BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO Just who is Empowered, Adam Warren's new superpowered beauty making her debut this month at Dark Horse? For answers, we turn to Warren himself about his "sexy superhero comedy."
THE PULSE: You gave me the quick tagline on this, describing Empowered as "sexy superhero comedy." We've seen a few stories that might fit that bill in recent years. What is going to make Empowered stand out from the rest - aside from it being shrink-wrapped with parental-warning-stickers?
ADAM WARREN: Perhaps I just donÂ’t read enough American comics, but I donÂ’t recall seeing very many Â“sexy superhero comediesÂ” in recent years... or, at least, any that I found either sexy or funny.
Well, for one thing, Empowered is nominally a superhero title, yet itÂ’s drawn by a clearly manga-influenced artist. (Which will, no doubt, cause certain mainstream superhero readers to characterize it as Â“more of that manga crap being shoved down our throats.Â” To which I can only respond, Â“Well then, eat it, why donÂ’t you?Â”) IÂ’m not aware of too many other superhero-related books that combine a strong dose of that Â“manga flavaÂ” with both laugh-out-loud humor and a touch of the sexy... and, on occasion, a touch of the kinky.
Plus, thereÂ’s the bold, vibrant look of the artwork, which is reproduced directly from my pencils and looks quite unlike anything else IÂ’ve run across of late. Moreover, you donÂ’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of any companyÂ’s continuity to appreciate the book, which certainly makes it a rarity amongst titles of this sort... While it does make fun of the superheroic genre in general, Empowered isnÂ’t a direct parody of, say, Civil WarÂ’s excesses or DCU Â“continuity porn.Â”
THE PULSE: How are you pushing the envelope here in ways you haven't really tried with some of your previous independent comics work?
WARREN: In a way, IÂ’m not sure that Empowered DOES push the envelope all that much farther than some of my earlier work, particularly in regards to the always-critical issue of sexual content... I used to get away with some rather egregious and sexually charged material in my various runs on Gen13, after all. Empowered features no actual nudity (well, except for a bare backside, at one point), but does feature numerous scenes of intimacy between the heroine and her boyfriend in which itÂ’s quite clear that Something Is Happening...
Alas, this feeble gambit (Â“But you donÂ’t actually SEE anything!Â”) was judged by Dark Horse to be too feeble a possible defense, hence the sensible shrink-wrapping and Parental Warning labels. Thus, in theory, I couldÂ’ve gone back and then cranked up the nudity and graphic depictions of sex to more pornographic levels, but to hell with THAT... Tiptoeing, nay, STOMPING right around the delicate and ineffable line between acceptability and outrageousness amuses me to end.
THE PULSE: Why did you want to make this for a more mature audience? How does that drive you as a creator working for a specific audience?
WARREN: I should briefly clarify that Empowered does indeed have a highly ignominious origin as work tailored for a very specific clientele... A few years ago, in the throes of yet another bout of underemployment, I was plowing through a bunch of commissioned sketches for various folks, and hit a stretch of requests for, shall we say, Â“damsels in distress.Â” Growing tired of cranking out such repetitive pin-up illos, I started drawing a series of 1- or 2-page comics Â“storiesÂ” about an oft-distressed superheroine instead. Long story truncated, these throwaway joke pages eventually morphed and mutated into an ongoing series that veered off into broader takes on both romantic and workplace comedy, not to mention detailing the pitfalls of a C-list career in the Â“mask and tightsÂ” business.
That being said, once Empowered was underway in its current form, I really didnÂ’t aim it at a particular audience as such. The storiesÂ’ mild degree of sexual farcicality obviously precludes them from being read by impressionable youths, of course. Ironically enough, Empowered is probably one of the most accessible and easily read projects IÂ’ve ever done, from its formatting as Â“bite-sizedÂ” short stories to its freedom from the tangles of mainstream-comic continuity to its complete break from the Â“techyÂ” science-fiction orientation that characterizes much of my other work... Too bad youÂ’ve gotta be 16+ (if not 18+) years old to read it.
