Nov. 25, 2009 12:00

POWERS' GETS LOCAL

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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.

If you don't know what that means, ask the comic fan in your life. If you don't have one, Acme Comics Manager Jermaine Exum is happy to stand in.“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.

Though largely anonymous outside the comics world, for much of the last decade the names Bendis and Oeming have been among the most well known in the world of comics. The pair will ride into Greensboro on Nov. 28 for a rare in-store appearance, alongside friend and Kabuki creator David Mack, to promote the 10th anniversary of Powers and its attendant relaunch (the book has been on hiatus since the September 2008 issue). Legions of fans both locally and around the world have been 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. How did it come about? And more importantly, why is the comics world so hyped for Powers?

SUPERHEROICS FOR BEGINNERS

Here's a hypothetical scenario: In his subterranean lair, Supervillain X is finalizing preparations for a dastardly plot that will bring New York City to its knees.

Unfortunately for him, he has made the one fatal mis calculation common to all who fight for the forces of darkness: He has underestimated the plucky resolve of Superteam Y, a group of wise-cracking, photogenic and superpowered youngsters dedicated to keeping the city and her law-abiding citizens safe from harm.

Here's what you might expect in an average comic book: Superteam Y intervenes right before Supervillain X can pull off his brilliant-if-fundamentally-flawed scheme. Over 30 pages (plus ads), the good 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 the same: The plot is foiled and John Q. Taxpayer can rest easy for another night.

And here's what might happen in Powers: Superteam Y returns to their base. Once the costumes are off, they argue bitterly over licensing rights for their upcoming movie. Turns out they never liked each other much and recently, thanks to a lot of tabloid-borne bickering and a few sleazy trysts, they've come to downright hate each other. Several months later, one of them ends up dead — not dead like Superman, but actually dead — with the smoldering corpse to prove it. The remaining team members make themselves scarce. Now, who's going to clean up this mess?

Enter Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, two homicide detectives who specialize in murders involving superpowered inviduals — “powers,” to the layman. Their task, time and again, is to piece together the sordid details of superheroes' private lives and ensure that justice is meted out, even if the perp was wearing tights. This pursuit leads them all sorts of odd places and it offers fertile territory for the active imaginations of Bendis and Oeming. Separately, the two are veterans of the industry — Bendis has written celebrated arcs for Daredevil, Spider-man and a long list of other A-list titles, and Oeming worked as an inker on Daredevil and Judge Dredd before bringing a string of indie comics to life — but their stature comes, in no small part, because of their endlessly entertaining flagship book.

And Acme Comics has sold a boatload of them, in the form of individual issues as well as trade paperbacks collecting major story arcs together (disclosure: I worked at Acme Comics between 1999 and 2001). The Powers “Who Killed Retro Girl?” trade has sold 85 copies at the store since its original 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 unusually accessible. Everything you need to know is explained in a few spartan paragraphs that lead each issue. As a result, the comic is also the store's second-most popular monthly title outside the main DC and Marvel imprints. Casual readers and hardcore comics fans keep returning, in part, because Bendis and Oeming are committed to keeping them.

“The lesson learned from Stan Lee and other people is that everybody's comic is potentially their first comic or their last,” Bendis explains. “It's my job to create an environment that's appealing to those who are just picking 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 are square-jawed police procedurals cast in gritty black and white, popular among their admirers for their crackling dialogue and brisk, concise plotlines. But Bendis, who learned to love superheroes at an early age, wanted to place his hard-nosed cops against a different backdrop.


Acme Comics Manager Jermaine Exum

“I came to the revelation that all superhero comic books are crime stories, they're just told from a different perspective,” he said. “There's always someone creating a crime and someone else stopping the crime, and a detective trying to figure out the crime. Just because they're in costume 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 universe is bursting with superheroes, many of whom wind up dead thanks to their self-destructive private lives. Bendis says the motif was inspired by seminal works like Alan Moore's Watchmen, with a healthy dash of the celebrities we're stuck with here in the real world.

“It started like VH1 "Behind the Music,” Bendis explains, citing recent celebrity cautionary tales like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. “It's not hard to imagine that if we had superheroes trying to live to an ideal, trying to live as a symbol, that there wouldn't be some sort of much more salacious backstory or reveal.”

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

Series 2 ended at a pivotal moment for both detectives. The next chapters will delve further into Walker's long, weird history while examining his strained relationship with a fellow officer fresh from a stint in the Internal Affairs division. Behind the scenes, Oeming says, the way he and his partner collaborate has evolved from the book's early days.

“I've started 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 the writing, and at that point, I would give very little feedback because it was almost always awesome. Any additions I had I would make in the art. Now I'm helping to build the story and plot more on the inside, doing some writing, from which Brian writes with and over.”

When Series 3 launches, it promises to be a momentous occasion in the comics world. And ground zero, improbably, is right here in Greensboro.

POWERS IN THE GATE CITY

Why would Bendis and Oeming celebrate a decade of one of comicdom's most revered titles in our relatively out-of-the-way town? It didn't happen without 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.”

Bendis concurs. “I literally was just sitting in my office thinking, "You know who's probably going to win? Jermaine,” Bendis said. “The guy's been kicking ass for us for years, so instead of making him jump through a bunch of hoops that he's already jumped through, why don't we just go to 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.

“Naturally no store can carry everything, and during a decision-making meeting, I was discouraged from taking a chance on what seemed to be just another Image Comics #1 issue that might not even have a second or third issue,” he recalls. After a few months passed, “a friend and customer brought the series to my attention, and even though Acme was not as openminded in regards to new series as it is now, I have always been responsive to actual customer recommendations.”

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

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

It's Bendis' ability to deliver those stories, fans say, that keeps them coming back. Ryan Rubio, a longtime Acme customer and co-creator of the independent comic series Cemetery Blues, has been a fan of the book for years.

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

Exum, Bendis and Oeming struck up a fast friendship after the 2004 Wizard World Chicago, one of the industry's biggest annual conventions. Exum was in the audience of a discussion forum with the two creators, and was impressed that Bendis and Oeming also brought a number of retailers who had championed Powers on stage with them.

“As soon as I got home I joined Jinxworld [Bendis' web community] as "Lord Retail" and told myself that next year at Wizard World Chicago, I too would be up on stage,” Exum recalled. He made it, but it was only the beginning.


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

The discussions he would have in the intervening year — bringing what he calls “the retailer perspective on a board dominated by fans and creators” — caught the eye of Bendis himself, who began regularly corresponding with Exum, despite the latter's habit of hounding him to visit Acme Comics.

Years of pestering finally paid off around the time of the 2009 Heroes Convention 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.

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

“He would sign books until everyone in his line was gone, no matter how long it took,” said Rubio, who met Bendis in 2005 at Wizard World Chicago. “He would engage people in conversation, he would pose for pictures, he would answer questions, the whole deal. For that I will always admire him.”

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

“This is me actually achieving a career goal here,” he says. “The closer it gets, the more it is actually sinking in that [Bendis] and his friends are 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 and sign autographs at Acme Comics, 2150 Lawndale Drive, 12-5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 28. For more information, call 336.574.ACME.



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