From the stack: Empowered

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.

4 Responses to From the stack: Empowered

  1. Huff says:

    Speak of the devil. Good, insightful review on the book’s seemingly bizarre appeals. I’ll admit going into it a bit biased, being a big fan of Warren’s takes on the Dirty Pair and his Gen 13 minis (plus anyone crazy enough to run with an idea like that has to be awesome) but I was surprised at how refined his craft was. I think one reviewer talked about the book being one of the few examples of American and Japanese sensibilities blending together perfectly. It lacks the insanity of some of his earlier stuff and the first fourth is a little weak compared with the rest of the book, but the later part of the book is more than enough to make up for it.

  2. […] David Welsh looks at Adam Warren’s superhero satire, Empowered. […]

  3. davidpwelsh says:

    I think one reviewer talked about the book being one of the few examples of American and Japanese sensibilities blending together perfectly.

    Rob Vollmar mentioned that in his review for Comics Worth Reading. I think from my perspective that the fusion was so effective that it became a third, independent thing that was entirely Warren’s, which is really exciting to see.

  4. […] Fortunately, my pick of the week is a wonderful piece of satire that will surely cleanse the palate. It’s the third volume of Adam Warren’s racy, funny Empowered (Dark Horse). For those of you just tuning in, a young super-heroine gets by with a little help from her friends, in spite of a singularly unreliable costume and the sexist contempt of just about everyone else in her line of work. Here’s my review of the first volume. […]

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