Adam Warren: The Man Behind Empowered Talks What's to Come

A comics interview article by: Troy Stith
Recently, Troy Stith got the chance to sit down with writer/artist Adam Warren to discuss the release of his newest volume of Empowered, published by Dark Horse.

Click here to order your copy of Empowered today!


Troy Stith: Let’s start with an overview, for the readers who have yet to check out Empowered. What’s Empowered about?

Adam Warren: I might as well just quote the back-cover copy from Empowered vol. 1 right here:

Not only is costumed crimefighter "Empowered" saddled with a less-than-ideal superhero name, but she has to wear a skintight and cruelly revealing “supersuit” that only magnifies her body-image insecurities. Worse yet, the suit’s unreliable powers are prone to failure, repeatedly leaving her in appallingly distressing situations . . . and giving her a shameful reputation as the lamest “cape” in the masks-and-tights game. Nonetheless, she pluckily braves the ordeals of her bottom-rung superheroic life with the help of her “thugalicious” boyfriend (and former Witless Minion) and her hard-drinking ninja girlfriend, not to mention the supervillainous advice from the imprisoned alien
demonlord watching DVDs from her coffee table...

Basically, we’re talking about a “sexy superhero comedy” jam-packed with satire, romance, action, blatant tear-jerking, damsels in occasional distress, less-distressed damsels kicking ass, posthuman STDs, flaming a-hole supervillains, laser-shooting giant kidneys, and a wide, wacky array of assorted shenanigans and tomfoolery.

TS: How was Empowered originally conceived and when you first started on this project, did you ever imagine you’d be going into your fifth volume?

AW: Years ago, whilst casting futilely about for mainstream comics work, I took on a large number of art commissions, many of which were (to be delicate) of the “damsel in distress” variety.* I soon grew disenchanted with drawing repetitive pin-up art of trussed-up females, and instead wound up doing very brief, theoretically humorous stories (in comic-page format) about a plucky but peril-prone superheroine. Over time, these wacky little jokes mutated and evolved, growing in ambition and scale until they spawned the ever-more-complex project that would eventually become Empowered.

And, no, at the beginning, I certainly didn’t envisage these wee (1- to 3-page) stories continuing long enough to ever comprise a single-volume collection, let alone five or more. Humble beginnings, and all that. (Also, dubious beginnings, I suppose.)

(*Side note: This is why I was especially amused by the chatter regarding the recent revelation of Joe Schuster’s fetish art from the 50s... “Imagine that: A freelancer having to do kinky art to get by, because he couldn’t get paying work at a major comics company... Good thing that couldn’t happen today, right? Oh, wait, that just happened to me, didn’t it...”)

TS: What can fans look forward to in this newest installment?

AW: Well, lemme first paste in the back-cover copy from Empowered vol. 5:

After saving much of the superhero community from certain doom, costumed crimefighter “Empowered” is dismayed to find that, in the suspicious eyes of her caped colleagues, she may have gone from being merely an easily distressed “pair of training wheels for supervillains” to possibly being a closeted supervillain herself! Meanwhile, our stressed-out superheroine must overcome other challenges aplenty, ranging from gossip-prone cosmic overlords learning Too Much Information from her mother and “cosplay” dress-up disasters at work (and in bed!) to duct-tape-happy catgirls, fiery sociopaths, orbital catastrophes, and even a surprising kiss or two... Not to mention trying to survive an emotionally charged, potentially lethal confrontation with her teammate-in-name-only (and implacable nemesis) Sistah Spooky!

This volume features a bit less of “teh funneh,” this time around, due to the less-than-humorous, 55-page-action-epic story that closes out the book. Let’s just say that our heroine’s good intentions tragically pave the road to hell of a sort, or at least to an ever-worsening chain of death and disaster... But, hey, what about the cosplay sex scenes narrated by that stentorian perv, the Caged Demonwolf? That stuff is pretty darn funny, or so some of the folks on the Top-Secret Empowered E-Mailing List (who see jpegs for the stories well before publication) have told me!

Yeahp, as I said before, Empowered is a “sexy superhero comedy”... except when it isn’t.

TS: How does it feel to be the “OG” (Original Gangsta) of OEL (Original English Language) manga here in America? Have you seen a change in the genre since you started?

AW: Dunno what to tell you about the whole “OG of OEL manga” dealie, amusing phrase though it might be, since I’ve never really done anything else as an artist. (Um, not that I ever use the term “manga,” OEL or otherwise, to describe my work…). I couldn’t work in a so-called “realistic” art style if I wanted to... Not that I want to, needless to say.

