Despite what she might tell you, Empowered is one of the biggest superheroines in the modern age.
Empowered burst onto the scene as one of the most unique and eye-opening – in more ways than one – superhero series in recent memory. Cartoonist Adam Warren mixes cheesecake, manga—infused art and deep love – and derision – of geek culture into the story of a buxom superheroine and her ex-henchmen boyfriend, a ninja roommate and a sentient, salacious alien overlord. With the recent release of the sixth volume of Empowered, the series has become Warren's longest career work to date – an unlikely opus to many for his early days at the Joe Kubert school and star turn with the American Dirty Pair comics. But if you've talked to Adam Warren, or seen the un-published sketchbooks he's done over the years, you can see how he's been subconsciously leaning towards something like Empowered for years. And if our interview here with the cartoonist is any indication, Warren's got years of ideas to come – including the promise of a "200 page action scene".
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, Adam – what are you working on today?
Adam Warren: Well, most recently, I wrapped up a six-page Empowered story in a desperate attempt to promote the release of the latest installment in the "sexy superhero comedy" series. After soliciting some questions from Empowered readers on my deviantART account, I had Emp herself answer them in a decidedly "meta" fashion, the results of which are now running on Dark Horse's web site:
Note that, as one might expect, the questions for Emp soon take a cruelly embarrassing turn. (Gasp!)
Nrama The sixth volume of Empowered just came out, and follows Emp as she tries to help some dead superheroes come back to life. Can you tell us about this volume?
Warren: Easiest thing to do, here, would be to paste in the book's solicitation copy. So, 'scuse me while I hit "Ctrl+V":
After a fiery disaster claims the lives of several teammates, costumed crimefighter “Empowered” stumbles upon an ugly little secret of the masks-and-tights business: a growing number of ill-fated superheroes have found out the hard way that, while their bodies are still mortal, their superpowers are not... Now, only our downtrodden but doggedly determined heroine can rescue the (semi-)living superdead from a quite genuine “fate worse than death,” while simultaneously grappling with the challenges of phallospear harassment, car-trunk carpetburn, superhero fantasy leagues, excessive bedroom chatter, and deals with the devil both figurative and literal! All this, plus Empowered’s not-so-secret origin is revealed at last!
Expanding on the solicitation copy, let me also add that vol. 6's "Big Bad" is the very first super-villain ever mentioned in Empverse continuity, the "heavy hitter" necrocape known as Deathmonger; in a shockingly unexpected plot twist, he turns out to be a bit of a prick. Beyond that, readers can expect to enjoy Willy Pete YouTube remixes, extremely inappropriate yaoi fanfic, curbstomping by giant skulls, SuperDirty Jobs, some bonus semiotic speculation from the incomparable Maidman, an exceptionally upsetting newsflash for Sistah Spooky, and an insightful explanation of why struggling super-heroines really shouldn't cry. All this and a whole lot more, folks!
Nrama: In addition to saving some dead heroes, you also expound on Emp origin’s a bit here. Did you always have this in your head, or did develop and evolve over time with the books?
Warren: Oh, definitely the latter. Back when I was first working on the commissions that would eventually bootstrap themselves into becoming Empowered, I hadn’t yet put any thought into exactly what her “supersuit” was. Then again, back in those early, primitive days, Emp didn’t even have a superhero name; “Empowered” was just a whimsically ironic title for the misadventures of an unnamed super-heroine.
As the series went along, though, I started working up more and more complicated ideas about the suit’s true nature, leading to the present, highly enigmatic state of affairs. Along the way, also, Emp’s suit subsumed a few of the science-fiction riffs I’d originally developed for the “smartsuits” worn by my version of the Dirty Pair, much as some of the high-tech armor riffs in Iron Man: Hypervelocity were likewise influenced by unused DP concepts of mine. Note, by the way, that readers should probably take Emp’s own theories regarding how the supersuit works with a grain (or shaker-full) of salt; she’s not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable explainer, if you follow me.
As for Emp’s “origin,” as depicted in the currently-on-sale Empowered vol.6 (hint, hint), fairly early on I decided that the “reveal” of how she acquired the suit would be very, very anticlimactic indeed. For the record, the reader will eventually learn a great deal more about how and why the suit “does what it do,” and why it chose Emp in the first place… The revelation, though, is gonna be a gradual and incremental process.
Nrama: In this volume you’ve amped up the action with two big scenes that open and close the book. Was this a conscious decision to do this, or just where the story led you?
Warren: No, I had volume 6’s opening and closing action scenes in mind from the very beginning… What you might call the “where the story led me” part, however, arose from how damn long those sequences wound up being. I generally work on Empowered with only a hazy idea of how many pages long any given story might be; this degree of flexibility is one of the things that makes working on the book fun for me, as opposed to agonizing over how I’m gonna cram X number of story elements into rigidly formatted 22-page installments.
