Thursday, April 13, 2023

Kontemplating Komix: Empowered (2007– )

Oh jeez. We're doing Empowered? Okay. Let's talk about Empowered.

Empowered is...

No, damn it. No. Let's not start like this.

Around the time I did that writeup about X-Men crossovers, it occurred to me that while I was aware of the Image Exodus' consequences for the X-books, I didn't know too much about the comics that Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Wilce Portacio worked on after leaving Marvel. I thought I owed it to myself to at least have a look at a few, so I started with the one I most recognized: Gen¹³, created and co-written by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi, and launched in 1994.

Having seen its logo and its busty, leggy heroine Caitlin Fairchild all over comic & hobby shops in the mid-90s, I knew Gen¹³ had once been A Thing. Other than that, I had only the foggy impression that it was designed to be something like a version of Uncanny X-Men whose founding members were hip MTV generation teenagers instead of preppy young Baby Boomers.

After reading the book's five-issue introductory volume, and then maybe ten issues of the ongoing second volume, I understood why Gen¹³ melted into oblivion as the decade elapsed. It's basically The Real World with superpowers. Like the contemporaneous Marvel 2099 line, Gen¹³ retains some retrospective appeal as an imprint of American pop culture from the very middle of the interregnum between The End of History and The War on Terror, but is otherwise another middle-of-the-road comic about adolescents with paranormal abilities.

Like most American comic serials, Gen¹³ cycled through several different artists and writers throughout its eight-year lifespan. Plotter Jim Lee bounced early on, and penciller J. Scott Campbell became Choi's co-author. After they both followed Lee out the door, the book became a little more interesting, even though few of the illustrators succeeding Campbell could match what he brought to the table. 

For couple of years it was written by John Arcudi, creator of the Dark Horse comic Barb Wire (better known for its adaptation as a Pamela Anderson film vehicle). Arcudi left after issue #40, and was replaced by Scott Lobdell (creator of Marvel's own 1994 teen team Generation X) from issues #45 through #54. Lobdell abruptly left, and for a few issues his job was filled by Jeff Mariotte (who previously wrote two Gen¹³ prose novels) and Ben Raab (served as assistant editor for several Marvel books in the mid-1990s).

At issue #60, one Adam Warren climbed into the authorial cockpit, and remained there until Gen¹³ folded with issue #77. 

Sometimes Warren also drew interior pages, and was almost always responsible for the cover art during his run. Judging from the above, we can confidently infer that he was watching anime on VHS before Toonami, Pokémon, and filesharing (and then streaming video) injected Japanese animation into the American mainstream.* To some small extent, Gen¹³ evinced and contributed to the normalization of the Japanese comic/animation aesthetic on this side of the Pacific. 

* As a matter of fact, Warren wrote and illustrated a series of licensed English-language Dirty Pair comics, starting way back in 1988.

Over a year before the reins passed solely into his hands, Warren wrote a pair of issues during the period between Arcudi and Lobell's runs. In Gen¹³ #43–44, Caitlin Fairchild does battle with a meme. No, not that kind of meme—a meme in the specific sense originally proposed by Richard Dawkins. (Caitlin namedrops The Selfish Gene while formulating a theory of what she's up against.) A sentient pop song gets into the world's head like a virulent mental parasite, and Caitlin finally confronts it when it speaks to her through the possessed body of the singer who recorded it.

I happened to land on this story while I was skipping through the series, and made a note of Warren's name. (Hadn't I already seen it somewhere before?) Whatever the hell he was doing, I didn't think I'd mind seeing more of it.

During its final year under Warren, Gen¹³ certainly became more lively. The book's crass comedy, barrage of pop culture references, and hip self-awareness all get ramped up by an order of magnitude. In giving the main cast its sendoff in issues #75–76 (which Warren also illustrated), he has them and some of their superfriends hanging out at a beach house where they play Dance Dance Revolution, get sloppy drunk, go skinny dipping (with black rectangles judiciously covering everyone's nips and bits), and hook up with each other. With not a little fanfare, Caitlin Fairchild finally loses her virginity.

