Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Review: Empowered

alexx_kay reviewed this one recently, but having just finished it myself, I think I'll chime in. The topic for today is Adam Warren's "graphic novel" (really, collection of very short episodes) Empowered.

Let's be clear up front: this isn't high art. The premise is that our heroine is Empowered -- yes, that's her superhero code-name, and she's the first one to point out that it's lame, but all the good names had already been taken. She is the possessor of a super-suit that has all sorts of powers: super-strength, energy blasts, and a bunch of more minor ones. (The suit turns invisible; unfortunately, she doesn't.) There are only a few problems: the suit is literally skin-tight; its powers go away if it is in any way damaged; and it has the structural integrity of tissue paper. If you think this sounds like a recipe for bondage cheesecake, where our heroine winds up tied up every episode, you're absolutely right -- it was originally started as commissions for just that purpose.

But here's the thing: Adam Warren is congenitally incapable of writing a bad comic. What starts as silly bondage fantasy quickly turns into a charming, if very strange, situation comedy. Emp herself (all the characters are only known by their code-names in this comic) turns out to be braver and smarter than most of the other heroes, if terminally insecure. She winds up with a live-in boyfriend, known affectionately as Thugboy, the former super-villain minion with a heart of gold, and a best friend Ninjette who is constantly trying to convince her that she's better than she thinks. Rounding out her apartment is a near-omnipotent evil energy being who Emp managed to cage and is now stuck with, who lives on her coffee table and spends his days watching TV and radio. ("Unlike that appalling 'NPR' filth you inflicted on the Cataclysmic Snuffer of Civilizations yesterday, this 'Sports Talk Radio' shows *much* promise...")

Over the course of things, the story slowly turns less episodic and more ongoing, with the result that the second half of the book is quite different from the first. It develops arc, even foreshadowing -- it gradually lays down some major groundwork for story elements that I expect to develop more in the next volume. The cast gets fuller, as we learn more about the rest of the superhero community (especially Sistah Spooky, Emp's chief rival). The bondage elements get less and less frequent, as the story develops other things to talk about.

For all that this is quite thoroughly a costume book (there isn't a single "normal" person in the entire named cast), it's entirely about people and personalities. Typical episodes include things like Emp and 'jette reading through some of the slash fiction written about them and their friends on the Net; Thugboy Ebay'ing the stuff he ripped off from his super-villain employers; and of course, the inevitable fight between Emp and Thugboy. Insofar as there are Big Superhero Fights, they're mainly there to underline the character stories.

The book is a one-man show: Adam Warren is one of the best writer/artists in the business today. The art is beautiful: it's just pencils, but Warren's pencils are better than most peoples' inks, and inking over this would just lose much of its subtlety. (Really, it's the best pencils-only book since the first version of A Distant Soil, many years ago.) The writing is crisp and funny -- Warren has a better ear for dialogue than most writers, although he does have a few verbal tics that you get used to.

The cover has a nasty "Parental Warning -- Explicit Content" sticker on it, and that's fair: sex is an omnipresent topic here (occasionally onscreen), and I wouldn't recommend this book for kids. There is almost no onscreen nudity here, though: Warren is a master of cheesecake, and uses camera angles, bubble bath, and the constantly-shredded super-suit to good effect. Even the four-letter words get bleeped out. The result is best described as something that couldn't appear on American TV, but could on the BBC.

Put it all together, and you wind up with a book that's really quite delightful. Superhero "relationship" comics have become a substantial genre unto themselves lately, but this is the best I've seen of them, with characters who are very human and a sense of irony that is kept reined in just enough to keep the story rather kind. It confirms Adam Warren on my A-list: the authors who I will simply buy, regardless of the subject matter, because he always manages to make it worth reading...
Tags: comics, reviews

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