The Wench with a Million Sighs

Posted by on February 1st, 2010 at 10:00 AM

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The ass of the girl in Empowered comes up for a painstaking look in “The Wench with a Million Sighs,” a recent special. It’s a showcase panel, with the ass modeled in two profile views and put in context by accompanying discussion. One view shows the ass on its own, another presents the ass in its natural setting, as part of a knees-to-shoulder shot of the heroine. A talking head tucked alongside the panel’s star attraction, well down and to the right, provides guidance on the ass’s proper appreciation (key phrase: “the obvious beauty of her booty”). Adam Warren, Empowered’s artist and writer, is as funny and skilled as people have said. But I think he’s also on to something a bit deep, one of those chunks of narcissism that can power a pop culture franchise. For instance, I think the “Wench” panel shows exactly how a lot of readers would like their asses considered: with great fanfare and some understanding commentary. It’s an odd ambition but it’s around, one of the many rashes located (if you will pardon the poetry) beneath the underwear of the modern mind. Women have it really bad, lots of men have it bad enough, and there we see the makings of Empowered’s man-woman audience coalition. Layer on top of that the many people who just want to look at girly shots and jokes that are funny instead of not funny.

“The Wench with the Million Sighs” gives us a tour of the basic arrangement. I guess the grand compromise would be like this: a lot of cheesecake, but you hear about body issues. And also: in the course of the action, the cheesecake girl is always being downtrodden and humiliated, but the series itself manages to fuss over her like a shoe salesman with a 17-year-old heiress, a shoe salesman who knows that the heiress will have a nervous breakdown if anybody in sight fails to take her on exactly her terms. The subject of “Wench” is, well, you just got to really understand Emp (the girl’s name) because, you know, basically she’s great. Every neurotic has the pep talk that gets him or her through his or her odd shambles of a life. This story is Emp’s. Given how superheroes work, her pep talk no doubt matches the spiel a lot of her readers give themselves. It runs something like this: I’m good at what I do but nobody notices; I keep getting tripped up by my own weakness, but the weakness isn’t my fault; nobody will listen to me, but listening to me is the most important thing in the world; if I just freed myself, I would be so powerful; I never have to free myself, because I am adorable. And so on. It doesn’t go anywhere good.

Freeing herself, in Emp’s case, takes the form of spasming out her rage. She releases sighs if she feels mistreated; then, if that doesn’t work, and she’s feeling brave enough, she goes straight to meltdown. Telling people what’s on her mind doesn’t feature as a possibility. In “Wench” this trait is both analyzed in detail and treated as a given, which is another flattering combination: all that attention, no judging. When she spasms, she knocks the villain ass over teakettle and triumphs. Her explosion maps onto the classic Marvel “one last mighty effort,” the reach-inside push that got off the machinery off Spider-Man’s head in issue 33 and got Thor out of every plot Len Wein ever thought up for him. A genre with many, many conventions provides good hiding places for the assumptions behind a dumb worldview, and world views that are held because they are flattering are always dumb.

Something I would like to note. Emp has the kind of body that a superhero lead girl has to have: iron-hard, well proportioned, big-breasted. She’s not as tall as a lot of superheroines, but she’s not short. Her thighs aren’t slim, but they’re not thick, and there’s no fat on them. She has no fat anywhere because she can’t—she’s a comic book superheroine. So her ass takes on a special significance, an ass mission. The ass is splendid, picture-girl quality: round, distinct and hard. But it’s half a size too large for her frame, so she feels bad about it. Therefore, body issues.

all images ©2009 Adam Warren

The series pulls a different trick regarding Emp’s face. She has to feel insecure about it, of course, but she also has to be pretty. So the series gives her pillow lips, big sexy bumpers of the sort women buy from their plastic surgeons, lips that are sexy in the way C-cup breasts are sexy—upstanding, lavish lips. Then the other characters make fun of her for it. Sexy exaggeration is played as deformity, the way somebody sometime must have written a jokey story about the weirdness of superheroine’s giant breasts.

There’s nothing really bad about the Empowered special and a lot that’s clever and fun. But like a lot of good pop culture, and especially superhero stories, it’s a bag of tricks bundled together to sell a certain dream, a certain piece of ego gratification. If you’re out of sympathy with that particular dream, the issue is going to seem a bit empty and without a point.

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