Anyhoo, I’ve been banging my head against the figurative wall of the American comics field for most of two decades, with only intermittent success (at best) to show for the effort. Still, I wouldn’t say that the biz has been wholly hostile to someone with a heavily manga-inspired art style, as I’ve had some decent opportunities over the years... And while many mainstream comics fans can get very snotty indeed at any hint of the so-called “manga style,” this level of disdain is quite mild compared to the furiously over-the-top reactions that some purist manga fans evince when mere, lowly Western artists dare to produce manga-influenced work.

As for a change in the genre, or medium, to be more accurate (or perhaps oeuvre, to be less accurate but more obnoxious), well... From the brief vogue of Tokyopop’s “OEL manga” venture, a few bright sparks yet glow (sorry, a sudden surge of purple-prosed pretentiousness just overcame me), such as Svetlana Chmakova’s transition to further success in comics and animation, Felipe Smith’s groundbreaking Peepo Choo running in Kodansha’s Morning 2 magazine, or Amy Reeder Hadley’s excellent art for Vertigo’s Madame Xanadu racking up multiple Eisner nominations. Beyond these triumphs, though, the initial “OEL manga” movement didn’t exactly wind up presaging a glorious, shining new day for Western wannabe-mangaka, just as previous, less heralded spikes in manga-influenced comics work also wound up producing sadly marginal prospects for creators in the long run... Then again, not very many folks from my (much) earlier generation of manga-influenced artists are still working in comics, either.

It should be said, though, that working in the “straight-to-trade” Original Graphic Novel format (as used for most of the “OEL manga”) is, financially speaking, the worst of all possible comic-book worlds... As I can personally attest, alas. Most “real” manga -- and almost all American mainstream comics that actually make money -- are serialized and hence garner their creators ongoing page-rates, as opposed to the modest lump-sum advance an Original Graphic Novel (OGN) creator receives after grinding his or her way though 160+ pages (or, in my case, 208 pages). If the OGN is indeed the future of comics, as some adherents claim, I can tell you that it’s gonna be one helluva problematic and difficult future... Which is why I might end up having to serialize Empowered in some form, but that’s another story.

BTW: You gotta love the fact that the so-called “OG of OEL” is, OMG, an OGN guy. Be even better if I watched OLN (Outdoor Life Network), or if my favorite Bond flick were OHMSS (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), or if I were employed by the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), or if I were down with OPP... You get the idea.

TS: Has Empowered been embraced in the flooded manga market of Japan? Does it make it harder since it’s an OEL?

Adam Warren: I know that a handful of Japanese stores do, in fact, carry a selection of American comics, which in the past has included my Dirty Pair and Gen13 work, but this is catering to an exceedingly wee niche market. Empowered may possibly be available in Japan through such retailers with import sections, but I’m not aware of that for certain. As for being manga-influenced work, well, I doubt that would either particularly help or hurt what little interest there might be in Japan for a superhero-based American satire title.

TS: I know you’ve worked in both standard comic form and manga form, which do you prefer and why?

Adam Warren: Gotta say, I really don’t see a difference as such. The one big difference I’ve found between Empowered and all my other comics work, though, is the fact that the Empowered stories can be of wildly varying length and content, from the very short (3-page), humor-based vignettes that started the series to the action-packed, 50+ page epics that have closed out the last few volumes. This flexibility has made Empowered way more fun and freeing for me than having to cram everything into the rigid, 22-story-pages-per-issue straitjacket of the conventional American (that is, “floppy” or “pamphlet”-based) comics format. That being said, I’m far from averse to the 22-page/month storytelling system (and am constantly trying to get mainstream-comics writing work in that very format, by the way); it’s just pleasant to take a break from that kind of narrative structure, especially after working in that fashion for the better part of the last twenty years.

TS: In the “PC” (politically correct) time we live in, have you been met with any protest due to the risqué content found in the book?

Adam Warren: Surprisingly, not all that much, really. Early on, Empowered did get a brief spate of fairly vitriolic criticism for its perceived sexism, misogyny, exploitation, et al from -- wait for it -- a cohort of exceedingly sensitive male readers. (Naïf that I am, I didn’t see that one coming.) As a friend of mine put it, “Ladies, on your behalf, I am prepared to care.” That sort of Y-chromosomal bleating has largely abated by now, though; any thin-skinned lads who were outraged and distressed by Empowered vol. 1 aren’t likely to have stuck around for the next four books.