Beyond that important caveat, Empowered is by no means narrowly targeted to a specific audience. Instead, itÂ’s designed for anybody who can appreciate a good laugh, sexualized romantic comedy, unconventional fun with superheroes, sparkling dialogue, and manga-influenced artwork. The reader does, however, need to be able to tolerate a heavy dose of cheesecake... and some degree of beefcake as well, the latter of which will only increase in future volumes. (Or Â“tofu-cake,Â” really, as an upcoming story features an excerpt of Â“yaoiÂ” slash-fanfiction manga about male superheroes; as you may know, yaoi artists rarely draw their Â“beautiful boysÂ” looking all that beefy.) And given the projectÂ’s unsavory origins, letÂ’s not forget the whole Â“bondage-prone superheroineÂ” thing, which has its own niche appeal...
In fact, it later occurred to me that I couldÂ’ve gone back, stripped out the bondage and superheroes and other fantastical elements, and redone the project as a more mundane (and less potentially offensive) Â“slice oÂ’ lifeÂ” comedy... Of course, I immediately thought, Â“Screw THAT.Â” I get far more amusement value from cramming real-life anecdotes and semi-autobiographical elements into a genre setting than I would with a straight-up Â“slice oÂ’ lifeÂ” story.
THE PULSE: Why did you want to call your protagonist "Empowered"? It doesn't seem like the typical name that most female heroes would pick ....
WARREN: I sincerely doubt that most male heroes would choose the name, either! As our heroine herself admits, Â“EmpoweredÂ” isnÂ’t a particularly impressive example of a superheroic nom de guerre, but itÂ’s the only name that she could think of on short notice. Later on in the series, weÂ’ll find out that the Empowered Â“supranymÂ” wasnÂ’t chosen accidentally, as itÂ’s an old nickname dating back to our heroineÂ’s childhood; her reasons for using it as a superhero name will be become quite obvious indeed, trust me.
Now, thatÂ’s all within the context of the story ... Outside that context, Â“EmpoweredÂ” was originally just the title of the project, as an obviously ironic label for the misadventures of a distress-prone superheroine. Originally, she didnÂ’t have a name, lame or otherwise, and neither did anyone else in the comic; what can I say, IÂ’m easily amused by seemingly pointless stylistic flourishes along these lines (such as gratuitously withholding information from the reader).
Later, during an email exchange discussing one of the stories, one of my friends-- Lea Hernandez, no less-- happened to refer to our as-yet-unnamed protagonist as Â“EmpÂ”... and at that moment, it dawned on me that the lead character might indeed be named Â“EmpoweredÂ”! Of course, I then had to jump through a fair number of narrative hoops to justify why the hell she wouldÂ’ve possibly chosen such a goofy Â“supranym,Â” but hey, I managed to devise a compelling and character-based rationale, so it all worked out in the end.
THE PULSE: Looking at her costume and from some of your comments to me about the story, it seems as if you might be poking fun at the "bad girl" types. What are some of the things you looked at - maybe in disbelief - that influenced how you presented those in Empowered?
WARREN: If anything, Empowered herself is much more of a Â“good girl,Â” in several different senses of the term... Some of the background heroes and villains are loosely derived from mainstream Â“capes,Â” but for the most part IÂ’m really not very interested in direct parody or satire of existing superheroes. If anything, IÂ’m interested in the more tangential, Â“side-effectÂ” aspects of a world with Â“capesÂ” aplenty... Such as the idea of real-life superheroes reading and critiquing fanfiction about them, the possible sexual frustrations of a perpetually ablaze and superheated bad guy, how Â“witless minionsÂ” might victimize the supervillains they work for, or the likelihood of some heroes acquiring their powers from STSDs (Sexually Transmitted Superhuman Diseases).
In the end, the book is really a character-based comedy (at times, a romantic comedy and/or sex farce) that happens to take place in a world with superheroes, rather than an elaborate attempt to poke fun at particular characters or universes.
THE PULSE: What powers is she supposed to have with her super suit, even though it's unreliable ...?
WARREN: Well, when the membrane of her Â“supersuitÂ” is intact, Empowered possesses the strength of ten men... or, as she puts it, Â“fifteen men, if youÂ’re measuring with wimpy guys.Â” Also, she can Â“zap stuff,Â” if youÂ’ll pardon the rather prosaic description. To a degree, the suit can also protect her from harm (such as being stepped on by a giant robot), but therein arises its major flaw: as the suit expends its energies to shield Emp, its material begins to shred and tear and ablate away... and as the membraneÂ’s square footage dwindles, so do her superpowers. (Alas, all too often, Â“distressed damselhoodÂ” soon follows.)
