|Powers vol. 10: Cosmic
By Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
Marvel Comics/Icon – softcover, $19.95
POWERS HAS ALWAYS WORN ITS THEMES ON ITS SLEEVE. There are the criticisms of our society’s superficial engagement with the world (while larger, more important and often more sinister things are going on), addressed through the use of superheroes as a metaphor for celebrity culture. There are the issues of friendship and trust that have come out through the relationship between Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. But most important is another theme, which was laid out explicitly back in Powers’ very first issue.
The scene is an apartment building. A man called Flinch has made some big mistakes, and is now barricaded inside with a jet pack, cops trying to get him to come out. Walker arrives, talks to Flinch for awhile and says this: “Any asshole can keep their shit together on the good days. But the shit day? That’s when you show your character. Today’s the day you show everyone what you’re really made of.” Powers has always dealt more in random tragedy than premeditated criminality––some of the deaths Walker and Pilgrim have investigated have turned out not to be murders at all, simply accidents, the result of psychosis, or natural events––and asks those who remain how they’ll deal with it.
In Cosmic, writer Brian Michael Bendis puts each member of his cast to this test after a much more serious Flinch-like incident leaves the world without its cosmic guardian. A pivotal moment comes when someone who, like Flinch, has made a serious mistake kills himself in his anguish and an FBI agent is considerably less understanding than Walker was back in Powers #1: “He fucked his life up and someone else’s, you can’t recover from that… Wish every other asshole we had to deal with had the courtesy… Take responsibility.”
That sentence is what Cosmic is about, taking responsibility. Bendis’ dialogue is funny as always (“One? A crime scene this big? I had more witnesses when I lost my virginity.”), but he shows great skill at balancing that humor with the book’s more serious moments. Earth’s member of the Millennium (think the Green Lantern Corps) is killed in a freak accident, which causes new character Heather (pictured, right) to reevaluate the world and her place in it. It also forces Walker take his own advice from Powers #1 and show, at this point in his life, after all that’s happened to him, what he’s made of and how he’ll step up. The chapter featuring his “alien abduction” is bizarre and unsettling, but emotionally satisfying when Walker is put on the spot and has to make his choice.
Meanwhile, Pilgrim is having to face what she’s made of her life. A few volumes ago, she developed destructive powers that allow her to kill easily and I was reminded of Death Note throughout Cosmic by when and how she decides to use and not use them. Bendis’ exploration of how a person with such a power could, over time, become too comfortable using it and also periodically reel back in horror at what they are capable of is expertly realized in its subtlety. It’s genuinely sad to see how far Pigrim’s gone and how incapable it makes her of confiding in Walker, who knows that she’s in trouble, but seems to have no idea of how much she’s going through.
Cosmic opens at Club Cinderella, where a man on a stage rants about the things that piss him off. This turns out to be a recurring structuring motif, a different speaker framing each chapter and indirectly commenting upon the action of that chapter, making up a sort of Greek Chorus. Seems the club provides a forum devoted to regular people telling autobiographical stories in public (if you’ve listened to much This American Life, you’ve probably heard stories that come from something like this).
What works brilliantly about this is the way that each person’s story is not only relevant to the chapter it bookends (for instance, the speaker in the chapter in which Pilgrim is questioned by Internal Affairs talks about how fascinated he is that, “No matter who you are… you could completely destroy your life in 45 minutes.”), but the entire premise is another place for Bendis to fit in the theme of how people face the minor and major complications that are thrown into their lives. The device even dovetails with the plot by the end, providing the answer to how a particular bystander to this volume’s events comes to terms with them in a healthy way. The downside to the Club Cinderella sequences is their length. A page at the beginning and end of each issue at most would get the point across as well without giving the feeling that precious story pages are being eaten by the framing device (Bendis has spoken in interviews of never feeling that he has enough pages).
Michael Avon Oeming’s art continues to grow in this volume. When holding Cosmic next to early volumes, the advancement in the art is impressive. Powers has always been a good-looking book, but using the Batman: The Animated Series look as a jumping off point, the art has gotten more and more individualized, and Oeming’s layouts are stronger than ever. Gone are the two-page layouts where reading order is unclear. Oeming does seem to have a bit of trouble with the Club Cinderella scenes, though, probably because of the need to keep them visually interesting when they’re a bit overlong. In a few instances, he lapses into facial expressions that feel too strong for the words they go with. The big fight in space is also a little hard to follow, but superhero action has never really been the focus of the book, so that isn’t a big problem. Generally, the art is very eye-catching, with beautiful uses of light and dark, and the characterization through facial expressions, and especially body language, is fantastic.
The biggest flaw in this book is the production values. The paper is nice and glossy and the colors pop, but there are a few problems. Putting aside the well-publicized typo on the spine (“Cosimic”), the lettering is pixelated throughout, with a few balloons lost in the fold between pages. There are some minor production errors, as when an FBI truck has clearly had digital “FBI” letters placed over hand-drawn letters without the hand-drawn ones being completely removed. Problems like this might not be an issue for every reader, but I found them a bit distracting. On the other hand, the extras are great, as is the norm in Powers trades. Once the story’s done, Bendis and Oeming treat readers to cover and sketch galleries and an illustrated script for the “alien abduction” issue.
Overall, Cosmic is an entertaining and very well structured installment in the ongoing Powers saga. Through all of the disparate plot threads, which see Walker and Pilgrim separated for most of the book as their arcs take them different places, the investigation of the Millennium’s death holds everything together and the Club Cinderella sequences provide a throughline even in the chapters that don’t mention the investigation at all. I don’t think I agree with the back cover copy that this volume represents a great jumping-on point for new readers, as too much depends on the consequences of past events, many of which are mentioned only obliquely. However, as a long-time reader, Cosmic is exactly the plot continuation and upping of the stakes that I was looking for after the one-year-plus wait for this volume.