With the new volume of fan favorite “Empowered” out in shops this week, writer-artist extraordinaire Adam Warren took some time to talk with us about Emp, drawing skimpy clothing and all things awesome. Click through for the whole she-bang!
The Comic Archive: It’s no secret that a huge part of Empowered is playing off of the stereotypes of the damsel in distress, which might seem to have a limited amount of storytelling potential, but you have managed to continually put out compelling stories for seven volumes. As a writer where do you find inspiration for all the adventures that Emp gets herself into?
Adam Warren: I honestly can’t tell you, really. While I’m contemplating the existing Empowered characters and situations, a new idea springs to mind, then that idea leads to a new complication, then that complication kicks off a new train of thought, and so on and so forth, until an entire book is plotted. I have an odd gift—though “gift” might not be the appropriate term—for wildly overthinking concepts that seem, at first glance, to be kinda goofy, if not downright dumb. And let’s face it, few ideas seem much goofier or dumber than the skeezy trope of “superheroine as damsel in distress”…but hey, go figure, turns out that you can use a less-than-promising cliché as the basis for a surprisingly promising ongoing series!
A fair bit of Empowered’s riffing is personal in nature, I have to admit. Believe it or not, some of the outlandish characters and emotional arcs and bizarre experiences are (very) loosely based on real-life material, albeit heavily reinterpreted through distorted lens of a superheroic milieu. Nothing could interest me less than doing purely autobiographical stories—even I don’t find me that interesting—but the idea of using personal experiences to inform fictional narratives remains strangely appealing to me.
When did you see Empowered as a character and story you could and would continue to stay with?
Early on, the idle handful of random short stories that comprised the earliest form of Empowered wrapped up after about only 20 pages or so, after I had to go back to work on other freelance jobs. In my spare time, though, more ideas and riffs for this goofy, throwaway premise of a hard-luck superheroine continued to ferment relentlessly in my imagination. What if she met a bodiless alien monster who came to live on her coffee table? What if she befriended a female ninja? What beef, exactly, does Sistah Spooky have with her? So, I kept noodling around with further short stories during breaks in paying work, amusing myself—and, by this point, a cluster of artists and editors to whom I was emailing jpegs—with additional cast members, convolutions, and complications. Somewhere along the line, I very gradually came to the realization that this odd little side project could be an ongoing series, though I wouldn’t think of Empowered as a—scare quotes with my fingers, here—”real comic” for quite some time yet.
Side note: The somewhat arbitrary choice of Empowered vol.1’s pagecount did come back to bite me in the ass, to some degree. By the time Dark Horse editor Chris Warner and I had to work up the first collection’s “book map”—the exact list of what artwork goes on which page of the printed volume—we had roughly 300pp of comics on hand. We picked out enough story pages to make Empowered vol.1 a bold, brawny 248pp long; that’s quite the exceptional if not excessive pagecount, given that the series’ closest publishing analogues, manga tankoubon or trade paperbacks (TPBs), are usually in the 160pp range. Chris sensibly talked me down to a more reasonable 208pp for the subsequent volumes, but the damage was already done. In retrospect, it seems obvious to me that we should have elected to go for shorter pagecounts on the individual volumes, which would’ve meant briefer but more frequent releases of Empowered material—and maintaining a more constant presence in the “what have you done for me lately?” direct market probably would’ve helped us out a fair bit.
Rest assured, I have plenty more ideas for Empowered stories— in fact, too many to handle by myself, which is why I’ll be writing more Empowered one-shots to be drawn by Very Special Guest Artists in the next few years. As for the main series of volumes drawn by yours truly, I do have an ending planned, but it remains well in the hazy distance. If I may be blunt, folks: We’re still a few volumes out from the end of the first major arc in Empowered’s ongoing storyline. If the market allows—and yeah, I’m well aware that’s a rather ginormous “if”—we still have a long ways to go, yet, before Elissa Megan Powers’ story is over.
The only limitation, really, is the fact that I actually have to draw the damn thing. I’m (very) vaguely contemplating a switchover to all-digital artwork, in the hopes that a stylus-and-Cintiq-tablet approach would be easier on my often-ailing drawing hand; that seems a fairly safe assumption, as I grind lead into paper with a ridiculous level of pressure when I’m penciling the series’ graphite-heavy artwork. Still, such a radical shift in technique would be a major, nervous-gulp-inducing change in work habits for me, a leap that I’m not yet prepared to take.
