Since launching “Ultimate Spider-Man” in 2000, Brian Michael Bendis has been a vital part of Marvel Comics. Between bringing Miles Morales into the All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe and writing two different Iron Man titles, not much about Bendis’ importance to the publisher is different in 2016. But the world he plays a key role in his headed for war this summer when the massive “Civil War II” event arrives.
At WonderCon, Bendis sat down with CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland in the world famous CBR Tiki Room to discuss nearly everything on his plate at the moment, from the controversial “Spider-Man” #2 that saw Miles Morales take on race — a story Bendis assures neither he nor Miles is finished with — and explains why “Civil War II” is its own story and won’t repeat the beats or themes of the original. He also talks about his approach to storytelling, why it gets the reactions it does, and why he plans to keep telling stories that will get people talking, even if some of those people get angry at him.
In the first part of the discussion, Bendis talks about the split reactions to Miles Morales’ words in “Spider-Man” #2, and why he tends to write stories that divide fandom while also striking a chord. He also comments on whether he ever avoids certain stories knowing what kind of reaction they’re likely to receive.
On whether he was surprised that the online reaction to “Spider-Man” #2 seemed to be split down the middle:
Brian Michael Bendis: It’s not expectation but you kind of brace for it. I learned, even when I was working at a newspaper in my independent comic days, that there were certain subjects — my editor had taught me, she was quite an excellent teacher to me. I was glad that I worked at a newspaper in those days because she set me right for the stage of mainstream comics. In independent comics you can do what you want, nobody cares. Nobody even knows you exist and those buying independent comics are eagerly looking for something else. So they kind of are up for anything. But when you hit the main stage of mainstream media, no matter what it is, television, comics, whatnot, you are entering that world where no matter what you say about politics, religion, race, no matter what you say, by definition half the people will disagree with you. I learned it at the newspaper, any little joke you make you’ll have people go “rrrrrrrr” because that’s the nature of the game, which is fine.â€¨â€¨So I have this character Miles and Miles — first you just gotta let the stories be told and then as the character finds its footing other things reveal themselves about the character and conversations that I find myself in and relationships that I find myself in in real life do inform my feelings about race and sexuality. I was involved in a conversation with many of my friends of different ethnicities who were all expressing the double-edged sword of being a Black this or a Asian this or even a female this, the qualification was frustrating to some, who really took a lot of pride in their work. This is just an example, and again there is no universal truth to this. I was watching this conversation unfold and some said something about, “No one ever says you’re the Jewish writer but if you were Black you’d be the Black Jewish writer.”
I was like, “That is interesting. What is the qualification about?” And someone said, “It’s even more weird when the qualification is in a positive. Like they like you more because of this, whatever it is.” And again, there’s no background, you could put in any background and someone goes, “Yay brown skin,” or, “Yay feminism.” Why can’t the work just be the work and then I’ll decide? But meanwhile there are some ethnicities or backgrounds that you can’t hide. It’s there, boom. You’re walking in the room and you’re already representing something to someone no matter what it is and I found it very interesting.
Also, just because this is what Miles said in that issue doesn’t mean this is where he will end on this subject. What I have witnessed in my life and what I have witnessed with others is it’s an ongoing journey of self-discovery. As a young man — and by the way, he was asking the question to his friend, they were having a private moment, he wasn’t standing on a rooftop with a bullhorn going, “This is what I say.” He was having an immediate reaction to, “What’s that about?” which I thought was an honest reaction. Now, yes, some people did not care for that. And other people, and may I say quite a few, especially when the storm started rolling my way, a lot of people, on this one — it doesn’t always happen — a lot of people jumped in front and went, “No, no, no, no. I am blank and I agree, this is how I feel.” So I did feel it’s a subject that should be brought up. Again, these are questions that are being asked, it wasn’t like a definitive statement on the character.
I am very careful about [not making things polemic]. I think it’s just bad writing to start with, no matter what the subject is but the question should be asked. Just as many people were frustrated that I wasn’t making more about Miles’ race in the last series. It wasn’t brought up that much, and then when you bring it up, it’s like, “Why are you bringing it up? And why are you bringing it up like that?” and I go, “Okay, that’s just the way it’ll be.”
Next issue we’re going to meet member of Miles’ other half of his family which is another thing that we were desperately excited to get to and that’s gonna open a lot of doors. And also, Ms. Marvel is guest-starring next issue and much more people are going to be upset about that than they are about anything else that we do.
