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POWERS’ GETS LOCAL

by Glen Baity

POWERS’ GETS LOCAL

Artwork by Michael Avon Oeming

THE WILDEST, BLOODIEST, FUNNIEST COMIC AROUND IS RETURNING — INSIDE THE GREENSBORO CONNECTION

Bendis and Oeming are coming.

Ifyou don’t know what that means, ask the comic fan in your life. If youdon’t have one, Acme Comics Manager Jermaine Exum is happy to standin.“Imagine if Michael Bay opened Transformers 3 at the Carousel,” he says, by way of explanation.

Now, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming are not Michael Bay (they’re talented, for one) and their book, Powers (which is good), is not Transformers 3 (which will almost certainly suck), but Exum has the scale about right. If funnybooks had summer blockbusters, Powers would fit the bill.

Thoughlargely anonymous outside the comics world, for much of the last decadethe names Bendis and Oeming have been among the most well known in theworld of comics. The pair will ride into Greensboro on Nov. 28 for arare in-store appearance, alongside friend and Kabuki creator David Mack, to promote the 10th anniversary of Powers andits attendant relaunch (the book has been on hiatus since the September2008 issue). Legions of fans both locally and around the world havebeen clamoring for more Powers, and its creators chose Greensboro — not New York, not LA, not Chicago, Exum delights in pointing out — to celebrate.

Consequently,our city will become the epicenter of comicdom, if only for a day. Howdid it come about? And more importantly, why is the comics world sohyped for Powers?

SUPERHEROICS FOR BEGINNERS

Here’s ahypothetical scenario: In his subterranean lair, Supervillain X isfinalizing preparations for a dastardly plot that will bring New YorkCity to its knees.

Unfortunately forhim, he has made the one fatal mis calculation common to all who fightfor the forces of darkness: He has underestimated the plucky resolve ofSuperteam Y, a group of wise-cracking, photogenic and superpoweredyoungsters dedicated to keeping the city and her law-abiding citizenssafe from harm.

Here’swhat you might expect in an average comic book: Superteam Y intervenesright before Supervillain X can pull off hisbrilliant-if-fundamentally-flawed scheme. Over 30 pages (plus ads), thegood guys duke it out with the bad guy, and one of two things happens:The bad guy goes away in cuffs or he escapes. But the end result is thesame: The plot is foiled and John Q. Taxpayer can rest easy for anothernight.

And here’s what might happen in Powers: SuperteamY returns to their base. Once the costumes are off, they argue bitterlyover licensing rights for their upcoming movie. Turns out they neverliked each other much and recently, thanks to a lot of tabloid-bornebickering and a few sleazy trysts, they’ve come to downright hate eachother. Several months later, one of them ends up dead — not dead likeSuperman, but actually dead — with the smoldering corpse toprove it. The remaining team members make themselves scarce. Now, who’sgoing to clean up this mess?

EnterChristian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, two homicide detectives whospecialize in murders involving superpowered inviduals — “powers,” tothe layman. Their task, time and again, is to piece together the sordiddetails of superheroes’ private lives and ensure that justice is metedout, even if the perp was wearing tights. This pursuit leads them allsorts of odd places and it offers fertile territory for the activeimaginations of Bendis and Oeming. Separately, the two are veterans ofthe industry — Bendis has written celebrated arcs for Daredevil,Spider-man and a long list of other A-list titles, and Oeming worked asan inker on Daredevil and Judge Dredd before bringing a string of indiecomics to life — but their stature comes, in no small part, because oftheir endlessly entertaining flagship book.

AndAcme Comics has sold a boatload of them, in the form of individualissues as well as trade paperbacks collecting major story arcs together(disclosure: I worked at Acme Comics between 1999 and 2001). The Powers “WhoKilled Retro Girl?” trade has sold 85 copies at the store since itsoriginal release. The followup, “Role Play,” has sold 76 copies.

“That’s very strong, considering that the drop-off between first and second trades on most series is usually half,” Exum says.

Comics can be difficult to crack — just pick up the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men and see if you can figure out what’s going on — so it’s no faint praise to call Powers unusuallyaccessible. Everything you need to know is explained in a few spartanparagraphs that lead each issue. As a result, the comic is also thestore’s second-most popular monthly title outside the main DC andMarvel imprints. Casual readers and hardcore comics fans keepreturning, in part, because Bendis and Oeming are committed to keepingthem.

“The lessonlearned from Stan Lee and other people is that everybody’s comic ispotentially their first comic or their last,” Bendis explains. “It’s myjob to create an environment that’s appealing to those who are justpicking it up for the first time, and makes them not want to, but need to pick up the next issue.”

Prior to Powers, Bendis penned a string of respected — if comparatively obscure — pulp crime miniseries. Goldfish, Jinx and Torso aresquare-jawed police procedurals cast in gritty black and white, popularamong their admirers for their crackling dialogue and brisk, concise plotlines. ButBendis, who learned to love superheroes at an early age, wanted toplace his hard-nosed cops against a different backdrop.

Acme Comics Manager Jermaine Exum

“I came to therevelation that all superhero comic books are crime stories, they’rejust told from a different perspective,” he said. “There’s alwayssomeone creating a crime and someone else stopping the crime, and adetective trying to figure out the crime. Just because they’re incostume doesn’t mean they’re not crime comics.”

To underscore that point, the book rarely leaves the perspective of its detectives, despite the fact that the Powers universeis bursting with superheroes, many of whom wind up dead thanks to theirself-destructive private lives. Bendis says the motif was inspired byseminal works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with a healthy dash of the celebrities we’re stuck with here in the real world.

