Adam Warren Talks "Empowered"

Empowered Vol. 5

"Empowered" Vol. 5 on sale this week

Responsible for decades of comics work both as an artist and a writer, Adam Warren's combination of both Western and Eastern influences has always made him a singular and fascinating voice in the comics field. Culturally detailed, slyly witty, and emotionally layered, "Empowered" is the perfect culmination of Warren's interests and proclivities. The series, which is released as a series of trade paperbacks, is one of Dark Horse's most critically lauded in recent years, and is no sales slouch either, with "Empowered" Volume 1 now in its fourth printing.

With "Empowered" about to see its fifth volume released this week, CBR News sat down with Adam Warren for an extremely candid talk about what to expect from the new book, reader reactions to "Empowered," why he doesn't consider himself a "real" artist, and the many things that go behind and in front of his work on the hugely acclaimed series.

CBR: What sets "Empowered" apart right away is the artwork. How did you develop your style for the series?

ADAM WARREN: "Empowered's" artwork is essentially a much tightened-up version of the already-tight layout pages I used to produce early on in the process of doing conventional penciled-and-inked comic pages. Since almost everyone who saw 'em (fellow pros, fans, editors) preferred the energy and dynamism of my layouts to my finished inks (much to my chagrin), it wasn't much of a leap to switch over to working strictly in the pencil-based medium of "supertight B&W layout pages." As a bonus, this technique ensured that I wouldn't have to rely on-or burden-other pros with the tasks of inking, lettering or coloring; I could handle everything myself.

As it's rendered almost entirely in pencils, "Empowered" seems to be engineered to allow you to get the most work done on it while also working on more potentially labor intensive projects.  What's a typical work day like when you're working on "Empowered?"

Initially, my crafty scheme was to work on "Empowered" in my spare time while working on writing full-time. Honestly, I'd hoped to not be drawing at all by this point in my brilliant career, as writing comics is far more fun, and faaaaaaaar less time-consuming (and hence, technically far more lucrative), than actually drawing them. Sadly, despite an ongoing stream of pitches flung hither and yon, I haven't been able to scrape up very much writing work. Worse, once the "Empowered" books began coming out, my once-formidable lead time soon melted away (early on, I was hundreds of pages ahead of schedule, believe it or not), and so on occasion I've had to go full-time-and then some!-on cranking out artwork to keep up.

During the last few volumes, real-life issues (from epic home-repair ordeals to spending most of last December in the dark after an ice-storm blackout) have cut severely into my worktime and discombobulated the books' scheduling, forcing me to make up for said lost worktime with a vengeance. As in 90- to100-hour workweeks, month upon month of sustained and unbroken grinding, my drawing hand wearing down painfully, and other such unpleasantness that I sure as hell didn't foresee when I was first idly and nonchalantly sketching the casual commissions that would eventually mutate into "Empowered."

Luckily, from now on the book will be coming out at a more relaxed schedule, so I'm hopeful that such ordeals won't be necessary in the near future, which will leave me much more time for freelance writing gigs, oh potential employers out there!

Back during the days of hardcore art grinding on vols. 3-5, though, my workdays would be pretty severe. When things were really bad, I'd frantically rough out and dialogue the next three story pages early in the morning, then spend the rest of the day (and night) trying to crank out the finished artwork for those pages. Even with a strong 13- to 15-hour workday, though, I was only very rarely able to finish all three roughed-out pages in one day; about 2.5 pages per day, on average, was the best I could do. Note that the writing part of my work, the fun and fulfilling part, is over very quickly.

The artwork end of the job, by contrast, represents hundreds (or thousands) of hours of sheer gruntwork, as I have no particular love of drawing for drawing's sake. (Which is why I'm not a real artist as such; a real artist, IMHO, should actually love to draw.)

Anyhoo, I'd wrap up the workday by kicking back and watching the first two segments of Craig Ferguson's show while thinking about the next three pages, then hit the rack and start the whole process over again. Lather, rinse, and repeat for four months straight.

Do you work from a detailed script, write it all on the page itself as you go, or something in between?

