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“It’s a God Serial Killer” — Powers Volume III

In Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s phenomenal comic book series, Powers, homicide detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim investigate murder cases involving super-heroes and super-villains.  That simple hook — of what it would be like to be a homicide detective in a world with super-powers — has provided the juice for well over a decade’s worth of phenomenal comic book story-telling.  A few years back, when Volume III of the series launched, I decided to go back and re-read the entire series from the beginning.  Click here for my overview of Powers, and click here for my comments on Volume I and Volume II of the series.

Powers Volume III lasted eleven issues, published between 2009 and 2011.  Unfortunately, Volume III was plagued by the same publication delays that Volume II suffered from during the later part of its run.  That made it hard for the stories of Volume III to gain momentum, at least for me, though in re-reading the issues all together now I found myself looking back far more favorably at Powers Volume III.  Over-all, Volume III has a lot of great story-telling, though at such a short length (just eleven issues) it winds up feeling less complete than the previous two volumes.

At the start of Volume III, Detective Walker’s long-time partner, Deena Pilgrim, has left the police force and vanished to parts unknown.  Walker has been paired up with a new partner, Detective Enki Sunrise.  Detective Sunrise had previously investigated Walker for Internal Affairs, under the suspicion that he secretly had powers.  Indeed, Walker once was the super-hero known as Diamond, though he lost his powers before the events at the start of the series.  However, unbeknownst to anyone (but, to borrow a Mel Brooksian phrase, knownst to us), Walker once again has powers, having been given the mantle of the Millennium Guard at the end of Volume II, the secret cosmic protector of the entire planet.

The first story-line in volume III, “Z,” runs from issues #1-4.  As I wrote in my closing comments upon re-reading the series a few years ago, those early issues of Volume III don’t click for me.  The story-line focuses on Walker’s adventures as a super-hero in WWII, and then the “Rat Pack” type of gang that he and a bunch of other WWII super-heroes formed.  The idea is that, feeling pretty high on what they had accomplished in winning the war, this super-hero Rat Pack became quite a bunch of punks in the ’50s, arrogantly feeling like the world should be their oyster.  It’s hard not to love the Walker-versus-giant-Nazi-robot sequence in issue #2, and the idea of a super-hero Rat Pack is an intriguing one, but this characterization of Walker as a prick in the ’50s never sat that well with me.  We’ve seen the long-lived Walker, over the run of the series, in various incarnations since pretty much the dawn of man.  And while he has never been perfect, Walker has always for the most part seemed to be a decently noble fellow.  So seeing Walker as an arrogant asshole in the ’50s in issue #1 or as a baby-killing zealot in the medieval flashback at the start of issue #2 seemed out of character to me with the Walker we have been getting to know since the start of the series.  I can understand the idea that Walker’s character has changed over time, but since we’ve seen him being super-heroic throughout the ages (particularly in the centuries-spanning “Forever” arc at the end of Powers Volume I) it seemed weird to me that suddenly, for a decade in the ’50s, Walker would become a jerk.

The modern-day story was more compelling.  One of Walker’s Rat Pack buddies is found murdered, and Walker and Sunrise find themselves drawn into a fierce mother-daughter conflict in a mob family, leading to a terrific, violent car-chase-with-super-powers sequence in issue #3.  But over-all, that first story-arc was a low point for Powers in my opinion.  My objections to the story, paired with a newly loose, messy style for Mr. Oeming’s artwork equaled an arc that didn’t work for me.  I commented about this in my previous Powers post, but while I had heretofore always enjoyed Mr. Oeming’s experimentations with his style and approach, the artwork in those first four issues of Powers Volume III seemed very rushed and unfinished to me.  Take a look at the figures in the sewer chase in issue #3, as an example, and see how out-of-proportion and barely sketched in they are.  The double-page spread towards the very end of the issue (in which Sunrise says “Lady, you do this, you can’t ever take it back”) looks to me like a sketch for a page, rather than a finished page itself.

Things pick up in issues #5 and #6, two fairly self-contained stories.  In issue #5, Walker deals with getting dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Heather, by falling into a drunken stupor, while meanwhile we see Heather’s horrifying glimpse at her own death and a cataclysmic event that will befall Walker in the future.  Not only is Mr. Oeming’s artwork totally back on track in this issue — his double-page spread at the end, of Walker looking out over the destroyed city while several super-heroic characters are seen combatting an unknown enemy, is magnificent and a powerful return to form.  The story also seems back on track, where once more we seem to be seeing the Walker we know and love, dealing with a new upheaval in his life.  I also loved the glimpse into Enki Sunrise’s personal life.  In issue #6, we get the return of Calista (having adopted the super-heroic guise of Retro Girl in Volume II) and a great crazy super-powered battle between Walker (in his Millennium Guard guise) and the new Retro Girl and some big crazy aliens.  It’s great.

