The GeeksverseINTERVIEW: Adam Warren on Empowered

INTERVIEW: Adam Warren on Empowered
Published on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 by

Adam Warren is probably most famously known among comics readers as one of the first Western “manga-style” artists to achieve widespread popularity and acclaim. Warren rose to prominence during the late 1980s, writing (with Toren Smith) and illustrating Eclipse Comics’ original English-language, licensed comic book series based on the sci-fi comedy Dirty Pair “light novels” by Haruka Takachiho and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. Dark Horse Comics would pick up the rights to The Dirty Pair in the early 1990s and 1993’s The Dirty Pair: Sim Hell would be the first of many successful collaborations between Warren (now the sole writer on The Dirty Pair books) and the Oregon-based comics publishing firm. 

Warren continued to produce licensed manga material under the Dark Horse Comics imprint throughout the 1990s and into the turn-of-the-century. His solid bibliography, popular art style, and growing reputation for steady and consistent output would eventually lead to high-profile gigs with Image Comics (Gen13, A Gen13 Bootleg Film: Grunge! The Movie, Gen13: Magical Drama Queen Roxy)  and the “Big Two” of DC Comics (Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone) and Marvel Comics (Marvel Mangaverse: Fantastic Four, Livewires, Iron Man: Hypervelocity).

 

Click on the above image to read our review of February's "Empowered Deluxe Edition, Vol. 1"

In 2007, Dark Horse published the first volume of Empowered, Adam Warren’s creator-owned title. Described by Warren as a “sexy superhero comedy,” Empowered sees the eponymous female protagonist tackling not just supervillains, but also the more abstract, punch-resistant challenges posed by the regressive “damsel-in-distress” motif in superhero comics, unrealistic body-image expectations, a soul-killing day job in the service industry, and a complicated romantic relationship. The offbeat book quickly gained accolades from readers, critics, and industry professionals alike and proved to be a solid sales success with over 100,000 copies of Empowered trade paperback and hardcover volumes currently in print.

The Comixverse recently caught up with the prolific writer-artist, and we talked about his work on Empowered, the issues surrounding the portrayal of women in superhero comics, the unique production demands of drawing and writing a trade paperback-only series, shrinkwrap censorship, and more. (note: All preview images below are taken from Empowered Vol. 7,  set to go on sale in comic book shops everywhere this Wednesday)

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The Comixverse: In a series of metatextual pieces in Empowered Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, it is mentioned that the idea for the character and the types of stories she would find herself in came to you while doing commissioned sketches for a customer with “specialized interests” (i.e., superheroine bondage). But this was also around the time that vocal fan and creator criticism of how women were portrayed in superhero comics really came to the fore, with things like Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators site (founded in 1999) gaining popularity. Did that growing change in reader and creator attitudes influence in any significant way Empowered‘s development?

Adam Warren: That’s a very interesting and insightful question, which makes me rather disappointed that my truthful answer would have to be, “Nope, not really.”

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Empowered was spawned mainly from random insights I’d racked up during a career of depicting female action heroes, not to mention observations of real-life female friends representing behavior and attitudes I wasn’t often seeing reflected in mainstream comics. The concept of a sympathetic but deeply flawed and insecure superheroine was an idea that I’d been toying with for some time, most notably in my occasional work with Roxy and Caitlin from Wildstorm’s teen superteam comic Gen13. Plus, let’s face it, the notion of plucky protagonist Emp struggling to make the best of a bad situation was not entirely removed from the fact that I was struggling to make the best of a bad situation myself—that is, being short on employment and having to draw commissioned sketches of “damsels in distress.” (Lemons, lemonade, blah blah blah.)

To a degree, Empowered deals with long-term trends of superheroine depiction that I’ve been seeing for most of my life. When I was a young lad, I stopped reading comics in the late ’70s because the mainstream books of the time were just too goofy and dimwitted to be tolerated, even by a not terribly precocious kid. (I wouldn’t return to comics until the flourishing of the alt-comics scene of American Flagg!, Love and Rockets, Cerebus, Swamp Thing and the like during the mid-80s.) Coincidentally, one of the very last comics I read back then was an issue of Marvel’s Spider-Woman in which the superstrong heroine inexplicably gets bound, gagged, and carried off by a superpower-free villain, in a scene even more bizarre than any bondage shenanigans 40 years earlier in Moulton’s rope-happy Wonder Woman. “Well, that was kinda weird,” I remember thinking, baffled. I don’t think that 70s-Era Me would’ve been too impressed to learn that Grown-Up Me would have to work on eerily similar—though, I hope, rather more explicable—”damsel-in-distress” material to support himself.

