BEHIND MOST “OVERNIGHT SENSATIONS,” you’ll find years worth of work created outside of the spotlight. Brian Michael Bendis’ career has been one of these, as the writer and artist of crime fiction like Fire, Goldish and Jinx, as well as the true crime graphic novel, Torso. More recently, Bendis has distinguished himself as the founder of Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe and one of the architects of its main publishing line, maintaining a unique approach to scripting comics while anchoring some of Marvel’s biggest books, such as New Avengers and Secret Invasion. He’s kept his hand in creator-owned work with Powers, the crime fiction/superhero book he publishes through Mavel’s ICON line with artist Michael Avon Oeming. Bendis has also proven a sharp commentator on popular culture and a witty author of autobiography with books like Fortune & Glory, which was my first exposure to his work.
I caught up with Bendis at Portland’s Stumptown Comics Fest on April 27th, 2008, where we discussed experimentation in mainstream comics, writing video game adaptations of comics and comics adaptations of video games, the themes of his many series, various reactions to his work, and more. And, in two hours of talking, not one mention of Skrulls.
Wright Opinion: To start with, a lot of your pre-Marvel work was very experimental in the art and writing, and it seems that as a superhero writer you’ve brought that with you more than we often see. Do you consider yourself to be an experimental writer?
Brian Michael Bendis: Yes in the sense that we want to try new things. I’m a fan of any kind of storytelling that’s just trying new stuff. Even if you try too hard and fall on your ass, I’d rather do that then not try anything, alright? You think of Howard Chaykin or Matt Wagner, who just has ideas that look almost too big for the page, or sees the page in different shapes than other people do. And that’s what I’ve been inspired by and want to see. And every once in awhile you come up with a real, “Aw, no one’s thought of that!”
And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s more clever just to tell the story more clearly. Sometimes in the exuberance of youth you try stuff where you’re subconsciously trying to cover up something you think is bullshit in the story When I was younger, and this is dating myself, but before computers, a lot of black and white artists used zipatone, which was a sticker that you would put on the art that had black and white patterns, that printed clearly as line art. And a lot of my friends––and maybe a little bit me, too, when I was younger––were using that because the drawing was bad, the drawing was inferior. So you put stickers all over it and it would look better.
And sometimes experimentation, if it doesn’t further the story or help the storytelling, it’s a failure. So I really try to think, “I have this great idea to make everything look like stick figures or tell the story backwards”––I do a lot of time jumps––and I go, “Okay, does that help the story, or am I just being clever to be clever?”
WO: So, why was bringing that experimentation to the superhero work and other genre work important when you made the leap from doing black and white to more mainstream stuff?
BMB: I was very lucky that I got hired off of Torso, which I think is the most experimental, as far as I tried a lot of stuff. And I got hired off of that, and that means that they liked that from me, and they left me alone, particularly on Daredevil, to go nuts. And when they teamed me up with [Mark] Bagley on Spider-Man, it was a conscious decision by Bill Jemas. He said, “Your indie weirdo and his mainstream draftsmanship, right in the middle there, something really spectacular, that’s what I think.” And it ends up, in my opinion, he was right. [Bagley] taught me a lot and I taught him a lot, and he tried things he never got to try before in his whole life, and I was looking like more of a writer than I ever looked like.
WO: So, was Ultimate Spider-Man sort of the perfect crash course book to learn how to do a mainstream title after what you’d done before?
BMB: No, you know what it was, it was just I was bursting with ideas without really a knowledge of how to do them, and he knew how to do them, and right in the middle there was––like, I’ll say that issue thirteen of Ultimate Spider-Man is a one-act play, and there are very few comics. . .
WO: That’s the revealing his identity to Mary Jane issue?