Listen, you go into some of these things and you go, “This might be an issue. Do I feel in my heart that I am in the right place?” Also, all this stuff gets vetted through people that I trust, people that Marvel trusts, we don’t just put this stuff out and giggle. It’s a very serious subject to me. So it’s out there. The one thing I can’t control, the one frustration — and here it comes in my pile of high-class problems — is people will take one panel of a three-page discussion, post it online and go, “Racist.” And then other people who’ve never seen the book or don’t know the context go, “Oh, it must be this thing.” That’s a bummer. I wish that would stop but I’m mature enough to know that’s never gonna happen. It happened with the Iceman stuff and it happened with that. It’s worth debating on its own without someone throwing their agenda on top of it, which I can’t control. … I said, “I hope this doesn’t blow up.” Also, I’m not looking to hurt anyone’s feelings or make anyone feel weird. So I was hoping this didn’t blow up into a big thing and just as it was at the edge the “Ghostbusters” trailer came out and I was off the hook. [Laughter
On whether the risk-averse world we live in affects the kinds of stories he tells:
I mean clearly there’s easier roads for me to go down if I was risk averse. I’m not, but you are bringing up a good point and not just in comics. I worry, and I’ve had peers of mine say, “I don’t know how you do it, man. I wouldn’t go anywhere near this shit.” And I think about it later and I think, “Oh no,” because even subconsciously there are creative people who are not going into areas that maybe should be explored in their work because they don’t want four people on twitter to yell at them. And that’s not a way to create.
There’s clearly something wrong with me that I’m fine with it. I’ll take a couple hits to the head but it’s frustrating that there may be some long-term effects of people — on a personal level, not corporate level — playing it a little more safe because they don’t want to deal with it. That I worry about, not that I want everyone to do racist and sexist stuff, but our subjects are very complicated. My argument to all of this is everyone I know from a certain background has a different story. There are some truths that are universal, there are some truths that bind the lives but they’re so different, even though the Iceman thing was a perfect example where some people went, “Yeah, that happened to me. Someone just came up to me and said ‘Are you gay?'” The non-psychic, mutant version was a friend of yours coming up and going, “Wait, you’re gay right?” and then you’re not ready to have that conversation and it just comes out at you. And that happens. I had some people go, “Boy, that happened. It’s so nice to see that expressed in the sci-fi version.” And then someone came up to me and goes, “That is exactly what happened to me and I really don’t appreciate you putting that in your writing.”â€¨â€¨And I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re not ever gonna convince me that that it’s not worth writing about when it actually happened.” It’s a truth and that’s where the idea of it came from, it was a truth that I had witnessed. If people are shutting down, again subconsciously, because they’re worried about reaction, some from people who don’t even read the material, we are going to miss out on some real original truths. That’s what I’m worried about.
Turning to Marvel’s upcoming event, writer Brian Michael Bendis talks about why “Civil War II” isn’t just going to repeat the original, how it came from an organic place and what it’s like to return to a story as massive as “House of M” and “Secret Invasion.”
On how “Civil War II” won’t just be a retread of the original and came from a more organic place than trying to cash in on the movie:
We’ve never done giant events that wrapped around a movie. It’s a weird road to go down. It’s much better to let characters and story [lead]. And what really got us excited, and where I think a lot of people are the most nervous, is the Marvel Universe is so much different than it was 10 years ago. “Civil War” was 10 years ago, to both of our shocks. Every single major player in the Marvel Universe has either had a life-altering thing that has changed their perspective or they’re a different person completely. The person representing Captain America is a different person. Ms. Marvel isn’t Captain Marvel. Iron Man has been through so much. And that got us so excited — what’s “Civil War” with these players. It is not a beat-for-beat reinterpretation; it is a new story with new players, some of which there’s overlap; they’ve all survived “Civil War,” that informs the story as well, particularly Tony Stark, who went through hell and I got to write the exclamation point on that in “Civil War: Confession.” That weighs heavy on the decision to go after his friends again on something he wholeheartedly can’t sleep over.
On this being his biggest event since “Secret Invasion”:
The planning that revolves around a major event — the biggest I had done is “Secret Invasion” where there were so many pieces and so much build up. This one, yeah, this has got a lot of pieces and that is the hardest part is making sure that the sides are equally balanced, that the argument is equally balanced, and I’ve learned that. Every single [event] has been a unique experience, almost a different genre. “Secret Invasion” was an alien invasion; “House of M” was this fantasia of Marvel desire; this is a real war comic.
What I did do is specifically arrange the story to be as surprising as possible to even the most jaded event reader. I thought about that. I thought about, “Here I am, I’ve read ‘Civil War.’ What would surprise me the most issue-to-issue?” I’m not gonna spoil what that is but we’ll talk again afterward and you’ll say, “Oh, issue #3 was built around… I’ve never seen that in an event.
And by the way, “House of M” was built out of, “Hey, Joss [Whedon] is taking the summer off [‘Astonishing] X-Men,’ could you do something so we have something coming out?” And then “House of M” became an event. “Secret Invasion was supposed to be my big “Avengers” story and then it was building and building — “No, that’s your summer.” So they all came out of a different birthing process. They were all very different on our end even if they look, on the shelf, “Oh, here’s a lot of events.”
