Behind the Page - Brian Michael Bendis, pt. 1
Ultimate Spider Man and New Avengers
Ten years ago, an independent comics writer named Brian Michael Bendis got a phone call from Marvel Comics. Would he be interested in writing for the publisher?
A decade later, Bendis has been a driving force behind the direction of Marvel Comics ever since. As Marvel was climbing out of the bankruptcy that plagued the company in the late '90s, Bendis helped shape efforts to diversify and update the publisher's superheroes, launching comics that defined the new Ultimate line, the new MAX imprint and even the Marvel Universe itself.
As Marvel makes plans for a 10-year retrospective collection of the writer's work to be released in December, Newsarama talked to Bendis about his 10th anniversary. In this two-part special edition of Behind the Page, we find out more about how the last decade at Marvel has affected the writer, both professionally and personally.
Newsarama: Brian, you mentioned recently that it was 10 years ago that you first got a call from Joe Quesada?
And I thought, "Oh my God I'm on Daredevil!" I didn't even hear "Kevin's coming back" or whatever. But I figure, I'm on Daredevil! So I was on Daredevil five and a half years. He never came back.
NRAMA: That first break at Marvel was a pretty big deal?
BMB: Well, I can't even reiterate to people how many starts and stops there were for me in mainstream comics in the '90s. There were a lot of almosts and maybes and bad auditions and me just f__king it up completely. A lot of false starts. So this thing with Joe was literally almost 10 years of hundreds of submissions and what-have-you.
And now I'm on Daredevil with my best friend. And I said, "Let's just go nuts. Let's just do it." And I knew David's work better than I know my own work. We had literally lived together and traveled together all through the '90s. We were at Caliber together and at Image together. He was like my brother. We're just very, very, very close. And to do Daredevil together, and we're both Frank Miller kids, was insane! So we got to do Daredevil.
And I heard, "Hey, listen. Do you know who Bill Jemas is?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Well, he's the guy who's running Marvel now. And he's got this idea about starting Spider-Man over from scratch. Is that something you'd be interested in doing?" And I'm like, you know, now you're like, "Okay… What???"
And literally, three days later I talked to Bill Jemas and we had a long conversation. And he'd been working on Ultimate Spider-Man -- or it was called, "Ground Zero Comics" at the time, which would have been a disaster, for numerous reasons. And they had tried it with another writer and it just didn't work. And that other writer had done what I probably would have done if I didn't have the benefit of getting to read his version.
NRAMA: What was that?
BMB: He was faithful to Amazing Fantasy #15. And I probably would have done that too if I hadn't seen that it's not the right thing to do.
So I got to sit with it and really think about it. And that was greenlit as a mini-series. That was a six-issue mini-series. And I did this thing where I ignored them. I just pretended I didn't know it was a six-issue mini-series. I kept writing. And I did this with [Image founder] Todd [McFarlane] when I was on Sam and Twitch. That was also a mini-series, and I just pretended I didn't hear it and I kept going for 19 issues. 'Cause my feeling is, if it works, why stop? If everyone's feeling good about it, and at the time everyone was, let's just keep it going. If it tanks, it tanks. But it will be more than we thought.
And with Ultimate Spider-Man, I just said, "Well, we put all this effort into it. Why don't we just keep going?" And he's like, "O...K...." But I just barreled ahead.
NRAMA: Compared to your other work before that, Ultimate Spider-Man seems to have a completely different feel to it. Why do you think they chose you to write this kind of updated, youthful Spider-Man story?
BMB: I only know 'cause they flat-out told me. If you asked me that question when I didn't know the answer, I wouldn't be able to tell you. But what they were very focused on was that there wasn't a lot of character-driven drama going on in comics. There weren't a lot of characters talking to each other. There was a lot of heavy exposition going on in the late '90s. And it was just heavy. You know what I mean? It was time to grow up and there were more interesting writing styles going on in other places. And I think Joe saw people like me and Paul Jenkins and Mark Millar as people who were doing something else. And he said, "We need character stuff. This has to be about Peter Parker, not about Spider-Man." So that's where my interest was. It was because my voice is in characters. So that's why they thought of me.
'Cause you even read those first Daredevil comics I wrote with David and, you know, it's nothing like what's in Spider-Man.
NRAMA: Was that a challenge? I've read before that you identify with Peter Parker, so was it easier to write a character you feel like you know?