I kept reading because it confused me. I got the sense that Warren simultaneously luxuriated in all the boozy adolescent spectacle and sleazy cheesecake, and giggled to himself in recognition of how utterly silly it all is. It takes an unusual authorial mind to make a dumb and horny comic seem kind of smart.

And then at the end, we learn the party didn't actually happen. The whole thing was a wish-fulfillment fantasy playing out inside Fairchild's mind in the dilated moment before she and her team get blown to smithereens on their final mission. Huh.

Afterwards I googled "Adam Warren." This guy was too idiosyncratic and too good at what he did to have been exiled from the industry after Gen¹³ ended. He must have been up to something since then, especially since I dimly felt I'd already seen his name elsewhere.

So I googled him. Empowered is what came up. That's why I recognized his name.

So there you have it: how I was convinced to give Empowered a shot.

Back when I worked at the bookstore (circa 2008), I'd pass Empowered on the shelf on my way to the pisser. (Nobody could ever decide whether it should be shelved under Graphic Novels or Manga.) I never read it because, well, I judged it by its cover—and its back copy. From volume 1: 

Not only is costumed crimefighter "Empowered" saddled with a less-than-ideal superhero name, but she wears a skintight and cruelly revealing "supersuit" that only magnifies her body-image insecurities. Worse yet, the suit's unreliable powers are prone to failure, repeatedly leaving her in appallingly distressing situations...and giving her a shameful reputation as the lamest "cape" in the masks-and-tights business. Nonetheless, she pluckily braves the ordeals of her bottom-rung superheroic life with the help of her "thugalicious" boyfriend (and former Witless Minion) and her hard-drinking ninja girlfriend, not to mention the supervillainous advice from the caged alien demonlord watching DVDs from atop her coffee table...
Everything about it howled mid-aughts geek-pandering cringe. At one point I picked a volume off the shelf and only glanced inside long enough for its anime-influenced, pencils-only aesthetic (à la MegaTokyo) to reinforce my assumption that it must have been a webcomic collected in a trade paperback.

The first volume was published in 2007, and I suspect the earliest "chapters" are at least a couple years older. Had I sat down and actually read them at the time, I would have been (erroneously) certain I'd guessed right. These are totally webcomic strips reproduced in print: four- or five-page episodic gag stories about clownish superheroes, focusing on a hapless buxom blonde in a skintight bodysuit who's always getting sexually degraded by her foes and ridiculed by her allies.

Warren mentions in one of the first volume's interstitial fourth-wall-breaking pages that when he got the idea for Empowered, he was doing commissions for people who wanted steamy "damsel in distress" illustrations. It's as much as an explanation as an excuse as to why Empowered (that's the buxom blonde's superhero sobriquet) is constantly shown with her limbs trussed up, a ball gag jammed in her mouth, and her costume in tatters.

And this is funny! Ha ha ha! See how flustered and embarrassed she is! Watch her blush and frantically try to conceal her naked breasts and crotch from the eyes of her captors and the cameras of the news crews! Ho ho! Sexual humiliation is comedy!

But okay. Empowered and its world crystallize a little more with each successive episode. Em is the laughingstock "associate member" of a team of caped crimefighters called the Superhomeys (aughts cringe). Her mysterious "hypermembrane" suit grants her superhuman strength, durability, and the ability to fire energy blasts—but the thing is very flimsy, and her powers diminish the more it gets ripped up. (It regenerates itself, though. Slowly.) Naturally, for some reason it doesn't work if she wears anything over it. And it needs to make contact with her skin, so she can't wear anything under it, either. (How convenient.)

The suit also has the side effect of making her multi-orgasmic, which we know because she starts dating a hunky himbo named Thugboy (more aughts cringe), a henchman who crushed on her when he and a bunch of other goons had her captured and tied up. He quits the minion game to become Em's live-in boyfriend, have drawn-out sex scenes with her, shave her pubic hair, and go on and on and on about how much he likes her ass.

