WORDS FOR PICTURES: Making and Writing Comics with BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS Part 1
Words for Pictures by Brian Bendis
Although some writers are just naturally gifted, for many more, the old adage of needing to spend 10,000 hours practicing one's craft is a reality. In Words for Pictures, well-known comic writer and Marvel Comics architect Brian Michael Bendis puts his classroom lessons down into a single textbook for aspiring and professional writers to help guide and encourage them in their endeavors to completing their journey towards completing their 10,000 hours and beyond.
This will be the first of two parts of our interview with Bendis, who took time to sit down with Newsarama in an exclusive discussion into the process behind his authoring Words for Pictures, what readers and fans can expect to encounter in this 224-page, color text, and some additional thoughts about making comics today.
Newsarama: Brian, as I'm sure you know, there are a lot of other books out there addressing the question of working in the comics publishing industry as a creator. How does Words for Pictures separate itself from the pack – or add to the ongoing discussion?
Brian Michael Bendis: The stuff that often hasn't been covered is often the stuff I get the most questions about. My Tumblr really informed my final edit. Every day I get hammered with question after question, and I recognized them as questions I had when I was younger and didn't have Tumblr or the internet to ask these questions. I realized if someone would have just answered this question, a lot doors would have opened for this person to make some decisions for themselves.
I'm also a teacher. I've been teaching this class. The years of student interaction and, you know, seeing the looks on their faces is one I recognize. You hear these questions over and over and over, and I realized I'm going to answer these questions. Or at least, I'm going to have many people answer these questions. It's one of those things I learned in art school: There's no one right or wrong way to do a lot of this stuff. There are a lot of right answers, and it's up to the artist and/or writer to determine which approach is best suited to them and whatever project they are working on. What works for me or for Matt Fraction over here may not work for you. But that thing Ed [Brubaker] is doing over there may open up a door that you hadn't considered – or at least, it illuminates the whole thing you are trying to do.
Nrama: So this book is essentially the response to those fans who live too far away or who are unable to sign up for one of your on-campus classes in comics writing especially since you've included a number of writing exercises readers can try their hands at on their own.
Bendis:Yeah, I teach one course a year at a local state school, so unless you live near me in the greater Portland area, you're not going to catch me. Words for Pictures is many things. It's a distillation of what I teach in the class including the V.I.P. event. Because I live in Portland, and everyone who makes comics lives in Portland - it's required that you live here – I can have many guest lecturers with their specific points of view. The highlights are Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, Greg Rucka, and all sorts of other artists and editors who are friends of mine like Diana Schutz, who come in and give the class a very well-rounded point of view. Here are some people who have found some success in their lives – but are not defined by it – and are on a journey of creative discovery and they're stopping by to share that with you. You can ask the same questions to every one of my lecturers, including myself, and get a different answer. That's exciting!
So I really wanted to give that impression with the book, as I, too, look to my peers and my heroes to inspire me. I wanted the book to feel that way, that someone is going to say something that will make you think, make you put the book down, and then go write.
Nrama:But those are single lecturers in your class. How did you handle this in the book?
Bendis: The other thing deals with the round tables. They were one of the things I thought of well into the process. You know, I don't think I even ran it by my editor. I just wrote up a bunch of questions and then sent them out to all my editor friends in comics. The cool thing is that 90% of the people in comics are dying to share what they know. There are some people who rarely do interviews. There are artists in the book like Mark Bagley or Chris Bachalo who you don't often hear from, so for them to take the time to share, this is the "one stop shop." I also knew one of the reasons I could get them to respond to these questions are all artists think about.
Nrama: In addition to your instrumental roles in all things Marvel – from the comics and television shows to the blockbuster films – you mentioned you're also know in some circles as "Professor Bendis," teaching comics writing classes first at Portland State University and now the University of Portland. What led you to teaching college students?
