The Beauty of Brian Michael Bendis

For several posts now, I've been running an interview with Alan McKee, the editor of Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, a book designed to focus attention on the ways fans and consumers evaluate different forms of popular culture. McKee asked his contributors to do several things at once: first, to choose the "best of class" within a form of popular culture which we had deep investments and then to set about to justify that choice in terms of the criteria which consumers most often use to evaluate good and bad work in that space. I used the invitation as an excuse to write about superhero comics. From the start, it was clear that my preferences in comics have as much or more to do with their authors as with their artists. In many cases, I read pretty much everything published by certain writers: favorites include Robert Kirkman, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, and Brian Michael Bendis. Already to focus on superhero comics is to navigate between two fairly strong taste communities around comics:

Comic fans are sharply divided into two camps: on the one side, there are fans of comics as popular culture (with a focus on the creative reworking of genre elements and plays with continuity) and their voice is perhaps best represented by Wizard; on the other side, there are fans of comics as art (with a focus on aesthetic experimentation and unconventional content) and their voice is perhaps best represented by Comics Journal. At my local shop, the two types of books are divided off from each other by a partition designed to keep the kids from mangling the adult books, but also working to signal a certain cultural hierarchy at play. To praise Bendis as one of today's best writers is already to take sides since the Comics Journal crowd will look down their noses at you if you admit to reading superhero comics.

The most interesting contemporary comics fall somewhere between these two extremes - including work published by smaller companies like ABC, Oni, Image, Dark Horse, or Wildstorm which put their own spin on the superhero genre or works published by the boutique labels, such as Vertigo at DC or Max at Marvel, which are maintained by the mainstream publishers. Increasingly, the lines between mainstream and indie comics are breaking down. Much as indie filmmakers are getting a shot at directing Hollywood blockbusters, indie comics creators (such as Gilbert Hernandez, John Strum, or Peter Bagge) are venturing into the mainstream without risking their street cred.

I ended up choosing Bendis in part because he represented so many of the trends reshaping contemporary comics -- not the least of which was a the tendency discussed above to blur the lines between indie and mainstream comics. Bendis came from alternative comics and brought some of that sensativity to the mainstream.

My essay tries to determine what made Bendis a unique voice in the superhero genre (despite some profound differences in theme and audience across his various books) and also what made him exemplary of contemporary comics production. What follows are a few excerpts from the essay.

The Ultimate

In Ultimate Spiderman 28 (henceforth U.S.), M.J. comes racing into the Midtown High School library and asks her boyfriend, Peter Parker, whether he brought his costume. Rhino is smashing up downtown Manhattan and no one has been able to stop him. Asking M.J. to cover for his fourth period French class, he races to his locker and grabs his Spider-man costume (hidden in his knapsack), only to run into his Aunt May who is at school for a parent-teacher meeting. As Peter squirms in his chair, the teacher accuses him of being 'distracted' and 'unfocused' in class. Begging off, he races for the door, only to spot the school principal, and then spin off down another hallway. He cuts through the school cafeteria where he catches the lunch lady grumbling that the Rhino coverage is interrupting her soaps, then out the door, where he runs into his friend, Gwen, who is sobbing that nobody cares about her. Extracting himself from this emotional crisis, Peter races out of the school, stopping long enough to shout to M.J. to go see after Gwen. A few seconds later, Peter gets clocked by a football and chased by the school bullies, before scaling over the walls, scampering across rooftops, and riding on the tops of cars, arriving just in time to see Iron Man taking kudos for stopping the Rhino's rampage.

Whew! We've all had days like this.

I always wondered how even an ultra-nerd like Peter could manage to skip classes so often (all in the call of duty, of course) without ending up flunking out or spending the rest of his life in detention. From the start, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conceived Spider-man as sharing the flaws and foibles of his teen readers . Forget Metropolis and Gotham City: Marvel set its stories in actual locations in Manhattan. They relied on the sudden introduction of real world problems, such as not having enough money to buy a new costume or not knowing how to explain why you just stood up your hot date, to increase audience identification. What counted as comic book realism in the 1960s doesn't necessarily work for contemporary kids. Through the Ultimate Spider-Man series, Brian Michael Bendis retools Ol' Spidey for a generation that has grown up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, creating a comic that is as hip and 'postmodern' as it gets.

