Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Brian Michael Bendis Takes Siege of New York

    Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

     Brian Michael Bendis sits in a café across from the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. It’s a rainy fall day and Bendis is high on life. In the past decade, Bendis has become the primary architect of the Marvel Universe, starting with writing Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man, and ending with the keys to the company built by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in the 1960s. Part of why Bendis is in New York City, from his home city of Portland, Oregon, is to catch up with the landlords of the House of Ideas.

    “The moment I get off the plane, I feel like I’ve walked onto the set of this movie I’m writing, and it’s alive and up and running,” Bendis beams over his cup of hot tea. “It’s very surreal, actually, and then it becomes about location scouting; I was doing it while we were taking pictures, and I’ll be doing it later. It doesn’t even occur to me to get in a cab, because I walk everywhere in New York. Everything is of interest. Yesterday was pouring rain, and that was of interest. I walked home all the way. Everything’s interesting, everything’s fascinating, and it’s all good story stuff.”

    Under Bendis’ tenure, the Marvel Universe has become a more noir-ish place, as heroes question their own missions and clash over beliefs, and – every once in a while – the badguys win. Bendis’ stories are also smattered with chatty dialogue and a lack of third person captions; considering what a talkative and personable guy Bendis is in real life, it’s not surprising.
    "Because of the continuous nature of the monthly periodical, it allowed itself a lot of exposition, and a lot of bloatedness that would not be allowed in any other type of writing, in any other world,” Bendis points out. “Then that itself became the ‘Meanwhile’ caption…and comics have been written in a cell since.

    “I asked myself ‘What do I have to add?’ I like plays and I like when characters seem to be talking at each other rather than to each other because of a monologue. I don’t like exposition-heavy dialogue, or if it’s exposition, it’s because one of the people in the room don’t know what they’re being told (which doesn’t make it exposition anymore). It’s very, very important to me:

    “Could it be applied to Spider-Man and Daredevil? It may slow down the action elements of the story a bit, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening, because something just as vicious could be said. That’s my journey then, and my journey now. There are a million fights and plot devices, but an unending amount of damage people can do to each other verbally. Not all of them have been done. I love a good fight scene, writing them, looking at them, and when I do it, there’s nothing more fun for me. On the other hand, Luke Cage shitting his pants because he’s worried about his baby is something I’ve never seen before, and is of interest to me.

    “When you find things superheroes haven’t done or seen before, or interactions or friendships you haven’t seen before, that’s gold, man.”

    Brian Michael Bendis grew up in Cleveland, Ohio; aside from American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar, there isn’t much comics culture there. Luckily for Brian, a couple of examples were passing through one weekend when he was an energetic twelve year-old:

    “When I was a kid, one Sunday afternoon, my dad took me to this comics show,” Brian recalls. “The one artist at the show was Swamp Thing’s John Totleben. Genius John Totleben, an amazing illustrator. But, I was so young that when I looked at his Swamp Thing art, I didn’t get it, but five years later, it’s my favorite thing in the world. But back then, I didn’t get it. I was so hungry, because I wanted to be an artist. I remember my Dad was asking questions for me, talking to John, who was very nice and was answering.

    “My Dad went ‘This show is kind of dead.’

    “John said ‘There’s a bigger show down the street, and Walt Simonson’s the guest.’

     “‘Walt Simonson!?’” Brian perks up in imitation of his younger self. “I tore out of there. I didn’t say goodbye, John Totleben couldn’t have been cooler to me with his time, and I fucking bailed. It was years later when I was just out of college and working at a comic store. That store’s owner was friends with John Totleben, and I became friends with him, too. The first few times I met him, I didn’t think he could ever remember it, because it was so hugely embarrassing. He went ‘I remember you.’ He gave me three hours as a kid, and I couldn’t even say goodbye.

    “The point is I ran down to see Walt Simonson, and had all of my stuff with me. He took me behind the counter, sat me down, laid out my work in front of everybody, and critiqued and told me what to do and where to start. I was so young that these ideas weren’t known to me. It changed my world, and I was done, and I was in, and was going to do comics forever no matter what. He changed me. I wrote him a couple of times and he would send me textbooks, and then I left him alone because I thought I’d be bothering him.”

