Interview: Adam Warren

Interview: Adam Warren

Thursday, 15 August 2019

If you don’t know who Adam Warren is, you just don’t know your comics. The man behind the Dirty Pair and Gen13 has been at it for decades putting out some of the funniest and visually stunning work out there and has been an unsung hero in the medium. In recent years he’s best known for being the one-man-tank behind Empowered: a work mixing anime, superheros, comedy, and sci-fi all in one. It would be tough to argue that it’s not Warren at the top of his game, and comes highly recommended from a fan like myself.

I had the chance to catch up with Adam Warren recently (through email) to talk about his career in comics and the upcoming issue of Empowered which will be on shelves very very soon. Read and enjoy!

First off let me just say what a thrill it is for me to be talking to you. I’ve been a fan of yours ever since I saw your work on Gen13. I loved your “Bootleg” run and stand-alone stories like Magical Drama Queen Roxy. Can you talk a little about how you were brought on board to run the series toward its end? Were you approached or did you pitch the idea?

Well, both, technically. I was given the opportunity to pitch for the series after, I think, writer Scott Lobdell left the book. Dunno that I’ve ever done a truly “cold” pitch—as in, wholly unsolicited by an editor—for any mainstream comic, come to think of it.

By that point, I’d already written a two-parter for the regular Gen13 series—“A Savage Breast” in issues #43-44, about the sentient pop-song meme—and had let Wildstorm E-i-C Scott Dunbier know that I would be happy to throw my proverbial hat in the ring if the full-time writing gig ever opened up again. Lo, it did, and the second-longest consecutive-issue run of my career would soon follow. Huzzah!

I remember in your first issue taking over the series you did a stand-alone issue to recap who everyone was and how they got there. Did you know ahead of time where you were going to take the characters or was it more touch and go?

Ehh, by the time I wrote up the Gen13 series pitch, I already had a few dozen pages of densely packed story notes piled up—think of the crazy, scribble-heavy John Doe notebooks from Se7en, though (somewhat) less disturbing. Pretty sure that I must’ve had a good idea where I wanted to go with the characters, though no doubt things changed once I was in the thick of it. (For one thing, I certainly had no plans to kill off the entire g-d team from the beginning!)

There were some great artists penciling your run of the series like Kaare Andrews and Rick Mays. Was that always the plan to have “guest” artists for each arc or were you the intended artist for the series as well?

I should note that my very first writing-only job—the aforementioned “A Savage Breast”—featured amazing art by none of than the great Lee Bermejo. Lordy loo! And I don’t deploy the overused adjective “amazing” lightly, either, as his pencils for those issues truly blew me away. I’m a semi-closeted “high-contrast B&W” fan, and seeing the story conveyed with such luscious shadows and bold chiaroscuro was an absolute delight. Alas, little did I know that I’d debuted as a writer with a collaborative experience that would rarely be equaled—let alone exceeded—in the decades that followed! Oh, well. (Probably for the best that I didn’t know that, TBH.)

Once I climbed aboard the regular series, though, I did get to work with many more great artists like Rick and Kaare. Problem is, all the excellent artists that we nosed around had limited availability, hence the brief arcs that most of ’em drew, such as The Authority semi-crossover that Yannick Paquette (Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman) pencilled.

And no, I never had any serious plans to draw more than the occasional single issue of Gen13, as by that point in my brilliant career I was hoping to get away from having to draw comics—or anything else, for that matter. Full-time comics writing was my ambition at the time but, for good or ill, that scheme didn’t quite work out as planned (SPOILER ALERT?).

It’s surprising hearing you talk so much about not wanting to pencil when your art has developed and become so much richer over the years and you’re constantly posting figure studies on Instagram and elsewhere. It just seems like you’re constantly working at it and I believe myself and many others simply love it. Is doing it just something you’ve come to accept as “part of the gig” or a curse you won’t ever be able to shake?

