EWPOWERED BY PENCILS
Nothing against inkers, but I love to look at pencil work, whether it's on original comic art pages, sketchbook entries, or printed comics. There's something that's pure about it, but also energetic. Without all the finished polish that an inker gives the line art, the art maintains its initial burst of creative energy, even when you know deep inside that the artist still spent as much time fine-tuning every pencil mark to make it look so finished.
Thankfully, we've reached an age of publishing where reproducing work straight from the pencils is possible. It's finally given us the chance, for example, to see the shaded artwork of Gene Colan as it was meant to be seen. It allows Kirby fans to drool over original oversized pages of his art in the pages of the JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR. It gives us bonus material in the back of comics and graphic novels.
And, now, it gives us the glory of Adam Warren's EMPOWERED, Volume 1 from Dark Horse. If you hadn't heard of it before, I'll give you a quick synopsis: This is a tongue-in-cheek book about a girl who goes by the superhero name of "Empowered." She's a beautiful blonde woman who wears a ridiculously thin skin-tight one-piece costume that gives her superpowers. The problem is, it rips easily and she loses all her powers when that happens, leading to her being taken captive by a parade of ridiculous supervillains, who all tie her up and gag her. What started out as a simple batch of joke strips Warren would e-mail to his friends turned into a book-length compilation that beautifully shows how the one note gag strip became an on-going story with a playful (and very adult) sense of humor.
The entire book is reproduced straight from Warren's pencils, right down to the hand lettering. I'm sure this book would work just as well with an inker's touch, but when I compare the inked samples on the covers with the fine pencil work of the interior pages, there's no doubt as to which one I prefer. Warren isn't shooting this book straight from his pencils for expediency. He's adding more detail with the side of his pencil than any inker could hope to emulate. The nearly 240 pages of storytelling in this book are strengthened by Warren's attention to detail. He uses shading to hint at musculature, backgrounds, and textures. But he also does speedlines in that "Amerimanga" style he developed that conveys more information with their varied widths and shades.
After I finished reading the book, I kept flipping back through it to look at the panels. That's probably why I've been able to overthink the importance of the thickness of the speed lines. I've also seen enough spectacular artwork in the 18 years that I've been reading comics to gloss over most of it. It's sad to admit, but I'm a bit jaded. I read through the art and the story in most books and rarely give them a second look. EMPOWERED, though, felt like something new to me. I couldn't not glance back through it.
So the art knocks me off my feet, but what about that story? EMPOWERED is, after all, the story of a lame superheroine who's best known for her propensity to be captured, bound, and gagged by every supervillain she and her teammates -- the "Superhomeys" -- battle. In a week where the hot topic across the comics blogosphere was a statue of a well-endowed woman bending over and pulling out her husband's laundry, am I really being so smart in singing the praises of this particular book? While I'm busy analyzing speedline virtues, others debate the subtext of barefoot women.
Do I look shallow now?
I don't know. I don't get too caught up in those political battles anymore. While the HEROES FOR HIRE cover is a little too much for my taste, the Mary Jane statue didn't strike me as anything other than an homage to a particular art style of the past. Perhaps it shouldn't be done with a "mainstream" character? Perhaps some people looked far too deeply into it? It's not my battle to fight.
I don't think EMPOWERED, though, would strike a "Get Out The Pitchforks And Let's Storm The Castle" chord with a feminist reading. Yes, the book starts as a series of short gags that gives us plenty of the lead character tied up and her costume half ripped off, along with plenty of adult humor surrounding it. But you can see Warren developing the character as the book progresses. The cheap -- but funny -- gags quickly lead to a sympathetic and endearing character with her own issues and her own supporting cast.
