New and exciting ideas often come from jamming old ones together. That’s certainly the case for Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s long running comic series Powers.
At first glance, Powers is a classic case of bolting the police procedural onto another genre. Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are homicide detectives with an unusual beat. All their cases relate to superpowered people, and in a setting where superheroes are celebrities, that leads to some big cases. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a murder of the week show. But Powers is so much more than that.
Unlike many detective stories, Powers is character driven. The personalities of the detectives and the people around them are vital to the plot. Each case changes them as people, and changes their relationships.
Powers looks at how investigating grizzly murders in a high pressure department affects people. It also looks at how living with superheroes affects them. How does it change a person to lose the memories of their past, accidentally rip off someone’s arm, or find out that the person they work with can leap tall buildings in a single bound?
These are characters rooted in their world, and all the more compelling for it.
Go do an image search for ‘Powers comic’ and you’ll quickly see why I’m taken by the art of this book. It’s dark and stylish. Human shapes are exaggerated in characterful, interesting ways. It’s full of the distorted light and falling rain of film noire.
On top of that, Oeming plays around with page layouts just enough to be interesting but not so much that it’s distracting. This is a part of comics art that’s often neglected, but can make a huge impact.
I don’t know much about art, but I like to see interesting things done with any medium, and this is interesting.
It Doesn’t Sit Still
As I mentioned in discussing characters, this is a book where people change, as does the world around them. Every story arc brings some significant shift in the lives of the characters. The scale of change varies, from romantic entanglements to attacks that kill thousands of people and traumatise the world. This is how the story avoids becoming case of the month detective fare. These cases take place against a backdrop of changing lives.
Beware the Darkness
But all the reasons why I love this book are also the reasons why it’s not going to be for everyone. It’s a darker, more troubling book than the setup and those cartoonish characters make it appear. Hugely influenced by David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, this is a dark depiction of both crime and policing.
The characters are interesting, but not always likeable. The art can be dark to the point of grim. The upheavals of the story can be deeply unsettling, especially if you become attached to the characters. Being left in suspense for eleven volumes over whether a lead character committed a murder, that’s a level of tension that can be hard to take.
Powers is a daring and fascinating comic book. If you like superhero stories or The Wire then you should consider giving it a go. If you like both then you should rush out and grab a copy now. But if you like things safe and easy, this probably isn’t the comic for you.
Now excuse me, but having read fourteen volumes in two weeks, I need to curl up somewhere safe and warm for a little while.
Then I’ll go out and buy the next volume.