Jessica Jones creators Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos are reuniting for their first-ever creator-owned series together - and doing it at DC.
This week's Pearl #1 kicks off a six-part limited series that is part romance and part Yakuza-crime woven together through the artistry of tattoos. Pearl is also the flagship launch title of Bendis' creator-owned Jinxworld imprint at DC Comics, part of a multi-year multi-faceted deal with the publisher.
Newsarama spoke with Bendis about reuniting with Gaydos, Pearl's unique lead character who is unlike any he's created before, and his plans for the Jinxworld line as a whole.
Newsarama: Brian, now that you’ve “broken the ice,” so to speak, with your initial issues at DC, can you share with readers how the experience on your Jinxworld titles has differed for you from your time at Marvel?
Brian Michael Bendis: Number one: Whatever was going to happen with this year - whether it was my going to a new company like I did or had I stayed at Marvel - it was going to be a very similar reassessment of books I put out and wrote. I needed to spend more time doing creator-owned work. Even before I was sick, I made a promise to myself on my birthday last year that I was going to create new material, new characters, and new worlds. This was something I felt like I hadn’t met my personal goals in prior to that point like I had with other areas, and I told everyone I was partnered with along with my wife Alisa that this was something we needed to do.
Now, when I came to DC, I had this great conversation with Dan DiDio the first time we met. He said “We’re really thrilled to have you as a part of the DC Universe, but I must say as a long-time fan of yours, I’d really like to create a situation where you can get more creator-owned work done. It’s frustrating to me as a fan that you don’t do more.” And I couldn’t help but think “Well! This is the start of a very excellent conversation then!”
We spoke about what Jinxworld would be and how it would remain an imprint of our own work, continuing what we had already started at Icon and including some new titles like Pearl.
So, I created this goal where I would create 50 new things within the calendar year.
Nrama: Did I hear you right? 50?!?
Bendis: I’m not saying all fifty things will be awesome or publishable or things that I’ll show people. But I made it a goal that I would put those fifty things down on paper that I would create. And we’re there! We’re at the end of that year and we are all getting to see some of the fruits of that goal!
Nrama: In recent interviews, you mentioned that moving over to DC would allow you more time to focus on your Jinxworld line of creator-owned comics, like Powers, Scarlet, United States v. Murder Inc. and newer titles like Cover and Pearl. How is the workload different for you at DC now that is allowing you the time to add these additional series onto your plate?
Bendis: Instead of writing six DC titles, I’m only doing some DC titles and some creator-owned work. My creative partners and I were hoping they’d get behind that and understand our need for it, and of course, DC has been wonderful about it. Not only did this gamble Dan and I play seem to be paying off well, we’re hoping this will set up some other unique opportunities for other creators as well.
Nrama: Pearl is the story of a mysterious tattoo artist who happens to be a Yakuza assassin. What influences informed the generation of this character?
Bendis: A few things. First, I became enamored with other peoples’ creative passions. You get to do this - you talk to other people in other creative fields with equal passions. Because I’m so passionate about comics, I find myself running across other creative people who have been told “Oh, you should meet Brian!” And so, what I find myself gravitating to is other people who are just as enthusiastic about their art as I am mine. And it’s a great exchange because they may not be as aware of the comic art form just as I may know little about theirs.
I found a similar fascination about the art of tattooing when talking with friends of mine who create them or are embedded in that culture. It’s one of their frustrations that people who don’t know about it aren’t really clued into the symbolism or the history behind the work. It’s more than just some cool thing that you do – it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people around the world. I saw the connection between what we do and they do as two art forms that are so unique and so often misunderstood that I wanted to write about it. I wanted to do a valentine to it.
While I was doing my research for it, I started hearing crime stories within this world, and I started laughing because I was specifically looking to do a meditation on creativity. And here I am being pelted by awesome crime stories and characters. I found myself saying “Here we go. I’m doing another crime story, aren’t I?” But I’m just enamored with it and can’t let it go! There’s something about the juxtaposition of the creativity and intimacy as well as the sudden violence of the tattoo needle that always seems to be paired with the violence of the real world that ultimately led me down this road.
It’s the blessing and curse of research: You go in thinking you’ll learn about one thing and then you end up going on this entirely different journey!
Nrama: So, this is a bit of a creative exploration for you?
Bendis: Yeah, it is! It’s funny because I went into this with the idea of meditating on creativity, but it took me down another road that helps connect Pearl almost as much to Murder Inc. versus David Mack’s Kabuki. But that’s what creative people love, right? You think you know where you’re going, and if you do it right, it takes you somewhere else.
The other thing I thought a lot about is that it’s unique than anything else.
Nrama: In what ways beyond the pairing of tattoo art and real-world violence?
