When a writer takes on Marvel Comics' Avengers teams, they usually go big and try to tell some epic tales, and that's exactly what Brian Michael Bendis did when he began his record-breaking eight-year run with Earth's Mightiest Heroes in 2004.
In the first half of our look at Bendis' run, the writer joined CBR for a discussion that ranged from his early days on "Avengers Disassembled" up to the 2010 "Siege" event. In the second half of our interview, the writer covers a wide range of topics, including "The Heroic Age," the launch of "Avengers Assemble," the conclusion of his run, what it may lead to and April's "Age of Ultron" event.
The fallout from 2006's "Civil War" left the cast of Bendis' "New Avengers" series fugitives, shattering the team into two separate groups. The paranoia and isolation the hunted team experienced became even more intense with subsequent storylines like "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" before the events of 2010's "Siege" reunited the teams and cleared the New Avengers of their fugitive status. In "New Avengers Finale" #1, Bendis and artists Bryan Hitch and Stuart Immonen told a story about the team coming together to finally take down one of their biggest foes. On the book's final pages, Bendis and Immonen rewarded long time fans of the series with a sequence that had the title characters enjoy a sunny walk through the park.
"I was surprised 'Dark Reign' and 'Dark Avengers' did so well, but I knew that the stories going into the Avengers were going to work because these types of characters are perfect for those thumb twisting stories where everywhere the characters turn, something bad is happening," Bendis recalled. "They won the day, though, and kept their character intact. So, at the end, they got to walk outside. That may seem like such a minor thing, but when you haven't been able to walk outside freely and you can suddenly go walk free, it's a huge thing. I thought Stuart understood the moment perfectly and delivered beautifully."
And while the one-shot may have been titled "New Avengers Finale," it was always meant to be a close to the first volume of the series, not Bendis' run on the book.
"I did think about leaving at that point, and you can argue whether or not I should have, but in my heart, I wasn't done," Bendis said. "Of course, if they were aiming to fire me, I certainly had a nice out. It was like those bubble shows on television that always end with a nice season finale, but get one more season. I gave myself a nice out if I needed to take it, but I still had more stories to tell. Once I had written it, I became aware the finale had a similar ending to the 'Born Again' story from 'Daredevil.' I did that subconsciously, but still, there it was -- except for the heroin," Bendis joked. "Not a lot of heroin around the Avengers in general."
"Siege" may have cleared the New Avengers and reunited the two Avengers teams, but it did not heal all the wounds from "Civil War." To patch up the rift between Iron Man and Captain America, the leaders of the two rival "Civil War" factions, Bendis enlisted veteran artist Alan Davis for a miniseries titled "Avengers Prime."
"This is a personal favorite project of mine. There are many, many things I'm proud of in my Avengers run, but there are going to be certain things that are personally successful to me where I don't even care if anybody else like it or not. This is one of them," Bendis said. "I was thrilled that people could feel how much I loved this book while we were doing it. I'm a huge Alan Davis fan, as anyone who follows me on Tumblr will discover. I was thrilled that he said yes to this. I was even more thrilled, because recently he did an interview where he said something nice about me. He doesn't always say something nice about everybody. So I was very relieved.
"I talked with him at great length about what he wanted to draw and what he didn't want to draw. He's also a fantastic writer and doesn't need me to do this. He could have done this story all by himself, so I wanted to make sure I was giving him things that he wanted to draw and pushing him in the right direction with the characters and stuff like that. He was very specific with his ideas, and I just wrote into them. I said, 'I'm going to write the Alan Davis book I would like to buy.' I thought he could really feel how much I admire him and how much he means to me and decided to go nuts on the pages. He really delivered. I'm immensely proud of the book."
In "Avengers: Prime," Davis brought Bendis' story to life, sending Cap, Iron Man and Thor on a journey through the mythical realms of Asgard. It was a story that mixed super heroic characters with elements of fantasy including magic, dragons and armored knights.