Bendis: That's just it – I would have never even done this book if I hadn't been teaching. Over the course of the last few years, I got asked to conduct a few guest lectures, and the person who got me started on that road was Diana Schutz, the executive editor of Dark Horse Comics and someone I've known for a very long time. She's an educator – a true educator. I would come lecture to her class, and it went well. Then there were scenarios where a convention would ask me to teach a seminar. Then it came to Portland State putting together a program, and they wanted someone to teach a course on graphic novel writing. Diana told them they should ask me to do it, and even though I have many kids, and what? Three full-time jobs? They should bully me into taking the position because I needed to do it.
So, the people at Portland State took me out to lunch, and we talked about it. Throughout the next two days, I discovered that everyone I admired in this world either was a teacher or is a teacher, and this includes people in comics like Walt Simonson. When Jeph Loeb came out to Portland, we went out for pizza and he informed me he taught film at UCLA for several years. "You did?!?" I responded [laughter], so everyone I knew was a teacher, so it was almost embarrassing that I wasn't. So I agreed to do it and see how 'd go. Not surprisingly, it was very fulfilling.
Nrama: In what ways?
Bendis: My first class, well, some of those people have already broken in and made a name for themselves in comics. That was inspiring as well. On the most selfish less, I'm forced to go back to basics and get ready for class. That made my writing stronger because I was going back to basics. Sometimes, it's really easy to get away from those foundational skills when you're flying high on inspiration. But then you've completely lost sense of the storytelling basics, and so, I found a strengthening of my craft as a result of teaching.
Nrama: So the opportunity to teach also became an opportunity to become a student once again.
Bendis: It sounds obvious, but as I was prepping for the class, I realized I felt more "muscular" in my own work. It's like I went back to school. On every level, I enjoy it and take an immense amount of pride in seeing my former students excel, watching people discover things about themselves that they didn't know they had in them. You never know at the beginning of the semester who's going to kick ass – you or them. Other than the fact that parking at university sucks, [laughter] everything's been lovely. So I never would have attempted to do a book like Words for Pictures without having done the years of groundwork that prepared me for this.
Nrama: Sometimes, there does seem to be an appeal to becoming an administrator if only for those sweet, sweet parking passes! [laughter]
Bendis:Yeah, I'm not doing this for the money, but I would do it for a parking pass! [laughter]
Nrama:Lately, there has been increased attention about the lack of "limelight" for artists marked by a call for comics journalists – and reviewers and critics in particular – to pay more attention to the visual elements on the page and the people behind the pen. However, it can also be far more difficult to get artists to do interviews than is with writers.
Bendis:Some of them don't want to. I've talked to them, and it's like pulling teeth. Some of it's just because they're not wired that way, some of it's that they don't even want a whiff of that "cult of personality." They just want their work to speak for themselves, and that's fine, too. Mostly, they don't want to hype themselves, but if you want to talk craft, they'll talk with you all day. Those are the artists who stepped up and handed in their questions before I formalized the questions for Words for Pictures.
Nrama:You dedicate a significant amount of time to interview fellow writers like Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker, shine the spotlight on individual artists such as Dave Mack and Michael Avon Oeming followed by a second roundtable with a list of even more from the crème de la crème of contemporary artists. In a book authored by Brian Michael Bendis, why did you feel it was so important to bring in so many other voices to this book?
Bendis: I think people need to hear more the artists and the editors. Even among professionals, I see a lot of people who don't have a good sense of themselves, and a good sense of themselves in the process. So when all of the editors handed in their responses, many of which are very similar and many of which are haunting, I sent the results of the roundtable around to my writer friends and they responded by saying "Wow, that's fascinating." These are people [the editors] whom many of the writers work with but didn't know that's how they feel about stuff.
You also become empathetic and sympathetic with them because the buck stops with them. If you don't hand in your script, you're fucking them over. You get them fired. That's their ass. So between that roundtable and the artists' roundtable, I feel like this delivers.
Nrama: The number of different artists you brought onto this project was another element of the book that stood out right away.
