Adam Warren's "Empowered" from Dark Horse Comics is a self-described "sexy superhero comedy." It chronicles the exploits of Empowered, previously known as Elissa Megan Powers, and her time with the often immature and cruel Superhomeys. "Empowered" has its roots in poking gentle, and sometimes not-so-gentle, fun at damsel in distress tropes and cape comics.
Some would tell you that "Empowered" walks the fine line between selling T&A and commenting on it. "It's a parody!" they shout. Honestly? It isn't a parody and it is selling T&A. This week's "Empowered" volume 6 is a great indicator of exactly what "Empowered's" strengths are, and is a great comic besides.
"Empowered" 6 is an examination of the transient nature of superheroic death, not unlike Marvel's "Necrosha" or DC's "Blackest Night." There are jokes about how capes never seem to stay dead, brand new deaths, and even a resurrection of sorts in this volume. The big bad guy of the book has been harvesting dead capes for his own nefarious purposes, and Emp and the gang have to stop him.
One advantage "Empowered" has over most superhero comics is that Warren can twist and turn his superheroes however he likes, with no concern for The Way Things Are or protecting trademarks. The catastrophic events of the last volume demand some sort of follow-up, and a reasonable portion of "Empowered" 6 is spent doing exactly that. Thugboy and Emp's relationship ends up strained over her almost throwing down with one of the baddest supervillains in town (the same supervillain that effortlessly massacred over half a dozen of Emp's teammates). Sistah Spooky is a broken mess and trying to cope with her failure in volume 5.
As usual, "Empowered" greatest strength is in its characterization. Warren sometimes plays it a bit too cute, such as when the Thugboy and Emp argument ends with a reassurance that her response to almost dying is okay because she has "actual emotional reactions like some human beings tend to have." When he lets fly with the character-based jokes, though, he shines. We finally get the story of how Empowered got her supersuit (it landed on her doorstep quite literally out of the blue) and whether or not that origin constitutes a bargain with a demon. (It probably doesn't.) Maidman, the grim avenger of the innocent who also happens to wear a cute little maid outfit, has a run-in with the undead hero Hardkore. Hardkore talks like Christian Bale's Batman because his vocal cords are decomposing. Maidman talks like Batman because of "extreme badassedness
, pretty much." They get in each other's face and grunt to prove their manliness.
The jokes build up the characters and keep things light in a story that's really all about death and dying. Warren's character work is strong enough that the jokes don't interfere with the more serious parts of "Empowered" 6. They provide a welcome break, keeping this volume from becoming cripplingly depressing, and actually manage to enhance the sad scenes, particularly Sistah Spooky's quiet desperation and attempt to cope in the face of loss.
Of course, you can't talk about "Empowered" without talking about the scantily-clad elephant in the room. "Empowered" began life as a character in a series of commissioned damsel in distress drawings. You know the type--buxom lass, ropes, maybe a dragon or some phallic imagery. Warren found himself having too much fun poking fun at the faintly ridiculous situations he was being paid to draw and spun "Empowered" off into its own thing.
Visually, "Empowered" doesn't stray too far from its sexy roots. Emp wears a form-fitting costume, when it isn't torn to shreds, her boyfriend spends most of his time with his shirt off, and her best friend wears booty shorts as part of her superhero uniform. The damsel in distress gimmick never really went away, either. It's something of a running joke in "Empowered," but rather than seeming inept or pathetic, Emp just seems kinda... unlucky. She's certainly capable, and sometimes her suit shows flashes of brilliant power, but Murphy's Law is always in effect for Emp.
"Empowered" 6 is no different than its predecessors. Emp gets tied up a lot, including a chapter dedicated to the ins and outs of being tied up (Protip: rugburn sucks). The yaoi dojinshi from volume 3 returns, this time with one-pagers courtesy of Jo Chen and Emily Warren, complete with references to scanlators. There is sex, and while you don't actually see any nudity, the thin black censor bars in the yaoi interludes and suggestive poses don't leave much to the imagination.
Maybe it's a result of having read and enjoyed five volumes of "Empowered" already, but the nigh-constant onslaught of T&A never got into the way of the story for me the way it does in Big Two cape comics. Perhaps it is due to the fact that this book is the product of one mind, and therefore the T&A and the story are more likely to work in sync, rather than against each other. You never seen word balloons coming out of butts or boobs dominating an entire panel just because. There's always a specific intent, whether satiric or prurient, behind the T&A.
"Empowered" isn't a parody, though. Far from it, I'd argue. Adam Warren is a notoriously self-aware creator. He knows the tropes and stereotypes of comic books, and he's not afraid to point them out in his work, even as he indulges in them himself. There's always a knowing wink lurking just below the surface of his work. The thing is, there's a very, very thin line between parodying a T&A-focused comic and just drawing a T&A-focused comic. In fact, the line may be entirely semantic, particularly since it's so subjective.
So, here: Adam Warren draws sexy comics that are also pretty funny. His characters talk about being tied up as they get tied up, comment on how the camera is focusing on their butt and how ridiculous that is (page 9), and generally keep up a certain level of meta-commentary that creates a more flexible suspension of disbelief and a little more leeway than usual in the reader, as there is at least half a point to be found there.
Just as importantly, even in the middle of constant T&A, Warren's strong sense of humor and character shines through. Without it, "Empowered" 6 would be just another lame softcore comic, but the narrative, the characters, and the self-indulgent winks at the reader prop "Empowered" up as something more than your typical sexy superhero fare. Warren somehow manages to both have his cake and eat it, too.