Beyond that, the supersuit has a host of minor abilities which are, for the most part, not very useful. For example, the suit can turn invisible, which does indeed sound rather handy, until you consider the slight technical problem that Emp herself remains all too clearly visible inside the now-invisible suit...
Finally, the suit has one consistent and reliable power: namely, to embarrass and humiliate the poor woman whoÂ’s wearing it! Unlike almost all other superheroes, Empowered has no choice about having to wear a skin-tight and mercilessly revealing costume, as her mortifying costume IS her superpower... This is a tad problematic for someone plagued by insecurities and body-image issues, as you might imagine. Conveniently enough, she also happens to have what most humans would, I think, perceive as a great body; but, hey, IÂ’ve known a remarkable (if not depressing) number of seriously hawt females who nonetheless struggle with surprisingly skewed self-image perceptions, so I have no compunctions in the least about taking this seemingly contradictory route.
Side note: At one point, we do see what EmpÂ’s supersuit would look like when worn by an out-of-shape male, and the resulting image is best described as Â“horrific.Â”
THE PULSE: Aside from Empowered, who are some of the other people that star in this comic series?
WARREN: One recurring motif in Empowered is the sad fact that our plucky but long-suffering protagonist, a self-admitted Â“C-list superheroine,Â” doesnÂ’t fit in especially well amongst the obnoxious, arrogant, A-list Â“capesÂ” who are her nominal teammates... They generally treat her with neglect, if not outright contempt and hostility. Moreover, Empowered soon discovers that she actually gets along better with so-called Â“bad guysÂ” than with her supposed Â“good-guyÂ” peers!
Case in point: Emp meets her future boyfriend, Thugboy, Â“on the jobÂ” when, as a hired goon, he flirts with the depowered superheroine while, uh, tying her to a chair. (Okay, thatÂ’s not the most ideally progressive Meet Cute one might hope for, but what the hell...) Thuggish but sweet, he becomes a one-man cheering section for his insecure, oft-embarrassed Â“superchicaÂ” of a girlfriend; however, his murky past, as a former member of a gang of self-proclaimed Â“Witless MinionsÂ” who gleefully ripped off and defrauded unsuspecting supervillains, soon comes back to haunt them both. Further emotional support is provided by EmpÂ’s new best friend Ninjette, an extroverted, hard-drinking female ninja (well, duh) whom our heroine likewise met Â“on the job.Â”
The third Â“baddieÂ” in EmpoweredÂ’s life is the self-styled Â“Caged Demonwolf,Â” an evil demigod whom our heroine managed to imprison inside a set of power-draining alien bondage gear. (Yes, Emp does indeed have her moments of genuine badassery, few and far between as they might be.) Now, the harmlessly incarcerated monster rests atop her coffee table, watching DVDs and haranguing her with bellowing, blustering doses of supervilllainous advice.
Among her fellow superheroes, EmpoweredÂ’s chief tormentor is her (supposed) teammate and (functional) nemesis Â“Sistah Spooky,Â” a mystical hottie armed with both powerful magic and a powerful antipathy for our protagonist. Later on, the reasons for SpookyÂ’s seemingly unreasoning hatred for Emp are made clear... LetÂ’s just say, the term Â“blonde-o-phobiaÂ” springs to mind.
The rest of the colorful cast features full-of-themselves superheroes (such as fratboy horndog Major Havoc and the confusingly named blob Protean) and supervillains ranging from goofy to legitimately scary... Not to mention Pimpotron Alpha, robo-procurer for the Cosmolactic Emperor; the lisp-prone and rage-prone behemoth King Tyrant Lizard; gangs of easily-offended, hypersensitive goons; and a chubby geek lusting after EmpÂ’s supersuit...
THE PULSE: What were some of the things that challenged you the most when you were working on this initially?
WARREN: Paradoxically enough, the most challenging thing about working on Empowered at first was its lack of challenge, which caused me to not even consider it to be a Â“real comicÂ” at all!
All of my other published work has been planned out in detail ahead of time, from plotting and scripting to character designs to page roughs and layouts to multiple-stage finished artwork, and reworked extensively to fit into rigid formats and fixed, inflexible page-counts. No matter how fun or freewheeling that some my comics might seem (at least, I hope so), the actual process of creating them is far removed from any great degree of spontaneity.