In an early episode, Em befriends a perpetually drunk party-girl ninja named Kozue who displays her working name "Ninjette" on the backside of a pair of hotpants her buttcrack is perpetually choking on. When she's lounging around Em's apartment and crushing beers without her shirt on, Ninjette wears shuriken-shaped pasties on her A-cup breasts—and of course her introductory appearance makes a makes a production out of her comparing her assets to Em's C-cups because, you know, that's what actual women talk about when they're getting acquainted. Very realistic.

Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yeah: during another early episode, Em is abducted by aliens, fitted with a power-draining bondage belt, and earmarked for enslavement in an intergalactic harem. The aliens throw her back when they realize her "derrièrical bootyfication" exceeds acceptable parameters (read: her ass is too fat), but she does get to keep the belt. It comes in handy a bit later when a cthulhoid entity possesses a child's body and goes on a rampage, and Em uses the belt to trap the entity's conscious essence. Now the "Caged Demonwolf" sits harmlessly on Em's coffee table, making magniloquent booming speeches about video games and bad movies, creeping on Em and Ninjette, and trying to convince Thugboy to rifle through his girlfriend's underwear drawer.

I went back and forth on the idea of doing an Empowered writeup. I thought that if I was finally going to get around to writing a longform thing about Shade, The Changing Man, I might as well make a party out of it and follow it up with a couple of other writeups about "auteur" comics (ones that never swap out their creator/writer for someone else) that seem underappreciated. Empowered came to mind.

Revisiting Empowered, I found myself having second thoughts. I didn't like the idea of leafing through an eleven-volume comic heaving with so much puerile gibberish, grabbing screencaps of it, and then spending several hours contemplating and writing about it. But I had a hard time coming up with an alternative that wouldn't have felt forced.

Then I thought I'd do a three-in-one: write only a few succinct paragraphs about Empowered, and then do the same for another two comics. Easy enough.

I skimmed more of Empowered to refresh my memory. And just like the first time, it sucked me in as I hate-read the first couple of volumes. It won me over again. Damn it all to hell.

Empowered is a specimen of the breed exemplified by the likes of The Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty: a series that starts off as an episodic comedy satirizing tropes in popular media, and organically develops into an intricate saga with real emotional stakes. The Venture Bros. began as a pastiche of The Hardy Boys, Johnny Quest, and classic superhero comics, all played for laughs.*  But as the incidental lore piled up, Hammer and Publick followed the internal logic of the world they'd cobbled together towards a serialized and serious story. Nobody who's waiting for the announcement of the movie's release date is thinking about the jokes: we're grinding our teeth in anticipation of finally seeing the whole thing resolved.

* The Guild of Calamitous Intent, remember, was first mentioned in service of a throwaway joke about how even supervillains are expected to observe bureaucratic protocols.

That's how it goes with Empowered. An ecchi-tinged romantic comedy about a confidence-deficient superheroine on the struggle bus gets into worldbuilding to round out the satire, and transitions from a gag strip to a bona fide superhero comic as Warren builds on concepts and characters first introduced as jokes.

For instance: volume 1 has a silly aside about Thugboy selling old supervillain gear on eBay to earn some scratch after his retirement from professional henching. In short order, this becomes the basis for the revelation that Thugboy was once part of a "Witless Minions" crew that methodically backstabbed and ripped off supervillains—until something went horribly, murderously wrong. (Whatever happened, it's related to the "San Antonio Incident" which the superhero community occasionally mentions with a deep shudder.) The character introduced as the female lead's cuddly beefcake boyfriend suddenly has a dark secret to be teased and explored, and old demons threatening to upend his happy new life. 

Example 2: Sistah Spooky, the scurrilous mean-girl sorceress introduced in Empowered's very first episode, is revealed to have acquired her mystical powers through a kind of infernal accounting error when she sold her soul for a supermodel's body after being a mousy black girl in a high school full of gorgeous, bullying blondes got to be too much. Clearly Spooky's origin story was devised as a semi-comedic post hoc explanation as to why Em's teammate goes out of her way to be nasty to her (Spooky has a complex about blonde women), but it opens the door for the next obvious step in serial plot thickening—which is to reveal Spooky's secret, tumultuous relationship with the love of her life, who just so happens to be another blonde female superhero. And so we're introduced to the telepath Mindfuck, Empowered's best and most tragic character.

