INTERVIEW: Adam Warren
Adam Warren, writer/artist of the English-language Dirty Pair comics and Empowered, as well as author of Livewires, Gen13 and Iron Man: Hypervelocity, is a GeeksUnleashed favourite. Empowered, his self-conscious superheroine, has spawned numerous volumes and specials and much attention. We relished the opportunity to sit down with Adam and chat Empowered, “a ringingly final resolution to the long-running Spooky/ Mindf**k plotline” and what his 9 year old self would have made of his creation. Needless to say, we were charmed!
GeeksUnleashed: Empowered is not your typical superhero. You’ve described it as a “sexy superhero comedy, except when it isn’t” – can you elaborate?
Adam Warren: That one line sums it up pretty well, I have to say.
Okay, here’s a marginally longer version: Empowered is the story of Elissa Megan Powers, a struggling young superheroine pluckily forging her way through the embarrassing trials and violent yet goofy travails of life in the often-crappy mask-and-tights business. Overcoming nagging self-doubt and crippling insecurities with the help of an expanding circle of (super-) friends, our never-say-die heroine doggedly climbs up the superheroic career ladder, shifting from “D-list” laughingstock to a surprisingly effective badass—on occasion, at least—as the series progresses.
GU: Did you envisage the multiple plotlines when you first had the idea for Empowered? Or did the series rapidly grow and multiply into the complex, character driven behemoth we see today?
AW: Well, waaaay back in Empowered’s earliest days—so early, I hadn’t yet titled it as Empowered—the project was little more than a handful of tossed-off jokes about a downtrodden and distress-prone superheroine. At that point, I had no long-term plans whatsoever for such a blatantly goofy premise, as this clearly was not a—deep, authoritative, and stentorian voice, here—“real comic.”
Yet yea, verily, almost overnight these hastily scrawled, throwaway goofs deepened and expanded and took on a life of their own, as the cast of characters proliferated and our as-yet-unnamed heroine’s world grew by leaps and bounds. And lo, over the months and years, the jokey “gag strips” metamorphosed into a makeshift series—and acquired the Empowered title, along the way.
Even so, gotta admit that even I didn’t take the series fully seriously as a “real comic” until more than a few volumes in, as the characters and their plotlines took on an increasing level of complexity that convinced me that Empowered could indeed be a sprawling, epic(-ish) ongoing story.
GU: There’s rumour of a hint in Animal Style for the events of Empowered volume 8? And your Twitter feed hints at a finality for Sistah Spooky’s emotional arc. What can we expect in volume 8? Do you have a definitive title as yet?
AW: While I would love to proclaim that readers should rush right out and buy the Animal Style one-shot to pick up tantalizing clues about the events of Empowered vol.8, that’s not really the case. While Animal Style does indeed offer insights about the nature of the so-called “Empverse,” the issue’s content doesn’t especially overlap with the very narrowly focused story that vol.8 will be telling. Nonetheless, I would still exhort readers everywhere to rush right out and buy Animal Style regardless, of course! Rush right out, I urge you!
Yeah, as I’ve often mentioned on Twitter—@empoweredcomic, by the way—Empowered vol.8 does indeed offer a ringingly final resolution to the long-running Spooky/ Mindf**k plotline. Say, here’s the upcoming book’s solicitation copy:
Costumed crimefighter Empowered, already reeling from the grueling ordeal of “Superdead Boot Camp,” finds herself roped into a tragic and desperate scheme by her grief-stricken teammate Sistah Spooky. On a reckless journey from a terrifying alien arsenal to the even-more-terrifying depths of hell itself, can the bickering duo free the soul of Spooky’s slain lover from eternal damnation—or have our mismatched superheroines impulsively blundered into a (quite literally) hellish trap?
Title-wise, I can say this: The very long and apocalyptically climactic story that takes up the bulk of vol.8 is titled, “I Never Heard Your Voice; I Never Looked in Your Eyes,” the significance of which should be (eventually) obvious to long-term Empowered readers. (Blatant hint: Due to a horrific incident in her past, the late telepath Mindf**k was a bit lacking in the departments of speech and vision.)
GU: When can we expect to see Empowered volume 8 on the shelves – in time for Christmas?
AW: The book was initially slated for a December release, but might be bumped back a bit, perhaps to (very) early January; worst case, a bit later still, as I still have plenty of the book left to draw.
