I doubt that Adam Warren was necessarily thinking specifically about Wonder Woman when he created his Empowered comic. Nonetheless, the two work off of many of the same touchstones: super-hero bondage fetishism; feminism, and an interest in presenting cheesecake for guys alongside girly stuff for everybody else.
To the extent that Empowered can be seen as a kind of Wonder Woman knock-off, it’s easily the best one out there, putting to shame even relatively successful efforts like Alan Moore’s Glory or Darwyn Cooke’s satirical take on the character. In large part this is because of how far away from the Wonder Woman concept Empowered strays. Though he uses a lot of the same ideas, Adam Warren comes at the material from a completely different place than Marston and Peter did.
The difference can maybe be summed up by saying that Marston was a system-builder — an actual honest to God academic crank who started from big-picture concepts about how feminism and bondage and gender fit together, and created a character and world to match his theories. Warren is not like that at all. He says he started Empowered as a bondage commission for fans with “special interests.” Similarly, the feminist title “Empowered” seems to be basically a goof. For Marston, feminism and fetish was his life work and his obsession; for Warren the confluence of the two is more a serendipitous passing fancy.
What Warren is really interested in, as it turns out, is the characters. Even in the first, throw-off three-pager, you can see this. A generic super-team (the “Super-Homeys”) stand around contemplating how to defeat the evil Death Monger. Various ideas are thrown out, until Empowered, very nervously, volunteers that maybe they should try cutting off his power source. This seems like a reasonable idea; but it is instantly dismissed when teammate Sistah Spooky points out that Empowered’s panty lines are clearly visible beneath her skin tight super suit! Everybody cracks up, Empowered scurries away weeping — and I guess they beat Death Monger somehow. Or, you know, not.
The thing is, this isn’t just a gratuitous gag (as it would be in, say, Mini-Marvels) Empowered staggering off whimpering “stupid, I’m so stupid” is more Peanuts than Nancy; it’s actually painful. And it’s also feminist; the way Empowered is objectified and dismissed is, and is meant to be, textbook workplace harassment…at the same time as the character is obviously designed to be oggled by the reading fanboys. (And “designed” is the word — her skin tight costume won’t work if anything is worn over it. Also it rips easily. And when it rips, she is powerless, and gets tied up.)
Much like Marston, Warren is having it both ways. Where Marston pulled off that trick through constant and complicated theorizing, though, Warren manages it first of all by being genuinely funny. There’s plenty of the kind of witty sci-fi goofiness that made Warren’s Dirty Pair such a treat. He seems to have an endless supply of that sort of thing, from a gang of minions who make a living stealing from their super-villain bosses, to a support group for heroes who got their powers from exotic venereal diseases (watch out for the alien princesses and the anatomically correct robots, boys); to my absolute favorite, the evil Cthulhu like ancient evil which lives in a belt in Emp’s room watching DVD collections, listening to sports radio, and dispensing relationship advice to her Emp’s boyfriend. (“Bahh. Running out to the market of super to purchase feminine hygience products. Even among the eldritch ancient ones we had a word for such behavior. And that word was…P-whipped!”)
Even more important than the humor, though, is the fact that Warren seems to really care about his heroine. Empowered could easily have turned into a series of dumb blonde joke…but instead, Emp comes across as an incredibly likable character, way more competent and courageous than she or her teammates are willing to credit. As I said, Warren starts out by highlighting her unhappiness and humilitation, a la Charlie Brown — but he quickly heads for less depressing territory, giving her a yummy ex-evil minion as a boyfriend, and incidentally creating one of the best couples in super-hero comics. Thugalicious (does he have a name? He must, but I can’t find it. Oh well.) is incredibly sweet, setting up his villainous cohorts for defeat after defeat at Emp’s hands because “this stuff makes you happy, dinnit?” — and, less selflessly, because Emp “always gets completely sexed up and out of control after every super-hero outing.” In return, when thugalicious’ cohorts wise up and almost kill him, Emp, kicks the door over and with uncharacteristic competence blasts through a roomful of minions to get to her man (said man remarking, with heartfelt enthusiasm “Bad Ass!”)
The end of this scene is pretty great as well. Generally when super-heroes save their loved ones, they’re pretty blase about it — along the lines of, “Aha, here I am again to rescue you just in time. You never doubted me, of course!” Emp, on the other hand, falls apart, weepingly cussing him out for being a macho asshole and getting himself in this pickle. It seems — and I think, is — such a natural reaction that it took me days to realize how unusual it was for the genre.
Warren’s decision to highlight Emp’s body-image issues also seems to me to be pitch perfect. Like all super-heroines, she is, of course, actually drop-dead gorgeous…but it’s the rare woman, drop-dead gorgeous or not, who wouldn’t have serious reservations about wearing a skin tight latex costume in public. Body issues are a real feminist concern, and treated as such (in the first strip for example). But they’re also a convenient way to make readers feel good about oggling the cheesecake. You’re not just enjoying the goodies on offer; you’re also sympathizing with the very likable heroine, and reassuring her that her ass is not, in fact, at all fat — or only fat in a good way.
In short, the book is both exploitation dreck and touching romantic sit-com — not to mention super-hero spoof — and the different genre modes all work to reinforce rather than undermine each other. it doesn’t hurt that Warrens’ artwork is excellent — and more than excellent for what he’s trying to do. His style is is very expressive in a manga vein — but it’s also got a scratchy, alternative 80s mainstream vibe that makes it look less slick and finished than most manga titles. It’s clear and stylish enough to deliver solid storytelling and very sexy cheesecake, but it also has a scrappy, smaller-than-life quality which sums up Emp herself.
In thinking about Emp and Wonder Woman, the “smaller than life” is I think the key. Wonder Woman is a paragon; that’s the point of the character. Emp is trying to be that, but it (usually) doesn’t quite work. Making that shift allows Warren to think about the issues Marston and Peter brought up in some new and interesting ways. Is it really ideal to have a feminist icon who is perfect at everything, for example? How courageous or heroic is Wonder Woman really when everything comes so easily to her? Is it really that important in a relationship to establish who is saving who, or, you know, can you save each other back and forth without keeping such merciless score? Can’t you just enjoy a little fetish porn without trying to make it part of some big right-minded philosophical system? The point isn’t necessarily that Empowered is better than Marston/Peter (I don’t think it is), but rather that to have a conversation with the original Wonder Woman that isn’t egregiously stupid, it seems like you maybe need to take a step back from it. Marston’s Wonder Woman was a very personal vision; so, in a lighter vein, is Warren’s Empowered. For my money, that makes Empowered a much more faithful daughter of WW than any of the “genuine” iterations of WW that have wandered zombielike across the DC universe for the last umpty ump years.
Update: More on Empowered as the savior of the DC universe.