Comics artist and writer Adam Warren on “Empowered“, his “sexy, superhero comedy” (except when it isn’t). Empowered is a chronically unlucky rookie superheroine who loses all her powers whenever her skin-tight, black suit is ripped even slightly. Because of the “unwritten rules” nearly all superheroes and villains subscribe to, she won’t be killed or seriously hurt, but she does end up tied up, or strapped down, or gagged, or chloroformed, or glued to something, etc. Often a little spanking too.
The character began as a series of “damsel-in-distress” comics shorts, but evolved considerably since then, becoming Warren’s own skewed take on superhero conventions and developing some decidedly non-humorous elements (Let’s just say that a serial rapist is bad enough, but a serial rapist whose skin constantly burns at several thousand degrees….)
Anyway, here’s Warren on how his story relates to the long tradition of “superheroines in bondage”, going back to Wonder Woman’s not-terribly-secret history as a bondage-fetish icon.
One of the most interesting things you deal with in the book is Empowered’s struggles with self-esteem as related to her constant abduction and gratuitous bondage. After two volumes of it happening in almost every other chapter, you end the second volume with an incredibly poignant sequence where she goes to great lengths to help a family and her subsequent kidnapping is suddenly a lot more jarring, brutal, and sad. There has been a lot made of the “preferences” of the kind of reader who might get off on this sort of thing in the fourth wall-breaking chapter asides, but exactly how much of “Empowered” is consciously a kind of slap on the wrist to those who trade in the more exploitative aspects of that kind of art?
That is occasionally part of what I’m doing in “Empowered,” but there are often more than a few recursive—and opposing—layers to the stories. As in, depicting exploitative scenes, then undercutting the exploitation in those scenes, then undercutting said undercutting of exploitation with further exploitation, etc., etc. I have indeed encountered several impressive anecdotes of “damsel in distress” (DiD) fans who no longer appreciate Emp’s scenes of distress, because they’ve come to sympathize with the character too much. (Not that I believe that’s even remotely a frequent occurrence, given the intensity of most fetishes; I’ve stumbled across rather more incidents of bondage fans complaining—not without cause—about the books’ varying rates of DiD-scene occurrence or the technical flaws in my less-than-hyper-realistic depiction of, say, duct tape application.)
That being said, I rarely hear from DiD aficionados about “Empowered,” period, as almost all the feedback I’ve received on the book is from people who read it for “teh funneh” or “teh sexeh” or what have you, and do so explicitly despite the DiD imagery. I assume that the DiD fans out there like the book—the original “commissioners” of the sketches that morphed into “Empowered” were okay with it, as far as I know—but I don’t know that for certain.
DiD is a kind of narrow subset of bondage fetish, apparently inspired by the innumerable scenes of people, usually women, getting tied up in old TV shows and movies, but little more than that actually happened to them.
The later volumes of Empowered also include some interesting hints that, despite all of Emp’s griping about her revealing suit, the suit has a mind of its own and is actually doing things she subconsciously wants, which would suggest she is some kind of exhibitionist and/or masochist.