The fact that I'm using the word "tragic" as a defining attribute of a cast member of this series ought to be an indicator of how far it grows beyond its original dimensions as a lewd superhero comedy that played its main character's body insecurity and humiliation for laughs.

I could rattle off another few instance of spur-of-the-moment characters and concepts becoming incubators for more involved and serious plot threads, but you get the idea.

I can't identify where precisely Empowered turns around. Possibly the inflection point is in volume 4, where Em's nomination for a Capey Award (meant as another cruel joke at her expense) dovetails into a suspenseful action sequence where she rushes to prevent a traitor from murdering every superhero in attendance. Definitely something has changed by volume 5, where the supervillain Willy Pete (who incidentally figures into a particularly dark episode from Thugboy's past) attacks the Superhomies' orbiting base.* By volume 7, even the Caged Demonwolf—the Empowered version of first-season Stewie Griffin, a stubbornly one-note gag character—reveals that he's got much more in him than overwrought rants about sex and pop culture.

* The, ahem, "Homeycrib." But even the nomenclatural aughts cringe becomes a retconned plot point. At first, the fact that the majority of the world's superheroes are bunch of developmentally stunted dudebros and mean girls with godlike powers is presented as fashionable (if predictable) satire. Later on, we get hints that this was by sinister design. Somebody apparently wanted to set things up so that the good guys with superpowers tend to be the sort of unserious, small-minded people who'd give the name "Homeycrib" to their base of operations.

The lewdness, geek humor, and veneer of arrested adolescence remain constant as Empowered drives on, and I suppose that's how it's got to be. Its genre-savvy ridiculousness and sexploitation can't be disjoined from the pressurized hysterical realism of its serious parts. I try to imagine Empowered's spontaneous emergence as a genre-aware action-drama in the vein of Invincible, and it just doesn't compute. Starting off as a dorky horndog comedy is what gave Empowered a generously broad runaway on which to accelerate before taking off. This is a slow burn kind of book.

And yes: obviously the progression of Empowered mirrors the journey of its protagonist. Em starts off as a laughingstock, a punchline attached to an ass and a pair of tits, and becomes a force to be reckoned with as time goes on.

I'm not going to subject Empowered to a feminist analysis, but we ought to at least consider it—as Warren himself does (albeit indirectly) in volume 9.

That one came out in 2015, and I suppose I don't need to talk about the state of the culture wars at that point. Warren seems to have had an inkling that he might have inadvertently placed himself in bind by setting up a discrepancy between his book's implicit and explicit messages. 

Back in 2007—and not to dredge up Amer-gay Ate-gay, but let's point out that this was before Anita Sarkeesian arrived on the scene—a sexploitation comic partially inspired by bondage smut, written and drawn by a straight man, could have been expected to skirt by with as little resistance as was aroused by, I don't know, Cammy's butt in Street Fighter, Tifa's gigantic breasts in Final Fantasy VII, or any other piece of "geek" media that gratuitously sexualized its female characters.

But by 2015, perhaps Warren was beginning to sweat. I might too, if I were a male comic artist who'd staked his career on an ongoing series about a female superhero who routinely gets tied up and stripped down, and whose title makes light of the political mantra of "female empowerment."

There's a chapter in volume 9 where Em is approached by the masked biographer Ghost Writer, who offers to pen her autobiography, but insists on downplaying the substance of her career and emphasizing the episodes of sexual humiliation for the sake of making it sell. The entire sequence can't but be read as Warren's response to real or imaginary critics reprimanding him for putting on a comic that objectifies and dumps on its female protagonist—notwithstanding that Empowered is essentially a story about a relentless underdog who earns the respect she deserves, step by agonizing step.

