Thursday, April 8, 2010

From the guilty pleasure file: Adam Warren's "Empowered"

At the age of seven or eight I became a big comic book fan. I'd buy the 25 cent used comics from Bookshelf, the neighborhood comic and used book store in St. James, Winnipeg (since replaced by a pet grooming operation, or something of the sort). Occasionally I'd take $1.25 out of my $2 allowance to buy a new one. Mostly I was a fan of Marvel titles. Then at some point in junior high school a long winter set in. Your favourite (?) blogger's attention turned to rock music, and nary a comic was read.

Fast forward to undergrad: I don't remember why, but I began to read the odd trade paperback by Adam Warren. Warren, an American, writes and draws what are known as "original English language manga" - that is, comics drawn in the popular Japanese style, but by non-Japanese, English-speaking artists. His first works were actually adaptations of already popular Japanese titles, such as The Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis. He also did a stint on the popular American title, Gen 13. Warren's drawing style was always eye-catching, but essentially faithful to the tradition; in recent years he has shifted to a more idiosyncratic style, rendering characters with fuller facial features. The essential thing about Warren is that whether he is adapting an existing Manga, or creating his own, his work is always by turns playfully sexy, hilarious, ultra-violent, and oddly literary. If time you have to waste on comics, look no further than his.

I recently stumbled upon Warren's ongoing project Empowered, the sixth volume of which is in production. First: the artwork is incredible. Warren opted for a raw looking pencil / grey scale style, which is an interesting change from the usual bombastic colour treatment his work receives. But what really makes this title is its engaging - frankly entrapping - storyline, which runs roughly as follows: Elyssa Megan Powers, or "Emp" for short, gets her BA in meta-human studies and an alien super-suit so that she can become a superheroine. The suit, however, is "cruelly revealing" and oddly fragile, so Emp's attempts to fight crime more often than not end up with her in bondage, left to be picked up by her disdainful crimefighting teammates. She has body-image issues, and is generally in a fragile emotional state. She spends her off-hours with her boyfriend Thugboy, a former criminal goon, and Ninjette, a hard-drinking white female ninja from one of the ancient clans of New Jersey (!). Thugboy and Ninjette give Emp the emotional support she needs, and also provide an interesting element of unspoken sexual tension. The heroes and villains populating Emp's world are hilariously conceived - Wet Blanket, Shithouse Rat, Phallik, Chloroformaster, Maid Man, etc. Did I mention the Caged Demonwolf? Possibly the best character of all, the Demonwolf is a being of pure energy that Emp entrapped in a power-draining alien bondage belt (!). He spends his time on Emp's coffee table listening to NPR and watching DVDs of the Wire and Sanford and Son. He has the best lines of the whole series, commenting from a position of pure impotence, and in thunderous, grotesquely ornate and archaic turns of phrase, on the most petty goings-on in the household.

As the story progresses, the reader sees that the superheroes so disdainful of Emp are actually, for the most part, grandstanding assholes who are in it for the wrong reasons. She, on the other hand, is a humane and extremely intelligent, if often unlucky crimefighter who bravely battles workplace sexism and her own limitations. Somehow Warren carves out a place for personal growth in a comic which, on first blush, seems like an unabashed pretext for sexy situations.

This is not to make excuses. Empowered could be considered problematic - if not positively ridiculous - from a feminist perspective. At bottom it's fairly prurient; in fact, according to Warren himself it grew out of commissions to draw "damsels in distress" for certain special-interest patrons-of-the-arts. Warren tries to give knowing winks of all sorts throughout the series, but it isn't clear to me how a comic that knows it's outrageously sexist in certain respects is therefore off the hook for being so. Of course - and here's the rub - there is also the fact that I've read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. For this reason, "Empowered" goes firmly into my guilty pleasure file, where it keeps company with my Type-O-Negative records and 50s girl gang movies. Half-ashamed, I eagerly await volume 6.

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