High School is Hell, Literally, in Empowered & Sistah Spooky Team-Up

In Empowered and Sistah Spooky High School Hell, which starts this week at Dark Horse, the team of Adam Warren, Carla Speed McNeil and Jenn Manley Lee, are heading straight to that darkest and most unholy of locales: high school. Also possibly Hell, which may or may not be considered worse.

In what is marked as only the second time Warren has published a serialized comic set in the world of his friendly superheroine Empowered, the story will turn to the past, and explore series regular Sistah Spooky as she develops into the figure we know today. She sold her soul in exchange for hotness, a deal which has come back to haunt her before.

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Joined by Eisner Award-winning artist McNeil -- herself an early fan of Empowered -- the six-issue story will see Sistah Spooky and Empowered teaming up against the minions of hell (their ex-classmates), as Sistah Spooky's deal with the devil causes fresh chaos for them both. To get a glimpse into the depths of hell and high school, CBR spoke to Warren about how the series came about, what it's like working with McNeil and Lee, and what readers can expect from the story.

CBR: This is the second time an Empowered story has been told in the "regular" comics format of serialized monthly issues. How did the series first come about?

Adam Warren: Welp, this series derives from a kinda-sorta dangling plot thread left over from the very first volume of Empowered, back when Sistah Spooky was still mercilessly bullying downtrodden teammate Emp. Spooky’s origin story revealed how she, in turn, was tormented in high school by unnaturally beautiful blondes who had sold their souls for hawtness, only to become a superpowered sorceress herself after trading her own soul for beauty.

One unexplored aspect of that story, howeva, was this: how would her soul-sold high-school classmates react if they ever learned that their former “ugly duckling” victim had become not only just as gorgeously swan-like as themselves, but also inherited godlike powers denied to them? Arrogant and entitled as they were shown to be, wouldn’t they be bitterly resentful about Spooky socially leapfrogging them to glorious superheroine status? Wouldn’t they leap at the opportunity if their demonic Infernal Service Provider gave them a chance to reclaim Spooky’s disproportionate allotment of magic power for themselves? Why, yes, they surely would!

Problem is, I already have too many goshdarned plot threads to address in the regular Empowered graphic-novel series I draw myself, so this seemed like a story idea I’d have to inflict on, say, another Guest Artist -- note the respectful capitalization! -- in a separate Empowered miniseries. And lo, here it is!

I should also add that this is the first Empowered series in conventionally sized comics format, as opposed to the notably "squatter" 6.5-inch by 9-inch format of previous volumes and Guest Artist stories. Honestly not sure that’s really a huge sales point, but perhaps we should’ve plastered the miniseries' covers with blurbs screaming, "NOW WITH 1.25" TALLER PRINTED PAGES!"

How did Carla come onboard for the story? Was it something you’ve been talking about for a while?

Carla was one of the first readers of the goofy little throwaway stories that would eventually mutate into Empowered, back when I was circulating them as jpegs to a handful of friends, and her feedback on ’em was always incisive and valuable. In an interesting coincidence -- or is it a coincidence? -- one of the earliest Empowered stories featured a sudden rapprochement of sorts between Emp and her tormentor Sistah Spooky, but Carla found that to be an unlikely -- and, narratively speaking, unearned -- turn of events. So, after agreeing with her insight, I wound up spiking that early story from the series’ first volume. Roughly 1600 pages of Empowered later, Emp and Spooky did end up reaching such a rapprochement, but this time around I felt the thaw between them was far more believable.

And yeah, we’ve been discussing the idea of working together off and on for a decade or more, so when a rare window opened in her busy schedule, I was quick to suggest an Empowered Guest Artist project. I reasoned, hey, why not roll with a story harkening back to the Emp/Spooky relationship that Carla had already provided input on, a decade earlier?

Why have Sistah Spooky take the leading role, here? What do you think makes this story such an interesting one to follow from her perspective?

Well, I thought that having a book’s eponymous character -- that is, Empowered -- technically be Spooky’s "sidekick" for the length of a story would be a novel approach for me. Then again, for some time now, I’ve felt that Spooky was a compelling, even tragic character, which has been quite a journey for someone who started life as a one-note Mean Girl and bully. Plus, this brings up the question: Do we ever really get over high school? Clearly, this is an ongoing struggle for Theresa (Spooky’s real name), and this question even becomes a bit of a plot point later on in the miniseries.

Tangential side note: Oddly enough, unlike damn near everyone else I know in comics, my high school experience really wasn’t particularly traumatic. Elementary school, by contrast, was my own personal hellscape. (Pardon me as I flinch in recollection.) Alas, I didn’t really feel like writing Empowered and Sistah Spooky’s Grade School Hell, though that might have been funny.

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