Em finally rejects Ghost Writer and gives him the righteous dressing-down he deserves. But I feel like Warren might have given away the game when he has Em telling Ghostwriter something to the effect of: "nobody's going to jerk off to your stupid book, get real, there's internet porn for that." I have a hard time believing we're not to interpret this as Warren contravening allegations (real or imagined) that his life's work is so much jerkoff material by making the argument that since that nobody cooms to print matter anymore, his print comic Empowered can't be accused of being coomer fodder.

This is one of the reasons I felt Warren's turn on Gen¹³ was at least worth mentioning. The "epilogue" at the beach house approached its climax by turning into an iteration of Girls Gone Wild with super-adolescents, and Warren's wry self-awareness saved it from turning into something really embarrassing.

But with Empowered, he strains the elastic limits of irony. Warren would really like to have it both ways. Despite his (and Em's) protestations, his protagonist is designed to be an object of that Male Gaze we speak of in grave whispers and punctuate with a wad of spit. Empowered is a self-aware superhero comic that pokes fun at the trope of the hypersexualized female protagonist in a skimpy outfit who frequently gets captured, bound, and gagged for the sake of stoking the appetites of a male audience—but that self-awareness doesn't change the fact that it's still got a hypersexualized female protagonist who frequently gets captured, bound, and gagged for the sake of stoking the appetites of a male audience. Warren tries to hide behind his character's assertions that she never wanted to be seen as a sex object (like Jessica Rabbit, she's "just drawn that way"), as though that negates his own choice to keep stripping her naked, sticking a ball gag in her mouth, and putting her in veritably pornographic sex scenes with Thugboy in volume after volume.

I'm reminded of friends of mine who watch shows like The Bachelorette, but claim to do so ironically. Our comportment determines the essential character of our actions to a lesser extent than we often like to believe. 

But I can't judge Empowered too harshly in this regard. Warren's palpable empathy for his protagonist makes the worst of any imputations of gross sexism unsustainable.* Still, this is at best a problematic book—which is only a condemnation if one cares about that sort of thing, and if one understands the label as a scarlet letter instead of something that defies orthodoxy and might be deserving of examination. There's a multitude of possible arguments as to why Empowered is either an unorthodox but earnestly feminist comic by a male author or is otherwise sexploitative Male Gaze shit with a spurious feminist message—or both!—and few works of narrative art were ever impoverished by ambiguity.

* Again, I can't read Warren's mind, but it seems to me he didn't really become invested in Em until after he'd been writing her for a while. Volume 1 gleefully makes her the butt of a mean cosmic joke, but Warren patently loses his relish for milking her humiliation for laughs it as the series goes on. I remember an interview with X-Factor and New Mutants writer Louise Simonson where she said something to the effect that she didn't care much for Madelyne Pryor until the plot started pushing her over the edge, and that might be the case here. I feel like Warren needed to put Em through a few dangerous, not-joking situations before he felt he ought to do well by her.

When I got the idea to do a few comic book writeups, Empowered probably came to mind because volume 11 was freshest in my recollection. And volume 11 is a masterpiece.

Most of it consists of an unremitting action sequence were Em squares off alone against the villain Neurospear—Mindfuck's younger brother, a former superhero who psychically lobotomized himself to prevent empathy or sentiment from clouding his judgement. Now he's a psychopath with telepathic powers on the level of Professor Xavier, and he comes gunning for Em. Instead of simply erasing her mind or telling her brain to stop signalling her heart to beat, he intends to prove her inadequacy as a superhero by forcing her to run a gauntlet of his devising. Perched on a quiet rooftop somewhere in the city, Neurospear uses his mental voodoo to put everyone around Em in a fugue state where they're irresistibly compelled to murder her.

I'm trying to think of another American comic book I've read that managed to sustain such a pitch of nightmarish intensity over as many pages as Empowered's eleventh volume, and I'm coming up short. Warren pulled off a truly impressive feat with this one.

There's a moment in volume 11 that makes me think Warren took some criticism of Empowered to heart.