    Bendis did grow up into a career in the comic book industry, cutting his teeth as a writer and artist at defunct black and white comics company Caliber on crime books like Fire and the more successful Jinx. In 1999, Bendis won the Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, and decided to express his gratitude to the catalyst for his success:

    “I walked up to [Walter] and told him what he did for me, and now I’d won an Eisner,” Bendis reminisces. “I was waiting for the moment when I’d done something and could come up to him and say ‘You did this, you made this happen. You changed my life.’ I got him a little misty, and I’m very happy about that.

    “He looked at me and went ‘You’re not young, and you were twelve. Shit, I’m old!’ We became friends and went to Australia together, and he was so cool to me. Even at the Baltimore show last week, he was showing me his new art, and it’s the work of a younger man. My whole life has been wanting to be Walt Simonson. I don’t do a lot of shows, and with the Internet, I go to ‘Be Walt Simonson’ on the Internet.”

    Bendis’ Jinxworld.com website and message board cranked up his accessibility level to his fans by the late ‘90s. By 1999, he jumped ship from Caliber and moved over to Image Comics, where Spawn creator Todd McFarlane tapped him to author Sam and Twitch, a crime-noir Spawn spin-off that followed the two cops from McFarlane’s then top-selling comic book. Bendis put his pencil and inking tools away to focus on shaping his distinctive writing voice, and learned several lessons that would come in handy down the road.

    “I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, particularly with collaboration, which was an art form unto itself,” Brian admits. “I worked with my friends, or without any collaborators, for a lot of years, and a lot of hours alone being the writer/letterer/colorist. If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault, and if something needed fixing I would fix it…

    “The year or two years I was on Sam and Twitch was very good in learning how to collaborate: you write for the artist, not write what you would draw, but write what they should draw and try to see the world through their eyes. I wasn’t totally there yet, but I was very close. Without those two years, I would’ve stumbled through writing Ultimate Spider-Man more than I would’ve otherwise. Also, I think it’s because I didn’t break in in my early twenties or teens, and I just started writing what I would like to read.

    “When you’re in indy comics, you just write the book you want to read: ‘No one else is making this book, so I’m going to make the book I would like to read.’ That’s what I applied to my work, and it’s done me right. I found (not just for me but for other people, as well) that if you feel ‘I would totally buy this,’ someone else will see that as a true statement of expression. Sometimes with mainstream comics or genre writing in general, the writer and characters can get lost. But if you keep to that central idea of ‘I would buy this, it means something to me,’ someone else will agree. That’s something I learned in indy comics. Also, when you’re going eight years of not making a dime, then it’s still not about money. I can honestly say that. Yeah, I get a variant cover on a book and that’s great and people like those, but that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t come at it with ‘How much money can I make on these?’”

    After a lengthy run on Sam and Twitch, McFarlane fired Bendis from the title. Bendis would be more than fine, however, as he was gearing up for the next and unexpected phase of his career.

    Marvel Comics was re-emerging from declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy, fighting a then-dying marketplace. When creative partners Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were tapped by Marvel to produce a line of four titles under the imprint of “Marvel Knights”, the pair staged a coup by drafting cult film maker Kevin Smith to write the first several issues of the failing comic book Daredevil.

    The second arc was written by Bendis’ old friend and collaborator, cartoonist David Mack, who did Bendis a favor that resulted in Brian’s new residency at the House of Ideas.

    “My friend David Mack was doing Daredevil, and I went ‘Show Joe my stuff, Dave!’ Brian says. “He did, and then Joe called me and asked me what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do Nick Fury. I wanted to do Dr. Strange. I pitched what everyone pitches. Nick Fury almost happened with Bill Sienkewicz, and that fell apart, so I thought ‘Oh, man, back at the end of the line again. Here I go.’

