There is a lot to like in Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming's new creator-owned book "The United States of Murder, Inc." as they bring their longtime creative partnership on "Powers" to a whole new world. This first issue is strong with some legitimate surprises and solid world-building, but because the execution feels so similar to their work on "Powers" with the conceit not quite as engaging, the new book suffers a bit in comparison.
The world building and concept here -- a world in which the Mafia has become incredibly powerful in the Eastern United States, so powerful that they have their own territories -- is good, but it still feels less intriguing than Bendis and Oeming's "Powers" series. The comparison is somewhat inevitable, but it does hurt "United States of Murder, Inc." -- especially since the execution style is almost exactly the same. Still, there are several solid plot surprises, some great character work, and a smart and satisfying twist at the end that turns the entire concept on its ear in a good way.
As usual, Bendis' snappy dialogue and sharp sense of humor help him to carve out some characters worth investing in right out of the gate. Despite the dark tone of the book, there are some laugh-out-loud moments that provide a nice balance. Readers used to the more deconstructed style common in Bendis' superhero fiction will be impressed with the density here, as there's a lot in this first oversized (43 pages) issue even beyond the layered world building.
Oeming's art is, as usual, highly graphic and strong overall, but suffers when compared to "Powers." Oeming's style is a natural fit for "Powers" with its talking head interrogations scenes contrasted with epic superhero visuals. Here, in a world full of suits (except for Jagger Rose), everything looks a bit too similar. In fact, it is incredibly hard to distinguish between the lead (Valentine) and his best friend (Dino). Oeming does everything right to distinguish them -- Dino often wears glasses and they have different hair -- but because the style is so simplified, graphic and full of dark shadows, it frequently doesn't matter. They're two white guys with dark hair in suits and you have to really pay attention to know which is which. The one character that stands out visually is Jagger Rose, and while her design is super cool, she does stand out like a sore thumb in this world. It's unclear in this first issue how she really fits into the picture, as it seems to be a world of dudes in sharp suits and one chick with cool/weird hair in a red catsuit. It's a little odd.
Beyond the lack of clarity however, Oeming's art is as stylish as ever. Dark and moody, cool and sharp, he excels as always at setting a perfectly clear tone that helps define and shape his worlds from panel one. Taki Soma's colors are, quite frankly, awesome. They're smart and consider the light of the scene at times very well, but other times the colors are weird and unexpected. A room is bathed in sickly greens, another scene is almost monochromatic reds. Characters are blue, a wall is pea green against characters all in black -- unusual but very fun choices that make the entire comic a surprising visual treat.
In the end, there's a lot to like for a first issue, and based on Bendis and Oeming's reputation and what they've set up, it's a no-brainer to tune in for the second. However, time will tell whether they can distance themselves from "Powers" or if "The United States of Murder, Inc." will forever live a bit in its shadow.