GU: We’ll see Empowered: Nine Beers with Ninjette, with Takeshi Miyazawa (Runaways, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) and Christina Strain, before then, in September? What can you tell us about this special?
Kick back and have a cold one with hearty-partying Ninjette, Empowered’s Best Friend Forever, as she weaves a boozy yet poignant tale of ninja magic, complete with fighting, flirting, and swing-dancing with Maidman—not to mention the outwitting of our favorite ninja’s monstrous thug of a father. Drink up!
Ever since his long-ago debut on Oni Comics’ Sidekicks, I’ve always admired Takeshi’s intensely energetic and expressive artwork, and was slobberingly thrilled at the opportunity to collaborate with him on a project. As expected, he did a bang-up job on Nine Beers with Ninjette, bringing nicely animated fluidity and beautiful character rendering (and even Japanese-language sound FX!) to the ninjutsu-intensive story. (I’m even mildly piqued to mention that I like his scrofulous and dissolute depiction of Ninjette’s father better than the version that I myself draw…) A nice bonus, by the way: Takeshi finished up the artwork for the book several weeks ago, making this the first time in years that an Empowered project has been comfortably ahead of schedule!
I should add that, while the great Christina Strain—Takeshi’s frequent collaborator on his Marvel work, back in the day—did indeed provide the fine color art for the one-shot’s cover, its interior artwork is entirely in black and white, featuring some very sweet manga toning by Takeshi.
AW: I’d like to think so, as each time, I’ve worked up stories tailored to the strong suits of artists with skill sets very different from my own. 10 Questions for the Maidman leaned heavily on Emily’s beautiful color art and expertise at depicting pretty, pretty boys, while Hell Bent or Heaven Sent exploited Ryan’s own color (and CG) rendering and adeptness at illustrating similarly pretty girls. Along those lines, I wrote Empowered: Animal Style specifically for John Staton’s incredibly impressive mechanical design skills, hence the one-shot’s onslaught of complex mecha and wild-looking superheroic cars—neither of which are exactly my specialty, to put it mildly. As you’ll soon see, John’s detail-intensive artwork worked out even better than I’d hoped, I’m happy to report.
GU: There was a survey regards superheroes recently in the UK which concluded that ‘men like hot chicks and women like rich guys’. How much is ‘Empowered’ a reaction to the sexualised superhero trope? Or is the series a reaction to the likes of the capable heroine (i.e. Ms. Peel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)?
AW: Far more the former than the latter, given that I’ve spent most of my alarmingly long comics career on the adventures of (often ultra-)capable action heroines. The series mainly grew out of speculation about how much the conventional tropes inherent to female superheroism might suck, such as the humiliating annoyance of “damsel in distress” scenarios and the chagrin of a deeply insecure heroine having to wear an embarrassingly revealing costume.
GU: I remember hearing in an interview with the excellent War Rocket Ajax that you quit comics as a 9 year old because they were “too frigging stupid” – what would your 9 year old self think of Empowered?
AW: Anyone bleating nowadays about the supposed stupidity of modern mainstream comics has never experienced the raw, grinding, overwhelming stupidity of 70s-era mainstream comics. You did have choices back then, though, between books that were both very, very dumb and very, very boring—that is, DC titles—and books that were both very, very dumb and occasionally interesting—that is, certain Marvel titles. Alas, as an admittedly not-all-that-bright youth, the dumbness just became too much to bear, and I stopped reading comics until the flowering of the alternative comics scene—American Flagg!, Swamp Thing, Love and Rockets, etc.—when I was in high school.
I’m not entirely sure what 9-Year-Old Me would think of Empowered, to be honest; dunno if a younger version of myself would be alienated by a manga-influenced style or not, back in those bygone days before I had the slightest awareness of Japanese pop culture. Whatever its goofier flaws, though, Empowered isn’t a dumb comic at all, IMHO—or at least not as dumb as it might appear, at first glance—so maybe Young Me would’ve appreciated it after all.
GU: Is Empowered challenging enough? Or is it still confused for comic-pornography? Are you reliant on viewers reading between the lines?
