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Working Class Heroes

  Alias: The Underneath


Brian Michael Bendis

Michael Gaydos

Marvel, 2003

Rating: 4.1

    Powers: Supergroup


Brian Michael Bendis

Michael Avon Oeming

Image, 2003

Rating: 3.6

Posted: August 12, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

"You gotta have a gimmick." That Hollywood truism has finally, it seems, come to the red-headed stepchild of entertainment genres, the superhero comic. Oh, the capes-and-tights set has always had its gimmicks, such as Batman's pointy-eared rodent motif and its attendant accessories (Batarangs, anyone?). But these days, to stand out, it isn't enough to dress a troubled sociopath in a ridiculous outfit, or to band him together with a group of like-minded misfits. In a move that seems, on the surface, to acknowledge the limitations of the genre, creators these days are scrambling to find possibilities in the margins. That Wizard magazine recently praised a black-and-white indie about a bar where costumed types meet after hours -- Cheers meets Astro City -- is all the proof needed that creators are foraging for any hook to spice up a well-worn genre.

Critical and fan favorite comics writer Brian Michael Bendis (Daredevil: Underboss, Ultimate Spider-Man) has hit upon not one but two such conceits, and manages to successfully execute them both without relying too heavily on their gimmick-y premises. In Powers and Alias, Bendis creates richly textured worlds in which the central characters, both former heroes, pursue similar-but-different career paths that still keep them in touch with their fantastic backgrounds. As such, he's able to draw upon all of the rich resources of superhero backstory while also grounding things in a much more real-world setting. (Not unlike, it should be noted, his fabulous work on Marvel's Daredevil.)

Alias: The Underneath, the third collection of the mature-readers detective comic published under Marvel's Max imprint, has the advantage of decades of such backstory. The series protagonist, private eye Jessica Jones, exists in the same Marvel Universe as Spider-Man and Daredevil (for whose alter ego, blind attorney Matt Murdock, she does occasional legwork -- and with whom, in an understandably tempting but ill-conceived move on Bendis' part, she's apparently fallen in love). Alias gets its frisson from Jessica's interactions with Marvel standbys like Luke Cage (with whom she has a sexual history), Daily Bugle publisher and avowed Spider-Man hater J. Jonah Jameson and even perennial second-stringer Ant-Man (whom she dates and, in one laudably non-arousing scene, has sex with).

In The Underneath, Bendis winningly sketches Jessica as a woman whose superheroic past -- still shrouded in mystery -- comes back to haunt her in unwelcome ways, as when she's forced to go to an emergency room and disclose her super-powered "condition" as if she had a disease. Her rocky past obviously intrudes in more subtle ways, which is underlined when she's drawn into the case of Mattie Franklin, a screwed-up young woman who's the latest to wear the costume of Spider-Woman. Mattie has run away from her adoptive parents -- none other than Bugle publisher Jameson, whom Jessica once crossed, and his wife -- and runs with an exploitative crowd involved in Mutant Growth Hormone, an illegal street drug that gives its users temporary powers. (In one of the book's best lines, Bugle reporter Ben Urich tells Jessica that he hears B-list Marvel hero Darkhawk may be selling pieces of himself to drug dealers.)

In her quest to find Mattie, whom she originally meets when she finds the latter in her apartment, Jessica crosses paths with Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman, and, in a hilarious scene, the much-maligned New Warrior Speedball. But it's Jessica's empathy for Mattie, which Bendis makes plain without beating us over the head with it, that gives The Underneath an emotional resonance. The glimpses at the skeletons in Jessica's closet prove more interesting than the fun parlor game of grooving to Bendis' inspired use of the supporting characters, and make for a more compelling read than the previous Alias volume, the uneven Come Home. (Also unlike that previous chapter, the book benefits from the murky realism of artist Michael Gaydon and colorist Matt Holllingsworth.)

Meanwhile, in Supergroup, the fourth collection of his acclaimed Image comic Powers, Bendis mines very similar territory, with different results. Unlike Alias, Powers exists in its own self-contained world, and it's to Bendis' credit that he's able to construct an intriguing world, or at least lay out hints of one, without the benefit of four decades of continuity. That world centers, in dramatic terms, around stoic, square-jawed Christian Walker, a former superhero-turned-police detective. Like Jessica Jones, Walker continually runs up against his former life. But here Bendis takes a heavy approach, dependent upon moody, noir-ish atmospherics, interminable dramatic pauses and lots of brooding-loner poses.

Supergroup concerns FG-3, an immensely popular trio of heroes whose members are dying off one by one, their bodies exploding as a result of the powers coursing through them. When the second of these heroes, the dreadlocked Boogie Girl (in an appealing twist, FG-3 seems modeled after the Fugees), flames out in a violent public altercation that results in many casualties -- including Zora, Walker's former fiancee -- Walker and his human partner Deena Pilgrim stumble onto a governmental conspiracy involving the creation of super-powered beings. This is fertile soil, and Bendis does coax some drama from it, but the way in which he tells the story hobbles the proceedings, its portentous shadings and oh-so-weighty confrontations and staring contests making for a more impersonal experience than The Underneath. (Michael Avon Oeming's linear art, very self-consciously suggesting Bruce Timm's and Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series, doesn't help the detached feel any.)

Supergroup is a far more satisfying read than its predecessor, the frustratingly amateurish Little Deaths, and its ending does shake up the title's status quo somewhat. But it feels more like a ponderously stylish half-hour of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim than an actual comic. And for all its flying heroes, it never achieves liftoff the way The Underneath does in its exploration of a neurotic, three-dimensional protagonist who conveys inner turmoil without excessive brooding or growing a beard.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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