Bendis has fleshed out the core characters, changing the way they dress and talk to reflect contemporary mallrat culture, but not altering their core. In this case, the supportive M.J., the concerned Aunt May, and the 'drama queen' Gwen are used as comic foils to amplify Peter's struggle to escape the gravitational pull of his high school. Bendis also reconceptualized some members of the Spider-man rogue's gallery to up their 'coolness' factor - turning the usually dorky Rhino into a powerful mecha-man who tosses city buses through Starbuck's windows. The well-crafted issue maintains a frantic pace that keeps you turning pages. It contrasts with previous issues, coming right after an angsty story arc that took us inside the head of the Green Goblin and almost cost M.J. her life. It builds on evolving character's relations, such as M.J.'s new involvement in Peter's superhero life; and it prepares for future plot developments, such as the growing rift in Gwen's family. Artist Mark Bagley distills the essence of the characters into telling gestures, such as M.J. waving frantically from an upper window for Peter to get moving, Peter staring off into space during the parent-teacher conference, or a frustrated Spider-Man watching as Iron Man throws his hands up in victory.

The Bendis Moment

Film critics used to write about 'the Lubitsch touch' . Ernest Lubitsch melded European sophistication with classic Hollywood storytelling, adding one more layer of suggestion to the basic building blocks of the romantic comedy. Today, comics fans might talk about the 'Bendis moment'. Bendis always adds his own distinctive twist to the familiar characters and situations of the superhero genre, creating 'memorable moments' which will be discussed, debated, and savored by the fan boys. Half the time Bendis infuriates us by doing the unthinkable; the other half, he rewards us by taking us places we never imagined we'd get to go; but no matter what, he produces comics we want to talk about. A Bendis moment can be as innocent as Peter Parker, sprawled on the floor cradling his crumpled Spider-Man costume and sobbing over his breakup with M.J. (U.S. 33) or as crude as the controversial sequence in Alias (1) (henceforth A), where it is implied that the protagonist, Jessica Jones is having anal sex with Luke Cage, one of the few African-American characters in the Marvel universe.

One of the most memorable Bendis moments came when Parker gets rescued by three of the hotest mutant 'babes' from the Ultimate X-men cast. As Spidey 'fans,' they are just tickled to death to meet him. The telepath Jean Grey gushes that he's the first guy she's met in months that hasn't tried to imagine her naked (U.S. 43). Across fourteen awkward panels, Bendis and Bagley cut between Peter and Jean, as he tries, without success, not to think of her naked and as she waits impatiently for him to get over it. Any guy who has wanted desperately to be 'better than the others' and has had their hormones get in the way must surely feel for Peter's predicament confronting a girl who can read his every conflicted thought. Such moments grow organically out of the interplay between characters we know and love and exploit the juxtaposition between the fantastical situations we associate with superhero comics and a much more mundane reality we live in most of the time.

Bendis, Who?

Bendis writes what industry insiders call 'buzz books,' managing to be a critical darling who racks up awards and a commercial success who tops the charts. Bendis has won both the Wizard award (from fans) and the Eisner award (from fellow pros) for best writer for the past two years. Most months, he writes four or five of the twenty five top-selling comics. Wizard has called Bendis the 'Michael Jordan of Marvel,' citing this most valuable player as one of the key factors behind the company's commercial and critical revival over the past few years . (Somewhere around here, I keep wanting to toss off a 'Bendis like Beckham' pun.) As Marvel president Bill Jemas explains, 'Brian delivers hundreds of thousands of fans every month. He makes all of those fans happy and brings them back'. Wonder Woman scribe Greg Rucka praises Bendis as the consummate professional, 'He has a complete command of the art. Every aspect of the writer's job, he can do it well, and understands it intuitively. He's got every trick in the toolbox and god knows, he knows how to use them.'

And to top it all, he is amazingly prolific, cranking out five to eight different titles every month over the past several years. Ultimate Spider-Man alone adds up to eighteen issues a year. When Marvel needed a pinch hitter for Ultimate X-Men, Bendis crossed over and added another biweekly title to his workload, even as he was helping to launch Ultimate Fantastic Four and knock off the Ultimate Six mini-series.

His commercial success and professionalism has earned Bendis the creative freedom to take risks and the power to reshape the Marvel universe. As Bendis notes, 'I get paid whether I kick ass or phone it in. Why not kick ass?'. And kick ass he does, month after month....

Bendis has said that his greatest excitement as a writer comes when he paints himself into a corner and then has to figure out how to get back out again. Bendis constantly takes risks that a lesser writer would avoid and then makes them pay off for the reader, inviting us to think about the superheroes, their rogues galleries, their supporting characters, and their worlds in fresh new ways. Sometimes that pisses off the old-timers. Bendis sparked controversy with some of his earliest work for Marvel from fans who felt that he was putzing around with Elektra, a character introduced by Frank Miller during his acclaimed run of Daredevil . ...

