Saturday, August 1, 2009

I Read This--EMPOWERED, VOL. 5

Two years ago, it was gently suggested to me by someone that I read Adam Warren's Empowered, as it is (their words) "a great comic, but very smutty." As a comics fan and, craver of disappointment, I bought the first two volumes, actively seeking out disappointment and dashed expectations, as is my wont.

I wasn't disappointed. Despite being rather smutty (as advertised) and something I will surely go to Hell for reading, Empowered, born of Adam Warren's primal scream of "DAMN IT I CANNOT DRAW WOMEN IN BONDAGE ANY MORE FOR MONEY I DON'T CARE HOW MUCH I'M GETTING PAID PER COMMISSION" has, over the course of five volumes, become my favourite superhero comic being published.

That's not hyperbole.

I'm certain that the rest of the comics intelligentsia judge it on the surface and wrote it off long ago, relegating it to the rubbish bin with pseudo-porn/documents of personal debasement like Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose and God knows what else, but Empowered is so much more than that. The book functions as a parody of, critique on, and exemplar of the best qualities in the modern superhero comic.

Empowered posits superheroing as both a career and a subculture all its own, and worse still, imagines it as a hyperthyroid version of high school, wherein there are cliques, in crowds, out crowds, wherein whoring oneself out for the approbation has become so much of a thing that the whole idea of people being superheroes is, at best an after-afterthought. In fact, quite a few of the vast superhero community seem to have become superheroes for the benefits or, more likely, because they had nothing else going on.

Into this world comes our heroine, Elissa Meghan Powers, or Empowered (the classic name-as-destiny trope strikes again) Motivated by her generally good nature, a childhood dream of being a superhero, and a rather traumatic event, her ambition is to be the best superhero she can be.

Unfortunately, owing to her generally lousy self-esteem--aggravated by the one-two punch of having to wear a skintight outfit (thus magnifying her body-image issues into near-psychosis) and being the only genuinely selfless person in a group of dreadfully self-absorbed assholes who seem to delight in making her look like an idiot at every opportunity (thrown into sharp relief in the course of the story--her day job is having to cosplay as herself, and the actors posing as her teammates in the SuperHomeys are just as much obnoxious primadonnas as the originals) As we first come to know her, this constant derision and abuse has sunk her self-esteem (combined with her bad luck to draw almost every bondage-fetishist villain out there, all of which seem delight in humiliating her) that her self-image and her faith in herself is lower than a snake's ass in a wagon rut.

As we learn a bit later, this feeds into a problem she has with her suit--its strength is (apparently) directly tied to her self-confidence. Thusly, when she's at her lowest, its powers fail her and it rips like tissue paper. This drives her self-confidence even lower, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Later on, we (and she) discover that when she can muster the confidence neccessary to access the suit's full power, she's actually capable of pretty formidable stuff (there's still a lot of blanks that have yet to be filled in there) which . . .well, we'll get to that later. Maybe.

To run back for a moment, I should add that Warren does explain that most of the SuperHomeys tendency towards assholishness stems from their own mentally stunted origins. Sistah Spooky, Emp's co-worker and arch-nemesis hates Emp for no other reason than she's a blonde girl and Spooky spent most of her school years being tormented by haughty hot blonde girls and thus, is motivated by her prejudices (and, as someone in Vol. 5 points out, she's subconsciously patterned her behaviour exactly in the style of her tormentors) Spooky and Emp's feud is one of the central threads of the narrative, one which culminates in a very poignant (and earned) moment at the end of Vol. 5.

The other thread of the book is how Emp gains the confidence to become a Capital-H hero. The main way in which this happens is she gets people in her life who actually build her up. The first is Thugboy, low-level minion who, once upon a time, was part of an organised superhero-killing rampage that led to San Antonio Texas being wiped out (we are led to beleive that Thugboy was one, if not the only, survivor). Thugboy went on from there to form the Witless Minions, a group that pretended to be faithful henchmen to super-villains, only to steal all their cool technology and sell it on eBay. This works like gangbusters until they try it with (Dan DiDio's dream villain) the cannibalistic fire elemental Willy Pete, who kills all of them save Thugboy.

But Thugboy's great contribution is his unwavering love for, and belief in, Emp. That this comes from someone with his history is especially significant, of course, but their relationship, founded on his complete acceptance of her as she is and not how she sees herself (or how she assumes she should be) actually positions the two of them as possessing one of the most honest and functional relationships in superhero comics (this despite, y'know, taking place in a comic that has so many bondage panels I'm occasionally shocked John Willie didn't write it, never mind that Emp and Thugboy have one of the most hilariously ridiculous sex lives imaginable. One does not imagine genuine emotion would survive through all that smut, but hey) that manages "sweet" without being "saccharine."

