Jim Valentino, publisher of Image Comics, called writer-artist Brian Michael Bendis the other day. And what he told him shook him to his very core: "You know, Brian, you realize you've hit the mainstream now?" "Nooo!" was his reply. He had always thought of himself as an Indie guy.
Okay, maybe this 'revelation' didn't shake his very being but it's hard to get around the facts. Sure, Brian Michael Bendis made a name for himself in the independent market with successful books such as Jinx, Goldfish, and his recent autobiographical work for Oni Press, Fortune & Glory. Even now, a case can be made that Powers, his creator-owned crime book within a superhero universe (with artist and co-creator Mike Avon Oeming) for Image is an indie-type of book. But it wasn't until he started to work for Todd McFarlane that his star began to burn brighter. Solid work on cop drama Sam & Twitch led to McFarlane giving him a monthly Spawn series called Hellspawn which in turn led to him getting noticed by the big guns at DC and Marvel, specifically Marvel Knights editor Joe Quesada. He's now writing Ultimate Spider-Man for Marvel, having the honor to restart Spider-Man continuity from scratch for the modern age and hoping in turn to bring in new comic book readers to a sagging industry. Add to that writing a Batman story for DC and a couple of cracks at writing Daredevil for Marvel Knights and you've got MAINSTREAM written all over him! So, the truth hurts, doesn't it? I talked to the happily-married 31 year old over the phone from his home in Cleveland to talk about his busy work schedule and how the truth doesn't hurt so much after all.
GB: Your very first work was for Caliber in the late eighties?
BMB: Early to mid nineties actually. 1992. I was in college and the first thing I did was a book called Parts Of A Whole, which was based on my thesis. Then came Quivers, a book about amazons from Cleveland! Looking back at my early work, they were all male paranoid fantasies, having to do with the girlfriend I had at the time. Then came Fire. Around that time, I met up with David Mack, who was starting to come into his own with Kabuki. Then I did Goldfish and by that time I was out of school.
GB: Lots of good books were coming out from Caliber at that time - Crow, Baker Street, Fringe, Fugitive, Random Thoughts, Taken Under...
BMB: Yeah, the Caliber crew. It's nice to be breaking in with them now. [James O'Barr, Guy Davis, Phil Hester, Michael Lark are some examples.] I've been friends with David Mack you know since we were kids so it's nice working with him.
GB: What are your influences?
BMB: My influences are outside of comics, which I think is important. You should have influences outside the field you work in, I believe. Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Woody Allen. They all write good dialogue that also brings the plot forward. John Alten and his film noir style also excite me.
GB: Anything autobiographical in your work?
BMB: Fortune & Glory. The themes of my work are more important to me. Goldfish and Jinx are very personal to me.
GB: Dialogue - how do you hone that craft?
BMB: I don't know. Mamet says there are voices in your head and writers are paid to write them down. I desperately need to hear characters talk to, not at, each other to move the plot forward. No exposition or not like Pulp Fiction either where the dialogue just stays there and does nothing to move the story along. Dialogue should be like taking a trip, not expected, and ending up being surprised in what is said and how it affects the scene and plot. It's ethereal, an organic process. I work in bursts. Once you know the character, the character takes over. You just know.
- Brian Michael Bendis
GB: Like a sixth sense?
BMB: Yeah, you know when it's working and when it's not. Some writers let it pass when it's not working and they're deluding themselves. I can't do that.
GB: What's your favorite book that you've written?
BMB: Like picking your children. I can't. I have no favorites.
GB: Any dream projects? Or are you happy with all the stuff you're doing now?
BMB: Powers. Jinx. And the work-for-hire stuff isn't just cool. I'm pretty picky. Ultimate Spider-Man - the 12-year-old in me is still doing somersaults. Sam & Twitch - I'm very happy with. Todd is allowing me to work with him "to do me". Hellspawn too. Daredevil - I'm doing it with one of my best friends! And I want to do work worthy of David's painting. I'm not bragging here, I'm just excited.
BMB: Me and Dave and others weren't looking for mainstream work. They came looking for us, wanting us to do the stuff we do.
