Empowered Special #4
Writer: Adam Warren
Artist/Color: John Staton
Artist/B & W: Adam Warren
Colors: Guru FX
Cover: John Staton & Adam Warren
A review by Bob Reyer
Empowered Special #4: Animal Style encompasses within its thirty pages most of the elements that have made it an entertaining read and a fine character study of a struggling “Associate” super-heroine. However, it is also a title that is either a masterfully self-aware satire of the tropes and cliches of super-hero fiction that utilizes the “taking it back” aspect of Third Wave Feminism, or a work pretending to be that, which is instead a beautifully-constructed piece of exploitation. If that’s the case, then this Empowered has no clothes—but perhaps this series is both, depending on the reader! (Confused? So am I!)
Taking this issue specifically, we find Elissa Megan Powers (aka Empowered) working a second job as costumed security at the Alternate Timeline Super-Hero Auto Show when a gang of armored crooks calling themselves “Animal Style” breaks into the convention center to steal the super-cars from the “Alternapast, Otherpresent and Retrofuture”! In B & W sequences by series creator Adam Warren, Emp flashes back to her college Suprahuman Studies days and devises a plan to defeat the mechanized menagerie using the cars on exhibit, but not with the (See below!) “Popular but wasteful and tactically deficient car throw” method.
She’s succeeding too, when in typical “Empowered” fashion, something goes wrong, and she ends up powerless and captured by her furry…well, ferrous foes. (Another bit of Emp: “Despite the popularity of the objectifyingly horses**t ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope, studies show that super-heroines are no more likely to get captured and restrained than their male peers, okay?”) (By the way, in the book, all cuss words are obscured by giant black boxes, which puts Empowered way ahead of the new Miss Fury!)[As an aside from me, there’s a great “Alert” when Super Cobra’s armor gets damaged by Emp: “WARNING! Hardsuit structural damage has resulted in ‘BROKEBACK’ posture. Occupant injury may occur.’ Classic!]
(By the way, the color pages in this issue are by John Staton.)
I’d like to address some serious adult-type stuff here, although I think it will still be enlightening and entertaining, so I do hope that you’ll stick with me. We will have to ask the kinder to step away though.
(Audrey, could you be a dear and lock the door? Thanks, awfully!)
Now that we have the little ones out of the room…
I picked up a copy of the first Empowered trade at I-Con last year sight-unseen on a recommendation from a female comics writer with whom I had been discussing Wonder Woman and the current dearth of good super-heroines. I was initially appalled at what seemed rampant objectification of the female lead. As I read on however, I found something deeper in the characterization that was almost subversive in turning the concept on its head. It was interesting that a book that began life as a series of “Damsel in Distress” commissioned drawings had transformed into a series that features one of the most layered, human and relatable super-heroines in comics. As it moves beyond its “fetishy” beginnings,”Emp” struggles with becoming a better hero, jealousy from her “super-peers”, building a better relationship, body issues, and money problems. (As an “associate hero”, she doesn’t get a salary, so she works as an event model, cos-playing herself!) You feel deeply for her as her super-suit malfunctions again, or when her team-mates in the “Superhomeys” treat her like crap, even after she saves them from a horde of their now-undead colleagues.
The series is funny, action-packed (with violence so over-the-top as to be an *albeit bloody* cartoon), sensual (yet playful and loving, with only implied nudity–which also includes the objectification of her boyfriend. the ex-minion “Thugboy”), at times touching and sad (as when she bonds with her “bestest”, the hard-drinking Ninjette), and always very smart in its use of super-hero tropes and “fourth-wall breakiness”, as Emp calls it when she speaks to the audience! As the book has gone on, Mr. Warren has (mostly) left behind (to the howls of some!) the DID elements that started the strip, and because of the growth of the lead character, you empathize with her anguish over their now-rarer inclusion, and feel as the worst sort of voyeur for not averting your eyes, particularly as she gripes directly to you, the reader, about their usage as fan-service to those initial buyers.
I think it’s a fascinating juggling act that Mr. Warren is attempting, and mostly succeeding at doing here. Of course, I may also have completely “lost the plot”, and may be reading more into this than is actually there. In doing some research, I’ve found quite a few postive reviews on Empowered, from the usual media outlets, and both female and male critics and bloggers. (Links at the bottom!)
I’m torn, because at a cursory glance Empowered is very much a “cheesecake” book (which in-and-of-itself isn’t wrong if handled properly), that despite some intense material is less egregious than many “regular” comics. So the question is, by turning that angle inwards on itself, has Adam Warren “taken it back”? That it is a title clearly marketed for adults removes it from the “Ick Factor” inherent when such elements appear in mainstream comics, but is that enough? I certainly don’t wish to send out a bad message to anyone if I’m wildly mis-reading this series and seeing sub-text and depth where there aren’t any. Is it simply a blind spot, and that I (and many others, apparently) am trying to justify liking a series that I should abhor?
In correspondence with Professor Carolyn Cocca of SUNY College at Old Westbury (a good friend of Talking Comics), she points out that some feminists believe that “you can embody the trope, and parody it at the same time”, while other writers feel that by showing that trope, they are “perpetuating expectations of seeing it in that genre, and the image may outweigh the words.”
Interestingly, I think Empowered falls into both categories, which is undoubtedly the cause of my conflict. When you read Mr. Warren’s comments in interviews, not to mention the words his characters speak, it seems that he is trying to send out a positive message whilst taking the tropes to an absurdist level. That said, even though he acknowledges the “fan service” issue, the usage of the imagery that is probably intended to retain some of the readers who came to the title for that imagery, is more in the “eat your cake, and have it, too” realm, particularly as it is so often over-the-top, although somehow always playful and in good taste.
(I think I’ve gone WAY past my pay grade here! I’ll try to wrap this up before Audrey has to come in with my migraine medications!)
Soon, Robert darling, soon!
There’s a lot at play in this parody of super-heroics, what with the combination of strong female characters and some very powerful and positive messages thrust up against some risque imagery, so it’s quite difficult to reconcile the ultimate impact Empowered could have. Whilst some readers are grasping what might be Mr. Warren’s “empowering” sub-text, others may be seeing the surface imagery alone, therefore subverting the author’s (possibly) subversive intentions, bringing things back around to exploitation—oy gevalt, my head is beginning to throb! It’s a bit too much like Schrodinger’s Cat or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for me!
VERDICT: I’ve been enjoying Empowered, but always as a bit of a guilty pleasure, as I’m still a bit conflicted. Either Adam Warren is turning the DID/objectification tropes on their head by utilizing solid, well-written female characters and messages, or he’s hiding a truly exploitative piece behind some awfully-nice frippery. I think more the former, as it would be hard to construct such layered personas as a sham, let alone keep it going over all these pages, but who knows? That said, Empowered Special #4 “Animal Style” is a charming bit of self-aware super-hero satire, with a boat-load of heart, but how any reader will perceive the finale is a matter of an individual’s sensibilities and experience, and if they feel that Mr. Warren is using those clichés ironically so as point out their absurdity through humor, which would grant him greater license.
I’d love to hear your comments on this one, so fire away!
SOUNDTRACK (Kinda) Check out this video review for another take: