The current success of Marvel Studios’ feature film adaptation of “Guardians of the Galaxy” has shown millions of filmgoers across the world what many comic fans already knew: That the outer space action in the Marvel Universe is just as fun, turbulent and exciting as the adventures that happen on Earth. That’s something that writer Brian Michael Bendis demonstrates month in and month out in Marvel’s ongoing “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book series.
In the months ahead, the Guardians’ adventures look to intensify as Bendis and his artistic collaborators take the team on two large-scale adventures. The first, starting later this month, is an “Original Sin” tie-in illustrated by Ed McGuinness that runs through “Guardians of the Galaxy” #18-#20, revealing the long-running mystery of what happened to team leader Star-Lord (also known as Peter Quill) during the time period when he was trapped in the Cancerverse with Thanos the Mad Titan and Richard Rider of the Nova Corps. Then in November’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” #21, Bendis and artist Valerio Schiti kick off a story that takes the team and its newest member, Agent Venom (civilian name Flash Thompson), to the homeworld that his famed alien symbiote hails from, in an arc appropriately titled “Planet of the Symbiotes.” CBR News spoke with Bendis about both storylines and the reception to the “Guardians” movie.
CBR News: Brian, as part of the Marvel creative committee, you helped developed the “Guardians of the Galaxy” feature film. How does it feel to see so many people embrace a film that many thought would be a risky gamble?
Brian Michael Bendis: Developed is a strong word. I was part of a team of consultants. I don’t ever want to overstate my contribution because there are people who worked on that movie every single day for years, whereas I jumped in and out for a couple of hours every few months. I will say though that it is one of the movies I was consulting on from its earliest germination, years before James Gunn was even part of it, and all the way through. So to watch the entire development was fascinating. I’m a nerd about such things as process and how things like this should and do and don’t work.
I love that stuff. It was absolutely fascinating and probably one of the most influential things in my craft life was being part of that and sitting and thinking about the choices the other creators are making. I would think whether those choices and the mindset behind them would work for me and if I would make a different set of choices.
I enjoyed it because unlike Iron Man, or Thor, or Captain America, who are characters I had in my blood from an early, early age and were characters I was actively writing at the time, I came to Guardians knowing them and having read them as a fan, but they weren’t coursing through my blood. So I had the opportunity to go back, do the research, and discover what was interesting about these characters. The reason I ended up getting the job to write the comic in the first place was because I was such a hyper spaz during the creative meetings. I sincerely thought Peter Quill’s origin story was as good as Superman’s or Spider-Man’s, and that there was a lot there.
I felt like it could be Marvel’s “Star Wars,” for lack of a better description. I did think it was a franchise of equal value to everything else they had, and it was fun to watch them find the right director, actors, and tone. Because it’s all about tone.
At dinner Friday night, we were sitting with some friends of ours who are in comics and we were talking about the movie. We were loving it and talking about how it’s appealing to a wide variety of people. My wife then reminded me about the time I came to her office one day and said, “Hey listen, I’m going to bail off ‘Avengers’ and start writing this book ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.'” She’s a sci-fi nerd so she’s like, “What’s that?” I was like, “Well it’s got a tree, and a raccoon . . .” And she was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” “Avengers” was a decent, consistent gig. She goes, “The movie is out and now you’re going to leave ‘Avengers’ to go do the raccoon book?” I said, “Trust me! I think it’s going to work out.” [Laughs]
I had forgotten about that, and because she’s an outstanding wife she backed up my choice. I also remember when she was reading the first trade and knowing what a hardcore sci-fi nerd she is that if she didn’t like it I was going to be devastated, but she really did.
People coming to the “Guardians” book now are arriving to it at an interesting time, because with issue #18 you’re finally ready to reveal some secrets that have been a mystery since you took over writing these characters; what exactly happened to Star-Lord, Thanos, and Richard Rider in the Cancerverse. How long have you been holding on to this this story?
I’ve been holding on to this story since before I wrote my first issue because even if I’m not showing the readers I have to know how these characters got from the end of “The Thanos Imperative” to where I’m bringing them. I knew that I needed to tell that story and I knew that the time to tell it would reveal itself. I also knew that we were coming at this series like it’s a brand-new chapter in these characters’ lives.
So to start with a continuity-heavy story would have been a disservice to DnA [the collective nickname for writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, whose 2008 “Guardians of the Galaxy” series established the incarnation of the team featured in Bendis’ series and the feature film], and a disservice to the new audience that could have potentially been there and was there. So to immediately make those new readers feel punished for not having read something was a disservice to everybody.
