It's hard for most of today's comic book fans to imagine Marvel without Brian Michael Bendis.
But 10 years ago, as Marvel was climbing out of bankruptcy, the independent comics writer was a relative unknown before he was asked by Joe Quesada to pitch a few ideas.
A decade later, Bendis has been a driving force behind the next era of Marvel, helping to launch the Ultimate line, the Max line, the Icon line and even what could be called a "line" of Avengers titles.
For fans of his Marvel work, Bendis is gathering together a "10-year collection" for release in December, working with editor Jen Grunwald to pick his favorite issues from his decade at Marvel. "It's a collection of the best single-issue stories and annuals I have done over the years," Bendis said. "A smattering of different genres and artists, from the comedy funny fun to the tragic."
During those 10 years, Bendis has seen not only changes in the comics industry, but changes in his life as well. As was evidenced by our conversation with Bendis -- delayed because of a child's trouble with teething, then later interrupted at one point by the sound of a crying baby -- he's become a father twice during that decade, and his move to Portland was accompanied by a slew of new responsibilities in Marvel's other media outlets, including video games and movies.
In the first part of our Behind the Page interview Tuesday, we talked to the writer about his early years with the publishing company and the atmosphere under publisher Bill Jemas. In the second half of our two-part interview with Bendis, we end up discussing what's happened at Marvel more recently, but even talk about what's coming up next.
Newsarama: Brian, we talked about your first writing gigs at Marvel, like Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil and Alias. What do you think was your next milestone at Marvel? Was it the Avengers?
Brian Michael Bendis: To me, honestly, and this is one not everyone would think of, but the one that made me think, wow, everything's going to work, is Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, and I'll tell you why. They called me up and said, "We want more. We want the Ultimate line to be four. If you have a second title you want to do, you're our first choice." And I said, "Wow, I want to do Marvel Fanfare. And I want to do Marvel Team-up. And I want to squish them into one book. And I want to call creators. We've got every base covered as far as what the Ultimate line means for new readers. But there should be a title that's about the art of comic books. It should be about, 'Look what we have in comics that you can't get anywhere else. We have Bill Sienkiewicz, and Matt Wagner and John Totleben and Jim Mahfood and Chynna Clugston-Major. Look what we have.'"
And by this time, I'm so obsessed with the act of collaboration with artists. Like, I learned the lessons of collaborations so that I'm obsessed with the high of it, that I want that high every month. I want to find an artist, I want them to tell me what they want to draw, and I want to write it for them. Matt Wagner, what do you want to draw? And I said, I bet I'll get awesome issues. So that entire series was me calling my heroes and my peers, and writing for them.
When Marvel was allowing this to go on, I was like, "holy sh*t." That's when I thought, wow, they're really behind me. And I felt like we did do a little Marvel Fanfare in there.
NRAMA: After that, would your work on the Avengers be the next big milestone?
BMB: Yeah, I guess Avengers was the big one.
NRAMA: I'm not forcing you there. If there was something else...
BMB: Nah, it was a big one. It was a big deal. 'Cause it meant more than just getting the gig. There was a lot more to it behind the scenes, because now things had escalated to the point where Bill Jemas started doing these retreats, and they were flying us to New York, and we were sitting in a big room together. And me and Mark and other creators are pontificating and arguing. So that took it to the next level. We were really part of the team. And things were cooking. Now Marvel was asking us to help with their video games and cartoons. You know? It was like all this other stuff to do, you know?
And the Avengers retreat itself said so much. Because that retreat was where he wrote every character on the wall. And, using Iron Man as an example, he'd go, what is Iron Man about? Not just that we publish it because we own it. What is it supposed to be about and does it do that? Is that the story being told? And we'd come up with, at its core, Iron Man is a boy and his toy. Right? And from there comes Warren Ellis' "Extremis" story.
