Powers 7: Forever – Brian Michael Bendis

You know this is going to be an epic story by the thickness of the book. And it is indeed an epic tale in every sense of the word. This is an origin story, one of the most powerful sagas in the superhero canon. This origin story goes back a long way, right back to the dawn of time in fact. If you were to buy an issue that was comprised entirely of cartoon apes making grunting noises and nothing else you would either want your money back or you would want your money back. It probably wouldn’t occur to you that Bendis has just created one of the most iconic openings ever. OK, so he didn’t create it. He lovingly stole, borrowed, homaged it from 2001.

Supers are kind of a new phenomenon. A 20th Century vibe brought on by atomic power, spaceships, DNA and all those new things. But what if they weren’t? What if they had been with us from the beginning, or even before the beginning? This is the premise of Forever. We follow the development of Powers through the ages. This is also the origin of a particular character. You don’t know who it is until it finally clicks and once again Bendis smiles smugly as his master plan takes shape.

This is an amazing tale and a great vehicle for Bendis as he takes on 2001, Conan, Crouching Tiger and the Untouchables as his story leaps through history. It can be a little confusing as you try and work out where you are, as characters you know are dead are running around and sometimes getting naked. But you want to make it through this on your own. You want the satisfaction of putting the pieces together yourself and having your mind explode when you make the connections. The beauty is it all fits together so perfectly. Tiny, throwaway references you forgot about twenty or thirty issues ago suddenly turn out to be vital clues to what you are discovering and you stare in disbelief at the literary skill being flourished before you. Not since Sandman have we seen such a tangled web woven.

The art is superb and with so many time periods and recurring characters it really gets a chance to shine. There are some unusual panel shapes and some bold epic vistas that really grab your attention. What colour is the dawn of time? Well now you know. I loved the pastel sand tones of the Conan era and that iconic silhouette, the subtlety of the ancient temples, and the subdued Chicago gloom.

This is truly the best of all the Powers stories. Until the next one. It has to have the Double Thumbs Up!

221/144

Tomorrow: Powers 8: Legends – Brian Michael Bendis

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Powers 6: The Sellouts – Brian Michael Bendis

WOW! I don’t know if I can get away with a one word review but nothing really describes this volume better than wow! Complete with exclamation mark. Ummm, wow! My mind is still reeling from this tour-de-force. I think Bendis has started channelling Robert Kirkman as that is the biggest rug-pull I have felt in ages.

It all starts with a sex-tape and it feels very much like Garth Ennis’ The Boys. It’s got that greasy, dirty feel. But there is the whole whodunit and you have no idea whodunit. We are all so postmodern that it’s normally easy to sniff out how these things work out. There is even a butler if you want the easy collar. But you don’t know who or more importantly why.

Everything appears so normal. I remember thinking that Powers had found its groove. It had stopped innovating and struggling against trite convention and settled into something predictable. Then BOOM! Literally boom. You have to flick back a couple of pages to make sure you didn’t miss something. The art goes haywire, the plot explodes and you plunge sickeningly downwards in a spiral towards a terrifying conclusion. You literally flip from murder mystery to literary Armageddon. To be fair this theme (and I don’t want to give it away) has been explored before by many great writers but its appearance is so shocking and unexpected and so well executed that you think maybe Bendis has claimed the top spot from the others before him.

The art is great. It starts off comfortable and familiar and then goes all epic. Literally within a page turn your eyes pop out on stalks and shit hits the fan. There are some very atmospheric and creepy panels as lone characters explore the darkness. There is a brilliant flashback story where the art changes to mimic the 50’s comic book styles but with liberal use of the f-word. There are some nice little mocked up web pages and TV broadcasts and the boom is fantastic.

Apparently this isn’t the best storyline as we already had it in volume 4. Maybe it is time for a recount. This packs a huge punch and the last line, the line that foreshadows the next volume makes your mind flipout! It might just be hysteria but I am going to give this Double Thumbs Up!