"I know some people were like, 'Fantasy?' It's a genre I do like, though. It just has to be the right project and the right characters. I'm a big fan of when the X-Men and other heroes wind up on pirate ships or other fantastic locations every once in a while, and it seemed like this was exactly the kind of story for Cap and Iron Man to really remember why they like each other," Bendis said. "I joked at the time that it was kind of like a super hero couples' retreat. They really just needed to get away from it all and sit around a campfire with Thor, who loves them both and was there to kind of referee and quietly nudge them towards each other. The hope was that by the end of the adventure, all will be forgiven. Not just by us, but the audience as well. I think we got there."
With the wounds patched between Cap and Iron Man, a new era was set to begin for both the Avengers and the entire Marvel Universe. In May 2010, "The Heroic Age" launched, featuring new volumes of "Avengers" and "New Avengers."
"I remember Joe Quesada talking about the 'Heroic Age' idea at past retreats. He was very into the idea of heroes being heroes being long overdue, and that's where I was going anyhow, so I was thrilled with the idea of the 'Heroic Age,'" Bendis said. "I pitched a few stories, and the one that everyone gravitated towards for my first arc on the reconstituted 'Avengers' was the Kang and Ultron story, both characters I had not done a lot with. They thought, these are A-List Avengers villains that I had yet to touch.
"Also, Joe, particularly, was very into teaming me and artist John Romita Jr. up. I remember Joe or Tom Brevoort talking about how it would be nice to see my Avengers look like they were carved out of granite, which is the way John draws. I think I gave John a lot to draw, in general. He was very polite with me, even though I gave him pages full of characters. He was a pleasure to work with."
Meanwhile, in "New Avengers," Bendis and his artistic collaborator Stuart Immonen were about to embark on a story that explored the magical concepts and forces of the Marvel Universe. "I was so excited to do this magic story in 'New Avengers.' I know magic is like a sales pariah, but I was happy that people stuck in with it,' Bendis said. "I got Stuart on 'New Avengers' and Johnny on 'Avengers' and was very, very proud of both of them. The books looked exciting to me. There was a lot going on -- a lot of characters, a lot happening. They were very, very different, but at the same time, they had a very similar theme."
Bendis also used the new volumes of "Avengers" and "New Avengers" to kick off a different type of back-up feature: "The Oral History of the Avengers." Each installment consisted of a prose recounting of particular incidents in Avenger's history by the team members that lived them, accompanied by classic "Avengers" artwork.
"I pitched this as a novel a couple years before. I love oral history books like 'Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live,' 'Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk' and 'The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.' You get everyone's point of view in those types of books. I thought, 'Boy, wouldn't it be great to do that with the Avengers?'" Bendis said. "Marvel didn't say no, but I don't think they understood why I wanted to do it. At the same time, there was a lot of talk about back-up features and how some nice, cost-effective back-up features would be best. I told them that I could do eight pages an issue of the oral history.
"There's all this amazing 'Avengers' art work that has been little seen that I thought we could use as art for the feature. We had stuff like Art Adams covers from the 'Avengers' reprints several years ago, and all this Alex Ross stuff that some people have seen and some people haven't. It just seemed like there was a lot of cool stuff that we could repurpose and use make an illustrated oral history. So eight by eight pages I finally got the book together.
"I'd love to do it for the X-Men, but it's hard to do while you're doing a story where characters are misplaced in time. You have to figure out where and when they would have been interviewed," the writer continued, explaining why an X-Men oral history will likely have to wait. "I loved doing the Avengers book, though, and people who read it seemed to love it. If there are people reading this that don't know that this exists in book form, please go find it. I see it at Barnes and Noble all the time, and I'm very, very proud of it."
The "Oral History of Avengers" back-ups and the main stories in "Avengers" allowed Bendis to explore and write many of the team's classic members, but in "New Avengers," he was adding to the mythos, adding a number of new recruits to the team's ranks. The writer was especially able to focus on Doctor Strange, who was put into the spotlight many times due to the book's reoccurring magic storyline.
