"We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be." – Grant Morrison
I've got this love-hate affair going on with superheroics. It's something I've struggled with for the bulk of my comics life and the division is basically the result of a few major conflicts. The first is that superheroes as a genre are full of potential, yet most superhero stories operate by reconfiguring a few tired cliches in the name of comfort or tradition or whatever strikes your fancy. The second is that superhero comics, with relatively few exceptions, tend to take themselves far too seriously and the number of great superhero satires is overshadowed by the number of bleak, dire or utterly stupid work. The third is that superhero publishers and fans are phenomenally resistant to change, diversity and progression, at the cost of the evolution of the form itself. I love superheroes because they're the myths of our age. I hate superheroes because like ancient myths, the bulk of them are stuck in amber, incapable or unwilling to embrace their capacity for betterment. All of this conveniently also serves as an explanation of why I love Adam Warren's Empowered.
As an essential example of why one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, Empowered is one of the sharpest satires comics has ever produced. The gist of it is that Empowered is a heroine whose powers come from a special suit, with the catch being that her powers diminish as the suit gets torn. In other words, Warren has built in an explanation for why his heroine finds herself less and less clothed so often, and why she can be so powerful in one panel, and so submissive (and often bound and gagged to boot) in the next. It's a brilliant twist, and the often horrifying history of comics' treatment of women has provided Warren with a neverending supply of fresh, unique takes on superheroics, with the new Empowered Special #4: Animal Style serving as just the latest example.
Referential as all hell, Animal Style finds Empowered serving as a security guard for an "alternate timeline superhero auto show" in the "Parachronozone" of the "Purple Paladin Convention Center," a setting and an event that wouldn't be out of place in a Community episode, if Community was about clever superhero tropes rather than sitcoms. For fuck's sake, this is an event with "Celebrate Chronoversity!" for a tagline and a plot twist involving mecha-crossdressing. Like Dan Slott's She-Hulk, this series has always utilized deep comics lore to great effect, and Animal Style is an especially brilliant implementation of that, as the heroine and villains both yield references like punctuation and seemingly every panel has some sight gag treasure waiting for discovery. Warren knows his shit, but beyond that, he loves the genre and isn't afraid to poke fun at it, or going further, to dissect, rebuild and reanimate it in the process.
Warren's collaborator John Staton deserves a tremendous amount of credit here, as he provides the bulk of the art in this issue, sticking mostly to Warren's aesthetic while still showing off his own talent for action choreography and costume design. Staton smooths out Warren's rough, pencilly edges while maintaining a consistent vision and staying true to Warren's style. That may not sound all that impressive until you remember that Warren's default look for Empowered has been minimalist as all fuck, and to provide as much detail as Staton does and not betray Warren's aesthetic in the process isn't just a tough job, it's a thankless one. That Staton not only nails it but maintains his own personality in the process is incredible and the references and gags land because Warren clearly trusts him enough to let him take the spotlight.
Not that Warren himself sits out the art altogether. Instead, Warren sticks to black-and-white monologuing between the scenes, flashing back to Empowered's days as a "suprahuman studies major," and that's honestly where most of the sharpest satire in the issue comes from. It's in these segments that we get Empowered's frank thoughts on how "douchecapes" often ruin the lives of the citizens they're ostensibly protecting, whether it's through wanton destruction of public and private property, "spray-and-pay" related collateral damage or correlation problems that lead to things like unfairly raised car insurance rates. Warren masterfully juxtaposes Empowered's confident suprahuman studies politic with the way Empowered's actual suprahuman action falls apart towards the end of the issue, as the gimmicky animal mech gang she's trying to stop gets a lucky break and Empowered once again winds up up bound and gagged.
If anything, Empowered's humor is in the grand tradition of the hilariously unlucky silent film stars that dominated Hollywood way back when. Like Chaplin, Empowered is smart, clever, athletic and basically competent, but she suffers from comical misfortune at every turn. Where Warren deviates from the silent film formula — outside of the obvious difference in dialogue — is in the focus of the humor, using the sexual slapstick as a distraction from his sharper points, until those reach a crescendo and the subtlety is dropped. In this particular special, it comes with the final black and white framing sequence, where Empowered calls out her peers for their accusations that she's a "fake cape-geek girl," before they move on to an attempt to get her in bed, which serves as a handy way of making Warren's targets clear while also indicating how it is that someone who is so confident in their academic life can be broken down by the harsh realities of the real world.
It's funny, but it's also heartbreaking, because for the bulk of the issue, Warren has shown us Empowered as a savvy heroine who knows how to apply her studies to her heroics, who makes the right decisions in order to minimize damage and protect people, but who winds up being undone by the way reality conspires against her. The sly point Warren makes is that what seems like bad luck in the context of the narrative is of course a conscious decision by the creator. As readers, we're forced to remember that fiction is a realm where there is intelligent design and, likewise, unintel
ligent design, that creators who utilize explanations about "character choices" to defend sexist or misogynist undertones are simply distracting from the fact that characters, by nature, can't make any decisions and there is no luck in their realities, only the choices of their creators. It's a brave, bold move on Warren's part, and that it's executed through a series that appears at first glance to be part of the problem not the solution is all the more remarkable.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.