Book Marx: Powerless

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For over forty years, Marvel has shown the world that superheroes exist.  They wear brightly-colored costumes, they have mythical powers, and they fight overwhelming odds to save the world time and time again.  But unlike DC’s untouchable icons, characters like Spider-Man, the Daredevil, and the X-Men are defined more by their humanity and their personal struggles than by their fantastic talents.

Certainly, Clark Kent is remarkable because he is Superman.  But Spider-Man is remarkable because he is Peter Parker.  Superman is an alien, invulnerable and inhuman.  Peter Parker is all too human, a man whose struggles to make a better life for himself are always complicated and often thwarted by his choice to use his amazing abilities to help other people.  DC posits that gods walk among us.  Marvel suggests the gods are actually us.

In the graphic novel Powerless, which collects the six-issue run of the series by the same name, the question is asked, “What makes a hero?  Is it his actions, or is it the results of those actions?”  What if superheroes had no special powers?  Would they still be heroes?

Most people will guess the answers to those questions before opening the book, and this saps some of the strength from the intriguing premise.  But Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson have created an engrossing story that manages to surprise and reward readers in unexpected but much appreciated ways.  This isn’t a perfect book, and there are a few serious missteps.  But for the most part, I can’t imagine a fan of the Marvel Universe reading this book and not finding something enjoyable within its darkly-colored pages.

The story begins with Dr. William Watts, a psychiatrist with the scariest moustache since the disco era ended.  He has woken from a coma, and has memories of a world of color and light and adventure and glory, a mystical land where men spin webs and soar between buildings, where Norse gods fight galaxy-devouring aliens.  He is troubled, because the world of his dreams is more vibrant and interesting than his own reality.  He wonders if he has become a spectator in his own life, doomed to listen to other people’s stories while his own life erodes into nothingness.  He misses the world of marvels.

Quickly, Dr. Watts becomes entwined in the lives of various people who, in an alternate reality, would have become heroes.  There’s Parker, a patient of his who works for Tony Stark, is in love with Gwen Stacy, and is being stalked by the psychotic father of his best friend.  Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer who asks Dr. Watts for his help in trying to save Frank Castle from being convicted for a murder commissioned by the Kingpin.  And Logan is a trained assassin who is responsible for Professor Xavier’s death and has now been hypnotized into killing Dr. Watts.

The Parker storyline is interesting, but it’s surprisingly straightforward.  Norman Osborn wants Peter to steal files from his employer, and Peter doesn’t want to.  The situation continues to escalate until things get out of hand.  It’s an intriguing interpretation of the Green Goblin legend to make the opponents human, but it’s not as memorable as it could have been.  The authors take few chances, and while the story doesn’t necessarily suffer in comparison to previous Goblin stories, it doesn’t shine particularly bright either.  It’s dependable and safe, which is not usually a compliment when you’re reading a comic book.

The Logan story suffers from another problem.  It’s boring, and it’s unnecessary.  Although often it seems as if Wolverine is added to a story or comic book series to drive up sales, this is one of the only times it’s ever felt noticeably awkward; his inclusion hurts the story and ultimately disappoints the reader.

Fans of Wolverine will have many problems with this take on the character.  If he had no healing powers to keep him young, shouldn’t Wolverine have died by the time this story takes place?  Why is he going by the name of Logan, instead of by his given name, James Howlett?  Why does he wear a contraption that lets him use steel claws that seemingly retract into thin air, if the point of the story is that the heroes have no powers?

These concerns could probably be overlooked if the writers had come up with a good reason to include him.  They pit him against Sabretooth in a nice scene, which is always fun to see, but otherwise his inclusion is pointless.  There is no suspense generated, since we know he won’t kill Dr. Watts and we suspect from the beginning that he didn’t kill Professor Xavier.  Even worse, his story has no noticeable beginning or ending.  The other characters get climactic scenes of redemption and courage.  Logan visits a senator.  As much as I like Wolverine, this series would have been infinitely stronger if the writers had chosen a character that fit into the story, not the marketing plan.

Which leaves us with Matt Murdock.  And this is where the authors not only live up to any expectations you might have but also seriously exceed them.

I’m not a fan of Kevin Smith’s work on Daredevil.  He’s obviously a good writer, but I don’t think he ever really understood the character of Matt Murdock.  Brian Michael Bendis has done some extraordinary work on the series over the last few years, and interestingly enough, his vision of Ultimate Spider-Man makes the conversations between Peter and Gwen in Powerless pale by comparison.  But he’s never quite lived up to the Frank Miller legacy.

Miller understood that the Daredevil character works best as mythology, as monthly masterpieces that trap Matt Murdock in a tragedy of circumstances that successfully mirror anything Shakespeare ever committed to paper.  Frank Miller didn’t waste time on contrived circumstances or five-page conversations.  He let the plot go where it needed to go, and let us see what really made Murdock tick, often in precise flashes of dialogue that pinpointed the nature of the man and the definition of a hero.

Cherniss and Johnson strip away anything extraneous and reveal a man who has every reason to give up.  His girlfriend is left to die in an alleyway, he’s defending a man that has already been branded guilty, and when he asks Dr. Watts for help, he’s immediately turned down.  But Matt Murdock fights on.  And it’s at this point that the authors hit us again and again with scenes that brand themselves into our memory.  Foggy, Matt’s best friend?  He’s bound and gagged in a locker.  There’s a man with a hypodermic needle in Karen’s hospital room, ready to kill the only woman Matt’s ever loved.  And Matt has been abandoned in the middle of nowhere, a blind man in a cornfield.

“I’m lost.  I’m afraid.  I’ll say the words I know you want to hear, even though no one’s around to hear them.  You win.”  When Matt whispers these words into the darkness, we understand just how much it costs sometimes to do the right thing.  And what would have been a trade paperback collection of a mediocre miniseries becomes something much more.  Because we know that the story will not end here.

Powerless asks us if heroes would still be heroes without their powers.  In this imagined scenario, Peter Parker is a reluctant hero of sorts, while Logan is sadly wasted.  But Matt Murdock?  His story demonstrates why people love heroes in the first place.  We all want to believe that there are people out there who will risk every imaginable consequence to do what is morally right.  Even as a superhero, Daredevil has never been very powerful.  He’s a handicapped gymnast who knows martial arts.  But when you strip him of even those meager skills, when you reduce him to being just another attorney, a blind one at that, you realize that the idea of anyone actually being powerless is ludicrous.

We are all powerful, and super talents and extraordinary gifts have nothing to do with it.  We can make choices, we can stand up for what we believe in, we can fight far beyond the point when others would admit defeat.  We don’t need powers to accomplish miracles, and we don’t need costumes to inspire hope.

Powerless has some faults.  The retelling of Spider-man’s battle with Green Goblin could have taken more chances, and Wolverine should have been deleted entirely.  But in the end, it accomplishes what most comic book miniseries never even attempt.  It makes us look at ourselves, and it forces us to reexamine what makes a hero.  Heroes aren’t defined by what they can do.  True power is measured by what they’re willing to give.  And in an age where cynicism and sarcasm are considered appropriate responses to everything, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in honor and courage.  It’s nice to know that some people still remember we are never powerless.

- Tommy Marx

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