illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital 
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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INTERVIEW: Brian Michael Bendis Part One
An Interview with Brian Michael Bendis by Adrian Reynolds.

I spoke with Brian Michael Bendis twice for this interview. Once, shortly following the release of the first issue of Powers. The second time was week or so after Bendis had gone from being a smart writer/artist known mainly for his sharply characterised crime stories to suddenly being a Big Player, the Man Who Will Revitalise/Destroy Marvel and Cur(s)e Spiderman depending which brand of net-chatter you prefer.

As well as the news that he was taking on SPIDERMAN and X-MEN, there was the business of his new Image book POWERS becoming the hottest title going, just like that. For once that temperature is being generated by something other than hot air.

In my opinion, Bendis is one of the very few writers worthy of the name in an industry awash with mediocrity, empty hype, and an obsession with its own past. I'd like to tell you that the timing of the interviews was down to foresight and planning, but it was really a case of 'shit happens'. In Bendis' case, there's a ton of shit happening, and it's all good.

Bendis is fascinated by what people do with their lives when they've let themselves forget that they were intending to be doing something else. That kind of self-deception and the searching it provokes is a running theme in his work. There's also an intrigue with the more obvious kind of deception that criminals get up to, lovingly detailed in GOLDFISH, JINX, SAM & TWITCH and...and so on. It's there in FORTUNE & GLORY too, a witty look at his adventures in the film trade, though of course Hollywood people aren't criminals. It's just that they think along very similar lines.

With this in mind, please understand that what you're about to read never actually happened in quite the way it might appear on the page. This is a two-part feature, and one which happily and shamelessly mixes material from both the interviews with editing to get across the difference between what was actually said and the much slippier and more interesting business of what was meant. That's true in any interview of course. But like any good con artist, I'm letting you know upfront.

In this first part, we focus on the comics industry and Brian's career. Part two concentrates more on looking at how Bendis works, what his work means to him, and what it's about.

So Brian, how are things?

It's been a little bizarre. I was fine where I was, putting out my little indy books and I had enough audience to sustain me. And all of a sudden, as of Saturday afternoon, I don't know what the hell happened. We got a call, POWERS made it into the Wizard Top 10. What the hell's that about? I couldn't believe it. And then the Spiderman news hits and it's absolute bedlam. At the message board at I've had to shut them up. I don't want to talk about it any more. You guys talk about it all you want, but I'm not going to answer any more questions because I don't want to ruin it.

The danger is that you ruin it for yourself.

I don't want to burn out. My job is to write the best I can, and the book is still four months away as far as you're concerned. By the time you guys see it you've seen it in your head, you've written your own version, you've talked about it on the internet, and whatever I hand in will be different from what's in your head, and in the end it'll be ruined for you. It's hard with the internet to keep the sense of mystery.

I think you do it very well. You use as a means of communicating what you're doing.

Most people get it. I explain it to them. People want to be entertained. They're very hungry for information and I'm happy that they're interested. So they'll talk about it, and when I say I won't talk about it any more I get people sending emails to me personally asking about it all. And a lot of this is Marvel stuff, you know? There's a big business involved here. It's not just me.

The internet changes the relationship between the audience and the people producing the work.

It takes a major publicity firm to do it properly. Like with the X-Men movie. Every day they release a little tiny image or piece of news: a helmet, a hand with claws popping out of it, a denial of a rumour that you've only just heard now that you're reading it. It worked with Blair Witch Project too.

That's the way it's going now.

I like seeing reviews of my work that are thoughtful reviews. More times than not they're favourable and they're intelligent. They let you see the way your work is being perceived, and sometimes there are things discussed you didn't think about, and that's very valuable. Plus, there's not a lot of good comic book reviewing in print media.

The sharper stuff seems to be internet based.

It really does. Is there anyone better at reviewing comics now than Randy Lander? I don't think there is. He reviews everything unbiased by company or whatever. He'll slam it if it's bad and praise it if it's good.

You've been lucky so far.

This week it got really out of control for me. People would be saying things on one internet board, and then it's all over the place. And there's a lot of bitchiness on the internet too. A lot of people who are checking out my boards and the others, because they're at work screwing off and not doing their job, they'll see something about the Spiderman news or the Ground Zero project. Then they'll argue about it with someone who hasn't even read any of my work and doesn't know anything about me. And they'll answer that person and send me the email with the whole exchange, and of course if someone emails it you're going to read it. Your name's being thrown around, so you read it, and it's bizarre.