In the final part of his conversation with CBR TV, Bendis describes how he approaches the “cynical” world we live in and what it’s like to know exactly what about his work appeals to some of his readers and drives others crazy. He also discusses concern over various publishing practices like variants, reboots and events and whether they’re helping or hurting the industry and its readers.
On living in a cynical world and how that informs his writing:
Truthfully, I’m a little more cup half full on this. The cynical people I have found are the first ones to buy, they’ve read it by the time I’ve woken up on Wednesday I’ve already heard from them. That’s not cynicism, you’re so fucking excited you don’t know what to do with yourself. I’ve had people who rag on me with every issue and I’ll say, “You’re on issue #25, you should stop buying it.” Or, “You’re on issue #25. You like this book on some level. It’s not just the character. There are other places to get this character.”
But also, the cynicism really builds up on [message] boards where people really just snark-off. But there is a lot, like more than half, like seventy percent of readers don’t want to argue and have shit ruined and fight about their favorite writer or their favorite artist, they just want to enjoy their comics. “I’ve got twenty minutes in the bathroom, I’m going to sit here and read this. Blow my mind.” And they’re happy and we hear from them all day long. They just don’t want to argue, they just don’t want to fight. So I hate to be, I don’t see the world as so cynical but we’re down here and you’ve had these experiences, you have these shows — and I know you’re stuck here sometimes — it is pure “I love this” joy. Either, “I love this character and I want to represent it,” or “I just love art.” or “I just love writing.” It is oozing out of them and it is beautiful. So I don’t look to combat cynicism because, first of all you cannot win. There are some people who are just looking to hate on stuff to make themselves feel better. That’s a whole other thing, it has nothing to do with what I do for a living. Wwhen I’m at a crossroads of an idea and I go, “Would this shut some people up? That would be interesting.” But I will say I’m guilty of doing that, but most of the time it’s not to make cynical people happy it’s to give cynical people something to read. “You want to be mad?” And I know that is the part of me that drives people who don’t care for my work mad the most insane is that I will do that. Again, people who like my work, it’s the thing they like the most about me.
On reboots, event fatigue and what readers actually want:
What I have discovered from my time in independent comics to my time in mainstream comics to this stuff with the events is that there are a great many people who say one thing online and then do another thing with their checkbook and with their ordering. I tend to get zen about it. There’s a lot I don’t think is healthy long term. I worry, as do you. The one thing I don’t worry about is the new #1s. I don’t worry about that. I have been convinced by others, and I’ve seen in it my independent work, people who go, “Oh, new season.” It’s kind of come with binging. “Just tell me where to start.” And for those readers they should not feel punished by not having joined us in 1967. New #1s every year, new #1s every couple years if the story says “new chapter in this character’s life,” absolutely. That one I’m on board with wholeheartedly.
As far as a lot of the other stuff people complain about, variant covers or whatever, the events, I don’t — the people who complain, either they go away or they’re also replaced by people who really love the events because they, for what they cost, I want almost a promise that something’s gonna happen. No matter how cynical you are, shit happens in these event comics. It might not be stuff you liked, you might have lost your favorite character, but somethin happened. You got your money’s worth. All I can do on my end is make sure my comics are worth the money. Jewish guilt — what both of us have been raised with [Laughter — pours over me on cover price. It always does, it just pours over me. People come up to me to sign a stack of books and I literally want to give them a present, I start looking for free stuff to give them. It’s a mental thing. That’s all I can do is make sure my books are worth the time and the effort.
On why comics have thrives while other physical media has disappeared:
Having talked to some of the people who make bigger decisions, there is a reason comics have thrived while other physical media has disappeared. I mean disappeared. When I moved to Portland it was a sea of independent bookstores and record shops. It is now a sea of pot dispensaries. And that’s no joke, everywhere there was a bookstore is now a pot dispensary. These people who make these decisions have kept comics alive, that plus the movies and the television shows that permeate. And it’s interesting that even with now a flood of TV shows of every flavor, the comics are still thriving. People binge “Jessica Jones” and they dover for the book. I have felt it so I know this is true. In comparison to something that doesn’t exist anymore, we’re doing very well. There’s always ebbs and flows.
Here’s what I do know — the people who run these companies are not stupid, and they’re not money-grubbing little looking to get you. I’ll use [Marvel Comics Publisher] Dan Buckley as an example, even though he doesn’t do a lot of interviews, holy crap does he love comics. He loves Marvel and he loves these characters, and he really wants the best people doing them, wholeheartedly, and has done such amazing shit behind the scenes. You wouldn’t believe it. And he doesn’t want it talked about, he just wants the things that he’s done to be on their own. We’re not being run by idiots, we’re being run by people who care. I’ll do my best, they’ll do their best, and as long as the product is something someone wants to buy people will buy it.
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