Technically, "in between." I puzzle out the story in my head beforehand, scrawl out rough versions of the pages as quickly as possible, then write down all the story's dialogue (in balloons, oddly enough) on separate sheets of paper before moving on to the finished pages as quickly as possible. Every bit of my lean 'n' simplified production technique on "Empowered" is designed to get me on to the final page toute frickin' suite, to stay well clear of all the extra stages and perfectionist bottlenecks that used to slow me down. For example: Instead of ruling out pages on oversized Bristol board with T-square and triangle (as I used to do), I now use a pre-measured grid to quickly mark out panels and gutters on sheets of plain ol' 8.5" X 11" copy paper.

Side note: The smaller your original-art page, the faster you'll be able to finish it. (Go figure, the mangaka were on to something.) I noticed this even way back in the day when I was drawing (and even inking!) the miniseries "Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal," which featured much smaller original pages (for reasons that escape me now) than the 10" X 15" originals which were the norm back in the '90s. Of course, for the following ten years, I immediately proceeded to forget how much faster I was able to complete smaller pages... Oops!

One of striking things about "Empowered" is your frequently displayed encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of things; gun models, TV-on-DVD, ninjutsu, and more.  Is this simply a product of a voracious mind or do the characters come before the research?

I guess it's primarily, ah, "the product of a voracious mind" (in all modesty). As I can no longer cope very well with mediocre or badly written prose fiction, I mainly read a hell of a lot of nonfiction covering widely varied topics, a good bit of which is full of interesting ideas for any halfway imaginative writer. (Or a "third-of-the-way" imaginative writer, in my case. Note the modesty!) That being said, I'm careful not to go too far afield in "Empowered" with, say wildly abstruse SF concepts or so-called "technobabble," as I like to keep the book as readable and accessible as possible. Er, except for the fact that "Empowered" is a Mature Readers book, which means it's supposed to be inaccessible to younger readers. Oh, well.

On occasion, though, a character might connect to some interesting topic I'd actually like to research in further depth, such as ninjutsu and Japanese demographic collapse in Ninjette's case.

It's interesting to watch what you've considered the "limits" of the book's explicitness.  There's sex in the book, but never full nudity.  There's mild profanity but anything really bad in the dialogue is blocked out.  How exactly do you define, internally, what does and doesn't belong in the book?

For one thing, I find depicting "sex without actual sex" and "nudity without actual nudity" to be weirdly amusing; for another, I have no particular interest in doing full-on pr0n... or, ahem, "erotica," to be pretentiously and self-deludingly euphemistic. Since I can convey what I want to convey in a given "Empowered" story without getting all that graphic about the depiction, I don't mind steering juuuuust clear of the line twixt titillation and outright (ahem, again) "erotica." Plus, as I said, I just think it's funny, though not quite as funny as the few folks who bitch and moan about the fact that I do so. Hey, guys, if you're looking for serious pr0n, I'm pretty sure that I've heard somewhere that you might be able to find that kind of thing online (or so I am told).

Really, what I'm doing in "Empowered" isn't all that much spicier than some of the sexualized shenanigans featured in my various takes on WildStorm's "Gen13." As in, very strongly implied sexual situations, censored nudity and language, and so on. (Then again, maybe that's why I've never been allowed near "Gen13" again, after my run on the book ended in cancellation.)

Likewise, I started using the black dialogue-censoring blocks mainly because they struck me as goofily entertaining, due to the fact that the word being censored was usually quite obvious. (Lately, I've taken to only partially censoring certain words, to make even clearer what particular word lurks under the censoring block.) Nowadays, I consider this affectation to just be part of the "Empowered" format, though that's not entirely set in stone; at pivotal moments in some future stories, the censoring slips, for reasons that will eventually become clear.

One of the most popular aspects of "Empowered" is clearly the verisimilitude of its core group of characters: Empowered, Thugboy, Ninjette, and the Caged Demonlord.  The evolution of Emp is rather well documented (commission sketch of dubious origins grows personality), but how have you seen the overall dynamics of the group evolve as you've worked on the book?

