'Powers' Creator on Balancing Superheroes and Cops, Long Road to Fruition

"It's a scrappy independent look at superheroes in a way that other people haven't been able to do," Brian Michael Bendis tells THR.
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"Powers" stars Sharlto Copley and Susan Heyward

Tuesday's debut of Powers on Sony's PlayStation network is the end of a long journey for Brian Michael Bendis, who along with artist Michael Avon Oeming, first launched the concept as a comic book 15 years ago. The comic has been in development as a movie and a cable series for years before finally making it to the screen with Charlie Huston and Remi Aubuchon as showrunners.

THR talked to Bendis, who's still working with Oeming on the (recently relaunched) Powers comic, about the experience of bringing Christian Walker, Deena Pilgrim and the other heroes and villains to life.

Read more Charlie Huston on Bringing 'Powers' to PlayStation, Season 2 Plans

Congratulations. This has been a long time coming.

It's very surreal because, for a great portion of my adult life — a third of my adult life — I've been in one mindset, which is, "We've got an option, we're making it," and now I literally have to reprogram my brain into accepting it's a real thing. I've seen it! There's advertising for it. I have to spend a weekend and reprogram myself somehow, because the reality is, it's fantastic.

The two of you have been working on the series since 2000?

We were working on it in 1999, before anybody saw it. But yeah, it's been published since 2000. Even in the couple of years where we only put out a couple of issues, we were always working on it, so it's never been far from our hearts. Really, the year we put out the least amount [of comics] was the year we did the first pilot, so I was working on Powers every single day.

Do you keep the comic and the TV show apart, or do you have this massive amount of Powers in your head at all times?

I compartmentalize them in a weird way. It's all Powers, but there's the comic, and then there's the show — and that's what I wanted, I wanted the show to be its own entity and not an offset of the book, or the book to be an offset of the show. I wanted them to live in their own universes, like the Dexter novels and the Dexter show. They talk about the same thing, but their energy and their point of view is unique, and hopefully making the most out of both mediums. That was my No. 1 thing, I wanted the show to be the best television version of the idea, while the comic can be the comic.

And also, because we've been working on the comic for so long, the characters in that world are kind of years ahead from where the show can be, just in terms of what the characters have gone through. At one point, I was working on an episode of Powers [the show] at the same time as writing the issue of Powers [the comic book] that's on the stands right now, and it was two different things. I might as well have been writing the X-Men, it was so different.

That's something that surprised me about the series. I expected the first episode to be the first part of the comic book, and it's very much not. There are parts of the comic book in the show, but it's very much its own thing.

All the elements of the show are things that have happened in the book — but what's cool is that Charlie was very smart. He cherry-picked the things from the book that would make the best show, that would make the best television. We were writing, with that first storyline, we didn't think we were going to get to issue 4. We were running — kill Retro Girl! Solve the murder! — but with 10 episodes, as Charlie calls it, a 10-chapter crime novel, you can just tell the story differently, and I think, more maturely.

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For our fans, that's great: they don't know what's going to happen. They're not sure. It's something that Walking Dead does really well, too. You might read the comics, but watching the show, you're still not sure what's going to happen. You get to compare and contrast and see what works better in what medium, I think that's part of the fun.

I think that a faithful adaptation sometimes can be very leaden. It can be very flat, very lifeless if you try to be too faithful. It can just sit there. Having consulted on the Marvel movies, that's something I've learned. You watch the first Iron Man movie, and it's not based on anything, but it certainly feels like Iron Man. Part of that is, it's only beholden to the idea of the character, and that stuck with me as we made our choices going forward.

Was that part of your mindset when you first started thinking about adapting the show for television? That the show had to be its own thing, and not a straight adaptation?

I've been talking about this for years, and that's been part of the long struggle of getting the show made. It's easy to say the show should be different, but what does that mean? It's one of those things, you only know it when you see it, and Charlie found that. From his first attempts at it, he nailed it. It's because he's one of us — he worked at Marvel, he knows the rules and he knows why we're breaking them and he knows why we're breaking them. That's what we needed, someone who completely knows the genre and why we're tipping it over.

That's why it ended up taking so long. There was nothing wrong conceptually with earlier versions, there was just this one little thing that was missing, and then we found it.

The show feels true to the cop TV show format in the same way that the comic feels like a superhero comic, if that makes sense.

That was the biggest hurdle: it's a cop show, and when there's a superhero element, a lot of people want to lean too heavily on the superhero element, and that's what we're trying not to. Finding that balance is one of the struggles of the show. It may be that, when people watch the show, they'll say, "Oh, that seemed easy," but it wasn't. That's the biggest hurdle. Now that we're in a state of filmmaking that you can literally do anything you want, that doesn't mean you should. That doesn't mean it's the best thing for the story. We're a cop show, it's cops doing what they do in this crazy world, and that's what I wanted.

So what was it like writing for the show?

I was in the writers' room before there was one, when it was just me and Charlie and Remi. It's funny — there are very few things in life I'm an expert on. As you get older you realize this. You go through life, and you're expected to know things, especially as a parent, and you just get through it. But with Powers, oh, I know Powers. [Laughs] I'm an expert on this. I've been working on this for 15 years, and I can answer any question on this. It's very rare for me to be in any room where I'm the expert, so it was always lovely. I always have an answer, even if it's not the answer someone is looking for.

The weirdest part was, most of the time, I'm alone in a room writing Powers, and Mike's alone in a room drawing Powers. Maybe sometimes we're both in the same room, but it's just us — and now it's the livelihood of all these other people. That's very surreal, it's very bizarre.

Has the show, or working on the show, influenced the comic book, do you think? Have you and Mike changed the way you approach Powers by what's happened?

I'm sure we have. I'm going to have to take a step back in a year to take a look. I mean, the show is rated R, the comic is rated R. It's not like the comic is going to get all nastier because I can't do something on the show. There's nothing like that, but I'll have to take a look back [later]. We're right in there right now, it's hard to have a clean perspective. But sharing the characters, it's a new experience. It's like you've sent them off to high school or something, "I've taught you everything I can! Come back to me next summer!"

For people who've never read the comic, what's the pitch for why they should check out the Powers show?

It's very cool that there's a lot of comic book-related television projects being made right now, but I think that what Powers is going to offer, and what it's always offered, is that we're an independent comic. Even though Marvel publishes it, we do it in our house. Because of that, it's made by adults for adults, and so is the show. It's a scrappy independent look at superheroes in a way that other people haven't been able to do. I think for people who're looking for something a little more mature, something that you're not going to see on network television — I mean, there's stuff on every single episode where you'll go, 'you're not gonna see that on network television' — then this is that show. That's what the book has always been, and that's what the show is going to be. Who could ask for anything more?

Powers episodes one (above), two and three are currently available via the Sony PlayStation store.