If there's one name among comic book fans that is guaranteed to cause a discussion, for better or worse, it's that of writer, and sometimes artist, Brian Bendis. The mind behind the red hot "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Daredevil" and "Alias" series from Marvel Comics, not to mention the creator owned "Powers" from Image Comics, is a fan favorite and even among his detractors, he is a topic that is guaranteed to create hours of talk. The previous year saw some of Bendis' most bold ideas come to fruition in his comic books and as he explained to CBR News, 2003 is going to be an even bigger year, especially with "Daredevil" and "Powers," two series he spoke about extensively.
"I think I'll remember 2002 most as the year people stopped posting every five seconds, 'he's gonna fuck up,'" laughs Bendis as he looks back at his efforts over the past year. "They weren't used to someone with my output or my personal goals- the opinion was that if anyone could write a lot, then they must be a complete hack and people seemed to have gotten over that, I think, which made me happy. I was glad that when people were making their little lists at the end of the year, some of my books were on there and I was able to make them happy. It felt amazing to put out the material that you wanna put out with the people I work so closely with, but to also be able to connect with the audience too and make them feel good. As far as what I wanted last year, I wanted to top what I had done in 2001 and I think I did, but its hard to guage that. But it feels like: 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is better, 'Daredevil' is better, 'Alias' remains kind of alone in the universe as far as that kind of book and that's really what I wanted. It felt really good."
While Bendis may remember 2002 for a number of reasons, there's no doubt in his mind as to the highlight: "My baby girl," says the scribe with an unmistakable fatherly conviction. "Nothing else comes close. I had some other great stuff happen, but December 4th my daughter Olivia was born and she's a knockout, just killer. I know you're looking for career stuff but nothing else can even come close. Fuck, I have turned into Bill Cosby! But I am aware that if it wasn't for 'Ultimate Spider-Man' there isn't a book I have published that she would be able to read for another twenty years"
Looking through an assortment of Bendis' work in comic books last year, it would seem that the one constant is that fans never knew what to expect and that the writer's mandate was almost a "fuck you" to predictability, making sure no one knew the method to his madness. "YES! That's it! You said it so much better than I said it and you can even quote me: that's what I meant to say," smiles Bendis. "Because honestly, it's funny, I'm writing the comics for September of this year, so I'm well into 2003 and almost rounding home in it, so 2002 seems almost like two years ago, know what I mean? I mean I do remember writing my older work, but I'm so focused on material that's coming out in the third and fourth quarter of 2003, even the first quarter of 2004, that I'm a very forward momentum guy.
"A great deal of my conversations with Marvel for 2003, and 2004, revolve around my constant need to 'tip over the truck' and shake up the books, but really a lot of its gonna peak with the anniversary issues, like 'Ultimate Spider-Man #50,' which is shocking when you consider how recently the series started and that issue is right around the corner. 'Daredevil #50' is coming even sooner and 'Alias #25' isn't too far off- all of these books are landmark issues and all of them will be treated as such."
One of the more infamous moments of unpredictability on Bendis' part last year involved the aforementioned "Ultimate Spider-Man" and a bridge scene that mirrored the death of Gwen Stacy in the core Spider-Man series, only this time it involved Ultimate Mary Jane. Many fans were worried about the fate of MJ and a good deal of fans have speculated that Bendis was teasing fans or was, again, in his own special way, following his mandate of saying "Fuck you" to predictability. "A lot of people think I was fucking around and I saw a couple of people say, 'he's just doing that because it's in the movie,' but the reason that the bridge scene was shown the way it was shown, was so that when she does dump Peter, everyone will understand her, no one will blame her and you won't know who's side to be on. So I wrote it that way, then I saw Bagley draw it and he just whaled on it and soon as I saw the ending, I knew that everyone's going to think we killed her, with even a couple of reviewers thinking we killed her and I thought, 'oh man, next issue they're gonna shit on me, oh my God I'm dead.' But the point of that scene, the whole silent bridge sequence, was that I wanted you to feel what she felt, so when you saw her reaction even if it was five issues later, you understood it."
But when keeping people on their toes is your mandate and last page shockers is your seemingly infallible weapon of choice, how do you keep from falling into a different kind of groove of predictability? "[The twists] aren't all for shock value," contends Bendis. "They all come from a very simple mantra from which I've been living my life for a couple of years, it's been quoted in the 'Powers' script book by Screenwriter Alven Sergeant,' and it says, 'always put your characters in the place they'd least like to be.' You do this, as a writer, you can never go wrong. Bare minimum you'll be interested and that's what I'm moved by. It's never for shock value. You're supposed to be dying to turn the page and that's my job- the smallest drama of a scene, where a few people are talking, the most damaging sentence, or intriguing sentence will be at the end of the page so that you have to turn the page and find out what happens next or what the reaction will be. When you get to the end of the issue, you have to be dying to see what happens next and that's my job."
