Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adam Warren presents great superhero funnies

Empowered Vols. 1 & 2 (Dark Horse, 2007)
Story and Art: Adam Warren
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Empowered" is a series of graphic novels featuring stories of varying length that revolve around the young, sexy superheroine Empowered. She gains her power from an alien "supersuit" that, while bullet-proof and capable of letting her shoot energy beams from her hands, it is also fragile in the extreme when it comes to sharp objects. Any possible chance, it tears, and each tear robs Empowered of some of her powers, until she is just a normal woman again. And a woman who is naked aside from scraps of skin-clinging clothing at that.

To make matters worse for Empowered, she is very insecure about her body, yet her skintight supersuit reveals everything about it, and she can't cover up for the suit to function--she can't even wear a cape to cover what she considers to be her big butt. Even more embarrassing, Empowered continues to get captured and tied up by even the lamest of villains, so her teammates in the Superhomies must sped nearly as much rescuing her as they do fighting crime.

The first two volumes in the "Empowered" series dishes out commentary and spoofs of conventions in the superhero genre, of the conventions and storytelling styles of Japanese comics, observations about society, advertising messages, the comic book business and comic book readers, personal insecurities and triumphs, love, life in general, and a whole lot more. It's downright amazing how much writer/artist Adam Warren manages to cram onto each page of these books. Even the "superheroes have to deal with real-life issues" material is well done, which was the biggest and most pleasurable surprise in the books for me, as I haven't really liked most of that type of material that's been generated in recent years. For a while, I've been of the opinion that the only writers who could do thse stories well were Steve Gerber, Cary Bates, and Archie Goodwin (three old timers who are either no longer with us or barely working in comics anymore), but Adam Warren proved that there are some current creators who can match their talent for binging the mundane to bear in their stories.

As might be expected in a superhero spoof about a stacked heroine who gets her clothes torn off and is tied up on a regular basis, there are a number of sexual related jokes and a high level of sexual content, particularly in Vol. 1. This means these books are meant for adults, and then only adults that aren't offended by drawings of and stories involving adults having sexual relations. (And I do mean these books are for adults. These books are a cut above the usual "mature" comics, as aptly illustrated by the fact that the Vol. 2 has far less sexually charged content than Vol. 1, yet it is just as funny and perhaps even more interesting because more time is spent on character development. (Vol. 1 was very episodic in nature, with very little carry-over from chapter to chapter. Vol. 2 developes a couple of running plotlines, some of which are continued in Vol. 3.)

The stories in these books also work because every character within them has something about them that's likable or that the readers can relate to, sympathize with, or chuckle at. While these often relate to secret insecurities possessed by the characters, the characters just as often become likable because they are revealed to be goodhearted, despite appearances. Even the neigh-omnipotent comsic entity that lives imprisoned and now-powerless in an alien device on Empowered's coffee table has a degree of twisted charm and outsider nature that makes him sympathetic to the reader.

The heart of the tales is the friendships shared by Empowered boyfriend Thugboy (a con-artist and killer who used to prey primarily on supervillains, but who is now retired, reformed, and attending open-bar parties hosted by the Superhomies whenever he can) and her best friend Ninjette (a ninja-for-hire with a drinking problem). Watching the ups and downs of their relationship with each other is what really makes these books worthwhile.

I've been enjoying Adam Warren's writing and artwork for years, but "Empowered" is his best work yet. Artwise and storywise, it's top-notch stuff, and I think it's a series that should be read by lovers of superhero comics and Japanese-style comics alike. Warren states through Empowered in one of the many hilarious fourth-wall chapter introductions that there's little crossover between "manga" fans and superhero fans. These books will, hopefully, become a common ground for both camps to stand on. They should be read by every adult comics fan with a sense of humor.

If you like traditional, paper-based roleplaying games (specifically, the classic "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" game, click here to see how Ninjette looks in that system.

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