BMB: You know, it's funny, I go on long bike rides and think about this stuff, and I realized that I'd been writing for years, but I'd never picked at the wounds of high school. Like those high school wounds that we have? That stuff where, even at our age, you remember every awful thing that you said or did or thought or that was done to you. It comes back very quickly, 'cause it's never going to be resolved. And I realized that I'd never opened that box and used it for my writing. So it was very, very easy to put myself in the place of Peter Parker and use my own wounds.
By the way, that box is still half full. [laughs] That's the sad part. I haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet.
NRAMA: At what point did your life change because of all this? I assume you weren't doing the bat mitzvahs anymore.
BMB: You know, I was about 10 issues into writing it. I really hated doing the caricatures. I know I sound like a baby, because the money was great. But I didn't want to do it. I was literally sitting at a table and drawing this woman, and her husband says, "Hey, don't forget her mustache! Heh heh heh." And it was awful. I just hated it. And everything I was going to learn about myself doing it, I had learned, and yet I was still there, you know?
But the world of freelance, which is the world I had been living in, is so touchy. And I'd had so many false starts that I stayed with the caricatures, I think, through Issue #6. And I mean, by the time it shipped. You know, it's money on the table and it's hard to walk away from it. But after Issue #6 came out, I turned to my wife and I said, "I've got to stop." And she said, "I wasn't sure why you hadn't before."
At the time it felt like Ultimate Spider-Man wasn't going to go away unless I just completely screwed it up.
NRAMA: Were you surprised by how big of a hit it was?
BMB: I remember having no comprehension of numbers. Like the initial orders for the first issue was 55,000. I wasn't sure if that was good. I kept going, "Is that good?" That's all I'd say to Joe or whoever. "Is 55 good?" And I remember Joe saying, "What did Torso sell?" And I said, "2." And he said, "Well, this is 53 more!"
And my dear friend Jonathan Hickman, he's just recently gone through this. The numbers for Secret Warriors had just come through, and he wasn't sure if they were good or not. And I said, "How much did Nightly News sell?" And it was pretty much the same. And I said, "Well, this is that much more." And he said, "Yeah, that's a good point." And I was like, yeah, I stole that from Joe.
So we all go through it. Even Elektra debuted really high and it was a top 10 book, and I wasn't sure if it was satisfactory. And I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. And the level kept changing every month because things were so in the toilet at Marvel.
In comic book distribution, like, 55,000 wouldn't get you anywhere near the top 20 now. But at the time, that was considered a massive success. And the reorders and stuff were good for Ultimate Spider-Man. And it was weird because when the Ultimate line was announced, there was a lot of bile on the Internet. Not just from the normal places -- not just the message boards. People just didn't like the idea of it. And I'm just not used to people sh*tting on me for no reason -- or at least, they hadn't read it or seen any of it. But just the idea of it was making them say, "F__k you! This is terrible!" And I wasn't aware there had been other attempts at it. I just wasn't in that circle, you know?
NRAMA: You probably weren't used to people even talking much about your comics on the Internet.
BMB: Yeah! In independent comics, nobody knows who you are, and I was wearing it like a warm blanket. I was like, oh look, I can sit at a con and no one will bother me. This is lovely. So any other reaction, I was like, "What??"
But anybody who reads your stuff when you have this independent audience are just thrilled with the experience. That's all I had before this. So when Ultimate Spider-Man debuted, the reaction was like a slingshot. I thought I was going to be digging out of this hole forever. And then it just all went away like it never happened. And that was one of the many, many lessons I had to learn as I went along.
NRAMA: Are you a counselor for the guys at Amazing Spider-Man now?
BMB: [laughs] No, but you know, it's funny, I do have people coming to me like I have some wisdom. Not just Spider-Man guys, but every once in awhile I see guys coming to me looking for something, and all I can offer them is, I don't know when to quit. I just don't stop. And sometimes that's what you have to do.
But that was my first taste of it. And in retrospect, I'm glad it happened because I had to learn that stuff. But some people don't survive that. They kind of let themselves get sucked under the bus a little bit or they let themselves get sucked under. And I tried to understand it. And I do understand it now.
NRAMA: You do?
BMB: Well, I've got to tell you, it took me well into my Avengers run.
NRAMA: Oh, wait, is this the sports fan analogy?
NRAMA: I love that analogy! People follow Spider-Man or Batman or whatever like a sports fan follows a certain team, whether they like what they're doing or not.
BMB: Exactly. But I didn't understand that. I was like, "Why are you yelling at me? Just don't buy it!"
NRAMA: And people were like, "But it's my team!"