BMB: Yeah. It’s one scene, one setting, it’s a one-act play, you could stage it. And Bagley was never asked to do anything like this. He’d never done anything that didn’t have a fight scene on page seven. And I by issue three knew he was capable of all this. What he does that very few artists can do is subtext. You can actually write, “He’s saying yes, but thinking no,” and see it in his face. It’s very hard to do. Alex Maleev does it, a couple other people, but it’s not easy and I thought, “No one lets him do this shit. Well, maybe he doesn’t want to, who knows?” So I threw it out there for him and everyone goes, “Whoa, look at him!” I’m like, “He could always do it.” He just wasn’t given the opportunity. So that’s what I mean about the mixture.
But my point, rewinding to the question you actually asked, was I hired off of the voice that I was already doing. They said, “Do that. Do that to Daredevil. That’s what we want. We want something new. Knock us out.” And then I did some stuff like that and it worked out, and then from there up to the time I signed exclusive, I was given the freedom. And I’m very lucky, because other people didn’t have that opportunity and I was really given the freedom because Joe [Quesada] and Bill Jemas were digging my stuff and nothing tanked. And really I was coming off a book that sold 2,000 copies. Torso sold 2,000 copies, and they gave me Daredevil, so it was a miracle, really, and I had this good wave of trust that I continued to earn and continue to earn.
And it’s funny, as the books get bigger and I’ll try new stuff like on Avengers, and people who were raised on Avengers feel a certain way or talk a certain way; it’s amazing that I’ll still rile people up with stuff like that. I’ll do like half an issue that’s silent and they’ll be like, “Aaaooowwddd! Don’t do that!”, and I’m sitting there saying, “Ah, that’s what I do. What?” But it just reminds you that every book is someone’s first. Doesn’t matter what you did ten years ago or yesterday. Someone picks it up blind and they’re like, “Hey Mr. Fancy Pants, I just wanted the Thing to beat up the Hulk.” But, you know what I think about a lot, I think about the first Hulk movie, and Ang Lee, who’s an amazing filmmaker, who just thought he’s so smart he’s going to smart up The Hulk, and he added all this pathos and shit about his own father and tried to make it a personal story. And really, the real genius move is to make the most kick-ass Hulk movie ever. Sometimes that’s the smartest thing to do. As intellectual, well-read and whatever your feelings are, sometimes the smartest thing is, “I’m gonna show you the kick-assest thing ever.”
WO: And Ang Lee definitely would have been capable of that.
BMB: Exactly. It’s just that he went another direction. He was trying to justify the payday or something. He took the biggest payday, coming off the Oscar, and you try to justify it. And The Hulk is flawed excellence. There’s really some amazing stuff in there. It’s not a failure, but he was trying to be smarter than The Hulk, and it may be that the smartest thing is just do The Hulk. So I think about that a lot while I’m working on the work. Sometimes I’ll be dancing around a story and I’ll realize that the smartest thing to do is have Iron Man hit Dr. Doom. You can dance around it all day, but once they get in the room, and they hate each other, the hitting happens. There’s nothing smarter to do then that.
WO: Which writing experiments, and also you can go back to your drawing work as well, do you feel have particularly worked, or any that you think maybe didn’t work very well?
BMB: That’s one of those weird questions, where you’ve got to let the work speak for itself. I tend to not like when directors or someone come out and tell you how to think about something or ruin something for you that you might have liked, and I’ve seen that when people go out and go, “Don’t buy my issue of Superman. That one sucked.” And I think, “Really? I liked it.”
WO: Okay. Along those lines, the most recent and most visible experiment you’ve been trying is bringing back the thought balloons in Mighty Avengers. What prompted your thinking on wanting to do that?
BMB: Well, that’s a good question, because I thought about the fact that the language of mainstream comics has changed dramatically. Again, this is a big generalization, but there’s been this seismic shift in the almost complete removal of exposition, where exposition was almost an allowed evil. It’s just bad writing, but it was allowed in ongoing comics, because of the nature of ongoing comics and the way that you needed to get a lot of information into the first two pages of any comic. Peter Parker gets bit by a spider, Aunt May blah blah blah. . . You’ve got to get it out.
