Powers is the story of Deena Pilgrim and Christian Walker, two police officers forced to contend with crime in a world filled with superpowers. The series and its characters have evolved a great deal in the 4 volumes and 84 issues since Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming debuted the series in 2000. The characters in Powers #1 (the debut of the fifth volume) are almost unrecognizable from their counterparts in the very first issue 15 years ago.
The publication of a new #1 makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective though. The adaptation of Powers to television on the PlayStation Network debuts in less than 7 weeks on Tuesday, March 10. It’s the perfect opportunity to offer a new starting point to entice the elusive creature known as the new reader, attempting to lure comics fans interested by the TV series and TV fans interested by the comic.
That strategy creates two distinct ways in which Powers #1 is meant to function, and therefore two distinct levels on which to assess its success or failure. While it’s labelled as a #1, I wouldn’t possibly consider giving the same recommendation or thoughts to a new reader as I would someone familiar with the series. It’s better to examine these two goals separately rather than amalgamate them into a Frankenstein’s monster of comics criticism.
For those familiar with Powers, whether they have read every issue or lapsed in readership, Powers #1 makes for a nice palate cleanser. There’s a palpable sense of history in these pages with references to the President, a book deal, and ominous lurking threats. It’s all part of the cohesive history of long form storytelling. Deena has lived an eventful life and the effects of those events pile up. This is a relatively fresh start though. She is in a familiar position and is presented with an almost entirely blank slate of current challenges.
That blank slate doesn’t last for long; Bendis and Oeming heap two hefty new problems onto Deena’s plate. First, there is the mass proliferation of powers presented by Oeming in the form of a pin-up board coated with photos. People are gaining powers at an increasing rate and the reason is unclear. This is background for the central case introduced in Powers #1. In a frightening sequence, Oeming shows a ship filled with wealthy revelers slaughtered by an unknown power. It’s a bloodbath, one with significant political implications, and it’s up to Deena to solve it.
As fascinating as the case and world around it are, the real winner of Powers #1 is the character work. Bendis has always written his detectives and their support with distinct personalities, and they all shine through here. Most of the issue centers on Deena providing plenty of opportunities for her sarcasm, gallows humor, and complete lack of patience to play off of her surroundings. It’s a joy to watch her strut through these scenes as a master of her work with confidence to spare. Bendis provides plenty of small opportunities for the supporting cast to reveal themselves as well, using only a page or two to capably establish status quo, relationships, and personality.
His tendency to overwrite does wonder into a few sequences. The repartee between Deena and her colleagues often has them say the same thing in different words or return to an established point. The dialogue is anything but sparse, filling Oeming’s panels with massive word balloons on multiple pages.
While Powers #1 is a fine palate cleanser and re-introduction for readers familiar with the series, it’s a different story altogether for new readers. The cover itself is misleading and almost dishonest. It presents Deena and Christian as police and partners working together like in the original Powers #1 and the TV series. Nothing in this issue reflects that image.
There are lots of references to the history of the series here. An early sequence relies entirely on an awareness of Deena’s past and what might frighten her. Without that context, the sequence is rendered almost unreadable. While most sequences still function without understanding every reference, there are so many references that they become a barrier to anyone unfamiliar with the series. The central problems of the issue are a great starting point, but their presentation relies on a knowledge of outside forces that are not introduced here. The final page is cast as a cliffhanger and will be for longtime readers. For anyone picking up Powers for the first time, it will land with a thud.
The introduction of the cast is much more effective for the most part. Bendis and Oeming craft brief sequences for the supporting cast that express a range of personality within each of them. Detective Sunrise and Dr. Marrs are both given opportunities to become full characters in the course of only a few pages. The sequence in which Dr. Marrs is shown examining the maritime crime scene is an outstanding example of character work. Bendis bounces her off of Deena, revealing her enthusiasm for her job, experience at crime scenes, keen mind, and bubbly personality. Oeming highlights her transformations during the conversation with big, bright smiles and a puzzled brow. He composes her as a highly expressive character and shows the reader what Dr. Marrs is like.
The consistent component between both of these perspectives is Oeming’s art. He is as good as ever and Powers #1 is a welcome return to his draftsmanship after The United States of Murder Inc. went on hiatus in September. Oeming’s minimalist style is all about creating the maximum amount of meaning with each line. His characters bodies are shaped with relatively few lines and curves, each of them strongly drawn. Faces are reduced to their essential components. All of these elements are used purposefully in each panel though. Simply observing Deena Pilgrim throughout Powers #1, it is possible to perceive her position and attitude in each panel without even acknowledging dialogue.
Oeming adds a lot of character to the world of Powers as well in this issue. The pin-up board of new powers is a fun revelation, but nowhere near as intriguing as a two-page spread that shows Pilgrim and Sunrise walking through their station. Their journey reveals a police unit alive with activity, both serious and humorous. He includes cameos of characters from other comics as well as insight into how police work is conducted in this story. It is a perfect example of world building, taking advantage of the background to show readers what a place is like.
So what is the final verdict on Powers #1? For those familiar with the series, it’s a fine new installment. The case and the cliffhanger are both very promising, and it is always a pleasure to see Deena Pilgrim in action. However, as a #1 targeted at new readers, it fails to introduce the world in a satisfactory manner. Some fans of the upcoming PSN show may seek out this issue, but they won’t return for #2.
Grade: B+ (as a new issue of Powers), C- (as an introduction to the series)