Ninjette, Emp's kidnapper-cum-drinking buddy-cum-best friend, is the next piece in the puzzle. Like Thugboy, Ninjette shares his beleif in Emp, and she should--Emp rescues her at the end of Vol. 3 in a vignette wherein she shows off the suit's full power (though, curiously, Emp doesn't remember) While at times it seems that Ninjette may come between Thugboy and Emp, closer reading indicates that *ahem* something else may be going on there.

The third member of Emp's supporting cast/pep squad is the Caged Demonwolf, one of the most hilarious supporting characters in any book, ever. A world-destroying god-beast trapped in alien bondage gear, the Caged Demonwolf now spends his time on Emp's coffee table (the SuperHomeys aren't cleared to hold anything that dangerous on the premises) and contents himself with watching DVDs and ranting to anyone who will listen (in mighty Kirby-esque Kirbyese) often to Ninjette or Emp's supersuit (which is somehow alive, in a weird way) about whatever's on his mind (often things that haven't happened yet) Usually stories wherein the Caged Demonwolf gets to himself are funny little breaks in the action, and, in one special case, the only thing that cheers Emp up when she's at a low ebb.

While the characters that make up Emp's world are a big part of why the series works so well (as, in the face of the indifferent and openly hostile SuperHomeys, they provide a counterbalance that show Emp that while she may not be a hero to everyone, she is a hero to a few, who accept and love her as such) This is ultimately Emp's story, and Emp's story works because we give a damn about Emp, and having come in when she's at her lowest, following along through the steps forward and backwards, we're happy when she actually develops (unconsciously, at first) a supportive circle of friends, and so we come to want her to succeed, so when (as in the end of Vol. 4) she has a Crowning Moment of Awesome, it's earned, and we're right there with her, cheering her on. Most of Empowered's, er, power is come from the fact that it's written with real heart and honesty and a great affection for both the titular character and the world in which she inhabits. Or, to borrow a quote from TvTropes:

If that isn't superhero comics at its best in a nutshell, I'll eat my hat. But I'll have to buy one first.

Earlier on in this article, I touched on Empowered as a gestalt parody/commentary/loving homage to superheroes. All too often, superhero parodies or commentaries on same are awful, hateful, things, so desperate to prove how "over" superheroes they are that they can't tear down the concevntions (or the people who may enjoy those conventions) fast enough. I don't need to pithily slip a link into this sentence--I'm sure anyone reading this can name at least three off the top of their head.

Empowered works around this by working in a very peculiar kind of story logic that slips effortlessly from parody to commentary to affectionate homage effortlessly. There's no way I can possibly do it justice sooooo . . .I'll just synopsise a bit from Vol 5:

Empowered shows up on Ocelotina's (a girl who once kidnapped Emp for ransom, then decided to be a superhero so she could sell bondage-themed videos on the web--that she's more of a success as a fake superheroine than Emp is as a real one is a recurring source of annoyance) show, and ends up getting bound up in duct tape, while Ocelotina explains why it's ideal for that purpose. The upshot of this is Emp is exasperated and humiliated by her, and yet . . .

. . .Later in the story, it's because of that that she can carry a fallen comrade across the hull of a disintegrating space station (the SuperHomeys never spend money for repairs, so a LOT of things get patched up with duct tape) by duct-taping said comrade to herself and marching across the hull.

That such a moment can begin as comedy and end as a superheroic moment later on is a rather deft trick and thus elevates Empowered above other, ruder satires that never seem to get beyond the "superheroes are incipent perverts/assholes/fascists" stuff that's been done right to death.

Lest this become a one-entry Theme Week, let me sum thusly: Empowered manages to be a better superhero parody and a better superhero book than a good 90% of the superhero books its parodying. I don't care if you hate manga, it's well worth gutting out your antipathy for the style to appreciate what's within. I very much enjoy this book, and would rather everyone get on the bandwagon as well.

PS: You may be unware of this, but there is a lot of bondage in this book. If that's your thing and the main reason you read the book, please disregard the pompous bloviating above. All my talk of storytelling logic and characterisation will obviously mean little to those who get all tingly at the site of women bound in hemp. Takes all kinds to make a world and all that, I guess.

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