Bill Jemas put the recap page in the Ultimate books and said, “Here. Here’s what’s going on, here’s where we are, go.” And then I didn’t have to worry about exposition, which is, oh, it’s a miracle. You can just tell your story straight and it makes a better trade paperback collection and that audience was growing, and still is growing so dramatically.
I also give Warren Ellis a lot of credit, because he was doing it in The Authority before we were doing it in the Ultimate books. Cinematic storytelling, for lack of a better word. The language had changed and this is almost in direct retaliation to the Image language of comics, which was all pin-ups and double-page spreads. This was very sequential storytelling. So, I thought about no more editor notes and no more thought balloons and blah blah blah. Really, you look at thought balloons and it’s the biggest cheat you can do. It’s just telling the audience whatever you want to tell them in the easiest way possible.
|Panel from Mighty Avengers #8|
So, I thought a lot about the removal of these iconic things. I’m thinking, “Do they have to be removed or could they be used differently?” That’s when I though it be cool to use them––especially in a group book––like that scene in Annie Hall, where they’re talking, but you see the subtitles saying something [different]. Wouldn’t it be nice if the thoughts were handled most of the time like little bursts of thought––even as I’m talking you’re having bursts of thought of other things that you’re thinking of that have nothing to do with what I’m saying––and put those in the comic.
I thought about these techniques that are synonymous to comics and I thought about Frank Miller talking about how he spent so much of his time trying to make little movies into his comics and now he’s trying to do the opposite. And every once in awhile I’m writing a pilot or I’m writing a screenplay for somebody and I think about that language and the similarity of the two, but there are also very big differences between the two, and how the differences should be celebrated a little bit more, and I thought, “well, let’s think about the thought balloon and what it could be versus what it turned into. Let’s take the lazy out of it and just talk about what that could be.” So, I tried these bursts, and I knew that some people would be annoyed by it. When you take something, especially in a top ten book, that’s a standardized way of looking at it and change that, there’s going to be a curve. There’s going to be a curve of me getting into it a little bit more, or finding different ways it can be done. And people get used to seeing something in a new way.
WO: You mentioned how appropriate the use of thought balloons is in a team book, since how characters think about each other is going to differ from the face they put on around each other. But what makes it the perfect approach for Might Avengers specifically, so that we see it there, but not in, say, New Avengers?
BMB: New Avengers had an established tone and language. Mighty Avengers needed its own. And this seemed, by nature of the characters, to be the best place to try something like this.
WO: Doing something like the thought balloons opens up––the way that you mentioned that people will be having thoughts about something else entirely while something’s going on––that opens up a whole slew of new decisions that you have to make. How do you decide that this is a moment where somebody could think about something else and this is a moment where it would mess up the flow of the scene?
BMB: I thought about that a lot. Me and Tom [Brevoort], my editor, decided that, literally, one too many and the whole thing sucks, one too little and it loses its oomph. So you really, even to the last lettered version, even the size of the font, it’s picked over and picked over and picked over. And so I think about it a lot. But then I thought, you know what, the same is true of any word balloons or any way one line, one joke in the wrong place deflates the drama you set up for six issues. So, it’s just a more advanced version of the hardship of putting together a book as it is. The challenge of it as it was. And it was a challenge I’m totally not going to run away from. That’s what I want to do.
WO: How far afield does a thought have to be that it doesn’t merit being included?
BMB: Most of that decision is made after I’ve seen it lettered. What happens is it gets lettered up and then they send it to me to pick at it. I’m pretty good at reading it clean. I’m not generally in love with my writing. I’m a picker and I’ll read it and not totally remember everything I wrote, so I’ll read it clean, and if something pops out, you think, “Oh, that doesn’t work at all.” Or I’ll say, “Hey, did I write that? Did someone put that in there?” That’s happened to me, too. “That’s a horrible line of dialogue! What the fuck?” And then I’ll say, “No, I did write that.” I’ll look at my script and say, “Oh, that was me.” It’s instincts, man. You’ve got to trust your instincts and be honest with yourself.
