LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS
So I had the, uhm, holiday weekend-- this was back in November. The holiday weekend off. You know?
I-I didn't know what I wanted ta do, so I just-I just cracked open a good novel. It's like, all black and white. Moody. Noirish. Hot &*%ing chick. Grifter guy pal. And it's - well, not like anything else.
Ah, screw it. I couldn't write like Brian Michael Bendis if I wanted to. I think I just proved that. Bendis won the 1999 Eisner for "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition," and deservedly so. With his work on SAM & TWITCH garnering him a new audience (myself, included), he's truly becoming a big name to watch for in comics in the year 2000. So what makes him so special?
It's a combination of things, and I'm not sure I could even quantify them all. We can start with his dialogue skills, first and foremost. If you're like me, you sometimes get frustrated that everyone in comics, television, the movies, etc. speaks perfectly. Their words are measured and precise, without hesitation or repetition. Listen to one of your own conversations someday. Does it sound like something you'd hear in the movies? Of course not. It's rambling, it's stumbling, it's fragmented. The reason why literature goes for the perfect dialogue is so as not to diminish the point of the words and to keep the story moving. You don't want to get bogged down in incoherent conversations in the first act. Generally speaking, you'll lose your audience that way.
Not Bendis, though. He has the best of both worlds. He has completely natural-sounding dialogue that's also completely captivating.
Don't let the art fool you. Don't let first impressions divert your attention. At first glance, Brian Michael Bendis' work looks like a pile of amateurish crap, heavy on the black ink, riddled with sloppy-looking composition, computer lettering, and every Photoshop trick known to man.
If you take the time to crack open any of the books, though, you'll find something much different. Thankfully, you can pick up most of Bendis' work in nice trade paperbacks: FIRE, GOLDFISH, and THE JINX ESSENTIAL COLLECTION. The rest - including SAM & TWITCH, TORSO, FORTUNE AND GLORY, and a couple of assorted Jinx short story collections - shouldn't be too difficult to track down either by back issue bin diving, or ordering through Bendis himself.
SAM & TWITCH
I started here, as so many did. I didn't buy this series because I was a big SPAWN fan. I haven't been that in a number of years, since Todd McFarlane stopped drawing it. But the buzz around Bendis was enough that I wanted to give him a chance. The art by Angel Medina in this series definitely passed the flip test. Without reading the book, I could tell that this one would be interesting. There were double page spreads with panels numbering in the dozens. The lettering was distinctive and unique, using just typeset letters and a line drawn the characters.
All of the tricks Bendis used in this series are ones he began using in all those black and white books leading up to it. Yet not all of his tricks show up here. There's more.
Chronologically speaking, it started with FIRE.
Having learned that Bendis has an ear for dialogue, the ability to call for a load of panels on a single page, and a nicely shaven head, I made my way to the National Con in New York City back in November. My main mission at this convention was to seek out Bendis and get him to tell me all the dirt on Todd McFarlane. How did that single Canadian plan to take over the world, where Celine Dion failed before him? Failing in that, Bendis managed to talk me into buying just about everything he's ever written, with the exception of a couple of letters written to his parents during summer camp.
I first plowed into FIRE. This one is a compilation of a two-issue mini-series originally published by Caliber. It's a stand-alone story not set in any particular universe, so you can read it on its own. It's actually an interesting story: Benjamin is just another college kid, except he's the one that gets wrapped up in a government conspiracy, reprogrammed, and forced into a treacherous international spy mission. It's basically your everyday college story, now isn't it? ;-)
It's a nice read, nothing too complicated. Told as a big flashback, you don't get too bogged down in a myriad of names, or complicated plot twists. The focus of this book is on the character of Benjamin, and the trial-by-fire that changes his world.
And he may not be alone.
It's a well-put together book. Like the rest of his collections, this one is published by Image and has nice little overleaf flaps folded under the front and back covers, which are made of heavier cardboard than usual, with a nice glossy sheen to them. The pages inside are done on shiny white paper, unlike the other two collections, which use the plain white stuff. (This was a printer's error, but it works nicely.)
