I wasn’t crazy about Brian Bendis’s Powers when I read the first collection a few months ago. However, the universe he created worked for me in a way that many of the ‘what would it be like if people in the real world had powers’ scenarios just haven’t. So I was happy thing afternoon when I found a copy of the second collection, Roleplay, at the used bookstore.
The series is classified as crime fiction/superhero in genre, and in this collection I think it is very apt. College students have been dressing up as heroes from the world and playing some sort of real life roleplaying game. But when four of them turn up dead, homicide detectives Walker and Deena are put on the case. Their interaction both in personal conversation and professional ones is strikingly well done, really picking up the noir feel of a police show like Law & Order. Michael Oeming’s art is stylized and works perfectly with this sort of storytelling. His sketches almost give one a feel of the old Batman animated series, with square jaws and more attention called to the lithe movement of the heroes than to their huge muscles or giant breasts.
But what wowed me more than anything were the layout choices chosen by Bendis and Oeming. Frequently, a two-page spread contains three rows, each being read across both pages before moving onto the second. For the most part this is successful, but not all pages initially thought to be drawn in such a manner are, and occasionally words or clues on how to read a page are lost in the gutter between pages. It would be interesting to look at the individual issues to see where the ads are placed and try and figure out how that constrained their storytelling ability.
After the deaths occur in issue one, Walker interviews a victim’s girlfriend while Deena interviews all the students in a dorm across the street from the murder. Deena’s interviews are rendered only with images, each box being a different person facing her, and these boxes extend around the page down the left side of the first page, across the bottom of the two pages, and then up the right side. All these panels are colored prominently in the dark blue used to connote nighttime.
Meanwhile, the center panels that depict Walker’s interview of the girlfriend are cast in a greenish-yellow light, meant to evoke the feeling of an interrogation room. These panels contain both image and dialogue, but the success of these pages is the way that it depicts the police work going on simultaneously without having a bunch of cross talk between the two scenes. Expertly done.
The lettering is a bit interesting as well, especially when several times an argument is depicted in a word balloon as taking place behind the closed door that is the only image in the panel. This argument basically is constructed through many balloons adjoining each other. Each new balloon indicates a new speaker, and even though more than one person is talking and the balloons aren’t visually different from each other, it is still possible to follow the argument itself. Though it is hard to describe without a visual, these balloons progress across a page more than once in what might best be described as a very steep sine curve. One must not only follow the balloons to make sense of the argument, but also learn to read from the bottom of the balloon to the top when on the upward portion of the curve.
All this talk of comic architecture is likely of interest only to me, so I will conclude by saying that after a mediocre start with the first collection, it’s not hard to see why the series has gotten such rave reviews after reading Roleplay.