TCV: The bulk of the material included in the first four volumes of Empowered was produced over a two-year stretch. That has to be some sort of record, with you writing, illustrating, and lettering something like 900 pages in that span of time. How many pages are we talking about here in terms of your daily output during that period and how were you able to maintain that level of productivity for so long?

AW: Why, thank you kindly for noticing that little fact! Early on, I have to ruefully admit, I’d often grind my teeth at how I seemed to get no recognition whatsoever for turning out relatively ginormous volumes (208–248 pages) every six months—a not unimpressive feat (he said in all modesty) for an artist not heretofore not known for speed of production. 

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To be honest, though, a “perfect storm” of mitigating factors coincided to allow those early days of breakneck Empowered publication. For one thing, the first few volumes were often light on art detail, especially of the background-related sort. I frantically cranked out pages as quickly as possible, in an attempt to negate the nagging perfectionism that had always slowed down my production rate in the past—and because I simply couldn’t afford to spend much worktime on any given page, thanks to how little money I was making. So, in the beginning, I was actually playing an odd little game with myself, as an artist: What could I get away with? How many steps from my old work habits could I circumvent? How much—or how little—background detail is truly necessary for comics storytelling? Example: Almost no proper “establishing shots”—panels devoted strictly to defining a scene’s environment—appear in Empowered, Vol.1; all the background settings are (literally) sketched in around the characters’ close-ups and medium shots. 

For another thing, back before Empowered’s debut, I was working with a generous amount of lead time before publication, and had at least 300 finished pages safely salted away before the first volume ever saw print. Additionally, at that time I had little else to do, as I was unable to get other work from Marvel, DC, or the high-paying like—my sporadic employment at mainstream pagerates has often been all that keeps me financially afloat. Needless to say, my sad state of underemployment was bad for me personally, but good for working on Empowered full-time.

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During the high-water point of early Empowered production, I was able to do 2 or more pages per day, thanks to the ultra-simplified work technique that I still use today: Pencils applied directly to cheap, 8½” x 11″ copy paper, eschewing all the other complicated work stages I used to employ—layouts, enlargement via photocopying, conventional penciling on 10″ x 15″ bristol board, inking, screentoning, coloring, and so on. 

Alas, the perfect storm that allowed four Empowered volumes to see print in a two-year period soon abated. My generous lead time melted away and other, better-paying freelance jobs cut into my worktime. More critically, some vestige of my old perfectionism reasserted itself, and the artwork of Empowered gradually became more and more detailed; compare Vol.1’s artwork to that of Vol.7, and you’ll see a noticeable jump in the meticulousness of my penciling. Nowadays, even when allowed the luxury of working on Empowered full-time—and a luxury it is, as much pain as it might cause my drawing hand—I count myself lucky to get even one page finished in a single workday.

In retrospect, we probably should have spaced out the early books’ releases more widely, or printed the volumes with less arbitrarily enormous pagecounts: The Empowered average of 208 (or more!) pages per book is substantially greater than, say, the 160 page standard common for manga paperbacks, or the much lower totals seen for many collected American comics. With a lower average pagecount, we could’ve released smaller volumes on a more frequent basis, which would’ve helped the series to retain a more consistent presence on retailers’ shelves. 

Along those lines, I should hasten to promotionally note that Empowered vol.7 is a return to brawny form, boasting a near-record total of 224 pages of “sexy superhero comedy” (and bloody ninja mayhem)!

TCV: Empowered occasionally highlights the unrealistic physical standards Emp (who is by no means physically unattractive) measures herself against. How have readers received these attempts to tackle female body image issues?

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AW: I’m pleased to report that, over the years since Empowered began, I’ve had very positive feedback from female readers able to identify with Emp’s rampant body-image insecurities. Gripes about body type and unrealistic cultural expectations seem to be pretty universal sentiments; I’ve been interested to discuss issues along those lines with everyone from fellow artists to casual readers to extroverted cosplayers, even.

I admit, it’s a tad “on-the-nose” to have a character as conventionally attractive as Emp doubt her own attractiveness, which seems quite apparent to most of the cast—and most of the readers, too.

Then again, Emp is based in part on several women I’ve known who were remarkably attractive by any subjective standard, yet nonetheless harbored wildly, almost surreally intense insecurities about their appearance. As much as people might complain online about the modern pop-culture trope of “the hawt girl who doesn’t realize how hawt really she is,” rest assured that she’s a character archetype who really does exist in real life, kids.

TCV: Empowered features some pretty candid discussions and portrayals of sexuality. Was toning down this aspect of the book in the interest of deflecting any potential negative coverage—from moralistic busybodies, sensationalist news media, and similar entities—ever a concern for you or Dark Horse when laying down the groundwork for the first collected volume?

