How do the police operate in a world where superheroes exist? It’s a question that’s been answered by various comics and graphic novels over the years, from Gotham City (do the best they can and hope Batman doesn’t turn up to spoil things) to Alan Moore’s Neopolis (construct your police force out of costumed heroes too). In Powers, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming come up with their own variation on the theme: set up a special division to investigate the superhero side of things.
Christian Walker is one of the cops in this Powers division who, in classic cop story style, has just been assigned a new and fairly raw rookie partner called Deena Pilgrim. As we watch them get to know each other, we the readers can get to know them too, which is a handy if hackneyed mechanic. Walker’s help has arrived just in time though, because someone has murdered Retro Girl, one of world’s most respected superheroes, and it’s down to Walker and Pilgrim to track down the killer.
As they work their way through their list of potential subjects, secrets are uncovered and the world of the superhero starts to appear less polished and more murky, as alliances between heroes appear increasingly shaky, and the difference between the heroes’ external images and what they’re actually like behind their masks starts to diverge. But then the police in this story have a few secrets of their own too, making it a complex, character-driven drama, that’ll appeal to those who like the more sophisticated end of the TV cop show, while maintaining an interest in super-heroics.
Bendis’s dialogue is snappy and tense, giving the characters an economy of conversation that feels authentic. He also lets the dialogue take a back seat in the action and let Oeming’s visuals do the story telling, in places where action or expression can do more for a scene than words alone. Oeming’s style is deeply characterised, with the pared-down simplicity of an animation, but swathed in depth and shadow. It serves to enrich the dialogue and maintain the narrative flow without taking over. It also has more panels per page than you might normally be familiar with, giving the feeling of speed and pacing.
Bringing superheroes into police drama actually works quite neatly, since the raison d’être of both parties is to serve and protect. They do it in different ways though, which is a contrast brought sharply into focus in this book. You probably don’t want to visit it if you find superheroes a turn-off but, if you’re comfortable with your inner superhero fan and like a cop drama too, it’s well worth a try.