So we get to the Avengers, and Mark and I start babbling. And Mark tells a story about how, he lives in Scotland, and if he only had 10 cents, he'd buy the Justice League because you get 10 heroes for the price of one. And that's what cheap Scottish people do. And I said, "Hey, yeah, why aren't Spider-Man and Wolverine on the Avengers?" And Tom Brevoort turned purple and almost killed me. And Bill said, "That's it! They're on the Avengers!" And then it turned into this big fight in the room about, "No, they're not Avengers!" And people started yelling. And when everyone starts yelling at each other, all Bill sees is dollar signs. Usually when we fight in the room, about six months from now, that fight will be happening on the Internet. And that means it's a story worth telling.
And there was a question of who would do the Avengers book, between me and Mark. And I did not come there looking for a job. I felt I was good with what I was doing. But this seemed like a story I could tell. Both of us wanted to do it. But Mark was already kind of doing the Avengers, by doing the Ultimates. And doing both was weird. And I was like, "I want to do it." And there you go.
NRAMA: Was that something you always wanted to do? Even before this retreat?
BMB: Oh, I loved the Avengers. I was still trying to figure out the language of team books. Team books have their own language. And a very specific language. And I was still trying to figure out what my version of it is. Because the nature of it is that there is a lot of exposition in the dialogue, just by the nature of it, because everyone's trying to tell everyone who everyone else is. And that kind of offends me as a writer. It didn't bother me as a reader as much. But as a writer, I didn't think I could do it. Then I started saying, well, that's not good enough. As a writer, what would you do? And I thought, this sub-genre of comics needs to take a giant leap forward in its storytelling, but still be fun and exciting and bombastic and stuff. And that's what I've tried to do. I just thought, if this is supposed to be Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it should be Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
NRAMA: It's interesting to hear you talk about retreats taking place during this time, because it's also about the time that all these big "event" comics started happening. Much of what you're writing now, Brian, touches so many other parts of the Marvel Universe and has to be coordinated and planned out with a lot of other people. Do you ever long for the days when you could just write your Daredevil or Alias book and not have to deal with all these big events?
BMB: Well, we can. And we do. A great deal of time is spent doing stuff like that. It's just the louder noise is what people hear. There are all kinds of cool little books being produced. I mean, Spider-Woman, definitely, is well within that description.
NRAMA: Yeah, what's up with Spider-Woman?
BMB: Oh, it's coming. It just took a little more time to produce the motion comic, because we're trying to do something where we're in new water. And it took a little more time to produce it because everyone agrees that it has to be okay. There's a lot riding on it, not just the book itself, but this idea of doing motion comics at all.
NRAMA: We've talked a lot about your work on this and how it's somewhere between comic writing and scripting for animation. How are you feeling about the product?
BMB: Oh, it's fantastic. Holy crap. It's so good. But we that to ship a little bit before the comic. I'm literally 10 months ahead. I stopped writing it because I don't know what the Marvel Universe will look like in 10 months. I've got to stop writing.
So it's coming.
NRAMA: I'm going to go off on a tangent here a little bit because you're talking about a book you're doing with Alex Maleev. And your Daredevil run was so defined by his art and your collaboration with him. I remember you talking at a recent con about how attached you get to your artists, and you mentioned earlier how you love the feeling of collaboration and tailoring stories to your artists. Do you still do that kind of thing now? Do you think that's one of your strengths as a writer? Or are you tied down by the event stuff?
BMB: Oh, I definitely still do it. I'm not sure what I do right and wrong. But I absolutely know I do this right. I'm afforded this luxury, and not all my peers are, so I don't want to sound like I do something special. I don't start writing until I know exactly who's drawing it. And I write it imagining the world according to them. Not that I always get what I imagine. But consciously and even subconsciously, an artist knows this ... that it's being written for them or to their strengths, which is sometimes something they haven't made the most of yet. Sometimes I'll see a little panel in someone's work and I'll go, see what they're doing there? That's their future.
Even with [Olivier] Coipel, I'm doing something new with him now, and we've been talking since House of M about his page layouts and breakdowns and things he wants to attempt. A very European panel design that I'm eager for him to approach his pages that way. I want him to do what he wants to do.
