In December of 1999, well before he became the man behind every Marvel title of note from Avengers to X-Men, writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis published a three-issue autobiographical comic called Fortune and Glory: A True Hollywood Comic Book Story. In it, he describes his failed attempts to be a Hollywood screenwriter and the indignities he suffered trying to pimp his modestly successful/critically-acclaimed indie comics to Beverly Hills suits.
Today, his efforts on the page are finally coming to the screen with the debut of Powers on Playstation. “If Powers hadn’t gotten greenlit,” chuckles Bendis a few hours before he was to be feted at New York Comic Con 2014, “You were going to get Fortune and Glory 2.”
Powers–a gritty, noir-inspired cult hit comic by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming that is part police procedural/part superhero story–was snapped up by Sony before the second issue was even completed (“Mike Oeming was literally drawing the first issues in a security booth he was working in the middle of the night somewhere in New Jersey,” Bendis says.) That was 14 years ago. Since then, it’s been tried as a movie, rethought as a network TV show and now, finally, selected to be Sony’s first original PlayStation series.
Sony originally announced its intention to bring original programming to its consoles during its E3 2013 presentation, hinting only that the programming would target gamers’ interests…which is pretty meaningless in an age when gaming hits every demographic. But to Bendis, it’s crystal clear what fits on a PlayStation: his characters.
“We spent time developing [the show] for FX and again … something just didn’t fit,” says Bendis. “And what it was is: This is not a network show. It’s not even a cable show. There’s something different to it, much like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. When you see those shows you’re like, ‘Oh, right, that’s where you belong. That’s a Netflix show.’ We’re a PlayStation show. We’re dealing with very mature situations that would be inappropriate on television, but as a streaming service for that discerning audience, for an audience that loves that elaborate storytelling of games that they’re playing? Perfect.”
With today’s ubiquitous “comic book movies” really only representing a tiny fraction of comics (huge budgets, white characters, mostly from Marvel), the rise of boutique streaming services is creating a bunch of mini-networks more willing to take risks when it comes to material. “If you look at the programming for New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con,” says NYCC manager Lance Fensterman, “You’ll see that what’s increasing the most is TV.” You don’t even have to go that far–check your local listings and see how less mainstream comics are taking over, from The Walking Dead to Constantine to AMC’s upcoming Preacher.
Explaining why these shows appeal to a Comic-Con audience, Fensterman points to the time a small 10-13 episode series has to find and build a relationship with an audience, whereas “a film gets basically…Friday.”
Powers and The Walking Dead both were created by white men, and both feature cross-casting–taking a white characters from the comics and casting them as black on the screen.
Actor Noah Taylor, who appears as the villainous Johnny Royalle in Powers and is no stranger to risky cable TV with Game of Thrones, suggests “that’s the way the Western world is introduced to new concepts, through drama rather than real life.” (Example: Shows like Hill Street Blues showed uniformed female cops before such a thing was commonplace and, of course, the first interracial kiss on TV happened on Star Trek.)
“The ‘mainstream’ can have a really short memory,” notes actress Susan Heyward, who stars in Powers as Det. Deena Pilgrim–a character that was caucasian in the comics and is now black in the TV series. “Hollywood is always surprised that a female-led movie or a female-led comedy made a ton of money. Like, every five years it’s a shock.” Pilgrim’s recasting follows along with the increasing number of black characters on The Walking Dead: In its fifth season, the cast of Georgia zombie apocalypse survivors is starting to look like the demographics of Georgia.
“As a female and as a minority, there are times when I look at the Emmys or I look at awards shows and I’m like, ‘When I was growing up I had The Cosby Show, I had A Different World, I had Family Matters, I had Living Single, I had images of people who looked like me,” Heyward remembers. “But now, it’s actually pretty sparse out there. So you’d think it’d be a linear progression but we have to stay very mindful because it’s very easy to fall back into old patterns.”
Bendis, whether writing his own creator-owned comics like Jinx or writing Marvel Universe stories like Alias (featuring an ex-superheroine named Jessica Jones who will be the subject of an upcoming Netflix series) has been known to put strong, hard-boiled women at the forefront without resorting to the often embarrassing tropes that still plague the medium.
“It’s a very peculiar time in comics,” says Bendis. “A large part of it has always been this male power fantasy, guys like myself reading about superheroes because you know damn well you couldn’t win a fight to save your life. Then what seeps in is titillation. That’s obvious, and sometimes unfortunate. It’s the naked girl with the sword thing. Why do you need to see that over and over? It’s off-putting to women. I have three daughters, two are of color, and I want to create something they can look up to.”
Heyward, for her part, was thrilled to learn she’d gotten the part of Pilgrim, despite the character being represented as white in the comics. “It was ultimately about the essence of the character more than the packaging,” says Heyward. Powers, like The Walking Dead, appears determined to put together a core group that reflects the diversity of the audience.
Actor and comedian Eddie Izzard, who appears in Powers as a shadowy figure called “Wolfe,” sees the networks already scrambling to keep up with the amount of edgy, groundbreaking material on offer through Netflix, Amazon Prime, and now PlayStation. “NBC, where I’m doing Hannibal, is in many ways trying to copy cable,” says Izzard. “And [the diversity of source material] has got to help. So long as character and story are going to an interesting place, it’s got to help.”
“When race becomes boring and sexuality becomes boring,” says Izzard “Then humanity has truly made it.”
It’s true that the comics industry is still dominated by white men. Bendis stresses, though, that the climate has never been better for budding comic creators to take the reins for themselves and create the kinds of characters and stories they want to see.
“I actually teach comic writing in Portland, and one of my philosophies is, ‘If you want to be in comics, make a comic.’ Put it online and Tada! You’re in comics. There’s no breaking in anymore,” says Bendis. “Concoct a Facebook page and put your stuff up on it. Tumblr! There you go! Have fun! So what you’re seeing are an inordinate amount of creators once they break into quote unquote mainstream comics, we don’t stop making our independent comics. I’m the writer of the X-Men and Powers. And a lot of my friends do the same thing.”