220/145

Tomorrow: Powers 7: Forever – Brian Michael Bendis

Powers 5: Anarchy – Brian Michael Bendis

How do you follow the greatest storyline you ever wrote? By doing another great story of course. This has all the elements of the last volume, action, humanity and thought provoking themes but in a different balance. Once again Powers asks us a hard question about the concept of Superheroes; namely is their morality the same as ours? Is an unelected, unaccountable, unstoppable force the best thing to police our society? Where do the cops, the courts, the laws fit in with people that combine all those duties and dispense instant and often fatal punishments. Are they in fact the ultimate expression of natural justice, or something more sinister? And of course who watches the watchers?

Last volume we saw the departure of one of the main characters. Like the X-Files when Mulder left, things just aren’t the same. It is interesting to shake things up a bit and see how our familiar faces function with a hole in their midst and what it must be like to be the new face filling that hole. But we all hate change so we hurt that we aren’t whole which is testament to Bendis’ writing that we are so emotionally engaged with the cast.

Absolutely a Thumbs Up, maybe a bit more!

219/146

Tomorrow: Powers 6: The Sellouts – Brian Michael Bendis

Powers 4: Supergroup – Brian Michael Bendis

On the back of this volume it says: “widely considered the best storyline…” Well if that isn’t setting yourself up for a fall I don’t know what is. Does it mean the next 10 volumes won’t be worth buying if you don’t like this one? It is however an absolutely cracking story.

The great thing about Powers is seeing what aspect of the Super-mythos or real life will get the Bendis treatment next. This one is quite a popular subject – government sponsored heroes. Naturally all governments sponsoring supers are evil, corrupt, naïve, self-serving or similarly detestable. This storyline has been tackled by such masterpieces as Authority, Supreme Power and so on. Bendis does not disappoint and it is all wrapped up in that neat little trademark whodunit format.

All the checks for a great Powers story are here. There is another revelation about Walker, an unexpected death, great art, fantastic colours, an emotional rollercoaster and more genre innovations than you could shake a fist full of sticks at. We also get to see action take centre stage for the first time in what is basically a detective story. In many works action is either padding for a lack of writing or grandstanding by the artist. Here it isn’t gratuitous, is wonderfully coloured and the shock ending takes your breath away. Special mention should go to the lettering. You don’t see many innovations in this area but this book innovates more than any other. Well done.

This is probably the best and certainly most gripping tale yet and you are left wondering how they could possibly follow it up. The characters are left in a right pickle and how can anything be the same again. Will the next volumes come close or should I quit on a high? But all is not perfect. Why does such a mainstream book have so many typos in it? If I can spot them then surely all the writers, artists, inkers, letterers, editors and minions that see this book before me could have too. I am always pleased to see an ethnically diverse cast of characters but please try and get their speech right. I am fine if they all talk like stereotypes. I am fine if they all talk like me but don’t make them switch constantly mid-speech bubble. Disappointing. But not enough to spoil what has been a Double Thumbs Up!

218/147

Tomorrow: Powers 5: Anarchy – Brian Michael Bendis

Powers 3: Little Deaths – Brian Michael Bendis

This volume embodies the high standards and bold thinking that Powers strives for. The art once again puts its genius to the fore with bold colours, strong layout choices and graphic depictions to shock and awe. Any work that is courageous enough to have 14 consecutive pages of art without a single word on the page demands your respect. It is these bold statements that make Powers a leader in the genre. As well as standard graphic novel storytelling the writer uses other mimicked formats such as the magazine article, humorous advertisement, tabloid interview and even a plain court transcript with no visuals whatsoever. It is very reminiscent of Alan Moore’s work and care must be taken not to come across as trying too hard. The dialogue is still top notch and it is nice to see Deena and Walker and their relationship plus their respective pasts given the screen time they deserve.

This work contains three stories, the first is called Groupies. Superheroes are now such an ingrained part of our culture it is easy to apply real-world themes to them and see what happens. Groupies concerns a particular type of woman who seeks out Superheroes just as we have those who seek out rock stars or footballers. It is a great ‘what if’ premise and superbly executed with much attention paid to the media and celebrity culture in which we live now. This is writing of the highest quality as it encourages us to look at our own lives and the world around us rather than just escape from it.

