There are many ways in which “Empowered” is a completely unique phenomenon. It is rendered completely in pencil and yet never looks unfinished. It is written, drawn, and lettered by the same person and yet not one of those three skill sets is ever any less well-rendered than any other. It is a book about superheroes, yet it is drawn with a completely authentic manga sensibility. It is a book ostensibly based around the surface physicality of its female protagonist and yet exists as one of the more poignant and fascinating character studies in comics today.
In short, it’s tough to pin down.
It is a legitimately funny comedy, it is an emotionally affecting drama, and it even, in its final setpieces, is one of the most effective, tightly paced comic book thrill rides I’ve read since “Astonishing X-Men” closed out its Whedon/Cassaday run. Throughout its five volumes, Warren has consistently raised the intensity and complexity of “Empowered”‘s storytelling. What started as dozens of short vignettes has evolved, along with its protagonist and her supporting cast, into much longer and detailed episodes. This volume contains only nine, as a matter of fact (unless I counted wrong), and none of them are particularly stand-alone. They all contribute to the greater whole and push at least one of the characters forward. Ninjette’s fanatical interest in Emp and Thugboy’s sex life continues to grow, Empowered continues her slow climb towards self-confidence and self-awareness, and Thugboy continues to deal with the guilt of his past life.
Perhaps most impressive, though, character-wise, is Warren’s examination of the relationship between Sistah Spooky and Mindf__k. The two women are ex-lovers, but both still harbor feelings for each other. Neither character has ever truly been the spotlight of the series, so it’s impressive that in the appearances they do have, there is enough weight and depth there to give the finale of this volume such well-rendered emotional impact. It’s a testament to Warren’s skills not just as top-notch illustrator or clever purveyor of pop-culture minutia but as a legitimate writer, that the reader is left in such a knocked around and devastated state at the end of this story.
As talented as Warren is proven in the writing of this volume, his art is, as always, just as compelling. One of the best flat-out draftsmen in the industry today, his work here, even in pencil, is dynamic without ever sacrificing weight or detail. And, it must be said, he is that uncommon rarity in comics; an artist who can draw things that, just standing alone, are funny enough to make you laugh. There are several asides of a lust-blind Thugboy or hyper-coy Empowered that are just perfect and hilarious tiny feats of cartooning acumen. Warren is also incredibly deft at using every aspect of the comic to tell his story. Chapter breaks, directional captions, chibi-sized narrators; every inch of every page contributes to the over story and tone of the book.
This makes it even more impressive when Warren strips all of these tricks away in the final segment of the book, and crafts a diamond-sharp, wildly intense, completely tragic, and riveting chain of events. I’d be hard pressed to recall a more effectively crafted long-form action sequence in the medium, especially one that carried such powerful emotional weight in its climax.
“Empowered”‘s origins are well known at this point. A character that started as a cheesecake commission subject grew a personality and a story kicked up its dust around her. Watching this book evolve has been fascinating. Warren has, for a long time, carried one of the best Writer:Artist ratios among those who manage to make a career doing either or both. In many respects, if one is great at one, they’re given broad lenience in any appraisal of the other. But Warren, as fantastic an artist as he is, has always been an incredibly clever and emotionally aware writer as well. “Empowered,” with its focus on such a core group of characters, and with such a vast amount of storytelling space in which to work, has clearly emerged as his finest work. Like its protagonist, it is a physically fantastic looking book that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s way smarter than it lets on and knows just as much about “Buffy” and Ninjitsu as you might wish you did. With each volume, its characters grow more complicated, its setpieces grow in scale and impact, the stakes get higher, and the story becomes more and more emotionally engaging.
It’s unfortunate that “Empowered” isn’t just “a” genre book, but rather made up of several, thus making it even more improbable that it will be recognized at large as a serious and legitimate work. Much like cultural touchstones “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” or “Lost,” it is a work that uses the trappings of the more dross subjects of pop culture to tell stories of meaning and substance, all while never forgetting the importance of entertainment’s ability and proclivity to entertain. This is a fantastically rendered book on every conceivable level, and much like Empowered herself, has to work even harder to get the respect it deserves. Luckily they’re both way more powerful than most people ever expected them to be.