Review: Powers Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?

Imagine a world where superheroes and supervillains actually exist – there are “powers” who use technology and superhuman abilities to save and/or endanger the world…

… and there are also cops who have to deal with all the mess.

That should give you an idea of the world that “Powers Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?” takes place in – this darkly clever comic book series is a police procedural about ordinary non-powered cops trying to solve violent crimes in a world where superhumans are everyday occurrences. Brian Michael Bendis spins up a genuinely suspenseful, gritty murder mystery with some twists and turns, which pairs up nicely with Michael Avon Oeming’s spare, angular artwork.

Christian Walker is called into a hostage situation, in which he saves a little girl named Calista from her mother’s deranged boyfriend. As if being saddled with a little girl wasn’t enough of a detriment to his day, he’s called into a homicide that rattles the city to its foundations. The famed and beloved superheroine known as Retro Girl has been stabbed in the throat… which is impressive, since she was nigh-invulnerable.

Oh, and Walker now has a new partner: Deena Pilgrim, a small but scrappy detective who has a penchant for crop-tops, and a deep-seated curiosity about Walker’s past.

As the city grieves and the news drags up every possible detail of her life, the two detectives begin investigating anyone who could have possibly wanted to kill Retro Girl. Supervillains, superheroes and local mafia bosses are all possible perps, but nothing that you could really hang your hat on. And as they try to unravel the seemingly impossible mystery, Deena begins to suspect that her new partner might be a power himself.

Police officers in superhero comics are usually pretty ineffectual characters, because they generally don’t have superpowers/superior tech and… well, many of the people committing crimes in superhero comics do. Superman could be an amazing police officer just by virtue of his Kryptonian abilities, but what can ordinary non-powered cops do when someone like Superman is murdered?

And Bendis crafts a pretty solid whodunnit: some clever clues strewn through the investigation, a lot of red herrings, and backstory for Retro Girl is conveyed through news reports that run at the bottom of the pages rather than interrupting the narrative. It’s a clever tactic, and it does keep the energy going. The entire story has a gritty, noir-ish atmosphere, peppered through with some dry comedy (the hypoglycemic coroner going off on a rant about space lizards and apes with laser guns).

But we’re also presented with a second mystery: what is actually up with Christian Walker? We see that he’s an exceptionally strong and rather skilled cop, quiet and rather reserved, but Deena quickly figures out that there’s more to him than meets the eye. And no, he’s not an Autobot. Deena herself is an excellent counterpoint to Christian’s introverted self – she’s sharp, fiery, outspoken and more than willing to beat up a whole room of bald mooks. Even her appearance is the opposite of his: light where he’s dark, small and slim where he is bulky and masculine.

Which brings me to the artwork. There’s something of a “Batman: The Animated Series” look to the character designs, especially the broad-shouldered, top-heavy, strong-jawed Christian. The style is fairly simple with thick lines, heavy shadows and geometric shapes, and Oeming often soaks whole scenes in specific colors – the red of Johnny Royalle’s club, the blue of the morgue, the purple of Triphammer’s home, and so on. It’s very striking, and keeps it from looking too murky.

Bendis and Oeming craft a powerful, striking opening story for their superhero-comic subversion, and “Powers Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?” leaves you hungry for more adventures by Walker and Pilgrim. Gripping and intriguing.

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