Monday, March 12, 2012

Great Superhero Read - Powers, Vol. 1

I first heard about Powers about a year ago, when it was optioned for TV. It looked like a cool series and I'd heard the author, Brian Michael Bendis, was fantastic, so I did some poking around for reviews then put it on my wishlist. I got the first omnibus for Christmas. I read it a month ago. I liked it enough to keep reading the series when the mood strikes me, but not quite enough to buy more volumes. This may not be the same for all readers, because I'm a) picky and b) cheap, and because this is without question a well-written story.

Powers Vol. 1 ("Who Killed Retro Girl?") is an enjoyable police procedural done in the noir vein. There's lots of swearing, lots of "telling it like it is", and lots of shadows. Someone's killed Retro Girl at an elementary school, and veteran Det. Christian Walker and newly-transferred Det. Deena Pilgrim, of the homicide squad for superheroes, are put on the case. The detecting itself will be familiar to anyone who watches crime dramas--they talk to superheroic contacts, they rule out a couple suspects, they're at wits' end, they have an epiphany--but I'm fine with that for two reasons.
  1. This is the first volume and storyline of a serial comic. It's meant more to establish world and characters than to provide a complex story, and it definitely accomplishes the former.
  2. I still found the story well-written and captivating (except for one thing, but I'll get to that).
The characters were realistic, engaging, and not candy-coated. I haven't read a lot of superhero comics, but in just about every one I have, I've always felt I was reading about Spider-Man or Superman or the Comedian -- characters, archetypes, slightly flat for all they have complexity and Issues. The characters in Powers, on the other hand, come off as people, flawed, scared, and hiding things. They sucked me into the story and didn't lose me for a minute. Even the secondary cast feels real, though they naturally get more archetypical the less screen time they're given.

The world is a little less engaging and realized than the cast, but never enough to lose me. In this volume, it's pretty much the backdrop to the characters and the mystery, though we're given tantalizing hints about the history, characters, power balance, and so on. Think of it like the pilot episode of a TV show, unintroduced secondary characters and all. Unfortunately, I think Bendis tried to put too much into this first book, because there are points where it feels like he's glossing over info and name-checking characters. I'd have liked for him to have slowed down a bit.

The world-building issues aren't a big deal, though. I've read books that are far worse on that count. My biggest problem with Powers is that the solution to the mystery comes out of nowhere. The murderer isn't seeded throughout the story like I've come to expect from mysteries. Maybe leaving him out was part of the realism? But it left me feeling vaguely disappointed and is one of the reasons why I'm not going to be buying Volume 2.

Long story short: Enjoyed the story, found it well-written in some areas and competent in others, thought it was a good start to the series. The flaws were largely ignorable. I can see why they want to make a TV show of it, because it would be awesome. I hope it leaves development hell.