Bendis: I could have done an entire book on the artists roundtable by the way. I was absolutely fascinated particularly with the responses to writing in Marvel style versus full script – if I would have bet money, it would have been a different response from what I got. The universal response was "I want to know that my partner knows what they're doing. I think I knew that, but seeing it come across the board whether they were 65 or 25 years old, well, getting the same response from all of these artists was quite fascinating.
Again, those two chapters [The Artists' Roundtable and Editors' Roundtable] were worth the price of admission. I learned more from those chapters than I did from anything else all year, and I'm so excited to pass them on.
Nrama: In "The Editor's Roundtable" chapter, you've gathered a "Who's Who" of Marvel editors along with Dark Horse editor-in-chief, Scott Allie, to provide hopeful writers with insights from across the aisle so to speak – people every comics fans should know -
Bendis: They won't though! They won't. I already know. I have a lot of high school kids who've pre-ordered [Words for Pictures] and they're starting their journey. I hear from them, and I know they're not going to have heard of everyone. I remember being that kid reading about the making of Daredevil with Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen and that opened me up to Will Eisner, who I don't know I knew. So I think they'll open it up and say "Who's Bill Sinkevitch, and go oooh!" and fall down that rabbit hole. And I couldn't be happier to open that door that you can't get out of.
Nrama: Okay, but these are editors working at the highest level of the game. Let's look at those high school kids just picking up their copy of Words for Pictures. Does this info still apply to those up-and-comers looking to make their big break in the world of self-publishing?
Bendis: I think the universal reality is that – and we get this all the time online – everyone is asking "What's the easiest way?" Someone will say "You sit down and do it," but the response is "Yeah, but what's the easiest way to break in?" It took me 10 years, so clearly, I'm not the guy to ask! But I found out, having looked backwards and forwards, that there is no easy way. Just sit down and get the work done. You want to make a book, then make a book.
I talked about this in my TED talk, too. It's a universal thing, and once you get that smacked into your head, you have no other excuse but to go and do it. Yes, certainly these people have achieved something, but they were going to be making comics whether they reached those achievements or not. I know this for a fact. Everyone who is in this book, they're lifers. The reason they have achieved is because they were there. They showed up to play, and that's about 80% of it.
Nrama: And you wanted to drive this home in Words for Pictures?
Bendis: When you look through the whole book, you realize these creators sit down to work every day. They've made it a part of their lifestyle. I joke about my fabulous time in the '90s when I made about $300 per book [series] total, including lettering, coloring, and designing, but it never occurred to me not to do it. It was a part of my lifestyle. It was my lifestyle choice to sit all day and make comics. Any job I took outside of my day of creating was used to funnel into my making of comics. And everyone else I know did the same thing.
Maybe that will inspire others to do the same thing. If you have to work 9 to 5, then 7 to 11, make comics! That's what you do. You don't play Titanfall, you make comics. It's not that you don't have love and happiness in your life, but a lot happiness should come from creating – true happiness, not just having fun.
Nrama:What are some of the biggest hurdles up-and-coming writers face as they try and break into comics today that most established professionals don't talk about as frequently?
Bendis: They don't know what they would do with success when they get it. When I was coming up, you were either published or you weren't, right? Now, if you want to be published, get yourself a URL and publish. Get yourself onto Amazon and publish. It's never been more easy to self-publish, to express yourself, and to put yourself out there. That is a true blessing. Of course that means there's going to be a lot crap in the world, but there always was! I never learned more than when I put it out there and got a response. These things are important and you need to do them.
The other thing is people need to learn about the easiest way. There is no easiest way. It's either this thing you want to do, and you do it – or you don't. I 'm finding more and more truth in that philosophy about everyone needs 10,000 hours. You look back and find maybe three or four people who haven't done those hours, and they're probably almost superior, but those people are mutants. Everyone else needs those hours, I did. Everyone I know did, so get to work!
And it doesn't matter how old you are either. I had a guy tell me he wanted to start making comics, but he's 49-years old and wanted to know if he'd fucked himself over. "NO," I told him, "but get yourself to work!"
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Newsarama's exclusive interview with Brian Michael Bendis!