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Empowered, Book 5

So, Empowered. I’ve been reading this series since a friend passed a copy my way, and since I just got my hands on book 5 it seems a good time to mention it.

If you’ve been reading the series the questions (at least for me) with each new volume comes out are basically “Does the Demongoat have lots of juicy rants, and is this the point where the series gets annoyingly tragic?”

For volume 5 answer 1 is most definitely yes.  Answer 2 is not quite, though the lengthy last chapter is getting awfully close, and I’m guessing the next book will be that one. On a not-entirely-unrelated note, what is it with tragic lesbians? How come a gay guy can be the comic relief, stud hero, or just colorful background character, but any lesbian in any anime or manga must, eventually, become tragic? It’s so much of a stereotype it’s starting to bug me.

Some of the choice lines this time around are “It’s, like, Zeno’s Bondage Turtle, know what I’m sayin’…?” and “Why did you up-hang, jackanapes? The Advice-Administering Autarch wished to convey further tips of the gardening variety to she who spawned you!” (Yes, the Devilgoat has apparently been talking to Emp’s mom on the phone.)  This issue’s 10-way alliteration combo is “But can a sagacious storyteller not spice and season a staidly sedate scene with a soupçon of salacious sensuality?”

Now, for those who aren’t familiar with Empowered: Artist/writer Adam Warren is sort of the godfather of American-produced manga. Its not just that he did the only real continuation of Bubblegum Crisis and the only worthy manga adaptation of the Dirty Pair; he has his own style that is definitely manga without being a clone of someone else, and a very distinctive writing style that is really not quite like anyone else at all.  These days he seems to be more often writing than drawing (a recent uber-modern Iron Man miniseries and the superhero deconstruction sort-of-comedy Livewires are a couple of examples), but Empowered is entirely his.

It’s got a rather questionable heritage:  Apparently someone commissioned Warren to do some bondage art, and he decided it was easier to justify to himself if he gave it a story. This eventually morphed into Empowered, a superhero parody of sorts set in a generic Marvel-style superhero-loaded world that’s simultaneously a little wackier in terms of laws, jobs, and heroes (brick-faced Cindablock, for example), and a little closer to home in terms of pop culture than the norm.

In terms of writing, Warren pretty much does one thing, and does it well: Stories soaked in bleeding-edge technology, floating on a river of pop-culture overload, and populated with characters with an Oxfordian vocabulary and a sense of messy reality in their personalities.  Sort of like the best and worst of the Internet generation taken to the limit. His plots vary, but usually involve a mix of cheerful banter, mundane situations in the midst of wild sci-fi, and dark undertones.

Empowered is all of these things in spades; it’s what he does with no filter or restriction at all.  This leads to a protagonist who is “blessed” with a supersuit of unknown origin that gives her super strength and neigh-invulnerability, except that it is incredibly prone to tearing, and its power decreases exponentially as its surface area decreases. Coupled with this, she’s a cheerful everygirl with massive self-esteem issues who is generally laughed at by the senior, more famous superheroes in her organization (the Superhomeys) and all-too-prone to ending up bound, gagged, and ridiculed by co-workers, villains, and Internet fans at large (yes, and she even reads fanfics about herself).

The other two main characters are Ninjette, a white-girl east-coast Ninja in hotpants with a love of booze, and low-key live-in boyfriend Thugboy, an ex-villain-lackey who holds down the homefront. Everybody has a somewhat dark past, but that’s almost a given. Plus the Blazing-eyed Demongoat, who I’ll get back to in a moment. He probably doesn’t have a dark past, but he sort of is a dark past, so that counts.

The art, as expected, is very good—the loose black-and-white linework appears to be uninked and pencil-shaded, giving it a light immediacy that I like.  It makes up in expressive characters anything it might lack in refined linework. The lettering (as with everything else, by Warren) is also a treat—the constant barrage of weight, size, and italicization changes make it so you can almost hear the inflection behind the well-written dialogue.

The series has from the begining had an odd sort of morality; while it features near-constant bondage imagery, a number of quite explicit sex scenes, and several far-too-graphic descriptions of the disturbing acts of its psychopathic main villain, it goes to the trouble of blacking out every expletive in the dialogue.  Why, since the dialogue makes use of a realistic amount of profanity, is a complete mystery to me—it’s basically softcore porn with TV-level language bleeping.

Regardless, unless you’re a bondage fan (I’m not), what makes this series is, without question, the Blazing-eyed Demongoat. Early on the protagonist manages to trap a massive demon in some alien bondage gear. The imprisoned entity is rendered powerless but not voiceless, and ends up living on her coffee table watching a lot of TV and commenting in spectacularly florid and megalomaniac language on anything and everything. I’m serious—a solid 70% of the fun in the series is him going off on tangential rants or spiced-up descriptions of events he either witnessed or imagined.  The rest of the fun comes from the likable, funny, and realistically conflicted main cast and their everyday lives—as much of the action takes place around the house as during superpowered conflicts. Romance, superpowered office politics, ghosts of the past, and more.

Anyway, here’s the thing with the series: Adam Warren has a tendency to give otherwise fun stories a darkly tragic twist toward the end—he even has the characters in this one comment on that in the 4th-wall-breaking chapter introductions. Not that he isn’t good at writing the stuff, it’s just sort of a disappointing way to end an otherwise fun series, or at least it is for me.

Hence the two questions I posed at the beginning. So far, so good—as long as you don’t mind the high level of cheerful sleaze (it’s fanservice that pokes fun at itself), it’s hard to go wrong with this series.

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