Last Friday afternoon at Charlotte’s HeroesCon, top Marvel Comics writers Matt Fraction, Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman and Ed Brubaker gathered for a panel along with “Vikings” writer Ivan Brandon to discuss how technology helps fuel their collaborative success. While the panel was titled “The New Power Generation of Comics,” the discussion ran the gamut of the benefits of Xbox Live story conferences to the greatness of Walter Simonson–as well as learning the lessons of bullpens past.
As the panel opened, Bendis recollected the early Bill Jemas-era meetings in New York with he and fellow writer Mark Millar. “I would spend a lot of time with editors Ralph Macchio and Tom Brevoort, who have been there the longest and have the most stories to tell — and the most lessons learned,” Bendis said. “They would tell you all the things that went right or wrong and I’d just suck it up. There’s a lot to learn from them. As things became more cohesive and bigger and bigger, what was set in those smaller days of the earlier years of the Ultimate universe became the standard. We all are like professors of nerd culture.”â€¨â€¨
“Actually, it’s the reason Joe Quesada has been Editor-in-Chief for so long,” Bendis continued. “It’s a job with a very short shelf life for some people. But learning from the mistakes of your predecessors” has been crucial to Quesada’s longevity, according to Bendis.â€¨â€¨
As pointed out early in the panel, this generation of writers are able to create a virtual bullpen online when they have story conferences on Xbox Live. Rather than being an excuse to play games, they often use it as a conference call opportunity, as Bendis pointed out sometimes they never play. “[‘Punisher’ writer Rick] Remender and I were on online on Xbox and we never played.”â€¨â€¨
The group of writers indulged in many goofy exchanges during the panel. When the question was asked who inspired them, Brubaker initially offered Shakespeare, followed by another panelist’s suggestion of Rush lead singer Geddy Lee.
But from the comedy actually came further insight from Bendis as he recounted kindnesses extended to him as a kid by Walt Simonson at a show in Cleveland. “He brought me behind the table, went through all my portfolio — showed it to other people in line, talked to me for a half an hour,” Bendis recalled. That and future experiences of encouragement and advice from Simonson, according to Bendis, “changed my life.”â€¨â€¨
Bendis went on to praise Simonson, noting that the writer/artist was everything he wanted to be as a creator. “He draws as if he was someone 30 years younger than himself. He is so classy and cool. On our messageboard, I try to be [to emulate] Walt Simonson every day; be Walt Simonson.”â€¨â€¨
It was quickly clear that Bendis was not the only Simonson devotee on the panel, as Fraction was able to recall immediately the address of the studio (229 West 29th Street) that Simonson shared with Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller, along with other creators over the years. “In one room, you had Simonson’s ‘Thor,’ Chaykin’s ‘American Flagg!’ and Miller’s ‘Ronin’ being produced simultaneously,” Fraction said.â€¨â€¨
All the panelists were in agreement about the benefits and pitfalls of marketing in the current landscape. When he was a younger fan, information was not as prevalent, so when a fanzine came out, Bendis claimed he would “read it like it was the Torah.” In the present climate of news 24/7, there was some concern expressed about creators trying to do too much marketing and/or be overly concerned about online criticism.â€¨â€¨
“Everyone has seen a creator have a meltdown” when faced with criticism online, Fraction noted. “It’s impossible to put that toothpaste back in the tube.” In other words, no matter how much a creator may conduct themselves reasonably when dealing with the fanbase, people always remember the times when a creaor lost their composure.â€¨â€¨
While on the subject of criticism, Brubaker offered advice to some critics: “If they could, actually review the thing, instead of just posting a synopsis of every scene that happens.”â€¨â€¨
Of course, the panelists fully conceded that some creators can be their own worst enemy. They all were seemingly in agreement that some of their contemporaries should avoid going online at all, because no matter how much positive response some creators receive, they still find a way to focus on the negative postings.â€¨â€¨
As for the reaction to Captain America’s “death” and impending return, Brubaker reminded audience members that when the director’s cut/script version of “Captain America” #25 was released, there were portions blacked out.Â As he noted, it was blacked out “because it would give the clue of how we were going to bring Steve back. I keep saying: ‘Hey internet, it’s not deus ex machina if you planned it in the first place.'”â€¨â€¨
Regarding the actual decision to “kill” Cap, Brubaker admitted, “I had no clue it was going to be that big of a deal. I’m really glad, but I wrote that book because ‘Civil War’ was being delayed so all of our books got pushed back three or four months. So I had written that book in August and it came out in February. It wasn’t until Jeph Loeb was at the Winter Summit that year and said ‘Wait. So in February Cap dies. Shouldn’t that be a big deal?'”â€¨â€¨
“We all wanted it to be a fairly big deal, but we had no clue. Had I had known, I probably would not have been able to do it.”â€¨â€¨
The next question was from fan who was bothered that coverage in the mainstream news had spoiled the story for him. Brubaker countered, “You knew we were publishing a book called ‘Reborn’ around the 4th of July — how big of a surprise is it? It’s not like it was ‘Thanos: Reborn’ — because [of course] I’m really known for my work with Thanos.”â€¨â€¨
Brubaker’s response was met with laughter, and the fan was seemingly not offended by Brubaker’s reaction, as his follow-up question was: “Where do you get your famous collection of hats?”â€¨â€¨
That exchange typified the dynamics of the discussion where wit and candor combined to give fans context that sometimes gets lost in the 24/7 industry news cycle.