Brian Michael Bendis first attracted attention in the mid-'90s writing and drawing tough, noir-inflected comics like Jinx and Torso. In 2000, he debuted Powers, a police-procedural-with-superheroes he co-created with artist Michael Avon Oeming, and Ultimate Spider-Man, an alternate-universe title that rebooted Spider-Man as a 21st-century teenager. Those titles popularized Bendis' trademarks: a deliberately paced, character-driven approach to storytelling, and an emphasis on smart, conversational dialogue.
Since then, Bendis has tightened his relationship with Marvel comics. While continuing on Powers and Ultimate Spider-Man (he's currently ushering in new artist Stuart Immonen after an 111-issue run with inaugural artist Mark Bagley) Bendis enjoyed long runs on Daredevil and Alias (a mature-readers' title he created with artist Michael Gaydos), among other titles. He's currently shepherding two Avengers series while developing a film version of Jinx with Charlize Theron. Bendis recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his craft and his secret origin.
The A.V. Club: A lot of people have said that Ultimate Spider-Man brought them back to comics. Do you hear that a lot?
Brian Michael Bendis: I'd be disingenuous if I said I didn't. I do hear it, and it always surprises me, because I'm not sure, from a marketing standpoint, how they found out about it. Because there wasn't that kind of marketing-minded push toward people, saying, "Hey, come on back!" But it did seem… I guess it was word of mouth, but it does kinda shock me, 'cause, you know. I did come from an indie world where no one was saying anything about anything.
AVC: Where do you think that series' appeal comes from?
BMB: [Pauses.] We're honest, we're completely comic writers, I think, end of the day, no matter how much crap I get for the nonsense I do, I never get hammered for dishonesty, pulling a fast one, or hacking it out. So I think generally, people I've talked to were just looking for an honest take on something they already had a fondness for, so that worked out pretty good.
I try not to overanalyze it, 'cause I don't want to ruin it for myself. You poke at it too much, and you just suck all the fun out of it. Every once in a while, someone comes up to you and you can have that kind of conversation without being too self-serving. "What about me do you like?" What I'm most proud of is that we're coming from an honest place, and it's an honest enough thing where they want to show it to their friend and go, "Look, this doesn't suck."
AVC: Do you think it came along at a time when a lot of comics were sucking, though?
BMB: Well, again, that's an odd one, because it's a generalization, but it definitely… In the history of comics and movies and music too, it's always when things are at their bottomed-out, either creatively or financially, there's more chance-taking going on. You might as well, you know… Everything else is fucked-up. You might as well green-light Easy Rider, 'cause we've got nothing else to do, nothing else is working. I'm not saying that Ultimate Spider-Man is Easy Rider, but the similarity is that in the movie industry, they were literally closing their doors—it was over. And they might as well try a couple low-budget, counterculture things and see if maybe they want that, 'cause they don't want Hello, Dolly! And I felt a similarity when we were doing the Ultimate books, when they were first launching, that things were really bad over at Marvel. And if they were so far down the list that they were up to me, then it really was, "Well, we might as well let these guys go crazy, 'cause nothing else is working."
The first time I visited the Bullpen, literally half of it was boxed up, there were like filing cabinets on top of filing cabinets, like the place was closing. They were literally in bankruptcy. And I remember feeling, "Oh, this isn't the Bullpen Stan Lee wrote about." [Laughs.] You know, Stan always presented this circus of ideas and culture and counterculture all mixed up in pop art, and you get there and it's like a going-out-of-business sale. And I remember, a year after that, the next time I got to come back, the place was back up and running again. So that's how bad it was, even if that was just my physical look at things, vs. how they actually were. We definitely got to come in there and they let us do our thing, whereas maybe a few years ago, they wouldn't have been so open.
AVC: Does being from Cleveland inform your writing in any way?
BMB: Everyone's a product of who they are, and I think that me being raised by a single woman with not much of a father figure definitely [had an effect]. One similarity I see between peers and some of the people who read my books is that comics were definitely an outlet for us. I was into comics because these were my real male role models, even though at the time, I didn't know it. But that's definitely what was going on. And I switched it over to the—I looked at who the creators of these comics were, and they became my role models. At first, I'd read The Avengers and go, "Oh God, I love The Avengers." And then I'd go, "Okay, why do I love The Avengers?" and I flip over the first page and see George Perez's name. And I go, "Okay, I love George Perez. When I grow up, I want to be George Perez."
As far as Cleveland goes, it's hard to say, other than I'm hyperly aware now that it's a second city and there's a second-city mentality, and I definitely seem to angle my love of second-tier, like the B-list characters—or those that are perceived as B-list. I don't see them as B-list. Luke Cage and all that, they're definitely the second-city characters to Captain America and Superman. So I definitely see a connection there.
