Any comic book fan who’s a follower of “Avengers” writer Brian Michael Bendis knows that highest up on his list of influences -Â even more so than comic legends like Stan Lee -Â is playwright, screenwriter and film director David Mamet. From the rapid-fire tough guy dialogue of works like “Glengarry Glen Ross” to the black ops action of films like “Spartan,” Mamet’s body of work and style has left fingerprints all over what Bendis has produced in comic books, from his crime-driven take on “Daredevil” to his ever-expanding Avengers cast.
So when CBR News arranged to speak to Mamet about his recently released Sourcebooks collection of self-drawn superhero comics “The Trials of Roderick Spode: ‘The Human Ant'” as well as his previous collection of editorial cartoons “Tested On Orphans,” we knew there was only one person who could conduct the interview. Offered the chance to speak to his favorite writer, Bendis’ response was an immediate “I would do this for free in a heartbeat -Â no bribery needed.” What resulted was an in-depth talk with Bendis (an experienced interviewer himself) teasing out Mamet’s history as an artist, his early interest in the comic book form, how drawing plays into his creative process and so much more.
Brian Michael Bendis: This is an absolute thrill for me to talk to you, and as a lifelong David Mamet fan and a lifelong purveyor of the comic book art, the fact that I’m holding in my hand a graphic novel written and illustrated by David Mamet is surreal, to say the least. My first question: how did this come about?
David Mamet: Well, I started doing cartoons about 20 years ago. My great and closest friend Shel Silverstein -Â we spent a lot of time together, he and I and my family -Â always encouraged me to draw because I like drawing. And I said, “Well, I don’t know how to draw, Shel.” And he said, “Don’t worry about that. Just draw.” So I did. I started doing cartoons, and in doing a lot of movies, it’s a skill I think the director has to learn because the director has to be able to communicate his images to the cinematographer, to the actors, to the camera operator, etc. What you’re communicating basically is a picture, so if you can draw the picture to show the people what it looks like, you’re going to get a better chance of showing that picture in the film. Then I started doing more cartoons and political cartoons, and one thing led to another. I love to draw. I just get a huge kick out of it.
I heard you say on the “Homicide” Criterion Edition director’s commentary that your son had come to you almost with a challenge of what you thought about comic books, and I was happy to hear you’re very pro-comic book.
Oh, absolutely. That is all the literature I knew as a kid. “MAD Magazine” back in the old Kurtzman and Elder days, and first DC and then the Marvel comics. That’s what I grew up with, and I’m thrilled to see my son does the same thing, and he not only adores comics but he writes them. We collaborate on some stuff together.
What kind of stuff?
Like, for example, we tell stories, and he came up with a lot of the ideas for the villains in my comic book. The Sourdough Rye and the Turtle. One day we were sitting around at breakfast and he said, “When Heaven sends a moment of peace, Hell spawns a threat.” So I put that in the book. He also writes wonderful comic books himself. He writes them and illustrates them, so I’ll come up with ideas for him, and we’ll kick them around.
Very cool. Now, the book we’re talking about is “The Trials of Roderick Spode, ‘The Human Ant.'” And it’s a satire of the superhero genre I’d say, on one level.
I think it’s more of an homage than a satire, to my mind, the difference being that it’s done with a bunch of love. When I was a kid, there was a book I’m sure you’ve heard of called “The Seduction of the Innocent” that came out in the ’50s, so the whole idea was just like Doctor Spock telling parents, “Comic books are bad for you.” Of course, we kids knew differently, and as an ex-kid I continue to know differently now. I have nothing but love for comic books.
What I was surprised by was that, knowing your work, you do snap at Hollywood every once in a while in different forms, but you rarely pull out a pop culture reference. While you are a genre writer – and superheroes are a genre – here, it seems you come at superheroes more as a pop culture references.
You know, I wrote another book that might be analogous to this book. It’s a graphic novel without pictures, and it’s called “Wilson.” That novel came out about ten or 15 years ago, and it takes place about a thousand years in the future where all of human knowledge is put onto computers, and all the computers have crashed. And so people are trying to reconstruct our day and age through fragments like laundry lists. It’s pretty much like [the sci-fi novel] “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” The main recent document of that era is a note written by Edith Wilson – President Wilson’s wife -Â in her own urine when she was in an insane asylum, and scholars have spent a thousand years trying to figure out what this note means and basically worshiping it. Had I been a better artist, I would’ve added pictures to that at that point.
The reason I think of that is because the “Roderick Spode” book I really think is about my love of, even more than the original DC guys, these really weird people with bizarre powers to run on water. After Batman and Superman, it’s Green Lantern and the Flash and Plastic Man. Those kinds of guys.
It’s funny, being a comic book writer and studying everything I can in order to come up with my own philosophy, having read almost every essay and book you’ve written about directing film and theater, the person you come closest to in theory is Stan Lee. You know, Stan Lee’s biggest philosophy is to make sure they buy the next issue. That’s your job. Nothing else matters.
[Laughs] I’d never heard that. That’s great.
And your philosophy on theater is that it’s your job to make the audience wonder what happens next. I always thought it was interesting how close the philosophies were. So the book I use the most when people ask me what they should read to learn how to write comics is your book, “On Directing Film.”
It’s the best book on how to write comics, because your theory is, “Find the angle with the camera that best tells the story and take that picture.” That’s a comic book artist’s job, which you’ve now fit into this work here.
