Man, Superman & Policeman

The comic-noir of Powers

In early 1960’s New York, a 40-year-old comic book writer who had shortened his name from Stanley Lieber to Stan Lee was given free rein to do what he wished with a couple of dying titles. Lee, remarkably financially savvy and keenly attuned to marketing trends, was also as artistically daring as it was possible to be in the straitjacketed world of comics. He took a chance on two of his pet ideas: first, that the demographic content of his readership had shifted from children to teenagers, and that the emerging adolescent youth culture that made rock ’n’ roll into a phenomenon had a lot more purchasing power than the kids who were still thought to be the primary audience for funnybooks; and second, that the kinds of teenagers who were buying them weren’t exactly the big men on campus, but rather nerdy and awkward social misfits who might like to see characters more like themselves than the flawless alpha males normally featured in comics.

Lee’s gambles turned out to have enormous payoffs; he was dead right on both counts. The titles he created, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (to be followed by other hugely successful titles in the same vein, particularly The Incredible Hulk), made him a fortune, gave comic books a legitimacy they’d never had, and simultaneously squeezed almost all non-superhero titles out of the market while precipitating an noticeable increase in the quality of those titles that remained. By creating heroes with flaws, emotional issues and realistic problems — like a teenager who, as Spider-Man, possessed incredible superhuman gifts, but who as Peter Parker, was mocked and belittled by his peers and had to struggle to help support his family — Lee forced the genre to move from childhood to adolescence, from the depths of juvenilia to the cusp of maturity.

Unfortunately, that’s where they stayed for the next 25 years. It took almost four decades for superhero comics to go from childish wish fulfillment to adolescent power fantasy, but once they got there, they seemed to bog down, to stall. The medium seemed unable (or unwilling) to move forward to the next step of adult self-examination, and indeed, became so samey, so stagnant that one would have been hard-pressed to find an art form less willing to indulge in reflexivity or critical analysis.

Finally, in the mid-1980s, a group of comic writers who had been raised reading titles created by the former Stanley Lieber got their feet in the door at Marvel and (especially) DC, the two biggest comic book companies. Restless, reflective and experimental, these writers — who were overwhelmingly English; perhaps their exotic otherness made the staid publishers more willing to take a chance with them — were led by the legendary Alan Moore. His Marvelman/Miracleman series and, later, his Watchmen mini for DC seemed at first to represent the kind of quantum leap that Stan Lee had made. His books were adult, intelligent, and above all, self-analytical. They took superhero comics out of the vacuum in which they lived and forced them to occupy space in the real world; they dared readers to contemplate the existence of miracle men in a society that wasn’t prepared for miracles, of godlike women with all too human psychologies. And yet, something went wrong: the second Great Leap Forward never happened. Unlike Stan Lee, who spawned legions of imitators and forced comics to change to keep up with him, Alan Moore became a critic’s darling, but for the most part, comics remained the same for two decades. The medium, as a whole, was altogether unwilling to accept the challenge his books represented, and even to this day, a superhero title that’s willing to consider its own implications is as rare as a seven-leaf clover.

Powers is one of them.

Created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming, Powers debuted in 2000 for Image Comics, the influential creator-owned publishing company. Bendis, already one of the hottest writers in the medium due to his gritty noir graphic novels Jinx and Torso, was taking a shot at writing the superhero comics he’d grown up on while retaining the hardboiled sensibilities that had made him famous. By 2003, Bendis would become the best-known comic writer in the world. His work on huge-selling Marvel Comics properties like Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man, along with his work marketing and selling the screen rights to his own books, has made him wealthy, and his rigorous work ethic has led to his becoming one of the most prolific authors in the business. But Powers — which remained a marginal title, selling adequately but not spectacularly — is by far his best work to date. Almost everyone who reads it recognizes its, if not consistent excellence, at least sporadic brilliance and remarkable ambition. Alan Moore had carried a battle flag into the breach. Brian Michael Bendis might not have been able to keep up with it, but at the very least, he broke ranks and gave it a try.