The drawback of this looseness, alas, is that some stories can expand and metamorphose into rather grander tales than originally planned, and can end up choking off other stories in the process. Example: Believe it or not, at the outset I’d planned to sneak a lengthy ninja fight into the middle of Empowered vol. 6, only to soon discover that this was a ridiculously optimistic assumption on my part (unless I expanded the book’s pagecount nearer to the 300-page range, that is). So, all the ninja-tastic wackiness has been punted ahead to next year’s Empowered vol. 7, where the action will have room to breathe (and kick, and slash, and bloodily dismember, and so on).
Nrama: With Empowered, you’ve been able to get out of those 22-page formats of comic books in favor of longer storytelling in these graphic novels. At first I saw you stick to telling short stories but as Empowered evolved I saw you play with the structure a lot, and allow for these longer stories. Can you talk about that?
Warren: Like the original genesis of the project itself, Empowered's expansion into a series of ever-longer stories was an organic and largely unplanned process. As the characters became more multifaceted and the ongoing plot threads more complex, the stories' lengths tended to expand to fit the material (such as, say, the 55-page action epic that closes out vol. 6). That being said, I have to say that I do kinda miss the freedom and spontaneity of the earlier, more off-the-cuff short stories; I'll probably try to cram a few shorter, improvisational riffs in among the longer, ongoing plot lines of future volumes, for whatever that's worth.
Nrama: Reading through the six volumes of this book – and the comic book – I can see someone who knows a lot about comic culture but isn’t afraid to poke at it. Does this come out of your own observations and talking with your friends?
Warren: Yeah, pretty much; like nerds everywhere, riffing on pop-culture tropes comes naturally—if not unstoppably—to my peer group. In addition, a perhaps surprising amount of material in Empowered actually comes from failed pitches and aborted plans I initially devised for mainstream superhero proposals. Then again, Empowered came to exist in the first place specifically because I couldn't successfully land mainstream writing work…
Nrama:… and now that Empowered has been so successful you've started doing more work at Marvel.
Getting back on topic, Empowered has always flirted with cheesecake and a criticism of cheesecake in its work. What’s it like playing with these social mores – and are you just trying to bait us?
Warren: To answer your first question, about what it's like playing with social mores: It's fun! I recommend it wholeheartedly!
To answer your next question: Mmmmmmmmaybe. (Or maybe not.)
Nrama: You’ve done this series in a rough pencil style that readers have only glimpsed before. I’ve read that you’ve done this style in unpublished layouts before this series, but never for publication. What’s it like working in this style for publication, and with how it prints on paper compared to your slick style ?
Warren: Well, the overwhelming advantage of the format—pencils only, hand-lettered, on 8 ½" X 11" copy paper—is that it's much, much faster than producing pages in conventional, (oversized) inked-page format. I couldn't possibly afford to do the book in the first place if I had to produce the artwork with a more traditional, formal approach.
The one glaring flaw with working in pencil, though, is that your work is incredibly vulnerable to variations in printing. The level of contrast fluctuates; the grayscales print either darker or lighter; even the paper stock makes a difference. (The slick paper of the one-shot Empowered: The Wench with a Million Sighs, for example, printed very close to what the pencils really look like, moreso than the paper stock of the collected volumes.) In fact, every time one of the volumes gets a new printing, it usually winds up looking noticeably different from previous printings... though I suspect that I'm the only one who would be able to notice these differences, since I can't imagine that too many (or, indeed, any) readers would have bought copies of each book's various printings.
Nrama: Most of your work is fairly humorous – albeit a little black at times, but I’ve seen you do serious work like at Marvel as well. Do you consider yourself a funny person in real life, or does it just come out when you’re sitting at your work table?
Warren: Dunno if I'd really consider myself all that funny in real life; you'd have to ask the (several) people who know me. I'd probably have to say that, for me, humor flows more freely when I'm at the drawing table or in front of the computer. It's kind of awkward to polish and refine a joke as you're actually telling it to someone directly... As in, "Hold on a sec, I need to refine this riff... Would this random wisecrack work better if I said 'toothsome rump' here? Or does 'booty' have a bit more je ne sais quoi?"
Nrama: I read an old interview where you said you were never a big superhero fan growing up, but more into sci-fi work and later manga when you discovered it. Can you confirm that and tell us what you read as a teenager, compared with what you read now?
Warren: I should say that, as a wee lad, I actually did read quite a few Marvel titles... For one thing, I apparently learned how to read while trying to puzzle my way through incredibly verbose and caption-heavy reprints of old Marvel cowboy comics. I had to bail out on the medium by the heady age of nine or ten, though, as the comics of that era were, well, very stupid indeed. I was drawn right back into the medium during the subsequent alternative comics renaissance of the mid-80s, though, when giants like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Chaykin's American Flagg and Los Bros' Love and Rockets roamed the field and, incidentally, gave me the delusionary resolve to produce my own comics work. (Thanks for nothing, alternative comics renaissance of the mid-80s.) That was also a time when the so-called "cyberpunk" movement was rampaging unchecked through prose science fiction, so I was reading plenty of cutting-edge work by underrated authors such as Michael Swanwick, Walter Jon Williams and Robert Reed (as well as rather, ah, less-underrated writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling). Combine these influences with my successive exposure to manga and anime, and lo and behold, you have the template for my subsequent career, such as it is (or was).
