Empowered is the comic book you give to adults who still think superheroes are “kid’s stuff”. Starting as brief stories that satirize damsel in distress tropes, the book has grown, over seven volumes, to be one of the most intelligent and affectionate satires of superheroes and comic book culture. Volume Eight arrives this December, but in the meantime, we’re getting a series of specials with guest artists. The latest is Empowered: Animal Style with art from mecha-master John Staton. Warren sat down with us to discuss art, style, and terrible puns.
Gamma Squad: So, first of all, we’ve got to ask: Why giant robotic animals?
Adam Warren: In part, because this provided me with the opportunity to abuse and torment the reader with inexcusably punny and/or obscure animal-related “supranyms” for the bad guys, as in: Terrorpin! Powerpachyderm! Brass Monkey! Cyberian Tiger! Supercobra! Maul Bunny!
The primary reason for Animal Style’s zoologically mechanical* menagerie of villains, though, was to give the one-shot’s guest artist a showcase for his unique talents. John Staton has a jaw-dropping affinity for designing and drawing mecha of all sorts, a skill set that far outstrips my own comparatively modest skills in that department. So, when I considered writing an Empowered story for John to draw, I skewed the plotline into a mecha-heavy direction that would play to his undeniable strong suit. He delivered, I’m happy to report, with not only 24 highly entertaining and hardware-intensive comics pages, but a truly ridiculous number of equally detailed mecha-design sheets as well—at least 40 or 50 of ’em, at last count(!). That is, to put it mildly, above and beyond the call of comics duty—but such is John’s unabashed love of mechanical design, maniac that he is.
*Or “zoömechanical,” a term I’d not thought of before doing this interview. Wish I’d used this neologism in the actual story!
Gamma Squad: A car show is an… interesting choice. Why’d you choose to set the story there?
Warren: Like most reasonably sane comics artists, I hate and fear the very possibility of having to draw cars. Honestly, the only thing worse than having to draw cars would be having to draw—I’m shuddering, here—horses. My nightmare scenario? Having to draw horses that are, for some reason, driving cars.
John Staton, however, is not a reasonably sane artist like myself, and actually enjoys drawing automobiles just as much as he enjoys drawing crazy-looking mecha. (Don’t know his opinion about drawing horses, though, as I tragically neglected to include an equine-based powersuit in Animal Style.) So, to further warp and twist this story into something that I would never, ever consider drawing myself, I set it at a car show to allow John free rein for his quite frankly perverse love of automotive design.
I should further note that the car show in question is the “21st Annual Alternate-Timeline Superhero Auto Show,” featuring dozens of bizarre vehicles hailing from colorfully improbable variations of the Empowered universe. (Hence, for example, the one-shot’s “white SuperBronco” belonging to the alt-timeline vigilante duo of “Juicetice” and his faithful manservant Kato.) This also gave John—a clever and witty fella as well as a fine artist—plenty of car-based opportunities to indulge his own taste for goofy jokes and brutal punning, a taste which might well exceed my own appalling capacity for wordplay-related atrocity. Many of the funnier background jokes at the Superhero Auto Show may well be of John’s invention, though I am, of course, more than happy to claim credit for anything readers find especially clever.
Gamma Squad: What’s it like writing for another artist with Emp, as opposed to drawing it yourself?
Warren: Gotta say, I really, really appreciate the “not having to draw it myself” part, particularly when dealing with subject matters that I have no interest whatsoever in drawing—such as the aforementioned automobiles, for example. I also get a big kick out of seeing how another, preferably better artist handles my own characters and story. Obviously, as I’m still reasonably sane, I rarely surprise myself as an artist, as I am by now fully aware of whatever artistic virtues and drawbacks I possess; but I am perpetually surprised—and, almost invariably, thrilled—by the differing perspective and insights and skills that another artist brings to a story I’ve written.
Gamma Squad: Empowered has really added a lot of layers to its story as time has gone on. How much of that did you foresee at the start and how much just grew out of the book?
Warren: Believe me, I foresaw nothing at all when I was casually cranking out the first set of throwaway, one-joke pages that would one day evolve into Empowered. (For one thing, if I’d had the slightest clue that this goofy concept would become My Longest-Running Project Evah, I likely would’ve downplayed Emp’s status as an all-too-frequent “damsel in distress” from the start, if not possibly dropped that troublesome trope outright. Bit late to do that now, though.)
I had no idea, at the start, how the characters would spontaneously multiply and complicate and interrelate, spawning ongoing plotlines with little to no advance planning on my part. I was pleasantly startled by how, over time, Empowered gradually morphed into something approaching a—deep voice, here—“real comic” as the tossed-off pages piled up into the hundreds and thousands.
Gotta admit, the series might’ve had easier success in the comics field if I’d known where it was going from the start, as Empowered was—and, occasionally, still is—dismissed as exploitative trash due to its unsavory origins. (Annoyingly enough, such dismissals often come from folks who haven’t, you know, actually read the damn books.) Still, I have to say that I did quite enjoy the organic—if rather twisted—manner in which this quirky little project developed.
Gamma Squad: Will anything we see here hint at what might happen in volume 8?
Warren: While I’d love to claim that Animal Style is an absolutely essential, don’t-you-dare-miss-it introduction to the events of December’s release of Empowered vol.8, that’s not really the case. (I should hastily add that Animal Style remains an absolutely essential, don’t-you-dare-miss-it read for fans of the Empowered franchise in general, though! I desperately need these one-shots to keep the series afloat during the long gaps between full volumes.) Empowered vol.8 is a narrowly focused story dealing with the downward—literally downward*!—spiral of Emp’s teammate and former nemesis Sistah Spooky; sadly, this has little connection with the events of Animal Style, other than the one-shot’s brief—but fun!—cameo of Mindf**k.
Howeva, I can still say that Animal Style does deliver a major payload in the “hint” department, nonetheless! At the back of the book, you’ll see a preview of the next one-shot, a ninja-heavy little story titled Empowered: Nine Beers with Ninjette. I don’t wanna reveal the new guest artist’s identity just yet, but I’m very excited to be working with him, and his pages have been consistently excellent so far, if not outright face-melting!
*”Downward” as in, you know, headed down to the fiery depths of hell.
Empowered: Animal Style arrives on stands tomorrow. In the meanwhile, we have some preview art and sketches, and at the end of the slideshow, a page from the upcoming volume 8.