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Powers

May 19th, 2010

Detective Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim investigate homicides that involve super-powered individuals.  But what does it mean to be a cop in a city filled with super-heroes?

That is the deceptively simple premise for Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming’s comic book series Powers.  With the series celebrating a decade of its existence, and just a few months ago beginning to release volume III of its run, I thought it would be fun to re-read the entire series from the beginning.  I’ve been reading the series since the release of issue 1 back in 2000, and it has remained one of my favorite comics throughout that time.

Brian Michael Bendis has found great success writing and drawing a number of black-and-white crime books (Jinx, Goldfish, Torso) and also, over the past ten years, writing mainstream super-heroes for Marvel Comics, where he has become one of their pre-eminent authors guiding Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers franchise (among others).  But, to me, Powers remains his most potent creation.  This fusion of street-level noir, crime stories with a world filled with super-heroes has proven to be an incredibly elastic concept through which Mr. Bendis & Mr. Oeming have been able to tell all sorts of stories over the past decade of the series.

There are few writers working in comics — or, frankly, in any artistic field — who can equal Mr. Bendis’ facility with dialogue.  This man can capture the way people really speak, and right from the beginning this enabled him to draw the reader into the world of homicide detectives.  This realism provides a key counterpoint to the idea that these detectives work in a city where super-heroes and super-villains live and fight — it grounds the series, and the characters.  Mr. Bendis has also never been afraid to push the boundaries of what can be done in a creator-owned work.  Powers is profane, and it is violent.  Characters have sex, and characters are brutally murdered.  But it’s rare that any of that feels indulgent.  It’s all part of Mr. Bendis and Mr. Oeming’s creation of a universe that feels “real” — where serious shit can and often does go down.  In that vein, the two men aren’t afraid to turn over the apple-cart of their series.  In a mainstream Marvel or DC book, creators are obligated to, for the most part, maintain the series’ over-all status quo.  Not so in a creator-owned book like Powers, and Mr. Bendis and Mr. Oeming really push that freedom to its limit.  The series has changed direction WILDLY at several points, so far, in its run, and quite a few of the original cast of characters are not longer to be counted among the living.

Mr. Oeming’s simplified drawing style might, at first glance, feel like a bizarre match for Mr. Bendis’ noirish street-level stories.  But I think it’s clear to anyone who reads even a single issue of Powers that Mr. Oeming’s style is, in fact, perfect for the series.  He has created a distinct visual style for Powers that separates it from all the other books on the shelves.  He’s a tremendous story-teller.  With just a few lines or shapes, Mr. Oeming can create a whole world for his characters to inhabit.  And speaking of his characters, he designs phenomenal, distinct characters.  There’s never any confusion of who’s who in a page by Mr. Oeming!  Oeming is a unique talent, and it’s thrilling to see such a distinct style — so different from what one would see in most Marvel or DC books — utilized by a mainstream comic series.

One of the best parts of Powers — and this has been the case since its very first issue — is the letters page(s).  A letters page used to be found in the back of every comic book published, but these days the internet has rendered letters pages virtually extinct.  But in Powers, not only do most issues include pages of letters, but those letters pages are sometimes the most entertaining part of the book!  Mr. Bendis’ snarky, obnoxious, hilarious answers to the array of weirder-than-weird letters that he prints are a riot.   He also reprints all sorts of other fascinating materials such as Q & A’s with the book’s creative team or interesting threads from his message boards.  Then there’s the “No Life” section, in which Mr. Bendis waxes poetic about the movies, TV shows, music, video games, etc. that he’s loving that month.  These letters pages are classic, and serve to make each issue of Powers feel like a unique, complete package, with so much more to offer than just the comic book story itself.

The newly-begun volume three of the series (which re-launched with a new issue #1 — and issue # 4 was published as of this writing) is a nice place for new readers to jump on — but my recommendation would be to go back to the beginning and pick up the Who Killed Retro Girl? trade, which collects the series’ first six issues.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more thoughts upon my re-reading of the entire series!

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