The wait between volumes of Adam Warren’s Empowered is a cruel one every time, but this one was easier than most. Maybe that’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because the release schedule for these books has gotten increasingly regular over the last few editions, or maybe it’s just because I came into it knowing it would be a tough one. You see, with the series’ tenth full length volume, Warren broke tradition and provided the series’ first true cliffhanger, promising that the story would be continued in the now released eleventh book.
That means that Empowered volume 11 could fairly be described as being Empowered volume 10.5. These books have been bleeding chapters for a long time, but this is another single chapter book, clocking in at an impressive 200+ pages for the single story it contains. Many of volume 10’s hints and events come into play, just as the early chapters of other installments with action-oriented finales have. Structurally there’s almost nothing to distinguish this from the lengthy final chapters of similar installments, however the sheer length of the story obviously made that impossible, plus that cliffhanger was pretty great.
The downside to all this is that Empowered volume 11 doesn’t feel quite as complete as most. There is a lot of content here, but a lot of it is about really making you question if this is it.
The ninth book in the series had a similar structure, with Empowered fighting off hordes of blackcape antagonists in order to clear her name to her less than receptive colleagues. This time the long awaited appearance of one of the series biggest villains has taken all elements of that story and turned them up a notch by sending the entire Superhomey roster after her under the effects of mind control. The Superhomeys are always more enemies than allies to Emp, but usually their casual dickishness and gross irresponsibility mean that they’re threats to Elissa’s self esteem. This time we get to see them in their element in a way that doesn’t come up a lot in Empowered. Warren obviously doesn’t care for Superheroes as we’re used to them, but we get to see more than a few of the familiar Superhomeys show off why they’re the A-List that Emp aspires to in the most painful way possible for her. More than a few even push a series that relies on desensitization and questioning the “unspoken rules” of superheroing, inflicting brutality on the plucky “superchicka” that really makes you stop and appreciate how horrible it all is.
What that means is that, in order to sell those special moments, there’s a lot of Empowered running, dodging, and fighting her way through heroes that probably doesn’t justify itself, but does add gravitas to the big set pieces. You mileage will vary on how much this excuses the limits of the format, but it does feel like we could have used a little bit more time to sit with the consequences at the ending, which highlights just how much this is a single chapter.
Turning back to those more horrific moments for a second, it is worth noticing that at least one actually could be fairly distressing for readers. Thanks to its origins in damsel in distress pin ups, Empowered has a complicated relationship with sexual assault that, generally, acknowledges both the presence and the monstrosity of such acts in the story. Emp is all too aware that her reputation as a bondage magnet puts her in danger of sexual violence every single day, but in this volume we find one particular example that goes beyond an intellectual acknowledgment of Empowered’s fears into a true usage of the imagery of sexual violence to assault the reader’s emotion. The fact that the panels following this symbolic assault are fairly sexy complicates matters further, though it never quite hits a point where I feel like its trivializing the severity of the topic. It’s a sequence that, in the grand scheme of things, is rather small, but it stands out enough that it’s both interesting to discuss and worthwhile to provide a heads up to prospective readers.
Speaking of moments that feel big in the grand scheme of the series, there are a few more that are substantially less complicated in their emotions. From small but meaningful revelations to another retcon that changes Emp’s position in the world significantly to the appearance of another seismic villain and a resulting couple of deaths, there’s a lot to process. If fans aren’t left excited by these developments, it would only be because they don’t all align with what many of us were expecting. Still, even where the story goes against narrative convention or begins to come to a head, it does so in a fashion that’s exhilarating and pushes the Empverse farther towards the bleak, unified mystery that Warren has planted at the series’ center.
And I think this part of the appeal of this series — you know, besides the abundant cheese and beefcake — is that Empowered provides the same thoughtful unraveling of superhero tropes as the gritty imagining without its self-destructive need to prove itself better than the Silver Age. Instead we get rich and loving characters whose lives and deaths inspire sadness, anger, and affection. For every take on superheroes that wonders if they aren’t repressed sociopaths in need of a lay, that just needs to show tits, coercion, and battered sex workers to convey its “deep, mature” message, Empowered is utterly honest about its desire to show gorgeous women and utterly unimpressed with the concept that looking at heroes should drag them down to our level rather than encourage us to consider that they must have ascended from ours.
This theme is prevalent throughout Empowered, but Neurospear is one of the clearest examples. Perhaps he lacks the sardonic bite of Ghostwriter or Le Chevalier Blanc, but, after six volumes of hyping him up, Mindf*ck’s Brother receives nothing but pity from Warren and his narrative. Reduced to a permanent adolescent arguing with a practically imaginary straw liberal and high on his own self importance, Neurospear feels like something of a Vorpal Sword strike against some of the foulest culture warriors the internet has to offer.
It’s not wholly political either, Brainbow (the pre-editing version of Mindf*ck’s Brother) is portrayed as a fragile, self loathing wreck of a child as well. He’s the sort of person who makes Elissa look confident, but, even then, she has a powerful support system in place where he has a disinterested teenage sister. On some level Brainbow is a ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ figure, but, while he and Elissa have both had their estimation of their worth radically warped by society’s expectations, EMP has never let that change her purpose, nor was her descent into self-loathing quite so self inflicted as Brainbow’s seems.