The next is Ride Along, a term describing a writer accompanying a professional (usually the police) in order to better understand what they do. In this case a comic book writer accompanies Walker and gets into a dangerous situation. There is some witty banter and a lengthy diatribe about the prevalence of superhero comics. The unusual thing is that the writer in question is named as Warren Ellis. Is Bendis name-dropping? Is Ellis hijacking this work in order to soapbox or is it just a cynical marketing ploy. It is over before you can form a definite opinion but hopefully this isn’t the start of a worrying trend.

The third is The Shark, a neat little whodunit that is the Powers bread and butter. It is a textbook piece of plotting and twist that doesn’t have the additional sparkle of other Powers storylines. It also switches from graphic novel to mocked-up court transcript half way through and so loses the amazing artwork that is integral to Powers success.

As a bonus there is an activity/ colouring book which parodies the safety publications given to the schoolchildren of yesteryear. Another example of Powers trying new things and fearlessly taking new directions.

Overall this is an excellent work and I am proud to give it another Thumbs Up!

217/148

Tomorrow: Powers 4: Supergroup – Brian Michael Bendis

Powers 2: Roleplay – Brian Michael Bendis

After the success of a strong first story there is always a worry that you won’t be able to catch the lightning in a bottle second time round. This is a low key story but still a very good one. It features kids without powers who dress up as heroes, not to get involved, but to role-play for fun. Good crossover material for the stereotypical comic book reader and not a subject often treated to good quality fiction.

The story is indeed king but unfortunately this means that our protagonists get a little side-lined and we don’t get to empathise with them as much. Powers is a delicate balance between whodunit and buddy movie and when that balance is off we feel it. There are a few neat little twists that intrigue us enough to want more so stopping reading is not an option.

The art has the same high quality but with fewer issues to make bold moves it feels more subdued than the initial spectacle. The dialogue is still top notch and the lettering and panelling are really pushing the layout envelope. Unfortunately sometimes you get a little lost and end up reading things in the wrong order. This doesn’t spoil the read if you appreciate being treated like an intelligent adult but a few more clues might help keep the flow going.

Absolutely a Thumbs Up. More please!

216/149

Tomorrow: Powers 3: Little Deaths – Brian Michael Bendis

Powers 1: Who Killed Retro Girl – Brian Michael Bendis

This work embraces superheroes, film noir, the thriller and old-school Hill Street Blues police procedural. Rather than a mishmash of ill-fitting ideas this all flows together to tell a compelling story in a coherent world. We follow Detective Christian Walker who works for a unit dealing with crimes involving those with superpowers. He has to deal with a new partner, a troubled past and death of the city’s most beloved superhero. Rather than a list of trite clichés Walker’s life is a subtle blend of all of the angst, guilt, regret and bullshit that fills out own lives. He is a very genuine and realistic character and we are sincerely engaged by his life and the world he inhabits.

The dialogue is superb. It is how real people talk and not a rapid fire series of one-liners that come from a sit-com generator. There are more speech bubbles than I have ever seen with intricate back and forth conversations that can leave your head spinning. Initially this can be confusing and more words can mean less art but this is what the story needs and it is executed so well it quickly becomes natural. The innovations keep coming in terms of layout, dual narratives on a page, multiple lettering styles and more creative polish than you can shake a stick at.

The art is very much its own. It has a web-comic feel to it and kind of reminded me of the cartoon series ‘The Tick’ or maybe ‘Johnny Bravo.’ It is not the first style you think of when picturing a gritty, noir world but it works much better than you would think. The stylistic depictions enable much more pronounced characterisation than a more realistic approach would. The art feels very fresh and cinematic with lots of standout frames from dramatic or distinctive angles. This isn’t a gratuitous showing off but a masterful use of visual storytelling. The most standout achievement is the colouration and how wonderfully it is applied. There is a great use of monochrome. Not black and white but black and another colour. Whole scenes are rendered in sickly greens, violent reds or even purples. This connects with the reader on such an emotional level that it does half the work of the storytelling.

This work is an absolute hit on every level. It shows you what you can achieve if you are prepared to go against the grain and not compromise what you believe in. I can’t wait to see if they can sustain this quality and so it has to be a Double Thumbs Up.

215/150

Tomorrow: Powers 2: Roleplay – Brian Michael Bendis