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BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS: PART TWO
An Interview with Brian Michael Bendis by Adrian Reynolds

Brian Michael Bendis is a writer of rare talent. If you're going to compare him to anyone, you'd best look outside the narrow confines of comics to some of the greats of crime fiction. James Ellroy maybe. Or to one of Bendis's own heroes, David Mamet. He shares with them an ability to convey intricately plotted stories through the actions and dialogue of well-depicted and utterly credible characters. Those characters go about their business for reasons more involved than the fact that there are 22 pages to fill, and two fights and a chase before the final twist is reached. There's something much more interesting going on, and that's what I wanted to look at in this second part of the interview.

"It's just a bunch of people. No heroes, no villains, no winners, no losers, just people!" (from JINX)

"The only thing that keeps our tired asses from killing each other over food and shelter, is our ability as a species to look inside ourselves and examine...If you ever hope to evolve...you have got to take the time for some introspection." (from JINX)

"Any asshole can keep their shit together on the good days. But the. shit day? That's when you show your character." (from POWERS 1)

Over the range of Bendis's work, there are themes that crop up time and again. Especially if you read a whole stack of his work (like you'd do if you were going to interview him), you can't help but be struck by a humanism at the heart of his writing. Sure, he writes about people who get involved in some pretty heavy situations and behave unpleasantly to resolve them. But we're talking about writing that's a world away from the hero and villain stereotypes that continue to typify the vast majority of comics published since the medium started.

Talking to a writer about how they write and what it means to them can be a tedious and self-indulgent task. Fortunately, Bendis is as acute on his own processes and concerns as he is about the industry. It's a topic we got on to via talking about his experiences with the internet.

Scott Morse and myself and Jim Mahfood and some other folks have signed up with this company called Thrave. It's just like we did with our comic book careers, you don't wait around for people to hire you, you just make your own comic books and wait for them to come to you, we're going to do the same with our film projects. Instead of waiting around for someone to make JINX, I'll show you what I want it to look like. We'll write and direct it ourselves.

How did that come about?

We were approached by a very intelligent and savvy man of great taste called Reid Gershbein who worked for Pixar, who came to us and said 'I want to put fully animated product on the web, and I want to sell it on home video when it's done'. He's an animator, and his attitude is 'I think the animators should run the company'. There's a lot of this about at the moment, you get some weird offers from internet companies saying 'Here's $2000, we own everything'. I don't think so. But Reid came with a legitimately intelligent offer and I'm psyched to do it. It's a bold new world for me.

Scott Morse posted some of his VOLCANIC REVOLVER material on the web. It's an Italian mob story from the 30s, and it's knock-out. We're getting to a level where we can put material on the web that doesn't look and feel like everything else out there. All my life, this is the kind of behaviour that I've loved. This is the energy that I surround myself with, guys who just want to make their stuff, and never mind what the kids want to see, what the people want to read.

It's the wrong way round.

Exactly. I have a story to tell, and I hope you really like it. I don't see why once you've established yourself in one medium you should suddenly compromise. You see some guys who've made it in comics bend over for the film industry and do all kinds of weird crap they'd never do in comics.

If you play your cards right, the money really isn't that different if you consider the time it takes to do it. Why do people raise their skirts in one medium when they talk about integrity in the other?

But you're happy about it at the minute.

We're at the larva stage with Thrave. All these hi-falutin' words I'm saying now could blow up in my face in six months time.

You're aware of what you're opening yourself to?

It's a bold thing. You get that scary good feeling of something you're not used to, you're being challenged. You should never escape that feeling.

It's that feeling that tells you you're alive.

TIME OUT

Something about what Bendis said there reminded me of a sequence in GOLDFISH, where Bendis uses a quote from Goethe about a kind of power. Not the sort that needs a cape and a mask, but the power we've all got to make choices and commitments:

"...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one's favor all matter of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed could have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it - begin now."

Bold. That's a word that applies well to his attitude. And never mind his hairstyle. Anyway, that got me thinking more generally about the themes of his work. Men getting destroyed by women for instance, a classic noir theme.

