Has it really been nearly two years since I reviewed Empowered vol. 8 for this site? What a bittersweet wait it has been for the next volume in one of my favorite series.

Well, hard as it’s been, fans and newcomers alike will relish three new chapters over a gargantuan 232 pages. The story this time rests firmly on Empowered, herself, as we (finally) deal with the fallout of volumes 4 and 8. You see, in both of those issues, Emp wound up taking on big-time baddies in secret, and the consequences of the suprahuman community’s perception of these events has finally come to a head in the form of an emergency Executive Council hearing over her actions. Though we briefly check in with Emp’s immediate supporting cast and see some words of support from the allies she’s gained over the last four volumes, Emp is very much on her own this time.

It’s definitely nice to have our girl firmly in the spotlight, but you can’t deny that there are plenty of tantalizing plot threads left untouched. Indeed, though I don’t think we could fairly demand any more from Adam Warren, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this world is simply too big and too wonderful for its own good sometime. Inevitably there’s not enough space in one volume to tell this story while also giving us some follow up on Ninjette’s recovery or Thugboy’s past or Emp’s daddy issues. But lest you feel like you’re not getting what you were hoping for, there is a fantastic moment with Sistah Spooky and some hints that Emp’s other big win, in volume 6, hasn’t been forgotten.

This volume isn’t nearly as heavy as the last four and the plot is a lot more action based. Warren gives readers plenty of good old fashioned brawls and escapes, as Empowered fights off a veritable horde of angry supervillains. The brilliant, if peculiar, mind of the storyteller has clearly been churning as we’re introduced to fantastic villains like Hardpoint, Dreadnaughty Naughty, Mightier Pen, and the anguilliform syndicate known as H.E.E.L. A lot of the volume’s humor is of this witty, character-based vein, as the requirements of the plot don’t leave as much space for out and out situational gags as early volumes, but there’s definitely a lightness about the story. It’s pleasantly cartoonish in how zany and fast-paced it all moves.

Despite this, Warren retains and carefully employs his ability to utterly shatter your heart. I don’t know that anything hits the heights that the series has reached, but between an early glimpse of Sistah Spooky and a fantastically well paced climax, there’s more than enough to make you forget that these are just lines on a page. While the volume ends with a long awaited and incredibly satisfying culmination to the last few volumes’ successes, the final page reminds that, in this universe, victory comes at a cost and no one can pay it alone.

As beautifully as it all comes together, I can’t help but feel like Warren probably could have adjusted priorities to include a greater variety of material. There is validity in building up the scrambling roulette of villainy that comes after Emp, however there are definitely moments where it feels like not all of them are necessary. Much as I would miss them, I think that that we probably could have had this story without Dreadnaughty Naughty, the Brawn-E Boys, or even H.E.E.L.! Particularly when a very notable cameo pops in to pull our heroine’s much commented upon derrière out of the fire – the second and less necessary of its kind in this volume – and she immediately falls into a similar situation of distress you can become rather aware of the repetition in this story. It wouldn’t be so troubling if not for the realities of the series. With no less than a year between installments, the thought that more unique elements might have been cut in favor of hammering home the central conceit of this story is a little distressing. It’s not really this volume’s fault, not really even Warren’s fault, but the shift to a few, longer stories is a mixed blessing and it takes some getting used to.

The other major criticism worth mentioning about the story is simply that the big reveal is something of an obvious retcon. There are plenty of scenarios where this plot point could have, and likely would have, come into play in previous volumes and, while this is absolutely the appropriate place in the narrative to play that card, it does take a little bit of suspension of disbelief to accept that the audience is only just discovering it.