I think about the DVD of Bowfinger. I was working with Frank Oz on Powers a couple years ago and really getting into his stuff, and––you ever see Bowfinger with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy?
WO: Yeah, I’ve seen that.
BMB: Really funny movie, much funnier than people give it credit for, and it’s really got a great edge to it. I watched the deleted scenes, and you know when you watch the deleted scenes on the DVD most of the time you go, “Oh, no you should have taken that out, that was a good call,” but it’s still interesting that they went so far as to film it. Sometimes you put it all together and it just doesn’t work.
WO: You have to see how it edits before you know it doesn’t fit.
BMB: Yeah. So I watched this one scene in Bowfinger that’s a close to perfectly constructed Steve Martin bit of business, where he’s looking for Eddie Murphy’s movie star character. So he goes into the dry cleaners and he says, “How much does it cost to dry clean a shirt?” and they say, “A dollar.” He walks out and walks into a much fancier Beverly Hills dry cleaner and says, “How much is it to dry clean your shirts?” “Five dollars.” He walks into a dry cleaners that looks like a space station and he asks, “How much is is to dry clean your shirts?” and they say, “$35” He goes, “I’m here to pick up Eddie Murphy’s clothes,” and they say, “Here you go,” and he walks out with his clothes. It was so funny, and I thought, “Why did they take that out of the movie?” I watch the commentary and Frank Oz says, “It doesn’t matter how funny it is, that scene slowed down the story. It just doesn’t matter. Anything you do to slow down the story, I don’t care how funny the goddamn joke is, how dramatic you think you’re being, think of the movie.”
That is the lesson that haunts me. Because sometimes you’ll have a great joke and thnk, “Oh, I don’t want to lose my joke, that’s such a funny joke,” but you’re sacrificing a lot to do it, and so with the thought balloons and all that, it’s, “am I sacrificing the joke to do it?”
WO: Another thing that you and several other writers do that gets mixed reception would be the decompression thing.
WO: Of course, I tend to think that “decompression” is a misnomer, because that makes it sound like you actually crammed everything in, but pulled it back out. I tend to think of it as “uncompressed.”
BMB: Honestly, it’s not a word I think of or use.
WO: It was Warren Ellis that coined it, right?
BMB: I don’t think he coined it. I think it just got labeled and someone on the Internet says something and other people just keep repeating it, and sometimes it’s a shortcut to actual thought. I actually saw someone accuse Secret Invasion [#1] of being decompressed and I thought, “Aw, come on, man!”
WO: There are a lot of reveals in that issue. There was new stuff on every page.
BMB: You can not like me, and that’s fine, but a lot of shit happened in Secret Invasion. And your statement there is right on the money. The accusation is of the type that I have a story, it’s only sixteen pages, and I pull it out to twenty-two. The reality is––and this is hilarious––I’ll have a story that’s thirty-two pages long and this is really what I want the issue to be, and I’ll massage it. I’ll never go to twenty-two and snip it off. I say, “No, that’s the ending of my issue, and I’ve got to get this issue together, and I’m going to get it all,” and I massage it all in and I think, “Wow, this issue is packed. I have packed the shit out of this.” And then the issue comes out and they go, “Decompressed,” and I think, “Aw, come on!”
WO: Is it that some people consider only the moments where people are hitting each other to be the moments that can be considered something happening?
|New Avengers #38, page 1.
Click for full-size image.
BMB: It’s a few things. Number one, I’m of the philosophy that character is plot. Physical confrontation is not plot. And I’ve seen where I’ll have an issue that’s almost entirely a fight scene and I’ll think, “Wow, a lot happened!” and then I realize, “No, actually, not that much happened.” Whereas, if Luke [Cage] and Jessica [Jones] break up, to me that’s, “Wow, look what happened!” So it’s a matter of taste on some level.
