Trying to review a new installment of Adam Warren’s Empowered series (Dark Horse) is exactly like trying to review a new installment of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series (Oni). The fifth volume of Warren’s saga of a (sometimes literally) struggling super-heroine is good in exactly the same ways as the previous four, but with a slightly higher level of poise and complexity. It’s meatier and moodier, but it achieves those effects without sacrificing the core charm and wit of the series.
Basically, a review of the fifth Empowered book would constitute an attempt to get new readers to pick up the first volume of the book. I figure that people who have read the first volume either gave up on the book for its salacious content (which is perfectly fair), stuck around for more of that same content (also dandy), or stuck around like I did for the endearing characters, great jokes, and slowly building subplots. Providing a summary of events of the fifth volume would be meaningless to people who’ve never read the series at all while irritating readers who’ve stuck around and haven’t yet read book five.
All that said, it’s such a terrific book that I can’t pass up the opportunity to sing its praises, even if I’ve sung them so often that you know the lyrics by heart.
What need to know: Empowered, the book, is about Empowered, the heroine, who has the best of intentions and the most unreliable of super-suits. It’s embarrassingly form-fitting and shreds at the slightest provocation, often leaving her at the mercy of bondage-happy opponents. Her fellow super-heroes (an obnoxious and entitled herd) treat her with undisguised contempt, but she keeps trying to make a difference, scoring small victories amidst all of the humiliation. Her greatest sources of comfort and confidence come from her smoking hot, super-supportive boyfriend, a reformed super-villain minion known as Thugboy, and her best friend, the hard-partying, ass-kicking Ninjette. When things get crappy, they’ve got her back.
How the series has evolved: Earlier volumes traded in short, astutely satirical pieces mocking everything from spandex tropes to the bizarre idiosyncrasies of fandom to whatever else crossed Warren’s field of vision as he worked on the comics. As the series has progressed, Warren has incrementally developed all of the characters, revealing their back stories and allowing them and their relationships to evolve. Individual chapters have become longer, and subplots have become more intricate and moved closer to the surface. The level of menace and the feeling of consequence have risen over time, but Warren has maintained the sweetness and sense of humor of the series, which is quite an accomplishment.
Why I like it: Super-hero parody has become a category unto itself, and a lot of examples aren’t any more interesting or insightful than their targets. Empowered succeeds for me because Warren manages to juggle so many elements at once – the pointed satire, the unapologetic (but sly) cheesecake, and the fact that he bothers to tell a proper story with fully realized characters in the process. That last element is what I often find lacking in meta-commentary books; they sometimes read like an Andy Rooney monologue, with lots of trite “Don’t you hate it when…” observations. Empowered is as smart and sharp as you could hope, but it’s also got a lot of heart. It manages to comment on super-hero comics while also actually being one of the better ones you’re likely to read.