninjette’s past and continuing the thread of Thugboy’s fears his own past will catch up with him, plus the first hints of what may be the Demonwolf’s plan to divide and conquer within the apartment.
Like the first installment, Empowered vol. 2 begins with a few shorter gag stories, though they’re now considerably longer than the three- and four-page strips that began the first book. Keeping the feel a little different from last time, many of the gags tend more toward strange supervillain personalities than the repeated sexual humiliations of the first book. Which is not to say that Warren doesn’t take the opportunity to embarrass his lead, but this time around it’s usually in form of things like drooling after being knocked out in a fight or jokes about her general lameness. The one major exception is the introduction of a new female villain, whose motives seem to vary between the humiliation of and desire for Empowered.
The biggest surprise this time around is how quickly the sight of Empowered in her tattered supersuit becomes commonplace to the point that it’s barely noticeable. One could argue that this mirrors the way readers have come to accept over-sexualized images of women in superhero comics to the point that they seem a natural aspect of the genre. However, I’m preferring to interpret it in this case as meaning that, while the racier aspects of Empowered are used as a come-on, they are not all that the book has going for it.
Considering the subject matter, Empowered is actually very cute and sweet. Despite coming shrink-wrapped, the book avoids anything too explicit in order to continue treading that line between cute and sexy. A big part of this is the pencilled artwork; no matter how bawdy the content gets, the style retains the innocence of notebook sketches (Warren talks proudly of the cheapness of the copy paper on which he draws Empowered). The art itself is still very pretty. Warren’s pencils are richly detailed and the characters, while all cute, are unique, with expressive faces and individual body language.
In fact, many of Warren’s decisions throughout the book cleverly present racy material in an innocent fashion. For example, book two sees a greater frequency of an old Warren favorite: blacking out profanity with censor bars rather than replacing them with typographical symbols. Because they strike me as more self-aware (anyone buying Empowered knows what words Warren is hiding, and the rectangular areas of black definitely draw attention to themselves), the censored bars are funnier, especially when they start to pile up on a page.
Of course, Warren’s biggest subversion is taking all of this and using it to create a story actually based on characters and jokes that come from personality at least as often as from his main gimmick. The middle part of the volume is largely taken up with a longer story that spans several chapters, advancing the relationships of all the main characters and opening the door to potential future conflicts between them. After a few more short stories, the final chapter is a surprisingly tender story revealing a little more of Empowered’s backstory and her success in actually saving a life, with an ending that somehow manages to be simultaneously sad, triumphant, pathetic and heartwarming, quite a feat.
My main complaint at this point is that, after 450 pages, I’m ready for some of the subplot hints to start paying off. In a recent Newsarama interview, Warren seems to be promising just that in volumes three and four, so I’ll be looking forward to those next year.