EMPOWERED TPB: The first twenty pages of this made me think of that old Matt Groening joke about how paradoxically the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny, and yet there are no funny French sex comedies. Initially, Adam Warren's sexy superhero manga Empowered is not sexy, uses all the superhero trappings for comedy-based blackout sketches, and Warren, while certainly influenced by manga, is not a manga artist. Really, the first twenty pages or so read like a PG-13 version of Little Annie Fanny where superheroine-in-training Empowered finds herself in one embarrassing (but relatively mild) bondage "story" after another, comically whimpering about how pathetic she is. If this had been a comic book one shot, or the next 220 pages read like the first, I would be telling you to save your money, express general frustration and be done with it. But, in fact, I pretty much exhort you to get out to the store and find a copy of this because Empowered is probably the most enjoyable book I've read in a month or so. Through an act of creative alchemy, Warren takes those first few three page "stories" (created by Warren on commission for someone who collected superheroine-in-bondage art even though Warren himself seems creeped out by such a specialized kink) and sees a deeper potential for the character. What he goes on to do simultaneously is and isn't revelatory--he develops character and mileu by building on continuity. It's not revelatory because that's what superhero comics these days do. What's revelatory is how well Warren does it, and the tricks he uses to accomplish it.
Once Empowered meets a doting hired thug who genuinely admires her, the book's story begins to shift and Warren places the bondage into a context that he feels more comfortable with: "You're, like, a hundred times braver than any of your bigshot, overrated Superhomeys teammates," Thug tells her. "How tough can it be to act all brave and courageous when you're pretty much invulnerable, like most of the Superhomeys? [...] You keep on plugging away. You keep on putting yourself in harm's way. That's brave. Or crazy. Or both." While on the surface this reads like exactly the sort of thing, say, Jim Balent would write while putting his nekked witch Tarot in explicitly titillating positions, it's far more convincing after seventy-plus pages in which we've seen nothing more explicit than a buttcheek or some side-boob. It's easy to read Empowered and feel like Warren is walking the walk while talking the talk--emotional vulnerability is sexy to him, and it's the emotional relationships in the book that go on to resonate. With that in place, Warren goes on to develop the book's mileu with his typically irreverent eye for detail (for example, he gives the Superhomeys one of the more absurd and yet rational origin stories I think I've ever read. And I won't give away any details about Empowered's "roommate" but I thought that too was tremendously amusing and satisfying).
Although I'm not gonna bore you with it, I should at least point out how Warren uses variable length stories to accomplish such a satisfying read. Starting from those brief three to five page "stories" (little more than blackout sketches), Warren builds a dizzying number of tales into the book, some as short as two pages, some as long as eighteen pages. Because Warren's pacing and command of storytelling is so spot-on, each piece pretty much works on its own, but each of these pieces also help contribute to the larger whole of the book. Really, they should probably just be thought of as scenes but that's not quite the case--they're like turbocharged scenes, or as if you got to read the first twelve issues of a superhero book with all the inessential stuff cut out. By the time I put down the book, the characters felt like ones I'd been following forever, and I can't wait for the next volume.
From ambivalently developed, compromised fan commission to extraordinarily satisfying character comedy--Empowered is a triumph of a creator's skill, craft and intuition, a Very Good work and I urge all of you to hunt up a copy. As I said, it's one of the most enjoyable books I've read this month and I can't wait to see more.