    “Joe called me up again and said ‘You know what we need, if you want to do this, is we need Daredevil. Kevin’s late, and I’m late, and the book’s our flagship Marvel Knights title and is off the rails schedule-wise. If you come back in for an arc, it would help us get back on track. Is that something you want to do? In fact, why don’t you and David Mack do it together?’

    “I wrote back, thinking it was going to be cancelled again, and did two issues in a weekend. I wrote my little ass off and it was the story ‘Wake Up’.”

    “Wake Up” follows newspaper reporter Ben Urich, as he gets drawn into the life of a former super-villain’s troubled young son. The story deals more with child abuse than the struggles of costumed heroes and villains, viewed through the everyman lens of Urich. After finishing “Wake Up,” Bendis got handed a defining assignment by Quesada, one that led to a record-breaking run by any creative team on a comic book..

"I was a big fan of guys who had lengthy runs: I like Gil Kane as the Green Lantern guy; he did a million things after, but two of the first five words in his obituary were ‘Green Lantern’. I know that when I die, Spider-Man will be somewhere in the first sentence, and that’s fine by me."

    “I handed [‘Wake Up’] in and then Joe calls me up and goes ‘Hey, do you like Spider-Man?’,” Brian continues.

    “I go ‘I love Spider-Man.’

    “‘How much of a nerd are you?’

    “‘I’m on it. I’m a Marvel kid.’

    “He goes ‘Do you know who Bill Jemas is?’


    “‘Bill Jemas is the new Publisher, and he’s starting this thing called Ground Zero comics. If you want to start Spider-Man over from scratch, is that something that would interest you?’

    “I go ‘Yeah.’

    “Then Joe goes ‘You’ll get a call from him, and if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay, we’ll find someone else.’ Of course I wanted it; another writer had had it before me, and he had made the mistake I would’ve made, which is slavishly adapt Amazing Fantasy #15.”

    Marvel’s pride has always been a solid continuity since the 1960s, unlike rival DC Comics, who has constantly restarted their superhero series anew. When Ground Zero Comics was first announced, the fan reaction was not entirely favorable, particularly since artist John Byrne had just unsuccessfully updated Spider-Man’s origin in 1998 with the Spider-Man: Chapter One. Taking the assignment placed a bullseye on Bendis’ bald pate.

    “With great power comes great responsibility’ is ultimately the story that you’re telling,” Bendis reflects. “It wasn’t broken, so you didn’t have to fix it. I went about telling the story how we would do stories today: Uncle Ben originally died on panel sixteen because Stan and Steve only had about eleven pages to tell the story. When you read it, it’s like a Cliff’s Notes of this other story. I said ‘I’ll write that other story, and not the Cliff’s Notes version.’

    “It’s not enough to say ‘Uncle Ben’s dead, let’s be sad’ Let’s make you feel it.

    “When the book started coming out, people thought Aunt May would die instead. They still think things need to be fixed, but it’s not even broken.”

    In the summer of 2000, the newly rechristened Ultimate line premiered with Ultimate Spider-Man #1, which wasn’t as bad as we all worried it would be. It was, surprisingly, a clever retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story, trading a radioactive spider for a genetically-engineered one and taking its time in telling the story.

    Bendis’ take on Peter Parker’s Uncle and Aunt were old hippies, with Ben sporting a ponytail and May plucky and active. Rather than a cub photographer, Peter Parker was now a web designer at the Daily Bugle. Even villains like the Green Goblin come out different than their classic counterparts, with the masked villain now a hulkish brute.

    “It was going to be called Ground Zero comics, which would have been the worst marketing ever in the history for the planet,” Brian admits, citing the Ground Zero name for the remains of the World Trade Center a year later. “You know what? It was weird when it first got announced, people were jumping out of line. Immediately, my enemy was ambivalence and indifference, which is fine, because I used to wear it like a warm blanket. I was filling up a nice Internet thing with the board, and then I went ‘Hey, I’m doing Spider-Man!’ People went ‘Fuck you!’ because Chapter One and other things that had been tried, left a bad taste in their mouth.”