I was mainly talking about trying to avoid drawing comic pages in the conventional format of (roughly) 10″ X 15″ original art, as my old, laborious work process on such pages was maddeningly slow and tiresome. My interest wasand still is—in getting more stories out, not spending hundreds if not thousands of hours grinding away on a small number of comparatively giant but detailed pages. Instead, working in the relatively teeny 8.5″ X 11″ Empowered original-art format freed me to produce vastly more storytelling content—or, at least it did until the format’s artwork grew so tight and detail-heavy that the last few books have taken me years to grind out.

Stories interest me; drawing for its own sake really doesn’t.  My Instagram figure studies,  for example, are mainly done to improve my skills for drawing future comics, not because I particularly enjoy life drawing as such.

Talk a little about ending the series. What caused it? Were you prepared for it? I remember you saying you were grateful Wildstorm wasn’t just cutting you off at the knees and actually letting you end it right.

I’d assume that low sales figures were the culprit, though our numbers back then would probably be almost enviable in today’s much harsher direct market.

You’re right about the “grateful” bit, as I was very glad that Wildstorm gave me the chance to end my run in style—a rather harsh style, gotta admit, as the entire team wound up vaporized. That opportunity, however, allowed me to give the characters an emotionally charged sendoff, in what would be a precursor to similar “big feelz” moments in Empowered.

What were some story ideas for Gen13 you never got to explore due to the series ending?

Well, one forever-dangling plot thread involved the weaponizing of Sarah Rainmaker’s weather-control powers, which would’ve led to some “Big Idea” shenanigans on an apocalyptic scale. Then again, I pity the poor artist who would’ve had to draw that plotline; whoever these hypothetical creators might’ve been, they were lucky that the series got cancelled!

I deeply regret never getting to another plotline that focused on Caitlin Fairchild, as it would’ve been by far the most heartbreaking and emotionally harrowing story I’ve ever written. I’ve put my heroine Emp through hell at times in Empowered, but nothing she’s faced would’ve measured up to the hard choices and grueling losses Caitlin would’ve confronted. (See, Emp? Things could’ve been worse!)

I remember that your last issue of Gen13 had a mix of different artists (in the same issue) including you,  with your pages looking like almost colored rough drafts. Is there a reason your pages were  never inked by another artist?

My buddy Rick Mays did all the art for issues #75-76, the tearjerking (and nudity-intensive!) two-parter “This is How the Story Ends.” But for the very last, oversized issue #77 that ended the series, both Rick and I drew pages, along with 5 beautifully painted pages from Kaare Andrews, who had co-created the characters that starred in the book. (The final issue was about a young superhero team who appeared previously in our run, the whimsically self-styled “Mongolian Barbecue Horde,” tackling the catastrophic fallout of the Gen13 kids’ deaths.) 

That final issue’s deadline was approaching fast, so I knew that I didn’t have the time—nor did I have the interest!—to mess around with conventional pencils and inks on my portion of the artwork. Finding inkers for my pencils had always been a struggle for me, so I didn’t care to bother with third-party inking, either. So, I found an alternative, by drawing my pages on big ol’ sheets of linen-finish cardstock, which created an interestingly textured look to my pencils . Then my friend Ryan Kinnaird colored the pages directly from those so-called “enhanced pencils,” as they were formally labeled on my invoice. An interesting experiment, but the technique ultimately led nowhere—save, come to think of it, a later 8-page Empowered vol. 3 story, “Feel the Uberburn,” which was also colored from linen-finish pencil art.

So, not rough drafts, but really unusual pencils!

Gen13 got rebooted a few times after that original series. Did you check out those issues?

Yeahp, I was on the Wildstorm/DC comp list when the Chris Claremont/ Ale Garza Gen13 reboot got a-rollin’. In a truly surreal twist, at the end of the series the kids went back in time to reverse the fatal events of my last few issues and resurrect the original Gen13 team; this led to the bizarre experience of seeing my own dialogue reappearing in another writer’s script as the heroes effectively revisited the issues I’d written. Bizarre, I’m telling you!

