Empowered Volume 1 by Adam Warren, Dark Horse Books, 2007, 239 pages of strip, US$14.95
In which Adam Warren attempts to have his cheesecake and eat it too.
“Empowered” is the heavily-handedly ironic name of a superheroine, whose powers derive from a skin-tight suit. If she wears anything over it, it doesn’t work. If she wears anything under it, her super hero colleagues mock her visible panty-line. The suit shreds easily, and shrinks as she draws on its power. As it gets smaller, her powers decrease, leaving her helpless. Most of the villains she fights seem to carry S&M bondage gear round with them, so she spends much of her time three-quarters naked, tied up and ball-gagged.
Put like that, it sounds like a mere stroke book for superhero fans. But Warren also makes the book a commentary about the pressures on women to conform to impossible images, and about their undervaluation by society.
His main tactic is to make us empathise with, and feel sorry for Empowered. She is desperately insecure and needy. She is convinced that she’s fat. Her few achievements are constantly overlooked and belittled by the other superheroes. On the title pages for each chapter, she directly addresses the reader, trying to capture his sympathies.
Warren cleverly builds on this by depicting himself as a failure with low self-confidence too. He doesn’t like drawing, but can’t get work just as a writer. He had to accept commissions to draw bondage comics for private collectors, from which he developed this book. The chapters are too short. Manga fans think his work is too superheroic. Super hero fans think his work is too manga-esque. And how do we learn of his self-deprecation? Empowered tells us, neatly fusing character and creator.
The artwork also helps to add some distance. Warren is a stylised cartoonist, and he has chosen to emphasise the artificiality of his comic strip by having it reproduced directly from his pencils. A more highly rendered finish, or a more realistic style of drawing, would tip the balance back towards pornography.
There is a little story progression here, as Empowered gains a boyfriend, a drinking buddy, and custody of a caged demonlord. There is also some foreshadowing of the appearance of a major villain is subsequent volumes. But mostly the book builds up a composite picture of Empowered and her social circle through a series of short vignettes. Warren’s storytelling – both writing and page layout – is a lot more straightforward than in his later Dirty Pair stories. In a way, Warren has taken the structure of something like Ghost World and applied it to an S&M superhero comic.
So this is a technically impressive piece of work. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I may just be giving myself an intellectualised excuse to look at dirty pictures. But, hey, is that necessarily a bad thing?