Bendis: There are so many comics out there right now – we, in particular, are putting out so many comics, and I want to make sure that Pearl is as unique a voice and spirit as Jessica Jones, but without repeating it. Mike and I were clear: Do not repeat Jessica Jones! I know there’s the tendency to see that you created a hit and just repeat that again with a small variation. We wanted to strip away all that we accomplished with Jessica and then do something different with the palette and story, which helped us meet our goal of not being cliché (as much as possible).
So, Mike came to me and said she’s albino, which is something unique in a few ways. First, very few people who are albino find representation in pop comics, and second, she’s a lead who eschews the scary, sinister albino stereotype. I recently read in an article that this was a trope that has never been contradicted in popular culture, so the idea that this was creating a lead character that didn’t have all of that but instead, was a real character was something that would reflect much better.
What makes this especially grounded though is that Mike shared with me that his son has a skin condition where if he gets marked or scarred and then he gets upset or excited in anyway and the blood rushes to it, it fills it in. He pointed that if someone with this condition like his son were to get an inkless tattoo, they would get what’s called a “breathing tattoo” where it appears when they’re flushed. Naturally, when he told me this, I said “Well, we’re making a comic book then!” That’s one of Pearl’s interesting visuals, and we’ll explore her “breathing tattoo” that appears only when she’s about to kill somebody.
Nrama: Given how many of your past work seems to tap into the zeitgeist of that time, how do you see this story connecting to the present moment for your readers?
Bendis: To be honest, I don’t sit back and think to myself “What would the world need to read right now?” What I do is look at what I need to do? What’s one of my passions? What creative itches do I need to scratch.
We’re in a time right now when the culture is eating itself. We live in Ready Player One, where there are movies referencing other movies and it’s about other culture and material. Now, I confess that this is a lot of fun for me because I get all of the references and I can share them with my kids. But we’re rebooting and regurgitating everything, and we really need new materials and stories that reflect what’s really going on in our society today. I’m not talking the political stuff, but the streets and towns we live in.
So, I’m trying to tell new stories that reflect the real world – or at least, a part of it. And hey! We need new stuff! In about 10 years, there won’t be anything left because we will have eaten it all! Marvel, DC, everybody - we’re all going to need new material, new stories, and new characters that will speak to the audiences. Spider-Man did that, Harry Potter did that, and we need more.
Nrama: And this brings us to one of the other characters we will meet in the story: Rick – a fellow tattoo artist and member of another gang. Are we setting the stage for a future tragedy of a Shakespearean sort?
Bendis: Well, yeah, it kind of started in a vein of Romeo and Juliet because there is a deep romance between Pearl and Rick who grew up in a world they didn’t make themselves and come to realize it in the same moment. That’s a thematic passion of mine where we have that moment of recognition that “Hey! I didn’t vote for any of this! A lot of stuff is happening and I didn’t ask for it.” Sometimes, you need to meet the right person who can help with this realization and help you realize your own greatness. Where their story is going to go is a story campaign of Mike’s and my own to be as non-cliché as possible. It’s no exaggeration to say these characters have delighted and surprised every step of the way as we tell their story. By the end of the six issues, I’m going to show you a romance that surprised the hell out of me, and I hope it surprises the hell out of the audience. It’s certainly like nothing I’ve done before.
Nrama: With Romeo and Juliet, we have two warring houses…are you bringing us back to the world of crime? How are you pushing yourself as a creator given how well-traveled this genre is for you?
Bendis: Crime! But this time I’m looking into the Yakuza – and not like the stereotypical ways we see them in pop culture, you know? I’ve was doing research, and while I completely love and respect the films like The Rising Sun, I told Michael that we can’t do anything like that. It didn’t age well and it’s really cliché-riddled and problematic. Films like that have the “white savior” like so many others, and we absolutely needed to stay away from that. We wanted to get into a genre story that’s truthful to the culture, which was a really important goal of mine.
Look, even if I flip back to my old Daredevil stuff, I can’t help but see the Yakuza portrayals and say “Nah….” Even I was still doing the cinematic version and not a fully researched piece like we’re doing now. I’m not poo-pooing the Daredevil material, but it’s not as well-grounded as what you’ll see in Pearl.
Nrama: So, in addition to being a crime story with a focus on the Yakuza, you’ve also said this will be a romance. You’ve done superheroes, drama, crime, and even some all-ages comics, but why romance?
Bendis: Look. I believe that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more romantic – and I was already pretty romantic to begin with! Other writers may get more cynical or less romantic, and I was getting goofed on by Kelly Sue DeConnick when she noticed how other female writers get criticized for being too romantic but no one comments how I’m the one writing 8 to 10 kissing scenes every month! Whatever they’re worried about from women romance writers, it’s just a countdown to my characters kissing! I love it!