If anything, I’ve arguably received about as much criticism (from readers of a rather less PC bent, obviously) for not having enough risqué content in the book -- that is, not showing sufficiently graphic depictions of nudity and sex. Alas, the truth is, I’m no more interested in doing full-on, hardcore porn than I am in assuaging the tender sensibilities of Sensitive New Age Guys (if you’ll pardon the 90s-era idiom).

TS: Guesstimate -- how many bound-and-gagged commissions have you done since starting Empowered.

Adam Warren: Very few, actually... In effect, Empowered actually took the place of such commissions, since continuity (as in, comic-page) work appeals to me a helluva lot more than flailing through one pin-up illustration after another.

TS: Are there any artists out there you’d like to work with? Would you let any artist take a crack at Empowered?

Adam Warren: Hell, yeah, there are artists I’d like to work with; all kinds of ’em, really. I prefer writing to drawing by a very, very wide margin indeed, but actually securing writing work in comics is far from the easiest task in the world... Honestly, by this point in my brilliant career, I’d hoped to not be drawing at all, and instead solely be writing scripts for other artists to draw. (Sadly, things haven’t worked out that way, but I keep on trying, regardless.)

As for letting other artists take a crack at Empowered, I have to repeat: “Hell, yeah.” The so-called “Empverse” has generated all sorts of side stories I’d love to tell; the regular book is jam-packed with manifold subplots and assorted possibilities that, even with 208-page volumes, I’m hard-pressed to address as thoroughly as I’d like. Problem is the economics of bringing in other artists on a (presumably) low-selling, creator-owned book are far from ideal... Nonetheless, I’m currently trying to pitch Dark Horse on doing a spinoff Empowered miniseries I’d write for other artists to draw (with backup Emp stories drawn by me, by the way). How about, say, Rick Mays, of Kabuki: Scarab ninja-chica fame, penciling a miniseries starring Ninjette? Sounds sweet to me! (Note that this would have no effect on the “regular” Empowered volumes drawn by me, which would continue to be released as long as I can afford to keep cranking ’em out.)

TS: Does the new method of penciling you use for the book save time? How did you decide to try out this new form?

Adam Warren: Compared to doing full-sized comics pages that would need to be inked (and lettered separately), working only in pencil on letter-size copy paper definitely saves me a tremendous amount of worktime. Actually, I suppose this saves me an incalculable (infinite?) amount of worktime, since I would never have done this book at all if it needed to be done in a conventional format... Empowered is only even remotely viable because I can turn around finished pages relatively quickly (2.5 pages per day, at most); I couldn’t possibly afford the time and expense of producing the book via full-size, inked pages.

As for why I tried out the form... Empowered’s pages are basically tightened-up versions of the already ludicrously tight layouts I used to do for full-sized comics pages. This goofy process was the reason why I wasn’t stunningly productive for much of my artistic career, due to the fact I’d essentially redraw the same page four times: 1), as an initial, scrawled-out “thumbnail” rough; 2), as an overly tight-penciled layout page (roughly letter size), complete with dialogue; 3), as a full-sized (10” X 15”), even more tightly penciled page on artboard; and finally 4), after retracing every last line with inks, as a finished comics page. That’s a helluva lot of extraneous, time-wasting stages of production, in case you hadn’t noticed (and as I didn’t notice, for quite a while).

Anyhoo, pretty much everyone -- pros, editors, fans -- who saw my so-called “layout pages” preferred their energy and dynamism to that of the finished artwork, often to my considerable annoyance. “Gee, I’m glad I spent the most of the last two months penciling and inking this stupid issue, only to have you sonsabitches like the damn layout-page version better... GRARRRR!” Plus, I actually enjoyed the brief, comparatively breezy layout stage, as opposed to the long, grinding weeks and months of labor required for the final pencils and inks (not to mention having to do guides for the coloring and lettering placement, come to think of it)... So, it wasn’t much of a stretch to switch over to doing nothing but a tighter form of the “more fast, more fun, more free” layout page for the Empowered stories.

TS: I know it took a lot to bring the Dirty Pair to fruition, are there any other animes out there you’d like to adapt into manga form?