But most of the time it's not like I come up with a story and say, gee, I wish Jack Kirby was drawing this. I end up writing it, imagining that world. Like now that Stuart Immomen is drawing Avengers, I can't imagine the books but what I imagine Stuart will do it.
NRAMA: You had said, at the time you came into comics that you thought you, Mark and Paul [Jenkins] were offering a new voice for the industry.
BMB: And other people too. Those names just came to mind.
NRAMA: But do you think that is going to happen again? Or is Marvel looking to change the voice of comics again? Or have you adjusted to the new direction?
BMB: Well, nothing's broken. I think everything's doing alright. But I always have high hopes for people. And sometimes they really pan out, and sometimes they don't. It's more than just writing. Even like we talked about the Internet relationship, for some writers -- some have a great mystique that pulls them along while some can't handle that. People choose to handle that differently. I choose to be very much there. Some people choose not to be anywhere near it. But that's part of it. And a writer having the right book. Finding the book that's perfect for them. It's career management as well. One bad choice and you can really knock yourself down the stairs again. So there have been a lot of people over the last 10 years that we had a lot of hopes for, but they didn't quite make it. Or they just did good on their independent books, but mainstream wasn't really for them, even though we thought it would be.
But right now there are three or four guys that we're all hugely rooting for. And I really want them to have all that I've experienced. I'm a huge fan of comics. I just want as many good comics a month that I can get. So yeah, there are a couple good guys that are coming up. I don't know if there's a movement as much. There are a few guys that Marvel's already labeled. These "Write Stuff" guys. They're pals of ours. Those guys particularly, we're really rooting for them. Jason [Aaron] and Jon Hickman and [Rick] Remender and [Andy] Diggle. Not that those are the only guys, but those are the ones with that "young guns" writer label, even though I think half of them are older than me. But we want good comics.
NRAMA: What's your next challenge at Marvel?
BMB: I don't want to say yet because I already have it approved. We just came back from a retreat where we had a lot of homework to do. It wasn't just a retreat where you come in and see what happens. Joe gave us an assignment, which is about what he feels comics will be in the next two years. You know how you were asking about, do you wish things were different than they were with the events? Well, something may happen that will be different. So we came up with all our pitches. And mine were all approved, which was pretty cool. And almost everyone came out of there richer when they left. So I do have some challenges coming up.
Plus working on all the movie stuff with Kevin [Feige of Marvel Studios] and the creative committees on the movies. That's a lot of fun. I've got to tell ya. That is a lot of fun. The Iron Man 2 script is so good. I've had to read it 30 times now.
NRAMA: I don't think most people are aware of your movie work. Do you spend a lot of time doing that part of your job?
BMB: It's kind of like everything in Hollywood. There are giant spurts where there are a ton of things to do, and a ton of things to read, but then there will be nothing for a few weeks. And everything in Hollywood is like that. Everything I do in L.A., they're like, "do it right now! We need it right now!" We'll be working and working and then just all of the sudden, it's not there anymore.
Like the Iron Man, Cap, and Thor outlines all came in in a day. And they all had to be read by Friday. You know? But this week, all the writers are writing and there's nothing to do.
NRAMA: So what exactly is your job here, Brian? Are you just reviewing outlines?
BMB: No, this is a little different than how Hollywood usually does it, which is a compliment to Kevin. Usually, Hollywood just does what it does. I know there are some comic book movies I hear that the people never even read a comic book based on the thing they're working on.
They've asked me to be part of this team of guys who they pick their brains and take their advice. And for me it's great to watch these writers deal with it and handle it. Watching them is a lot of fun.
And they fly us out. Like, when Kenneth Branagh was hired for Thor, they flew us out and we got to spend the day listening to a seven-hour performance of what he imagines the Thor movie would be.
NRAMA: Seven hours?
BMB: No, but it was Shakespearean, with flourishes. It was cool. It was a lot of fun. My wife goes, okay, that one I'm jealous of. She's got a crush on him. And honestly, he's not a let-down. I can see it. I can understand it. You're spending enough time with someone that you know if they're cool. And he's cool.