There are things you just never get sick of and people falling in love is one of them for me! And honestly, it’s funny that it’s the one part of truth and beauty that some writers and artists shy away from. The intimacy of a kiss can be hard to get there for some, but I’m happy to go there.
Nrama: Shifting gears, how has it been working with Michael Gaydos on this new series especially given your history with him on Jessica Jones? Would you say it’s the same as ever or has your process shifted in some way or another?
Bendis: It’s not at all, and we set out not to do it like that. You see, Michael is a co-creator of Jessica Jones, but he did come in a little later in the process of her creation, whereas with Pearl, we had for years started brewing what this would. No matter what we would do, we were going to do this together. It’s a different thing, and I think the audience would be disappointed to see the same thing.
Also, people forget that Michael and I went to college together, and I know how great he is beyond his work in comics. He’s an amazing painter and print maker beyond comics. He wanted to really own the pages like Alex Maleev does with Scarlet and David Mack does with Cover. So, not only is Jinxworld a unique collaboration, but the pages are almost completely painted by the artists. He does some fascinating things with the rendering, and Gaydos is a subtle and intricate artist full of interesting choices.
Nrama: There is a gritty realism employed to help create the environment.
Bendis: That’s the thing about his work. Michael’s use of color and lines can often set up so much more and tell so much more story than I ever could with written dialogue.
Nrama: Artistically, how do you see these stories stacking up against your past collaborations?
Bendis: This is a weird thing to say out loud, but I wrote this in the hospital and I wrote to everyone in Jinxworld that we have all made really good books together. We can sit back and look at our careers and given where we are, it can’t get any better. As a young creator, you may be barreling ahead and only later figure out why and how you were doing it all. Here, we’re aware of ourselves and our talent, and this might be as good as it gets and the best books we’ll ever put out. We’re at that age Jack Kirby was in his prime, and DC gave us a lane to run in – so let’s go!
The reality is we are getting older and we may not get another chance. Our talents may begin diminishing. Some creators get better as they age, but others ebb and flow. After that locker room talk with everyone, well, I can’t help but look at all of these #1 issues and think these are the best books these creators have ever made. It’s a reflection of that conversation that continued on. Not only was it their best work, but they were sending it back and forth and inspiring each other. Michael Avon Oeming, Maleev, Mack, Gaydos – all of them know each other’s talents and tricks, and they can push each other. They’re desperate to be honest creators and are pushing everyone else to be honest creators.
Nrama: So, where do you see this series and the narrative as a whole down the road? One year, five years? How long is this ride you and Michael will be taking readers on and where do you expect - as creators - to finds yourselves once it’s done?
Bendis: I find that once you’ve claimed one mountain, you find yourself at the base camp of a new massive experience. There’s a relief that Superman launched and people didn’t want to pitchfork me. Now I’m looking at the numbers for Pearl, and there’s another sense of relief that people are getting behind it. It just helps me focus on that next goal, which is more. More issues, and more stories. Putting out this work in an honest way that’s new that will add to the DCU and will add to Jinxworld.
That’s all. Just that goal. [Laughs]
Nrama: I’ve heard he’s taken to preparing for this series by acquiring a tattoo gun and practicing with it on all sorts of things.
Bendis: That’s 100% true. Not one book from my collaborators goes without deep research. Michael’s grown deeply in love with the mechanics of tattoo. It made me smile because if you start falling in love with your content as you do the research, you’re going to get people to fall in love with it as well.
He bought an antique one and is making a collection of them!
Nrama: Is there any chance you’d let him give you a tattoo, and if so, what would you get?
Bendis: Hell no! [Laughs] I’m Jewish and we were always told you cannot have them. So of course, it’s like a forbidden fruit to me. It’s beautiful, and my intense relationship to art makes it seem like an overwhelmingly desirable idea. And there’s an artist in New York whose art is so good, that I don’t think I could pass it up if I was there. He just kills me, but I’d likely chicken out. Kelly Sue has the best tattoos though. But not for me. [Laughs]
Nrama: Final question: You have a bit of a bonus story in this first issue - your first ever Batman story that you did with Michael. How did that come together?
Bendis: So, some people know that when we were putting Pearl together, my story with Nick Derrington was announced with the Wal-Mart DC Anthologies all year. It’s gorgeous. But older fans knew I’d done a Batman story before I came to Marvel with Michael called “Citizen Wayne” – an adaptation of Citizen Kane.
We had a couple extra pages in the back of Pearl, and we figured we would include for fans as a “thank you” for getting behind our first Jinxworld outing. But yeah, on top of making records by having Jinxworld come to DC and making Powers one of the only comics published by Dark Horse, Oni, Image, Marvel and DC, we have the first creator-owned comic with a Batman story back up!