|Empowered vol. 3
By Adam Warren
Dark Horse Comics – softcover, $14.95
KINKY SEXUALITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN a subtext of female superheroes, ever since the bondage-happy William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, who captures villains and compels them to tell the truth with her magic lasso (Marston also invented the polygraph). Even more noteworthy, she originally lost her superpowers whenever she herself was bound. In the ensuing decades, the trend has been toward ever skimpier costumes and the use of sexual assault and rape as a recurrent plot device. With Empowered, Adam Warren has never pretended to be producing a nuanced critique of the history of superkink, but his light touch and innocent-looking artwork made volumes one and two a fun and surprisingly sensitive exercise in finding the line between satire and indulgence and skipping merrily from side to side, hitting a happy medium more often than not. Disappointingly, in Empowered vol. 3 it looks like Warren has taken a misstep.
Warren seems very comfortable with his Empowered formula by now, and he apparently expects readers are, too. The premise remains the same: the eponymous superheroine still gets her powers and her body dysmorphia from her skintight “hypermembrane,” and it still has the nasty little flaws of leaving nothing to the imagination and no longer working once torn. Empowered is repeatedly overmatched by the villains she faces, who inevitably bind and gag her before she escapes through some combination of luck, fast-talking and the villains’ incompetence.
So familiar are we with this by now that Warren begins many of the stories with the costume already torn either from from an ongoing battle or the aftermath of one. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what’s happened to it. Others end as the heroine is captured and bound, and move on to the next story under the assumption that we understand she’ll escape somehow. One is told by another character after the fact, though he never gets to the part where she overcomes the villain, trailing off with her tied to a chair without her power-granting costume.
All of this mirrors the overall flavor of Empowered vol. 3 as an in-between volume, tying up a few loose ends and introducing some new threads for later, though compared to the last book there’s little character development. It’s definitely not a place to start reading the series. It’s the most action-packed volume, but strangely that action barely involves Empowered at all, as Ninjette (Empowered’s far more competent best friend) faces her clan in the abrupt climax to her subplot. Meanwhile, Thugboy’s fear of his past catching up to him and putting Empowered in danger is teased again. The cast is reduced to the principals and the comedy relief segment of the Superhomeys, the straight man characters largely missing in action.
Some of the material feels more like filler than in previous volumes. The bondage strips and the character-based strips are increasingly distinct, with less crossover between the two, and some of the bondage strips are as long as the character-based ones. These longer bondage stories get tired and some jokes overstay their welcome, becoming harder to laugh at next to the imagery they accompany. It’s especially galling with all of the hints about things to come, which these stories are preventing us from getting to.
As for the tone of the material, ending stories with Empowered’s capture rather than her eventual victory makes her seem like more of a victim than she has in previous volumes. So do the many stories in which Empowered suffers not earlier volumes’ general humiliation of being “lame,” but more specific sexual degradation at the hands of both heroes and villains, as in one story where she undergoes what is essentially sexual assault, and another in which her male teammates in the Superhomeys masturbate to live video of her plight rather than assist her. Considering the self-awareness of books one and two, these jokes are surprisingly absent much commentary beyond the vague sense that “it sure is funny when men harass women.” It’s much creepier than earlier installments.
This is not to say that I didn’t get anything out of the new volume. The art, shot directly from Warren’s lush pencils, is still a joy to look at the majority of the time and Warren keeps getting better at depicting depth and texture in pencil, though the pencilled word balloons and lettering look awkward next to the two inked stories. In the second of those inked stories, inked panels are interspersed with the standard pencilled panels, creating a dynamic look, though in the first a high-contrast style saps a lot of the innocence from the work, making for a more genuinely disturbing read than the rest of the book.
As usual, the highlights are the character-driven stories, such as Empowered’s attempt to disprove her friends’ assertion that she is a lightweight when it comes to drinking and the revelation of Ninjette’s own insecurities, Thugboy’s rundown of Empowered’s sleeping habits, and an Emp and Ninjette training romp. Also fun are Warren’s jabs at fanfiction––Major Havok’s self-written fanfiction is ridiculed for missing the homoerotic subtext that his fans think make him interesting––and yaoi (gay romance manga), which has spot-on art and gets a hilariously ego-inflating reaction from the men of the Superhomeys. Warren still finds amusing ways to comment on objectification and comic book decency, as when the caged Demonwolf exclaims of Empowered, “Would that thine eyes could have beheld the beauty of her rump most toothsome!” and the caption in which he says so is the thing covering that same “rump.” And I enjoy a lot of the weirder small details that go unexplained, like a villain whose mask is a skull with a maple leaf––I can’t help but wonder what his name and theme are.
Bottom line, Empowered vol. 3 has some of the usual great moments, but doesn’t live up to the first two volumes. If you enjoyed the others, there are things to like about this one, but there are also several failures, some of which are more than a little disturbing. If you haven’t read Empowered before, this is not the place to start, both because of the relative quality and the feeling of coming in in the middle. Hopefully the next book will find Warren back on track.