Adam Warren, the pioneer of the "American Manga" school of comics art, has always won my admiration for getting the feel of good manga just right while not slavishly churning out rote and dull efforts like most of those who followed in his wake, and while I have not picked up everything he's done I would like to wholeheartedly steer you toward EMPOWERED, a comics series that not only revels in all of the silliness that manga can generate when it's at its goofiest — the hilarious URUSEI YATSURA immediately springs to mind — but also features gorgeous, animation-style artwork done in lively pencil. There are four collected volumes out so far and I've finished the first three, solidly enjoying every page contained therein.
Evolving from "cute girl in bondage" sketches Adam Warren did for fans at conventions, EMPOWERED rises above its questionable origins (sort of) and chronicles the feeble non-adventures of the titular ultra-insecure D-list superheroine (called "Emp" for short) and her propensity for getting easily captured, tied up and rendered into humiliating states of undress at the hands of her bad-guy captors, which gives Warren more than ample opportunity to show off his skills at drawing adorable hot chicks, aka "good girl art." (It's a genre. Look it up.)
That's the basic setup and although Emp is a member of the ludicrous Justice League stand-in known as "the Super-Homeys," she's shown absolutely zero respect by her teammates and is in fact the laughingstock of the superhero biz. It doesn't help matters that her literally skintight supersuit (that gives her a variety of not-bad powers) is as thin as a soap bubble and so revealing that she can't wear underwear for fear of panty lines and such, thus necessitating keeping her naughty bits shaved smooth lest she display what is described as a "metallic Brillo pad," to say nothing of the fact that this supersuit can stop bullets and protect Emp from all manner of grievous bodily harm but tears into shreds when it gets snagged on the slightest sharp object, i.e. a rose bush. I know it doesn't make sense, but the object here is to make the reader laugh, and at that task EMPOWERED succeeds mightily.
Emp herself is one of the sweetest characters to come along in ages and her insecure vulnerability makes her one of the most human and relatable as well, and as the series progresses she evolves past the first impression "cute blonde chucklehead" she seems to be, instead becoming a character the reader genuinely cares about. There are literally scores of scantily-clad, personality-void "super-chicas" (as Emp would put it) out there whose sole purpose is to sell comics based on their titillating visual, but Emp is thankfully not one of that odious and generally boring lot, a state ensured by her creator's knack for writing strong female characters, even ones who are neurotic, insecure messes. At first glance she might rankle the sensibilities of knee-jerk feminists and P.C. watchdogs, but once read and understood there are few more endearing characters in contemporary comics.
The first collected volume is largely short gags and stories featuring Emp getting tied up and such, but it introduces us to the series' greatest strength (after the art, that is): one of the most entertaining casts of characters to come down the pike in a hell of a long time. The Super-Homeys themselves are goofy beyond belief — including Emp's powerful teammate/enemy Sistah Spooky, a hot black sorceress who has a mad hatred for perky blondes and owes a visual debt to Raven from THE NEW TEEN TITANS — and though they save the world on a daily basis, they're pretty much a bunch of douchebags. During the course of one of her endless humiliating defeats, Emp meets Thugboy — one of the "Witless Minions" gang, a group that works for megalomaniacal supervillains so they can rob them blind of high-tech gadgetry and such — and it's love at first sight, leading to Thugboy walking the straight and narrow while happily servicing Emp's physical needs and acting as her emotional sounding-board. I really like the guy and I can relate to him for a number of reasons.
And while Thugboy's quite amusing in his role, he's the perfect stable counterpoint to Emp's pal (and my nominee for "Best Sidekick Ever") Ninjette, a highly-skilled, frequently-drunk ninja warrior who's a direct descendant of URUSEI YATSURA's Benten, only a lot nicer.
Ninjette: hard-drinking ninja princess and strong candidate for "Best Sidekick Ever."
Realizing early on that Empowered needs major confidence-boosting and emotional support, Ninjette does her best to get Emp to loosen up and come out or her self-loathing shell by training her in physical skills and taking her out for boozy nights of karaoke shenanigans.
Emp learns the hard way that Ninjette's rigorous training regimen can be a bit of a bitch.
An irresponsible drunk she may be, but Ninjette has a heart of gold and is willing to do just about anything to make her pal feel better about herself, including an ill-advised and booze-fueled stint disguised as Emp in which she kicks the living shit out of a group of costumed thugs with the intent of spurring them to spread the word that Empowered is not the pushover she's reputed to be (despite tons of evidence to the contrary found with ease on YouTube and the rest of the Internet).
Ninjette, disguised as Empowered, decimates some bad-guys in their lair. No bullshit, this was the most spectacular and one-sided piece of hardcore ass-kicking I've seen in an American comic book since Paul Gulacy's glory days on SHANG-CHI, MASTER OF KUNG-FU, and that ain't hay!
Rounding out the main cast is The Caged Demonwolf, an extra-dimensional would-be world-destroyer of Cthulhu's ilk who ended up imprisoned within some alien bondage gear meant to trap Empowered for the harem of an inter-galactic super-pimp (but as is typical of Emp's luck, she was deemed unsuitable as harem fodder and rejected outright because her ass was considered too big, so she was allowed to keep the high-tech bondage array as a consolation prize).
The Caged Demonwolf: pretentious extra-dimensional world-destroyer, now a resident of alien power-draining bondage gear atop Empowered's coffee table.
The Caged Demonwolf reads exactly like Doctor Doom if he were an irascible sitcom character, arrogantly spouting off dialogue so florid that it would make a '60's-era Stan Lee complain about the scenery-chewing, and as such he's one of the funniest things in the series. Now trapped and kept on Empowered's coffee table, it's obvious that The Caged Demonwolf enjoys his life (such as it is) on Earth quite a bit thanks to the joys of television and occasionally passing out sound advice to the other characters, and may even hold more than just a grain affection for his captors.
The series takes off as a full-fledged narrative with the second volume, giving us longer, ongoing stories and getting around to providing the reader with info on exactly who Empowered is and hints as to why she's the emotional mess that she is. We also learn some of the secrets of her costume and the powers it gives her while more goofball mayhem ensues, including the most realistic depiction of the aftermath of overdoing it at a bar that I've ever read in comics.
Frontispiece to a chapter that depicts the most realistic example of "getting crazy drunk and throwing up until you feel like you have no internal organs left" ever seen in comics.
As the series continues Warren piles on the fun and thickens the plot by dropping clues that there may be more going on with Ninjette than we'd suspected — including another world-class melee fight sequence against a bunch of ninja who are just as skilled as she is and totally intent on doing very nasty things to her involving sharp edges and...no, that would be telling — and is The Caged Demonwolf using some kind of Jedi mind trick on our heroes? And lest you think it's all just well-written and funny character stuff, let me reassure you one-handed readers out there that at no point does Warren skimp on the lovingly-rendered T&A, as seen in this charming example that I'm certain sold for big bucks the second it became available on the original art market:
One of the greatest fantasy images known to the imagination of man: the sexy librarian. Right up there with the naughty Catholic school girl, oh, yeah...
So what we have in EMPOWERED is a risque spandex burlesque that knows exactly what is but rises head and shoulders above others in its genre by not only being extremely well-drawn, but also be being genuinely funny and clever. There are moments in this series that made me laugh out loud and if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.