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Kaotic Chic: Continuing My Look Back at Powers!

May 20th, 2010

Yesterday I began writing about the terrific comic book series Powers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming.  I’ve had great fun, over the past few weeks, re-reading the series since the very beginning.

Volume I:

I have no idea what prompted me to pick up issue 1 of Powers ten years ago.  I think I might have previously read a collection of Mr. Bendis’ series Jinx, and maybe I recognized his name on the comic.  Or maybe it was the dynamic, eye-catching cover by Mr. Oeming.  Either way, I have a distinct memory of reading the first issue while sitting and waiting at my barber shop, and being completely blown away by this exciting, dynamic new type of comic book.

It was a kick to go back and re-read those early issues, now a decade later.  They hold up remarkably well.  It’s clear, right from the beginning, that Bendis and Oeming were a powerhouse team, and that they had seized on a really unique, engaging concept for a series.  But it’s also fascinating to see how dramatically both men’s styles have changed over the years.  The early issues are VERY dialogue-heavy.  Mr. Bendis has always been known (and rightly so) for his dialogue, and it is very common for him to cram far more dialogue into one of his issues than can be found in most comic books.  However, the early issues or Powers are literally drowning in word balloons.  Now, that’s not a criticism.  The dialogue is phenomenal, and is a huge part of what gave Powers its distinct feel.  But as the decade has passed I think Mr. Bendis has grown a lot more confident in his collaboration with Mr. Oeming, and more willing to let the images stand on their own to tell the story.  It’s also interesting to see Mr. Bendis’ reliance, in those early issues, on incorporating a lot of police lingo into the dialogue, without any explanations as to what the terms mean.  I remember noticing that right away when first reading issue one.  I thought it was cool, and that it helped with the you-are-there sort of realism that Mr. Bendis was trying to create with his stories.  I think it is another mark of Mr. Bendis’ growing confidence in his skills, and in the series, though, that those sort of things faded away as the series progressed.

Mr. Oeming’s drawing style was also quite different, back in those early issues.  It’s neat to look back and see him experimenting with his page lay-outs (using multiple panels, large blocks of black space, etc.), and even more-so with the way he drew characters and especially faces.  One can see his Powers style coming together in the early going.  It’s a testament to his skill and talents as an artist that Mr. Oeming has continued to experiment, and to tweak his style, as the series has progressed.

There are a lot of highlights in volume I of Powers (issues #1-37, published between 2000 and 2004).  The original Who Killed Retro Girl? arc (issues #1-6) kicks the series off in style, and really sets the style and tone for the book.  Issue #7 is a great one-issue story (a rarity for Powers) in which something really really horrible happens to comic book writer Warren Ellis.  Issue #18 was the first (of many) times that the roof was totally blown off the series.  It’s carnage on a super-heroic scale, and this is the issue that really showed me (and everyone else!) that Mr. Oeming could pretty much draw the fuck out of just about anything.  (Sorry for the bad language — I’m writing about Powers, I can’t help it!)

But, for me, the stand-out story from volume I is the “Forever” arc that closed out the volume — issues #31-37.  These seven issues span all of human history.  They peel back the layers of Christian Walker’s life and tell the secret origin of the Powers universe.  To call this story epic would be an understatement.  This arc also contains the infamous monkey-fucking issue (#31), which really cannot be described in words.  There’s never been an issue of a comic book quite like it, and I feel safe in saying that there probably never will be.

Volume II:

After the “Forever” arc, Powers went on hiatus for a little while and then re-launched as volume II.  The series also switched publishers — while volume I was published by Image Comics, volume II (and volume III) were published by the Icon imprint of Marvel Comics.  Volume II consisted of issues #1-30, published from 2004-2008.

Over the years I’d gone back and re-read the issues of volume I a number of times — but most of the issues of volume II I’d only read once, as they were originally published, so it was a lot of fun to revisit these stories.  I really didn’t remember most of these issues all that well, and I was pleasantly surprised by the richness of the story-telling.  (Frankly, my memories of volume II were colored — and not favorably so — by the series’ increasingly erratic shipping schedule as the volume progressed.)

While volume I focused on Christian Walker (and culminated in an epic re-telling of his origin in “Forever”), volume II put the focus squarely on Deena Pilgrim.  The spunky detective goes through some tough, tough times, and it is relentlessly compelling to watch her go further and further down the rabbit hole with each issue.  By issue #11, when Deena does something really, really bad (and Mr. Bendis opens the letters column by declaring “Shit!  We wrote ourselves into a hole this time, didn’t we??”) it was clear that this series was descending into territory rarely covered by mainstream comic books, and that there weren’t going to be any easy solutions for detectives Walker and Pilgrim.

Highlights of volume II include issue #2, that brings back a character from the very first issue of volume I in spectacular fashion; and the afore-mentioned issue #11, an almost dialogue-free issue in which Deena crosses a line you never thought she would cross.  I absolutely adore the “Cosmic” arc (issues 13-18), in which the universe of the series expands even further.  I loved the introduction of the Millennium, and the introduction of Heather Anderson, and I thought that the stand-up comedy framing device was really clever.  The final arc of volume II, “The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time” (issues 25-30) is, like “Forever,” a show-stopper.  For that arc, the series expanded to a new format in which most issues had about 40 pages, and each successive issue seemed even more intense and boundary-pushing than the next.  Many long-running story-lines came to a head (including one of the mysteries of the series raised way back at the very beginning of volume I) and, once again, the series’ status-quo changed dramatically.  This arc’s combination of earth-shattering super-heroics with intense, character-driven drama encapsulates everything I love about the series.

Volume III

After the publication of issue #30, the series again went on hiatus so that the team could get the book back on a regular publishing schedule.  Issue #1 came out a few months ago, and so far 4 issues have been published.  Volume III is off to a bit of a shaky start, though.  Mr. Oeming has altered his style yet again, but I must say that I’m not caring that much for his new, looser style.  Characters seem to be drawn differently from panel to panel, and sometimes are oversimplified to the point of grotesquery.  (As an example take a look at issue #4, pg 19, panel 1.  Walker is on the roof with his arms spread wide — but look at the ridiculous shape of his arms and hands.)  I’m also not connecting that strongly to the new story-arc.  The idea that there was a Rat-Pack-like group of superheroes back in the ’60s is a neat idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  I think the depiction of Walker in the ’60s is very out-of-character with the Walker we’ve known.

But despite those concerns, I have been such an enormous fan of the series to this point, that Mr. Bendis & Mr. Oeming have certainly earned my faith and my trust.  There is no doubt that I’m on-board to see where volume III takes us.

It was GREAT fun re-reading this whole saga from the beginning, and it’s really exciting that the story isn’t nearly over yet.  Powers is one of the great comic books out there — check it out.

UPDATE:  Click here for my detailed thoughts on Powers Volume III.

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