Tuesday, May 8, 2012

GN Review -- Empowered, v. 1 / Adam Warren

I came across Empowered when I read a blog post about sex in superhero comics.  Empowered was cited as a comic that gets it right as opposed to how sex was generally portrayed in the more mainstream superhero comics: either as clichéd, bland soap opera suggestions; overdone, exploitative cheesecake or soft-core porn that panders to man-children and degrades women; or in a context that unfairly associates negativity with sexuality, such as a rape scene.

Adam Warren's book doesn't shy away from sex or even exploitation, but instead of tip-toeing around the subject or overplaying the adolescent fantasies hand, he deconstructs and satirizes many of the absurdities that come with aforementioned fantasies.  At worst, sex is treated matter-of-factly, as something that everyone does and enjoys (or should enjoy), or even positively in the context of a relationship.  The result of all of this is a humorous, refreshingly frank depiction of superhero and comic book culture that is both sexy and a joy to read for both male and female comic readers.

Presented as a series of short comics, we are introduced to Empowered, an attractive young superhero whose reputation as a costumed crimefighter revolves around her good looks and notorious penchant for getting captured and tied up by the villains she fights.  In addition to being considered incompetent, she has myriad confidence issues, including body image problems, an understandable inferiority complex, and a super-suit that gives her stupendous powers... until it takes the slightest bits of damage and rips.  She is almost universally condescended to by her teammates on the hilariously named Superhomeys team, and is particularly maligned by Sistah Spooky, a mage teammate who has an irrational hatred of blondes.

Despite constant struggles and derision due to her flimsy suit and general ineptness, Emp manages to soldier on and brave the slings and arrows that inevitably come her way.  She gets plenty of help from her circle of friends, including her boyfriend Thugboy, a former witless minion; Ninjette, a deadly, stealthy assassin who likes to drink a lot; and The Caged Demonwolf, a former all-powerful super-being that now dispenses advice to her from within the trappings of a piece of--and I quote--"power-draining alien bondage gear."

Writing that phrase must have been a whole lot of fun.

If you've seen the first couple of seasons of Doctor Who or just about any part of Torchwood, you know about the character of Captain Jack Harkness, whose oddly omnivorous sexuality is portrayed as a raging non-issue.  He likes women, he likes men, he likes aliens of various shapes and sizes... in short, he appreciates hotness, no matter what its form.  And amazingly, it's no big deal.  This is simply how he is, and the perceptions of him don't really seem to extend to any real labeling or activism.  It's just... how he is.  No big deal.  It's one of the most endearing things about the character, as far as I'm concerned.

Why do I mention this?  Because the way Jack Harkness's sexuality is treated is precisely the same way that sexuality is treated in Empowered.  It exists, it's something people enjoy and do, it's a part of life.  No big deal, and certainly not something to think is a bad thing.

Now, there's a little more exploration of sexuality and sex--since it's one of the main themes of the book--but it's all in good fun.  Some of the jokes include the ridiculousness of tight superhero costumes, Emp's many lame lamentations about the size of her butt, costumes and roleplaying, and badly written superhero fan fiction.  It's laugh-out-loud funny in its forthrightness, highlighted capably by the charm of the characters Warren has written and drawn.

Emp, of course, is the star, and despite her general incompetence as a hero, her various anxieties about her picture-perfectly portrayed body, and the general lameness that denotes her life, she is an undeniably likable heroine.  Fetching drawn by Warren's pencils, she is very easy on the eyes, with her pouty lips and curvy figure, but it is her ability to put up with her rather low status as a super-hero and continue to fight the good fight that truly makes her endearing.  She has a lot of pluck, a naive sense of self-awareness, and an adorable demeanor when she's at ease and not bringing herself down.  She's also very loyal to her friends, as demonstrated in one episode where she truly throws down and kicks ass when Thugboy's life is on the line.

Artistically, I have to say that Warren's style really fits with the tone of the stories.  Done in an almost-unfinished, pseudo-manga style, there's a good deal of emphasis placed on facial expressions, healthy, young human bodies--particularly the ladies, of course--and over-the-top action, when it comes up.  Warren also doesn't shy away from occasionally exploiting the guys, as evidenced by Thugboy's ridiculous Spartan suit and the brief yaoi episode of fanfiction between two of the male Superhomeys.  The cartooniness of the style helps maintain the idea that this is all in good, semi-clean fun, and really helps drive the episodes.

Overall, I have to say that Empowered is one of my new favorites in comics, and while it's most certainly not for all ages, it's certainly good fun for adults who like a good, healthy dollop of sexuality with their superheroes.  It's fun, cleverly written, and adeptly drawn by the writer.  Check it out and just try not to laugh at a few of the episodes.  Highly recommended.

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