But other than that, you know, I had a weird upbringing—I went to a private Hebrew school most of my life, but lived the life of a comic creator while I was there the whole time, so it's hard to say. It worked out okay, but who knows what the fuck, how it's connected?
AVC: At what point did you start working at a comic-book store?
BMB: First year in college, I was going to art school and I was tutoring some kids in artwork, which was really disgusting. If you saw my artwork, that was really offensive, that people were paying me to teach them to do the stuff that I was doing. One of the guys said, "Hey, I heard the guy downtown owns a comics store is paying like $50 for the McFarlane issue of Detective Comics." And I was like, "Shit, I have that, and I need the $50 more than anything." So I went down there to sell it, and he offered me $25, and I said, "This is worth $50." And then we were haggling, and the guy goes, "Are you Jewish?" And I was so offended—like, what, because I'm haggling? And I go, "Yeah." And he goes, "Good, I'm Jewish. Listen, I'm a lawyer, I need to go to court. Take the keys, run the store, I'll pay you in a few hours." And he never even asked me my name.
I wasn't gonna work in a comics store, but then I started working there, and after a few days, I went, like, "Jesus Christ, I really need to work here, there's a lot of shit about the business and about publishers I don't know at all, and it just seemed like the perfect way—and in art school, I wasn't able to apply my art directly to comics. The work at the comics store became more of a college to me than the school I was paying thousands of dollars a year to go to. I'm actually very glad I worked at a comics store, and I recommend it to a lot of people who ask me. I have literally gone to the warehouse, picked the comics up, put them in a car, saw how they were distributed, how they got from A to B, how they're displayed on the stands, why they're displayed on the stands that way. And I've talked to every single type of comic-book reader from every walk of life. Some of them are intense readers; some are more casual, but some guys are just insane and need a new issue of Darkhawk every day, and they keep coming in every day asking for Darkhawk, even though you tell them it's a monthly book.
I think working there was the greatest thing I did for myself, 'cause now when I'm creating the books, I know how they're going to be put out. A lot of my peers just don't know a lot of this stuff.
AVC: And you already knew you wanted to create comics when you were working there?
BMB: Yeah, I was already making 'em. I was already working, and I bullied my… I went to Cleveland Institute Of Art for five years, and about three years in, I kinda said, "Listen, I'll learn anything you wanna teach me, but I have to apply it directly to my comic-book artwork, because that's what I'm here for, and if I can't do it, I'm gonna have to just leave and take my money elsewhere. Not to be rude about it, but I just have this goal in mind, please let me do it." And while I was working at the comics store, I did a comic book—my graduation thesis from like my second or third year, I can't remember, but at the end of the semester, you had to pick a project, and I made like an anthology project. And I sold the comic book at the store as part of the project. I got feedback from people, and a couple of the people who bought it pointed out a couple publishers, like Fantagraphics or Caliber, that they thought might actually publish it for real. Literally eight months to the day of me sending it out, I heard from both Caliber and Fantagraphics, and Fantagraphics offered me what my next project would be, and Caliber offered to publish the comic I already put out as is. And I then went to my college and said, "Listen, I got publishing contracts, and what I want to do is stay in school, but I want to work on my projects that I'm doing for publication." So they assigned me a professor and gave me independent study for illustration and let me, like, work on my comics for class. So, I'm getting graded on them and I'm putting them out on the stands.
AVC: What was the title of this?
BMB: It's called Parts Of A Whole. Please do not look for it.
AVC: Is it out there?
BMB: I'm talking to people who are reading this interview. [Laughs.] Yeah, it's out there. What happened was, Caliber offered to publish it, I couldn't believe it, and of course then I had to redraw the entire book. I redrew everything, 'cause it wasn't good enough for publishing. It was just like a mishmash of two stories, a superhero parody, and some other stuff, and I put it out. It did okay. It was startling to be on the stands. And I started on a new project, and originally it was for… Do you remember when Fantagraphics was doing porn comics?
AVC: They still do, as Eros.