    Marvel’s Publisher Bill Jemas became more known for his grand-standing and outrageous behavior to the fan press, something that Bendis feels helped bring notice to the struggling Marvel.

    “Some times when Bill Jemas would talk to the press, he’d say something and then leave, and I would be left there going ‘What did he say?’ One of the funniest things he ever said was when I was doing an Elektra book at Marvel Knights, and it was a dark spy thriller. He said ‘This is going to be the book for you fanboys when you’re alone on a Friday night, just to take care of you.’

    “He was a ballbuster and he was funny, and a lot of that’s what we needed at the time, because Marvel was digging themselves out of a big deep hole. You need a guy out there stirring shit up and taking shots at everybody. Sometimes he went over the top, which is not how I would do things, but I would laugh at it. Him and Joe put on quite a show, and it’s absolutely what we needed. It was undeniable.”

    Ultimate Spider-Man also established Bendis and artist Mark Bagley as a long-running creative team, clocking in at a full 111 issues together, eclipsing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary 102 issue  run on Fantastic Four in the 1960s. The Ultimate comics line was an unexpected success, and continues to run today. The Ultimate line also started recap pages at the beginning of each issue, which brought new readers up to speed, something that changed how writers tackled each issue.

    “We did everything we were supposed to do originally and got everyone off their ass,” Brian notes. “Most of these weren’t my idea: the recap letters page, the way the Internet was being used for the audience, people across the board across Marvel Comics, to the point where you couldn’t tell that the Ultimate line isn’t that differently done from the main Marvel. There weren’t the recap pages before, that happened and then the writers could go ahead without having to worry about exposition. It absolutely changed the language of comics, without question. That’s Bill Jemas.”

“If you stay away from New York for too long, you wind up writing Woody Allen’s New York or Martin Scorcese’s New York, like some other fictionalization of a city, and you want to write your own (whatever version that it is), so you come back as often as you can…

    “I try to write the New York City New York and add elements to it. I don’t try to write anyone else’s. Stan Lee’s already done his New York, and Woody Allen’s already done Woody Allen’s New York; I’m just going to do a shittier version of it, and if no one wants it, at least it’s my thing.”

    While crafting Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis was also becoming more firmly entrenched in Daredevil, a book that he was initially writing a story arc at a time.

    “When I first got these jobs, I was still freelance,” Brian explains. “You can plan all day long, but you’re only as good as your next issue. I was hired on Daredevil until Kevin Smith came back. I had been fired from Sam and Twitch, and Alex Maleev was still on it. He did a few, and then called me up and said ‘What are you doing now?’ and I could tell he was saying ‘Can I come over?’

    “I asked Joe ‘Are you a fan of Alex?’

    “Joe said ‘I’m a huge fan of Alex’s.’

    “‘Can we find something for him to do?’

    “‘Daredevil! Daredevil! I’d want to read that! You guys do Daredevil until Kevin comes back.’”

    Smith’s return to Daredevil never materialized, and Bendis found himself more fully taking on the reins of the title, now with the photo-realistic Maleev as regular artist. Bendis’ direction redefined Daredevil as a character, shattering the status quo.

    “Then it became clear that Kevin wasn’t coming back, and I came up with the Owl storyline. If you do that, you have to go the distance with it, and can’t just drop a bomb and leave. The point is to find an angle on the book and then enjoy it from every aspect of that angle, and then find what new stories you can get out of that idea.

    “I pitched it ‘He’s told every girl he’s ever made out with that he’s Daredevil. Kingpin knows he’s Daredevil. Out of all the superheroes in the world, he’s the one in the most danger of being outed, and has the most to lose. I know he’s been outed, but he’s not outed – out him. That’s what the book’s about. This Marvel Comic’s about the superhero who has been outed, and it can never go back. And guess what? He’s a lawyer, so he knows completely everything that’s going to happen to him, and what he has to do to fix this. That’s the book from now on. No six months later undoing it.’”