Over time, the "sitcom" aspect of "Empowered" - those four lead characters, in the apartment I am now quite thoroughly sick of drawing - has gone in some unintended directions, from straightforwardly farcical sex comedy riffs to showing that Thugboy and Ninjette are just as screwed up as Emp (if not more so). In particular, I'm weirdly entertained by the manifold vectors of sexual tension that have sprung into being between the various characters (I should note, hint hint, that said sexual tension is addressed several times in "Empowered "vol. 5). The relationship between, say, the Caged Demonwolf and Ninjette has become rather surreally intimate, going from voyeuristic/ exhibitionistic teasing to something more complicated. Believe me, that wasn't something I originally had in mind.

One of the most interesting things you deal with in the book is Empowered's struggles with self-esteem as related to her constant abduction and gratuitous bondage.  After two volumes of it happening in almost every other chapter, you end the second volume with an incredibly poignant sequence where she goes to great lengths to help a family and her subsequent kidnapping is suddenly a lot more jarring, brutal, and sad.  There has been a lot made of the "preferences" of the kind of reader who might get off on this sort of thing in the fourth wall-breaking chapter asides, but exactly how much of "Empowered" is consciously a kind of slap on the wrist to those who trade in the more exploitative aspects of that kind of art?

That is occasionally part of what I'm doing in "Empowered," but there are often more than a few recursive-and opposing-layers to the stories. As in, depicting exploitative scenes, then undercutting the exploitation in those scenes, then undercutting said undercutting of exploitation with further exploitation, etc., etc. I have indeed encountered several impressive anecdotes of "damsel in distress" (DiD) fans who no longer appreciate Emp's scenes of distress, because they've come to sympathize with the character too much. (Not that I believe that's even remotely a frequent occurrence, given the intensity of most fetishes; I've stumbled across rather more incidents of bondage fans complaining-not without cause-about the books' varying rates of DiD-scene occurrence or the technical flaws in my less-than-hyper-realistic depiction of, say, duct tape application.)

That being said, I rarely hear from DiD aficionados about "Empowered," period, as almost all the feedback I've received on the book is from people who read it for "teh funneh" or "teh sexeh" or what have you, and do so explicitly despite the DiD imagery. I assume that the DiD fans out there like the book-the original "commissioners" of the sketches that morphed into "Empowered" were okay with it, as far as I know-but I don't know that for certain.

By the way, thanks for the kind words re: the end of "Empowered" vol. 2. Oddly enough, strongly emotional, irony-free moments like that are the main reason I keep doing the book, period; successfully pulling off a scene along those lines is, I find, the most rewarding thing I can do as a writer. I should add that the end of "Empowered" vol. 5 plunges into similarly charged territory (I hope), especially during a closing scene with one major character coming unglued in an emotionally naked fit of rage...

In one of the earliest asides from Empowered, she mentions the plight of a book like hers; a manga fan would never touch a book featuring superheroes, and the art is too manga for superhero fans.  Now that you've got four volumes done and a fifth one on the way, how have you found the book's success, considering its perilous odds?

"Empowered's" not a runaway success by any means, nor is it even remotely as lucrative as working at mainstream page rates (a fact about which I try very, very hard not to think), but I am pleased that it's performed well enough to survive, and even more pleased that it's racked up a surprising degree of positive response while doing so. I felt like I was going pretty far out on a limb when "Empowered" first came out; I was heartened that readers were able to see beyond the book's admittedly dubious origins.

While some mainstream comics fans (i.e., superhero fans) certainly do react with knee-jerk, sneering, overweening contempt and disdain at any hint of the so-called "manga style," I have to admit that they're paragons of tolerance and openmindedness compared to certain manga fans, who fly into hysterical, frenzied, blubbering paroxysms of sheerest outrage and indignation whenever Western artists are perceived to be encroaching on manga's culturally pure and sacred grounds. If there's something more pathetic than some self-appointed American defender of Japanese pop culture (usually a white male, hilariously enough) shrieking "Weeaboo! WEEABOO!" at another gaijin, I've never encountered it... nor would I want to, really.

You've created a pretty in-depth universe for "Empowered," complete with superteams and bad guys and college programs for superheroing.  Is there a bible that you've written out somewhere or do you just find yourself suddenly thinking "This comic needs a guy with cinderblocks for hands and a head?"