Well, it’s funny. I do the inverse. When I’m talking to young people or aspiring directors about how to make a movie, I say it’s really not like taking a photograph, it’s like making a drawing. You have to imagine in your head what you want the drawing to be of such that what you’re doing is selling an idea. You’re not selling a picture. People, when we get a camera in our hands, a lot of us tend to be seduced by the surroundings. I always call it location sickness. You’ll say, “It’s a movie about a guy who lost his wallet…but look, there’s this huge zoo across the street! Shouldn’t I work that in, in some way?” The answer being, “No.” And the only way one can get around location sickness is to start with a storyboard. So when you make a movie, the first thing you do is make a cartoon. You make a comic strip. You can call it a storyboard, but that’s what it is, is a comic strip. And then you go out to capture on film exactly what the storyboard has.
I’m thinking about the philosophy, and I’m looking at the pictures here – both “The Human Ant” and your collection “Tested On Orphans,” which I’ve seen some of over the years, but it’s nice to have them all collected -Â and wondering if you’re leaning towards wanting to do a proper graphic novel with another artist as a collaboration of sorts. Is that something that’s piquing your interest?
Not really. Because the fun for me is being able to draw. And I don’t draw very well. It can be said that I don’t draw at all, but I sure love to do it. To be able to go to the desk in the morning, when I have so much work to do, and instead of doing something that’s work -Â which is writing -Â to be able to put all that crap aside and take out a sheet of paper and some colored pencils, that, to me, is the fun. And it’s also challenging, since my abilities are limited, to figure out with those limited abilities if I am or am not capable of expressing and idea graphically. It’s using a different portion of my brain than that which I exhausted decades ago writing plays and movies.
I’ll offer this: I also struggled early in my career with writing and drawing, and what I found was that if I have an artist who’s far superior to me, then I look much better and the story is much better received. I think you coming to comics would be an amazing situation, and it would be kind of similar to the way you collaborate with a cinematographer.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. That’s true that I do work together with the cinematographer. And also, I like doing the one-panel stuff, because I’m basically a gag writer in everything I do. So to be able to spend some of my time writing up one gag and then taking it home to show my family at night is pretty great. I spent my whole life basically skipping school, and I think, like most writers, if I can skip school at all, that’s a day not wasted. That’s what drawing is for me.
I loved “Tested On Orphans.” It’s got a phenomenal introduction that’s, like, taped into the book by Shel Silverstein.
Thank you. With me and my son – the book’s dedicated to him, and he came up with a lot of ideas -Â and cartoons, at the end of every day, we’re reading one another our favorite cartoon books. I introduced him to the early “MAD” stuff and the early “Captain Marvel” stuff. Reading not only the “Captain Marvel” strips from back in the ’30s but those little books that are like two inches by three inches – the Captain Marvel novels. And now he has a huge vocabulary, and it’s basically thanks to Bill Watterson and “Calvin and Hobbes.” I was talking about some animal the other day, and he accused me of anthropomorphizing the duck. [Laughs] I’m thankful to comics for that.
The other interesting connection here is that you talk a lot in your essays about the audience and the writer and time and how time can be manipulated or faked. There’s a lot of that going on in comics as well. That space between the panels is an imaginary connection for the readers to put together the images. I see you putting that together in your drawings and also saying that about theater.
The guys who kind of knock that apart -Â Bill Watterson is one and George Herriman is another one -Â is that they warp the linear narrative in such a way that’s absolutely delightful. It’s like a chocolate mousse for the mind. You mention the space between the panels, and it’s like the space between the molecules in your mind have just been completely enlivened. And that’s a great feat.
And the relationship that the reader has to the material is much different than in any other medium. They’re much more involved. They’re creating the voices. They’re creating the images in between images. And what we have in your drawing style where things are abstracted in a way, your audience is putting a lot together in their head. But I could go on about this all day. You said you’re in New York right now, what other projects do you have coming up?
Well, I just did a movie for FunnyOrDie, and it’s about four minutes long. It’s my favorite film, and it’s a piece called “June Crenshaw: Sex Kitten To The Supreme Court.” It purports to be -Â Ricky Jay comes out and introduces it as “lost masterpieces of pornography,” and he says, “These prints were found in the woodworking shop of a Beverly Hills dentist. They represent a time gone by.” And then we have what purports to be a pornographic film shot in 1938 and just now discovered. Of course, everything in the film goes wrong. The door sticks, and the girl can’t get her bra undone. The set falls down. It was great fun. Robert Elswit shot it – one of the great cinematographers. Kristen Bell plays the sex kitten and Ed O’Neal plays the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That’s come out on FunnyOrDie, and it’s the most fun I’ve had on anything in a long time.
Congratulations. If I could think of anything that would be more surprising than “I have a superhero comic book made by David Mamet “it would be that you directed something for FunnyOrDie. I’m enjoying this part of your career where you come out with some surprising project every couple of weeks. It’s kind of like when I heard about “The Unit.” “Mamet has a paramilitary show on CBS? Okay!”
[Laughs] Actually, Dennis Haysbert who was one of the stars of that show is one of the guys going into the cast of [my latest Broadway play] “Race” in New York, so I get to see him in an hour.
Which part is he playing?
He’s playing the black waiter. There’s a white waiter and a black waiter. The white guy is Eddie Izzard and the other is Dennis. The new cast starts in a few weeks.
Well, now I have to go see that again. [Laughs]