After Neurospear starts throwing mind-controlled superheroes at her, Em finally comes to blows with Major Havoc—the Empowered universe's Superman analog, a misogynistic frat boy meathead with the usual Kryptonian ability set. Havoc decides to expedite the confrontation by ripping off  Em's hypermembrane suit and face-lasering it to atoms in order to depower her.

Em gets stripped naked against her will—again—but this time it's different.

To my recollection, it's the first Warren draws her to look like an actual human woman. Ordinarily, Em is depicted with the idealized body of a mannequin—which seems a little strange in light of how often she frets about her weight. Not that women with "perfect" thin bodies are immune to looking in the mirror and disliking what they see, but for most of Empowered it's a case of deliberate dissonance between what's being said and what's being shown. The story requires that Em be regarded as having some extra pudge on her bones, but the exigencies of selling a comic book necessitated drawing her with a supermodel's figure. In volume 11, the nude Em is drawn the way we've always been told she's supposed to look.

It's also the first instance where the emotional impact of Em getting her clothes torn off by an aggressor is realistically what it should be. There's no ingenue sweating and blushing, no tension-deflating banter, no dilatory gloating, no comedy, no male-gaze prurience whatsoever. It's horrifying. Only horrifying. By drawing Em so that for once she looks truly naked, Warren makes clear that he's not kidding around this time.

Em does manage to recover her suit and turn the tables on Major Havoc. But I have the strong sense that Warren deliberately wrote and illustrated this to be a sequence where even the theoretical fan who reads Empowered with his hand down his pants would be anxious to see Em get suited back up.

Well played, sir.

It's too early to give a final assessment of Empowered because the book remains unfinished. Volume 11 is the most recent iteration, but not the last. Not long ago, volume 12 was announced and scheduled for release this June.

Fuck it. I'm preordering it.

I'm going to take a break for the next month or two in order to do some housekeeping and attempt to make progress on a long-term project. Look for me again in June, unless something gives me a particularly rousing itch between now and then.


  1. I only ever read the first issue, borrowed from a friend. I didn't like it too much, and even your description makes it seem it would take more energy to read than I'd get back from it. (So, I'm taking problematic as a content warning, not a call to 'cancel') But, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and your respect for Adam Warren's growth shows too.


    1. Yeah, the first volume is...well, like I said, I hate-read it. (Actually I skimmed and skipped around vols 1–3 a fair amount, and only started reading continuously when I landed in vol 4.) All in all, it's the kind of comic that ought to be read on a browser. For free. When you have a cold and can't do anything but click and stare. It has a better chance of growing on you that way, and it *does* need to grow on a person.

      By problematic—I don't even mean it as a content warning. For lack of a better word, I'm using the term in the critical sense. Empowered has explicit and implicit messages about women and their depictions in popular media; what ARE these messages? Do they contradict themselves? When you add them all together, do we have a comic that's progressive or retrograde with regard to its depictions of female characters, struggles, relationships, etc.? I think either is possible—which is literally a problematic judgement.

    2. Paranoid as I am, I just thought he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. She's sexy and nervous about her looks. She's wearing a skinsuit but because it gives her super powers not because she wants to look that way! She only has meaningful relationships with men, but it's because of the mean girl, not because her life revolves around men!

      You know, if the writer didn't want her life to revolve around men, he could have her call her mom. If the writer didn't want her to be vulnerable so often, he could give her defenses.

      And... you say that's the literal definition of problematic, except my thoughts about it are framed defensively. Okay.


    3. Hah, I was being insufferably wonky. A problematic judgement (as far as the likes of Kant and Hegel &c are concerned) is basically framed as "possibly X, possibly Y."

      You're absolutely right about Warren wanting to have it both ways. Doing a lewd sex comedy with an emphatically anti-sexist narrative is a pretty bold idea for a balancing act, and Warren definitely teeters on the wire. Whether he falls off probably depends on the charitability of the reader.

      And actually...I'm pretty sure there IS a scene where Em calls her mom. For all of Empowered's other sins, I wouldn't say it's guilty of depriving its protagonist of supportive friendships with other women.