The Debut! Empowered: "Volume 1"

A lot of comic fans collect in trade, rather than in singles – I certainly prefer it, myself. But with trades, it can be very difficult to decide which series to start off. Rather than paying a few pounds to buy twenty pages, you’re looking to spend a tenner on a much bigger story. Is it worth it? What’s going to be coming up next?

That’s where this feature, The Debut, aims to help out. Every Friday I kick across to a cult classic or well-known series, and review the first arc. I’ll try to explore how well things start off, and if it’s as good a book as everybody says. Leave suggestions in the comments, and I’ll try to get in to as many different books as possible!
This week:

By Adam Warren 
At conventions, you get glimpses at the ‘old way’ of the comics world. There’s always a few banners rising up above the crowd which feature a female character in a bikini, doing a ‘brokeback’ pose where you can see her boobs and bum at the same time. Always. It’s a part of the industry, and there are people who are better at it than others. And there’s also a remaining demand for it to exist.
Which is how Empowered came about. Writer/artist Adam Warren, like most artists, got requests at conventions that he draw women being tied up, provocative, and likewise. Having done this a few times, he drew an interest in the character he’d created for this purpose – what was going on in her mind? How did she feel about being tied up in lingerie all the time?
So he started to write around that idea, and explore her character further. And in the process, he created his most famous work, Empowered. An aspiring superhero with a power-suit which falls apart at the merest scratch, she literally coats herself in a thin skin of empowerment, which can be shattered not through bullets or swords – but through her own sense of self-esteem. A neurotic and – apologetically – self-absorbed lead, Empowered herself embodies the series as a whole: she critiques the super hero comics community whilst being a devoted part of it.
For all it acts up as a satire, Empowered is also wholeheartedly wrapped up in the exploitative nature of superhero comics. It has its cheesecake and eats it, to be blunt. Artistically, the character is absolutely an embodiment of cheesecake, posed provocatively on each panel even as she decries a world which would put her in a situation like this. Throughout this first volume, the series is focused on that juxtaposition, and concentrates most of its energy on deciding whether Warren can handle the balance between satire and embodiment of the genre.

But he’s manages it, somehow. Time and again, he manages to add elements to the storyline – I say “storyline”, but this is more a collection of two-three page gag strips, linked together by meta-commentary from the character to the readers – which add to the central struggle. Despite this being a sex-positive depiction of a female character, it clearly also becomes obvious that Empowered seeks fulfilment through sex, and filters her relationship with a character called ‘Thug-Boy’ almost entirely through getting off with him.
Warren has sequences where Empowered reads a fanfiction that has been written about herself, and the whole thing is drawn so we can watch it as well as read it. The section would seem to be making fun of fanfiction and the way people want to use their writing to control women, fictional or real. At the same time – he IS drawing the bondage scenes that are being made fun of. And so the first volume fixates, time and time again, on this element of the series.
The thing is – it’s refreshing to see a comic which is sex positive at all, let alone one like Empowered. There may now be other comics like Sex Criminals which take a different attitude to sex, but Empowered started doing this TEN YEARS AGO. It’s amazing that it’s taken so long for other comics to catch up to it.
Throughout this first volume, you get a good sense of the characters and World that will grow and build up over the next seven volumes that have so far followed. Warren writes the characters well, but he also draws them with a distinctive flair. His sequencing here is fantastically executed, for the most part, and his style quickly solidifies into something consistent. The fact he’s writing and drawing the series means you can feel both aspects of his creative process working towards the same goal.

A pace develops across these strips, so you start to expect the rhythm of the patter and dialogue. With some cartoonists there’s a feeling that their art and writing at working at cross-purposes – in fact, in a lot of cases, this is the point. But with Empowered, the two are synergised completely. 

In the final sequence of this volume, one of the characters narrates the closing of the chapter. He touches on each of the main characters in turn, wrapping up their story for now and suggesting where things will head next. As he does so, Warren’s artwork mirrors the voice of the character. This is a character who wanted to take over the World in an invasion, but then got trapped inside a belt. He’s a megalomaniac with nothing to do. His narration is grandiose and ridiculous, making fun of the other characters whilst showing off an affection for them. 
The artwork, in turn, shows off the characters fondly, but keeps twisting the final panel to make fun of them. You see a panel of a character called Ninjette, drunk on a sofa. The narration makes fun of her, but then asks a question to the reader in the final panel – which, from the art, clearly asks readers to re-think what they think is going on. It’s a really weird twist, but one which crops up all the time in the first arc.
It’s also interesting how all the characters seem to be aspects of Warren’s own attitudes towards the concept of the series. Empowered herself is hyper-neurotic, needy, bashful and self-loathing – the fact she wears a skin-tight suit of armour to protect herself, which falls apart time and time again? Not good for her confidence. So she talks about that constantly. But then her boyfriend talks constantly in reassurances, in a  somewhat  romanticised and unlikely manner. Ninjette doesn’t see what the problem with all this is – she doesn’t mind feeling sexualised, and uses it to her advantage.
Every character in the series revolves around the problems with the central concept, because this first volume is absolutely saturated in the premise. They exist solely to comment on it, and offer a different angle of things. When you finish the volume, you’ve read a very funny, unexpected, and fresh-feeling piece of work. At the same time, you realise that you’ve read a hundred or so pages of self-reflection with only the odd glimpse of anything outside of the main character.
Which, personally, I prefer. I go for character ahead of story, every time, so Empowered was a witty and entertaining read. If you want a bigger story and stricter narrative, this first volume of the series isn’t going to impress you. However, if you’re happy for a sketch-driven, character focused body of work, then I’d recommend Empowered to you. The tightrope which Adam Warren walks is ridiculously narrow – but he still makes it across to the other side.
Verdict: Success

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