The end of issue #6 leads into the story-line, “Gods,” that would run until the end of Volume III with issue #11.  This is a far stronger story-line than the “Z” story that began Volume III.  In “Gods,” we are introduced to the idea that there exists in the Powers universe a certain group of super-powered beings who claim to be actual gods.  These characters are reminiscent of Thor and his fellow Asgardians from the Marvel universe, super-heroic characters who didn’t gain their super-powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider but rather have powers because they are or are descended from actual god-like deities (or at least, they claim to be).  Of course, because this is Powers, we meet these characters because someone seems to be killing them one-by-one, a “god serial killer.”

Not only is it great to see Walker and co. once again enmeshed in a really complex, gruesome murder case, but we also get the return, finally, of Walker’s original partner, Deena Pilgrim, now an agent of the F.B.I.  It’s great having Deena back in the mix, and her new role is a surprising turn but also a logical development for the character.  I love the new dynamic with Sunrise now also in the mix with her and Walker, and the way Deena playfully baits Sunrise is fun to watch (in issue #7 — “What was your name again, sweetie?”).  Walker and Deena’s little heart-to-heart in issue #8 (“You didn’t murder these guys just so we could hang out again, did ya?” “Wow, that is some dark shit, man.”) is fantastic, a terrific scene and a wonderful moment between these two characters.

As is often case for Powers and the end of one of its volumes, things get big and cosmic and crazy at the end, with a huge city-destroying super-powered throw-down in issue #11 and the death of a major character.  It’s great, gripping stuff, and read all together (as opposed to with the issues being doled out only a few a year, with long waits between each new installment) I think this story-arc ranks among one of Powers’ best.  (The villain’s monologue in issue #10 and explanation for why he had undertaken his horrific acts is powerful and haunting, one of the most emotionally affecting moments for me in the whole run of the series.)

I was a little hard, above, on Michael Avon Oeming’s art  in issues #1-4, but over-all his artwork is spectacular and I have nothing but praise for the incredible work he does in the series.  Mr. Oeming’s artwork has a simplified, cartoony look to it, but it is also gritty and dirty in a way that perfectly suits the world of Powers.  His artwork on the covers is magnificent, with the ‘Nam/Full Metal Jacket-inspired artwork on the cover of issue #2 and the Will Eisner/Joe Kubert-inspired artwork on the cover of issue #6 two highlights for me.  I also loved the title pages of each issue, in which the title Powers is somehow incorporated into the artwork.  Fantastic work, and very much a modern-day homage to the work Will Eisner did on The Spirit (click here and here for examples of Mr. Eisner’s work, and here and here for two of Mr. Oeming’s title pages).

My main complaint with Volume III is that the ending seems a little rushed, and so much is left unresolved.  After the Golden Ones’ mother wigs out at the end of issue #10, I am not entirely clear what happens to her or the rest of the Golden Ones, who apparently declare war on humanity.  We see Walker, Triphammer, and other super-heroes battling a super-powered creature in issue #11, but that doesn’t seem to be the mother — I’m not sure who that big green monster is supposed to be, or why his defeat means the mother or the other Golden Ones are no longer a threat.  More problematically, the return and then quick end to Heather seemed way too abrupt, and when the story catches up to her vision (from issue #5) it felt weirdly anticlimactic to me.  I guess I had expected more of a build-up to that moment, rather than having it suddenly dropped on us.  And why the inconsistencies with the moment as seen in issue#5?  Where is Walker’s sword?  Why does Walker seem calm and confident in issue #5 (saying “It’s Okay.  She saw me.  She told me what to do next.”) whereas when the moment arrives in issue #11 he seems lost and uncertain?

There are lots of other story threads left dangling by the end of Volume III.  Who sent the mob daughter Erika Broglia the note at the end of issue #4, and where is her story going?  Is Walker going to find out that Heather was pregnant?   What was that creepy bug doing attached to Callista (in issue #8) and will we see a follow-up to the signal it sent into space (I am assuming that was the same creature) in issue #9?  I hope these questions will be addressed in Powers Volume IV.

And, yes indeed, there is a Powers Volume IV: now titled Powers: Bureau.  So far, three issues of this new volume of Powers have been released, and they have been terrific.  I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.  I hope Mr. Bendis and Mr. Oeming are able to maintain a regular publishing schedule, and I also hope against hope that the long-in-development Powers TV show on FX goes to series!  That would be awesome.

For now, let me just once again highly recommend Powers, this unique and wonderful comic book series.  Powers Volume III has been collected in two editions: “Z” and “Gods.”  For newbies interested in Powers, I suggest you start at the beginning with the first collection from Volume I: “Who Killed Retro Girl?” or just go all in for the first hardcover collection of the first three story-lines.

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