One series that has, arguably, epitomized the philosophies that Bendis has espoused is "Daredevil," the Marvel Comics series starring blind lawyer Matt Murdock, whose remaining senses have been enhanced far beyond that of a normal man and operates as a vigilante in New York's Hell's Kitchen. Last year, Bendis had Daredevil's I.D revealed to the public through a tabloid paper and though many fans have expected a quick resolution to this story, they've got something else instead- a gripping tale of what it means to fight to protect the life you love. "I know it and I understood it- there are a lot of cop outs in comics," says Bendis of those who were very critical of Daredevil's unmasking. "People make bold statements and there's a cop out six issues later, so all I could do is hang in there for the year and then at the end of the year people don't go, 'he's really gonna fuck this up.' The goal for this year is to really stick with it and really develop it in a smart way- Matt's smarter than I am, that's the challenge of that book. There's that movie the 'Heist' where Gene Hackman's character is asked, 'how'd you figure it out?' and he says, 'I thought of a man smarter than me and what would he do.' That's how I write Matt: smart and stubborn
"It feels good to have surprised people. I kinda like that people are expecting some crappy thing and when you don't do it, it's really fun. It's even kind of fun that people yell at you when they go, 'you're gonna fuck up,' that's even fun to- every issue of 'Ultimate Spider-Man' provides a level of entertainment for readers, but they still say 'what would I do with Venom or Green Goblin?' I think 'Daredevil' is the one book we've taken the most liberty with the reinterpretation of the villains and some readers are thrilled to bits, while some readers are very angry, mainly the old-school Daredevil fans- of which by the way, I am one.. 'Daredevil's' the one kind of book that can handle that kind of interpretation- it's kind of born of that kind of pulp reinvention- look at Frank Miller's work. I told Mark Millar that he should make a 'Column' of imaginary Internet posts from 1983. You know it would read: 'Ninjas? Who said he was a ninja?'- can you imagine what people were saying back then? I am sure, in fact, I remember people having the same issues with DD twenty years ago as I am sometimes accused of. Little do they realize it is my love for the book and character that makes me think forward instead of backwards while retaining all the classic elements we love."
With such an ambitious story, keeping Matt Murdock as Daredevil, but leaving his identity as public knowledge, Bendis surprisingly admits to not being worried about taking the series to a place where he's creatively stuck. "I love to write myself into a corner! Wait till Typhoid Mary shows up- she's coming in a couple issues, #46 to be exact. She does something to Daredevil and, just to make sure, I asked my editors if she'd ever done this to Daredevil, and they said no, so I think it's gonna be really cool. I'm so excited."
Part of that excitement obviously stems from Bendis' love for Daredevil himself, a character whom he feels is quite different from other "tortured" heroes like DC's Batman or the Question. "He's a pulp hero, not superhero. A pulp hero is a perfect mesh between fantasy and crime fiction, and on a level which is hard to describe. It's a necessity for me that I write that genre."
As Bendis says, Daredevil is a character with his roots in the crime books of yesteryear so when you take a lot of the physical action out of the series as the scribe did recently and focus more on the Matt Murdock angle of the series, it can be a challenge to keep things as exciting for the reader. "The courtroom drama was a lot of work, especially with it during the whole MJ break up in 'Ultimate Spider-Man.' The courtroom scene took me forever to write with a ton of lawyers helping me craft a superhero argument, I read a lot of law books and maybe even came this close to a law degree [laughs]. And then everyone said, 'oh 'Daredevil' was fun… BUT MJ BROKE UP WITH PETER' and I'm sitting here thinking, 'oh man, do you know how hard I worked on that court case?' This isn't a diss on any DD writer before me, but I feel Matt the Lawyer needs to be more imbedded in the character. I (sadly) know a lot of lawyers, it's a very complicated living to be a lawyer and it shouldn't be ignored. There's a certain ruthlessness and cuthroatness in Murdock outside of Daredevil I wanted to explore. I also wanted to use the White Tiger case, which couldn't have been more clear, to be the worst scenario case for what Matt's life might become. It was basically 'Matt goes to trial' and I want him to basically sit there in court and see the wheels of justice turn badly for him. I also thought it was interesting that he can't use his Daredevil powers to control the jury. He can hear their heartbeats and he knows if he's got them. But what if his arguments don't work? The trial's over and he's lost. He didn't prove his case and what's he gonna do then? I wanted the absolute worst case and the White Tiger case was the right one.
