Interview: Adam Warren

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Interview: Adam Warren

When I write I usually try to keep the tone friendly yet somewhat professional. If you’ll excuse me I have to drop that for just a second:

I interviewed Adam Warren! He’s so awesome! Yay! (Thanks, I had to get that out of my system.)

I sent Adam several questions about his series Empowered (of which Volume 7 was just released this past Wednesday) and he was nice enough to respond with some really great answers. I tend to forget that he’s not just an amazing artist, he’s also a fantastic writer. But before I drop off a fangirl cliff again, I’ll let him speak for himself.

Elizabeth Wallace: First of all, obligatory fangirl raving. Your artwork makes my heart happy, no lie.

My sister and I have been fans of yours for a while now (ever since Sim Hell now that I think about it) and we love Empowered especially. But we wonder sometimes if we’re getting strange looks when we buy a comic with so many half-nekked girls in them. Obviously there’s a lot in Empowered to appeal to the guys, what with Emp and Ninjette and Sistah Spooky walking around in skin-tight outfits, but the comic also has terrific art and a fascinating storyline. So what’s your female fanbase like? Anything you’d like to say about/to your fangirls out there?

Adam Warren: I’m happy to report that Empowered has a considerable and quite vocal female readership, who seem to able to look beyond the series’ cheesecake trappings and identify with the trials and tribulations of a sympathetic and relatable (if flawed) heroine. I’ve generally noticed that female readers tend to be more straightforward and unapologetically, uh, “ballsy” (if you’ll pardon the phrase) about reading Empowered than some of my male readers, who can occasionally be rather ambivalent and conflicted about the book. (See paragraph #4, below.)

Alas, as much as this pleases me, I still find myself ruefully contemplating how much broader an appeal the series might have had if it weren’t shackled—quite often literally shackled—to off-putting “damsel in distress” imagery and the exploitative like. If I’d had the slightest clue that Empowered was gonna be the longest-running project of my entire career, I would have minimized or eliminated a great deal of the more problematic material from the start… Oh, well.  So, to my female readers, I would have to say: “Thanks so much for reading Empowered; I only wish I’d made the series a tad more approachable for many of you.”

(Oddly, this reminds me of a bizarre riff I’d hoped to include at the end of my 1998 miniseries Gen 13: Magical Drama Queen Roxy, in a climactic moment when the book’s deconstructing story is literally breaking down. In a callback to Victor Garber’s last scene in the movie Titanic—”I’m sorry that I didn’t build you a stronger ship, young Rose”—I’d planned to draw myself into the actual issue, mournfully telling the book’s heroine, “I’m sorry that I didn’t build you a stronger comic, young Roxy.”)

I hear far more often from commendably sensitive male readers agonizing over reading Empowered, to the point I sometimes find myself wanting to tell them, “Oh, just butch up, buttercup! Plenty of actual females read this series, so get over yourself, won’t you?” Furthermore, I should note that almost all—and “almost all” may be an understatement, too—of the most scathing criticism that Empowered receives is voiced by even more extraordinarily sensitive males, presumably making a grand demonstration of just how deeply they are prepared to care on your behalf, ladies! (No “white-knighting” here, of course!)

EW: All of your characters have very distinctive faces, you can’t mistake Emp for Ninjette or Thugboy for Major Havoc, whether they’re in or out of costume. Where did you get the idea for their facial structures? Real life? Photos? Both? Neither?

AW: Why, thank you kindly for noticing that, though I’m often criticized for all my characters supposedly looking alike… For the most part, the facial designs are just based on character-design riffing directly on the page, as I struggle to devise ways to differentiate the cast members. Some ladies have the “big, pouty lips,” some don’t; Mindf**k has a chisel-shaped chin, while Oyuki-chan has a rounded-off, heart-shaped face; some folks get minimal nasal indication, while others have big honking noses, and so on.

Side note: Shout-out to my old-school chara-design idol, the great Yoshikazu Yasuhiko—”Yaz”, for short—whose wide and wild variety of secondary-character design still remains a source of great inspiration for me. (Now, his primary characters don’t tend to vary quite so much, I have to admit, but what the heck…)

I do occasionally use photo reference for Thugboy, though, whose face is often based on pictures of several different Japanese models and actors I have kicking around my studio. (Wait, I should clarify that statement: Pictures of Japanese models and actors are kicking around my studio, not the actual Japanese models and actors themselves—though that would certainly make referencing Thugboy easier, if they were.)

EW: Do family and friends every make an appearance in Empowered? What about cameos from other comic book series?

AW: I can’t say that family or friends ever make direct appearances as such, given that I couldn’t draw a resemblance if my life depended on it. However, some aspects of certain characters are definitely based on real-life acquaintances, as are more than a few of the experiences recounted throughout the series—though those experiences are often translated into more fantastical, superhero-universe forms, of course. (That being said, I’m not talking about the truly crazy stuff like skullf**king elementals, gigantic alien organs run amok, or wish-granting demonic forces.)

As for cameos from other comics series or other media, I can’t recall doing very much of that in Empowered, to be honest. I used to insert cameos of miscellaneous anime and manga characters in crowd scenes back when I worked on The Dirty Pair, but I grew tired of such wink-wink, nudge-nudge cameo shenanigans rather a long time ago. Nowadays, if anything, I use crowd scenes in Empowered to create and debut new superheroic cast members, most of whom first appear as throwaway sketches in the backgrounds of comics pages.

