The Review: After a brutal wait, Empowered is finally back with another full-sized volume, ready to delight and intrigue. Despite the series’ reputation as a semi-erotic supercomedy, both elements fall far behind the drama of the plot; even our heroine herself bemoans the grimness that her stories have demonstrated recently. But never mistake drama for darkness or change for decline, for Adam Warren’s comedy is sweetened by tragedy and the volume’s introspective plotline is kept aloft by some adorable moments and excellent character work.

Empowered vol. 8 reads as a direct sequel to the past three volumes, particularly the dramatic events of the series’ fifth trade. As such you’ll have an idea what to expect if you’ve read those, not to mention the whole thing making sense. Warren keeps the promise of Ninjette and ThugBoy’s dark secrets on a simmer, providing worthwhile facetime with the beloved characters though their stories don’t advance terribly far. We also get to check in with the SuperDead, Syndablokk, and even Makro to similar effect.

Unlike most Empowered volumes, this one is only separated into two long stories. The first is kind of a break after the crazy drama of the past few volumes that deepens the world, sets up future developments, and examines what Hell means to the capes. At times it feels a little less relevant than some of Emp’s chapters and the use of Hell-related expressions to transition from scene to scene can feel a tad gimmicky, but there’s no denying that the story needed a moment to cool down nor that Warren hasn’t proved that there’s nothing trivial enough to not be a potentially game-changing plot point down the road.

But despite all the interesting character development and the name Empowered on the cover, this volume is really Sistah Spooky’s show. Spookums has been a fascinating character since the very beginning, using and playing with concepts of otherness and judgment in ways that most stories either don’t or fail miserably at, but “I Never Looked in your Eyes; I Never Heard your Voice” turns this up to eleven.

Part of Warren’s genius is the way that Spooky’s single-mindedness and anger, which have made her such a fascinatingly loathsome character at times, are the same qualities that make her so heroic and sympathetic here. I can’t wait to see how this volume’s events will influence the relationship between Theresa and Emp.

Warren also reminds us again that he’s capable of far more than super-soap opera and cheesecake; the sheer heroism of this book is astounding and all the more so for the restrained but undeniable sense of horror that pervades it. Trips to Hell aren’t rare in comic books, but often they overplay their hands or come off too ‘XTREME’ to be truly horrifying. That’s not a problem here. Without fetishizing the torment and monstrousness of Hell, Warren presents a place of physical and psychological horror inspired by the lowest and pettiest impulses of our nature.  Theresa’s ‘Infernal Service Provider’ makes a fine villain for the piece and evolves into an impressive endgame threat, despite his start as a comical one-off in volume 1.

I also really applaud the way that Empowered doesn’t simply assume a Judeo-Christian worldview, with one “lapsed Shintoist” even calling out the idea. In a world where a clan of ninja come from New Jersey and honored heroes die at the hands of spurned lovers, what reason do we honestly have to assume that something that looks like Hell is actually that dark and fiery place? There’s some impressive theological musing going on in here, even if it is integrated seamlessly into the story. Things like this make Empowered’s world feel alive. That said, there is a single panel which may hold the answer to that question that will haunt me until it is explained.

That’s really the biggest problem with this volume. While mediocre work from Adam Warren is probably better than most of the big two’s output, the minimal chapters and single-minded focus of this issue on resolving the Sistah Spooky/MindF*ck plotline leaves this volume feeling a little less worthy of a full book than some of its predecessors. You will be left wanting more at the end of this, and only some of that is how great the writing is.

If you’ve never seen Adam Warren’s pencils, fix that soon. His work is funny, exaggerated, heart-rending, strong, soft, considered, sexy, brilliant, badass, gorgeous. He may not be an undisputed legend of our time the way that that list makes him sound, but there are few artists out there who have found a unique and interesting style the way he has and made it work so well for so much.

It’s hard to really talk about the art in this volume, because it’s just so Empowered. For better or for worse, the same hazy backgrounds and Counter-Factual Scenarios appear in this installment as have in others. I, for one, loved them the first time and every time since, but, in brief, I’ll say that if you’ve read previous Empowered volumes, you’ll know basically what you’re in for. You’ll find plenty of adorable expressions, dynamic poses, and beautiful wome – screw that – people throughout.

The scene between Ninjette and the Caged Demonwolf VIOLATOR OF WORLDS – sorry – is a great example of the way that the art switches seamlessly from drama to comedy. It also shows how complicated the series’ relationship with cheesecake is; I mean, sure Ninjette is naked and fairly sexualized, but I wouldn’t call it erotic. In fact, the trappings of eroticism so frequently used in the series actually draw attention to how damaged Ninjette is, in more ways than one.

Warren is always improving and generally utilizes some new techniques in each of the volumes. This time it’s a greater focus on high contrast images and ominous patterns. This volume contains one of the most powerful and affecting scenes in the entire series as MindF*ck and Spookums share a rare night together. Warren pulls out all the stops to ensure that the connection between these two is visually apparent, but he also gives us some real nightmare fuel when Theresa gets a look into Mind*ck’s head. The blood between her teeth, the creases in the gloves, the look in her eyes, it’s hard hitting stuff. Even the lettering is vaguely chilling, despite the simple tricks employed. The range of Warren’s storytelling, visual and otherwise, is so apparent in this scene.

The Conclusion: Though it lacks a sense of breadth present in some other volumes, Empowered vol. 8 proves that this series doesn’t have weak links. The characters are strong, the art incredible, and Warren proves completely capable of managing his ever-growing and ever more fascinating superhero universe.

Empowered hasn’t had poor art yet and this book is no exception. Running the gambit from cute to stomach-churning, volume 8 is everything you’d expect from the series and more. Warrens rendition of Hell (?) is beautiful in its unnerving stillness, drawing dizzying patterns out of suffering souls. The high contrast of Mindf*ck’s memories or the fiery might of Spooky’s Service Provider are powerful and draw attention to the detail present in ThugBoy’s eyes or Captain Rivet’s cables.

Ultimately what makes Empowered such a magnificent series is its honesty. Sure, it’s a sexy book – the series not this particular volume…unless you’re into that – but anime inspired superhero porn is a dime a dozen. Actually it’s not even that, you can literally get terabytes of it online for free. But what sets Empowered apart is the honesty with which it looks at those sexual relationships, at being a hero, at standing up when every part of your soul says “sit down, you’re not worthy.”

In this volume, Warren turns that humanizing honesty on Sistah Spooky and, while it may lack the epic fun of the Capeys or the badass heroics of Emp vs. Deathmonger, the result is another wonderful journey into this strange, strange world he’s created.

Now if only volume 9 were coming soon…

Grade: B

– Noah Sharma