"You know who was a big help was Bob Ingersol, who writes 'Law Is An Ass' for 'CBG,' and he just looks at the legal aspects of superheroes. I didn't have to explain thematically what was going on- he just got it, while a couple of my lawyers I did have to go, 'imagine if you're Daredevil…' [laughs]. I was also a courtroom artist after college for our local Fox news and I sat in Federal Court and saw some of the more quirky things you don't see in court."
Another aspect of Bendis' "Daredevil" work that has been quite controversial, and appealing to some, is the fact that one can't quite be sure if they're supposed to be cheering for Matt Murdock all the time. He's launched a huge lawsuit against the newspaper that broke the story about his I.D. as Daredevil, claiming the story to be fraudulent, and his attitude throughout the pre-trial bargaining can only be described as… smarmy. "That's the thing, we're going to deal with that in a couple of issues," reveals Bendis. "Someone from the Marvel Universe is going to express the other side of the coin. That's going to be addressed- Matt hasn't expressed his philosophy and he's just acted upon it. He's gonna have a talk with someone, I don't wanna say who because it'll surprise people, but it'll put things in perspective."
Fans of "Daredevil" can expect 2003 to be more of the same intrigue and suspense that defined 2002. "Alex Maleev [artist on the series] is back in a big way and we're going all the way to #50, it's a big storyline," says Bendis. "The storyline will be in two parts, not unlike 'Underboss' and 'Out' was, and we're going to wrap up a lotta stuff. The I.D scenario is going to change in a big way too, but without any cop outs, I'm happy to say. We're going to go the distance and we're bringing back a lot of the rogue's gallery, not as a final hurrah, but to express them in this new language we're using in Daredevil right now. We've seen Owl, we've seen Stilt Man and we'll see Typhoid Mary who hasn't been in a comic for 10 years believe it or not, almost 11. We're taking it all the way to #50, which will celebrate the legacy of Daredevil- both artistically and thematically."
Something else you can expect to see thematically consistent in "Daredevil" for 2003 is the exploration of the notions of taking responsibility for one's own actions and growing up, ideas Bendis explores in all his work. "I think the reason I'm exploring it in the work is because I'm still working it out in my life," admits the writer. "It is important to me, but I don't know why yet. There's another theme that's important to me, but I don't include it on purpose, is someone trying to keep control of their life and that's another constant in Murdock's life. The one thing I like about the chaos of the Marvel Universe is that I think it's an exceptional way to express what I think is the chaos in the real world. I think we're all being bombarded by images telling us what's cool, what to like, how to dress, etc. Sometimes if you think about it, it's like 'I'm not in control of anything' and the Marvel Universe can mirror that with the battles between superheroes and supervillains, uncontrollable feelings when the hero thinks, 'I did not want my day to go this way.' I think there's a similar feeling with Matt, where a stranger can fuck up your life, and 9 out of 10 times it's someone you don't know, someone for reasons unbeknownst to you has done something to fuck up your day. That's a feeling people can relate and I totally can relate to- every time I can't do something I want to do and someone's in my way- it's never my wife in my way [laughs]- it's someone I don't know."
One thing you won't see in 2003 is a change or two to "Daredevil" because of the upcoming feature film starring Ben Affleck. In fact, the recent 25 cent issue wasn't even one that Bendis was asked to write to specifically entice new readers- once it was written, Marvel decided that it'd be a great place to hook new fans and then cut the price on that issue, #41. "No, I was really happy that there were no changes and Joe Quesada gets a lot of credit for that. We knew the movie was coming, and perhaps the same can be said for 'Ultimate Spider-Man.' They've seen the film, they don't need a poor recap of the film in the comic, they need the next step. They need something interesting to hook them- in this comic book for example, MJ knows Peter is Spider-Man and they're in high school. That's a different twist and that'll be more interesting than copying the film verbatim. Same thing with 'Daredevil'- they see the movie and now in the comic they'll see he's been outed by the media and he's taking on the Owl. That'll be their hook and as comic creators, I think it's our job to give people something different.
"I think the 25 center was a great place to join and I stand behind it. Seems to really have worked out. Sales are way up. I'd say the worst thing I heard was that 'oh Stilt Man was funny, but I don't like my comics that dark. I like happy DC Comics.' And I say that's fine- thanks for trying the series. I figure that people would be a bit easier on the book with it being 25 cents and at the very least, I gave them enough words [laughs]. There were all those balloons! Seriously, Alex's art alone makes it worth the money."
