When reading about super powered people, we’re able to vicariously live out our own dreams of having fantastic abilities like flight, super strength, telepathy or a healing factor that allows to instantly recover from any wound. What would happen, though, if someone decided to stop living a fantasy and instead made their dream a reality by creating super powers in a lab? How would that impact their lives and the lives of the people around them? What sort of impact would it have on the world? This July, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley, the creators of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” begin to answer those questions and more with the release of their new creator-owned series from Marvel Comics’ Icon imprint, “Brilliant.” We spoke with the creators about the project, which was just announced at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.
The first seeds for “Brilliant” were planted several years ago while Bendis was developing a television series. “I had written a pilot for HBO based on the famous case of the MIT students who cracked blackjack. People know some of the story from the movie ’21,’ but it’s a more involved story than that. That project never really got off the ground, but I did spend a lot of time with these guys, doing research into that kind of Ivy League genius nerd culture. I knew a little bit about this because I went to the Cleveland Institute of Arts, which is next to Case Western, so it was a little part of my life when I was growing up,” the writer told CBR News. “When I was diving into this stuff head first, I found the blackjack stuff to be the least interesting part of the story. Being that my brain is always waist deep in super hero thought, I just couldn’t help but think about science fiction and how it inspired an invention of some sort, over and over again throughout this past century. And isn’t super powers one of the last frontiers in the world of science and research? Wouldn’t kids like this try and see who could develop them first?”
After developing the idea for “Brilliant,” Bendis decided to approach his longtime “Ultimate Spider-Man” collaborator, Mark Bagley, about doing the series as a creator-owned book. His sense of timing, however, proved a little unfortunate. “I had decided to go over and do some work for DC Comics. I started making commitments as to what I was going to do over there when Brian was like, ‘I’ve got this creator-owned thing and I’d really like to do it with you!’ I was like, ‘Dude! If you would have told me about this six months ago, I would have said yes, but I’ve made commitments,'” Bagley explained. “Since Brian thought it would be a great creator-owned title for us to work on together, he decided he would hold onto it for three years until I came back [to Marvel]!”
Bagley’s exclusive contract with DC prevented him from even reading his longtime creative partner’s initial script, but immediately after the artist’s three year contract was up, Bendis sent “Brilliant” to Bagley for review. “I sent him the script and then went to bed. I said, ‘I hope you like this. Let’s talk about it tomorrow,'” Bendis told CBR. “When I woke up the next day, he had drawn the cover and two pages. I asked him, ‘You’re in?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m definitely in.’ It’s amazing — I woke up to have that conversation and the art was already in my in box! That’s what it’s like to work with Mark Bagley.”
Current plans for “Brilliant” call for the story to be told as a seven, possibly eight issue miniseries to be published bimonthly, and if readers respond to the book, the story will continue as a series of miniseries. In the initial issue, readers will be introduced to the book’s cast of college students who have already begun their quest to invent super powers.
“Each of the characters are coming from a different point of view of the world, and some of them have been very close friends for some time. This is the place for some of them, though, where their friendships will fall apart,” Bendis said. “We meet one of the students coming back from a semester off. So he comes back, and the story has already kind of started without him. When he gets caught up, we get caught up with him, and he discovers that his classmates are already knee-deep in this genetic experimentation world they’ve been building for themselves.
“Since this is a college-based drama, where almost all the characters are prodigies, some of them are a little younger than you’d think. They’re the kids who get into college a little too soon, often because they have nowhere else to go,” Bendis continued. “There are also some older students that are geniuses and excelling at everything they’re doing, but they’re getting to a point where they have to make a definite decision about their life and aren’t comfortable with the choices they have. This is something I saw firsthand. I had a roommate who was an astrophysicist and we were sitting on the porch one day when he said, ‘I’ve been studying astrophysics for nine years and I hate it. I don’t want to do it.’ Then he just walked away. For years and years, I’ve thought about this guy and how many people are like that. He’s got all this brilliance, but just because he can do something doesn’t mean he wants to. So our story involves characters who are bored and discontent with their current course trajectory. They don’t want to go Wall Street or work in some research lab, so they challenge themselves with the vigor of youth to invent something that doesn’t exist.”
While the cast of “Brilliant” consists mainly of science students, the book will be more about the effects of creating super powers than it is about the actual science involved in creating them. “I know what the definition of hard sci-fi is for people, and this is not hard sci-fi. I would say this is medium-cool,” Bendis joked. “It’s based on research I was doing for ‘The Clone Saga’ in ‘Ultimate Spider-Man.’ So there is some science to it, but it isn’t really about me unleashing a half-baked formula on how to make super powers. It’s more about that act of discovery. We do feel that one day it will happen, but here, we’re not really looking at how it will happen, but how the world will change when it does happen.”
Bendis is currently unable to reveal the exact nature of the super powers that his young cast creates, but the writer hinted that the question of what exactly super powers are would be a large part of the series. “This has been an ongoing theme of a lot of my work. This is in ‘Powers.’ This is in ‘Ultimate Spider-Man.’ When Gwen Stacy first showed up in ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ she said, ‘There are professional basketball players that play that game on a level that I couldn’t even come near to. Does that mean they have super powers?”’ Bendis said. “So, what is a ‘super power?’ What is your definition? If someone can run faster than somebody else, do they have super powers? What’s the median average? If someone has some sort of dysfunction and it gets cured, do they have a super power?
