Powers Play: Bendis talks 'Powers #25' and more

While Brian Michael Bendis has cemented his name in the minds of comic book fans with his work on "Daredevil" and "Ultimate Spider-Man," the latter receiving more exposure of late due to the film and Free Comic Day promotion, it seems that some of his other work may be getting lost in the spandex brouhaha. Image Comics' "Powers," considered by many to be the series that put Bendis on the proverbial map, will be reaching issue #25 this year and the acclaimed scribe took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with CBR News about this monumental issue.

For those who aren't familiar with the driving concept behind "Powers" or the main characters, Bendis is happy to explain it all to you. "It's a pretty high concept pitch which I don't usually have," laughs Bendis. "It's about Walker and Pilgrim, two homicide detectives who work specifically cases that deal with super powered homicides and by doing so, they end up unpeeling and looking under the rocks of the various superhero world they live in and its kind of a VH1 'Behind the Music' perspective on superheroes where we have one hit wonders, legends, icons, scandals and all the facets of modern celebrity, mixed with the super-heroics we all grew up with."

Reaching issue #25 is a big milestone, not only for a new series in today's vicious comic book market, but also for a series that isn't from the Big 2 Companies (Marvel & DC). So what does Bendis have planned for this big comic? "Well you know, 'Powers' being an independent comic it's 25th issue is a shocker and especially because after the first issue, we weren't sure if the first issue was going to make it out, much less the series, so to be able to put out 25 with such healthy numbers, it's a really big deal for us. We're starting a brand new story arc in which our two lead characters are faced with a murder that surrounds an R. Kelly style sex scandal. I don't know if you've been following the papers, but the singer has been allegedly doing some nasty things with some very young ladies, so we're going to use that as a catalyst to tell the story of a super-group that was huge in 70's and now have fallen on darker times. The story arc is being called ' the SellOuts' and it's a mixture between R Kelly, the way bands like the Ramones treat each other- they used to be real close and now they can't even talk to each other- aaaand a little bit of the Superfriends thrown in for good measure. Come on, how often do you get a comic with the Ramones and the Superfriends combined? It's all mixed in the pot and we're really coming up with what we think is our strongest effort yet."

If it sounds like "Powers" is influenced by a lot of real world events, you'd be right and Bendis says that he considers the melding of reality with his fictional world to be one of the series' main strengths. "'Powers' has always been about peeling under the glossy surface and looking underneath and that's the kind of stuff I'm fascinated by. With the media and the Internet, so few things are hidden from us because it's so hard for people to keep their mouth shut and there are so many ways to communicate ideas, that I love not only what you get when you look under the surface, but how people react when they find out things that are under the surface. No matter how many times it happens, no matter how many stories are told, people still think of celebrities as bigger than life and not human. It always shocks people when celebrities are revealed to be human and that's what 'Powers' started out as, and we mixed in our share of unique sensibilities about the superheroes we all grew up with, and it all comes together really nice and it really does write itself." Bendis then jokingly adds, "Well, I wish it did, but it really doesn't."

While "Powers" is influenced by current events, Bendis maintains that he does have an end for the series in mind, but he just isn't restricting himself to a slavish sort of continuity that will bring him to that point. "We know how it all ends. But that said- I think the best kind of writing- the kind of writing I like to read and do, is where you have a general game plan and know where you're going but you're not so close minded that if something really cool pops up that you allow yourself the opportunity to mix it in. Or not be afraid to write yourself into a hole, which a lot of people think I'm doing with 'Daredevil' which is great by the way. Especially with 'Powers,' because we're talking about murder and characters that are strong, they write themselves on their own and you don't want to shut off those voices, so if the characters are going to surprise you, and consequently the readers, let them do so. So yeah, sometimes we get sidetracked from the 'big picture' but always I think for the best."