Powers tells the story of Detective Christian Walker, a quietly effective homicide detective specializing in cases involving superhuman activity. He is assigned a new partner, the impetuous and inquisitive Deena Pilgrim. She soon discovers that Walker was once a superhero himself, marking the beginning, rather than the ending, of the series. The further they progress into the world of costumed super-powers (investigating, among other things, the murder of one of the most respected heroines in the country, a gang of politically motivated killers who butcher super-humans as a concrete protest against their very existence and a government conspiracy involving a high-level super-team), the more Pilgrim realizes the level of her partner’s involvement in this world she can never understand, and the more Walker recognizes that he can never escape that world, even though his powers are long gone.

Brian Michael Bendis is a relentless self-publicist and a fast talker (the letters column in the comic alternates between his hilarious ramblings and his flagrant insults of his readership), and he wears his influences all up and down his sleeve. One of the most outstanding and noteworthy characteristics of Powers during its finest moments is its rapid-fire and modern-noir dialogue, an aspect Bendis happily admits he cribbed wholesale from the TV drama “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” He’s also, for all his profligacy, quite keen on recycling. So successful was his deft blend of the police procedural and superhero genres that it appeared again in his popular Marvel title Alias (which, though it has a higher profile, doesn’t quite achieve the peaks that he manages in Powers). In Michael Avon Oeming, he has a partner who, if he doesn’t always match the style precisely — Oeming clearly loves big dynamic splash pages, and it must be agony for him to frame some of Bendis’ lengthy talking-heads sequences — at least understands where it’s going and is sympathetic with its viewpoint. Oeming is an excellent craftsman who’s improved tremendously since the early days of the title, and his cartoony, animation-influenced style suits the crime-drama tone of the book far better than might be expected.

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The strengths of Powers are many: its art is a pleasure to look at, its dialogue is incredibly snappy and well-written, it moves along at a rapid pace (though this can occasionally be a weakness), it expertly combines genres and influences, it has characters you believe in and care about, and, most of all, it has not only the ambition to ask the big questions but also the confidence to at least try and answer them. The fact that it fails to do so satisfactorily is a strike against it, but very few titles even bother to make the effort, so in the final analysis, Powers comes out ahead. What happens when you take a world almost exactly like ours and put superheroes in it? How does society and the law respond to their existence? How do superhumans relate to one another, and to us? What happens if someone with the powers of a god goes insane one day? And how do those who will never have incredible powers view those who do? Powers isn’t afraid to ask those questions, and to do so with huge amounts of style and a surprisingly subtle sense of humor.

The weaknesses of the title, on the other hand, are fewer, but they’re significant. First, Powers is curiously apolitical, and when one considers that the existence of supermen would have just as great an effect on politics as it would on the legal and social system, this is a difficult exclusion to overlook. Second, its reach tends to exceed its grasp: its ambition to ask the big questions isn’t always matched by its ability to answer them. And, like so many genre titles before it both good and bad, it’s plagued by the hell of rising expectations. Continually trying to one-up himself and wow his readership with bigger and better things, in the later issues of the series, Bendis engages in some historical epic-spinning and faux-cosmic plot twists that, while widely acclaimed and fairly entertaining, take the focus away from the social themes and the noirish tone that made the book great in the first place.

The final issue of the current incarnation of Powers (#38) was published in May. (The previous issues are most easily acquired by buying the six trade paperbacks that collect them: in order, they are Who Killed Retro Girl?, Roleplay, Little Deaths, Supergroup, Anarchy, and The Sellouts. A seventh, on the way, will collect the final story arc.) The current storyline took the book far afield from its origins as a super-powered police procedural with its roots in hard-boiled TV crime drama. Following a plot arc that saw a number of cities annihilated by a rogue superhero, a total ban on superhuman activity by the President of the United States, and Deena Pilgrim in a months-long coma, the final issues featured a tour through the confused and difficult history of super-humanity which, while often morally complex and interesting, and featuring fine art by Oeming, seemed to have wandered in from a different book than the earlier, better Powers stories. (It also began with the wordless tale of a group of prehistoric superhuman ape-men, a daring but failed experiment which became notorious for its rather prolonged sequences of monkey masturbation and copulation.)

After the final issue, Bendis and Oeming will reboot the series with Powers Volume 2, which promises both a fresh approach and the return of Deena Pilgrim. Time will tell if they’re able to pull away from the brink to which excess and overreaching ambition brought them, or if they’ll return to the earlier and more focused days of the series, but if they can’t, they will at least have created 30 excellent issues of a superhero comic that tried to move the genre forward, and to take it places it has been long overdue to reach.