Male paranoia is one of them. That's not something I purposely went after, but when you have to turn your stories into one-sentence pitches for film these ideas kind of stand out. It's always some guy that gets put upon, and every woman in the story is a futz to him. Don't think I haven't noticed.

Beyond all the violence and deceit, there's a humanist approach at the heart of what you do.

It's like with Martin Scorsese, everything he works on is a personal movie to him somehow. Even Cape Fear meant something to him. He applied his personal themes to the work. All of my favourite writers and storytellers do this. Not a lot of them do it in comics unless it's directly autobiographical. When I was running round telling everyone the reason I was so excited about writing Spiderman because I am Peter Parker. I'm not joking around. It is easy as hell to write this book because I am him. If you don't like my Peter Parker, you're pretty much saying you don't like me.

It's got to come from somewhere real for you.

All these books aren't about the stories and characters, they're about what was going on with me. I'm not saying I'm a bounty hunter or any of that, but the theme of JINX was 'You find yourself on a road and you don't know how you got there'. And that was a theme that was haunting me at the time, and that's what JINX was about.

A lot of the time you won't even be aware of it.

When I was adapting GOLDFISH for Miramax I had to look at the book again. I never look at things again once they're done. But when you're hired to adapt your own work, I had to crack open a copy of GOLDFISH and see what's up. Thing is, I don't even remember what I wrote there. I know the overall story, but there's like little gags and stuff you don't remember writing because it's just what struck you as funny at the time. And you look at it and laugh, which is the most arrogant thing you can do as a writer.

If you don't enjoy it, what hope has anyone else got?

You're reading it like you've never heard it before, and people think you're nuts. Right in the middle of GOLDFISH there's this big scene with Goldfish and Lauren having this big scene that's so intense it doesn't have artwork. It's just the two of them yelling at each other. And I read it and as I did I started laughing because it has nothing to do with the story. It has to do with the girl that I broke up with. I just laid into her in the pages of this book. It had nothing to do with the comic book. That scene in film script form was 44 pages long, all dialogue. And you know how long it is in the finished draft?

I dread to think. 2 pages?

They walk up. Goldfish goes 'I want my kid'. Lauren goes 'It ain't gonna happen'. And they walk away. In the movie, that would be great. But in the comic, that's who I was then. I'll never go back and change a word. It just goes on and on. Supposedly this couple broke up 10 years ago.

But they're still very bitter.

I can't remember who I dated 10 years ago.

Come on, there's a kid involved.

That's true.

But all of that is in there.

The drawing and the crafting of the story are fun, but it's the overall meaning that matters to me. It might escape some people who just want to read a comic, and that's fine. The overall meaning is what matters. The meaning POWERS has...it's very much what my mind is about right now, and my life. Even though they're genre characters, they're very personal parts of yourself, and what you see in other people. A lot of time in comic book writing there's a lack of dimension to even the best characters in comics. Any kind of other writing it's called contradictory behaviour.

And it's fine, that's what people do.

You - Adrian - don't act the same with me like you do with your mum. Or your friends. You act like a different person, react different in different situations. In one issue of a comic that's very difficult to get across without it looking like bad writing. But over a period of 14 comics you can establish a tapestry of characteristics about a person that makes them three-dimensional. It's a balancing act. There's no right or wrong way of doing it, but that kind of writing is very inspirational to me.

In JINX I was trying to get that across. Here's this character, Jinx. She has to act the tough guy but she doesn't like to act that way. We should see her not liking it, we should see her hating herself for it, because I know a lot of people hate themselves once they open their mouths. And we should see her walking through a room of people and seeing them for what they are, a room without labels.

In JINX, you really see that in the scene in the mall, watching all the people go by. There's a real interest in looking at people, not heroes and villains.

Comics is a pulp genre where you have your heroes and villains, and twists and variations. And when people start screaming that comics might be dead, you go 'No, maybe we've just tapped out that part'. The best superhero comics are those which have gone a step further in the evolution of the storytelling.

