Book Review – Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim cover

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Neil Kleid

I remember the excitement back in 2000 around the arrival of Powers the comic book, co-created by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming – Bendis was a rising star of indie crime comics and the book seemed to be a perfect fusion of his noir approach and superheroes. Fortunately, the excitement was justified – Powers was a great comic book from the start, about detectives in the Chicago Powers Homicide Division, a book filled with sex and violence and swearing and death, but also infused with love for the genres and a serious sensibility in Oeming’s moody art. Powers also introduced two great lead characters: Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim. Walker’s long history was examined in the comic book in the infamous ‘monkey-sex’ issues (and I love that a comic book with shagging monkeys has been adapted into a live-action television series, even if we’ll never see that incident on the show …), but Pilgrim’s history was not. Until now.

The story starts in particularly grisly fashion, even for Powers: a hooded man beats an old man to death, the viciousness and gore described in gruesome detail. Detectives Walker and Pilgrim are called to the scene (NB: this book takes place after Powers Bureau – Deena has lost her powers and the pregnancy and she is back to working with her old partner in the PHD) – Walker recognises the victim, aged 112 (Walker had been at his 100th birthday party) with his shield discovered as the murder weapon: Joe Monroe, aka Citizen Soldier, a ‘living legend’, ‘America’s greatest hero’, i.e. the Powers analogue of Captain America. The problem is that the tattoo on Monroe’s arm – snakes and bullets, a fist, lightning bolts, the letters ‘T.H.F.’ – is the symbol of The Human Front, the most vocal and organised anti-Powers movement.

Back at PHD, Walker is taken off the case by Captain Cross due to a government-level investigation of all cops with powers (even though Walker no longer has powers) making Walker a liability. Because Detective Enki Sunrise is on another case, Pilgrim is given a new partner, a new detective called Kirk. The man investigating Walker is Special Agent Aaron Boucher, which complicates things further because he and Pilgrim had a relationship back in Atlanta when they were starting out but ended messily. Their lives were entwined growing up because her dad was Detective Waldo Pilgrim, who rose through the ranks of Atlanta’s PHD and was friends with several masked heroes; Boucher’s father was Judge Kenneth Boucher, friend of Waldo’s, and also a powerful figure in the judicial system in Atlanta. Twelve years before, Atlanta was under curfew and patrolled by the National Guard and deputised Powers under the leadership of Citizen Soldier, including Walker in his Diamond identity; however, this didn’t stop the murders known as the Liberty Murders (always a different MO but with the note In The Name Of Liberty found at the scene).

Back in the present day, the killer strikes again – the prose explicitly identifies the killer as ‘Liberty’ – killing three men with THF tattoos, beheading them and leaving them on a train with a note in blood on the wall: In The Name Of Liberty. The three were known as the Rampage Brothers, who were part of the Atlanta gang wars and the Detroit Powers Riots (Citizen Soldier fought in both, as did Walker), as well as being associated with the THF for a long time. When the Soldier’s death is leaked to the cable news show, Powers That Be, the investigation is messed up even more and Pilgrim’s past life and current life collide in a fashion that will test whether Pilgrim wants to be a cop any more (she is exhausted by the job; she wants an easy one – ‘Nothing that jams electric death rays up my cooter’.) and her relationship with Walker.

This novel justifies its existence as a prose book instead of a comic book by the fact that is introspective and needs to be inside the heads of the main characters – comics can’t do this well because there is only so much space in a panel for thought balloons and because it’s not as visual – so there is never the voice in your head wondering why this story isn’t a comic book. This is something I worried about when I heard about the project, because jumping mediums doesn’t always make sense. However, this is definitely a story that required the format of the novel to tell it.

Despite it being a novel, it’s not quite the novel I’d hoped for. Even though the credits have two names, the novel is more Kleid than Bendis (Kleid mentions it in interviews, such as the one at Forces of Geek: Bendis plotted but Kleid wrote the novel). It’s not surprising, considering that Bendis writes so many comic books for Marvel nowadays so hasn’t got the time to write a novel, but I thought that he would have been more possessive of his co-creation. Also, I would love to read some Bendis prose, because his crime comic books suggest he would have a great voice. Kleid does a good job but it doesn’t feel 100% Powers. There are some weird descriptions: the prose actually calls Pilgrim ‘the spunky detective’ and ‘opinionated ball of spunk’. The prose occasionally sounds as if Pilgrim is narrating, describing someone ‘as useless as a bag of assholes’, despite the fact that she clearly isn’t the narrator. There are the occasional clunky lines trying to reference stories in the comic books to get the reader up to speed on where the characters are at that fall flat on the page.

It’s far from all bad. There is nice banter between Walker and Pilgrim when they’re working a case that makes you want to read an entire novel about the two of them (the story needs to split them up to focus on Pilgrim and her history and its relation to the current investigation). This even gets a funny reference: witnessing Walker and Pilgrim talking at each other, Boucher asks them, ‘Do you always talk this much?’ There are cute references to comic book creators in the form of places in the book, name-checking Kirby, Fialkov, Bernardin and Andreyko. It’s also great to finally read about Deena’s life and how she got to be who she is – one of the great comic book characters: complex, snarky, defensive, messed up, loyal, honest, a good detective and an interesting human being. Unfortunately, I don’t think the book quite hits the heights it aims for – the cutting back and forth between the past and the present, with all the connections between the two, and the various crooked dealings of corrupt cops and villains feel like an attempt at James Ellroy’s LA Quartet but with superheroes (and without the beat-style prose) but without the skill and depth. I’m glad to know so much more about Deena Pilgrim; I just wish this could have been a better book because I think she deserves it.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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1 Comment

  1. I usually enjoy Bendis work so maybe I should check this out. By the way, I just read your post about Kurt Busiek and it was great, I'm actually a big fan of his work. In fact, I've written about Superman: Secret Identity in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    http://www.artbyarion.blogspot.com

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.

    Cheers,

    Arion.

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