Josh Reviews the Powers Novel: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s terrific comic book series, Powers, follows homicide detectives Walker and Pilgrim in a world of superheroes. After rereading the series last year, I realized that there was one additional piece of Powers material that I hadn’t yet read. Back in 2016 — instigated, I suspect, by the launch of the Powers TV adaptation — a Powers prose novel was published! The book was called Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim, and it was written by Mr. Bendis and Neil Kleid.
Wow! A Powers novel! And one that would explore the backstory behind Deena, one of the comic’s two main characters?
I was immediately interested… and then immediately curious as to why I hadn’t heard more about this project. I don’t think it was ever mentioned in the back-pages of any of Mr. Bendis’ many comic-book series, including Powers. Mr. Bendis is an excellent promoter of his work, frequently writing about all his projects in his various comic book series and on his tumblr, and talking about them in interviews. So the lack of publicity (at least as far as I could tell) for this Powers novel grabbed my attention. And so, I immediately began to wonder, despite Mr. Bendis’ name being written on the cover, had he actually written the book? Was he involved at all, or were they just using his name (as many famous so-called “autobiographies” do?) Was this novel “canon” for the comic book series or just an extrapolation by another writer that wouldn’t, in the end, have any relevance towards the main series?
These questions cooled my enthusiasm for the project. But after recently re-reading the last several years’ worth of Powers comics, I decided the time had come to give this book a read. What if I was missing out on a super-cool, super-important piece of the Powers story?
Well… I don’t think I was.
The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim is a decent book, but it doesn’t have the magic Powers feel and I doubt the comic book series will ever reference the events of this novel.
After reading the first few chapters, I became fairly certain that Mr. Bendis did not, in fact, write this book. I’d imagined that an all-prose version of Powers would have given the dialogue-loving Bendis an opportunity to go nuts with lots of great conversation. That was one of the things that I was the most potentially excited for in a Powers novel. But I felt that the dialogue in the book lacked that special Bendis panache. It wasn’t bad, but not much was particularly memorable. This interview with Neil Kleid suggests, as I’d suspected, that Mr. Bendis was involved with the plotting but that the novel itself was primarily written by Mr. Kleid.
Additionally, the novel has a number of what feel to me like inconsistencies with the Powers comic. For instance, there’s a reference in the novel to Walker’s having had THREE different power sets. I know there was his original abilities, and then, after he was de-powered, his stint in the Millennium Guard. But what was the third?
I’m also a bit confused as to when in the Powers timeline the novel is supposed to be set. Early on there’s a mention of “the debacle with the motherbitching Fedeal Powers Bureau”, which was the story told in Powers: Bureau (which was the fourth of the five currently-published volumes of the original comic book series). So the novel seems to take place after that. But at the start of this book, Deena and Walker are detectives working the Powers beat again, which they weren’t at the start of Powers: volume five. So this book must take place after that opening story in Powers: volume five, which brought Walker back into the fold, meaning that this novel takes place after all of the currently published Powers comics. Do I have that right? It seems weird to me that the book would be set in the future of the Powers universe. (Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. I don’t think the Powers comic was supposed to cut off mid-story a few years ago!) But there are other inconsistencies with the novel being set at that point in the timeline. For instance, in the novel, the commissioner is Tate, not the new African-American commish introduced in Powers volume five. And the medical examiner is still the male “Doctor Death” from earlier in the seres, not the new female character introduced in volume five. So… I am confused as to where/when this story is supposed to be taking place.
I could, of course, forgive all this if the novel was great. But as is, it’s the type of stuff that makes this book not feel quite “official,” and therefore not so important.
I’m also puzzled as to exactly who this novel was aimed at.
It doesn’t feel to me that it’s intended for Powers newbees. The book has lots of references to stories from the Powers comics: references of Deena’s having had the Powers virus, to her being pregnant, to Walker’s immortality. I had expected this to be more of a stand-alone tale that could be open to new-to-Powers readers. On the one hand, I am happy this isn’t a dumbed-down version of Powers, and I like that the book takes the time to reference these past events from the rich backstory of the Powers comic book series. On the other hand, I suspect these references could be confusing to a new reader, meaning this book isn’t something I could hand to someone to introduce them to the Powers universe. OK, so I guess this book is aimed more at pre-existing Powers fans. So that should make me happy, right? Well no, because as a long-time fan, I was annoyed by the continuity confusion I outlined above. And I found those many references to stories from the comics to be tiresome at times. I actually wished that this could have been a more streamed-down story, with a more successful stand-along mystery story. So, in my opinion, the book wound up falling somewhat short for both potential audiences, newbies and Powers fanatics.
I am bummed that I am being so critical! I really wanted to love this book. And there is a lot to enjoy. Mr. Kleid spins a complicated yarn that explores the backstory of the Powers universe, and specifically Deena’s family and her background. We get to know Deena as a young woman, before she became a cop, and we get to see what drove her to become the tough, fearless detective we know and love. I enjoyed Mr. Kleid’s investigation into Deena’s complicated relationship with her father. I also enjoyed the way Mr. Kleid fleshed out a previously untold era from Walker’s long history, as well as the new cadre of super-hero and super-villain characters (many of whom, as befits a Powers story, meet a grisly end).
So there is stuff to enjoy in Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim! It’s just not what I’d hoped it would be, and it doesn’t feel to me to be an essential piece of the larger Powers story.
Josh’s Powers reviews:
My review of Powers: Bureau (volume IV).
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