I thought we have a secret in this book, that these guys are alive, and a lot of people will want to know why these guys are alive. I also thought it was fascinating that Peter Quill, who does wear his heart on his sleeve and values his friendships, is keeping these secrets to himself. I said, “I’ll know when it’s time to reveal that.” Cut to six months later. “‘Original Sin’?” Got it! Done! We have one. We don’t even have to give it a second thought because Peter has been carrying this around with him.
I also thought this happening around the time of the movie was good timing. That wasn’t planned. What also was interesting was that the DnA stuff had been out of print for a while. Now it’s back in print and new people are reading it for the first time. So a large part of our audience that didn’t know about this chapter now know about it. It’s on their minds. They saw the movie now they’re reading the books. There’s a lot of people who are reading the DnA trades and our first couple of trades this week and now here comes the big secret. So it worked out pretty well.
I would have been a genius if it was planned like a Machiavellian scheme, but it just worked out pretty well. The movie did well. I think the tone of it is pretty interesting and what I’m most excited about is that our book for our first issue up until this story and the story coming after it, has a nice tone similarity to the movie in some places, but it’s so different in story that if you watched the movie we’re not giving you the movie again. We’re giving you a new experience.
That benefited us well during our run on “Daredevil.” People saw the “Daredevil” movie, and our story was completely different. Then right around the “Avengers” movie it was the same thing, and here we go again. It serves our chance to get new readers in a fun way.
Speaking of new readers, I imagine Richard Rider’s very vocal fanbase will be interested in this story and might be picking up “Guardians of the Galaxy” for the first time because of it. Anything you want to say to this group of fans?
It’s funny, there are some die-hard and hardcore fans of DnA, god bless ’em, and already they’re mad at me for what I’ve done. I understand loving a book’s creative team, but they killed him. I’ll take the hit for the stuff I’ve done. I’ve done plenty. You still want to yell at me for Hawkeye? I’ll take it. I got it. I didn’t kill any of the Guardians though!
DnA killed those characters. They wouldn’t even be around if it wasn’t for us bringing them back. So you can get off my ass a little bit on this one. [Laughs]
There would be no more Richard Rider stories at all if I wasn’t writing one. So I don’t know how else to put it. This one is not on me. I understand you have an affection for DnA, but you can’t pretend they didn’t write that part that you’re mad about. It’s OK to love and be frustrated by the work of creators, I do that to people all the time, but that’s their thing. I’ve got my own stuff. I’ve got people mad at me that there’s no Peter Parker in the Ultimate Universe. They don’t know what to do with me. I own that, but I’m not wearing their sins too.
How big of an impact will this story line have on the growing number of Marvel Cosmic books? I understand that you, “Nova” writer Gerry Duggan, and “Legendary Star-Lord” writer Sam Humphries had a dinner/summit in Los Angeles a while back?
[Laughs] Yes we did. I laugh because that was part of the conversation, but there was so much nonsense in that conversation as well that it’s funny to have people bring it up to us.
That was a friendly dinner and my manager was there too. About a half hour into the conversation he goes, “I don’t know what any of you are talking about. I only know you’re speaking English because I recognize the words.” [Laughs]
There is stuff though that is going on in Sam’s “Star-Lord” book, Gerry’s “Nova,” my book, Kelly Sue’s [DeConnick]’s “Captain Marvel,” and in Greg Rucka and John Layman’s “Cyclops” that are all going to be coming towards each other in a nice way. For readers looking for pure Marvel cosmic events and stories, here they come.
First you’ve got to let all the characters set themselves up, get a sense of who they are and let them put their feet on the planetoid that they’re standing on. Then we can bring them all together and slowly, but surely, that’s what’s happening.
The Nova story sets the stage for the next major “Guardians” arc, a story that takes them to the home planet of Venom and other symbiotes. What can you tell us about this story?
“Planet of the Symbiotes” is the name of the story, and right when I started on “Guardians,” I had this idea that I wanted one member of the Guardians to be a mainstream Marvel character. I thought it would center the book in a nice way, and it would be more inviting to people who previously had trouble finding their way into Marvel cosmic.
That’s happened to even the most die-hard fans over the course of decades. It’s not just with DnA’s work. There have been decades of people going, “Where do I start? There are floating heads, Infinity Stones and, In-Betweeners!” It’s all a bit much. So if there was one character that we knew that was on board the ship that didn’t know everything that Peter, Gamora, Drax and the rest of the crew knew it would be a lot easier to get information across to the audience via conversation instead of clunky exposition.