“Itstarted like VH1 “Behind the Music,” Bendis explains, citing recentcelebrity cautionary tales like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. “It’snot hard to imagine that if we had superheroes trying to live to anideal, trying to live as a symbol, that there wouldn’t be some sort ofmuch more salacious backstory or reveal.”

Thesimple truth, he says, is that it takes a strange, strange person to dowhat superheroes do. “I like the examination of what kind of personputs on a costume.”

Series2 ended at a pivotal moment for both detectives. The next chapters willdelve further into Walker’s long, weird history while examining hisstrained relationship with a fellow officer fresh from a stint in theInternal Affairs division. Behind the scenes, Oeming says, the way heand his partner collaborate has evolved from the book’s early days.

“I’vestarted to be a larger part of the physical writing now,” Oeming says.“Before, Brian and I would discuss stories and he would do all of thewriting, and at that point, I would give very little feedback becauseit was almost always awesome. Any additions I had I would make in theart. Now I’m helping to build the story and plot more on the inside,doing some writing, from which Brian writes with and over.”

WhenSeries 3 launches, it promises to be a momentous occasion in the comicsworld. And ground zero, improbably, is right here in Greensboro.

POWERS IN THE GATE CITY

Whywould Bendis and Oeming celebrate a decade of one of comicdom’s mostrevered titles in our relatively out-of-the-way town? It didn’t happenwithout a lot of scheming, cajoling and old-fashioned persistence.

“Bendis and Mike Oeming were planning on doing a special contest to appear at the comic book store that made the best Powers display,” Exum said, “but they collectively decided that there shouldn’t even be a contest, because Acme would win it.”

Bendisconcurs. “I literally was just sitting in my office thinking, “You knowwho’s probably going to win? Jermaine,” Bendis said. “The guy’s beenkicking ass for us for years, so instead of making him jump through abunch of hoops that he’s already jumped through, why don’t we just goto Jermaine’s store and spare everybody the pain?” Powers is a creator-owned book, and consequently, Bendis and Oeming have a big stake in the stores that sell it.

“We have a lot of close relationships with retailers throughout the country and everyone does a great job supporting Powers,” Oeming said. “Jermaine has gone above and beyond on more than a few occasions, so we thought this would be a great place to do this.”

Because of the sheer volume of new books coming out every month, Exum says Powers originally got lost in the flood.

“Naturallyno store can carry everything, and during a decision-making meeting, Iwas discouraged from taking a chance on what seemed to be just anotherImage Comics #1 issue that might not even have a second or thirdissue,” he recalls. After a few months passed, “a friend and customerbrought the series to my attention, and even though Acme was not asopenminded in regards to new series as it is now, I have always beenresponsive to actual customer recommendations.”

Exum is an evangelist by nature, and once he read the book, he was hooked.

“Once I was into Powers, Italked it up to whoever I thought would be interested,” he said.“People tired of the same-old superhero presentation, people wanted amore mature and engaging story.”

It’sBendis’ ability to deliver those stories, fans say, that keeps themcoming back. Ryan Rubio, a longtime Acme customer and co-creator of theindependent comic series Cemetery Blues, has been a fan of the book for years.

“Early in its run, Powers justseemed to be a crimeprocedural book set in a world of superheroes.Sounds like a clever, but simple premise. But then [Bendis] took thatbook in directions you never thought it would go, which keeps thereaders guessing,” says Rubio. “It never felt like it was done forshock value or because he’d written himself into a corner. Everythinghe did felt planned out in advance, so that when everything you thoughtyou knew about Powers gets turned on its ear, you totally accept it.”

Exum,Bendis and Oeming struck up a fast friendship after the 2004 WizardWorld Chicago, one of the industry’s biggest annual conventions. Exumwas in the audience of a discussion forum with the two creators, andwas impressed that Bendis and Oeming also brought a number of retailerswho had championed Powers on stage with them.

“Assoon as I got home I joined Jinxworld [Bendis’ web community] as “LordRetail” and told myself that next year at Wizard World Chicago, I toowould be up on stage,” Exum recalled. He made it, but it was only thebeginning.

Acme Comics customers.

Various comic book action figures and glasses on display.

“I CAME TO THE REVELATION THAT ALL SUPERHERO COMIC BOOKS ARE CRIME STORIES, THEY’RE JUST TOLD FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE”

THE BIG PAYOFF

Thediscussions he would have in the intervening year — bringing what hecalls “the retailer perspective on a board dominated by fans andcreators” — caught the eye of Bendis himself, who began regularlycorresponding with Exum, despite the latter’s habit of hounding him tovisit Acme Comics.

Yearsof pestering finally paid off around the time of the 2009 HeroesConvention in Charlotte, when Bendis’ resolve finally broke.

“[Exum has] really been amazing on numerous levels, so I said to Mike, “after Thanksgiving, let’s go on up,” Bendis recalled.

Itpromises to be a red-letter day for local and regional comics fans.Though Bendis mostly limits his appearances to conventions, when hemeets his audience, his reputation for accessibility precedes him.

“Hewould sign books until everyone in his line was gone, no matter howlong it took,” said Rubio, who met Bendis in 2005 at Wizard WorldChicago. “He would engage people in conversation, he would pose forpictures, he would answer questions, the whole deal. For that I willalways admire him.”

For Exum, the arrival of the Powers crew in Greensboro is more than just another feather in his cap.

“Thisis me actually achieving a career goal here,” he says. “The closer itgets, the more it is actually sinking in that [Bendis] and his friendsare actually coming to Greensboro. Exciting times!”

To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.


wanna go? Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Avon Oeming and David Mack will meet fans andsign autographs at Acme Comics, 2150 Lawndale Drive, 12-5 p.m. onSaturday, Nov. 28. For more information, call 336.574.ACME.

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