Most comic book fans haven’t heard of Empowered; a manga styled, sexually charged super hero comedy with a premise that’s as ridiculous as it is controversial. With a lack of Marvel and DC heavy hitters, the series has spent most of its time under the radar. Considering it’s been ongoing since 2007, it probably won’t be surfacing anytime soon.
Yet despite its quirks, mature content, and relatively unknown status, Empowered is very much an indie comic underdog. It is funny, clever, sexy, unique, and has a storyline that grows more engaging with each successive volume.
The premise of Empowered lies in the real-life frustrations of its author and artist, Adam Warren. After receiving one too many requests from fans to draw nubile super-heroines being bound, gagged, and held captive (a.k.a Damsels in Distress), Warren decided to tackle this as well as other superhero tropes head on.
The initial storyline of Empowered revolves around the titular superhero (called Emp for short) fighting to be a superhero despite wielding only a skimpy super suit that loses its powers whenever it’s damaged. The result is Emp frequently being beaten and captured by the villains she seeks to stop, and ridiculed by just about everyone else.
Through Emp, Warren deconstructs the “Damsel in Distress” trope whilst seemingly playing it straight. On the one hand, Emp’s struggles are absolutely hilarious, rife with gags, references and witty dialogue. On the other, the emotional toll Emp’s dilemma takes on her is painful to read. The fact that what happens to her is common for most comic book heroines only makes Warren’s satire more relevant.
Sadly, with the blatant sexual overtones of Emp’s repeated captivity, along with the explicit relationship she has with her boyfriend, Thugboy, it is extremely easy to dismiss Empowered as hyper-sexualized fan service. However, Warren frequently proves himself a bit more thoughtful than a Mark Millar or Garth Ennis. The comic’s sex scenes are as tender as they are explicit, meant to highlight the close bonds between its characters. As for the frequent use of BDSM elements, it is again, a plot device and satire, not just sexual imagery.
This notion becomes more apparent as the comic gradually shifts from a story about a “bondage magnet” to a genuine female superhero. Alongside her tenacity, the reader realizes that Emp is extremely intelligent and humane, whether it be trapping a Cthullu wannabe in alien bondage gear once used against her or agreeing to help a group of heroes quarantined and despised by her superiors. Appropriately, the number of bondage scenes involving Emp drastically decrease as her character further develops from a pitiful bondage magnet in Volume One to taking down an A-List villain through a brilliant use of the old “bait and switch” ploy in Volume Six. The fact that Warren can take a character the reader once sympathized with and mold them into someone they can respect and admire is a true sign of masterful storytelling.
It’s not just Emp who gets this treatment though. Empowered’s supporting cast gains an equal amount of depth and complexity alongside its leading lady. The main plot also expands, evolving from a deconstruction of the “Damsel in Distress” into a genuine superhero story that isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and its genre. It is this strong writing and character development that makes each new volume of Empowered a treat to read.
Despite its strengths, Empowered is far from perfect. Its art-style while unique, isn’t the most polished or shiny, and may remind readers too much of early 90’s manga. For all Warren’s intelligent and stealthy approaches to his subject, there are a few moments in Empowered that are uncomfortable and just as bad as what they seek to deconstruct.
Emp’s first interaction with Ocelotina is a prime example. Ocelotina captures Emp like any other villain, but takes things a step further by sexually harassing Emp and treating her in an unsavory and predatory way. While Ocelotina’s actions are perhaps a spin on the behavior of comic book villains in similar scenarios, Emp’s initial encounter with her wanders far too close into having all the problems of the “Damsel in Distress” trope Warren spends so much time delightfully picking apart.
As a whole, despite its strong story, Empowered’s hyper-sexuality is simply love it or hate it. It can just as easily be read as pornographic and abnormal as it can be subversive and thoughtful. More frustrating, it isn’t until the later volumes where Empowered’s writing really begins to shine.
Still, if you can tolerate its raunchy bits, Empowered’s unique, strong characters and page-turner story make it a hidden gem of a comic; one that with polish and a close inspection will prove worthwhile.