Joe Quesada called me up and just laughed in my ear. He goes 'You know what's a miracle about you? You don't even have a book out at Marvel. Nothing has been released. Everyone else, at least the book comes out before people hate it'.

This is 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?'

Yes. Nothing has come out. Not my DAREDEVIL, nothing. It's very very funny. I do appreciate the intention but it's very bizarre. So I stay home and write. I don't want to think about the old school versus the new school, I just want to tell a story.

With so many stories to tell, how do you divide your time up between different projects?

I know when everything's due, and I just have to set my brain for them. A lot of times I get inspired and do a lot of work, more than what's due. Like with SAM & TWITCH, I got inspired to write this bounty hunter story and wrote it all at once, unfettered by anything else. I just wrote the whole arc, and all of a sudden I'm six issues ahead.

Same thing happened with POWERS. I wrote the first story arc in a couple of weeks. But this is after thinking about if for a year. DAREDEVIL was done before you ever heard about it. SPIDERMAN, the first two issues were written before anyone had heard about it. Same with HELLSPAWN. And HELLSPAWN is by far the most ambitious project in terms of format and painting. There's a lot of thought in there, a lot of hard work, and a huge obligation.

There's no one book I'm writing, including the one I own, where there isn't someone spending a lot of money putting the book out. I have an obligation to them, I have an obligation to the stores that ordered it thinking that the book's coming out on time, and the fans who want it when they ordered it. So I just do the work, I get it done.

Also, my wife, and this is the secret, is getting her Masters thesis in teaching at college. She has more work to do than I do. She has 8 hours of reading to do after 8 hours of class. She's sitting across the room from me with all her shit to do. She looks over at me and gives me a look, I look over at her and giggle and we go back to work. There's no neglect. We're both doing something we're passionate about and support each other on. Next year I'm sure we'll have a baby and then I'll slow the fuck down. But right now, every single thing that gets offered to me, you can't say no to this shit.

How often do you get a call going 'Do you want to write Spiderman?'

Of course I want to write SPIDERMAN. Not only can you write Spiderman, how about we start over again? Give it your best shot. And you hand the script in and they go 'That's great, that's what we wanted'. And I'm going 'Really?' What are the odds of that happening? And then there's another call, 'Do you want to give Spawn a kick in the pants?' You can't say no to any of that.

What can we look forward to in HELLSPAWN?

HELLSPAWN is a bold book. You're not going to see any of the Bendis bag of tricks, other than the dialogue. And I don't do narrative panels, 'In a darkling moon, light spills...'

'In a sea of adjectives...'

[laughing] It's not me. Some people do that wonderfully, but not me. It's going to be a fully painted book, with a mix of me bossing Ashley Wood around with the art, and Ashley bossing me around to make the story work. He is like a machine. He can whip stuff out and it all looks great and I have no idea how he did any of it. When people find out most of that stuff's done on computer they're blown away. He rarely draws by hand or paints with a paintbrush. Usually people who know computers will look and go 'I know that filter he's using'. Not with Ashley. I think he's going to put out a book of how he did it so they leave him alone.

Do you miss drawing?

Drawing is an incredibly laborious process for me, and I'd been going for 10 years without a break doing huge graphic novels. The smallest thing I've done is FORTUNE & GLORY and it still took me forever. So when people see all this work coming out of me, it's not that it's any more work as far as the hours go. Now I'm writing and then handing it over to someone, with a childlike sketch of where the panels go, 'Here, draw this'. And it comes back drawn better than I could do in my entire life.

But you can be proud that you told them where the boxes went.

I can go 'Looks like you did it!' It's funny. I've got David Mack off in one corner painting DAREDEVIL, Alberto Ponticelli doing SAM & TWITCH, Ashley Wood over here, Mark Bagley on SPIDERMAN over there, all doing whatever nonsense I've thought. And it's all going to be gorgeous. There's not one bad artist in the whole bunch, and it comes out and I go 'Huzzah!'. I love getting the art. I have piles of pencilled pages from everybody.

And that must change the way you can write for those artists.

I found out Alberto loves doing crowd scenes. We're doing all this back-and-forth with the close-ups, and when I gave him this street scene he went nuts. I didn't ask him to, he just decided to draw 400 people. So I had a coven scene, and asked him to draw 500 witches around the fire, and he didn't even complain. Inker bitched like hell. I've learned, and I'm still learning, the art of collaboration. You don't want to stifle people.

