The writer/artist of Empowered talks to The Outhouse about the latest volume of his ongoing series of super sexy stories!
In an age where complaints of "decompression" in comics continue unabated, Adam Warren tends to stand out as a creator who gives the reader a lot of information to unpack in a very short amount of time. Greatly influenced by manga art and form, Warren's kinetic storytelling and depth of thought reveal his work to be snapshots of contemporary culture, both inside and outside the comics bubble. Since 2004, Warren has been applying his rapid-fire stylishness to Empowered, a series of original graphic novels published by Dark Horse Comics. The series, whose seventh volume hits comic shelves today, focuses on Elissa Megan Powers, a young woman who dons a supersuit to become Emp, a powerful superhero whose costume tends to fall to tatters in just about every battle she engages in. Touted by Dark Horse as a "sexy superhero comedy," Empowered makes hay out of the portrayal and treatment of female characters, using bondage and other sexual imagery alongside notions of paternalism and female empowerment in the action-adventure milieu. For this and other reasons, Empowered really strikes the careful reader as a meta-narrative that's as much about comics as it the story of its sexy but neurotic protagonist.
Warren spoke to The Outhouse (via e-mail) about Empowered vol. 7 and its place in the current comics conversation.
The Outhouse (OH): Empowered has been serialized through seven books now (though each one can be read on its own). Did you conceive this as an ongoing story from the start?
Adam Warren (AW): Nope! In fact, the first true incarnation of Empowered ran for only 20 pages or so before sputtering to a halt, as I had no intention of continuing such a goofy string of joke comics for very long. Empowered, as it turned out, had very different intentions for me...
OH: Which came first, the decision to write about a superheroine with insecurity over her body, or the idea to do a mash-up of action-adventure genres (superheroes, ninjas, zombies, etc)?
AW: The idea of the insecure, misadventure-prone superheroine came first, believe me. Everything else that would follow, no matter how wacky or bizarre or seemingly "mash-uppy", has its roots in that very basic and very straightforward initial concept.
OH: Your main character, Emp, is pretty down on herself, but in a truthful way (her "martyrdom," as Ninjette calls it). We all know insecure people who are so self-deprecating that they kind of become a drag to be around, but Emp stays pretty sympathetic and lovable throughout. How have you been able to strike that balance with Emp, and keep her from becoming too grating and pathetic?
AW: I'm afraid that, as they say, Your Mileage May Vary regarding whether or not Emp effectively avoids being too grating or pathetic. I'd like to think so, but I've met a few readers who quite emphatically do not agree with that opinion... Oh, well.
Anyhoo, striking the balance with Emp is pretty straightforward: I take her insecurities and neuroses and flaws right up to the point where I feel they'd annoy me as a reader, then pull back at the precipice. If anything, Emp is slightly unrealistic in that, if she really existed, I believe she'd be far more whiny and obnoxious than how I portray her. In fact, I'm thinking of bringing in a new cast member who would represent more what I think a "real-life Emp" might behave like; rest assured, anyone who finds Emp insufferable will have much more trouble coping with this character—as will I, the poor sap who has to write said character.
OH: While some may look at Empowered as a simple cheesecake book upon first glance, the fact is it's clear that you've given a lot of thought to issues of the objectifying male gaze in comics and entertainment. You at times play into it, but also subvert it in Empowered. Talk about your approach to these issues, and why you wanted to address them in Empowered.
AW: Well, if I was gonna be doing cheesecake-intensive superheroine imagery, addressing some of the more problematic implications of such tropes seemed like an obvious thing to do, if only to keep from boring myself; producing straight-up exploitation imagery without some degree of subversion or deconstruction or critical analysis would've become tedious for me rather quickly. Plus, I liked the idea of possibly undercutting some of the objectification issues—well, in theory at least—by showing a sympathetic, relatable character's reaction to the creepier tropes of superheroine depiction, from outrageous costuming to body-image idealization to "damsel in distress" scenarios. However, as I am all too aware, once again Your Mileage May Vary as to how successful I was at achieving such lofty—and, perhaps, whimsically hypocritical—aims.
OH: How long does one volume of Empowered typically take to produce?
AW: Once upon a time, back in the early days when Empowered's artwork was somewhat breezier and quite a bit less detailed, I was able to turn around a 208pp (or longer!) volume every six months or so. Nowadays, I'm afraid, the process takes a great deal longer: Empowered vol.7 took me pretty much all of 2011 (give or take a few days) to complete.
OH: How has your art process evolved? Do you still shoot directly from your pencils? How does your process facilitate your storytelling?
AW: Honestly, my technique for drawing Empowered hasn't changed a great deal over all the time I've been working on the series, save perhaps for the gradually increasingly level of time-consuming detail I just mentioned. Yeah, the book's artwork is still shot directly from my pencils, which are still drawn on cheap, 8½" X 11" copy paper, instead of the more expensive, much larger art board generally used for original comics pages.
