Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Question of Empowerment

While taking a break from trying to hammer out a decent Scott and/or Emma post, I found David P. Morgan's thoughts on Vol. 3 of Empowered at this link, over at the Precocious Curmudgeon (via the always awesome When Fangirls Attack). I generally try to keep things light and breezy here at The LookOut but I did get into a discussion with David P. Morgan on his critique of a portion of the book that he felt took away from his overall enjoyment of the volume. My thoughts in response to his are here.

Here's the thing about Empowered - it's one of my favorite books on the stands. Adam Warren's always been one of my favorite writers (he once created a "Proust Bomb" that stuck people in an extended flashback for God's sake). I'm not alone in my love of this series, by any means. Empowered is hilarious, romantic and filled with wonderful character vignettes.

The problem is that the series itself can often be misinterpreted or flat-out problematic due to it's origins and recurring themes. Defending the series can get a person into tricky waters because not many people realize how smart, self-aware and thoughtful it is. The major trouble with Empowered stems from the fact that Adam Warren was paying the bills by doing commissions of the "Damsel in Distress" variety - a fact he flat-out admits in the 4th-wall breaking early chapter ilios of Empowered itself. Understandably, a great many people have a problem with enjoying any superheroine whose origin is so steeped in bondage tropes, despite the high quality of the story.

(more on Mr. William Moulton Marston can be found here)

Being a ferociously intelligent, creative writer/artist whose previous works have (with only two exceptions) all been focused on powerful female leads, Mr. Warren inevitably found himself transforming these commissions into a full-fledged character study. He began to explore and turn the unpleasant trope on it's head by flip-flopping the power dynamic. One assumes that people who are entertained by the distasteful notion of superheroines in distress (and Ami Angelwings discusses that unpleasant kink at considerable length here) are seeking out a negation of the most powerful woman they can find.

But instead of a stalwart, uber-powerful Amazon Princess being tied up by her own lariat, Empowered is a neurotic, unhappy C-list superheroine whose capture is often the result of her own lack of faith in herself. Empowered becomes a real, hurting human being and the reader is called not to revel in her failures but to feel for her defeats and enjoy her personal and all-too-rare professional triumphs. This is a character whose problems seem very real because she has her feet planted so firmly on the ground.

In another "real world" touch, Empowered is extremely self-conscious about her body and how it is shown in her supersuit - a suit which embarrasses her because it is mercilessly revealing and not at all the sort of thing she dreamed of wearing growing up. In one of the ilios, she flat out begs the reader not to stare at her butt, which is the part of her body she's most self-conscious about.

Empowered has an equally fleshed-out supporting cast, full of characters I love. There's her best friend, former superninja for hire Ninjette, The Caged Demonwolf, who is an amusingly verbose world-destroying demon trapped in a belt on her coffee table, and her loving boyfriend and former minion, Thugboy. As an interesting aside, the trope of a "bad girl gone good for the love of Superhero X" is prevalent - i. e., Catwoman - but I can't think of any other bad guys gone good besides Thugboy. I digress but it's an interesting note to make that Warren's turning yet another trope on it's head here. Not only is Thugboy redeemed by Empowered's genuineness and sweetness, her best friend and even a would-be world destroyer are all mellowed and intrigued by her honesty and openness. People closest to her love her for who she is and she loves them back in kind.

The dynamic between Empowered and Thugboy remains one of the most surprisingly sweet romances I've read in a long time. When Warren writes something as simple as how to comfort the person you're sleeping with when they have nightmares, I get a little gooey inside. This is a relationship I can believe in because it is a relationship of equals. Empowered is a real person with real problems, much like her boyfriend's own negative and unhappy past. He is amazed by her and her bravery - fighting in an unreliable supersuit with teammates that either hate or dismiss her, all because she feels compelled to do that which is right - and woos her on her own terms. He may have been a thug once but now he's her thug and trying to make amends, for both their sakes.