People are upset that I'm not doing the panel layouts for SPIDERMAN, but what I'm learning there is to write detailed panel descriptions with the occasional stick figure. And Ashley is such a nice guy he'll paint whatever I say to be polite, but that's not what I want. I want him to be inspired. So I tell him 'If there's a image that pops into your head when you've read this, just paint it, pop up in there, I will make it work'.

And we'll find some words to go with it if necessary.

Exactly. This is a new phase for me, and I don't know how long it's going to last. We've got the new SAM & TWITCH artist, and I was talking to him last night, and holy crap...this is exciting.

It's all exciting at the moment. What's on the horizon for Powers?

I'm so glad people like the first issue of POWERS. It's not even nearly the best issue. Everyone told me what they were expecting, and that's exactly what the second issue is. It's a dense story, plot motivated. It looks great. It's the paper we wanted and the format we wanted. We're pretty excited, we wanted to do a colouring style that wasn't the typical over-colouring job.

Issue 4's going to be a lot of fun for people. It's going to have over 50 cameos by other peoples' characters, literally popping in for one panel. We have some hilarious yet almost poignant cameos. We took a mixture of pretty famous characters from today, and characters you haven't seen in a long time that friends of ours own. And some people, like Joe Quesada, created a brand new character that you'll see in this book and won't mean anything to you, but in two years time he'll have his own book. It's fun.

We have characters that mean a lot to the plot, and for the others it's fun, it's window dressing. There's nothing like having useless information about comic books and nothing to do it. We asked our friends to help out, and after the first issue came out some huge names asked 'Could we put our guy in?'. And we're like 'Yeah, we weren't going to bother you, but...' You can't say no. So, POWERS we're pretty psyched about. To be able to continue the book the way we like was all we wanted, and if the sales continue the way they look, then we've achieved it.

Tell me about DAREDEVIL.

It's one of those gigs. It's worked out really well. Joe Quesada called me and gave me one of those Marvel Knights calls you've heard about. 'I've read your book, and if I brought you to Marvel, what would you do?' And I said DAREDEVIL. And I'm working with one of my best friends in the world.

You're working with a group of people who are your friends.

I've known Mike Oeming and Dave Mack and Marc Andreyko and other people since we broke into comics back at Caliber. These are people I grew up with, who challenge me to do my best. It's a blessing to be able to test how good you are now with them. There's no other person who could have done Powers but Mike Oeming. As far as the Daredevil story goes, it was written specifically for David Mack, for his unique specific talent.

My job as a writer isn't just to go into my bag of tricks. This week I'm working with a whole bunch of uniquely talented artists, and they're all perfect for what we're doing. All I have to do is not fuck up. You're as good as the people you're with.

What's the role of an editor in all this?

I've heard some horror stories from friends in the business, and I'm wary. Thankfully I'm in a position where I'm not really hungry for money. I'm lucky, my first big mainstream comics are for Todd McFarlane, who couldn't be a better boss as far as creative stuff goes. He hires you to do something and lets you do it. I haven't had one editorial meeting about SAM & TWITCH. I'm on issue 18, and Todd is very respectful of the process, because he was and is a writer/artist. And at the same time I'm hearing horror stories from friends about how other people are rewritten before the book sees print, but they don't tell them they rewrote it. Mark Waid is on record as saying this has happened to him. And I'm thinking 'why would they hire you, and then make you like everyone else?' It seems very strange to me.

I held back to see how Joe Quesada would behave with David Mack. And once I saw he was treating him with such respect and kindness, and Paul Jenkins was telling me the same thing, my attitude was 'Alright, if that's the way it is, I'm thrilled'. The meetings I had with Joe went incredibly well. I'm very spoiled. I'm sure I'll bump into the rug somewhere. At the moment it's a lucky streak, if you're King Kong, people won't eff with you. Right now I'm in good hands and very grateful and pleased my decision making process has worked out well. But I'm sure I'll back into something. It's going to happen, and I'll cry and whinge. And then it'll be my turn to listen to someone else going 'Stop whining, it's comics'.

But not for a while I hope. At the same time as developing these new projects, you're still working on an established title like SAM & TWITCH. What's it been like introducing JINX, from your other work, into their world?

It worked out nice. I made a list of stories that I felt were appropriate, and I came up with the idea of the bounty hunter war. The only thing I didn't get across about bounty hunters when I was doing JINX the graphic novel is how annoying they are to the police, and how much like the wild wild west they make the streets of Manhattan and other cities feel.

You've got these renegade guys hunting people for money while cops are trying to do their job. They're very annoying. So the story is about an out-of-control bounty hunter who's decided he's untouchable. And Sam & Twitch need help, so who better than Jinx to take them and the audience through this underworld? Here's a good way to bring her back without repeating myself or pulling a DARK KNIGHT 2 and scaring all the fans.

