Scheme Team Review: Powers

With the recent announcement that Sony will be producing television for the Playstation, we’ll take a look at the comic that inspired it. Powers  is written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Oeming. This review will cover the first six issues, “Who Killed Retro Girl?”

Andy: The premise of Powers is standard police procedural, but set in a world brimming with super powers. Detectives Deena Pilgrim and Christian Walker investigate the apparent murder of noted super heroine Retro Girl. Focusing on the un-powered police force gives the story a hardboiled feel, rather than the typically over-dramatic super hero tale.

Michael Oeming draws the book in a contemporary animation style that calls to mind Bruce Timm and Alex Toth. Men all have massive square jaws and women have impossibly hour-glassed torsos. Its a tried and true style, and for the most part it works quite well. Oeming does land more towards the cartoonish side at times, which undercuts a few of the more serious moments, but truthfully this is rare.

Bendis and Oeming have come up with quite a few interesting layouts. They make frequent use of tightly spaced grids. (Which in a couple cases showcase some excellent parody superhero character design.) They also aren’t afraid of negative space — some pages are almost entirely gutter. Bendis, though, is a wordy writer. He loves dialogue and snappy banter, but I found the speech balloons to be very intrusive, often covering secondary characters’ faces.

Overall though, along with Pat Garrahy coloring, they provide an attractive book. What’d you think, Eric? This is considered one of the classic comic works from this century — it won an Eisner and inspired a host of similar works.


Eric: There’s a lot to discuss here, but I think the obvious starting point would be the negative space. My favorite 2-page spread is one where over half of the area is just a pure black mass, leaving a handful of small panels to form an “L” shape around the void. Combined with those massive and rock-solid jaws it was like sitting in the middle of an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which I’m prepared to call a good thing. In other layout news, I found a lot of the panels in the earlier issues to be too tight for their own good, a problem no doubt exacerbated by the need to fit a considerable chunk of dialogue into some of them. Later issues seemed to hit their layout stride, though, and I found myself really breezing through the back end of this volume.

It’s fitting that this story focuses on a character called Retro Girl because there’s something very old-fashioned about Powers. A lot of dialogue and exposition is, despite Bendis’ best efforts to obfuscate conversations with snark and interruptions, a combination of wordiness and directness that feels pulled from comics’ formative years. And while this may be the product of reading it in 2014, superpowers and police procedurals feel like two things pulled from a hat full of tired ideas. However, I agree with you that those two pieces are played off of each other in an interesting and unique fashion that felt to me like something between Batman, which also tends to mix superheroics with old-fashioned detective work, and Watchmen, which examines the inevitable cracks that form in a society full of costumed do-gooders.

Some of what helps Powers navigate this familiar ground is a bit of self awareness. I’m glad that Deena points out the fact that she permanently walks around (as a detective, mind you) with her midriff exposed because it at least shows that Bendis and Oeming know that it’s an impractical and nonsensical costuming choice. Some references to well-known comic properties, including a man in red power armor which is, as is explained in great detail, composed of iron of some sort, also help back Powers off the edge of taking itself too seriously. And sometimes that’s enough to get me to forgive its excessive dialoguing (or, even worse, soliliquizing) and stock charactersOther times, though, I’m getting info dump through news report and thinking that Powers, while a good read that I will recommend, is not the most carefully crafted book out there. It works. I like it. I’ll be reading the next volume shortly, and I can definitely see how someone would look at Powers’ mix of easily identifiable themes and striking visuals and say “how do we get this on a TV-like thing?” because it certainly has mass appeal.


powers 1

Black is the new black.


Andy: I think its important that you bring up the fact that this reads differently now than it did when published. It was less than 15 years ago, but you’re absolutely correct that this makes a big difference. When this book came out it actually felt pretty fresh. It think that the wider television world is primed for this kind of reading. Between the massive superhero blockbusters, Heroes, and Alphas, American cinema has just about saturated itself with stories that feature superpowers. Its probably the right time to feature something that takes a different point of view.

I also think that the primary weakness of the book is Bendis’ wordiness. Its a problem that infects most of his other writing. (And has been endlessly frustrating in his current work on X-Men.) It actually is at its most effective here, in a procedural, since we aren’t expecting fist fights every few pages.

It raises the question of what words are necessary. Obviously dialogue that announces what’s already on the page is no good. But in the past 30 years thought balloons and captions have also fallen out of favor. Both style have their benefits, but are prone to overuse by writers like Bendis.


Eric: So that’s that; the Scheme Team endorses the first volume of Powers. I’m interested to see what kind of television gets created with Powers as the driving force, as it’s a property which, as you mentioned, is not rife with fist fights and other things that the masses might expect from a comic book.

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