While this is technically a review of Empowered Book Eight, it’s really a recommendation of the series as a whole. I went into the Empowered series kind of skeptically, as a lark with a cheap used copy, though I do find myself more and more liking superhero comics (like this one) which are in some way a level above ‘normal’ (ie Big Two), especially since DC and Marvel seem to be in a dumbing down phase with most of their titles. Or maybe I’m just growing up? But then, I thought the truism about comics not really being for children was true?
In any case, Empowered is a smart, funny, comedy comic. It’s not quite satire, though it can be, just as the art style is not quite manga-ish, though it can be. What it is is a very self-aware superhero comic that manages at the same time to still be an engaging story, or stories, since, while there is a timeline, writer/artist Adam Warren experiments with both shorter snippets and longer plots. Book Eight is divided in two longer stories, the first of which is more of a collage, but which ends up informing the second, and gets a bit metaphysical, with thoughts on death, and where we go after, and whether Hell exists.
Really, the beauty of Empowered as a whole is how Warren gives us our cheesecake and lets us eat it too. The main character, Emp is drawn with a rockin’ body (though not quite as slim as Captain Marvel or Black Widow, say) and wears a tight bodysuit, which always seems to malfunction and leave her barely exposed. And, well, she always seems to end up getting tied up by villains, in good Japanese kimbaku style.
And yet, she’s very sympathetic as a character, not because she’s a super-smart scientist, or because she can roll of witty one-liners. No, she’s sympathetic simply because she’s a real person: a young woman with self-esteem issues, who nonetheless wants to do the right thing, and work in a man’s world, with her male superhero heroes, who don’t really give her credit for her abilities—don’t really take her seriously at all. Plus she has to compete with fellow-female frenemies, like Sistah Spooky. I think many women in the real world (heck, many men) can relate to that.
There is some zaniness that takes some getting used to, like the talking doo-dad that sits on the coffee table of Emps apartment, which is actually a “Caged Demonwolf”, an “eldritch starspawn imprisoned inside power-draining alien bondage gear.” I know, I know, it is as weird as it sounds, and at first I was like, wtf, but as I’ve gone through the Empowered volumes, I’ve grown a little found, or at least tolerant, of him/it.
What I really like is that Empowered comes, mostly, in larger volumes. You can find an occasional single issue, but mostly Warren’s vision seems to be to write for a bigger picture, even as he dabbles in shorter skits for Emp. Empowered feels like Warren is writing comics in a jazzy, improvised, way, where the shorter skits end up giving him ideas for longer, larger, ideas. And in the meantime, it’s always funny, from mildly humorous, so out and out funny.
Except when it’s not. Because, for example, the second story of Empowered #8 actually gets pretty serious and doom and gloomy. Because that’s the thing with Warren’s writing: Empowered continually works at at least two levels, in pure entertainment, but also critique/satire of comics (and larger stuff, higher levels, like gender roles, and race, and bullying, and sexism, in the Real World). It can be sexy, but also a critique of the sexiness of superhero comics. It can be a third-person story, but it can also have Emp breaking the fourth wall and talking with us about how embarrassing her wardrobe malfunctions are for her.
This is the power of the longer form comic book. A single issue would be to easy to dismiss (and I find myself also mostly not a fan of the single issue in general anymore, which is too bad, since comic publishers judge popularity by singles sales)
I haven’t even talked about the art, which is great. It’s notably all in black and white, which is more traditional in manga comics, and which, while not ‘forces’ Warren to go in more detail, provides the opportunity it. For example, when Warren could just have Emp’s BFF, Ninjette, have skin-tight smooth booty shorts, he instead puts a whole bunch of creases and folds in them, that make her more visually ‘real,’ and/or make the (given) flatness of the page more 3D-ish. And, more real because, really, is Spiderwoman’s bodysuit always going to be supersmooth in every single position she’s in besides the “heart-shaped butt”?
It’s not just costumes either. The fight scenes in Hell are detail-packed. Where with color an artist could rely on the colorist to just fill in the background, black and white calls for texture and detail. Sure, Warren could just opt for all-black backgrounds, but he doesn’t, he’s very conscious of light, and shading: Again, while for example, in color Sue Storm’s costume could just be, and is, colored a uniform blue, Warren gives us various greys and lines on parts of his characters’ bodies that also add to that ‘full’ 3Dish effect.
Empowered Book Eight came out late last year. Hopefully we’re due for another installment soon. My only recommendation is that you go back and read the series straight through from the beginning, because even though Warren has Emp do her breaking-the-fourth-wall schtick to explain what’s going on in a funny way, the new reader might still be a little lost, not knowing the extent of Emp’s self-consciousness and body issue stuff, nor with the other main character of this book, Sistah Spooky, and her background and relationship with Emp.
But still, if Empowered Book Eight is all that’s available, please do indulge. At $16.99, and over 200 pages, the Empowered books are a way better deal than some of the $20 thin collected volumes of most ‘regular’ superhero series. There are also now two Deluxe Editions collecting the earlier books.