Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Empowered: The title is getting more apt

Elsewhere: I reviewed Destroyer #5 over at Comics Bulletin.

Links: Check out this cool Superman puzzle game from way back when, featuring art by Jack Kirby. Sweet.

I generally don't care about Conan the Barbarian, but this fan strip by Paul Maybury is pretty cool.

And: The latest episode of Advanced Common Sense with Tucker Stone is hilarious. Hilarious, I say! Also, my request for the outtakes from the last episode was apparently honored, and I didn't even realize it. Man, that bit at the end still cracks me up.

Empowered, volume 5
By Adam Warren

I don't know how Adam Warren does it, but his self-described "sexy superhero comedy" series seems to get better with every volume, deepening the characters and developing the world, and entertaining the hell out of readers while doing it. It's pretty fascinating how subtly he's been able to create such rich characters and relationships, probably because he covers all that work with layer upon layer of goofy jokes, technobabble, kinetic action, cool sci-fi ideas, cheesecake, frank sexual discussion, and continued worldbuilding. But as enjoyable as all that is, the real pleasure is that foundation of character that everything is built on, and it's what makes the whole series so strong.

This volume sees our titular (sorry, I can't help it) heroine becoming more and more confident in her abilities, which is immensely gratifying after so many angst-filled stories in the previous four volumes. As much as Warren enjoyed humiliating her in the past, the once-inescapable bondage has almost completely disappeared by this point, with only one chapter thrown in, almost as an obligatory conceit. But Warren even works it into the volume's overarching plot, rather than just throwing in a humorous one-off experience. No, the bondage scenes are decreasing, but Warren's obsession with sex is still going strong. As with the last couple volumes, a lengthy chapter here sees secondary characters Ninjette and the "caged demonwolf" having a detailed discussion about Emp and Thugboy getting it on, presumably as a way to further a plot about Ninjette being attracted to Thugboy (and maybe Emp as well), but really because Warren enjoys exploring his characters carnality. At least he makes it funny, through the demonwolf's nonstop alliterative, pompous speechifying:

Luckily, that sort of thing is over with quickly, leaving plenty of room for the main plot of the volume, which sees some pretty major events unfold, and Emp continue to discover untapped reserves of determination and resourcefulness, even discovering new abilities like being able to survive in a vacuum. She also gains a new confidant in Mindfuck, the telepathic (and empathetic) space station resident introduced last volume. Mindfuck is a great character, frank with people and unwilling to put up with Emp's "poor me" attitude, even seeing redeeming qualities in Emp's nemesis, Sistah Spooky (her ex-lover). She comes with a tragic backstory, provides hints at possible upcoming plots, and facilitates what might be a new beginning to the two teammates' relationship. One chapter sees some especially good storytelling, detailing the history of Spooky and Mindfuck's relationship in a short stretch that sees a leap forward in time with each page as they go from meeting, to falling in love, to breaking up. It's surprisingly touching, especially in its fast-forward style.

But the final stretch of the volume is where the real greatness kicks in, as the Superhomeys decide to finally go after Willy Pete, the nasty rapist supervillain who Thugboy once wronged and has been terrified of ever since, worried that Emp is going to bear the brunt of his flame-based villainy. The heroes don't really take him seriously though, so there's nothing close to a resolution with that plot here. Instead, the fight leads to a major tragedy, with several heroes dying and Emp and Mindfuck stranded on the rapidly-disintegrating space station. It's nail-bitingly tense as we watch and hope desperately that they'll be able to make it out okay, with Warren really selling the possibility of major harm and even death:

Emp spends the entire scene talking to herself, doing her best to reassure herself by making dumb jokes or one-liners even though nobody can hear them, and desperately trying to make herself believe that she is heroic enough to save the both. It's astonishing how much Warren makes us want her to make it, and the end result hits like a slap in the face. It's just so well done, the kind of thing that makes five volumes worth of characterization work to put readers right in the character's head, feeling every moment like we're there right alongside her.

Yes, this is absolutely breathtaking work, and I haven't even mentioned the always-excellent artwork, which fills pages to the brim with detail, movement, expression, and humor. Warren is at the top of his game here, and the wait until the next volume is going to be excruciating.