It's also my first introduction to Bendis' art. It's completely different from anything else I've ever read in comics. It's unapologetically black and white, and probably wouldn't work in color. It uses a combination of straight pen and ink line work along with a smattering of computer wizardry to turn some images into photoreality. There's even some lens flares present. Bendis letters his books with the computer, using traditional pen and ink lettering only for sound effects. Oh, and he uses models for his characters, giving them an eerily realistic feel. This also adds to the creep factor of future books when you can see different people starring in different roles. =)
Bendis' storytelling style is also variable, set to fit the style of the story. Some pages are montages, others are straight narrative panel-to-panel. Others are all text, with a panel or two of art to hold the setting in the reader's mind. This all comes into better focus with the next TPB.
One final note: This is the "director's cut" of the story, redoing much of the original comic. For one, the hand lettering has been changed to computer lettering, which is amazingly effective. (Bendis is right - he sucks at hand-lettering.) This one is a mere $10, and well worth it, despite being the weakest of the collections.
…is worthy of an Eisner. I guess the timing on it wasn't so good, or nobody read it.
It's flat-out noir. It uses strong black and white imagery, like SIN CITY, but without that annoying spot of color that Miller seems addicted to using now for no good reason. Unlike Miller, the stars of this series are its characters, and not its presentation. SIN CITY is so good because of its style and its relative simplicity. It's a breezy read, as dark and as masochistic as it can get.
GOLDFISH concentrates more on the characters, and this one sports an ensemble cast. Style and pacing often are pushed aside for a good talking-heads scene. Bendis' ear for dialogue shows through here -- complete with stutters, false starts, and pauses for breaths.
It's the story of David Gold, a.k.a. Goldfish, a con man who returns to his ex-flame, who's now a big time casino kingpin, in search of something. Part of the fun of this book is that you're always left in the dark. You don't always know what's going on, and the pieces don't fall together until later in the story. The first two pages are the one side of a conversation Goldfish is having with -- we realize later -- his ex-flame. (She's the strong-willed, yet evil, woman whose name happens to be Lauren Bacall.) Goldfish's old friends are here, too, as well as a new friend or two. It's a gritty story just crying outto be made into a movie. The ending is a slam-bang manga-influenced explosion. (And I use the word "explosion" metaphorically here.) I don't want to give anything away, but you feel the pain as you read those final few pages - after all, as skewed as their moral compasses may be, these are characters you've come to know and care about. Some deserve what they get, others are more tragic figures, some you're still not sure of.
What does Goldfish want? What happened with his ex-flame to send them flying apart? Why is Goldfish's ex-con partner now a detective?
It took me about an hour and a half of straight through reading to finish this thing, but I do recommend finding the time to take care of it all in one sitting. I can't imagine taking a long break between chapters somewhere. You don't watch movies in two sittings, do you?
There are a couple of spots where you might get characters confused. In all the heavy black ink, spotted shadows, and expressive faces, some characters start to blend together. And in those pages that are carried by dialogue, it's easy to get lost for a moment as to who is speaking. But you'll catch up quickly enough. The tone of speech used should clue you in. The characters may not continually call each other by name, but you can figure out who's talking often just by what it is they're saying. Some more dialogue traits might have been useful.
THE JINX ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
As good and as tight a story as GOLDFISH is, my awe for Bendis' storytelling comes straight from THE JINX ESSENTIAL COLLECTION. This novel is set chronologically in a period before GOLDFISH. We follow Goldfish again in a merry romp around Cleveland, along with an unsure, yet ace, bounty hunter by the name of Jinx. The two meet. Sparks fly. Tension fills the air, and a pot of gold looms large at the end of an unseen rainbow, as they team up to discover a slightly hinted-at treasure on only the barest of clues.
It's tough to call it an epic, since the time span the book takes place in is so short. But this is a novel, complete with character development, backstory, action pieces, set pieces, and the occasional comic relief. It's also 440 pages long, but it feels like much less. Once you get going on this one, you won't put it down. I read it over a weekend.
While the story is a pretty straightforward suspense piece, complete with action and romance and mysterious characters roaming the backgrounds, there are some moments that catch you completely off guard. One chapter late in the book takes place at a mall. The setting is laid with twenty pages of characters having conversations. You're just eavesdropping on them. What they're talking about is interesting and worthy of a comic all to itself. It's a little bit Tarantino-esque, where the main characters suddenly go off on a jag about some pop culture bit that has no relevance to the story. But it's something of a neat trick, as those characters show up later in the sequence and having known them, we react more personally to the predicaments they get into.
There are other parts, too, which probably have little to no connection to the main plot, but which help to define the characters and set the mood and tone of the book. That's why I call this a novel. It's the very definition of one of those 400 page hardcovers that you'd shell out $25 or more for so that Clancy or Crichton or Steele can get their millions in royalties. This just happens to be sold in sequential narrative form, but by no less talented a writer.
If I had to recommend just one of the three trade paperbacks, this would be the one. It's got everything.
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY
There are also a series of one-shots. At the top of the column, I called them collections of Jinx short stories, but that's not quite right, either. For one, "Jinx" has become something of a brand name. Jinx doesn't show up in these books. But the tone and style and feel from the JINX ESSENTIAL collection is here.
JINX TRUE CRIME CONFESSIONS is a $3.95 book published by Image in 1998. It contains 48 pages - no ads -- of short stories (anywhere from 1 page to four or five) of people telling stories of crimes they committed. These are mostly small short stories. Michael Avon Oeming even draws one short piece in the middle of the book.
JINX POP CULTURE HOO-HAH is the same size and format, but consisting of small stories revolving around - what else? - pop culture. Star Trek, X-Files, Superman, John Cleese, and Coca Cola all figure into this. As does dating, area code changes, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and more.
JINX BURIED TREASURES has more one-pagers, but mostly is dominated by short stories Bendis illustrated for others, such as a Warren Ellis story originally anthologized in NEGATIVE BURN, and a James Hudnall story that appeared in Hud's SHUT UP AND DIE series.
All in all, these three books make for great reading filler material. Waiting for the modem to dial up your connection? Crack open a book and read a short short story. Your favorite television drama hits that interminably long break at the bottom of the hour? Time for a crime confession. Scanning covers for the web site you write a column for twice a week? Read a couple short stories. (OK, this one may not apply to all of you as much as it does me.)
The first issue of the Oni Press mini-series, FORTUNE AND GLORY, appeared in stores late last month and the second is schedule for late February. If you've never read any of the other books I've discussed above, you can read this one and not feel trapped. If you just want to sample Bendis' style and sense of humor, this is where you go. It's smaller than your standard comic book size, but clocks in at 48 black and white pages. It's an autobiographical tale of Bendis' whirlwind experiences in Hollywood. If you or someone you know has the slightest interest in the background goings-on of the entertainment industry, this should interest you. It's hilarious, brutally honest, and somewhat exciting. You will root for Bendis by the time this is done.
THAT'S NOT ALL -- BUT IT'S ENOUGH
That's not the end of the Bendis story. Todd McFarlane's company is making his recently concluded mini-series, TORSO, into a film. Bendis and co-writer Marc Andreyko are working on the script, and the comics should be released in a TPB format when the movie hits. I didn't pick them up individually, so it looks like I'll be waiting for the movie to read the books.
SAM & TWITCH is on going with Jinx herself scheduled for an appearance in an upcoming issue.
There's a much-rumored Marvel Knights project to be announced pretty soon.
There's the POWERS mini-series he's doing with Michael Avon Oeming coming out in the next couple of months.
There's also the largely forgettable LILI #0 one shot Image published a couple of months ago that Bendis scripted. It's not worth it. Save yourself and your wallet. Avoid it.
And more more more. He's not stopping and he's not repeating himself. Brian Michael Bendis is definitely a creator worth looking for. Pick up any of the aforementioned trade paperbacks and read them in any order. It doesn't matter. Just be sure to read them. They're well worth it and a nice break from the four-color super hero books. You can also read more about the man by visiting Bendis' home page or message board.
Come back here on Tuesday for a look at some of those, including the fabulous new issue of THE SAVAGE DRAGON and the hilariously awful BATMAN. Next Friday's column will be more reader participation: Dream creative teams, American's Second Best Comics, and more!