On the other hand, I get slightly annoyed by how frequently I’m asked about Empowered ending. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anyone demanding of Stan Sakai, “Usagi Yojimbo DOES have an ending, right? *taps wristwatch* Let’s wrap it up, shall we?” Not, of course, that my books are even remotely in the same league as Stan’s wonderful epic—28 yrs and still going strong, if Wikipedia’s not pulling my leg—but still, I’m occasionally bugged by the assumption that Empowered is worthless without a concrete ending, preferably of the “better sooner than later” variety.
At this point you can read all of the Empowered stories digitally or in print. How has your experience been with the digital books been so far?
I’ve spotted one odd but striking difference between print and digital: For the most part, double-page spreads do not work very well at all in many digital comics formats. Sometimes, they can even look less impressive than single pages, as the formatting reduces them to a small enough scale for both pages to fit onscreen at once. A “guided view” through a double-page spread—in which the “camera” moves from preselected point to point across the pages—can sometimes work, though; a major shot at the end of Empowered vol. 3, showing a spectacular shot of Emp zapping some ill-fated foes, worked surprisingly well in as a guided-view panorama. Still, I have to admit that I’m reconsidering the use of double-page spreads in the future—not that I was featuring them very often, to begin with—given that they seem noticeably incompatible with current digital formats.
I know you have talked about this before but how did you come to the decision to use black & white shaded pencil for Empowered instead of inks?
I’m not sure that “decision” is the appropriate term, as I never had any other option. Empowered could never possibly have worked as an inked-artwork comic. The ease—and more importantly, speed—of production allowed by working in pencil on cheap, 8.5″ X 11″ copy paper is the only reason that the series exists. Time—or worktime, more precisely—is quite literally money for a freelance artist; I couldn’t even have considered wasting the amount of time that drawing Empowered in a conventional comics format—that is, inked pages on oversized art board—would’ve required.
That being said, by the time I started the earliest scrawls that would become Empowered, I’d been hearing for years from artist and editors that my unusually tight layout pages were more vibrant, energetic, and entertaining than my finished pages. So I figured, why bother with grinding away at finished comics pages for months on end, when most people seemed to prefer my layouts in the first place? And lo, Empowered soon sprung into being, with its artwork being little more than a slightly more polished variation on my old layout-page format.
From a production standpoint going from ink to computer color is old hat at this point, did you find any hiccups in getting your scanned pages to reproduce the way you wanted?
Working in grayscale, you’re uniquely vulnerable to even minute variations in printing. Empowered’s individual volumes—and on occasion, individual printings of each volume—have all reproduced a little bit differently, I’ve found. Some books’ artwork looks lighter, others darker; some are plagued by odd and idiosyncratic repro issues, some aren’t. (Example: For a while, I was penciling a light-gray, HB-lead “aura” over my 4B-lead sound FX, which caused a bizarre “reflection” effect to appear in the letters of “WHKOOM” and “VORPP” during scanning.)
But wait, yet more variables loom! Over time, I’ve had to change media, switching from one type of copy paper to another, or from one type of pencil lead to another. In the summer, say, the humidity in my studio grows so severe that I have to switch to less porous paper and softer pencil leads to get the results I need. On the Photoshop front, any changes in software settings after the pages are scanned in-house at Dark Hose can lead to printing variations, as well.
In short: When reproducing comics pages straight from pencils, a helluva lotta things can go wrong, folks.
What tools do you have next to your drawing board?
Let’s see… On the drafting front, a 24″ T-square, a beveled-edge, 45/90° 12″ inking triangle, a clear plastic 18″ ruler for measuring, and a metal 18″ ruler for cutting (dating back to my Kubert School days, I think). Oh, and let’s not forget my ever-handy French curve, always dangling within reach from the claw of an old Jurassic Park Tyrannosaurus Rex toy. All of this gear is used on the Vyco-covered surface of an old, quite gigantic drafting table, almost 5′ across; I only use a small portion of its enormous area, and tape up plenty of reference materials over the rest of its vast expanse. Plus, having a ginormous workspace aids in drawing perspective grids, as I can just a jam a 36″ ruler against the base of the table-lamp mount at the top of the board and go to town.
For penciling, I use a bevy of 2mm leadholders, each containing a different lead type: H for underdrawing and guidelines, HB for light shading, B or 2B for smaller, more detailed work, and 3B, 4B or even 6B leads for the bulk of the primary drawing. Semi-amusing side note: All of my leadholders are the same model, with the same crosshatched pattern etched onto on their metal grips, but my primary (6B) pencil has seen so much use over the last few years that the grip’s knurled metal has been worn and polished silky-smooth by my fingers’ relentless pressure.