With all the attention on the Marvel series, Bendis says he doesn't feel that his other bastion of unpredictability, the hit Image Comics series "Powers" is being ignored. "No," says Bendis. "They all come in waves and right now 'Ultimate Spider-Man' is doing the big numbers. I don't really control that, but no one's angry about any of the books, so I'm glad. There's stuff happening in 'Powers' over the summer that'll get people fucking excited, so I think it all just comes in waves of excitement from one title to the next. I'm certainly not one to bitch about the amount of attention put on my comics. 'Powers' is an adult book, if not for 'Alias,' I think it'd be the number one adult comic book printed, so you won't hear a complaint from me."
What you will hear from Bendis is some of the upcoming plans for "Powers," which include a shift in focus for the series. "We're in the middle of a storyline and at the end of this one, the politics of 'Powers' will change," teases Bendis. "It's gonna build to the biggest story. Mike's [Oeming, artist on 'Powers'] being forced to draw a lot of things and at the end of it, the law of superhero existence, so Walker and Deena's job will be different. From there we'll do a format change to tell the largest scale story- the questions we get a lot are 'where do the powers come from?' or 'why are they here?' or 'what were Walkers powers?' and we're going to actually explain what Walker's powers are and the origins of a lot of the characters. It's a sprawling story. Huge. Epic. There's all these movie meetings going on for the 'Powers' movie at Sony with Frank Oz directing- I told them that if the next two story arcs of 'Powers' were a movie the budget would be like 300 million dollars. It's huge and that's what comics should be- there's nothing holding us back but our imagination. They would never be able to afford to tell the story we're about to tell in the comic if they tried in Hollywood. Never.
"My instinct is to ramble off everything that's gonna happen in the next ten issues, because I'm dying for everyone to see it, but I'm torn because I want everyone to come into the issues as fresh as possible. It's always hard to talk about the stuff without saying everything."
Bendis also says that he never finds it hard to find inspiration for the stories in 'Powers,' drawing on real life scenarios and his own knowledge of the characters' inner secrets. "It's our own world. I know secrets about both characters that no one else knows, so that makes it intriguing. The characters dictate a lot of it and if the characters stop surprising you, then it's time to get out if it. Either the villain surprises you or the lead surprises you- you don't wanna hold them back. If Jessica Jones [lead of 'Alias'] shoots herself in the foot metaphorically and says the wrong thing, but you think it'd be better drama if she said the right thing, don't make her say the right thing- go with it. Nothing makes for better, interesting story than someone putting their foot in their mouth."
But can Bendis see the day when "Powers" surprises readers by not being about Walker or Pilgrim anymore? "Actually yeah, I think the next issue is all about Cutter, another detective who's in Powersland while Deena and Walker are off on another case. As far as permanently losing Walker and Pilgrim, it's always Walker's book even when he's not around, but you never know. If ever a book was tailor made to become 'woah, what happened' it's 'Powers.'"
Another idea that Bendis knows would surprise fans would be switching creative duties with artist Mike Oeming, an idea that makes the writer smile. "That would be the day that everyone would scream and run! Let me tell you, I'm not bitching, but there's certainly something to be said about the fact that the minute I stopped drawing I became hugely successful. Ten years I drew every day, I'm talking 14 hour days and I did ok, got a couple of awards… but the second I stopped, boom!'"
The evolution of "Powers" in the last year is one that pleases Bendis and he feels it has become the superhero series unlike any other. "I think 'Powers' is really, to me as a writer, the superhero book you're not going to get anywhere else. It is and isn't a cop book, but it handles superheroes in a way you're not going to see anywhere else because the companies have their own things they have to do. We have no rules and we're not beholden to any of the characters- we can do anything we want, when we want and however we want. Anything is game and from there on in we can comment on the media. The whole R. Kelly sex tape scandal story we did people tell me, 'you're crazy man, you're out there,' but dude, that is almost verbatim what happened on that sicko tape- I couldn't make that shit up if I tried. I'm watching Pete Townshend, I love Pete, but I'm watching him and thinking, 'oh, looks like another 'Powers' arc coming up. They write themselves!
"Thematically this year, over the course of the last few arcs and getting back to the control issue, we're dealing with out of control murderers or scenarios changing the public's perceptions on superheroes. In the 'Anarchy' arc we had someone say, 'I don't think I like these people over my head. No one asked me if I wanted these people over my head, now they're there and I don't like it.' The issue of privacy and rights being taken away in a superhero society will be explored more and more in upcoming issues."