And SAM & TWITCH is just one of the titles you're writing.

I have an inherent desire not to repeat myself. All these titles give me an opportunity to learn new tricks. There's no way I could do what I'm doing on SAM & TWITCH with SPIDERMAN. I was writing SAM & TWITCH this week and the swear words were just flying about. Eff this, eff that. And I'm thinking 'what's my problem?' And I remembered I'd just been writing SPIDERMAN and I had to hold it in.

I wrote a DAREDEVIL issue and I handed it in to Joe and I said 'The last line of dialogue is the worst line I have ever written, and I just wanted to tell you'. Daredevil is looking at something incredibly awe-inspiring after 22 pages of ass-kicking, and says 'Man, I wish I could swear right now'. I know that's bad writing, but I just wanted him to know that Matt Murdock should say 'Fuck' right now.

He's a good Catholic boy, isn't he?

'Jesus!' That's fine, I understand. The worst thing I did to Joe Quesada, and good lord, what he's done for me in my life. He gives me DAREDEVIL and I spent the next 3 hours going 'Matt Murdock should swear. People swear in real life. Kids don't even read comics. Who do you think's buying these things? 30 year olds. 40 year olds.' And he's sitting there going 'Aha, aha. Take out the damns.'

SAM & TWITCH are foul-mouthed little bastards. They swear all the time. In POWERS, there's 3 swear words, but because of the art style the response is very different. It's weird to me that people still get offended by swear words.

It looks like an animated show so people get uptight. But they're just syllables.

I don't live that life. I'm Jewish, and no one has said an anti-semitic word that bothered me. I've never heard any kind of offensive word that made me go 'that's terrible'. Nothing bothers me. I've been to conventions, you know?

How scary can that be?

I did Pittsburgh and Detroit recently, met lots of new fans. At Pittsburgh they were kind enough to invite me and put us up for the weekend, and the people who run the show were very nice. But the show itself... let's just say the whore to comic book artist ratio was very high.

It makes the naked face of capitalism more apparent.

Absolutely. I love the ladies, and I love anything you can do with a lady, but overall there was something skeevy about it. You have this Hooters booth, and they're not selling any comics, there's no tie in. There's just... hooters.

So there's no marketing synergy involved here?

There was a guy there with a Pamela Anderson comic book, but at least there was a comic book. Hooters was just 'hey, we've got our little tight shorts on'. And then you've got Mike Mignola there, with two guys in line, and the Hooters booth you can't even see because it's swarmed with guys. It bugged me out, because you couldn't bring your kids to the show. It was like being at a porn convention.

There was something bizarre about it. It can't be helping the comics industry. There were tricks there who worked the local strip clubs, put themselves behind a table and were selling straddling pictures for twenty bucks. I'm just going to be more picky about the shows I do. I guess there's just as many boobies at San Diego, but they're spread over more space.

We also had the extra added attraction of the wrestler Mankind. He's this big dude who's famous for slamming people on the head with metal chairs. Saturday, there's this huge line of wrestling fans, holding books to sign and folding metal chairs. This line snaked out of the auditorium, and when the clock hit twelve he was gone. He left hundreds of angry wrestling fans standing there.

And they're not going to be satisfied with your autograph I suspect.

Look over here, there's little Bendis. And they're angry and they're staring at the boobies and it's just weird...I guess I had one of those weekends. My wife was at the show but she doesn't go in, it's how our marriage stays together. And I talked to her and said 'Let's go home'.

You through with conventions then?

I love meeting fans. The people who are fans of my books are really smart and dedicated, because some independent comics are hard to get. I will drive all the way to Pittsburgh or Detroit to put it in their hands. You just wish it was better conditions you were meeting in.

One day...

Right. Can you tell I'm totally full of chocolate? I'm sitting here yacking with you and popping M&Ms.

Which seems as good a point as any to bring the first part of this feature to a close. Get yourself a drink, some candy. Read some Bendis. We'll be back next week with BENDIS: PART TWO.

This is Adrian Reynolds' first contribution to PopImage. [Editor's Note: When I met Bendis in Detroit, he described him as "Fucking Crazy", but in a good way. Here's to hoping this isn't his last contribution.].

Part Two - Now, read the stunning conclusion! With Pictures!
POWERS ONLINE - PopImage Presents the Powers Weekly Comic Strip - Bendis' online home.. - Brian Bendis' Message Boards.