At times the numerous cheats and rules that Warren busts out to give Emp a fighting chance can feel excessive and somewhat wordy — a feat for a series that makes extreme verbosity a feature rather than a bug — but it’s also one of the ways that Warren keeps Neurospear a thoroughly capable antagonist, even as he slowly takes the poor psychic’s hard won mystique apart. Honestly, one of the things that makes the commentary on Neurospear so powerful and his aura of control so intimidating is that Warren doesn’t have to take this monster out of the dark to reveal that it’s small. Instead of revealing Neurospear to be ‘just a man’, Warren simply hacks at the feet of his myth, undermining the necessity of the HARD MAN WHO MAKES THE HARD CHOICES” and showing how thoroughly he has been outclassed by nearly every hero to come in contact with the sister he had to save from her own weakness.
The art for Empowered remains truly lovely. Those who have read Warren’s work before will have a pretty solid idea of what to expect, while those who haven’t, in all honesty, probably won’t. Warren is a very particular artistic taste, two parts manga, one part life drawing, and everything turned up to full blast. The women look beautiful, the men look powerful, the villains look monstrous, and the heroes…well they have a classical awe about them but this time. they kind of look monstrous as well. Unique heroes like Unibrow, Strapping Buck, and (especially) Capitan Rivet get a chance to really radiate power and menace in this scenario while the full range of Empowered’s desperate, improvised fighting style is on display.
Warren’s careful, penciled style gets a solid workout, throwing everything it can at this story to keep up with its breathless pace and high stakes. Even more dramatically, the urban environment and motifs of Neurospear cause this volume to make particular use of heavier inks. Combined with Warren’s characteristic attention to gently rendered detail, there is a lot put into every page. Luckily it rarely if ever becomes overwhelming.
I will say that some of the artistic tricks that Warren employs are not the clearest. While each individual panel is beautifully and crisply rendered, a handful of the layouts can cause you to lose your sense of place. Jumps between places and concepts are usually where this happens, which implies to me that these may be where Warren trimmed his story. Regardless, one of the issue’s biggest showdowns seems to have an — intentionally but not satisfactorily or completely intentionally — ambiguous conclusion and the appearance of Brainbow is sudden and never fully feels integrated. Another standout is a mention of Brainbow by Major Havok, which kind of peters out and feels at odds with Havok’s role in the story. It’s possible that it’s Neurospear taking out his self-loathing or maybe Havok being made to see Emp as Brainbow, but it’s a one-off line that the art does nothing to clarify.
While these and other moments can feel confused, the general handling of the story is notably confident. Warren has Emp bouncing between one threat and the next and makes the vast majority of this book clear and kinetic. It feels lightning fast, but you can follow the action naturally, slowing it down to trace Emp’s strategy or taking it in in a burst, trusting in the art to communicate what’s happened.
While I think there probably could have been a leaner version of this story, narratively, there’s no denying that there are a bunch of scenes that are just wonderful artistic draws. Country Strong lives up to his name with a slew of impressive panels, Neurospear’s silhouette and astral projection ooze menace, the opening scene between Emp and the people closest to her is gorgeous, a brief reminder of what Neurospear did to Mindf*ck is gruesomely but beautifully depicted, and there’s a fantastic horror sequence featuring the Super Dead; it’s a long list. Even little things are great. A one page scene at Glassbreak is just perfectly eerie.
With each of these stunningly illustrated volumes taking years for Warren to complete, it’s become increasingly clear that Empowered has become too big and too wonderful for its own good. Empowered volume 11 holds up as a standalone, but it does read more than a bit like volume 10 part 2. It’s a lengthy addition to the canon, but, while it makes seismic contributions, they aren’t evenly spaced. The big scenes of this volume are huge, with deaths, triumphs, and revelations flowing plentifully but the book splits, fairly cleanly, between these moments of long term importance and more immediate tension building. And there is no room for more comedic or domestic scenes or even a chance to process the volume’s events with the characters.
Still, it’s Empowered and it’s well told Empowered with a serious and meaningful villain and real progression for both characters and plot. It’s a shame we’re going to have to wait a number of years to find out what happened, see untouched plot threads picked up, and get new interactions with these characters again, but that’s kind of a problem for us more than it is for this book. Especially when taken in concert with Empowered volume 10, this story easily holds to the level of drama, beauty, and excitement fans of the series expect, putting it well above most superhero yarns for me. That said, it doesn’t quite break into the upper eschelons of the series either, falling short of favorites like volumes 4, 5, 6, and 9. A lot is laid out for fans, but a lot is held back for future installments as well, making Empowered volume 11 a strong and significant addition to one of the best Superhero universes around.
Empowered volume 11 is currently available in comic shops from Dark Horse Comics. The series is also serialized as a free web comic at empoweredcomic.com.