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Power Failure

  Powers: Little Deaths


Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Avon Oeming

Image, 2002

Rating: 2.0



Posted: October 30, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Brian Michael Bendis (Jinx, Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil) has parlayed an affinity for cinematic dialogue and contemporary, street-level grit into a successful comics career. To an extent, it's been well deserved, as has his status as one of the field's hottest and most popular writers. But the Wizard buying public isn't the most discriminating audience, and thus Bendis has coasted to his current "It Boy" prominence despite the fact that he enjoys what could at best be described as a tenuous grasp of the fundamentals of grammar, spelling and pacing. It's precisely this inattention to detail that mars Little Deaths, the third volume to collect his acclaimed Powers title in paperback.

Too bad, too, because on paper, at least, the premise of Powers is a strong one. The Powers world is one in which super-powered beings are treated with a mixture of celebrity and ambivalence: Costumed heroes are celebrated on television news programs, in slick print publications and with awards banquets, even as dressing up as one -- for, say, Halloween or as part of a live-action role-playing game -- is treated as a crime. In this setting operates Christian Walker, a tall, solidly built, square-jawed police detective who was once a superhero himself. With his partner, feisty young detective Deanna Pilgrim, Walker finds himself all too often investigating deaths related to his former profession. Pilgrim, meanwhile, serves as the reader's surrogate, occasionally receiving glimpses into Walker's past. (And let's get this out of the way early: The art, by Michael Avon Oeming, is perfect for the premise in its conscious and overt nod to the noir-ish animation style of Paul Dini of Batman fame. No complaints on that score.)

In Little Deaths -- as in the series' first volume, Who Killed Retro Girl? -- the partners find themselves investigating the death of a beloved super-figure. In this case, it's a blond, muscled Adonis known as Olympia, found dead in a squalid apartment building. Without even having to do any heavy lifting, Walker and Pilgrim learn that Olympia enjoyed the services of a number of superhero groupies. Bendis does a good job of sketching brief portraits of a couple of these women, drawn inexorably by Olympia's magnetism and the promise of Herculean sex. And soon enough, the discovery of the deceased hero's little black book leads to more information about his death, albeit from a source whose reliability is a serious question mark.

Intriguing enough premise, no? Unfortunately, that's all it really amounts to: A good idea. Even moreso than in the sturdy but over-hyped Jinx, with Little Deaths Bendis shows just how far he has to go as a writer of consistent quality. Often, the rat-a-tat, Tarantino-esque dialogue for which he's become famous feels both forced and slight. Bendis leans far too heavily on quick back-and-forth patter, broken up by the normal stutters and false starts of everyday speech. In limited qualities, it's an effective device, adding a sheen of authenticity to distract the reader from the fact that he's reading passages of spoken exposition.

But Bendis turns it into a crutch, unmindful of what most accomplished writers already know: Listening to snatches of real dialogue helps to develop a sense of flow, and gives a glimpse into the character and motivations of the speakers. But actual dialogue, untreated by a skilled writer, doesn't translate well to the printed page. (Also, exchanges between characters often feel rushed, which, to be fair, may be more a problem of the medium than of the writer.) Furthermore, Bendis also fails to vary the tone and tempo of his dialogue, the mood shifting from tense to subdued to angry, and thus key "gotcha" revelations fall flat. And that monotony of tone also makes for laborious pacing, with scenes dragging on much longer than their content demands.

But there's a purpose to the plodding feel of most of the scenes, which is to disguise the fact that there's not much story propping them up. Literally and figuratively: Not only does the groupies storyline end (if indeed it has ended) on an anti-climactic note, it rolls by in frustratingly quick fashion to get to that frustrating non-ending. In fact, this is one of the major gripes against Little Deaths -- there's very little there there. Three brief issues' worth of the Olympia storyline, padded out with two stand-alone stories (the amusing, if featherweight, "Ride Along," in which real-life comics scribe Warren Ellis spends a day with Walker, and "The Shark," an interesting but once again momentum-free variation on the old hero-creates-his-own-villain-to-get-noticed premise). There are a couple of other extras, including a scripted courtroom scene that picks up where "Shark" left off, an odd approximation of a kids' activity/coloring book, and a Bendis interview. If Little Deaths were a DVD, these "filler" extras might make up for the disappointing main course, to mix a few metaphors, but here they only serve to further frustrate a reader convinced that those extra pages could have gone to fleshing out the lead tale.

To make matters worse, Bendis continues to display a callous disregard for the most basic rules of grammar and sentence construction. It's bad enough that he consistently and reliably makes amateurish goofs of the "you're/your" or "their/there/they're" variety. But he also ignores basic punctuation and even the beginnings of his own sentences at whim. Take this groaner from the middle issue of the "Groupies" arc, cleverly written and drawn as an edition of a superhero-focused tabloid: "Olympia. Even his name conjures images of such heroism and selflessness that immediately fills one's heart with good will towards man, he first came into our lives seven years ago, during the Denver Airport hostage situation..." Forgive the picking of nits here, but in that mere 36 words you get a serious derailment of subject/verb tense agreement ("his name conjures images...that fills one's heart") and an epic tragedy in which a comma, obviously intended as a period, turns what appear to be two distinct sentences into a nonsensical run-on of Joycean proportions.

Image Comics have never, to be kind, suffered from a heavy editorial hand at the tiller, but the rubber-stamping duties of Powers "editor" K.C. McCrory are so flagrantly obvious one feels envy that this person actually gets paid for turning a blind eye to mistakes no self-respecting middle school student would get away with. And in a bit of presumably unintended humor, in this middle issue of the main story, McCrory is billed as "copy editor," which is funny not only for the obvious fact that McCrory may be the world's single worst "copy editor," but also for the tacit admission that there's no editorial vision helping nurse the story along to reach its potential -- in short, that Bendis is given free reign to make as many mistakes as he can. As long as that remains the all-too-frequent case, he'll never get the chance to grow into the better writer that his recent work on the exemplary Daredevil: Underboss assures us lurks within. And he'll never help Powers realize the full potential of its solid premise and artwork.

"Top" Cops
The superhero/cop conceit isn't altogether new. For a different, and altogether more satisfying, twist on the concept, check out Alan Moore's exemplary
Top 10.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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