Both are true now, really. In "Empowered's" early stages as a series of hastily knocked-out 1-3 page jokes, I was quite casually throwing assorted items up against the figurative wall to see what would stick, often with little forethought beyond, "Hey, this might be funneh." (For example, I really wish I'd spent more than several minutes designing the first generation of Superhomeys... Oh, well.) Later on, as my initial random flurry of ideas congealed and coalesced into something more and more complex, I switched over to devising longer-term plans for the characters and plotlines.

Still, though, I remain fond of tossing whatever odd but appealing notion crosses my mind into the ongoing narrative stream, whether that's a Dark Knight-ish thug who crossdresses as a maid, or a superhero based on the freakish-looking "sensory homunculus," or Ninjette rather incongruously disguising herself as a basketball player.

A recent example: Last summer, whilst engaged in home repair, I stumbled across a cache of "Field & Stream" magazines from the '50s. Boldly emblazoned across the cover of one issue was the following, exceedingly cryptic article title: "JUDAS MOOSE." Not wanting to spoil the magic by reading the actual story and figuring out what the heck the title meant, I tossed the magazine aside and said to myself, "You know, 'Judas Moose' would be an awesome name for a supervillain." And lo and behold, Judas Moose wound up being name-checked in vol. 5; I'm hoping to have him (her?) appear in person for a future volume.

What can readers expect to see in the upcoming "Empowered" Volume 5?

Might as well break out the finely crafted back-cover copy from the volume here:

After saving much of the superhero community from certain doom, costumed crimefighter "Empowered" is dismayed to find that, in the suspicious eyes of her caped colleagues, she may have gone from being merely an easily distressed "pair of training wheels for supervillains" to possibly being a closeted supervillain herself! Meanwhile, our stressed-out superheroine must overcome other challenges aplenty, ranging from gossip-prone cosmic overlords learning Too Much Information from her mother and "cosplay" dress-up disasters at work (and in bed!) to duct-tape-happy catgirls, fiery sociopaths, orbital catastrophes, and even a surprising kiss or two... Not to mention trying to survive an emotionally charged, potentially lethal confrontation with her teammate-in-name-only (and implacable nemesis) Sistah Spooky!

Have to say, based on sheer page-count this volume features a bit less humor than the last few, due to the grueling, action-packed, mostly joke-free 55-page story that closes out the book. In that epic, drawing-hand-distressing story, "Say That I Deserve This," our heroine's good intentions tragically lead to disaster -- or a whole chain of disasters, more accurately. This leads to a key turning point for one major character; but then again, a fair number of other characters also experience key turning points in that story, albeit of a very final sort. As I've often said whilst trying to flog the book, "Empowered" is a "sexy superhero comedy," except when it isn't.

Later in the year, you might just see an "Empowered" one-shot in the conventional, "pamphlet" comics format, just for the heck of it. Plus, I always love to see my penciled art reproduced on nice, glossy paper; the "Empowered "excerpts that appeared in the "Style School" books looked very nice indeed.

Further down the road, I'm trying to pitch Dark Horse on doing entire "Empowered" spin-off miniseries in the "floppy" format, theoretically featuring stories written by me for other artists to draw (but with regular-format Emp back-up stories drawn by me, I hasten to add); the idea is to do something in order to maintain a presence in the field during the ever-lengthening wait between volumes. Dunno if they'll be interested, though. Mike Mignola, I most assuredly am not (and "Empowered" is certainly no "Hellboy," obviously).

Alas, "regular"-format, straight-to-trade "Empowered" is uniquely ill-suited to conventional "floppy" (or even webcomics-based) serialization, since I rarely produce the individual stories within a volume in strict chronological order; I frequently go back and add new stories earlier in the book, to flesh out certain points or balance out character appearances or to break up excessive stretches of seriousness/ humor/ sex/ distress/ etc. Recent longer-term, overarching plotlines have driven the books much closer to being produced linearly, but even so, I still like to shuffle the story order and shift pagecount around right up until the last possible minute. If I ever get enough free time (which means "not verra likely"), though, I might consider putting up the existing volumes as an webcomic archive at some point.

In closing, I should note that you can see plenty of Empowered-related material (and other stuff, as well) at my DeviantART account: http://adamwarren.deviantart.com/

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