Plus it would help bring the Guardians more towards the center of the Marvel Universe. There would be a sense that it counts more. I was very surprised I got Iron Man for the first arc. I didn’t even ask for him, but on that initial list was the Agent Venom character. Dan Buckley and other people thought Venom in the book would be great, but I had not yet wrapped my head around that. I wasn’t feeling it. I got the visual, but I wasn’t able to see it yet.
Then months into writing the book I looked at the list again and I emailed Tom Brevoort and said, “Am I nuts, or have we not seen the planet that the symbiotes came from? Did I miss that in the ’90s?” And low and behold we had seen a planet taken over by symbiotes, but we had not seen their home planet. So right there I knew I had to get Venom on the team. I was ready to go! I’m doing the “Alien” trilogy! I had a story, and it was a new adventure for the Guardians as well.
So all of that was really exciting, and something I brought to a retreat about a year ago. I was sad that Venom’s book was going away, but that also made him available for this story. So that was great and we were off and running.
When we announced that Venom would be joining the team with our Free Comic Book Day issue many readers asked me, “Why is he on the team?” And I would say, “Planet of the Symbiotes!” And then they were like, “Oh, OK!” That immediate rationalizes any doubt you have about having him on a cosmic book, and it’s great because Flash is military, and as a recovering bully he fits in with characters like Gamora and Drax who are recovering from a past life of violence that they may regret now.
So he fits in on that level, but at the same time even though he’s had adventures with the Avengers and adventures that are off planet he’s still a, “Wow! Look where I am!” character. So there’s a lot there and we saw in the last story line that the minute he gets off planet people know what the symbiotes are. They have a value and people are being hush-hush about them. There’s a different relationship to them in the galaxy than there is on Earth. So already Flash is freaked out.
From listening to you talk about them, it sounds like there’s something about the symbiotes that fires your imagination as a writer.
No, you know what it is? There was a time when Venom was so overused. He was like the poster boy for everything that was wrong with comics in the ’90s. It was just one of those things where it was selling so well and the visual had captured so many people’s imaginations that Marvel, almost with an anger, was shoving as much of it out there as possible.
I’m of course talking about 20 years ago, but still people our age and younger can’t help that their immediate thought of Venom is, “too much!” The reason we saw so much of the character though and the reason he was popular was because it’s an absolutely fascinating idea and fascinating character.
The biggest turnabout I’ve done in comics is years and years ago when I was doing the first press for “Ultimate Spider-Man,” I was asked if I was going to do Ultimate Venom and I said, “Absolutely not!” This was 2000, so it was only a couple years away from the time period when Venom was everywhere. Then about an hour and a half later I realized that there was a reason why Venom was so popular. There’s something cool there. The visual is insane and the idea is great. It’s just that it was over done.
So here we are with Venom in space and going to the Planet of the Symbiotes. It’s our chance to be ferociously additive to his mythology in a way that hasn’t been done in all these decades. It’s very exciting. When you hear that no one has done this you wonder how could it be, especially during the time when they were putting out all those Venom comics, that we never went to the symbiote home planet?
It’s very funny. Matt Fraction’s six-year-old boy Henry Leo, who is the muse for many comic book writers in this city [Portland], has a ferocious imagination and is a super, super kid. He loves the “Guardians of the Galaxy” comics so much, and he loves Venom as a hero only. He can’t even perceive of him as antihero or a villain, because he’s six. So after the Free Comic Book Day Issue, where Tony Stark warns Peter Quill that if anything goes wrong with Venom, here’s something you can do, Henry asks me, “What could go wrong with Venom? What do you mean?”
I started to say, “Well… ” and then Matt made a face at me that said, “Don’t go down this road with him. He’s not ready yet.” So I said, “Well just because he’s one way on Earth doesn’t mean we know what’s going to happen in space.” He said, “Well where’s he going to go in space?” I said, “The planet of the symbiotes.” And he was like, “Ohhh!” I then flat out asked what he thought was on that planet. He just walked away from me in silence. He was lost in thought. He never came back to me, and I flat out was going to steal whatever he came back to me with.
[Laughs] Let’s move from story to artist. You’re working with both a big name and a rising star on these next two “Guardians” stories. What’s it like working with Ed McGuinness and Valerio Schiti?
With Ed McGuinness, it’s funny. He’s been at Marvel around the same time I’ve been with Marvel and that entire time Jeph Loeb had his claws in Ed. We weren’t even allowed to look at Ed McGuinness! Don’t even think about getting a cover out of Ed McGuinness! This is Jeph’s guy! [Laughs]
I understood, but now that Jeph is the king of television the choke chain had been loosened. I always thought me and Ed might work out good, like me and [Mark] Bagley. I also like writing for artists like him because he’s such a big artist, and my tendency as a writer is to be precious and intimate. So to force myself to write big is exciting, and we hit it off immediately. The pages are gorgeous and we’re already working on what’s coming next.