Some readers may fear that when Bendis gets sidetracked with integrating current events, the main characters will suffer for it, but the popular writer doesn't worry about the principle players not getting their due. "You always run the risk, but I think the bigger risk is not allowing yourself the opportunity to show what happens when the lead characters react to what's around them. Much like you do everyday when you meet new people and talk to them. it says something interesting about you in how you react and so I see that holding true with our lead characters. If we're bringing something interesting to book then the lead characters will be interested and the audience will be interested because the lead characters are kind of the eyes through our process, the journey really, such as in the first arc of Powers with Deena- where the audience was more attached to her reaction regarding what was going on than what was going on itself- it's a pretty old Shakespearean trick really. You always worry about ignoring the main characters yes, but I'm more worried about the story itself being boring because if the story's boring then the characters start complaining in the writing. Sometimes you read a comic or see a movie, like one I saw recently, where one of the lead characters complained about plot and it made me laugh because the screenwriter didn't get that it was his subconscious screaming that the movie sucked."

"Or even in, for example. 'Attack of Clones,' which I went to see last night, all the characters hate Jar Jar! They all hate him! All the characters in the movie hate him and that's why the audience hates Jar Jar and they're all annoyed by him! I had one of the best times I've had at the movies because the audience was hilarious but I'm having a hard time washing the stink of a bad screenplay off me. It's hard to sit down and write when you've been so pummeled by bad dialogue. There was a communal hilarity to the whole thing but it was like 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' at our theater, which is in Portland with a bunch of crazy people here. I literally told my friend who hadn't seen it, 'You'll laugh and applaud at Yoda. You'll laugh and applaud at Boba Fett, and you will walk out feeling dirty for doing so.' You'll hate yourself for doing so. I feel dirty for enjoying myself because I know it's bad, I know it's bad! My wife, who can't control herself, yelled out 'holy nipples' at Anakin because I guess he was casting quite the sundial shadow (at one point in the film). The whole thing was hilarious- that and the romance dialogue. Whew- holy mackerel! Danielle Steele called and laughed at him. I'm sorry, what was the question?"

Getting back to "Powers," with the series having been around for a couple of years now, things are bound to have changed and Bendis feels that things have only got better as time has rolled on. "It's funny- the biggest change has been the addition of Peter Pantazis, our colorist, who adds more of an organic style of coloring. There's a lot of drawing going on in the coloring as well and to my sensibilities, he draws more organically to match Mike's [Oeming, series artist] organically ink style. And Ken Bruzenak, who is the letterer, is my favorite letterer in comics. He was Howard Chaykin's letterer on all my favorite Chaykin comics- I'm a huge Chaykin freak- so getting him really makes things for us. The technical level of 'Powers' has risen and that only makes me & Mike look like as in tune as we have been since day one and there's a shortcut with us now that is such a pleasure. I've been blessed with that with all of my collaborations I've had, but Mike's has always been the gold standard I've tried to achieve on my other books because we have a unique rapport, both coming from Caliber [the independent publisher], the same background and both hitting same mainstream success at same time, and that rapport is the standard. It's the same kind of rapport I have with David Mack, who I don't get to work with on this quantity of product."

"There's many things that keep me on my toes and one of those is to keep Mike inspired, namely creating scripts that get him excited to draw it and there's synergy for us too that I'm proud of. There's a business synergy I'm proud of, like seeing him starting his books like 'Bastard Samurai" and seeing how far he's come on that level from being a work for hire artist to being able to not only sell out a first printing, but being able to produce the comic on his own. That's a big deal and I'm immensely proud that the experience of 'Powers' has given him the knowledge and he sees the value of doing something like that. It's great to know that the experience of 'Powers' does that much good for him that. It's a good time."

Another exciting aspect of working on "Powers" has been the level of success the series has earned, both in sales and critical acclaim, but Bendis says that he hasn't let himself get lost in the fame. "Success is really relative, so I don't really consider it. Success is just being able to put the book out so anything we've been able to do past that is all kind of gravy and has nothing to do with the process of writing the book. If anything, the book doing well makes me want the book to be a unique experience every time I start a new story arc. As this story arc we're on right now ends, people will see that we really gnaw into our characters, really threw them up against the wall and shook them to make the book have a danger that we thought would be exciting to sit through as opposed to 'the book's doing well, let's just do the same thing over and over again.' We're gonna do unique things with every arc and every arc will say something unique and we made a pinky pact that before we do a 'Who killed Retro Girl Part II?' or a 'Retro Girl Returns' or something, we'll fold the book. If we run out of unique ideas, we just won't do the book anymore instead of running it into the ground and trying to do a cash grab. It's really not what I'm interested in."

As is likely apparent to most readers, "Powers" is a very important project to Bendis and has provided an experience that he'll never forget. "It's nice," says Bendis of being able to actually bring the series into existence and have it meet with so much success. "Both me and Mike had done a selection of titles throughout our lengthy, independent comic book career so it is great that one of them was received well while we were doing it. I have a tendency -and I'm very lucky, I don't care when people buy the books- like with 'Jinx' it took a couple of years for anyone to find it. So, it's nice to see people buying our work in the same year it is being produced and then getting back to us. That's nice. Same thing with 'Torso'- it took two years of my life and I've sold more copies in the last few months than the entire time it was coming out. And again- I am not whining- I don't care when you bought it- I'm thrilled- but that's a long two year shitting in your pants a thon- it's a lot of work to be doing on a wing on a prayer. It's nice when the book ships and you get the mail that week." Bendis laughs and adds, "If you're talking about lofty goals, that was my goal."

"The cool thing about 'Powers' doing well is that Jim Valentino, when he started the now defunct Shadow Line, the first really indy books that Image published, there was a selection of black & white title of which 'Jinx' was one of the first ones along with Mike's work 'Ship of Fools.' With both of them, we put them out, they did what they did, we did what we were proud of our work, and Jim was very supportive, never blinking in his unwavering support of our need to do books and put them out. It's nice that one was a success for the company, just to validate his unwavering support because if 'Powers' not in the top 100 selling books or we had to go to black & white, he still would have published it without any blinking. It's nice we got to do the book the way we envisioned it and validate Jim's years of not blinking. In entertainment- music, acting or anywhere- there's these little weasels that are trying to steal from you wherever you go. Like that guy writing that powers rip-off 'Alias' [the comic book]- he drives me nuts! It's just nice to be in business with people like Jim who have integrity and I've been dodging weasels for so long that it's nice to have a home."

People may remember the controversy among online fans last year when Marvel Comics' "Alias #1" shipped and featured the African-American Luke Cage having sex with the principle character, causing some to label Bendis a racist and throw out other racial slurs. Thankfully, Bendis says that he hasn't really received that kind of berating from fans for his work on "Powers" and it's recent minority-centric story, those he admits to having dealt with a unique bit of criticism. "One thing I got, which I even had to read twice after being posted on my online message board, was from one of the people at Sequential Tart who said there were people upset that I killed too many women in the book- namely killing Boogie Girl AND Retro Girl, which apparently prompted some people to ask why so many women had to die. Then I thought 'Wow, was I doing that without even thinking that?' and then I thought, 'no I killed ten guys in-between that, including Boogie's two male teammates!' You question yourself to see if you're doing it all subconsciously, as I mentioned before with movies where characters expressed how much they hated the story, and there will always be people who project something into the work that isn't there. Sometimes it is positive- I've had people write to me about when they see symbolism and stuff in my work and I think, 'gee whiz, I wish I was that smart', they're mistaking me for Alan Moore and think I have some subtext going- if only I was that good!"

Bendis explains that he feels that the tide turned after people read the initial issues of "Alias" and that for the most part, the series hasn't received the extreme criticism that greeted the first issue. "I got just as much crap about 'hey, Captain America slept with a girl'- no, I got even more crap for that. It's funny, you have Ant Man doing something like that and people love it! I said Ant-Man was coming to the book then people were jumping up and down because they can't wait. Ant-Man: the savior of 'Alias.'"

If you're a reader of Bendis' work or if you've been reading this interview closely, you've no doubt noticed that much of his work involves crime stories, but he isn't worried about labeled as a "crime-only" writer. In fact, Bendis would welcome such a label even though he feels he has shown his own versatility as a writer. "Here's the thing: the one thing I do have in my personality that I do like is if people only called me a crime writer, I'd be thrilled because they're calling me anything. I'm not the David Duchovny type where I'm begging to get on a hit show, then get on a hit show and start screaming, 'but I'm so much more, I have to get off this show!' I'd be thrilled to be called a crime writer, but I really think that 'Fortune & Glory' cracked that in half for me in a big way. People saw a larger work about something else and 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is so clearly a teen drama, so I think that people see me as a writer who writes characters. But clearly when I do the crime stuff, a great deal of my readers are happy to see that happen and I'm usually doing what makes me happy too. Even with 'Daredevil,' it's clearly a hard boiled crime drama with an artist that is meant to do that kind of stuff. Wait till you see the next issue- I keep saying that but we keep getting art in and I say 'Oh my God!'"

It's no small secret that Brian Bendis is quite happy at Marvel Comics and that the majority of his work time is spent playing with that company's characters, but don't expect the writer to go exclusive with Marvel anytime soon, despite rumors to the contrary. "No, there's no truth to that. My relationship with Bill (Jemas) and Joe (Quesada) is immaculate and they're immensely respectful of me and so often have gone to me for big, flagship kind of things that I'll be loyal to them as long as they'll have me. The books I'm on are the books I want to be on as long as I'll be allowed to but at the same time, going exclusive with Marvel would be a slap in Image's face or Oni's face because of my independent comics connection. There were people who were supportive of me when there was no money to be had, Joe was one of those people but so is Jim Valentino so to take 'Powers' to Marvel would not be fair and wouldn't be the right thing to do. But knowing what it's like to be at Marvel right now, I know I'm at a company at one of the highlights of it's creative times and you know there's going to be stories about this time at Marvel. It's extremely invigorating to be part of that and to be so trusted in it. Marvel has taken excellent care of me and I reward that with loyalty"

While fans are aware that Bendis is a fan of the Marvel Universe and the opportunities that the company offers, he is also a fan of DC Comics characters, with Superman being a particular favorite. But much to the disappointment of many DC fans, Bendis has no plans to tackle any of the "Distinguished Competition's" characters just yet. "DC has been very gracious to me with stuff like that, and I know this sounds like immense bragging, but the plate's very full and I just have to wait for another day. I know my time on 'Daredevil,' 'Alias' and 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is a once in a lifetime things and I really have to focus on those. What people want from me is my undivided attention on those projects so I really think that those will be my work-for-hire projects for a while. I get a lot of people who want me to do Batman and I have been offered to sniff around there, but I wonder if it's one of those things where the idea looks better than it would be. There's a couple of DC characters I've always loved but I don't really have a take on them. Just because I love to read a book with Doctor Fate in it, doesn't mean I want to make a book with Doctor Fate in it. Superman and some others have always been of interest to me, but I don't know if I should be writing them. If I had something to say, like if I had a nice long bike ride and I went, 'Oh my god, I know what to do with Plastic Man (which I do btw)' or someone, maybe I'd pursue it. I love reading a lot of the X-Men books but I wouldn't know what the fuck to do with them. Just because I want to read this book, doesn't mean I should be writing it- there's a lesson for all you young up and comers. Maybe it's because I'm so happily married and monogamous in life, but I'm very married to my books and I love Peter, I love Matt Murdock & I love Jessica- I'm a very monogamous guy with three relationships. Goddamnit, I love fucked up metaphors."

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