But one thing I'm thinking of and I want to say before anything else. There was something else that was unbelievable to me throughout these 10 years, and this is something I should say: the Icon line. I didn't know Dan Buckley that well. He's the reason I'm on the creative committee for the movies. And he's also the one who started the Icon line and gave Powers a home. If you think back, that was insane and seemed like it would never happen. And it's been years now and they've been unbelievably generous with us in giving us a home to tell our stories on our book. I know some people say, "Yeah, but it's not for everybody." But every comic company, it's not for everybody. But this was one of the times I went, wow, I backed the right pony.
NRAMA: Can you explain what you mean by "it's not for everybody?"
BMB: Oh, yeah, when I say Icon gives you a place for your creator-owned books, some people get sore that it's only for certain creators. Because it's not for everybody, and you have to be making Marvel money for it to be offered to you. Dan has said that in interviews. But the existence of it is great.
I mean, I look back, and I got to do the Ultimate line when there was no Ultimate line; I got to do the Max line before there was a Max line; and I got to do the Icon line when there wasn't an Icon line. And now we're doing the digital comics. I love that they keep entrusting me with these firsts. And I haven't done anything horribly embarrassing yet.
NRAMA: When we talked about the next stage of the Ultimate Universe, we talked about how it's no longer going to focus on "new twists" of existing Marvel characters, but will instead have a lot of new characters and new villains. Newsarama has spoken recently with a couple people at DC about this effort to "recharge" with new characters [editor's note: Specifically last week with Dan DiDio and last month with Keith Giffen], and now you're saying that the Ultimate Universe is concentrating on that same thing. It's certainly a hallmark of the current Green Lantern run, and a lot of these "Write Stuff" guys you've talked about are doing it. Is this a new trend in the industry? To create new characters?
BMB: There are two things at work here as to why this is happening. Number one, there are so many characters in both companies, and you can include other publishers' characters too. But if you're working at Marvel and you come up with someone who's a lot like the Wasp, then don't do that character. Just do the Wasp. Don't do a sh*ttier version of it. But at the same time, our generation is very aware that anyone create the new Joker or Lobo or whatever. Even the third lead in the Omega Men could end up being Lobo. And you don't want to create a situation for yourself where you create Deadpool and he's in a movie and you're pissed off. You want to create a situation where you're like Rob [Liefeld] and you're excited about it. So you want to make sure you've created something you're proud of.
NRAMA: Wait, can you explain that point about Deadpool?
BMB: You see Rob on Twitter and he's very happy. I actually don't know Rob. I'm just saying that I follow him on Twitter, and I see how he reacts to this character he created, and I'm saying I'd rather be that guy than Alan Moore who's all pissed about the contracts he signed. That's all I'm saying.
And we're all aware of that now. We're all grown-ups. We're not just all gung ho and putting on a show. We're aware that any one of these creations could be a huge movie franchise.
NRAMA: And your point is that, therefore, the industry is more concentrated on creating new, quality characters?
BMB: I feel comfortable for myself to do so. I created the Secret Warriors and other characters that are coming up through the pipeline that I feel that way about. I think Dan Buckley has created a situation for me and other people where it's encouraging us to create. And I think people are feeling that.
And also, it feels like the master class of comic book stuff once you've written the superheroes and kind of analyzed the icons and judged them. So creating things that aren't just like Batman is something you just have to do. It's like, what do I have to offer? And what is the modern version of it?
Also, when enough time goes by. The world's different than it was even when I started at Marvel. The whole world is different. Information is different. So what would the superheroes of this world be? You have to remember, even in the '70s, they were creating superheroes that were whatever was popular in movies that week. "Oh, here's our Bruce Lee. Here's our surfer." You really couldn't do that today. It's hilarious. Despite how much we love those characters, that wouldn't work today. "Oh, what's popular at the box office? The Hangover? I made Hangover Man!" You can't do it.
NRAMA: I never really thought of it that way, but you look at a lot of the villains of the '60s and '70s and it's based on what we feared at the time.