Adam Warren: No, not especially. Back in the day, with the 1994 Dark Horse miniseries Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal, I did produce a new story within the framework of an existing anime property. Working with other artists’ designs and concepts was certainly an interesting experience, but not one I’m particularly drawn to repeat. What little anime I still do watch, currently -- say, Gurren Lagann, Sayonara Zetsubou-San, the second Genshiken series -- is already quite well-represented in (and, in fact, is often adapted from) manga form.

Lemme hasten to clarify that the version of the Dirty Pair that I worked on was an entirely new take on the characters (licensed straight from their creator, award-winning SF author Haruka Takachiho), and wasn’t directly based on any of the DP’s many different anime incarnations. This fact did, at first, annoy many diehard DP anime fans, but as Kei and Yuri continued to appear in new and different animated incarnations over the years, this issue kinda ceased to be relevant... With (arguably) seven different anime iterations kicking around (not to mention Takachiho’s own DP novels), which one should be the Platonic ideal of the Dirty Pair? Seen in this light, the American-comics version of the Dirty Pair is just one of many wildly varying takes on the characters.

TS: Will we ever see an Empowered anime?

AW: I suppose it’s not entirely inconceivable, but neither am I aware of much Japanese interest in the property. Still, hey, I’d love to see such a thing, of course...though it’s possibly more fun to think of a live-action film (which is equally unlikely, I assure you), mainly due to the goofy possibilities of casting Empowered’s characters with real-life actors. Here’s an example, from a while back: Superhero Movies They’ll NEVER Make: Empowered

TS: I know you’ve worked with Iron Man, but what other mainstream characters would you like to put your spin on? Do you find it constricting working with preexisting characters, or are the publishers pretty open to what you’d like to do?

AW: Pretty much any damn mainstream character I could get my hands on, really. I’ve had fun with a rather random assortment of titles and characters during my freelance gigs, from riffing on op-culture ephemera in Gen13 and creating a far-future version of the Teen Titans in Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone to doing a tech-heavy update of ultra-obscure characters (“The Mannites”) with Livewires. I’m open to whatever work I can get, at least of the writing variety.

As a wee child, my favorite comics were Fantastic Four and Iron Man, and I’ve already had a brief (if, admittedly, unsuccessful) stint on both... So I have no more childhood faves that I’m burning, just burning to work on. (Well, except perhaps for little-known 70s Marvel oddity Skull The Slayer.)

I don’t necessarily find working with preexisting characters all that constricting, save for when the task requires deep continuity knowledge (much more of an issue at DC than Marvel, for the most part) or when company-wide crossovers are wreaking havoc... Or even, come to think of it, when the regular churning of stories and characters elsewhere in a comics line affects what you’d like to do. I was working up a Thundra pitch, believe it or not, before the new Fred Van Lente Savage She-Hulk (featuring Thundra’s daughter by the Hulk) made that a non-starter... and every time I’ve tried to pitch my Master of Kung Fu proposal, the timing’s been almost as bad. Well, maybe next time.

Dunno that I’d say that the publishers are all that open to what I’d like to do, given that at least a dozen or more of my proposals have failed for every one that’s been accepted... but, hey, that’s just life in the lower middle class of the comics field.

TS: What can we expect from Adam Warren in the coming year?

AW: Well, there’s a strong possibility of an Empowered one-shot before the end of the year, in the “pamphlet” conventional-comics format, mainly to see how the property performs in a “floppy” incarnation. Empowered vol. 6, however, won’t be coming out until well into next year; my days of turning around 200+ page graphic novels every six months are pretty much gone, sad to say. (Not that anyone seemed to notice that the first four Empowered books were released close to six months apart each time, which is of course so common an occurrence in American comics as to be wholly unremarkable; pardon me as I grind my teeth in frustration.)

I’m also pitching another thing or two to Marvel, for whatever that’s worth, and am about to embark on a non-comics-related Secret Commercial Art Project About Which I Cannot Speak... but the fruits of these labors won’t be viewable by the public for quite some time, looks like.

Speaking of Marvel, until recently I was Twittering quite extensively as Galacta, daughter of Galactus, from the story I wrote for Marvel Assistant-sized Spectacular #2: I actually spawned a fair number of neat ideas for future Galacta stories whilst racking up a bit over 400 in-character tweets, and will probably get back to said Twittering before too long; oddly enough, though, I have to desire to Twitter on my own behalf. As a friend put it: “It’s all about the story; it’s not about me.”

Also, you will most definitely see new work from me throughout the year at my DeviantART page.

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