This review may contain slight spoilers! Skip To The Verdict? »
I admit to being a fan of character re-imaginings, Elseworlds and What If? style stories. Well, if not a fan (because many of them are terribly and trite) at least being very susceptible to them when it comes to impulse buys. That’s how I ended up with this book, Powerless, even though I didn’t know anything about the creative team and couldn’t remember any buzz about it from when it first came out.
So, was it worth the buy? Let’s discuss.
The story starts out with a Wizard of Oz introduction – our lead, the slightly bewildered (and a bit of a jerk) psychiatrist, Mr. Watts, wakes up from a coma – one in which he dreams the Marvel Universe – a brightly colored world of costumed craziness.
His attending doctor is one blond Dr. Richards, whose husband, also a doctor, is just a little too formal in the workplace. Watts’ schedule is filled with names like Peter Parker and B. Banner. There’s even a cameo by a prominent Marvel writer.
If you fear this is a book for True Believers, you may be right – the first few pages are constant in-jokes. I’d rate myself at about a mid-level Marvel fan. On my first read through, a couple years ago I got about a quarter of the references and don’t remember enjoying the book as much. On rereading it for this review, I caught a lot more and smiled at a few of the more subtle ones (such as Ms. Frost’s appearance along with her particular body language.)
But wrapped up in the constant parade of references is a surprisingly meaty mix of three plotlines held together by Mr. Watts’ own story. There’s a whodunnit that quickly transforms into a complex pattern of intrigue. A drama played out in the court of law and the city’s gritty underworld. A tale of corporate espionage spiraling downward into madness.
It’s a dark collection of narratives that hinges heavily on the motivations of these well known characters – what makes them unique besides their more easily explainable power sets.
The conflicts from the mainstream universe are all still in place, but without the revolving door death feels more permanent. Risk feels more real. And since this is a miniseries unconnected to main continuity, there is no next volume to imply a character’s continued existence. For this story, at least, that lends a sense of suspense not felt in most superhero comics.
It’s a testament to the writing that while there are a few “holy shit” moments, by the end of the book nothing that has happened seems out of place, or indeed, out of character. I always enjoy the feeling that nothing else could have happened. Put these people in this situation and this is the way it has to be.
In fact, the events in this book make a hell of a lot more sense than the events in the real Marvel Universe – although some of it mirrors back quite well and other conclusions are obvious reversals of the way things unfolded the first time. It’s fair to say that there’s a lot of wish fulfillment here. Just deserts and proper punishments.
But don’t let that get your hopes up – even if things seem right, it’s not a happy book and there may be no happy ending. That’s not the point.
Like real life – and don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of out there action and ridiculous coincidence evident here, this is still a marvel comic, come on! – this story is more ambiguous.
Anxiety and a slight tiredness is evident on almost every face. Gaydos’ characters are not particularly happy to be living the lives they’ve been handed, though damn if they aren’t going to make the best of it. Even in at the upbeat moments no one seems quite sure about the next step – not the confident smiles of superheroes, but shaky, unsure smirks hoping for approval of conflicted actions.
Actually, that ambiguity is what the Marvel universe was built on, so it seems fitting. That cornerstone may be even more evident without the spandex. People, perhaps in more frightening situations and with more intelligence, prowess, or guts than you or I have, but people just trying to do what’s right.
The only real downside to this book relates to its accessibility. The What If? line of comics, and similar titles like this one, tends to be marketed directly at existing fans. It’s kind of a shame, because the story here is well crafted, but may be offputting to new readers. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense without previous experience – I know practically nothing about Daredevil and have never read a Punisher comic – but the references run the risk of being annoying. Even if all the interactions and characters make sense – it’s still obvious that you’re missing another level of enjoyment if you don’t know someone from before.
I remember this being very frustrating at my first read through, but I’m glad I came back with more knowledge. I’m actually scared, though, that if I had returned as a true marvel aficionado the constant references would be more annoying and keep me from enjoying what is original here (plus I would have gotten the small reveal at the end well before it happened.) So the book walks a fine line, and it’s hard to say exactly what level of Marvel experience is best for the reader to bring.
I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself. It’s worth the risk, because there’s a lot of good storytelling here.
I picked this one for today because I wanted a break from high scoring reviews and remembered having mixed feelings about it. While this time it won me over, I still have serious reservations about its accessibility to a new comics fan. Very recommended for someone already into Marvel books.
No, not really. I think you could skip it altogether if you’re just interested in what happens on Marvel’s main universe, Earth-616. But it lends some nice flavor and reintroduces the core of what makes these characters so important to many of us.
This is a hard call to make. Maybe you should read everything Marvel put out before 2004! Or maybe you should just read a little, but not too much. I’d say it’s probably a good idea to get acquainted with the essential arcs of Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Wolverine (Can’t tell a lot trying not to spoil too much). But to really get the most out of it, you need to know some more obscure characters as well.
I wish I already had my Marvel lists online so I could have an easier time of linking you to specific books. The Spider-Man stories referenced here (besides the origin) take place starting in Essential Spider-Man Volume 5.
For another alternate reality, check out Marvel: 1602. The main book is better than the sequels.
Or dive into the Ultimate Marvel Universe. There are great retellings of old storylines along with a lot of excellent original plots. And the mastermind of Ultimate Spider-Man actually has a cameo in this book.