“There’s also the question of, what are the practical, military and sociological applications of super powers? What is it worth to the world? What will people do to try and stop this thing? Right now, there are a lot of people invested in us staying exactly how we are. Then, all of a sudden, if super powers are part of the world, people will be losing as much money as others will make off them,” the writer continued. “These are all the questions we’ll be answering. Will powers make good people better and bad people worse? Or will it make good people bad and bad people good? How will powers affect people with preexisting conditions like Aspergers’ or bipolar disorder? All of these things are of interest to me in this series.”
The inaugural arc of “Brilliant” takes place predominately in the insular world of a fictional nouveau Ivy League university in Seattle. Because of the cast’s discovery, the outside world comes to them. “I really like writing smart people doing smart things and getting involved in stuff beyond their level of expertise. That’s another theme that’s been going through my recent work,” Bendis said. “There’s kind of a universal quality about somebody wanting to do something to make the world better than it is. There’s also something about being young enough to not realize what a huge mistake you’re making, even though you have the best intentions. What beast are you awakening by going down this road? All of this is part of the intrigue.”
At the time of this interview, Bagley has just begun work on the first issue of “Brilliant.” The series is his first creator-owned work and the artist is a little nervous, but he’s also thoroughly enjoying the freedom that comes with doing a book not entrenched in previous continuity or a publisher’s established universe. “It’s kind of nice to be able to have free rein on a project,” the artist told CBR News. “My wife read the first script, and one of the characters drops an F bomb. She looks at me and goes, ‘Is he actually going to be able to say that?’ I replied to her, ‘Were going to be able to do anything.’ To me, that’s liberating. I don’t have anybody saying, ‘No you can’t draw the characters that way,’ except Brian, who may occasionally ask, ‘What made you see them that way?’ So that’s going to be a fun experience.”
The relationship between fictional characters and their creators can often be like the relationship between real people, because it often takes some time for a creator to become acquainted with their characters’ developing personality and mannerisms. “Right now, I’m still in the feeling out process. I still haven’t nailed down how I’m doing the characters. It always takes me a few issues to get comfortable drawing characters and really have it be fun instead of difficult work. The other big challenge for me is, I’m 53 and I’m having to draw a bunch of college age kids! it’s like, ‘Man, they dress funny!'” Bagley said, laughing. “I’m buying all these weird magazines, trying to stay relatively current so kids of that demographic don’t look at the book and go, ‘Oh yeah! You can tell their clothes came from the ’70s.'”
Staying current with kid’s fashions is a bit of challenge, but after two years drawing DC’s “Justice League of America,” Bagley is enjoying the chance to illustrate some non-costumed characters. “There were times on ‘Justice League’ where it felt like I would go six months without drawing someone in normal clothes. That’s not a criticism of writer James Robinson or anything — that was just the nature of the JLA. I really did miss that chance to draw the type of non-costumed dramatic scenes I got to do in ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,'” Bagley stated. “I’ve always been pretty upfront about the fact that, for me, the most fun of ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ was the human interaction and drawing these real characters. It was as much about Peter Parker and Mary Jane as it was about super powers.”
While the world of “Brilliant” will have a very grounded feel, Bagley wants to make sure his pages for the series just as exciting as they are detailed and realistic. “There are so many people these days that just draw so photo realistic and it’s so grounded in real life, there’s no visual draw to it. There’s no visual pizazz, and comic books are primarily a visual medium,” Bagley said. “If it’s not visually interesting, you’ll lose about a third of your audience pretty quick. They’ll be like, ‘Well this isn’t really fun.’ And I want this book to be fun. My job is opening things up, making it all seem approachable. You don’t want it to be gray panel after gray panel. It’s got to have some visual pop. Doing that without the crutch of super costumes can be a bit of a challenge, but I think I’m pretty good at it. Plus, Brian has got such a great sense of humor, and you can have a lot of fun with kids using super powers for dumb stuff.”
In addition to Bendis and Bagley’s main story, each issue of “Brilliant” will have the same back matter material that readers have come to expect from the writer’s other creator-owned books, from “Powers” to “Scarlet.” “We’ve been having a lot of luck with 28-30 pages of story plus all our material in the back,” Bendis said. “I’m very excited about this book. Super powers are more of a theme than they are an active genre. Just like with ‘Powers,’ we’ve found a way to say something about super abilities that is unique. This type of story hasn’t been done this way. ‘Brilliant’ reminds me a little bit of the movie ‘Altered States’ or a good old fashioned thriller like ‘Three Days of the Condor.’ It’s got a little more of that in it than anything else. That’s the kind of stuff I like, and I certainly don’t see a lot of comic books like this, so we’re going to make one.”
In the current economic climate, launching a new creator-owned series can cause no small amount of anxiety, but right now, Bendis and Bagley are focused on creating what they feel is a complex and exciting series, designed to thrill readers while causing them think a little. “I hope everybody enjoys this series as much as I currently am. I’m just looking to have a good time with Brian,” Bagley said. “Whether the book sells or not, I’m going to have a good time working with one of the best guys in the business.”
Bendis added, “This is a big gamble for Mark because it’s time away from his family and it’s time away from his day job, but I know, even if it’s not successful, there’s a huge emotional and creative payoff. I know he watched John Romita Jr., someone from his generation of creators, have that recently with ‘Kick-Ass.’ John got to really step forward and have some fun. And watching Alex Maleev evolve his mind set on ‘Scarlet’ to, ‘Oh yeah! I own this book I can do whatever the hell I want!’ was a lot of fun for me. It’s a lot of fun to watch your friend open their eyes to something like that. Especially when they’re immensely talented like Mark.”