Of course, as successful as Brian Bendis has been last year, there's still the "classic" complaint of his pacing being too glacial and he says that it's something he just can't see in his work. "I do hear that," he admits, "and I understand where it is coming from. I do analyze what the issue is and what it accomplishes before I hand it in., but with a lot of comics, they're put together by a formula; a formula of pacing. There are certain things you expect to see in each issue, it's from the Jim Shooter era of comics where you need to see the fight scene by page seven- you've got to have a big splash page by then. They're all legitimate and very exciting and I was raised on them, but it also generated a lot of crap. If that is what you are expecting from me or what you are comparing me to, well… there's an argument that says that every possible way to do that has been done. Six hundred comics a month have been published a month for the last 40 years: every fight scene has been shown, know what I mean? The one thing I can promise you is that you won't see the same intriguing conversation twice- have you ever seen that? I love a big climax, I love a good cliffhanger- I'm all about, 'If I'm in the middle of a good mental conflict between two characters, I'm not going to have them just fight for the hell of it, because that's what Jim Shooter would have done.' All I say to people at the end of the issue is, 'do you want to see what happens next issue?' and the answer is yes, then you had a good time. Even if I angered you, but you wanted to see what happens next time, then I argue back that you had a good time. It's hard to describe- I've gotten to you on some level. That frustration is a tickle- it's a tease. Tease is good
"Even with the Mary Jane thing, where people were screaming and yelling with her on the bridge, I wanted to say 'you're having a good time, you spent two dollars and look at all this fun you're having'- you're angry, you're happy, you're sad. I'm thrilled for you! This is exactly what you paid for! This is why you read comics! Yes, I did spend a little more time with the characters than other comics, but at the end of the day when something happens to them, ooh boy I bet you cared! Isn't that something, you cared?
"I finally just saw the 'Two Towers' last night, because I've been at home with the baby, and they spent time with the characters- they even spent time with the goddamn trees! My wife said 'oh they better go somewhere with these trees' but they did and if they hadn't done something before, they wouldn't have cared! For anyone whose reading this and rolling their eyes, I do know that comics aren't movies and I do know that it's a periodical and it's not a one shot purpose story, but the characters are so much more important than cramming them into pre determined devices. I'm not the only one that feels this way and I'm not the one that does it. Hey, I love a good fight scene but it's got have a pay off of genuinely interesting intentions between the characters. Take Doc Ock for example in 'Ultimate Spider-Man'- it's not enough for me to announce that Doc Ock is goofy. I need to spend a few pages with him and show how goofy this guy really is to the reader. I want this to start with a slow burn…tickle…tickle…tickle…BOOM! Even with outing Daredevil, I was dying to out him the minute I got the book, but I had to wait as long as I did to legitimately get the pieces in place and reveal him to the world.
"I do listen to the criticism about the pacing and I do examine the books for that, with exact scrutiny and ask my editors as well. Joe Quesada is especially hard on me when it comes to 'Daredevil' because he believes we're in the middle of something very special and he really reads them with passion, I don't need a mommy, I need an eye. The first thing I ask someone is, 'Was it satisfying? Did you like it?' You know what's harder than the beginning or the end? The middle, it's insanely difficult and you don't want to be outdone by the ads, 'oooh, Dr. Pepper and Spider-Man.' My job is to make every page a page turner.
"I do a good number of one shot issues as well, too, by the way. It's not that I don't know how to tell succinct stories, if it's an issue worth of story, that's all it'll be- I just seem to like longer stories. Some of my best stories are one-shots."
Bendis also revealed to CBR News a little of the bonus feature in the upcoming "Ultimate Spider-Man Hardcover Vol.2," also noting that "Daredevil HC Vol.3" will ship later this year. "They ask you to go through your computer and ask you if there's anything that'd be a nice little extra in the book, so I found this crazy message to Bill Jemas about my 'Ultimate' manifesto. It's this over the top, holier than thou diatribe on what I think the book should be thing I wrote during the Doc Ock arc when I was whacked out on Coca Cola and M&Ms saying things like [Bendis adopts high pitched voice], 'And high school is a metaphor for life and the other thing is…' Anyway, it's fun and people will get a laugh out of it.
"Speaking of having fun, people need to stop being so down on the growth of the industry and look around at the other entertainment industries, so they can realize we're doing pretty damn good. We should always do better and I'm always out there promoting, but don't be embarrassed you read comics. Lots of people are, the trade business is booming, book stores are booming, and if 'Spider-Man' the movie did anything, it made less people conscious of the fact they're comic fans and allowed them to be more open about their love of the medium."