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Adam Warren’s ‘Empowered’ Shatters Superhero Comics Conventions Of Storytelling, Sexuality And Representation


Adam Warren’s
Empowered is one of the best superhero comics being made today. Sometimes I think Empowered might end up being one of the greatest superhero comics ever. The elements are all there: engaging characters, a plot that springs from them organically, an inventive setting, and scads of emotion. Its parodical beginnings — based in the jokey premise of superpowered woman Empowered de-powering as her delicate, stereotypically skintight super suit gets shredded in battle — has transitioned smoothly into a darker present, and it’s an evolution that’s been met with little in the way of fan whining for “the good old days.” Yes, Empowered is funny, surprising, moving, and original.

And it’s softcore.

Shrinkwrapped, bondage-based, can’t-read-it-on-the-bus softcore.


You can imagine what it’s like to recommend Empowered to other people. Especially when you’re someone who talks a lot (a lot) about how tired you are of sexy superheroines in sexy costumes being put in sexy situations. Because let me tell you right now, that takes up a lot of Empowered’s eight-volume Dark Horse Comics run. Super-geniuses and hapless goons alike whip out the rope and duct tape upon capturing our eponymous heroine, and hundreds of panels are devoted to her struggling and jiggling near-naked form. The first few volumes especially offer platter upon platter of cheesecake — to the point where, in-story, Emp (as she is known) is derided by other characters as villain “shoulder candy” and a useless “bondage magnet”.

So how can it be that I discovered Empowered on scans_daily, an old Livejournal hive of feminist-minded comics discussion, where it was all but universally loved? How can it be that I, a young feminist woman fed up with sexist superhero tropes, love Empowered? And not just love it, but laud it for its female-dominated narrative?

 

 

Firstly, there’s the Empowered universe itself. Warren explores a contemporary world’s reaction to superheroes in surprisingly nuanced ways, ranging from the silly — “Superheroic Fail” blogs (think TMZ for capes) —  to phenomenons like anti-cape guerrilla warfare. This is a world in which Emp has a degree in “Suprahuman Studies”, attends all-hero awards shows, and cosplays as herself for extra scratch at birthday parties and mall openings.

But there’s more narrative weight to Empowered than the funny. The latest volume hinted at something of a cosmology for the Empverse, with intergalactic frenemies and even a sort of afterlife.

Additionally, Warren has never shied away from darker subjects like family abuse and sexual violence, but nor does he wallow in them. Which is good, because Empowered’s sillier excesses are always great fun: superpowers gained from alien STDs, white Japanophile ninja clans, a dark crusader who metes out vengeance with a feather duster as “the goddamn Maidman”.

 

 

Empowered’s an easy world to get lost in, brimming with the sort of symbolic, emotional excess superhero comics are meant to excel at. Obviously, Warren possesses an uncommon gift for physical expression and fashion, making his characters the real draw (apologies for the Empowered-worthy pun). Emp herself is a hero’s hero, someone who goes out everyday knowing that she’ll probably face humiliation at the hands of Glue Gun Gil or the Pink Elephant, but does it anyway because, damn it, that’s who she is.

Emp reminds me a lot of the shoujo manga heroines of my youth: honest, kindhearted, a little given to tears. She drools over yaoi doujinshi, sleeps with a stuffed sock monkey, and needs her boyfriend to reassure her when she feels like “a h-hideous beast!” She is, frankly, girly in personality, in a way that most comic creators — especially the male ones — steer clear of (likely out of fear of appearing sexist as much as anything else). Yeah, Emp’s emotional, perhaps what a certain type of jackass might even call “hysterical”. But Warren depicts her with warmth and respect, writing her as neither an eternally perfect alpha girl, nor as a simpering damsel. A charming heroine emerges, one whose triumphs, tempered in doubt, mockery, and shame, are all the more keenly felt.

 

 

But Emp is just one of an ever expanding cast of convention-shattering characters. It’s the best kind of ensemble, ranging from lurking threats in the distance to delightfully painful exercises in puns (Plutonium Blonde! Stigmata Hari!).

Thugboy, Emp’s boyfriend, has grown from a charming lug to a compassionate hero struggling with a violent, anti-cape gureilla past. More quietly, Thugboy upsets a lot of tried comic tropes: that Asian men can’t be heroic or desirable, that there is no middle ground between pro and anti-cape attitudes, and that superhero relationships can only ping-pong between perfect happiness and overwrought drama. Emp and Thugboy fight, sure, but they deal with it like actual people do — they try to learn from it and work to support each other more fully. With Pete and MJ still in their contrived limbo, Emp and Thugboy are easily my favorite superhero romance going, and in general, one of the most thoughtful couples in comics.

 

 

Interestingly, Warren has toned down Emp’s primacy within the narrative over the course of the last three volumes, to the point where Empowered book 7 might have been called Ninjette, and volume 8 Sistah Spooky. And it’s led to some of the best work Warren has ever done.

Ninjette and Spooky began as a hard-drinking good-time gal and a stone-cold alpha bitch, respectively; the sidekick and the antagonist. In volume 7, Ninjette struggles with her alcoholism, the family she’s worked so hard to disown, her deepest insecurities, and her bedrock belief that she, unlike Emp, is “not a good girl”. As one of the most violent characters in the saga, Ninjette’s moments of tenderness are stark and affecting: drunkenly recounting her father’s abuse, defending Emp against her bullying peers in the superhero community, snuggling with her friend in bed after a harrowing encounter with her past. In volume 8, we find the supernatural villain Spooky literally storming the gates of Hell to rescue Mindf*ck, the girl she loved in secret, and the girl condemned to burn eternally for loving her back.

 

 

Spooky is talented and beautiful, but insecure, and having grown up the geeky black girl in a school of “icy blonde hotness,” she hates the bubbly, towheaded Emp with a fierceness. But Empowered volume 8 is Spooky’s story, and it’s perhaps the most emotionally affecting volume to date. Her relationship to Mindf*ck (perhaps the best-named telepath in comics history) simmered in the background of the previous four volumes, only to suddenly overtake the narrative, and, honestly, I got about as close to crying as I ever do. I won’t tell you at what moment, but a bondage comic about superheroes named “Sistah Spooky”, “Ninjette”, “Mindf*ck” and “Empowered” made me mistier than anything Marvel or DC put out in years (unless you count rage-tears).

That’s the funny thing about Empowered. On account of its longevity – Warren and Dark Horse launched the title in 2007 — it’s very quietly, almost secretly, become one of the most outstanding American adventure comics published. It’s an original superhero tale that doesn’t feel labored-over, or too studied, or Deconstructionist with a capital-D. It revolves around three female characters who sidestep the usual dumb tropes and pitfalls and are more consistent and fully-realized than more popular heroines with decades of backstory. Their emotions, conflicts, relationships, and triumphs truly drive the narrative — the uniquely female narrative. Speaking for decades of damsels throughout genre fiction, Emp struggles against a world that tells her she’s a chubby failure, an idiot ditz, worthless as anything but BDSM bait. Ninjette is fleeing the family that would have her be their prize brood mare. Sistah Spooky is black and loves women and lives in a world that loves neither quality.

 

 

As the industry caterwauls and fidgets and only just begins to eye the idea of diverse storytelling with its most visible icons, Adam Warren is over at Dark Horse putting everyone else to shame with a comic that began as a series of bondage sketches. This is the guy who made Dirty Pair.

I recommend Empowered to everyone. I recommend it to my casually interested friends, my hardcore fan friends, my feminist friends, and even the friends who give superhero universes a wide berth. My copies of the series have spent more time on other people’s coffee tables than my own. But I would recommend it to aspiring superhero creators above all, and to those already within the industry.

A good story can grow anywhere.

Silliness can exist beside pathos.

Anyone can write interesting women, and interesting women can exist in every context.

Adam Warren has taken away your excuses.

 

 

Adam Warren’s Empowered is available in eight paperback volumes or two enormous hardcover omnibuses. They’re for sale in finer comics shops, Amazon, or digitally from Dark Horse Comics.

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