(Side note: Ale Garza’s last bunch of covers for Gen13, a string of issues for which he rocked a wonderfully Jamie-Hewlett-ish art style, are well worth checking out. Loved ’em!)

I’d hoped to get a chance to pitch for the later reboot, but that didn’t work out. I did get to draw a variant cover for one of those early Gail Simone issues, though, which was a surprisingly fun little job to do. In fact, that cover illo wound up being seriously “high-contrast B&W,” just like those Lee Bermejo pencils I mentioned! (Circle of life, folks.)

Speaking of Gen13, I don’t think Magical Drama Queen Roxy was ever collected in trade paperback. Are there plans for that or are the individual issues the only way to read it?

Nope, MDQ Roxy was never reprinted in a TPB collection, nor is it ever likely to be, I’m afraid. The darn thing’s not even available digitally; then again, neither is much of the rest of Gen13, including many or possibly most of the J. Scott Campbell issues. (Er, I think so, at least.)

Of course you’re also known as the creative force behind the Dirty Pair. (Run from the Future is my favorite book of the series.) There haven’t been any new stories in a while. Is this something you’re hoping to revisit?

Dark Horse and I are hoping to reprint all of my Dirty Pair comics in a pair of strapping omnibuses—or is it omnibi?—but, for now, the ball is in the Japanese licensor’s court. C’mon, guys! How about some free money?

We’d likely include some heretofore unseen DP comics and other material in these theoretical collections, but I have no plans to draw any new comics featuring Kei and Yuri. (Writing a few such stories might be a different case, though.)

I should note, though, that my new-ish Patreon will, down the road, feature a veritable slew of previously unpublished Dirty Pair work:

Your new project is Empowered which I personally think is your most punk rock effort. It’s raw and completely DIY as far as I can tell. Is it safe to say that it started as a “goof” of this character that you would draw in different states of distress for your email list that grew into this complex universe?

That’s absolutely true. As I’ve often noted, Empowered grew out of a series of mildly salacious commissioned sketches I was cranking out during one of my comic career’s all-too-frequent low ebbs. Much of that artwork consisted of pin-up illos of tied-up superherheroines, which rapidly bored the hell outta me as a storytelling-oriented creator; so, instead, I started drawing a few story pages exploring what would be going through the mind of the poor person enduring such embarrassing “damsel in distress” scenarios. Hey, what if this superheroine had to wear a skin-tight costume like the ones most “capes” seem to sport with total nonchalance, but was deeply insecure and burdened with body-image issues?

And lo, these brief, throwaway story pages bootstrapped themselves into greater depth and complexity over a matter of weeks and months, eventually morphing into the most sweeping, epic, and longest-running project of my entire damn career. Who knew, folks? Not me, at the beginning, at least.

I remember how often the books used to come out and now it seems the speed has slowed down. Is this just because of the work involved in putting out a book or you have other projects going on as well?

Ehh, the slowdown has occurred mainly because producing the series’ artwork has become a much, much more constricting, detail-intensive, and time-consuming process than in the series’ early days of spontaneous, casually tossed-off, loosely pencilled stories. To be honest, I often wish I could somehow return to the freewheeling, loosey-goosey art and narrative style of the early Empowered volumes, but that just doesn’t seem possible anymore.

Plus, with the upcoming Empowered vol.11, I bit off waaaay more than I could (artistically) chew with the book’s 205-page chase scene raging across a nighttime cityscape. As a writer, that bold, action-intensive premise thrilled me; but as an artist, I soon discovered, I was considerably less thrilled with the tedious gruntwork involved in bringing that vision to life. Oops!