The recent history of the superhero genre has been marked by several movements between deconstructionist writers (such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, or Grant Morrison) who critiqued the genre's fascist fantasies, and reconstructionist writers (such as Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb, or Greg Rucka) who have sought to put the 'Wow!' back in the genre . Bendis's deft writing allows him to move back and forth between the two camps, chipping away at clichés, critiquing underlying assumptions, while at the same time offering the kind of slobberknocking fight scenes and high flying adventures that make comic fans grin. Each Bendis book offers a different angle on the superhero genre: depicting a young man learning the ropes and facing adult dismissals (Ultimate Spiderman), a more mature superhero whose world seems to be coming apart before his eyes (Daredevil), a former B-level superhero who sometimes has trouble getting the A-listers on the telephone (Alias), and a bunch of beat cops who have to unravel the scandals and conspiracies celebrity superheroes hope to hide from their tabloid-reading public (Powers). Bendis clearly loves the genre, but he's more than willing to take the piss out of it....


Wizard praises Bendis for 'dialogue that pops and snaps more than a fresh bowl of Rice Krispies.' ...

Superhero comics are notorious for their clunky or over-inflated dialogue, dating back to a time when the pictures were crude and the writers sometimes had to fill in plot information the artist never got around to drawing. So, you have the situation where characters describe things that would be obvious to anyone standing at the location or where villains spell out their entire plans. Sometimes the entire book is nothing but exposition as the writer tries to cram an ambitious story into far too few pages. Only belatedly did comic writers see dialogue as a means of defining the characters or setting the emotional tone. When Peter Parker first realizes that he has spider strength, Stan Lee has him exclaim, 'What's happening to me? I feel - different! As though my entire body is charged with some fantastic energy,' and then has him go into a long wonkish discussion of how his various powers parallel those of the common spider . (Come to think of it, maybe that is how the geekish protagonist would react!) Bendis deals with a similar discovery in Alias in a far more down to earth manner. An angry adolescent is trudging along through a city park, her mind million miles away, and then, suddenly, realizes that her feet are no longer touching the ground and that she has no idea how to land again. Her: 'Shit! Oh Shit!' economically expresses her shift between giddy excitement and gut-wrenching terror....

Bendis adopts more naturalistic patterns of communication, including a focus on the various ways people struggle, in real life, to adequately express their ideas. A recent anthology, Total Sellout, shares a series of his monologues, some autobiographical, others based on things he overheard on the street, which shows his early fascination with human speech patterns. Bendis loves to weave complex layers of word balloons across the page, allowing well-drawn character study to hold our interest in the absence of more visceral action sequences. This technique came into its own in Jinx, which includes rambling debates between various lowlife characters on such issues as the letterboxing of movies that recall the debate about Madonna videos that opens Reservoir Dogs or the famous Le Cheese Royale exchange in Pulp Fiction. ...

Critics accuse Bendis of being verbose and he certainly uses more words per page than anyone else. Yet, Bendis knows when to pull back and let his images speak for him, making effective use of wordless montages which convey the character's thought processes. Consider the moment in Ultimate Spider-Man 14 where the meat-headed Kong almost discovers Spiderman's secret identity but is unable to hold all of the pieces of information together in his mind; or the scene in Alias 21 where we see a teen-aged Jessica's thoughts as she masturbates to a pinup of Johnny Storm (ending with a close-up of her curling toes). Perhaps most spectacularly, an entire issue of Powers (31) includes only the grunts of subhuman apes as Bendis traces the origins of the superhero back to prehistoric times. Throughout Alias, Bendis contrasts the information-dump that Jessica receives from her clients with wordless shots showing the detective absorbing and reacting to the information....

A Bastard Art

Bendis himself sets the terms by which we evaluate his work. He told interviewers at Write Now!: 'I heard a quote from Sting, that rock-and-roll is a bastard art form. That there is no one thing that makes rock-and-roll, rock-and-roll, that it only really succeeds when somebody makes the conscious personal decision to pull something new into it from outside like jazz, country, or opera. Something vital happens then. I think comics are the same way. There is no one thing that makes a great comic. Each time someone's gone outside of comics and pulled something into it. For their own reasons, something really exciting happens. A lot of artists have done that, but not a lot of writers.'

Bendis has helped to revitalize the modern superhero comics by pulling into the genre a range of techniques which in other art forms insure naturalism: his reliance on fragmented and sometimes incomplete dialogue; his interest in documenting the perspectives of professional groups or youth subcultures; his attention to the mundane details of everyday life; his ability to allow characters to grow and develop over time. He talks about his comics alongside the work of writers like David Mamet or Richard Price, refusing to accept a second-class status for his own medium. Rather, his work does something theirs can not - build on a thirty or forty year history of our relationships with these characters, push these ideas into alternative realities and use them to comment on our own lived experiences, and, oh yeah, capture the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of teenagers.

For those of comics fans in the Boston area, you might be interested to know we are hosting a public lecture by Scott McCloud on his new book, Making Comics, this thursday, 5-7 pm, in the MIT Media Lab's Bartos Theater. It is a joint CMS-Media Lab event. For those outside the Boston area, we hope to provide a podcast of the event early next week.