BMB: When me and Mark first met each other and we were flown up to New York and were sitting in Joe's office, we were talking about the Ultimate Universe, right when it was starting. And we were talking about, what does the Ultimate Universe mean? What did the Marvel Universe mean? And the entire Marvel Universe was born out of nuclear paranoia and the Cold War. Every single character is an irradiated version of something. This is what will happen if I get irradiated. And all of it was born out of that. And today, we're not fearful of that. We're fearful of other things. We have more of a genetic fear than a radiation fear. We don't live in a Cold War; we think we're being poisoned.
NRAMA: It's a "new science" kind of fear.
BMB: Yeah. So you think about it, and that's part of why there's this feeling that we've got something new with these new characters. But it's just reflecting the world we're living in. And you don't even realize it. Even Stan and those guys didn't realize they were doing it until afterward. It's a writer thing. I've done that. I've written whole stories of stuff, even in mainstream comics, where I didn't realize what I had done.
NRAMA: So you get this reviewer saying, "He was clearly making a comment on this aspect of modern society," and you realize you were?
BMB: Yeah, but even sometimes it's personal. Like, even the stuff about Jessica and Luke's baby. I wasn't even aware until I thought about it later, and I thought, wow, thank God I have an outlet for this fatherly neurosis.
And not to be too dramatic, but my wife had had an allergic reaction to a medication she had never taken before, and she went into a coma. And they told me that was it. She was never coming out. Her brain tissue had swelled. And that's brain damage. And that's it.
And I literally had a six-month-old baby. And they told me, here's a beeper. We'll let you know if anything has changed. Just go take care of the baby. And literally just four days later, everything was fine. It's been six years and she's fine.
I wrote, over the course of that year, at least 11 coma scenes. There's the Kingpin looking at his wife, there's Jessica looking at Luke. Everyone's in a coma. And I didn't even realize I was doing it. The artwork would come back and I would say, "What the f__k am I doing?" I mean, I had to be the strong guy, but it's amazing how these fictional characters can take on the role filling therapeutic needs.
NRAMA: That begs the question, as we finish up this interview, how has this affected you over the last 10 years? Is your neurosis gone now that you're the Kingpin at Marvel?
BMB: [laughs] I've always been a perfect stew of arrogance and self-loathing. Like, I have all the arrogance to push forward and write my comics and make my comics and do my thing, but at the same time I'm going, "Why? why? why?!!" So yeah, I'm able to balance that very nicely. I try not to pick at that scab too much, because it seems to have worked out.
NRAMA: And there are probably some stories that come out of that.
BMB: Yeah. I'd be a fool not to be aware of it. But yeah, when I first got to Marvel I was newly married, living in Cleveland. Now I have two children and I'm in Portland. And this job has given me the chance to travel all over the world and meet people and hear hundreds of stories about how much these characters mean personally to people, in every language you can imagine. I remember when Issue #50 came out of Ultimate Spider-Man, these soldiers in Afghanistan had flown an issue of Ultimate Spider-Man over the country and then framed it with a patch that it had flown over Afghanistan as a thank you to me. It's all they had for fun, you know? They had one movie and some TV and this comic. And they wrote this whole letter.
And not to get all weird about it, but the responsibility of it never leaves me, that someone really needs to relax and this is how they're going to relax. And this is how they're having fun. And I've had that feeling where I've had a really bad day and I think, please, I hope this cheers me up. This comic excites me or does something cool.
NRAMA: But that's affected you personally?
BMB: Absolutely. Every single thing that has happened, all of these things, have affected me dramatically. I take the fun aspect of comics very seriously. Not to sound like a dork. That was very "Inside the Actors Studio" of me. But literally ever day I get mail from people that are just having a great time and are really relying on me for it, and have been very, very loyal to me and my work. And every whacked out thing I've done. I mean, I've not delivered the same product every year. I try something new every year. And I thank God I have enough people into that. People who are into me trying all these different things enough that I've been able to do it. So I take their loyalty very seriously.