I know I'm taking some fairly cheap shots at Wonder Woman here, which is another title I actually adore (well, under Simone or Rucka's hand at least). It's not entirely a fair comparison but it is one I thought I'd bring to people's attention. The real failure, if we want to throw stones, is that I can't find Supergirl or Batgirl even remotely as interesting, real or emotionally affecting as I do Empowered. When Empowered puts on a costume, she's a scared young woman trying to do right. When Supergirl puts on a costume, she's a blow-up doll no real emotional center for the reader to latch onto. She's a walking torso nobody's bothered to give a personality yet.

The tragedy is that, as a wit on Scans_Daily (and yes, I know Scans_Daily can be more than a little abrasive sometimes) put it, "Define Irony:
A) When DC and Marvel try to create "deep," "meaningful," "realistic" stories, they produce sexist, fascist, retarded exploitation pseudo-porn.
B) When Adam Warren tries to create exploitation pesudo-porn, he produces adorable, relatable characters who manage to reveal hidden depths."

DC responds to criticisms of Batgirl's character assassination by offering a new mini-series to explain the changes . . . written by the very writer who mutilated her in the first place. Brian Michael Bendis responds to having Tigra be repeatedly beaten and threatened in her own bedroom with a snarky Fish Man allegory. Supergirl gets writer after writer and none of them succeed at making her interesting or creating a core to the character people can relate to. Adam Warren, on the other hand, has responded to criticism of the series on his Deviant Art page with apologies and a promise that future reprintings will ship with a clarified and redrawn page of a scene that troubled some people (and the person I link to here admitted in the same enraged thread that the ending was so touching, she cried). His series has several problematic aspects but, shock of shocks, he actually admits they exist and tries to address them.

So my major problem here isn't that Empowered, vol. 3 has taken a misstep because an intelligent, thoughtful writer tried to deepen the series - taking the comedy out of the equation in two of the chapters to provide contrast between how she is treated and the true potential she wields. No, my real problem is that so many more well-known superheroines aren't being given the same basic consideration as Empowered.

How many of them are treated like human beings with hearts, minds and feelings? Batgirl and Supergirl are unrelatable girls who either turn evil or fly around aimlessly from alternate reality adventure to future adventure. When Wonder Woman seeks out a romance, fans decry her for trying to step off a pedestal and act like a human being. Diana's swung away so hard from her unsavory beginnings as a bondage trope, Simone's facing scathing criticism for daring to suggest she's lonely and willing to date somebody (incredibly) less than perfect. And poor Tigra's probably never going to be seen again. If Bendis actually makes her a New Avenger like he should (considering she sacrificed the safety of her own family to help them), I'll be flat-out stunned.

With all that said, here is where Empowered's story is going in the next volume:

I think that speaks for itself, really. Now the question becomes "Where are any of the more famous Superheroines' stories going?"

Okay, so I have to add one last thing - the guy in the French Maid costume in the back? That's going to be the Empverse version of Batman. I told you all it was hilarious.


Ami Angelwings said...
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Ami Angelwings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ami Angelwings said...

Also this is a good post. :]

...b/c it references me :D


It's good to see a creator who LISTENS to criticism and feedback tho rather than either just pays lip service to caring about the fans or just acts like s/he should know better. >.>

K. D. Bryan said...

Well, hey, you wrote great stuff. :D Plus, I only link to "smart ppl who I like reading :)". Glad you enjoyed this!

And yeah, I know! It's extremely refreshing. I think it's because poor Mr. Warren's mainstream success has been so relatively limited he hasn't developed a Byrne-sized ego yet. He's actually said Empowered came about, in part, because he's felt like a failure so often that it was easy to write volumes on the subject. :(

Nenena said...

Just dropping by to say word. I didn't read Empowered UNTIL I saw Warren's response to the criticism of the looks-like-digital-rape scene. And I thought to myself, Damn. If the author is THAT intelligent and awesome on the internet, then I DO want to read his book and support him. And I'm glad I made that decision.

Adam Warren: Class. You're doing it right.

K. D. Bryan said...

Very glad to hear it, Nenena! It's really wonderful to see an author or artist's actions on "Teh Interweb" gaining them fans, instead of losing them.