Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Empowered: That's how I feel after reading this volume

Empowered, volume 7
By Adam Warren
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A common complaint about modern superhero comics is their overbearing tendency to shoehorn  "maturity" into what is essentially a children's genre, usually by filling stories with graphic violence and hints at sex, mostly in the form of skimpy costumes for female characters (but not men, since that might inspire icky feelings in the overwhelmingly male readership). The stunted emotional growth of most superhero creators and fans has led to a bizarrely insular, ever-shrinking readership (aging men, for the most part) who can't bear to move beyond the genre they loved in their youth, but want that genre to "grow up" with them, or at least attempt to be as "mature" as the gruesome police procedurals that litter the television landscape. It's gotten to the point where one can pretty much write off the entire genre, sacrificing the rare quality work that appears like pearls that aren't worth searching for among the rest of the swine.

So if I'm so down on the genre as a whole, why do I like Adam Warren's Empowered so much? It's a superhero comic that traffics in exactly those elements, filling its pages with sex and violence, and pandering to the reader with plots manufactured expressly for the purpose of reducing the eponymous heroine to powerlessness and skimpy-costumed titillation. The difference is that Warren isn't just rehashing old plots and characters with added "adult" content, but crafting new stories and constantly developing characters that he created, always moving his series forward and working to give readers more understanding of the characters as realistic, believable people, no matter how mannered their dialogue or crazily action-packed their personal battles. And what's more, the sex isn't included as a snickering attempt at arousal, but as a serious depiction of the issues that people face in a real relationship, and the violence is shocking and permanent, something that hits people hard and affects them deeply, not allowing for lighthearted wisecracks and easy resurrections, but scarring psyches and haunting the subconscious of all involved.

With this volume, Warren adds another tool to his arsenal, that of non-chronological storytelling. The opening chapter consists of a series of non-sequitur panels that appear to flash forward to events not yet seen, sans context, presented as the outside-of-time "memories" of the Caged Demonwolf character, an omnipotent cosmic fiend who has spent almost the entirety of the series trapped in a bondage device on the main character's coffee table, usually providing a belligerent running commentary on whatever the other characters are experiencing (especially their sex lives). This scene is kind of shocking, since it gives several hints at tragic events to come, but it is only a precursor to the storytelling methods used in the rest of the volume, which seems to start right at the climax of the plot, with Ninjette, the main character's best friend, a rogue ninja trying to escape the conflicts of her murderous clan, apparently captured by a group of masked ninjas who intend to either murder her or sell her back to her own clan, which has plans that are just as gruesome. And then, over the course of the rest of the volume, Warren jumps around in time, showing what happened before and after the moment of Ninjette's capture, then bouncing around the series' timeline at will, sometimes catching up on what has happened with Empowered and her friends after the events of the previous volume, then leaping to Emp and 'Jette's training sessions, hopping to scenes of Emp discussing her relationship with her boyfriend Thugboy, and even going back to Emp's early days as a superheroine and Ninjette's early ninja exploits and the beginnings of her rebellion against her clan. Warren even regularly presents "counter-factual scenarios" which seem to depict characters taking actions that are irreversible, usually by revealing information that would change how others view them, then revealing that they were just imagining saying or doing these unthinkable things, yet tantalizingly giving us a glimpse into a future in which these secrets come out. It's bravura storytelling, completely confident that readers can keep up, and still wowing with moments of humor, crazy sci-fi concepts, and heart-stopping action.

In fact, the ninja fight that we see play out in fits and starts over the course of the volume is one of the most exciting and well-choreographed set-pieces that Warren has delivered to date, as well as probably the bloodiest. Ninjette's attackers all wear weird masks that resemble old Japanese artwork, animals, or creepy demons and monsters, which makes their ruthless actions and taunting dialogue much more disturbing, giving them a faceless, expressionless inscrutability that stands in contrast to the barely-surviving Ninjette. This even carries over to Ninjette's ally, a clan-mate known as "Fucking Oyuki-chan" who is usually depicted sporting wide, emotionless eyes and an unmoving mouth, a terrifying murder-machine of the sort that Ninjette is trying to escape, but also a reminder of her own murderous past.

That struggle to escape and atone for her sins is what defines Ninjette's character in this volume, and Warren continues to break hearts as he exposes the depths of her self-loathing, demonstrating her desperate scrabble to keep from sinking into the darkness of despair, a fight that is only barely succeeding due to the love and support of her friends. Surprisingly, the most affecting moment of the volume comes when she opens up to the Caged Demonwolf, who, for what I think is the only time in the series, drops his loud, obnoxious, Yoda-speaking persona and comes as close as he can to declaring his love for her, as much as an immortal, bodiless being can express emotion toward an ever-decaying being with a ridiculously short lifespan. It's a lovely, poetic, emotional scene, as he describes seeing her outside of time, all his visions of her at different moments combining into a beautiful whole, one that he will remember throughout eternity.

That's what is so great about this series: Warren takes the basic building blocks of superheroes and uses them to craft a vision that is singularly his, full of wild ideas and rousing action, but also building characters that seem much more real than the trademark-holders of "mainstream" superhero comics, forming relationships that live and breathe, and finding humor in goofy costumes and silly code-names, but also in the frankness of human sexuality and often embarrassing interpersonal relationships. He's not afraid to follow through on the implications of his ideas, and he approaches the world he created as a whole ecosystem with far-reaching implications and consequences to actions both large and small. It's exciting to watch him continue to build and refine this complex milieu, while playing out full, satisfying character arcs that give said milieu a reason to exist and provide us with compelling drama. There's really nothing like this in current comics, and if all other superhero comics were to suddenly disappear, as long as Empowered sticks around, the genre will deserve to continue existing.

Bonus: The Caged Demonwolf's rendition of "Baby Got Back":


  1. With "Astro City", "ps238" and "Dynamo5" on long-term hiatuses, "Empowered" is not only my favorite print comics, but is arguably the best still ongoing capes comic period...

  2. Yes, Empowered is one of the best comics ever published. It's a crying shame that it's not better known.