BMB: And once I understood that, no problem. I totally get it! I absolutely understand it. But it was years before I got it, because I was the guy following the creators, not the team.
NRAMA: These early years with Ultimate Spider-Man, isn't that around the time you launched Alias?
BMB: Yeah, Ultimate Spider-Man launched well. And we were actually selling more every issue. We were on that weird thing where it was doing better and better every issue. But at the same time, I was still going Sam and Twitch over at Todd's company. Todd was not happy that I was doing Spider-Man and let me go.
And I called Joe. He and I had now developed a creative friendship. And I said, "Todd just fired me off Sam and Twitch," because I knew that was a book Joe had been enjoying. He said, "What??" And I was like, yeah, I don't know what happened. And he said, "Well, you know, we've been wanting you to do a crime book over here. We were going to talk to you about this. So just shake it off and let us know when you're ready to do a crime book."
At the time, I thought me and Alex [Maleev] would do this crime comic. But Joe said we should do Daredevil, which obviously worked out. But I pitched it as Marvel Inc. or something. Every pitch, the first name is always stupid. For a second it was Jessica Drew. But it became Jessica Jones, because it wasn't Jessica Drew I was writing.
NRAMA: I was wondering how Alias went through, because it was such a different concept for a superhero publisher. So they asked for a crime comic? Did they know it would be something so different?
BMB: Well, I had the concept. And I sat with it for awhile. And I remember that I talked to Bill and said, "I have this concept, and it's kind of like a Rated R movie. The theme is adult. And I can't imagine it without the language. And you guys just don't publish that." And Bill goes, "Why don't we publish that?" And I said, "I don't know. You're the publisher."
And then instead of writing it as a pitch, I wrote it as a script -- just the first 11 pages, so they could see the flavor and see what it is. And he called me two hours later and said, "No, we're doing this. We're starting an adult line and this is the first book and that's it!" And I was like, "okay".
It was pretty cool, actually. That was even cooler, really, than getting Daredevil because I wasn't even trying to push it that hard. I was just trying to find where the levels were. And I found out I was with someone who hadn't set the level yet.
NRAMA: That's pretty unique for someone fairly new into the system at Marvel, isn't it?
BMB: You know, it's more than just me strolling along at this time. Mark was coming in and doing great. And Paul was doing really great. There were just a lot of guys who were hitting all their cylinders. And the feeling was that this was just the way to go. I was part of a wave that was thinking this is better than what was going on before.
But at the same time, keep in mind that the company was bankrupt. And when things are that bad, this stuff happens. I even joke about, that's why we were hired in the first place, because they were that far down the list. And when you're that desperate, you make bolder choices. And that's cool. They were like, yeah, let's go for the Vertigo audience. Let's go for this audience. What we're doing now isn't working.
So I was glad that I had a creative solution to the problem. And that went well too.
NRAMA: Was that atmosphere at Marvel of "let's try all this new stuff" a unique time in your career?
BMB: It's still the atmosphere that I'm in. That's the shocker. And I'm not kissing their ass. I have the full ability to choose to go away if it wasn't like that. I have found over the years that I can trust Joe creatively just as much as when I first met him. So it's a relief, actually. And it's saved me a lot of embarrassment. [laughs]
NRAMA: At what point did you think, "Wow, I've really made it at Marvel." Was it Alias and the fact they made this whole new line based on that comic, taking that risk for your creation?
BMB: Alias was a big one. When they asked for the exclusive contract, that's a big one. And when you start getting calls from, like, I got a call from John Romita Sr. saying that he liked Ultimate Spider-Man. Then I heard from Stan Lee. That's when you get a little glassy-eyed over it, you know? This is working out alright.
But there are little milestones that probably don't mean much to anyone else, that nobody saw but me, like the email from Stan and stuff, that help a great deal.
Yet over the years, things keep happening like that. Like even my last contract when they asked me to be part of the movie stuff, and they've never gone that route with a freelance creator before. There's usually this point where the creator gets mad and leaves or they get mad at a creator and they're gone. And instead we went this other way where things are great. And you're like, "Oh this is so nice". Everyone's learning from the past, like I think I do. But you need to be surrounded by people who learn the same way for it to work.
So there have been a lot of things over the years like that. And sometimes it's as simple as looking at the shelf and going, "Oooo! I made a lot of comics! Cool! Alright!"
Check back tomorrow when we talk more with Brian about his 10 years at Marvel, including discussions about his work on Avengers, what he's doing for Marvel's upcoming movies, and what he thinks this decade has meant for comics.