"I'm a huge Doctor Strange fan and I'm also a fan of the chaos of the Marvel Universe. When you have all of these moving parts that are powerful and combustible rotating around each other, it just seems inevitable that stuff is going to get out of control or things are going to slip through the cracks and do some serious damage," Bendis said. "When I was able to dismantle Doctor Strange as Sorcerer Supreme, it was always with the idea that we would have him get on track to earn the title back slowly through a series of tests or events. That's what I thought would be interesting for the character.
"There are a couple of characters that I think aren't written well for a few reasons. For instance, Nick Fury often comes off as a plot device. He shows up with a folder and says, 'Here, do this,' and that's the start of a story. I always thought that was the lazy man's plot device,. Doctor Strange is similar. There are rules to Doctor Strange that are often ignored or mowed over," Bendis said. "We thought stripping him down made him more interesting. He's still Doctor Strange and still has his magic, but wouldn't it be more interesting if he didn't have artifacts like his cape and the Eye of Agamotto that let him do everything that you ever need him to do for plot?"
Bendis' plans for Doctor Strange came to an end in his final issue of "New Avengers," which saw the character regain his mantle of Sorcerer Supreme by ending the threat of the Daniel Drumm's vengeful spirit. Drumm blamed Strange and the Avengers for the death of his brother, Jericho Drumm, better known as Brother Voodoo, who died shortly after replacing Strange as Sorcerer Supreme.
"We were all excited about having a new Sorcerer Supreme and there were some people who really liked it, but in general, the 'Doctor Voodoo' series didn't really find it's footing. Both me and Rick Remender did an insane amount of Voodoo research to make this thing fly, but it just didn't connect. So, we learned that Voodoo is a marketing negative. No offense to anyone who practices it! Please don't practice it on me," Bendis said with a laugh. "I would have liked for that to have stepped forward more, but the Doctor Strange part of the story worked out very well."
Though "New Avengers" run is over, Bendis would love to revisit Doctor Strange someday, either through a solo series or another team book.
"He's one of these characters that finds his way in spurts. I think Brian K. Vaughan did an amazing series with him. The Michael Golden, Marshall Rogers and Paul Smith 'Doctor Strange' issues are all amazing, and I'd absolutely love to come back at him one way or another," Bendis said. "In my first year at Marvel, the minute they let me do whatever I wanted, I did Doctor Strange on 'Ultimate Marvel Team-Up.' So, that shows you where I'm at with the character."
The end of "New Avengers" also left Luke Cage in a new place that Bendis is eager to explore. The final page of Bendis' final issue suggested that the writer would write Cage, his wife Jessica Jones and his best friend Iron Fist in a new series.
"That last page is a full on pitch for a new 'Heroes For Hire' book. That was me letting everyone know that there's something to do with these characters that are very, very interesting. Luke, Jessica and Danny [Rand] are characters that a lot of people really, really love and they have invested a lot of time into them over the years. So yes, I do have a really interesting idea for how to repurpose the concept of Heroes for Hire and put it out there. I would like to pursue that, and I'd like to do it with Mike Deodato Jr.," Bendis said. "Once we've finished up 'Age of Ultron' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is launched, I'm going to go to the Marvel retreat, hat in hand, and see if I can get this off the ground. People are interested. It's just a matter of making sure everyone has the time to do what they want to do and how they want to do it. I think I've made it pretty clear that I would love to do it. I even have a name for it. I have everything."
Mike Deodato Jr. brought the page where Bendis pitched his plans for a new 'Heroes for Hire' to life, but he wasn't the only artist to work on that issue. The issue also featured pages by and all-star group including Chuck BB, Becky Cloonan, Ming Doyle, Yves "Balak" Bigerel, Farel Dalrymple and Lucy Knisley.
"The idea was literally just to pick people who were exciting me that I don't know and I'm not working with," Bendis said. "Everyone we contacted was like, 'Really?' It was as out of left field for them as it was for the reader. I thought it was a great note to leave on, though; one that I could be proud of, and I was right."