They've broken down the iconography and gone for character writing. It makes it more interesting. It's tough to do, to embrace the characters on so many levels and make other people care about it. A lot of the time you're basically showing your ass. You're taking your clothes off in front of people and if they don't like what they see...

Well if they don't like your ass they can go and see some hooters at a con.

Exactly. But even pontificating as we are right now, you're supposed to do all this and be entertaining. People want to read comics.

That's the point to get Zen about it: you just do what you do and people will respond to it as they will.

This is it. The other theme of JINX, which is very important to me is that you've got these characters who are off the path in life that they've chosen. You start at age 20 and you go 'I'm going to be this'. And then you're 30.

'How did I get here?'

'How did I get off the road? In fact, where the fuck is the road?' People don't pay attention to their daily life grind and realise how far off they are. You see these people in relationships with their girlfriends or boyfriends where they're not happy.

The relationship is dictated by hating each other, but it's safe.

This is what you've carved out for yourself. It's odd. And that was very much on my mind at the time, and that's the theme of JINX.

That's something that seems to run through, people are making the best possible decisions they can seem to make for themselves at the moment.

They're trying to redeem themselves.

They are making decisions that are appropriate for them. Even if they end up getting shot a few pages later.

Yes [laughs].

There's a perpetual dance between perception and reality going on in your work.

Yes.

You're interested in deception, which is there at a surface level in the recurrence of card games and capers. And it goes further than that, you get a character like Visa and there are more layers of deception concerning his name and his past, versus the way he portrays himself.

It's just the way I see a lot of things. I have an utter fascination with the art of the grift, someone's ability to trick someone else. It's fascinating to me on one hand, and on the other I'm constantly examining the dark side of someone who would be that kind of person. If someone shows me a way to trick someone out of money...fascinated, I'm utterly fascinated. I love to show other people that stuff, the card tricks and conning. But then again you examine it and go 'what's wrong with you, that you need to trick people?'

There's something about putting that much skill and imagination and willpower into something so trivial.

Seinfeld has a joke about that: 'If the people at Unemployment knew how much effort my friend put into being unemployed, they would give him a raise.'

From my own experience of the British welfare system a few years back, let me tell you how right that is. One of the interesting questions then is about what people choose to do with their time.

The journey is as important as the end. I don't care how long it took you to get to where you need to get, if you got there the way you wanted to.

How conscious are you of that journey yourself? You seem very focused on the career that you're developing and where you're going with that.

That's the version of me I'm selling to the audience. But the me who isn't writing and drawing is...my family is much more important. My wife loves my books as much as I do, and runs the company, so it all ties in together. There's a nice synergy, which is what you want. You don't want 'You going to be drawing all night damn it?' They're intertwined. It is hard to shut off the person who wants to write. I don't know what it's like not to be a person who writes and draws. That's how I've made my living since I was a kid. When I was 18 I said 'All I'm going to do is write and draw for a living. As long as I pay my bills, that's what I'm going to do. As long as I don't have to work at McDonalds any more.'

Was it the McDonalds experience that crystallised that ambition?

[Hoots with laughter] Are you kidding? It's funny. At Pittsburgh, I was sitting across from a guy who I actually worked with at McDonalds, and we were just having the time of our lives. Both of us worked our asses off when we were there. You'll never have to work harder than when you work at McDonalds, covered in shit and making no money and wearing green polyester.

They've got the ultimate grift going, they give you gold stars instead of money.

And a burger. I remember the guy who was running the place when I quit. He put his hand on my shoulder and said 'Brian, you will always have a place here'. And I know it was meant to be nice, but I looked at him like he'd killed my dog. Every time I'm wondering whether I'm doing the right thing, I remember 'There's always room for you at McDonalds...' and get back to writing.

It's a good grounding as well, when you start hearing things like 'I try to cut a deal with DC' or 'I tried to get something going with Paramount'. Well...

