Exclusive Interview: Adam Warren Sends Empowered And Sistah Spooky To 'High School Hell'

Emp and Sistah Spooky are heading back to high school, but this is anything but your average high school reunion.

The two foes turned friends are appearing in a new mini-series from writer Adam Warren and artist Carla Speed McNeil titled Empowered & Sistah Spooky's High School Hell. Sistah Spooky sold her soul in return for outward beauty, but she was granted some impressive powers in the deal as well. Now the underworld wants those powers back, and Emp is along for the ride.

ComicBook.com had the chance to talk to Waren about the new series, and what changes when the spotlight is on Spooky.

"I’ve always found Spooky to be a compelling character, who essentially bootstrapped herself into depth and complexity in my eyes despite being initially introduced in the first Empowered stories as little more than one-note, mercilessly bullying Mean Girl in a cape and hot pants," Warren said. "In this miniseries, as witnessed by effective “sidekick” Emp, we get to see what drove Theresa to become such an “Alpha Female,” and how she’s presently coping after losing both her ill-fated lover and her once-prized status as a superhero. (SPOILER: She’s not coping very well at all, I’m afraid.)"

High School Hell will finally delve into Spooky's backstory, something fans have yet to really see.

"While Empowered has mentioned in passing that young Theresa endured traumatizing social experiences in her teen years, this is the first time we’ve been able to explore these foundational experiences in any detail—though, here, conveyed though the wildly over-the-top, funhouse-mirror distortions of a truly infernal vision of familiar high school tropes," Warren said. "Cyberbullying, weaponized gossip, social ostracism, body shaming, binge eating, ruthless jockeying for in-group status—we get to deal with heavy, depressingly real-world issues like these through a funny-but-not-always-funny lens of wacky caricature and magic-fueled exaggeration. It’s fun, folks! No, really!"

While they didn't start off on a great foot, Emp and Spooky have become friends, Still, there's plenty of issues to work out between the two, and that provides some great fodder for storytelling.

"I enjoy the fact that, due to how Spooky used to bully Emp, their current relationship is still more than a bit prickly—if not downright thorny!—with plenty of tension and uncertainty still simmering under the surface," Warren said. "This offers a notable contrast with, say, Emp’s close friendship with her BFF Ninjette, which is a waaaaay more lovey-dovey, warm ’n’ fuzzy relationship. Now that I think of it, though, I’m a bit saddened that I couldn’t have worked Ninjette into this miniseries as well; that would’ve made for some complicated three-way interpersonal dynamics! Oh, well."

Fans can see the dynamic between Spooky and Emp at its finest during the lunch conversation in issue #1, and it shows just how far Emp has come.

"For Emp, the biggest change is that, over the course of the last 2500 or so pages of Empowered, she’s become far less insecure and anxiety-prone, and far more confident and self-assured—even though, as that conversation shows, she still perceives herself as being anxiously self-conscious, Warren said. "In terms of how she actually behaves, howeva, modern-day Emp is very different from cringing, trembling, painfully timid early Emp."

While Emp's growth has come in small bits over time, Spooky's had to adapt to much harsher circumstances very quickly.

"As for Sistah Spooky, I would say that she’s matured as well, but at grievous, life-wrecking cost," Warren said. "While Emp’s growth has been drawn largely from positive experiences in her personal life and superheroic career, Spooky’s own maturity and broadened perspective have been engendered by tragically negative experiences of crushing loss and emotional devastation. While we’d all prefer to imagine personal growth through sheer, dogged determination and never-say-die positivity like Emp's series-long journey, most of us lesser mortals have to learn our life lessons the hard way, through failure and frustration and regret, as the unfortunate Spooky just did."

Empowered-Sistah-Spooky-High-School-Hell
(Photo: Dark Horse)

High School Is Hell features the lovely art of Carla Speed McNeil, who delivers some wonderful expressive scenes of Emp and Spooky, including that aforementioned lunch scene.