It's more than just sex jokes and bondage scenes, though. Oh, it's nothing deep. At the heart of it, it's a book of sex jokes, don't get me wrong. But Warren creates characters you enjoy, and uses his wicked sense of humor to toy with all of the characteristic traits of modern superhero comics that the rest of us merely occasionally poke fun of. We all giggle at Wonder Woman covers from the 50s and 60s, but Adam Warren addresses that kind of material directly in this book, and makes us laugh out intentionally.
I'm most captivated by Warren's use of language. There's a hipness to all the dialogue that doesn't feel forced. There are plenty of pop culture references and clever banter, none of which is there to cover up any deficiencies in the storytelling. Since the book is a series of short and short short stories, he packs as much into each page as he can, resulting in lots of back-and-forth dialogue, running background gags, and visual double entendres. While the art is very pretty, it's not the pin-up book a lesser creator would have conceived of this book to be. You won't speed through this pages, nor will you slog your way through them. No, this is about the best-paced comic I've read in recent memory.
EMPOWERED Volume 1 is available in finer comic shops today. It's black and white, 248 pages, and only $15. Thankfully, there's a second volume in the works now. If the tease at the end of the first volume is any indication, we can expect to see more character-based stories and more of an exploration of the mythos that Warren has begun to build in this book. It'll be interesting to see how well it transitions from a one-note gag into a more complex on-going superhero OGN series.
AND NOW TO THROW SOME PEOPLE COMPLETELY OFF
I really, really, really enjoyed ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER #5. I know I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed to be outraged at the way Frank Miller treats these DC icons. I'm supposed to loathe Jim Lee for delaying the book for a year. I'm supposed to think the whole thing is a marketing gimmick with production values far too slick for its own good.
But I couldn't help but giggle through most of the issue. You need to realize one thing when you read this book: This isn't DC 616. (I loathe the "Marvel 616" catchphrase, so I'm applying it everywhere now to help make sure it fizzles out sooner rather than later.) This is an Elseworlds book. It's Frank Miller reinventing the characters using the same old tropes, but amplifying them and taking them further than some might be comfortable with. It's Miller poking at fanboys and having a wildly good time.
This is a story set at street level, but starring some spectacularly larger-than-life characters. You might think Miller's captions are overly bombastic, but I think it's fitting for the tone of the book. I think the confrontation between Wonder Woman and the Justice League might not be the thing that you'd want to read in a Greg Rucka-inspired Wonder Woman, but it's the kind of thing that works because the drama is heightened by the characters acting with a disregard for their "iconic" history. I think Wonder Woman is even more interesting as the man-hating Amazon than as the warrior woman trying to peacefully co-exist in the land of man. It's Miller starting from the same spot, but pushing it further and getting some more action from it, though you might consider it melodramatic. That's OK by me. I like something new.
And I love the glee with which Batman jogs across Gotham rooftops and beats up on the bad guys, empowering those below him. I love the call back in his captioning to an earlier much-talked-about Batman phrase from the series. It also gives Jim Lee plenty of chances to draw broad canvases, including an amazing double-page splash of Batman with the Gotham skyline behind him.
That's another interesting thing about Lee -- he hasn't slacked off with success. He's drawing more backgrounds now than ever. I think he's one of the best background artists in comics today. That spread of the Gotham skyline has a number of levels and multiple-point perspective. The grungy underground meeting place of the Justice League has a great abandoned warehouse feel to it, with scratchy pipes and jagged gears.
Perhaps this is a book that most people won't look kindly upon because it needs to be viewed in a context they're not aware of yet. Maybe this series has to finish before it can be properly assessed. It's even possible that it's the victim of its own success, wherein the pre-publication buzz was so great that there wasn't a way for the book to live up to those expectations.
I think a clear mind and a hardcover compilation of the entire story, in the end, will give a better vantage point from which to see this book. Right now, I'm enjoying its manic energy. I want to go back and reread the first four issues now with all of this in mind.
Next week: I'll be back. We're also only a couple of weeks away from the big tenth anniversary of Pipeline. TEN FLIPPING YEARS, PEOPLE!
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