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AW: That was indeed a concern, I’m afraid. Right up until the publication of the first Empowered volume, we’d thought that the book could see print with just a “Parental Advisory: Mature Content” sticker, given that no actual nudity is ever seen, all profanity is censored, etc. At the last possible moment before publication, however, Dark Horse’s legal counsel advised that the book should be shrinkwrapped, in the hopes of avoiding the wrath of the aforementioned moralistic busybodies and sensationalistic media. I can’t say that the company was mistaken in that assumption, either, as earlier comics I’ve worked on—an old Gen13 issue with a deliberately provocative cover illo, for example—have run afoul of exactly such “Angry Mom, Outraged on the Local TV News” shenanigans. What’s interesting is, the shrinkwrapping was recommended specifically because Empowered is a book about superheroes, which are still presumed to be strictly “kid stuff” in many quarters; if “capes” weren’t involved, the book might well have shipped without plastic. (Come to think of it, this is a topic I should probably address within the book itself, at some point…)

Side note: I should add that I didn’t carry out the (partial) black-bar censorship of “cuss words” in Empowered as a protective measure, but rather because I find the technique strangely amusing—and often amusingly pointless, as the particular word being censored often remains entirely obvious.

TCV: In another metatextual piece in Empowered Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, you voice your concern that the book might be “too superhero-y” for manga readers and “too manga-y” for superhero readers. Do you think it is still the case that, in North America at least, there’s little crossover between manga and superhero comics readers?

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AW: No, I’d imagine that very little crossover is still the case, though whatever crossover that might happen to exist probably runs more in one direction than the other—some cohort of the superhero-reading contingent does keep abreast of manga-influenced work, while I sincerely doubt that many manga readers ever read a “cape” comic. Then again, most signs seem to indicate that the overall manga readership—well, the paying manga readership, that is—continues to dwindle, as the distressingly rapid shrinking of the manga section at my local Barnes & Noble might attest. (Note that said Barnes & Noble doesn’t see fit to include Empowered among the many, many marginal American comics they stock, I’m disappointed to report. Oh, well.) Of course, before anyone gets fired up in the comments section, let me hasten to add that I’m all too aware of the continued dwindling of the already shriveled mainstream comics readership as well. Don’t worry, folks, there’s plenty of dwindling to go around!

Come to think of it, a very different form of crossover readership interests me now: Namely, the crossover—or lack thereof—between readers of print comics and readers of webcomics. Anecdotally, it seems that far less overlap exists between print and web audiences than between comics and manga audiences. After posting early chapters of his hilarious fantasy (print) comic Skullkickers on the webcomic hub Keenspot*, my friend Jim Zubkavich has reported an impressive response from webcomics readers who’d not only never heard of his well-known, Image-published comic before, but had never even heard of Image itself! Personally, I’m very intrigued by the prospect of reaching a new audience online, especially since I’d originally planned to serialize Empowered as a webcomic but, well, never quite got around to doing so…

(*Check out Skullkickers online—note, ahem, that I once wrote a short story for the series—at the following URL: http://skullkickers.keenspot.com/)

TCV: Are there any plans for Empowered to expand into animation?

AW: Not at this time, though the idea certainly is an interesting one. 

TCV: In general, do you think that the way male comics creators portray women in writing and art, especially superpowered-women, has changed in the years since you started doing Empowered?

AW: Honestly, I can’t provide a particularly well-informed opinion on the topic, as I haven’t read a whole helluva lot of mainstream comics in the last five years. Given some of the notable flare-ups during, say, DC’s recent New 52 relaunch, I don’t get the impression that things have changed very much since 2007.

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Gotta say one thing in (mild if not tepid) defense of writers, though: With the corporate-comic division of duties between writers and artists, depictions of superheroines in writing and artwork can be very different and often completely disconnected issues. Whether a male writer does a good job or a bad one scripting a female character, for good or ill he rarely has much control over how the artist depicts her. As a writer, I’ve occasionally found myself hoist by my own past work’s “fan-service” petard, with my artist collaborator producing cheesecake imagery that actually detracts from the storytelling I had in mind. (“Will you stop showing me her butt, please? I need to see her frickin’ FACE in a shot where she’s delivering important dialogue!”)

Then again, it’s not as if superheroines are having a much easier time of things outside of the ever-eroding comics field, despite the burgeoning popularity of superheroes in seemingly every medium of pop culture except for comics. Billion-dollar-grossing “cape” movies roam the globe freely, but I certainly haven’t seen very many—or any—female superheroes assume prominent roles during that ongoing boom. Oh, well. No, wait, perhaps Empowered can lead the way, right? (Okay, maybe not.)

The Comixverse would like to thank Dark Horse Comics’s Aub Driver (@AubDriver) for his help with the conduct of the interview.

The Comixverse Exclusive: Preview Images from Empowered, Vol. 7 you won’t see anywhere else (click to view in larger size):

 

  

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