BMB: But they also had something called Monster Comics, not a horror line, but a B-movie-monster line. So I was kinda angling my piece for the monster line, but it had female leads in it, and the editor told me, "Gee, if ya nipple it up a little bit, like draw some nipples or rip the shirts or something, we could put it in the Eros line, and it would do, like twice the numbers." And I was like, "Jesus Christ, don't you guys publish Love And Rockets? You guys are telling me to put nipples on it?" I was so bummed out, and I remember thinking, "Hmmm, I am way too young to be selling out that hard so fast. I'm sure one day I'll have a wife and a kid and I'll need to, but Jesus, you know? If I don't not sell out now, when will I not sell out, you know?" So things were going really well with Caliber, and I called up Caliber said, "Yeah, I got this book and it's about these Amazons that go to college and everything, and they want me to put nipples on it." And he was like, "Well, if you're uncomfortable, we'll publish it as is, you know." So then I just ended up staying at Caliber for a few years, where I made a lot of my close friends and collaborators.
AVC: Would you prefer your career started with Jinx?
BMB: Fire was a small spy thriller that I did in '92, '93, and that I've since remastered and re-lettered, and it doesn't embarrass me, that book. It's definitely the work of a young creator, but it's worth its money, it's worth picking up.
AVC: Were you happy with the comics you were reading on the stands at that time, or was it somehow a response to that?
BMB: You know, me and a lot of my friends at Caliber, we felt that we weren't reading the kind of books that we wanted to read, so we'd go make them. And still, to this day, I do that at Marvel and I'm like, "I would like to see a comic book about this, so I will make one." And I'm allowed to do it on a larger stage now. I was reading a lot of superhero stuff, but it wasn't speaking to me like the older stuff did. And I was still kinda a child of the '80s, so I was trying to learn more about whatever they were doing, certain creators. I always followed creators, so I tend to not purposely pick up books that suck. So I know there were a lot of things that were sucking out there. I was working at the comic-book store at the height of Image and Death Of Superman, and actually quit the comic-book store over the death of Superman 'cause I just couldn't stand it. That day there was like a line of people, and even my mom called me and goes, "Is Superman really dead?" I go, "Ah, I gotta get outta here, I'm going insane." [Laughs.]
And I had worked at the comic-book store almost by accident, because I was deciding to make a living as an artist, be it as an art tutor or illustrator, and that's how I wanted to make my living. I wasn't supposed to work as a comics-store clerk, and I had made a decision to go back to that, because I thought it was important to hustle and get work.
AVC: On Craigslist, you still see listings like, "Complete Death Of Superman: $350!"
BMB: [Laughs.] That would be the height of people getting gouged and thinking it was an investment. I remember some dude coming in with, I think, X-Men #1, with Jim Lee, you know, and he'd bought it off the Home Shopping Network. And he said, "Hey, give me $200 for this." And we're like, "Nah, that's okay, man." And he goes, "No, no, it's worth $200." And we're like, "No, it really isn't worth anything." And he goes, "But I have this Certificate Of Authenticity." And my manager pulls out this long-box of X-Men that were unsold, and he goes, "No, we're good." And the guy got mad at us, he goes, "You're lying to me." And we go, "We're not taking the comic book, we're not trying to buy from you. We're being as honest as anyone could be, we don't want anything from you. The lie would be, we're trying to get it for $10. It's not worth anything." And I did feel like, "This is gonna be bad." And it got bad real fast.
All the people who got in [the business] to make money kinda lost themselves in the money. And a lot of people made some money. I know some of the people who made money—I didn't know them at the time, but I know them now, and I know how much money they were really making, and it was startling. But literally, they were just selling empty comic books, it didn't matter what was in the books. So what happens was, all those people who were in it for the money, they leave. So what's left is me and my friends and guys, we don't care if we make a damn dime. You just got a bunch of comic creators that care about craft, and all the weasels are gone.
AVC: What was it like starting at Marvel?
BMB: I had a couple of false starts, a couple of things I was offered that didn't get off the stands, didn't make it into production. Quite a few years ago, I got offered Spider-Woman, but Marvel West shut down and took my pitch with them. And that was a bummer, 'cause I really wanted to do it. And when I first got to Marvel, I had done Jinx and Goldfish and I was toward the end of Torso, and my best friend in the world was David Mack, who does Kabuki, and he'd gotten to write Daredevil with Joe Quesada. And I was like, "Oh man, Marvel Knights kicks ass." And they were doing some really cool books, you know? And I was like, "If you ever get a chance, show Joe Quesada my work, 'cause that's where I want to work."
And David did, and I got a call from Joe, and he said, "What do you want to do? If you get in Marvel, what would you want to do?" And I start laundry-listing every dream project I've had in my head since I was 2, like everybody who reads comics has them. And I was like [excitedly], "Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, blah blah blah." So originally, I was going to do Nick Fury with Bill Sienkiewicz, and that was a dream come true. And then that fell apart because we got too complicated, and we tried to involve [Jim] Steranko and other elements in it, and I overshot, basically, my expectations.
At the same time, Daredevil had fallen behind schedule because of stuff with Kevin Smith and everything, and Joe said, "Listen, why don't you come over to Daredevil where you're kind of needed, and I think you and David could do something really special together." And that was my first work on Daredevil. I had written, like, the first two issues, and I got a call from Joe, who said, "Listen, Bill Jemas is the publisher at Marvel. He's gonna call you about restarting Spider-Man."
So he called and said, "We're starting Spider-Man from scratch, and you can definitely take the gig." I don't know why, but you know how you meet people, you kinda know right away, anything they say, you should do? There's a lot of people who you should do the opposite of what they say, but every once in a while, you meet someone who is always right as far as you're concerned, and Joe has definitely been that person for me. And so that was Ultimate Spider-Man.
AVC: The original impulse for Ultimate was freedom from continuity, but you're seven years and hundreds of issues into it. Is continuity becoming an issue in the Ultimate Universe now?
BMB: Here's what the thing was. It's a book that represents… The word "continuity" has kind of got this evil reputation, you know what I mean? What it did was, it invented a more reader-friendly comic book. Even though it's 120 issues, you read that recap page, which by the way didn't exist in ancient comics prior to Ultimate Spider-Man. That was a Bill Jemas invention. The new writers don't want to bog down the writing with exposition, which is just lazy writing. So to do a recap like they do in front of Law & Order, or "Previously on ER", to do that and get back right into the story. So that has now been applied to every comic book. So it brought down this way to tell a more layered, character-driven story, unshackling a lot of the tired ways that a monthly book was being produced. You just don't see Wolverine slicing someone with an 80-line thought balloon over his head filling you in on everything that's ever happened to him in his entire life, that kind of stuff. And though it sounds cheeky, "Oh, that's a big invention," it really seismically changed a lot of the language of comics, and freed up stuff to go nuts.
Every comic book is someone's first or their last. If someone's picking this up for the first time, is it entertaining? Can they follow it? You can have a four-part or six-part story, but you should be able to get right in there and figure out what's going on immediately, without insulting the reader at the same time. And also, someone might read this and go, "I'm never buying another comic book again, I'm moving on to something else. I like girls." And they never read another comic again, and it's your responsibility to make that not happen. So these were the theories applied to the Ultimate line more than it was continuity, it was reader-friendly. Don't talk down to people to get new people in.
AVC: So after taking all this time to get rid of thought balloons, you recently brought them back. Why?
BMB: As I said before, thought balloons were being used as the worst… they were digging into some writers' worst instincts for exposition, they were telling, not showing, and that, I just couldn't be a part of. But then I thought of the thought balloon, what it could be, and what my thoughts really were. You've got foreground thoughts and background thoughts in your head all the time, stuff like you do listening to me rambling on. And those thoughts, I thought, particularly in a teen book, would be an interesting way to show a character like Ms. Marvel, who's rarely ever thinking what she's saying, and a character like Ares, who's constantly saying exactly what he's thinking, no matter how outrageous it is. And wouldn't it be great to have these little thought bursts amidst the already ratta-tat-tat of the dialogue between the characters, to have these thought bursts go back and forth?
I guess it was inspired by that scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, where he and Diane Keaton are on the porch and they're kinda getting to know each other, and all he's thinking about is what she would look like naked, and she's thinking, "Oh, he thinks I'm stupid." And meanwhile, they're having this totally bullshit conversation about photographs. And I thought, to do that in comics would be fun, to have these little subtitles of what's really going on in the characters' heads, which is startling or not. So it was just a new way to attempt some language in mainstream comics using an old technique.
AVC: Do you think you're more inspired by films than most comic writers?
BMB: Not at all, there are a lot of comics writers inspired by film and television and music. It's a bastard medium by its nature. It's constantly pulling stuff into it. I can't say that I'm more inspired than others, but I'm definitely inspired by it. What I'm more inspired by is the art of cinematography. Mix that in with my dizzying love of character-driven writing, which you find more in plays than you would in film, but that's definitely the kind of writing that I like the most. The art of cinematography is really the art of telling a story with images and using the light and color and shadows to express more than is even being said, so that stuff gets under my skin more than anything.
AVC: Your career has shifted—you used to run your own show, and now you're working in the Marvel Universe, where everything is plotted out. How do you stay creative within that environment?
BMB: That's the challenge I've grown quite addicted to. And you know, you're a writer, it's very easy to sit alone in your room and write, unfettered by anything. It's much more interesting to find a creative solution to a larger problem. Let people throw shit at you and go, "I'm gonna find a way to solve this. This is beyond my comfort zone. I'm gonna sit and figure this out." And it gets exciting then.
It's an excuse for creativity, is what it is, and other people use it as an excuse to crumble, for lack of a better word, but I get jazzed, I get excited. They go, "Ah, you can't use the Punisher, because Garth Ennis has got him, or something," and I'm like, "Okay, What am I gonna do with it, then?" So I always look at it like a low-budget film. You love those films with budgetary concerns, they always find a way to be more creative than they would have been. "Oh, the shark doesn't work on Jaws?" Okay, Spielberg became a better filmmaker.
AVC: So these days, the Marvel Universe is split—you've got two Avengers, you've got Civil War. When you go on the Marvel editorial retreats where the writers plan these things, how often do you try to reflect the contemporary national situation?
BMB: Well, generally, the group of us get nauseous when we're being preached to or given a message, so we all agree, "Don't do that." Who wants to be lectured by comic-book writers? So what happens is, we're bullshitting around ideas, like Civil War is a perfect example, 'cause there were other ideas on the table, that were just, boy, they were just not gelling. We'd talked about 'em maybe eight straight hours, and the next morning, I said to Dan Buckley, "Can we rewind it? 'Cause, boy," I said out loud, "I hate this. I wouldn't buy this comic." And then, literally an hour later, after everyone was talking about it, Civil War burst out of it. And then when you hear that idea, you go, "Oh, that is a great idea." And also, it does kind of have that real-world flavor that Marvel is immersed in. First the idea comes, and then someone goes, "Oh, you know what that's kind of like? It's kind of like the Patriot Act." And then you go, "Oh man, that's awesome," 'cause we could never even reference the Patriot Act, but it's right there. It's story first, message second. But the best stories are the ones that have both.
AVC: People seem to either love your writing or hate it.
BMB: Yeah, I don't know. If I had my way—you know, your first instinct is, "You know, I wish everybody loved me," but then you go, "Nah, I kinda like this." Every person in any field has that, so I guess that's good, but it's not like I was shooting for it, it's not like I go, "Ah, now I'm gonna piss everyone off." It is funny what pisses people off, too, because it's never the thing that I think will piss people off. But I would rather it be this way, if it has to be a way. I've had complete indifference, and I've had other books I've been on which seemingly are pretty close to universally praised, and that weirded me out, too. What happens is, all you can see is what's wrong with it, and my instincts are like, "Can't you see what's wrong with it?" [Laughs.] I'm trying my best but there's things that I need to work on.
So this, I kinda like, 'cause the debate's always good, when it's not personal, when the debate is about the work and stuff. It's a debate I would like to have with people. Some of it… It's weird, because it comes from different angles. Some of it is like, "Well, I've got a book in the top 10, so I guess I've got to get spanked." And some people think it's their job to do the spanking, and that's fine. And some of it is, I'm writing in the style of what came before me in the history of the book. Particularly The Avengers, I guess, is the one where I get the most divisiveness. Down the middle, people love it or hate it. I'm using a language that wasn't applied to a book like this before. So half this people are gonna be, "Cool, a new way to look at this book," and the other half are gonna be like, "You're not Roy Thomas, drop dead."
AVC: What moment pissed off the most people?
BMB: Um. Well, Avengers Disassembled. Avengers #500 definitely seemed like I was riding a wave of good will from people that was boggling to me. I never had had that in my personal life, let alone in my professional life. So, I was actually quite uncomfortable with it. And in Avengers, I thought, "Here's my idea. I'm gonna change the…" Here's the one thing that I did to The Avengers that's subtle: The whole book is directed as if you were on the team. You're not watching the Avengers or something, you are an Avenger. You are sitting at the table with the Avengers. Wherever they are, you're there; you're not watching the huddle, you're in the huddle. So I put the reader in the huddle, and then I tore it down and caused sheer chaos. I made it the worst day in Avengers history, and had it be one of the Avengers that did it, and killed a couple of the Avengers doing it, and that's when a few people started screaming.
But I've since proven my love of those characters, and my feelings about the team. I went in guns ablaze, and that was jarring, and so it took about a year for people to go, "Okay, I guess I see it a little bit, all right, keep going." And now, people are into it. And people even reread Disassembled… I've seen that a lot lately, people reread it with clearer eyes. The criticism at the time, and it isn't invalid, was that if I'd been on the book about a year, and then blown everything up, it would have been a little easier to take. But at the time, it was just, "Who the fuck is this guy, and why is he blowing up my toys?" Like someone came into your playroom and just knocked everything over, and you're like, "Well, that's not funny. You're an asshole." [Laughs.]