AW: At times, Empowered might be entirely too challenging for certain readers, who seem intensely conflicted by the series’ seeming vacillation between provocative imagery, commentary on provocative imagery, ongoing character delineation, and genuine emotional content. I guess that I am, in effect, reliant on readers who are able to see that there’s more to Empowered than meets the eye—and that refers to both the series and the title character herself, of course!
While I doubt that the books are perceived as pornography as such, given the stories’ goofily scrupulous lack of nudity, censored profanity and so on, I have little doubt that the series is still viewed by some as unsavoury exploitation material at best. That’s an unfortunate but understandable view, given the project’s admittedly dubious origins. On the other hand, though, let’s face it: Far more disturbing and provocative content appears constantly—and without comment—in allegedly “serious” mainstream comics.
Interestingly, the most anguished gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over Empowered’s contradictory nature seems solely the purview of quite laudably sensitive male readers. I am, on occasion, tempted to advise, “Fellas, goodly numbers of actual women are able to read and appreciate this series with little apparent agonizing or torment, so you might consider toning down the conspicuous breast-beating just a tad.” Of course, publically stating such advice is merely a passing temptation, one that I am careful never to indulge.
GU: Your process, which consists of incredible pencils, which are finely detailed and stylised – was this a conscious decision? What does a volume cost you in pencils? Would/are you considering switching to digital?
AW: Working in pencil was a very conscious decision indeed, as it’s the only possible way I can turn out pages quickly enough to even remotely afford to draw the series. Working in conventional comics format—inked and on oversized art board—would be much too prohibitively slow to ever be considered, I’m afraid.
I’ve honestly never added up how much a given volume costs me in art supplies, but I usually do shell out a few hundred bucks for a new passel o’ leads every few years. (Speaking of which, I’d best order a fresh supply of my current pencil of choice, 6B 2mm Turquoise leads, as I’m running dangerously low on ‘em at present.) On the other hand, I save a helluva lot of money with the medium I actually use those pencils on—good ol’ cheap copy paper, which is far cheaper than the expensive Bristol board that most comics are drawn on.
I’ve certainly considered switching to digital, particularly in the hopes of reducing stress on my oft-ailing drawing hand; the main problem with my pencils-only approach is that it requires a great deal of pressure to be applied when I’m grinding the graphite onto the page. But while working digitally would offer some interesting advantages—integrating digital background elements, for example—it would still be markedly slower than the speedy, stripped-down, pencil-on-copy-paper technique I currently use.
GU: Do you use photo references for Empowered or is what we see straight from your imagination?
AW: I use photo reference a fair bit, mainly for background elements, especially challenging poses, certain forms of clothing, problematic animals, and other tricky stuff that would be ill-served by the limits of my imagination.
GU: Who is your favourite Empowered character (so far)? Mine is The Caged Demonwolf!
AW: Out of the main cast, at least, I can’t say that I have a particular favourite, as I enjoy writing each of them for different reasons at different times. I do relish crafting the Demonwolf’s often-baroque pontificating, for example, but that works out a quite separate set of, well, “writing muscles” than scripting Emp or Ninjette’s dialogue. I’m also pleasantly surprised by how some characters have become more satisfying to write, as the series has evolved; Sistah Spooky was originally devised as a one-note “mean girl” nemesis for Emp, but has grown into a much more nuanced and sympathetic character over time.
GU: Any plans to visit the UK and one of our comic cons? We’d love to have you!
AW: No particular plans in mind, but I have been trying to expand my convention-attending horizons of late, so who knows?
GU: Is there anything else you’d like to plug?
AW: Coming up in July, I wrote and drew a 10-page story for Marvel’s A+X #10, teaming up Cable and the X-Force‘s Domino and Uncanny Avengers’ Scarlet Witch in a tale of runaway Celestial hardware, supremely unlikely feats of probability manipulation, and Gordian-knot-slicing of the crudest sort. Wheeeeee!
I also wrote a fun—if bloody and eye-gouging-intensive—little 12-page fantasy story for the upcoming Pathfinder: Goblins miniseries, which boasts some very sweet artwork by Carlos Gomez. Why, it’s available for pre-order in this month’s Previews, as a matter of fact! Here’s as brief interview.
GU: Finally Adam, would you be so kind to endorse something you’ve loved recently?
Our thanks to Adam and Dark Horse Comics.
If you’re unfamiliar with Empowered, I’d highly recommend the Deluxe Editions -
Go on, treat yourself!