EW: Maid Man…what is that all about? A deeper commentary on perceived gender roles? Or just hilarious to have a badass dude wearing a dress? How did you come up with the idea?

AW: Both interpretations are valid, as far as I’m concerned!

Maidman’s origin: I was asked to do some maid-related Emp drawings at a convention, a few years back. I don’t quite fully grasp the overwhelming appeal of the “maid fetish” in J-Pop circles, but nonetheless was willing to indulge a few sketch requests along those lines. While drawing Emp dolled up as a maid, though, a rogue idea burst into my mind: What if the biggest, scariest badass in the Empverse happened to be a dude crossdressing as a maid? What if he were, perhaps, a non-powered but fully terrifying figure not unlike a certain iconic DC character, but dressed in a whimsical fashion? And lo, (the goddamn) Maidman instantly sprang forth from my head, like a lacy, domino-masked Athena spawning from the very brow of Zeus!

EW: We’ve seen a lot of origin stories (Emp, Sistah Spooky, the various Homies who got their powers through alien sexually transmitted diseases) so who’s next?

AW: Hrmm…  Well, Empowered vol.7 kinda-sorta explores origin-ish matters with both Empowered and Ninjette. One story thread details Emp’s first brushes with humiliating “superfailure” and even gives a broad hint as to how and/or why our protagonist damsel keeps getting distressed, while another thread throws some light on Ninjette’s troubled ninja-clan background. (I can’t quite claim that’s really and truly “origin” material, though.)

For whatever it’s worth, looks like Empowered vol.8 will probably detail similarly origin-ish material regarding Mindf**k and her still-unnamed but terrifying brother. Wheeee!

EW: What part of drawing do you love the most? I mean, what could you spend just hours drawing and never get tired of? And of course what part of drawing do you haaaaaaaate and try to get through as quickly as possible?

AW: I can’t say I particularly love drawing very many things, as I’m one of the rare artists in the field who isn’t in love with the act of drawing as such, unlike most of my more fortunately inclined peers. I generally see drawing as a means to an end, as just a way to get my precious story across; much of the time, I feel more like a writer who happens to be able to draw, rather than an artist per se.

That being said, two drawing “faves” of mine spring readily to mind. Fave #1: Close-ups of Empowered, wearing her supersuit’s mask. Why is this image a favorite? Because drawing this particular close-up shot is always very, very fast—thanks mainly to Emp’s open, rendering-free blonde hair and her mask’s blank eyes—and surprisingly fun, as I get another opportunity to give her an exaggerated facial expression, thanks to her frequent mood swings.

Fave #2 is a very different kettle of (penciling) fish, though: I genuinely love drawing complicated, tightly choreographed fight scenes—like Ninjette’s battle with the Ayakami clan in Empowered vol.7, for example—even though they’re often difficult and time-consuming to produce.

The two things I hate drawing the most are crowd scenes and realistic, contemporary backgrounds (though I should note that unrealistic, futuristic backgrounds are relatively easy—if mildly tedious—for me). Empowered vol.7 actually featured an unholy combination of my two  un-favorites: Twelve ninja warriors—that’s barely a “crowd”, I realize, but still—in a detail-heavy warehouse environment full of stacked pallet-loads and crates. Even using the crutch of tracing the backgrounds from a Google SketchUp 3D model didn’t prevent the task from growing maddeningly repetitive, as the ninja warehouse fight ground onward.

EW: Artists sometimes talk about characters who got a mind of their own and seemingly dragged the story where they wanted to go. We know Emp started out as racy commissioned drawings before she insisted on a personality and a backstory. Has any other character surprised you that way? Anybody you assumed would go one way until they gave you the finger and went in their own direction?

AW: I’d have to say that Sistah Spooky and her telepathic ex-girlfriend Mindf**k both surprised me, in the course of their development during the series. Thanks to her early abuse of long-suffering Emp, Spooky was at first a genuinely prickly if not unpleasant character, but she rapidly evolved into a much more complex and sympathetic figure as Empowered volumes progressed. As her character arc reaches a catastrophic climax in Empowered vol.8, Spooky’s become one of the characters I relate to the most, oddly enough.

SPOILER ALERT: I should note that Spooky’s ill-fated ex, Mindf**k, likewise has a character arc building to a dramatic ending in Empowered vol.8. From the very beginning, when I first created the character, I always had her tragic fate in mind; I was quite startled by how much I came to enjoy writing Mindf**k, and how her characterization bloomed for me even as her time began running out.

EW: I’d love to see another “episode” of SuperDirty Jobs, any chance Makro will make another appearance?

AW: Oh, quite certainly! I was hoping to feature Makro—and her SuperDirty Jobs reality TV show, of course—in an upcoming Empowered one-shot, but her next appearance might have to wait for another full volume of the book, I’m afraid. Dark Horse isn’t likely to approve a whole slate of new Empowered spin-offs until they see how the upcoming one-shots perform, sales-wise. Speaking of which, keep an eye out for the first of several such new one-shots at the end of the year!

EW: Is there a long-term plan for Empowered, an “ending” you’re working towards, or is a take-it-day-by-day-and-see-where-it-goes kind of comic?

AW: Technically, both concepts apply to Empowered. I do have a long-term plan in mind—and an ending, never fear—but that finale is, I hope, a very long ways off. Simultaneously, this affords me plenty of flexibility to mess around with spontaneous stories and wacky new ideas in the short term.