Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ninjas strike in 'Empowered'!

Empowered, Vols. 3 & 4 (Dark Horse, 2008)
Story and Art: Adam Warren
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Empowered" is a series of graphic novels written and drawn by Adam Warren in his one-of-a-kind "manga-esque" style. The books detail the adventures and misadventures of the title character, a superheroine that is insecure in just about every conceivable way, except in her sense of right and wrong, and her unwavering impulse to always do whatever is most heroic and selfless in just about any given situation. In every other way, she's a neurotic mess, especially when it comes to her body image... and it doesn't help her that she gets her powers from a skin-tight suit that is easily damaged. Fortunately for her, she's got her boyfriend--a reformed criminal known as Thugboy--and her best friends--Ninjette, a ninja princess on the from her ninja clan, and the Caged Demonwolf, an extradimensional god who lives on her coffee table--to support her and help her through her troubles.

"Empowered" is one of the best superhero spoofs to ever come along. According to creator Adam Warren, the strip got its start as a series of bondage/fetish gag cartoons, which is why poor Empowered is captured by the villains and tied up again and again. The purely off-color origins were very obvious in the first volume, and there continues to be a relatively high degree of jokes and other content based around bondage and sexuality, but Adams continues to develop characters with emotional depth and superhero-themed story-lines that are as dramatic as they are funny. Although these are a series of books that most certainly have fun with just about every superhero trope you care to mention, they present stories far better than what you'll find in the average "real" superhero comic.

In Volume 3, in between Emp's part-time job impersonating herself as part of a band of cos-payers who perform at malls, her encounter with a new ongoing character (Ocelote) who will become her greatest "frenemy", her struggles to impress other heroes on the Superhomey team and avoid drawing the wrath of Sistah Spookey--who hates Emp for just being Emp--the book is driven by a plot line that sees Ninjette stalked by vengeful members of the ninja clan she turned her back on. They have come to return her to the fold, dead or alive, and it will take not only all of Ninjette's ninjitsu skills and magic, but also assists from Thugboy and Emp. And still, they might not succeed in saving her, because the ninjas in the "Empowered" universe have great magical power and a vicious ruthlessness that would make the ninjas in most Godfrey Ho movies tremble in fear. As Ninjette struggles for survival, the reader can easily understand why someone of her cheerful disposition ran away from home, as well as why she drinks as much as she does. Readers will also be treated to some truly dark and suspenseful storytelling, as Warren continues to guide "Empowered" away from "adult entertainment" and toward "mature entertainment".

In Vol 4, the aftermath of Ninjette's encounter with her fellow ninja color the first half of the book while the second half is devoted to Empowered being nominated for a Capey Award. It's with this book that Warren manages to completely move past the series' origins and a full-fledged superhero universe every bit as vibrant as anything you've seen before emerges. Yes, it's still a satire of superhero comics, and there is still a high degree of sexual content and humor, but almost every character but the most minor figures feel fleshed out and real within the context of the what superheroes were assholes just like most people?" world of "Empowered".

While the plot with Ninjette is interesting, and the continuing development of Thugboy's back story and the growing menace of super-villain Willy Pete lend additional weight to the book, it is the subtle, interwoven build-up to the book's cataclysmic final chapters that really show Warren't story-telling genius. The man has an ability to use foreshadowing--both in and across individual volumes--that few other comic book story tellers have. One of the best aspects of this book, and which makes it worth reading a second and third time, is the way the funny adventures of Empowered and the rest of Superhomeys--including an eight page color story--all add up to making the suspense and unbridled superhero action of the book's final few chapters seem even greater. Finally, Empowered comes into her own, and she ends up saving the day on a massive scale. (The final chapters also show more of Warren's talent for dark story telling, as he balances action, humor, and outright horror with a deftness few creators are able to do.

If you're a fan of manga, superheroes, and just great storytelling, "Empowered" is a series you should be reading. It's terrific, terrific stuff (for adults, both because of the sexual content and because I don't think most kids will get the subtle humor, pathos, and charm of much of the book's cast.)

Click here to read my reviews of "Empowered" Vols. 1 & 2.

If you like traditional, paper-based roleplaying games (specifically, the classic "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" game, click here to see how Ninjette looks in that system.

The deadliest of blogathons....

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