Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 24 (2/27) -- Powers: Cosmic by Bendis and Oeming

There's very little in the world of modern comics that can compare to Powers as an object lesson in the corrosiveness of sensation. This series -- written by a then-up-and-coming Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming -- began in 2000 with a simple, flexible premise: the work of ordinary, normal police detectives in a world where superbeings flew and fought. Of course, anyone who knows "superhero" comics at all could tell where that would have to lead eventually.

The first big reveal was that one of the two main characters -- square-jawed beefcake Detective Christian Walker -- had been a powered hero, but alas! he had lost his powers, in the kind of permanent event that lasts in most comics until the next big crossover.

Then the readers learned that Walker was not just a superhero, he was an immortal Eternal Champion-esque super-superhero, battling evil (or at least a guy with a red stripe in his hair) through the ages. Sure, everyone has hidden depths, but these were very particularly gimmicky mainstream comic-book hidden depths.

Through all that, Walker's diminutive partner Deena Pilgrim -- she's the "spitfire," with the spiky short hairdo to telegraph it -- was fully, almost stubbornly human, without any secret identities or mysterious parents who raised her with the secrets of the mystic Sh'a'titar martial arts. But then she had her own run-in with power -- as is all too typical for a female comics character, she was captured, raped, and dominated -- and she came out of it with...well, call it a spark. I'm sure Bendis would.

Along the way, the premise of Powers shifted by small degrees from "normal cops in a superhero world" to something like "every protagonist of a comic book will eventually develop superpowers," which is much less interesting and novel. And Cosmic -- the tenth collection of the series -- completes the process, turning Walker into this world's cheap rip-off of Green Lantern.

(This transition has been annoying me for some time, as you might glean from my reviews of volumes one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.)

Bendis and Oeming still do a lot of things right -- or do them distinctively and non-derivatively, which is more important -- so I'm able to swallow my bile at fucking immortal guardian-of-the-goddamn-galaxy Walker, but it's annoying to have such a big slab of standard superhero cheese in a comic that promised to be something more particular and real. (Of course, one could argue that Bendis is just substituting superhero cliches for crime-fiction cliches, as he's running out of the latter, and I have some sympathy for that point of view. But crime-fiction cliches are vastly more underused in comics to begin with, and give much more scope for stories we haven't seen in panel form before.) Bendis has settled down his dialogue from the clipped Mamet-isms of the early issues, and it sounds real and vital. Oeming can handle the big superhero freak-outs -- and there's a huge one smack-dab in the middle of this book -- but he's better at the smaller scenes of characters talking to or at each other, and there's still plenty of those.

Looking back on it, Cosmic doesn't have a strong plot of its own other than "Walker gets superpowers like we've all been hoping!!!!1!!!eleventy!!!" Pilgrim's actions in a previous collection are coming back to haunt her, in the form of a creepy Internal Affairs officer that Bendis and Oeming might be hinting has powers of her own. But the main plot here is: some superhero gets killed by accident, Walker gets his toys, the guy who accidentally killed him commits suicide, and a whole lot of background characters do stand-up non-comedy.

So Cosmic is a piece of middle, a slice of sausage from a continuing story, not something that stands on its own. That's not fatal -- certainly not in the world of mainstream comics, where nothing has been allowed to end for seventy years -- but it's another ding in a vehicle that once was so shiny and exciting. I imagine I'll see what happens next, since I'm still two collections behind, but I might have to bail on Powers if it turns into Walker fighting alien invaders while Pilgrim assassinates criminals and then feels bad about it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Harrisburg (solo acoustic)
via FoxyTunes

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