"First, lemme agree with you that Carla did a bang-up job on Emp and Spooky’s expressions in that sequence—and throughout the rest of the miniseries, I hasten to add," Warren said. "From my biased perspective, drawing evocative and highly emotive facial expressions is a key skill set for any comics artist; hell, that might be the most important skill for a cartoonist, period, in my book. That, by the way, is why I insisted that Emp never wear her supersuit’s mask throughout the miniseries; I didn’t wanna lose out on any of Carla’s delicious facial-expression work. Yummy!"

Warren has drawn Emp and her crew of odd characters for 13 years, and you might notice how much they've changed over time.

"As for what I keep in mind when drawing them myself, well, that’s changed a great deal over time," Warren said. "(I have, come to think it, been drawing both characters for almost thirteen years now, since the very earliest “joke strips” that would later evolve into Empowered. Yikes!) One of the (many) peculiar things about this series is that I don’t use fixed and well-established character designs for most of the lead characters, so their exact appearances tend to organically evolve over hundreds or thousands of pages, usually as I’m influenced by different artists or experiment with new ways to depict facial expressions."

Some of that change is due to Warren's evolving art style, and you can see a perfect example of it in how he draws Emp now compared to when the series started.

"Once upon a time, both Emp and Spooky boasted dramatically if not alarmingly Big, Pouty Lips, an artistic affectation that’s almost entirely disappeared from my current work," Warren said. "Back in the day, Emp used to be quite a bit skinnier, and was sporadically plagued by a peculiar form of figure-drawing distortion that I now refer to as "The Mysteriously Intermittent, Post-Millennial Torso Glitch"—now also gone from my work, I’m happy to report! Nowadays, I just try to draw both of the characters in a manner I find currently appealing, while being well aware that my artistic preferences will shift yet again as the years go by, and someday I'll no doubt come to dislike the way I'm drawing right now."

The series does have Hell in the name, but fans still might be surprised at how many horror elements the book includes.

"Gotta say, for a miniseries that is indeed heavy on the ol’ humorous exaggeration, the story eventually twists in a pretty darn harsh and even downright horrific direction at times," Warren teased. "I think both Carla and I are comfortable with horror-oriented themes in both writing and art, though I’m not sure that either of us have written stories that would be considered full-on entries in the genre. (Of course, Carla and High School Hell color artist Jenn Manley Lee have handled the artwork for multiple arcs in the great horror comic Harrow County.) Then again, we kinda-sorta collaborated—though very indirectly—a few years back on an arguably body-horror-skewed story of Carla’s about a notably hands-on—or hands-in—magical healer. Would that count, I wonder? Then again, who knows? Maybe we'll both work on a straight-up horror project someday."

Warren enjoys the challenge though of weaving the typically comedic cast of characters into a more frightening narrative.

"In any event, in Empowered at least, I do rather enjoy being able to divert a seemingly whimsical superhero story into the realm of the shocking and horrific at a moment’s notice," Warren said. "Whatever the inherent flaws of the “cape comic,” IMHO few other genres are quite as flexible and protean in terms of easy cross-pollination with themes of horror, humor, science fiction, romance, satire, social commentary, and so."

While High School Hell is a miniseries, fans can still expect some elements to follow the characters forward, and hopefully, that will include more teamwork between Emp and Spooky.

"Even though they’re technically no longer teammates—as Spooky quit the Superhomeys team, which Emp still belongs to—the events later on High School Hell depict our formerly fractious heroines displaying genuine teamwork for arguably the first time in their superheroic careers," Warren said. "Yay, “sisterhoodiness,” more or less? This shift in both their personal and professional relationship should make for some interesting story fodder down the road, I think."

Not only that, but Warren teases a big game changer coming out this series, one that will be felt in future volumes.

"Beyond that, though, lemme wax “teaser-iffic” to declare that something happening at the end of the miniseries will eventually have a very significant long-term effect on Emp, though I won’t be able to explore this point in detail until Empowered vol.12 at the earliest," Warren teased. "(Note, unfortunately, that I still have a long way to go before finishing Empowered vol.11, so this exploration won’t be occurring for quite some time yet.)"

You can join in on Emp and Spooky's latest adventure when Empowered & Sistah Spooky's High School Hell hits stores this Wednesday, December 20.