The process facilitates my storytelling in one very simple, very stark manner: Without this streamlined, stripped-down, speeded-up approach to drawing comics pages, Empowered wouldn't be possible in the first place. Drawing pages at conventional-format sizes—roughly in the 10" X 15" range—would take too long, and painstakingly inking them would be even more out of the question. Given the dramatically low pagerates (technically, advances against royalties, rather than pagerates as such) involved in the Original Graphic Novel model, only an ultra-simplified working technique like the one I use could possibly make the books' production even remotely close to being cost-effective.
On a less mundane level, Empowered's simple-but-fast production approach permits me to move on to the finished page very quickly, allowing for much more impulsiveness and flexibility than the multiple stages and slower pace of my older work approach.
OH: You really delve into the politics, particularly the gender and sexual politics, of being in a superhero group in Empowered, and you seem to hit that button very hard in vol. 7. Do you intend Empowered to be a running commentary on the contemporary superhero comics scene?
AW: Only to a certain degree, as I'm not all that interested in spending my time directly lampooning specific aspects of modern superhero comics. Occasionally the humor in Empowered might overlap current trends in real-life "cape culture," but most of the stories tend to veer off and explore their own unique paths, rather than comment exhaustively on the latest Marvel or DC shenanigans.
An example: After the death of a major character in Empowered vol.5, I'd originally intended to riff on the problematic nature of grief in a superhero universe—how can you mourn a fallen "cape" with any certainty, when the dead hero almost undoubtedly won't stay dead? Ah, but that concept only really applies in a corporate-owned superhero universe, where business factors often preclude "real" death, and new writers constantly arrive on the scene to (literally) revive dead characters. I soon realized that the "Empverse" isn't like that at all; rather than making fun of corporate-cape tendencies, I decided that heroes can and do die "for real" in my goofy but occasionally grim little sandbox of a setting. (Of course, in Empowered vol.6, we do happen to encounter some fallen heroes who were never quite able to die properly, but that's a different story.)
OH: Your work, Empowered in particular, always has a very frenetic pace to it. Even a conversation or monologue scene is particularly kinetic (certainly, this is all part and parcel to how influenced you are by manga). Over the course of working on over 200 pages of story and art, does it ever get difficult to maintain such a narrative pace?
AW: If anything, I have the opposite problem: I'm often worried that I'm not giving the story enough "room to breathe," that the pacing is too relentless, that the reader will feel bludgeoned by too much kineticism—or too much dialogue, for that matter. This was particularly tricky given Empowered vol.7's somewhat shifty timeline, which required a good deal of editing and page reshuffling to achieve the story flow I wanted.
OH: Speaking of which, in vol.7 you jump around a lot in time, and have lengthy sequences that take place in someone's head (though you don't reveal that until after the sequence is done). What does the non-linear storytelling bring to Empowered?
AW: To me, an occasionally non-linear narrative approach allows for more brashness and spontaneity and straight-up fun than a purely linear and conventional timeline might allow. Specifically, this very pliable mode of storytelling affords me plenty of opportunities to keep the reader guessing—which, I must admit, amuses me to no end. (You have my very insincerest apologies for this entirely appalling tendency of mine.)
OH: What else should we know about vol. 7 that we haven't covered?
AW: Wait, lemme shift into carnival barker mode for a bit: In Empowered vol. 7, you can thrill to bloody, brutal, plot-twisty, reversal-intensive ninja-on-ninja mayhem! Guffaw heartily at sexy hijinks, wench-on-wench crossdressing, and whimsical teasing of overstimulated boyfriends! Sniffle at surprisingly emotional bathtub confessions between a wet, drunken ninja and an imprisoned immortal who reveals a startling new side of himself! Take notes as a former "capekiller" schools you in the best ways to set superheroes on fire! Gasp as Emp tells the tragic tale of her very first brush with humiliating "superfailure"—and learns a surprisingly critical new fact about her true nature as a superheroine! Raise an eyebrow and mutter, "WTF?" as heretofore poker-faced lady ninja "F**king Oyuki-chan" suddenly displays honest-to-God facial expressions—why, she's practically mugging, the shameless ham! All this and so much, much more can be yours in Empowered vol. 7—NOW ON SALE!
OH: What's next for you? What are you working on now that we can all look forward to?
Right now, I'm writing several new Empowered one-shots, each issue to be drawn by a different Very Special Guest Artist—and featuring additional artwork by yours truly, let me hasten to add! Beyond that, I'm simultaneously working a number of other, ahem, "Top-Secret Empowered Side Projects," about which I can't yet talk on the record—though I can hint enigmatically, of course! And beyond that mysterious stuff, I've also started work on Empowered vol. 8, also known as "the one that wraps up Sistah Spooky's plotline with ringing finality!" (Good lord, I just realized that I ended the last ten sentences in a row with exclamation points—clearly, I'm wildly overcaffeinated, at this point! Wait, make that eleven sentences in a row.)
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch