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REFLECTIONS #230: Brian Michael Bendis, Part I

by  in Comic News Comment
REFLECTIONS #230: Brian Michael Bendis, Part I
“New Avengers” #38 on sale February 13


How exactly do you write an introduction to an interview with Brian Michael Bendis without making it sound like you are just warbling off a list of awards (five Eisners!), accomplishments (longest creative run on a Marvel comic, “Ultimate Spider-Man,” with Mark Bagley!) and darn great books (“Powers,” the two “Avengers” titles, the aforementioned “Ultimate Spider-Man”!) that he can write in less than an hour, apparently?

Yeah, I suppose I could just list, but instead I’ll open by saying that after interviewing all these creators on a regular basis, it’s easy to tell when someone is feeding you a line of bull about how jazzed they are for an upcoming book, or event, or whatever. I suppose you could call it my sixth sense. And I’ll say this about Bendis; he’s as honestly excited about his work on “Secret Invasion” as any creator I have ever interviewed has been about any project, and that is more of a rarity than you may realize.

RT: Let’s start with “Mighty Avengers” and your working relationship with Mark Bagley. The last non-“Ultimate Spider-Man” project you worked on together was an arc of “The Pulse.”

BMB: I just did letter placement on issue #10, which was the first issue that had no Symbiotes or anything Spider-Man at all. He did go from all those years on “Ultimate Spider-Man” with me to the “Spider-Man 3” comic book with me and then the “Mighty Avengers” was full of Symbiotes. It’s why I think he signed with DC. [laughs]

We haven’t even taken an inkling of a break, and we are still working together on another project. It seems like a public reunion, but there have been zero breaks. He really is having a blast on Doctor Doom and the Sentry. You can just tell.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

RT: Let’s talk about Frank Cho’s work on “Mighty Avengers.”

BMB: I was more than impressed with it. The lateness being what it was, and I was just as frustrated as anybody, but in terms of draftsmanship, he’s right up there with Dave Stevens. Like Stevens, sometimes people can’t see past the way Cho draws women and look at the immaculate linework and storytelling. He actually draws the men just as beautifully as he draws the women. I don’t think there is one panel that isn’t a near perfect illustration.

RT: What was with that blip of Ultron showing up on the screen in issue #7?

BMB: That was something set up for what is going in “Annihilation” right now.

RT: What else is coming up in the book?

BMB: After Bagley’s arc is done, Alex Maleev is doing the first two “Secret Invasion” tie-in issues, which will focus specifically on what Nick Fury has been doing in all those years he’s been missing from Marvel. It’s the perfect story for Alex, and also debuts a few new Marvel characters for the toybox.

And, after that, Koi Pham is joining the book.

RT: I have to admit I am very impressed by how well you have been setting up the crossover. For years you’ve been making Fury’s absence very conspicuous so the anticipation can slowly build to the point that when he returns, it will be huge.

BMB: One of the reasons I ended “Secret War” the way I did was because — and I was as guilty of this as anybody — that people would use Fury as the go-to plot starter. Nick Fury would come with a file and start the story, and it was getting lazy and ridiculous. He needed to be put out of circulation for a while, so people could come up with different takes on the status quo and his relationship with the heroes.

I do think by the time he comes back, and the form in which he comes back, will serve the character hugely. And very positively. Plus, people genuinely seem to want to know where he has been and what he has been doing, and we have a great story there, so I think it will be a happy welcome back.

RT: Did you know all your plans for “Secret Invasion” when you took Fury off the grid?

BMB: At the time I wrote the end of “Secret War,” I was already working on “New Avengers.” I started “Secret War” way before the Avengers stuff was even a concept for me. But [artist] Gabriel Dell’Otto took two-and-a-half years to finish the book, and so I had to completely rewrite the fifth issue to match stuff that was going on in the Marvel universe, because everything had changed. To show you just how much, Hawkeye was supposed to be a big part of the third act, and when it came out he was already dead a year. At one point, we were going to write a little note that said “This takes place before ‘Avengers #502,'” but it had already been a year-and-a-half and it would have been ridiculous.

When I did the rewrite, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the Skrulls, and knew exactly what I wanted to do with Nick Fury, and it was the perfect opportunity to get him off the map and set it up.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

RT: How long have you guys been playing with the Skrull characters that tie-in across the Marvel line? Obviously there is the Skrull in “Runaways” and the one in “Young Avengers.”

BMB: All that stuff is a separate situation from this. This Skrull story has been since issue #1 of “New Avengers,” which actually had a Skrull in it.

RT: Oooooh.

BMB: In what form and how big it was going to get changed over the last couple of years. Now that “New Avengers” is a big hit and the support was overwhelming and my new contract set me up to tell longer form stories that my other peers cannot do — if only because their freelance work doesn’t allow for them to know how long they will have a job or how long a book will go. Me and [editor] Tom [Brevoort] and [Editor-in-Chief] Joe [Quesada] and [Publisher] Dan [Buckley] knew, but we kept it to ourselves because it could leak, but over the last couple of years at the retreats we kept telling more and more people.

Dan and Joe sat me and Tom down and told us that if we wanted to keep it as an Avengers story, that would be fine. And I think I was only thinking that was because I had done my “event” and that was it.  But they explained to me that there are two teams now and characters on every team that touch on every aspect of the Marvel universe, and if the Skrulls do what we want them to do, it’s really a big Marvel Universe event in every sense of the world.

RT: One of the things your fans respond to is the fact that the Skrull storyline has been brewing so long and is, as you said, a long-form story — as opposed to something that just hits the reader and then the reader is supposed to care about it.

BMB: What I love about working at Marvel is because all the time I’ve been there, I’m surrounded by people who have been comic book readers for years and years and years and are true fans of the characters and the medium. We all know what we were and are happy we bought with our own money, and what we were unhappy we bought with our own money. So we go out of our way to avoid the mistakes that happened the generation or two before, and it comes from a real pure place. Even if some people shit on us on the Internet, I see people still buy the books because I think they know that we are coming from an honest place. Even if it doesn’t always gel with what they think they want from us.

RT: Speaking of people shitting on Marvel, how nervous are you about how “Secret Invasion” is going to be reacted to by readers? You were very frustrated with the response to “House of M.”

BMB: “House of M” has taken on a different life since we last talked about it. When an Event is sold — and I feel weird using the word “Event” because I don’t think of it as an Event when I am writing it– I really write everything with the same amount of personal importance. It’s all an Event to me.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

But I see expectations are completely different. The overall feeling is that the community wants the whole show up front and immediately, and that’s why, if I were to do anything with “House of M” differently, it would be to combine issues #1 and #2. I think then the reaction would have been much different to start. The reaction to the entire story and the trade paperback as a whole has been shockingly positive, and often that is the same people who are pummeling me issue to issue.

RT: Are you reading the “House of M: Avengers” spin-off miniseries by Christos Gage and Mike Perkins?

BMB: When I first heard about it, I was surprised to hear about it, but I was quite charmed by it.

I’m a huge fan of Mike Perkins, and can see him doing “Avengers” in the future.

[Mike Perkins’ take on the subject of working with Bendis, you may ask? So did I. Said Perkins, “I’ve been itching to work with Brian since we were both working for Caliber, and I’m more than up for it if he is. I’ll even polish his head if it would make any difference!”]

RT: But back to fan reactions to Events.

BMB: I just needed to figure out that when a story is sold big it needs to open big. That’s why the first issue of “Secret Invasion” is double-sized and packed with reveals and surprises right out of the gate.  It’s a lesson learned. It’s all up front, right there.

Obviously, “House of M” and “Secret Invasion” are different animals, with one being kind of a Marvel “Fantasia” and the other one a dark, sci-fi-dipped conspiracy thriller. This one has had a slow-burn build-up for a couple of years now, and this is the big promised finale, whereas “House of M” was just the beginning. But here we’ve had a lot of time to reveal the Skrulls, tell everyone what the scoop is, and let them reread comics to look for clues and more.

What will invariably happen is that someone will pick Rocket Raccoon as what they think the big Skrull reveal is, and it’s revealed that it isn’t Rocket Raccoon. They will be so pissed off that it isn’t Rocket Raccoon that it will end up with that person announcing to the world that I indeed am full of suck. But I know that, and I’m ready.

For me, that is part of the fun. Even if it involves yelling at me, it’s all fun. Its’ someone having a lot of fun with their comic-buying dollar.

When we revealed the Elektra Skrull, it could have easily been, “who cares?” But people actually cared, and that was great.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

RT: It’s rare in superhero comics to get the opportunity to go back and read two years’ worth of comic books again looking for clues.

BMB: That opportunity was so exciting. Now that you are an author, you’ll understand when I say that when people buy your stuff you’ll automatically feel like you aren’t worth their money and you’ve accidentally ripped them off. But this is a genuine opportunity to give fans a chance to read their Avengers stuff on another level. To give them another rainy day and their money’s worth. It’s so exciting.

RT: It must also be good for you because fanboys can’t quite complain yet that you completely !#$%ed them over with the story. [laughs]

BMB: With “House of M”, I saw a lot of people who were so worried that they were going to get !#$%ed over by the series that they didn’t enjoy it while they were reading it, but now that they are reading it as a whole, they are enjoying it more. They thought it wouldn’t have a good ending, or that nothing would change. Older fans had been screwed over by all of those shitty X-Men crossovers in the ’90s and were still licking their wounds, and I completely understood.

Then, when “House of M” was over and things genuinely changed and good things happened in the X-office, Wolverine had new stories to tell. Ms. Marvel had a point. All of it….

RT: You’re writing your strong suit. “Secret Invasion” is a conspiracy/noir mystery with the entire Marvel universe as the backdrop.

BMB: More importantly, I’ve got a lot of peers and editors helping me and rooting for this to be the best books possible. There are a lot of people I trust here to tell me if I go wrong.

The other thing is-it’s not just the eight issues of the miniseries.  Another thing that makes “Secret Invasion” unique are the eight issues of “New Avengers” and the eight issues of “Mighty Avengers.” Sixteen whole issues where we tie-in and rewind the clock and show the reader exactly when Skrulls got switched out and how it happened and everything they want to know.

Look at the “X-Files” TV show, where they kept promising to show you things and then never did. I’ve already written it, so I can promise that we are turning all the cards over and you will be shown everything. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever written.

RT: It would be unfortunate for readers to not give “Secret Invasion” a chance like they aren’t giving “Brand New Day” a chance because they just “knew” they were going to hate “One More Day.”

BMB: I’ve been through exactly what you’re describing on “Avengers.” And I know that you should never generalize an audience, because there are so many people with so many tastes, and so many buying habits. Lumping everyone together is a colossal mistake, and I’m very aware of the different reactions. I’ve studied it, and there are so many variables.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

What is going on with “One More Day” is exactly what happened with “Avengers Disassembled.” I had a nice wave of unbelievable good fortune with unbelievably nice people saying unbelievably generous things to me about my work. And then “Avengers” came on, and people came online and said “!#$% you! I’m not buying this anymore!” Here we are three-and-a-half years later, and “Avengers” is still up there, and a year from now “Spider-Man” will still be up there as well.

There is a level of nastiness involved, but it ends up being from such a small percentage of the actual buying public, and I’m not saying this to discount their feelings. Believe me, I’ve gotten a lot of mail about it. People think I wrote “One More Day” and keep telling me to stop it! It’s bizarre, and I know people are very passionate, but the very small percent that is so vicious. Dan Slott was taking shit this week from fans for doing absolutely nothing but writing a marvelous Spider-Man story from, may I remind you, the same people who have been begging Dan to write Spider-Man for years.

[Slott’s first issue of “Amazing Spider-Man”] is a phenomenal first issue. He and every creator should only be judged for the work he wrote and he’s being yelled at on his board for things he didn’t write.

All I can say to my peers is that I came out of the other side of it, and I learned. One of the reasons I am online is because I am looking for that honest, good critique of my work. I’m eager to improve myself, but I do have to sift through an awful lot of nonsense.

But bottom line: if you bought the book, you get to say whatever you want to say. My problem is these guys who download the book illegally, tell me they illegally downloaded the book, and then tell me what they thought of it. I don’t care what they thought of it! [laughs]

Or how about this: some guys read a synopsis of the books and tell me that they sucked. This has happened to me a couple of times; someone called me up on my podcast to tell me I sucked because he thought something was going to happen in “Mighty Avengers” that he decided was going to happen. It never happened. He had written the story in his head, thought it sucked, thought I sucked for him thinking it, and then called in on a radio show to tell me it sucked. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? [laughs]

There are thousands of people on my board, CBR, Newsarama and other sites all day long who just really love comics and are really happy that for the first time in 100 years of comics that there is a global community that discusses comics anytime, day or night. It’s easy to get lost in the bullshit, but most of it is genuine love of comics, even if they are disappointed by whatever they read that day.

RT: Let’s flip to the opposite end of the coin and talk about fans who really love your stuff and write to you to tell you it changed their lives.

BMB: I would like to get one of those. [laughs]

Listen, we get a lot of letters from our armed forces overseas. Mark Bagley and I got a framed copy of “Ultimate Spider-Man” that was flown over Afghanistan and given some sort of award. Twenty minutes of sitting on the can and reading a comic book means so much to some people. I often get letters from people looking for their creative voice, and connect with me on that level. I’ve been there, and I reached out to Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin when I was younger, and got such a positive response, so it’s great to do that. And then some people who come back to comics because of “Ultimate Spider-Man.”

I take it all very seriously and become very verclempt about it.

Exclusive page from “New Avengers” #38

RT: What comics have you read recently that touched you?

BMB: There are a lot. “The Escapists” by Brian K. Vaughan really got me. The magic of comic book creation was right there, and it was so excellent, and I cannot recommend it enough.

I’m finally reading the Absolute version of “The New Frontier” and it really is an amazing piece of comic book work, and in the Absolute format it is just amazing.

“Thunderbolts” by Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato is so good. The last issue is as well drawn a comic book as I have seen this year. I’m so taken with it.

Another big shout out to Jonathan Hickman and “Pax Romana” for a startling new voice in comics.

Next week, Bendis talks about the reaction to his first arc with Stuart Immonen on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” both creatively and in terms of sales. There’s going to be insight into Jeph Loeb’s upcoming “Ultimatum” arc, and then there plenty on “Powers,” including when Bendis will know it’s time to step down from the book. Oh, and his Weirdest Convention Experience is one for the ages.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Avengers forum.

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