If you’ve read either of the first two volumes of Adam Warren’s Empowered (Dark Horse), you know that the series was born from commission work that Warren did for fans with what one might delicately refer to as “specialized interests.” Early in the third volume is a story more directly inspired by those pieces. It struck me as a misstep in an otherwise really effective series.

(Spoilers after the jump.)

In the introduction to the story, the title character warily notes the difference in style. Instead of the loose, friendly pencils used in the rest of the book, it’s “inked with markers, for that chiaroscuro-riffic kinda look.” Empowered is kidnapped by thugs, used as a bet in a poker game, is discarded, and later breaks down while having car sex with her boyfriend, sobbing and begging for affirmation.

It’s creepy as hell, visually and tonally antithetical to just about everything else in the book. Or maybe “antithetical” is the wrong word. It’s the rest of the book stripped of satirical wit and generosity of spirit, and I can take a stab at what the point might be. “This is what you’re laughing at when you get right down to it… humiliation and suffering.”

Warren doesn’t waste pages, so the story works on those terms. But wow, it sure leaves an aftertaste. It’s like brushing your teeth, then drinking orange juice. I can’t really say I enjoyed the return to business as usual – fumbling heroics, loyal friend, loving boyfriend – after that early screed.

3 Responses to Powerless

  1. KDBryan says:

    This really is a dark, disturbing portion of the book. My only explanation for it is to theorize that it only exists so as to create contrast with the very end of the book.

    The story you’re discussing makes Emp feel dehumanized by making her into a nigh-on literal object – a marker in a poker game, surrounded by men who devalue and ridicule her. Her response is to cling to her lover and find value solely in his opinion of her – all of which is Not healthy, Not fun and most definitely Not funny.

    The end of the book, however, is also a dark tale, full of serious murder, mayhem and death. The difference is that the final story presents Emp as saving her best friend with all the power she can wield – which turns out to be quite a considerable amount. More importantly, Emp is called by her real name for the first time, making her into a fully realized person and not “Empowered” the caricature. In the end, Elissa is shown carrying and supporting another woman while Thugboy follows her lead. This story is also Not Funny but, unlike the first tale, it is extremely Healthy and it is Fun (in a Kill Bill sort of way).

    But does the contrast work? Not as well as I would like. I thought the revelation that the suit itself is sentient – perhaps explaining Emp’s subsequent inability to remember the grand, live-saving attack she performs – takes the wind out of the “literal empowerment” sequence. With the end story becoming less empowering to Emp, I felt the first story’s disturbing nature was only partially negated.

    I’ll keep reading Empowered because it’s an interesting, well-written and often hilarious read. It’s a book that, quite frankly, depicts self-esteem and relationship issues with more verisimilitude than half the superheroine comics out there. I still have high hopes that this third volume is just a well-intentioned misstep and that we will get to see Emp mature more and learn to love herself for her own sake as the story progresses.

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    That’s a much better analysis than I offered, and I think your theory is very persuasively argued. I can honestly say it never would have occurred to me, but I was really unpleasantly shaken by that early chapter. I’m certainly going to stick with the book as well, because I’m assuming that there will be enough time between this volume and the next for the aftertaste to fade.

  3. KDBryan says:

    Thank you for the compliments. You’ve inspired me to expand my thoughts on Empowered over at my blog and I’ve linked back to this discussion as the source of my inspiration. It’s nice to see that people give Adam Warren thoughtful criticism as opposed to “OMG Teh ANIME style SUXXORS!”.

    FWIW, the cover and plot summary of the 4th volume actively suggest that Empowered will be receiving recognition from the meta-human community and coming more into her own, so I’m very confident that the series will only get better. Plus, there’s going to be a version of Batman that’s a man dressed as a French Maid – which is simply hilarious and a reminder that I started reading this book partly because it can be so damn funny.

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