While Bendis and his "New Avengers" collaborators were finishing up his plans for Luke Cage and Doctor Strange, over in "Avengers," the writer and artist Brandon Peterson were telling one final tale that sent the team to the Microverse where they reunited with a founding member of the team who had appeared to perish in the final issue of "Secret Invasion." Janet Van Dyne, better known to "Avengers" fans as The Wasp.
"I had taken such a beating for Hawkeye dying that when I killed the Wasp I thought, 'I'm going to get the shit kicked out of me for this.' And I didn't at all. I was shocked. They cared about Hawkeye, but she's a founding member! There were even some people who thought, 'Good!' And I was like, 'What? I love her!' That made me want to bring her back immediately," Bendis said. "It was like, 'I'm going to make you love her now.' I would often mention to Tom Brevoort about how I have a good idea for a story to bring her back. He would say, 'It's not time yet.' I would say things like, 'We could bring her back after 'Siege.'' And he would say, 'Too soon.' At the end of the day, he was right, but I certainly wanted to bring her back by the end of my run.
"No way in hell was I going to let [Jonathan] Hickman and Remender get all the points for bringing back all the characters that I had killed. I didn't want people to go, 'Oh, thank God they fixed that nightmare!'" Bendis said with a laugh. "I really loved that entire final story and I was very happy with Brandon Peterson's art work. I thought he and Terry Dodson did a great job bringing the Wasp back in all her feistiness. The only downside was that I didn't get to write her more after that. That's always the good stuff. It's when they come back into the game that you really find out what they're made of."
Of course, Bendis will get his chance to tackle the Wasp and scores of other Marvel characters this April when he kicks off the ten issue "Age of Ultron." The Wasp and her ex-husband Hank Pym are bound to play a role, considering Ultron views Pym (his creator) as his father and the Wasp as his mother.
"There's a huge legacy with these characters. That why I was astonished when people didn't seem to mind that the Wasp had died. I find her legacy to be gigantic. The Wasp and Hank Pym are founding members of a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. With that comes a lot of stuff," Bendis said. "In 'Age of Ultron,' we're confronting one of the legacies of a founding member of the Avengers who created this artificial intelligence, that since its creation has been planning the end of our world. It's been just a matter of time before he gets smart enough to do it -- and 'Age of Ultron' is the day he gets smart enough to do it.
"With 'Age of Ultron,' there's a big, grand disaster story being told. That's going to be the fun of it. Overall though, there's certainly a theme of technology, responsibility and legacy. Any level of Marvel character can bring something into this that could be the greatest thing ever or the worst thing ever."
"Age of Ultron" grows out of elements and storylines set up during Bendis' Avengers run, but it's not just an Avengers story. It's a tale that engulfs and involves all of the heroes of the Marvel Universe.
"This started in 'Avengers' #12.1, by me and Bryan Hitch, which was given out on last year's Free Comic Book Day. A lot of people have seen it and gotten a taste of what is to come with 'Age of Ultron,'" Bendis stated. "Now, a lot of the events in the Marvel Universe do stem out of the Avengers because the Avengers by their definition touch every corner of the Marvel Universe. Their members include mutants, robots, street-level characters and Asgardians. Everywhere you look in the Avengers, there's a corner of the Marvel Universe. So the Avengers is a nice place to start all this stuff, but this is a Marvel Universe story.
"From the very first issue, there are some characters that are Avengers and some that are Fantastic Four and X-Men," Bendis continued. "There is another Avengers element to this in that Hank Pym created Ultron and there's a responsibility there that goes right back to the founding and the glory days of the Avengers, the Roy Thomas era."
The first five issues of 'Age of Ultron' will feature art by Bryan Hitch before something happens in the narrative that makes the second half of the story suitable to feature sequences by a number of different artists, including Brandon Peterson, Carlos Pacheco and a surprise guest artist who comes on board for the final issue.
