It's almost fitting that reviewing EMPOWERED has left me completely conflicted and at war with myself, considering that the book itself did exactly the same thing. Is it an annoyingly self-conscious, have-its-cake-and-eat-it book, or an honest examination into fanservice that betrays a knowing hypocrisy? Is Adam Warren creating a heroine that undercuts the fetishism of superheroes, or coming up with something that's even more fetishistic than usual? Did I enjoy the book, or really really hate it?
Too many questions! Makes... Hulk's... head... hurt!
The thing is, Empowered may be the most purposefully self-loathing comic that I've read. Which, considering I've read Ivan Brunetti's work and am a massive fan of Evan Dorkin, is saying something. But there's an art to the way that both of those creators deal with their obsessive compulsive needs to point out and apologize for their own shortcomings, and also a self-awareness; they point out why they think they're shit in such a way that both apologizes for and undercuts the problematic material. Empowered, on the other hand, apologizes and then goes on to do it again. And again. And again... at which point, for me at least, it becomes a weirdly-distancing crutch and excuse for not even trying anymore.
There are a couple of things that Warren, through eponymous heroine Empowered, apologizes for throughout the book - Firstly, the short chapters that start the book, and secondly, the masturbatory-material origins of the characters and the book itself. Both are kind of frustrating to see, because they both speak to the idea that the creator was helpless to do anything about them, which is entirely untrue. If you feel the need to create new pages to apologize for the choppy nature of the chapters at the beginning of the book, why not either (a) leave those chapters out of the book altogether, especially as they don't really add much in terms of "continuity" or plot, or (b) spend the time you've spent creating those new apology pages to create other new pages that help put those short pieces into something resembling a more coherent longer form, you know? Or, if you feel the need to not only apologize for the bondage cheesecake nature of the book, but also point out to the readers that the book has its origin in being commissions for fans with "special interests", then why do the book in the first place? Why work on something that you don't want to stand behind without saying sorry before you're even done?
I can't help but feel as if the apologies aren't so much genuine apologies but attempts to head (deserved) criticism off at the pass, which may be what frustrates me so much about them. Well, that and the feeling that instead of just acknowledging the problems with the book, Warren had taken some steps towards, you know, fixing them. Well, that and the other that, and the fact that despite everything, the book is really rather readable.
This is where I get conflicted and hedge my bets: Empowered, for all of the above, is still pretty Good. A lot of the faults are overpowered by Warren's art, which was always good but has never looked better than it does here, reproduced from pencils only, and his writing, which doesn't transcend the porny origins of the work but at least has fun with them. His dialogue is smart and witty, and even though the characters are little more than well-illustrated stereotypes with barely a little tweak, you end up liking them nonetheless.
I was going to say "you end up pulling for them," but figured that maybe that wouldn't be the best phrase to use, considering.
It may not be a perfect book, it's definitely not a book for everyone, but it does what it does well. If only it could do so without distracting you by saying sorry every two seconds.