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Book review: <i>Empowered</i> by Adam Warren


the cover of the book

If this was soft porn, it would be Buffy the Vampire Layer.

Cover

Illustration by Mr Warren, and the only one in the whole book which shows the characters in colour. Could have been better; conveys little tone, none of the story beyond that it involves superheroes, and the ill-defined expression of the titular character is not a good first note. On the polychromatic conveyor belt of the comic shop shelf, a stylish pencil drawing like those inside might have had more impact.

Plot

“Empowered”, or “Emp”, for short, is the alias of an apprentice superhero. Her powers include super-strength, invulnerability and lethal energy blasts, but unfortunately are all entirely reliant on her “suit”, a body-stocking of the stock comic model. Unfortunately for Emp, her powers are thus diminished whenever she damages the suit, and, as anyone familiar with comics will tell you, super-heroines rarely make it past page three without receiving lavish, flesh-baring tears in their clothing.

Our heroine therefore spends a lot of time being tied up and held hostage half naked, which is, of course, another thing that super-heroines do. On account of her unreliable abilities and frequent kidnappings, Emp is considered a joke by the super-hero fraternity and ostracised by even her own team-mates. However, her luck changes when she meets a handsome young henchman and falls in love. The uneven terrain of their lusty but ill-starred relationship forms the rest of the book.

The good

Artistically, Warren has his technique DOWN. Initially an American manga copyist, he spent years honing the style well beyond most of his U.S. contemporaries, before deliberately forming his own. Equal parts Japanese and Western in style, and more brave than this sounds; for any commercial artist to switch styles requires confidence, but the fad of the manga “look” in superhero comics has passed, yet Warren’s new style is too unique to appeal to purist fans of the manga his books were once shelved beside. But I love it. Despite the fact that this is black and white and, unusually, drawn only in pencil, it’s pin-sharp, sexy, hyper-stylised, and, for what it aims to be, just about flawless.

Credit is also due to Warren for trying something a little different with his writing—he can do the post-modern superhero stuff sitting on his hands, but a relationship story which aims at a certain level of emotional honesty is a lot more challenging. Once the central relationship develops, that’s where the focus stays, though there are a handful of supporting characters—the Galactus-esque demonic entity trapped, impotent, in a belt is my favourite. At it’s best, the storytelling is reminiscent of Joss Whedon (of whom Warren is patently a fan). Verve, cultural references, domestic detail and genre silliness are an eternally fun blend, and Warren has been practising this sort of thing for years. Finally he gets a completely free hand.

The bad

As a fellow comic book noodler I’ve got a loooong way to go before I can out-draw Warren, but I am aware of certain commonalities of the form, and one of those is that an artist given completely free reign can get himself in trouble quick smart. The Empowered character began as a series of pin-up pictures (goodbye, female audience!) and, although this would not necessarily be deducible from the comic alone (partly due to the characteristics of the format—show me a size twelve super-heroine and I’ll show you Amazing Lard Lady), it certainly does have the smell of piecemeal conception; a series of short episodes begin the book, interspersed with new single pages where Emp addresses the reader. I have no problem with this per se, although those chapter breaks where Warren breaks the fourth wall are cringe-worthy to the X-treem and, for the last time, authors, acknowledging this fact does not NULLIFY IT.

The delivery may not suffer for its inauspicious conception or visible wiggle room, but the characters do. In Warren’s hands, Emp is an unapologetically delineated fan-service object, yet he tries to give her both personality and vulnerability, not to mention a realism which is just impossible in this context. Imagine if Willow from Buffy looked like Pamela Anderson and never wore anything less revealing than a coat of paint. Guys you can stop imagining now. Not even Joss Whedon, whose writing knocks Warren’s into a cocked hat, could reference his way out of that one. The art, in short, never lets us stop feeling complicit in whichever fresh humiliation Emp is enduring, which both makes it almost impossible to warm to her insecurity and is somewhat creepy into the bargain.

There are other ways Warren could have played the story, such as to forget the Joss Whedon/Kevin Smith school of writing with all its self-consciously twee pitfalls and pop-culture bollocks, and go for REAL realism, a la Watchmen or Bratpack, or, alternately, create something truly surreal, something which uses superheroes in a completely new way. Not only does Warren’s beautiful art fall between two stools, but so does his storytelling. Sweaty teenagers will love the permanent semi-nudity of the main character (and the uncharacteristically frequent, if not graphic, sex scenes), but the audience Warren is aiming for—semi-literate Buffy fans of both genders who like a bit of emotion between explosions—may find it needlessly titillating and irritatingly self-referential, even by their own standards.

Look, unless you’re a die-hard Warren fan, read Grunge: The Movie, first. It has art almost as gorgeous (and in colour), an explicable level of titillation and genuinely funny writing which succeeds in simultaneously parodying and happily splashing around in the interests of its audience.

What I learnt

Even a pleasure project with an indeterminate conclusion needs a semblance of boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise.

In short

Title: Empowered
Author: Adam Warren
Publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 159307672X
Year published: 2007
Pages: 248
Genre(s): Graphic Novel

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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