    Bendis’ run on Daredevil is indicative of a new breed of comic book storytelling: a long form structure where several issues are not only formulated as a larger story, but a larger story that then feeds into another larger story—one that ultimately climaxes as the conclusion of an even bigger over arcing direction. His Daredevil was also geared more for the destination of a trade paperback collection to be sold in mainstream bookstores such as Barnes and Noble. While working on his 55 issue run on Daredevil, Bendis also inherited the Avengers, a position which has led to his becoming the narrative architect of Marvel Comics. Like with Daredevil, he kind of fell into Avengers.

    “Bill Jemas had us come to a retreat, and sit around a big table as big as this room, with fifty to sixty people talking nerd talk,” Brian remembers. “I remember the first retreat was about Bill Jemas going down the line of comics and saying ‘We publish Iron Man because we own Iron Man. That’s not enough reason to publish it. Why do we publish it? What is it about, and what is the essence of Iron Man?’

    “Someone goes ‘It’s about a boy and his toy.’

    “‘Great, we got what this is about. If not, why not?’ Soon Warren Ellis gave a new treatment and we got Extremis.

    “We got to Avengers, and that was one that Mark Millar and I had a lot of feelings about. The team then had Quasar, Jack of Hearts, and She-Hulk. It was supposed to be about Earth’s mightiest heroes,” Brian notes the second stringer Avengers of the time.

    “I said ‘I’d like to see it have the coolest people, like Spider-Man and Wolverine and Captain America.’

    “Then Mark goes ‘When I was a kid, I would always buy the JLA because for ten cents you could own all of the big heroes.’

    “The room started yelling, like it was a jury. [Editor] Tom Brevoort turned purple and went ‘Spider-Man is not an Avenger!’” Brian laughs, impersonating Brevoort.

    “‘Why not?’

    “‘Because he’s not!’

    “That wasn’t a good answer for Bill Jemas, so he decided we were doing it. Soon after, there was the same conversation about Bucky coming back. The room was crazy and screaming, so we realized that Bucky was coming back. That was it.

    “Bill’s idea was that if the room did that, the Internet would do it, and if the Internet does it, everyone was going to Hawaii for vacation.”

    “I wasn’t there to get a gig, because I felt really good about mine. By the end of the night, I was writing Avengers, and Tom Brevoort (who was purple and mad at me earlier), was now my editor. It ended up working out great; he was an upstanding editor who helped get out the best version of what I had to create, but I definitely had to prove myself. ‘I’m going to put Spider-Man in the Avengers. Why?’ After a few storylines, we saw the reason why, and we liked it and it worked, so I earned his respect.”

    Bendis’ start on Avengers in 2004 was with the end of the book; in a storyline called “Avengers Disassembled,” several Avengers were killed (including fan favorite Hawkeye), and the team was relaunched with a new line-up in New Avengers

    “When I look back at it, I came in and wanted to blow shit up,” Brian admits. “I came in like a bull in a china shop and blew up Avengers Mansion on page six, and everybody died. Then there were my Avengers…

    “There was no difference between what I did and a little kid coming up on the playground, coming up to a toy, and stepping on it. I did exactly the same thing: you don’t know who I am, and I came up to you and popped your balloon with a pin. I kept doing it, for five straight months, and then I ended it. I had a great idea that I would direct my Avengers so that every reader is an Avenger. If you were sitting at the table with them, you were the one at the table, and were an Avenger. If I made you an Avenger, then I could sit you down at the table and blow your world up. It wasn’t the nicest first thing to do to you as a reader.”

    Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers was the most affected by Marvel’s large company wide story Civil War, where the heroes were divided over a government initiative, handling their differences in the only way superheroes tend to know how – by fighting. After Civil War, and an alien shapeshifter invasion (Secret Invasion, masterminded by Bendis), a former supervillain, Norman Osborn, found himself in charge of the superhero community. Having given up his Green Goblin persona, Osborn dons an armor as the Iron Patriot, and leads a new team of Avengers – all of whom are secretly villains and psychotics in the identities of superheroes.

    It might sound dumb on paper – but Bendis handles it with a realistic aplomb reinforced by his hard-hitting dialogue and convincing sense of character. An issue of Dark Avengers features Osborn on a news program, admitting his Green Goblin days as a sign of mental imbalance, an illness he has worked hard to overcome.