That being said, I should do a bit of floggery, here, for vol.11, which hits comics-store shelves on September 18 and releases to conventional bookstores (and Amazon) on October 1. Yeahp, as I just opined, the book is the first Empowered volume to consist of a single very long, intense, action-packed story, as our beleaguered heroine fights her way through an entire city of superheroes mind-controlled by a wildly powerful and utterly deranged telepath. I often say that “Empowered is a sexy superhero comedy, except when it isn’t,” a sentiment which definitely applies to this relentlessly paced episode, which is notably short in the sexiness and humor departments but long on superheroes beating the crap out of each other. All hell breaks loose, folks, as not everyone’s gonna make it outta this story alive; brace for mercilessly manipulative tearjerkery, folks! Why, we even learn several key characters’ real names, which is a big deal in a series where I stubbornly and/or perversely refuse to provide names for much of the cast!

More info on the book here:

Empowered is the first project you’ve worked on where that’s creator owned. Talk about the difference between creator owned work and taking on a franchise.

I should note that it’s the first fully creator-owned series I’ve worked on, as Dirty Pair existed in a rather nebulous gray area between creator ownership and licensed work. Believe me, though, if I had any degree of control on DP, the comics field would’ve been deluged with endless reprints and new editions of my older work!

I’ve enjoyed all the mainstream comics work I’ve done, but most of that stuff is long out of print and, like my run on Gen13, will never be seen again. I can’t overstate the importance of having a creator-owned property that can remain in print, earning me royalties every quarter and ensuring that new readers have the opportunity to check the work out. Empowered might not have been a Saga-level success, but I’ve already earned more income off the series than I have from all my other comics work put together, even though the Marvel and Wildstorm/DC stuff featured vastly higher page rates.

Speaking of new readers, lemme hasten to note that Empowered is also being serialized as a free webcomic, featuring commentary by me on every damn page, akin to a director’s commentary on a DVD or Blu-Ray:

One entertaining bit about the webcomic is that, judging by the comments, roughly half the online readership is new to the series, so I enjoy seeing fresh reactions to work from a decade ago. This also creates an interesting tension between “newbies” and long-time print readers, not unlike the online interactions between Game of Thrones book readers and TV-only consumers—as in, “If you think this is bad, sweet summer child, wait until you get to the end of the volume!”

Speaking of the online presence of the comic and how enjoyable it is to have Empowered be creator-owned, I would think publishing the comic exclusively online would completely free you from any constraints you might have had on the series, like the censored language and the times the series emphasized the “sexy” in “sexy superhero comic.” Is this something you’d consider with the comic down the road or any new projects?

Oh, I have no interest in publishing Empowered exclusively online, as the money just isn’t there. I do the webcomic serialization just to get the book out to a different audience, not in the hopes of supporting myself via that route.  Pretty much all the continuing constraints of the series are self-imposed as, in the beginning, we’d hoped to avoid the books having to be shrinkwrapped and warning-labeled “MATURE READERS,” so I used the censored profanities and lack of (full) nudity that had been featured in the last issues of Gen13. Once the series actually did wind up being shrinkwrapped and labeled, I could’ve trotted out uncensored language and full-on nudity later on, but as those censoring flourishes amused me then and amused me still, I left ’em in place throughout the subsequent books.

If anything, for a number of future projects I’m steering well clear of explicit content, as the shrinkwrapping and “MATURE READERS” label undoubtedly hurt  Empowered‘s sales in stores.

Interestingly, Empowered vol. 11 theoretically could’ve shipped without shrinkwrapping and label, as its 205-page action epic features effectively no  “sexy” content whatsoever. I gather, however, that bookstores prefer that a shrinkwrapped book series’ later volumes  remain shrinkwrapped regardless of content, so we sent it off with the usual plastic and warning sticker.

Are you seeing an end in sight for Empowered or are you continuing the series for the expected future?

Gotta say, while I’m proud of my work on the completed Empowered vol. 11, the process of drawing the damn thing was so excruciatingly difficult and protracted that my confidence in future production of the series has been shaken a great deal. I’m hoping to, well, “rediscover the magic” with Empowered vol. 12, which I intend to be a lighter-hearted, less demanding and far more joyous return to form after the grueling (for both Emp and myself) ordeal that was vol. 11.