"These 10 issues are a massive story, the biggest I've ever done. 'Secret Invasion' was only eight. This is that much bigger. The good news is, it will be shipping very quickly. We were very smart to wait until Bryan had all his artwork in. That allows you to have a very unique Bryan Hitch experience, which is having these issues come out very quickly," Bendis said. "That's no dis on Bryan at all. His artwork has something very special and it takes time, but we haven't been able to see a lot of Brian's work at once since the early stages of the 'Ultimates.' You're going to get that here, and I think that's very exciting.
"The one thing I've been talking about a little bit online that might be confusing to some is that the ending to this story is very unique. It's a shocker -- only five people at Marvel know the ending to this story. The artists on this book do not even know the ending of the story. It's that big a secret, and it has to be a secret or it doesn't work" Bendis continued. "The ending will have impact right away in my books and then it will spread out across the Marvel Universe."
"Age of Ultron" is typical of the collaborations readers saw during Bendis' run on the Avengers books. Over the years, the writer strived to make sure some of the biggest names in comics, as well as some of the best up-and-coming artists, brought his stories to life.
"When we started on 'Avengers,' one of the mandates was, if this book is supposed to be the best of the best, that doesn't just mean the characters, it means artwork as well. We started at a very high level with David Finch, Steve McNiven and Olivier Coipel. The idea was to keep the bar up there the whole time," Bendis said. "I personally have a wide selection of what I consider the best or [most] interesting art and I was grateful that so many of the artists would agree to come with me for a little bit of time or a long time, to raise their game to this level, understand that this is as big a spotlight as you could have in mainstream comics and to act accordingly.
"I can look at everyone I worked with on the Avengers books and say it's a selection of some of the best artists that have worked in comics over the last 10 years. Every once in a while, I was able to team up with somebody who meant the world to me personally or whose work I grew up with and admire tremendously. I can say with my head held high that I got to work with Neal Adams, Alan Davis, Walt Simonson and so many others that meant so much to me and to this book. I got to work with artists like Jimmy Chung, Mike Deodato -- who I did more issues of Avengers with than anybody -- and Klaus Janson and John Romita Jr. The list just goes on and on, and everyone did some amazing work. I'm immensely proud of that. As I move on to the X-Men, that's the plan as well."
Bendis contemplated moving on from the Avengers to other books several times during his run, his decision to finally leave the books coming during a planning retreat for last years' "Avengers Vs. X-Men" crossover.
"It was always hard to leave because I could always turn the Avengers into this other thing that I wanted to write and because, as I said before, it has its feet in so many different areas of the Marvel Universe. If I want to do a magic story, I can do a magic story. If I want to do a time travel story, I can do a time travel story. If I wanted to do conspiracy, conspiracy it is, with alien invasions and Asgardian battles. It all fits perfectly well. So it's hard to find a reason to go," Bendis said. "Then, when everyone came to my house for the 'AvX' retreat and it was clear that was going to stick to the wall, we were sitting in my back yard and in front of my friends and bosses I said, 'I guess when we're done with 'Avengers Vs. X-Men,' I should be done with Avengers.
"I certainly wanted to be on the book for when the movie came out. I got to say, 'I'm the writer of the Avengers' while that was out and be very proud of that, because the idea of there ever being an Avengers movie seemed insane. Now, it was happening and it became the third biggest movie, ever," Bendis said. "The experience of working on the movie and being on the set of the movie while I was writing the book felt like it was the top of the mountain as far as Avengers goes. There was no other great Avengers experience I could have -- except if maybe I could work with Walt Simonson, and Tom Brevoort got me Walt Simonson. So it was like, 'Okay. Now I'm done. That's the end of the run.'"