    You actually find yourself rooting for the guy, for a page or two, until you remember who Osborn really is behind the cameras.

    “In his world, he’s not a total madman,” Bendis says of Osborn. “It’s knowing the villain of a story and knowing they never seem themselves as the bad guy. I wrote it and read it back, wondering if it was over the top. Then Cheney was on CNN doing his ‘It’s not my fault’ rounds and lo and behold, it was right there. I like antagonists (rather than ‘villains’) whose point of view is so clear that it’s arguable. Like Magneto: Magneto’s still in the Marvel Universe because what he wants is arguable. How he’s doing it is another question, and the story.”

    “It’s not ‘Wahahahah! I’m gonna get Spider-Man!’ Norman and his legacy added to the picture. If you said ‘Here’s Dave Johnson, and he’s the world leader,’ you couldn’t do the same thing. But his point of view is treated completely different…

    “Also, Norman is someone I know. I base almost everyone on someone with a voice like that. I know someone like that. You’ll never see who it is, but I know this person. That’s how I get to it.”

    Norman’s downfall takes place in the current mini-series Siege, where all hell breaks loose, and all of the Marvel Comics take a new and brighter direction, collectively called The Heroic Age.

    Amidst writing numerous books exclusively for Marvel, Bendis has also been writing the much-lauded Powers, with artist Michael Avon Oeming. Powers marries Bendis’ past noir with his current superhero work, as the book follows an ex-superhero turned cop, who polices the superheroes in a world where powers are commonplace.

    Also on Bendis’ plate is the Spider-Woman motion comic book for Marvel, with artist Alex Maleev. Where most motion comics are animatics adapted from existing print comics, Spider-Woman is reverse-engineered as a motion comic then printed as a comic book. The jury’s still out as to whether motion comics are going to last a year, or be the future of comics, but Bendis waded knee-deep into the format willingly.

    “A big part of this year has been working on the motion comic of Spider-Woman. I got to take the same material and make a comic book and motion comic of it at the same time. I pulled some stuff from the motion comic, and put some stuff in the print; things that work in one don’t always work in the other. There’s a road to hope for me and my peers on this. I have a comic book on Hulu right now; it’s crazy, and there’s a print version that’s a different thing but with the same story. I am doing the changes like many of my heroes had to do, a seismic shift in their product, when digital coloring came about.

    “When production went digital in comics, a lot of artists had to make seismic shifts. There are a couple of artists who did not, and their work didn’t look good on the shiny paper, didn’t look good with the digital coloring.

    “The Spider-Woman project has been going since January this year, and I’ve been studying hard trying not to make an ass of myself. Marvel has always been the last guy in the door, so I was saying ‘No, let’s get in there, man.’”

    With the recent announcement of Apple’s tablet-sized iPad reader, as well as Marvel’s online presence, the proving time for both motion comics and digital comics is around the corner. Of all comics personalities, Bendis is perhaps in the best place to make the jump to digital, as he’s already an old hand at having a strong online presence.

    “I’m there, man,” Brian says. “If you’ve got a question, then I’ll answer it. I’m extremely proud of my message board, the relationship I have with readers, even people who have a sordid opinion of me (I don’t win everybody over, obviously). I can tell all rational thinking people won’t be mad about it. I don’t think I’ve had what I considered to be a bad moment online in a while.

    “You see other creators have meltdowns or flamewars, and fights they absolutely can’t win. I have friends who do this, and I pull them aside and say ‘Say it in your work. If you can’t say it in your work, it’s your problem, and not their problem. You shouldn’t have to explain yourself. You should explain it in your work, and if they don’t get it, they might have misread it. If fifty people got it, except for one guy, you might want to point out ‘Hey, fifty other people got it,’ that’s one thing.’ I love people who won’t hold back and show stuff to writers who want to learn how to write, or artists who want to learn how to draw.”

Learn more about Brian Michael Bendis at his site, Jinxworld.