Nowadays, I still do read prose SF, manga by the bookstore cartload, and a fair number of American comics... though with considerably less avidity than I did as a youth, alas. That's kind of a shame, given that there are unquestionably far (make that "faaaaaaaar") more good comics being produced today than was the case back when I was enthusiastically poring over alternative books in the late 80s, let alone earlier than that... Oh, well. Honestly, nowadays I probably get more useful ideas and inspiration from reading non-fiction, sad to say.
Nrama: You’ve been putting out these Empowered books at a steady clip – over one per year – and with this sixth volume I think it easily qualifies as your longest work to date. What’s that like – and did you know that when you started out that this concept would have such legs?
Warren: Have to say, at times I've found it vaguely alarming that a project with such humble—if not downright gamy—origins has wound up being my longest ongoing work, while so many other, more high-falutin' and initially ambitious projects of mine have fallen by the wayside. (As in, several doomed Cliffhanger proposals, a Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone sequel, an ill-fated animation pitch, and many, many other failed projects.) In its own unique way, though, Empowered has become just as bold, sweeping, and elaborate as any other project I've ever envisioned, despite the fact that I never planned it to be (even remotely) so large-scale an endeavor when I first started noodling around with its early pages.
Nrama: Like you said, over six volumes and a one-shot you’ve fleshed out a world of characters that I can’t count with all my fingers and toes. The series is popular enough to have six volumes, and I’ve seen you do work with others before – any chance of a spinoff to Empowered like a Ninjette one-shot or an all-star Superhomeys something?
Warren: I'd very much like to do something along those lines, as I much prefer working with other artists to actually having to draw on my own. Problem is, the economics of the Original Graphic Novel format are so dire that I can't imagine even trying to browbeat some (literally) poor artist into working on a regular Empowered volume.
On the other hand, a guest artist might be able to handle the lesser commitment (and better money) of working on a "floppy"-format one-shot, so that's exactly what I'm pitching to Dark Horse at this very moment. Yay! I would write the stories in question and draw a dozen-odd bookend/ interstitial pages as well, so the material would still technically be in (dare I say) official Empowered continuity.
Assuming this concept gets approved—I'm clumsily typing this with fingers crossed, by the way—I'd love to see such guest artist one-shots come out on a frequent basis, to theoretically maintain interest in the franchise during the year or more gap between volumes. Plus, hey, I'd definitely like to play around with shorter-format stories using more of a humorous approach than the full volumes' ongoing plotlines currently allow, as well as dealing with obscure characters and secondary plot elements that have been tragically neglected during recent installments... As in, what's up with vol. 1's posthuman-STD-carrying alien princess? What's the deal with that art school that Syndablokk and King Tyrant Lizard attended? Does the Superhomey semi-officially nicknamed "Kirby-Helmet Chick" have a real superhero name? (Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.)
In the somewhat unlikely event that the one-shots wound up doing exceptionally well, I'd like to take things even further, of course. The story hook on my oft-rejected Master of Kung Fu pitch to Marvel—wild speculation about the martial artist's role in an ultra-tech, super-heroic milieu—would arguably work just as well with Ninjette as with Shang-Chi, for example. The only problem? I really, really don't want to draw that particular story; maybe I could lure someone else into drawing it! Anyhoo, stay tuned; I sincerely doubt that Dark Horse is especially interested in expanding the Empverse along the lines of Mignola's Hellboy titles, but one never knows...
Nrama: Let's talk more about that future though -- where do you see this series going next?
Warren: In the short term, as I mentioned earlier, the "action hook" for the next volume of Empowered is a long, bloody martial arts brawl pitting Ninjette against the rest of the ninja clan that previously defeated her, back in vol. 3. More to the point, this extended fight scene provides the occasion to examine in detail Ninjette's background, her relationships with the rest of the cast, her own messy set of emotional issues, and even her final fate as a character. Much as vol. 6 was an "Emp-centric" installment featuring somewhat less of a focus on the other leads, vol. 7 will be "all about Kozue" (that's Ninjette's real name, for the uninitiated).
Longer term, we're about five or six volumes out from what I've taken to calling "The 200-Page Action Scene," a volume-long, grueling battle during which Emp struggles against truly ridiculous odds... Believe me, Ninjette taking on an entire ninja clan in vol. 7 will seem quite tame by comparison. But in the meantime, we'll try to feature more in the way of "sexy superhero comedy" in upcoming volumes. No, really! Madcap monkeyshines and screwball shenanigans will be the order of the day! (Well, except for the stuff with Sistah Spooky, and the eventual Willy Pete reveal, and the "Take This Cape and Shove It" plotline, and...)Have you been Empowered?