Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim

Brian Michael Bendis with Neil Kleid
Thomas Dunne Books

I often tell my son, a 13 year old comic book fan, that he is living in a golden age—that the glut of high quality comics-inspired movies and TV he takes for granted was not always so. Until the waning moments of the 20th century, there were few occasions on which film could do justice to the storytelling gifts of a Frank Miller, an Alan Moore, or a Neal Adams. Now that moviemakers have the technology, they can bring the unique aspects of the comic book medium convincingly to life.

No modern writer better embodies the link between Hollywood and the comic book world than Brian Michael Bendis. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would not exist without his “Ultimate” takes on classic Marvel characters. Yet before he was Marvel’s number one guy, Bendis and his artist collaborator, Michael Avon Oeming, melded crime fiction/noir and superhero elements to create the world of Powers, where Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim investigate crimes committed by and against metahumans. Powers has seen multiple incarnations in comic book form and a TV series now in its second season on Sony’s PlayStation Network. But today’s question is this: do Bendis’ Powers work in a purely non-visual medium; namely, the first Powers prose novel?

The answer is a resounding: sort of. The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim delves into Pilgrim’s origins as she and Walker attempt to discover why a serial killer, the so-called Liberty Killer, has resumed taking metahuman lives after a lengthy absence. Shifting between the present and the past, the novel explores Pilgrim’s family life, her first romance, and the factors that motivated her to pursue a law enforcement career. Unsurprisingly, The Secret History also establishes that Pilgrim was mixed up with the super-powered crowd long before she met Christian Walker. Particularly for Powers fans, the book thus offers welcome insight into Deena Pilgrim, whose simultaneously brash and brittle persona is central to the comic book’s appeal.

Though the novel adds depth and texture to the world of Powers, it also lacks the pacing and narrative punch that Bendis devotees have come to expect. In the Powers comics, Bendis’ snappy, often humorous dialogue combines seamlessly with Oemings’ striking visuals. Conversely, this novel drags at times and the dialogue is hit or miss; there are some clever exchanges but also a few clunkers. Rather than indicting Bendis and his co-author, this fact may simply reflect the incongruity between Bendis’ style and the requirements of a 300 page novel.

As far as I know, this is Bendis’ first prose novel. Though he manifests some growing pains in The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim, I have little doubt that a writer of his talents will catch on quickly. Fans of Bendis, and particularly of Powers, will find much to like in this novel, despite its flaws. I expect that most, like me, will also look forward to the next full-length novel featuring Detectives Walker and Pilgrim.

Jim Carroll