I’m sure somewhere down the line Jeph Loeb is going to get me back for being with his artist. Maybe he’ll do something bad to Jessica Jones on the TV show. [Laughs]
So working with Ed went great and I think Val is an amazing talent. He’s certainly worthy of the “Young Guns” rising star moniker he’s been given along with my dear collaborators David Marquez and Sara Pichelli. He’s one of the two rising stars though that I had not worked with, and his work on “Journey Into Mystery” was quite something. It had a very similar atmosphere to me as Stuart’s [Immonen] work on “All-New X-Men.” So I had said that I didn’t want to pull him off a book, but if he becomes available please let me know. I think we’d be a very good team.
Now here we come and I’m really throwing him into the deep end because there’s an immense amount of design work and sci-fi going into the “Planet of the Symbiotes.” We’re building a world and a culture that you haven’t seen before. So he’s got his work cut out for him.
Finally with “Guardians of the Galaxy” #21 being solicited, the end of your second year on the book is in sight. How does that feel? Can you offer up any hints or teases on how this year will end?
I’m insanely grateful for the response to the book. Out of 17 issues, like 15 of them have gone back to print. I know some of that is the movie, but some of it was people really digging “The Trial of Jean Grey” and really digging Angela and all the weird things we’ve done on this book that is different than what these books have been previously.
I knew we were going to have a lot of new readers who were happy to see something new, or to get a head start on the movie. There were some readers though who have been with these characters for a long time and I was not going to make an attempt to imitate or copy what DnA had done. Not out of disrespect, but complete respect. The idea was to do something new. Just like when I was on “Daredevil” I went out of my way to do nothing like Frank Miller did. Even though that was one of the most important things in my life the key is to not imitate it, but do your own thing. That’s what I liked about what DnA did and that’s what we will do.
I also knew though that because there was a preconceived notion of what was right to do with these characters it would take a few issues for people to kind of acclimate to the new weather system, and a lot of people did. Our sales have grown over the last few issues.
The one thing that has been frustrating for me on the book, and it’s an unusual problem for me in particular, is that we’ve had a run of crazy bad luck with artists not being able to finish issues because of personal issues. We’ve had people come in and do chapters and fill-in issues and that’s very unusual for me. It’s what happens though.
It’s funny. We never missed an issue of “Ultimate Spider-Man” in 14 years, but since issue #3 we’ve been struggling to keep our feet on the ground with “Guardians.” Within these almost two years though we’ve had Steve McNiven, Sarah Pichelli, Kevin Maguire’s return to Marvel, and really just one great artist after the other doing great work, but not being able to finish the issue sometimes. So I’m happy that from Ed McGuinness all the way through Valerio Schiti we’ll have a consistency that has been missing.
Also, once Frank [Cho] is done with it, we’ll have a “Guardians of the Galaxy Annual” coming very, very soon. It is absolutely gorgeous and it’s quite the Marvel Universe romp for the Guardians.
So I’m grateful for the response to these first two years. I knew it would be a bit of a rocky road, but it was nowhere near the rocky road I thought it was going to be. I’m thrilled that the movie caught the imagination of some new readers and that we’re here for them with fun, new stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot about making the sure book is its own thing, and at the same time, if we’re ever in a position to do it, that we’re making a “Guardians” movie that maybe we won’t see. I won’t say we’ll never see because now that we know “Guardians” made $300 million dollars in less than a week we know that anything can be made into a blockbuster movie! All bets are off!
So I think about things like the X-Men/Guardians team up or Venom being on the team. Maybe we’ll never see that in a movie. I’ve been trying to make sure the book is unique to itself, while at the same time benefiting oh so much from the “Guardians” worldwide domination of our culture.
I’m excited for an artist consistency. That’s the only thing that’s been missing from the book. We’ll have it and that’s exciting. Plus I’m excited to answer all the questions that people have been asking about Peter and Drax and the other thing people have been asking a lot about lately is relationships.
All my other books have a lot of kissing, but the Guardians not so much because they’re always on the run. I think we’re going to be able see some kissing coming soon though. It’s exciting! Space kissing! [Laughs]
I’m also excited about the Squirrel Girl/Rocket Raccoon marriage issue that’s coming up. It’s drawn by Todd McFarlane. No, I’m totally joking.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” #18 is scheduled for release on Aug. 27. “Planet of the Symbiotes” is slated to start in November with “Guardians of the Galaxy” #21.