After he announced his intent to leave the Avengers, the discussion at the retreat turned to what Bendis would do next for Marvel. "I wanted to have that talk in front of everybody, because these were my friends. Matt Fraction and Jon Hickman in particular were people I would call personally to ask advice or talk something through career-wise. So Axel Alonso said, 'I said to myself, if you ever say you're done with the Avengers, I'm going to ask you to do the X-Men. Because I really want you to do the X-Men.' There was the idea from retreats that became 'All-New X-Men,' which I was always asking about as a fan and nobody was doing anything with," Bendis stated. "So within ten minutes of saying I was no longer the writer of Avengers, I was going to be the writer of X-Men at the end of 'AvX.' I know some people are like, 'Oh, look at you.' There were many years before though, where I was just the writer of 'Ultimate Spider-Man,' and once I was done with that gig, I didn't know if there was another gig.
"This is not the standard at which I live. It's a nice surprise that I was going to be given the X-Men, but at the same time, I was worried that I wouldn't be well received on the book," Bendis continued. "I was clearly being my neurotic self about that, but I was happy to see my neurosis proven wrong."
Bendis' announcement that he was leaving the Avengers books created a vacancy for one of Marvel's major franchises. Filling that vacancy created a domino effect that became the Marvel NOW! publishing initiative.
"I started musical chairs just by getting off of my chair, and here we are now. I'm very proud of that," Bendis said. "I didn't put everyone on their books, or think to do Marvel NOW!, but if me raising my hand to leave my books started all of this, that's great. I'm very proud to be associated with these exciting books that are being done by creators who are doing the work of their lives."
Bendis agreed to work on the new ongoing "Avengers Assemble" series, which premiered last year, shortly before he made the decision to leave the Avengers titles. "I said yes to 'Avengers Assemble' because they called me and asked if I wanted to be part of an Avengers book that was more movie focused, but in continuity. I think they called me while I was in New Mexico, standing on the bridge of the Helicarrier. The Hell if I was going to say no to that! They also said, 'It will be you and Mark Bagley! So it will be great!' This is also the same time that we started talking about 'Guardians of the Galaxy' being a real thing that I would do. I thought maybe I could take them out for a test drive; just for a guest-starring role. I know it seemed like a weird cousin to everything else that was going on in Avengers, but it wasn't to me. It was a fun thing to do and it got me rolling on 'Guardians.'"
He may have moved onto other teams like the Guardians of the Galaxy and the X-Men, but Bendis hasn't forgotten how it felt to write the Avengers. When he looks back at his eight year run on the franchise, several fond memories immediately come to him.
"The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about it is all of the artists and collaborators. I think, 'Look who I got to work with! Look what we did!' One of the personal high points for me was when we needed five artists to do tie-in issues during 'Civil War.' I got to work with Howard Chaykin, and then they asked, 'What do you think about Leinil Francis Yu?' And I'm like, 'I love Leinil Francis Yu! Do you think we'd work well together?'' Bendis said. "Then, we ended up working so well together that he immediately became the artist on the book. It's great watching an artist rise to the challenge. You give him a little try out to see what they do, and Leinil had accomplished things before, but not on this level and on this stage. To watch him kick ass like that and have everybody respond the way we responded was great."
"Another fond memory came when we announced Squirrel Girl as the Cage's super nanny at one of the last conventions that I did. We put up a slide that said, 'Guess who the nanny is?' When the next slide revealed Squirrel Girl, the place broke out in such a roar of applause that I actually thought Stan Lee had walked into the room. I thought, 'They can't clearly be clapping for this.' It went on way too long, but it was great to be in a room full of people having as much fun as we were," Bendis continued. "I don't think I'll ever be at the same table as Roger Stern, Roy Thomas, Kurt Busiek, or really any of the guys who brought so much magic to the book, but I love the Avengers so much. I was so scared to take the book. Then, when I got it, I was scared to leave it. It was just a big honor and a privilege to have written these books. That's what I'll think every time I'll think of it. As I said to Axel when he called to tell me that 'All-New X-Men' was a hit, 'I can not wait to stay on this book one year too long, like I did on Avengers." [Laughs]