THE BENDIS TOP TEN
Yes, I’m talking about a Top 10 list. The Ten Best Comics written by Brian Michael Bendis. Not single issues, but entire runs, and how they rank from pretty good to pretty great. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the major Bendis missteps, though I’d include “The Pulse” in that category, and “Secret War,” as well. “Siege” may turn out okay, but Bendis’s other forays into superhero event comics haven’t turned out so well, with the paltry plot of “House of M” and the disappointment with the climactic issue of “Secret Invasion.”
But we’re here to celebrate the Best of Bendis, so let’s get on with the show.
THE TEN BEST BENDIS COMICS
Though “Spider-Woman” will always be tainted for me because of the absolutely terrible motion comic version, this is a strong series about a character trying to rebuild her life the only way she knows how: with international espionage and plenty of daring escapes. Jessica Drew may have always had great potential – and her costume may look great – but other than some vague memories of her Saturday morning cartoon and a few late-period Carmine Infantino issues of her Bronze Age comic, I’ve never been all that impressed with the character as she’s been presented. With Alex Maleev’s vivid, beautifully garish color scheme, and an impressive confrontation with a Skrull, “Spider-Woman” has already leapt into the Bendis Top 10 after only half a dozen issues.
9. Ultimate Six
This is an overlooked superhero gem from Bendis, featuring some fine artwork from Trevor Hairsine. Before Bendis was BENDIS, at least in terms of the mainstream Marvel Universe, he was doing some cool things in the peripheries of the Ultimate Universe – fitting, since he was the guy to launch that version of the Stan and Jack and Steve reality with “Ultimate Spider-Man.” “Ultimate Six” is a kind of supervillain prison break movie on paper, featuring the revamped Sinister Six and plenty of Peter Parker. It may not end quite as well as it begins, but it’s a bold and direct little spin-off that’s more than worth a look.
8. Dark Avengers
The best thing to come out of the endless Skrull reveals and absurdly-resolved finale of “Secret Invasion” was the Norman Osborn rise to power and the later advent of the Dark Avengers. Yes, this series does build upon what Warren Ellis did with some of the same characters in “Thunderbolts,” but Bendis’ Norman Osborn is a different take on the delusional villain who thinks he’s the country’s savior. As a team, the Dark Avengers are brash, destructive, psychopathic – but they make for a fascinating supporting cast, particularly when they turn on each other, which happens as soon as they sense weakness. They’re supervillain piranhas dressed in superhero garb, fooling the American people but never fooling themselves. Well, maybe Osborn fools himself, but in all that private time he spends locked up with his personal demons, he surely realizes the absurdity of his position of power. As “Dark Reign” winds down – or comes crashing down, perhaps – this series will reach its inevitable end. But for a while there, it was fun to see a gang of maniacs trying to play superheroes and failing on so many fundamental levels.
7. New Avengers
Was “Avengers Disassembled” abrupt? Yes. Did it destroy the integrity of the Avengers franchise? Not at all. Is “New Avengers” mere audience pandering – a way to fit both Spider-Man and Wolverine in the same comic to encourage greater sales? Maybe. But when “New Avengers” has been good, it’s been very good. Some of the artists have been stronger than others, but with highlights like Lenil Francis Yu and the super-talented current artist Stuart Immonen (who makes the series worth reading just for the visuals), it’s been a comic that looks like it belongs near the top of the Marvel heap. And Bendis’ playful use of banter gives the series a liveliness that was lacking from so many previous Avengers incarnations. Clearly it took the destruction of “The Avengers,” to revitalize it, and “New Avengers” has carried that torch of vitality, through ups and downs, for half a decade.
6. Sam and Twitch
The opening arc, with Angel Medina artwork, is decent enough, but the series really ups its game in the issues near the end of Bendis’ run, when he and Alex Maleev started playing a bit more with the formal elements of storytelling and an old favorite from the Bendis oeuvre popped in for a bit more than a cameo. (I’m talking about Jinx, of course, and even though the series didn’t crack this Top 10 list, mostly because Bendis’ art isn’t at the same caliber as his writing, the character – and the “Jinx” series – is an important part of Bendis history.) “Sam and Twitch” gave Bendis a chance to impress his unique voice upon someone else’s characters, and it was some of his best work of that pre-Marvel-to-early-Marvel era.
5. Ultimate Marvel Team-Up
I don’t know that Bendis deserves the credit for “Ultimate Marvel Team-Up” being as good as it was, since most of its pleasure rests in its revolving crew of indie artists, old favorities, and creators we just hadn’t seen at Marvel nearly enough. With work from Matt Wagner, John Totleben, Bill Sienkiewicz, Ted McKeever, Jim Mahfood, and more, this was a series that looked unlike anything else in the Marvel lineup, then or now. But Bendis does deserve credit because he pushed for these artists, and he gave them stories that played to their strengths. This was a fun, jaunty direction for the Ultimate Universe to take, and it’s telling that these stories are considered out-of-continuity while the “real” Ultimate Universe later marched toward the dreadful “Ultimatum.” No, “Marvel Team-Up” was a much more healthy direction for it to head in, and it’s too bad it couldn’t have survived a whole lot longer.
If you look at Bendis’ Marvel output, for all the comics he’s written, all the changes he’s made on the Marvel Universe, he hasn’t created very many characters. Sure, plenty of characters – and teams – have been revamped and reconfigured, but he has spent his career at Marvel playing with the figures that came in the Mattel blister packs, and the characters he has brought into being number only a few. But Jessica Jones is a major addition to the Marvel Universe, even if he did launch her life in a Marvel MAX title that had it’s own bouts with controversy. (Internet controversy, not real controversy.) But “Alias” is a stellar work, with its haunting Michael Gaydos art and its “Rockford Files” grunge-cool. Jessica Jones might have made a terrible superhero, but Bendis made her into a fascinating character and a worthy portal into the seamier sides of Marvel’s superhero universe.
3. Ultimate Spider-Man
It says something about the power of Bendis’ writing that “Ultimate Spider-Man” ranks so high on the list, even though I’ve never enjoyed Mark Bagley’s work at all. But Bendis was able to craft the first fully-developed young Peter Parker story in history in this series, and he made these characters come alive – and experience real teenage emotional twists – in ways that had been hinted at but never explored fully. Sure, Lee and Ditko implied these situations and told us what Peter Parker was feeling, but the density of those early “Amazing Spider-Man” pages never allowed for entrance into that world. And the Busiek and Oliffe “Untold Tales” were more plot-based than character based as well. Call it decompression, call it writing for the trade, but Bendis was able to give Peter Parker and crew some breathing room, and that’s what had been missing from so many previous versions.
Surely I don’t need to explain this pick, after spending three columns writing about this series in general, and in the very, very particular. To sum up: It’s quite good, better than it seemed at the time. For lots of reasons.
Bendis is so closely associated with Marvel these days that’s it easy enough to find example of his authorial voice in half the comics on the stands. But if any one comic sings, “Bendis!,” it’s this series about cops stuck in a superhero world. “Powers” is the ultimate Bendis comic – even more ultimate than the ones that have the word “Ultimate” in the title. It has all of his flaws as well – particularly in the way he stumbles in his conclusions to story arcs – but it has such a clear, dynamic reflection of his voice that it’s just impossible to resist. Mike Oeming’s art is amazing, too, and let’s not forget how much the contrast of his post-Bruce Timm style adds to the harsh brutality of the world swirling around Detective Christian Walker. This is a series about characters – about characters interacting with the strangeness around them in human ways: with fear, anger, humor, guilt, and regret – and it’s the Bendis comic that matters most because it’s the most pure. Or at least it reads that way, and that makes it exhilarating.
NEXT WEEK: Nothing about Bendis. I promise.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Listen to Tim’s weekly comics discussion with Chad Nevett at The Splash Page Podcast.
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