By contrast, with the early Empowered stories, I would just cook up some vague concept for a story, rough out a page or two in advance, and then put 3B pencil lead to cheapo copy paper for the finished comic page within MINUTES of first thinking up the story idea. I never worried about trying to cram the story into a certain number of pages, nor sweat over how well the scene would fit within an individual issue, nor puzzled where the title page, credits and indicia would be placed, nor troubled myself with ANY of the mundane concerns present in my conventional comics work. My motto for Empowered was: Â“Get on the page FAST, have some fun, move on to the next page.Â” Or, to state it in shampoo-instruction format: Â“Write, draw, repeat. Write, draw, repeat.Â”
This simple approach, however, caused me to think of Empowered as not even remotely being a so-called Â“real comicÂ” ... The storiesÂ’ random page-count precluded them from fitting into my usual format of 22-page issues and 5- to 6-issue miniseries, so presumably the work wasnÂ’t publishable. It took other peoplesÂ’ input to shift my thinking, here... As with some of my other work, IÂ’d been sending jpegs of the Empowered stories around to a secret (BCC) e-mailing list of fellow pros and editors; the very positive reaction I received back from that list changed my mind about Empowered possibly being a Â“real comicÂ”... as did the offers from a few companies on the list to actually publish the book!
THE PULSE: How did you decide the style in which to illustrate this? Will it be akin to your other works or were you trying for something else?
WARREN: The unique thing about Empowered's artwork is that itÂ’s reproduced directly from my very, very tight penciled pages... IÂ’ve been using a similar approach for about a year and half now on the Playstation humor pieces IÂ’ve been writing and drawing in the back of the videogame magazine PSM; grayscale repro of this type is tricky, but can be highly rewarding, IÂ’ve found.
In fact, Empowered's pages are just a tightened-up and cleaner version of how IÂ’ve been doing my (notoriously tight) layouts for the last decade or so. Somewhat to my chagrin, almost everyone (or, at least, every artist) whoÂ’s seen my so-called Â“layoutsÂ” has said that they like them better than my published, inked-and-toned/colored pages. Yep, it was kinda aggravating, after spending weeks and months on finished artwork, to find out that people preferred the energy and dynamism of my first-stage layouts instead... So, I grit my teeth and decided to heed the voice of the people (or a couple dozen of the people, anyway) and roll with an extra-tight incarnation of my layout technique for this and other future work.
THE PULSE: This is 248 pages, is it the first of several volumes or a complete story here?
WARREN: IÂ’m hopeful that this is just the first in a series of Empowered TPBs. Vol. 2 is about to go on the schedule for a September Â’07 release; in fact, IÂ’m working on the solicitation copy in another window, at the moment! The seriesÂ’ longer-term survival, however, will depend on how well these first two volumes are ordered... or more accurately, in how theyÂ’re re-ordered over the months to come. For the time being, IÂ’m looking at putting out an Empowered collection every six months or so, depending on what other work I line up; so far, I have the first 5 volumes planned out (though loosely planned out, of course). The stories are great fun to work on and are quite easily and quickly produced, so IÂ’d love to do more work in the Â“Empverse.Â”
THE PULSE: Why shouldn't PULSE readers miss this story?
WARREN: Because, as others have told me, itÂ’s a great >bleepEmpowered E-Mailing List have let me know me that itÂ’s the best thing IÂ’ve ever done, and thatÂ’s from people who are already quite favorably inclined towards my body of work...
THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on?
WARREN: Right now, I have a few proposals spinning their wheels in Â“development limboÂ” at the Big Companies, but nothingÂ’s concrete enough to dare talking about. Along those lines, you might check out the recurring feature Â“FAILED-PROJECT FRIDAYSÂ” in the Â“JournalÂ” section of my deviantART page, where I discuss and detail a whole bunch oÂ’ defunct or dormant projects:
Beyond that, IÂ’m currently grinding away on the cover and interior pages from Empowered vol. 2, and mulling over the possibility of doing a new Dirty Pair collection in the Empowered reproÂ’d-from-pencils format. Also, as mentioned earlier, I write and draw a one-page humor piece on Playstation issues in the back of the videogame magazine PSM every month.
BTW: Another Empowered story excerpt is a-lurking in the Â“my PicsÂ” section of my newish Myspace space at: