From the stack: Empowered

April 15, 2007

Like its titular heroine, Adam Warren’s Empowered (Dark Horse) is much more than the sum of its often lurid parts. It’s consistently funny, and the comedy comes in a variety of flavors, from raucously crude to sly and sweet. It’s oddly moving, building genuine warmth and sympathy for its hapless heroine as the short chapters progress. And it’s unquestionably subversive, parading the worst kinds of super-heroine tropes for ridicule, but doing so without any of the lazy viciousness that sometimes characterizes those entertainments.

That the stories were born of spandex bondage pin-ups drawn on commission only serves to make me like it more, which must qualify as some kind of miracle. But I’m getting accustomed to Warren’s ability to take material I might otherwise find tiresome or distasteful and turning it into something endearing and compelling.

Take Livewires: Clockwork Thugs, Yo (Marvel). Under normal circumstances, a tale of ultra-violent, hipster teen mechas would leave me as cold as river rock. But Warren (ably assisted by artist Rick Mays) managed to execute those unpromising, overused elements and infuse them with an irresistible amount of personality. He does the same thing here, overcoming even more substantial hurdles.

For Empowered, humiliation is part and parcel of the super-heroic experience. Her costume is a lethal mix of titillation and unreliability, hugging every curve when it isn’t being shredded by the slightest outside influence. Even in those rare moments when it’s intact, it doesn’t work very well, and her adventures often end with her bound and gagged with a suggestiveness that no degree of satirical intent can mitigate.

She’d be a moron or a masochist if she didn’t let it get her down, and she’s neither. If Warren isn’t above sprinkling the pages with lovingly rendered sketches of a nearly naked, trussed-up woman, he isn’t given to letting them pass without comment either. Empowered’s harried frustration and resolute good intentions manage to balance her haplessness, softening the prurient material just enough to make me willing to overlook it. I have no idea if that will be the effect for every reader, and I have to admit that it required an active decision on my part. Mileage will obviously vary.

The deciding factor for me is that, while Empowered’s costumed life is a nightmare of marginalization, her real life is pretty fabulous. She’s got a terrific boyfriend, a reformed super-villain minion, to provide limitless moral support and tons of great sex. She’s got a best friend who can really commiserate on the pitfalls of the super-heroic lifestyle. And while her costumed successes are few, it’s got to be a pick-me-up to have an imprisoned destroyer of worlds sitting on the coffee table, even if he is given to grandiose pronouncements and has terrible taste in television.

If most super-heroes are hopeless neurotics who are only truly alive when in power drag, Empowered is a happy counter-example. Everyday life gives her the strength to put up with the indignities endemic to her calling. Maybe it should be depressing that the idea seems so fresh and novel, but Warren makes it too much fun to dwell on the dark side.