I see some of these guys bitching on-line. Everyone's life has got some shit in it. But writing and drawing for a living...don't whine in public. People work in horrible jobs that you would never want to do. Don't whine to your inker 'yadda yadda yadda'. People want to hear behind-the-scenes machinations, but they don't want to hear you bitch. I'm very grateful to be doing what I'm doing, absolutely, but it's not like I'm doing the 'everything is wonderful' press junket. It's just that I won't whine.

How do you trace your development in writing over time?

I know what lessons I've learned that have held well for me once I figured how to apply them. People were reacting better. It's an ongoing arc. I'm not the same writer I was last year or the year before. I don't know why all of a sudden the audience is bigger. All I can tell you is I started riding a bicycle every single day. I get up mid-afternoon, I shower, I ride my bike and I take off for 6 or 7 hours, pick up some food, do errands, ride maybe 70 miles, and by the time I've come home I've got everything all figured out. It's like meditation. No kidding. Right in the middle of GOLDFISH it happened, I became a better writer once I started managing my personal time better. The other factor is meeting my wife, who is maybe the best sounding board in all of comics. A huge fan, who loves reading, and has great ideas. She is so good, that there's not one friend of mine in comics who doesn't give her things to read.

I also have a friend, I talk about him in FORTUNE & GLORY, he has a mutant ability... you can tell I'm writing X-MEN now... to look at the script and see the acts and the arcs and the secondary acts and the secondary arcs. There's a flowchart in his head and he puts all the pieces in and sees what's missing. He knows where to connect the dots. It's amazing. And as long I have these people in my life, I'll never fail. They're there, keeping an eye on me.

Can you see lessons you've learned from screenplays informing the way you approach comics?

Writing GOLDFISH was the most intensive on-the-job training I had. I became enamoured by the 3 Act structure of storytelling. When you're doing comics there really is no need for you to have a structure: there's an inherent one you've been around all your life. You know the beats of the story that are working, you know a twist ending works well, a great opening frame...

It's built-in.

What happened with me was I wrote a couple of things, and then I learned about it, and I wasn't far off with what I was doing with instinct. JINX I let take its natural organic pace, which you can do in a novel, but the animated movie on the web will be a different animal. It's got to keep a story moving. David Mamet wrote a book called '3 Uses of a Knife', short essays about what a dramatist's job is. It's fascinating. And there's a book called 'Story' by Robert McKee, who teaches everyone how to get their shit together. Everyone goes to his seminars, people from comics, film, TV. By the first 40 pages your life has changed, I've lent this book out to everyone I know. You don't want to overlearn it, rules are meant to be broken.

A lot of debate of my writing style is about my dialogue choices that are not standard for comics. I'm like 'Well, if you've read 50 that do it this way, will it kill you to read one that does something else?' I want to see something new. There's a kind of writing style that David Mamet has that comes close to sexually arousing me. Glengarry Glen Ross. Oleanna. I'm crazed by it. Not just him, other people too. And there's value from that which comics can learn from.

This isn't new by the way. Howard Chaykin did it 20 years ago. He'd come into a scene that had already started, usually right in the middle of a sentence, and whatever that opening was, that's usually the most important part of it. But you pass it by. And if you read it again you realise 'He told me on the first page'. I'm writing stuff that costs $2.95 and up so I want you to get a couple of reads out of it. I write it more than twice. I won't be bored, so you won't be bored.

On behalf of PopImage I would once again like to thank Brian for participating in this interview and recommend you check out his site Jinxworld.com. As well as all his titles of course, you can find more about his work at the site. We would like to highlight of course, Bendis' charity work, just follow the link off his site to learn more.


This is Adrian Reynolds' first contribution to PopImage. All characters, titles, images mentioned or shown are copyright and trademark their respective creators.


Part One - Did you miss the first part then? Check out how this wacky thing started.
POWERS ONLINE - PopImage Presents the Powers Weekly Comic Strip
http://www.jinxworld.com - Bendis' online home..
http://www.wfcomics.com/boards/bendis - Brian Bendis' Message Boards.

Discuss this article at the PopImage Forum.