For inking Empowered cover line art, I use Japanese Zebra (round) quill pen-tips, a Koh-I-Noor .35 technical pen, and a pair of old, battered Windsor-Newton Series 7 brushes for filling in blacks (with a mixture of Koh-I-Noor Ultradraw and Higgins Black Magic ink) and applying white-out (Q-White).
For my panel gutters and sound FX on Empowered interior pages, I use Sharpie Fine and Extra-Fine markers, plus occasionally a wee Pigma pen for detailed work—tiny, saw-toothed edges on the letters of sound FX, say.
Your work has maintained a level of quality that not everyone can sustain; how do you keep yourself challenged and sharp as an artist?
I’ve never really done much—or, possibly, any—serious art training or drawing practice in my spare time as a professional, though I’m loath to admit this problematic truth to younger, more impressionable artists. (As in, “Don’t try this at home, kid artists.”) I experiment with new techniques—whether self-devised or, more commonly, cribbed from photos and/or other artists’ work—directly on the finished comics page, invariably without prior preparation. (Or “without a net,” to dramatize matters just a tad.) Sometimes this haphazard approach can blow up in my face—as once happened with a bold new rendering scheme for metal that forced me to scrap a page or two—but more often than not, trying out new things on a comics page already in progress helps keep the process fresh for me.
Are you at all tired of drawing Emp’s tattered costume? All those little stringy bits must make your hand cramp up occasionally.
Oddly, the opposite is the case! Drawing Emp’s supersuit fully intact, as a mass of high-contrast rendering covering her entire body, is much harder on my hand than drawing it tattered, as dark elements alternating with white areas of open skin. Plus, I find the varied black-and-white scheme of the torn supersuit more visually interesting than the intact, full-body “black catsuit” look. (Just for the record, I should note that I don’t perceive the tattered version to be any more titillating than the skin-tight, painted-on, unbroken form of the insanely revealing suit, but I realize that others might feel differently.) Honestly, just for narrative purposes, I really should draw Emp’s suit whole and undamaged more often, but the appealing combo of less drawing-hand stress and more visual interest causes me to continually depict “tattered-suit Emp.”
Last question, I always love to hear these stories. Winding back the clock, what was it like the first time you saw your work in print? Where were you and what was the book?
As a wee lad, a few of my primitive, powerfully crappy illustrations were repro’d in the local papers for student art competitions and the like. I have an especially vivid memory of submitting a drawing for one newspaper’s “design our region’s mythical lake monster” contest: Circa high school, I drew a quite frankly metal-as-hell, dragon-beast version of “Winnie, the Lake Winnipesaukee Monster”, straight outta the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. Alas, my deadly serious take on “Winnie” lost out to a whimsical, humorous drawing by another, better artist, giving me my first true taste of bitter artistic disappointment. (I bleated, “The winning sketch is all, like, cartoony and s**t! That’s, like, bogus, man!”) Needless to say, this was excellent practice for the many, many more disappointments that would punctuate the rest of my career as an artist!
Later on, my first “semi-pro” piece to see print was a very early Dirty Pair illo repro’d on the cover of a fan art booklet put out by Books Nippan, one of the earliest J-Pop mail-order companies. (Back in the late-80s day, Books Nippan was the first outfit I approached—futilely, as it turned out—in the hopes of acquiring the rights for a Dirty Pair comics adaptation; I’d sent them a packet of Kei & Yuri designs and original comics pages as samples of my work.) I was actually quite alarmed to see the illo in print, as I hadn’t intended it to be seen by the public, for one embarrassing reason: The drawing depicted Lovely Angel Yuri posed on a futuristic motorcycle, in an image directly ripped off from Kenichi Sonoda Gall Force artwork. Oops! Let that be a lesson to you, young artists: If you pose-rip, bad things will happen to you! (To be completely honest, nothing especially bad happened to me, as I never heard any reaction to the illo’s “separated at birth” imagery; in those halcyon, pre-internet days, one could screw up and foist problematic artwork on the public with relatively minimal reaction.)
Well that’s it folks. Empowered volume 7 hits the stands on May 30th in print and June 13th in digital. You can also get caught up at Dark Horse’s digital shop. And to keep up with Adam head over to his deviantart page. Be sure to hop out there and check them out!
And below you can see some pages in progress!