Beyond that, though, we’ll just have to see how matters work out. It’s no secret that the dreaded “standard attrition” has whittled down the series’ sales in the direct market considerably; then again, the conditions facing the remaining number of North American comic stores have grown notably more dire since those halcyon days of yore when early Empowered volumes placed in the top 10 of graphic novel sales.

Another hurdle is also approaching, in that the art technique I use to create the series will soon become nonviable. See, I draw Empowered’s pages with one specific type of notably soft pencil lead that, alas, is no longer produced with the exacting consistency I require—or, to be precise, that my ailing drawing hand requires, as every other form of pencil I’ve tried winds up triggering pain in the ol’ paw before long. I’ve hoarded a dwindling stockpile of the pencil lead in question, but possess only enough of ’em to maaaaybe get through Empowered vol.12. After that, looks like I’ll have to find an entirely new work technique—possibly digital—to continue drawing the series. I’d already planned to change the format of Empowered after vol.12—with shorter and more frequent volume releases, perhaps—but this looming pencil shortage is forcing my hand, pun semi-intended.

I’ve always been fascinated with your biographies at the end of your books. Can you give a hint as to just how embarrassing the music you listen to is?

Not 100% sure what that old line from my bio might’ve been referring to, gotta say. My iPod (at the time) did contain some embarrassing crap from my 70s childhood, and perhaps more New Jack Swing than I’d care to admit, though. Of late I’ve been wallowing in soundtracks (Hereditary, for example) and EDM-ish artists such as Dan Terminus and Carpenter Brut, which are reasonably acceptable to admit listening to, I think.

What are some of your favorite go-to microbrews? I think you’re in New England so I assume Heady Topper makes its way into the rotation frequently?

I am indeed from New England, but I’ve never experienced the notoriously elusive “unicorn beer” that is Heady Topper.

Gotta say that, unusual for a beer snob, I’m not a fan of hop-heavy, “piney” IPAs. My oft-repeated line re: conventional IPAs is, “I’m already dry, raspy, bitter, and unpleasant, so I don’t need my beer to be that way, too.” That half-serious line might be a tad hypocritical, though, as I have a strong appreciation for “sour” beers, which I suppose does reflect my own sour personality. (Or “tart,” to use the more appealing euphemism trotted out by brewers.) However, I do like so-called New England “hazy” IPAs, and not just because I’m from the area.

I’m all about the variety when I’m having a few beers, so I’m usually selecting choices from brewers such as Dogfish Head, Founders, 21st Amendment, and New Belgium, as well as local(-ish) operations such as White Birch, Peak, Harpoon, Jack’s Abby, and Shipyard.

What comics are you reading these days that you’re enjoying?

I don’t read all that many American comics nowadays, but I am enjoying quite a few different ongoing manga series at the moment, such as—off the top of my head—Golden Kamuy, Komi Can’t Communicate, Dr. Stone, To Your Eternity, Delicious in Dungeon, One-Punch Man, Witch Hat Atelier, Battle Angel Alita: Martian Chronicles, Aposimz, Vinland Saga, A Bride’s Story, Please Tell Me! Galko-san, and Farewell, My Dear Cramer.

What can we expect next from you?

Well, I’m about to write an exceptionally bold and ambitious one-shot for a mainstream publisher, which will be “dropping” later in the year. Wish me luck! (And wish the poor artist even more luck, as this sucker will be incredibly challenging to draw.)

Beyond that, I’m scheming to get a few new creator-owned projects underway, while cranking out the first new pages from Empowered vol.12.

I should once again seize this opportunity to flog my recently launched Patreon—why, it’s up to 147 posts and counting! In addition to posting high-resolution life drawings and a heap of older material, I’m also previewing artwork from upcoming projects (such as Emp vol. 12):

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