Interview: writer-artist Brian Michael Bendis

by David Larsen / 21 April, 2012
Comic superhero crossovers have never looked better than in the hands of writer-artist Brian Michael Bendis, whose version of The Avengers is about to hit the big screen.

Playing god is much more fun when you’re playing with an actual universe. The universe Brian Michael Bendis  plays god with even has gods in it, which can get terminologically complicated. One of the gods Bendis plays god with is shortly going to be appearing onscreen in The Avengers, although it’s unlikely the film’s other characters will believe he’s a god: they’ll think he’s just playing a god. This god will be played by the actor Chris Hemsworth.

Bendis, however, gets to play god in the more significant, strictly metaphorical sense, which is one of the major reasons The Avengers movie exists at all. If your main response to the emergence of the superhero movie as one of the dominant cinematic forms of our times has been an indifferent shrug or a horrified recoil, you may not have registered what a huge and unlikely artefact this particular one is.

A four-way superhero franchise crossover event with a budget in nine figures? It’s a ridiculously difficult thing to write – too many characters, too many story arcs, the standard blockbuster formulas won’t fit – and for it to have much chance of pulling in audiences, it depends, at minimum, on the non-total-failure of three subsidiary movie franchises, at least two of which looked like prime candidates for turkey status when planning for The Avengers began.

This is why there has never been a film like this before: a sensible person would not stake US$200 million on it. But it happens that Marvel Comics, the owners of The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and Captain America, came back from bankruptcy in the last decade on the back of some successful movie deals and some highly lucrative crossover events. In their in-house culture, putting the two things together made more sense than it might have to an outsider.

One reason crossover events are such a feature of their landscape is a very smart decision they made towards the end of the 1990s: they offered a writing contract to a young freelance writer-artist named Brian Michael Bendis. “This was my goal from six years old. That six-year-old kid who announces at the dinner table one night that he’s going to grow up and write Spider-Man? That was me.”

Bendis grew up in a conservative Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio; comics were his window into a less-constrained reality. “I was not a bad artist by the time I got to college, and there was a job board at my school, advertising work for illustrators – basically, people looking to get illustration done on the cheap – and one day I decided to start taking all of them. I said, ‘You know what I’m gonna do, I’m not going to have a job, I’m just going to hustle my little ass, I’m going to take every gig I can get my hands on that’s either writing or drawing, and I’m going to get into comics.’

“I had figured out early I was learning more on the gigs I was getting than I ever would in school. The first few times I saw my work in print, I’d go, ‘Well, I’m not going to make that mistake again!’ – and the only way to learn those lessons is to have that experience. I mean, you don’t want to romanticise it, you spend a lot of time grovelling for work, and I’m happy I get to spend that time actually working these days. But it certainly thickened my skin, and it taught me the value of a gig.”

By the end of the 90s, Bendis had made a name for himself with a series of noir crime comics published in the comics equivalent of the indie movie world. His distinctive style derived partly from his ear for the way good playwrights use dialogue, and partly from film noir.

“The art of cinematography has been the single most infl uential thing on me … the American Cinematographers Institute made a film a few years ago called Visions of Light, where the best cinematographers in the world take you through the history of cinematography. One of the people they focus on is John Altman, who single-handedly invented the visual language of film noir. When I realised the extent to which I was trying to follow the rules of noir without ever having known what they were – that was a mind-blowing moment for me. I stood up in the theatre and yelled hallellujah.”

Literally? “Literally. Not kidding. Altman showed me so much. How to abstract your images, and show as little as you need. The absolute bare minimum visual information you can give, peeking out of the darkness to tell your story. And you can take that idea and apply it to any kind of storytelling: what’s the bare minimum amount of information you need to tell this story?”

Bendis’s crime comics brought him to Marvel’s attention, and it offered him the chance to reboot Spider-Man: wipe the character’s history and retell his story from day one. It was not the first time this had been tried, but the Bendis reboot was the first to please the fans.

Of the coming Spider-Man movie reboot, he says, “I can’t tell you what’s behind the curtain, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but you know what, 10 years is a long time in pop culture. My daughter was not born when the first Spider-Man movie came out, and she’s very excited about the new one. And what I realised when I did my own reboot is, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ is a phenomenal literary theme. Yes, there’s money in them there hills, let’s not pretend there’s not. But the truth of the story holds up. It can handle being told again.”

A range of other Marvel projects quickly followed, allowing Bendis to demonstrate his feel for character delineation and his stylistic versatility; instantly recognisable as his voice is, no two of his titles feel the same. Which is perhaps why he was eventually given the plastic jewel in Marvel’s crown, The Avengers, in which, before Bendis, all the various heroes of the sprawling Marvel universe came together, generally, in order to spout identically idiotic expository dialogue and engage in cookie-cutter fisticuffs. Bendis liked the idea of developing a huge, mismatched cast – its members range from people who can level cities to a guy who’s handy with a bow and arrow – so as to let each of them emerge as an actual character.

“A lot of the time in Avengers, I’m attempting something along the lines of a Robert Altman movie, where everybody’s talking at once and conversations hardly ever get a chance to wrap up, because they’re constantly on the move. By the time we got to issue four of my run, it was turning out to be the biggest hit I’d ever had my hands on. And that was very good news for me, because it meant I was going to get to do Secret Invasion.”

Marvel has a long history of crossover events – storylines that run across multiple titles, encouraging, if not forcing, fans to buy comics they might not normally follow. Because it’s a reliable sales tactic, they happen regularly, whether or not anyone has a good idea for one, which is why Bendis’s Secret Invasion storyline, in which shape-changing aliens infiltrate Earth over years and slowly prepare the ground for a war of conquest, stands out.

He planted the seed in his first Avengers issue; when he took the idea to his editors, “they went nuts for it. Our publisher decided it was a one-in-a-lifetime gigantic thing, and they really got behind it.”  They were right to. Secret Invasion is the Everest of crossover events, an almost unique instance of someone taking Marvel’s vast assemblage of rambling five-decade storylines and bringing them together in a coherent, unpredictable, exciting way.

Crossovers had never looked better. This was 2008, and the first Iron Man movie was scoring unexpectedly well with test audiences. At the last moment, one of the producers called Bendis, who had worked as a consultant on the story for the film, and said, “We’re adding a final scene with Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, but we don’t have anything for him to say, can you write something?”

“So I stayed up all night writing, and I did like seven or eight different versions of it, because they didn’t even know at the time where they wanted to go with Fury. And in the end, they went with his telling Robert Downey jnr about this thing called the Avengers Initiative. And here we are.”

He saw The Avengers movie months ago. “I was so relieved. It’s f---ing fantastic, by far the best thing [writer director] Joss Whedon’s ever done. We’re working on Iron Man 3 right now. I have to get my notes in for that pretty soon. The next wave that’s coming after Avengers is really interesting new stuff, they’re taking some exciting chances. Yeah, that’s right, they’re going to keep making movies. I don’t mean to spoil that for you, but it’s true. They are.”

THE AVENGERS: VOLUME 2, written by Brian Michael Bendis, drawn by John Romita Jr et al (Marvel, $27.99);
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