GB: Tell me about Fortune & Glory. Was it well received in Hollywood?
BMB: The trade came out July 19th. This one was for me. I don't like wasting time. And Hollywood - with all its meetings and going here and there, all the Hollywood trappings - was a lot of wasting time. So I'm glad I was able to use that and make value out of it. I was honestly surprised people liked it. All of Hollywood loved it. It's funny - the book endears me to producers now. And it also makes them nervous. There's this one person, I get along great with her, she's really nice, but she's afraid to say anything in front of me! I just wanted to spin a yarn and make a fun book.
GB: The Rob Liefeld incident? Did that really happen?
BMB: Really happened. More than once. A lot of the things that happened in the book happened to me more than once.
GB: Fortune & Glory was about your comedic but surreal trip through Hollywood. Tell me about Hollywood…
BMB: Hollywood is a nice place to visit. I wouldn't be able to handle the constant lies and rejection and the pandering for no reason. I just couldn't handle that. I just want to write. My job is to tell a good story.
GB: Compare the producers of Hollywood to the producers of the comic book industry. Any parallels?
BMB: All the lying, the cheating, and the stealing - you sort of understand that in Hollywood because of the huge amounts of money involved in making movies. Comics? Surprisingly, they do the same and there's really no money in comics! People just want to behave badly, I guess. I don't understand that. You can understand fucking someone over for a million dollars, but not for ten dollars!
GB: How is the Torso deal coming along? Is there enough fodder for another F & G book?
BMB: I don't like doing sequels. [And check out the end of the trade collection for his views on that!] Torso's in development. They're shopping for directors right now. It's like a lottery. There's no rule book in Hollywood - if you do this and this and this, then your movie will be made. No, it's a lottery! A crapshoot.
GB: Is Powers open-ended or do you have an ending in mind?
BMB: It's open-ended. This is my philosophy - all series should be open-ended until you run out of ideas. And I've got lots of ideas for Powers. I was nervous before #1 came out but it's doing well - it received the biggest reorder volume for the month at Diamond so I'm very pleased.
GB: Sam & Twitch is another crime drama of yours, like Powers, but without the powers!
BMB: Sam & Twitch is a police drama. Powers isn't. I have so many ideas for Sam & Twitch. I have a backlog of police reports research that I plan to use in the book. And I'm very excited about Alex Maleev coming on board as regular artist once the Witchcraft story ends. I love crime stories.
GB: Writing all these books, are you down to a writing formula like many scriptwriting advocates in Hollywood profess to?
BMB: Formulas are made to be broken. I don't believe in formula books like Syd Field's or Lew Hunter's. Writers should read books about writing, just not the ones that rely on formula that's all. Story by Robert McKee is a good one, for example.
GB: You wrote a Batman Chronicles story. Any other Batman material in the works?
BMB: I had in the credits - by Orson Welles, bastardized by BMB. DC took it out for some reason. I hope no one thought I was ripping him off. They wanted the story in color but I told them it had to be in black and white. Color would ruin it. I don't have anything else in the works at DC at the moment. Too busy.
GB: I'm not a Spawn fan. Why should I read Hellspawn?
BMB: There is no book like it on the market. Ashley is creating a moody, dark horrifying little tale. Heaven and Hell are fighting over Earth and Earth doesn't care. So it's a cold war of sorts and Spawn is trying to keep the scales balanced. But lives go on and back to normal after he's gone. So it's a dark, dark book. Disturbing, bad ass shit. I feel schizophrenic writing both Spider-man and Hellspawn!
GB: You're bringing Ben Urich back to Daredevil…
BMB: Ben Urich is coming back. I used to work at a newspaper like Ben a few years ago. I was an editorial cartoonist. The story revolves around Ben and a kid who talks only in comic book lingo. So the book jumps back and forth between real world - painted by David Mack - and comic book world - drawn by Joe Quesada.
GB: What's next?
BMB: Down the road, a personal project will be next. I'm also going to be drawing a story for Grendel: Black, White, & Red II.
GB: What's a typical day for Brian Michael Bendis?
BMB: I ride out with my bike, screw around with my wife, and write. I write different books at different times of the month. Hellspawn and Spider-Man are written at different times of the month, for example.
GB: What are you doing right now?
BMB: I'm picking at Spidey now. And a super secret Marvel Knights project! [Which turned out to be Daredevil Ninja, a three-issue mini coming out in October!] I'm ahead with all of my books. I'm on Ultimate Spider-Man #4, Hellspawn #5, Sam & Twitch #20, Powers #8. I write books in chunks, all at once. Whatever's hot, I go with it.
GB: What are your views on the comics industry?
BMB: The industry is a pigsty. No one's doing anything until Marvel's Bill Jemas came along. There's all this bile on the Internet and the newsgroups. Stop complaining and do something about it! The medium - I love it. We need to turn it around.
- Brian Michael Bendis
GB: So why comics? Why not screenwriting full time?
BMB: I love comics. I love the medium. I could have left last year for screenwriting. So it's not for the money. Believe me, there's an easier route to go to make money. Not to brag, and I'm not talking the game here. I love the fucked up distribution system, the ambivalent retailer, the wishy-washy middle of the road comic publisher, and the bitchy Comics Journal! Peter Gabriel wrote that success is a fickle mistress. It'll come to you if you stick to your guns. Don't write for what you think is hot right now, trying to guess the market. Just write.
GB: So you're happy…
BMB: There are horrible jobs out there. People drink themselves into a coma. I'm making comic books. I shouldn't be pissed off. Alex Ross, reading his Comics Journal interview - why is he pissed off?
GB: He's a comics God!
BMB: Exactly. I have an outlet luckily. If I have a dark thought, I have Hellspawn. If I have a neurotic thought, I have Spidey.
GB: Is Hollywood a good or bad influence on comics?
BMB: They're both visual storytelling. But comics are still comics. Movies and comics are so imbedded into each other. In any genre or media, there's a lot of bad - in everything. Everything good that influences anyone is good. Anything! Option money keeps some comics afloat so that's good for the industry. The comics industry has a second city mentality. We think of ourselves as less important. Movies are our literature in society. In pop culture, comics are not important. I don't care. We should start appreciating ourselves more. Which reminds me of a story - I was on a plane. I had some Spidey trades with me in my backpack. Doing some research for the series. I hesitated, for a brief moment, to take them out. Man, what was I thinking? I'm the writer of Spider-Man! Finally, I took them out. Society has it ingrained in us…
- Brian Michael Bendis
GB: Tell me about Ultimate Spidey then. What do you say to the overzealous Marvel junkies who are opposing this new line, fearing the end of their precious Marvel Universe continuity?
BMB: Mark and I are putting a lot of love into this project. I was Peter Parker. As for the story, I'm trying to keep it a secret. To me, not knowing anything about a book is a good thing! That's why Matrix was so good - no one knew anything about it.
GB: No expectations…
BMB: Yeah, online we put up some sketches from the book. There was one of Uncle Ben and we had people thinking he was going to live, we're screwing around with continuity, etc. Uncle Ben is a dead man. It's just a sketch! Be quiet! No wonder John Byrne went nuts! You're canceling the other Spidey books. Um, no we're not. You're canceling them. No, we're not! Anyway, we're making Peter Parker a Daily Bugle web site intern. In this day and age, he can't possibly be a photographer for a major newspaper. Issues 1 to 6 of the series will be the equivalent to the original Spidey story in Amazing Fantasy #15. So we've got 150 pages instead of 15 to work with now. When Uncle Ben died the first time around in AF #15, everyone felt sorry for Peter because maybe we knew how it felt to lose a loved one, not because he was a major character in that story. Uncle Ben was in one panel. Not this time. We're getting to set up the story more and get more emotional involvement with Uncle Ben. My wife - she knows nothing about the old Spidey continuity - read my scripts and when I told her that Uncle Ben was going to die, she reacted, "No, don't kill Uncle Ben. Don't do that." I showed the scripts to my friends to make sure I was doing Spidey right and they liked it. And so does Marvel. The Spidey mythos is one of the best toys out there.