But these are ultimately minor trifles in the face of Warren’s mastery of the adorable, the terrifying, the hilarious, and the tragic. Highlights of the issue include Zappatista and Black Mechamamba’s personal politics, the number of new light and dark capes introduced, and the sheer creepiness of the volume’s villains. “Mightier Pen” is a pitch perfect representation of all the worst false kindness this world has to offer women. Emp hits the nail on the head when she places “disingenuous” up alongside his host of more obvious creeper tendencies. Is it a bit on the nose at times? Yes. Warren even pulls the curtain pretty much all the way back by having a Hero Net reporter explicitly talk about the central metaphor of Emp’s revealing costume, but in the environment we find ourselves in, having a heroine actively stand up to harassment, even if and perhaps exactly because she’s often put back down by the assholes of the world, is kind of wonderful.

I won’t say too much about the other major baddie of this volume, as there are so many new faces and a couple of big returns, but I will say that Warren’s art takes a gruesome design into the realm of real horror, eagerly assisted by the true sense of malice he works into his writing. Especially after seeing the truth about the EMP-verse’s superbaddies revealed, the palpable evil of Warren’s endgame is a literal gut punch. The whole scene could have been incredibly and unnecessarily gory, but Warren manages to overcome his writing material and create a scene that doesn’t go out of its way to prove itself, instead quietly and solidly supporting a great showdown.

Keeping on that track, I’m deep into this review and I’ve barely even mentioned the art. That won’t do.

From an artistic standpoint, it seems like this issue represents something of a back-to-basics approach. Previous volumes often experimented specifically with one or two new techniques, but the focus this go around seems to be on bringing all of Warren’s visual evolution back into the core aesthetic of the series. The fire effects of the last issue or the high contrast objects that the series has played with over the last few years are put to good use and there’s a general improvement and refocusing that’s particularly visible in the case of characters who we haven’t seen in a volume or two, like Manny or Deathmonger.

Largely this is the same quality work that we’ve come to expect from Empowered, but the characters feel a little stronger in their designs and Warren proves particularly capable of conveying the dynamics of a scene through single images. Perhaps this last development can be attributed to the sheer number of introductory panels this volume, but, whatever the reason, it helps the communicative power of Warren’s already expressive style.

As ever, those who bemoan the ‘manga-fication’ of American comics will probably find plenty to complain about, though if anyone could make converts of them Warren would be a decent bet. I also imagine that some more casual readers will be disappointed by the series’ lack of color, but one can only hope that they come around on that issue as Empowered is a fantastic argument not only for black and white comics, but for the importance of inkwork. Not to mention that the time and clarity Warren saves by eschewing color allows him to employ some rather insane levels of detail, especially in his depictions of tech.

A (Spoilery) Thought:

  • While I would totally understand if we didn’t see more of Fleshmaster, especially after whining so much about the series’ abundance of untouched plot threads, Warren has totally set him up as a fantastic ‘evil mirror’ for Emp. Especially with this volume’s developments, he’s kind of becoming Emp’s Venom. Fleshmaster was already clearly a foil for Emp, not only her opposite as a successful and popular cape but her equal, a victim of the Superhomeys who was only spurred to evil when her treatment reawakened his memories of victimization. With what he does to Manny and the revelation that he can manifest a copy of Emp’s supersuit easily set him up to become a kind of anti-Emp if Warren should chose to bring him back. Combine that with a fantastic redesign that really moves him into the upper echelons alongside Deathmonger and Willy Pete and you’ve got the makings of another A-lister. I’m just not sure we should expect to see him again for a while, if ever.

Grade

B+

Conclusion

When it comes to the main numbered volumes, there’s really no such thing as an Empowered that isn’t a must-read. Fans will dread the discovery that many of their questions will have to wait til late 2016 at best, while others may be occasionally distracted by the somewhat repetitive nature of the plot and heavy exposition, but this volume presents something of a “Best Of”, taking us on a whirlwind tour of this wild world’s heroes, villains, and oddities while mixing a solid taste of the series’ trademark humor in alongside the increasingly important elements of badass alternative heroics and beautifully written drama. Empowered vol. 9 is yet another bit of evidence that this strange little heroine that could is one of the best cape comics of the last ten years.