I mean, my feeling is we’ve seen every plot device, we’ve seen every twist, we’ve seen every shockaroo, but what we haven’t seen is every conversation, every interaction of the human condition. And that to me is, and though I said before the fight scene is sometimes the way to go––and when I do it I try to give you something really original or surprising––but what I end up being the most proud of, end of the day, is the quieter moments. And this is where the decompression label sometimes comes on. I will not shy away from the moment of characters reacting to something, because I think that gives everything context.
The label is usually a criticism and certainly it’s something you want to think about. And then sometimes they say, “Ah, it’s decompressed. But, boy, that was really emotional.” And really all I cared about was the emotion. Sometimes you need a couple pages to get the real emotion out of it.
WO: Right. And that’s what I want to ask you about. You mentioned the moments, and obviously in a film, if you want a character to react to something for ten seconds, you shoot them for ten seconds. In comics you really have to manipulate how time is perceived and, ironically, sometimes when you’re depicting a moment that takes longer, it can sometimes be easier to read it faster. How do you find the balance when you’re managing time like that?
BMB: Well, I think about that a lot, too. You learn that there are a lot of tricks to control pacing, but you have no control over time. You have no control over how fast someone reads it or how slow someone reads it, and you have no control over the space in between panels. It’s not a movie, it’s not continuous. And also you have no control over the voice of the characters. I try to give every character a voice, but people cast their own characters. A lot of people reading X-Men have Patrick Stewart’s voice in their head while they’re reading Xavier, even if you don’t. So you have no control over it. You just write what you think is the legitimate voice of it, but really that space in between panels, that’s where the audience, and I as a reader, and you as a reader, have almost total control over the style of storytelling that’s being told, and that’s very true.
So, I think about how you don’t have any control over the time, but you do have a control over the information that you give. And sometimes people won’t do the reaction shot, but I will. I’ll take the moment to have characters go, “Ouhhh,” because sometimes that’s it, that’s the whole thing.
WO: With sort of a couple months to look back now, what are your thoughts at the moment to the reaction to New Avengers #35, the issue with the attack on Tigra. That came in the middle of this sort of feminist moment of concern over several mainstream comics. . .
BMB: Well, I can only speak for my own work and I understand that something can be perceived through things that you bought around it, but I’m unaware most of the time of what’s going on like that or when they’re shipping. Sometimes that’s just a convergence of shipping dates.
WO: Well, yeah, but I also remember that specifically did get some attention. You were interviewed about it at the time.
BMB: Yeah, well, it was the number one book that month, not to be braggy, but large audience, something like that happened. . . Here’s what the story really was about: This new villain, showing a level of ingenuity and savagery that we haven’t seen before, particularly in that book, and going after a character that’s part of the Initiative. The reason Tigra was chosen, if you’ll remember, she was kind of a double agent during the Initiative, and once a war is over, if you know your spy stories, the double agents are usually the ones that drink themselves to death. Now they have no friends. No one trusts you, you’re a double agent, now you have no friends. And that’s kind of where she was, so she was in a perfect position.
That’s why she was picked, not because she’s a girl, or I hate furries, and the savagery of the beating wasn’t against women, it was for the Hood to show his new group, “Stick with me, this is where we’re going.” But, the finale of that storyline, which was a couple months later, was Tigra beating the holy shit out of him, setting him up to get his ass kicked, and then joining in the ass kicking just at the moment to turn the tide, which made her the big hero of the story.
Now, the problem is that when criticism like that comes out, I can’t now go online and say, “In the annual in two months, you’re going to be thrilled because she beats the holy shit out him.” Because I’m trying to surprise you and tell the story and I shouldn’t be defending myself, I should be just letting the story speak for itself, and that’s what I did.
Also, my other comment there is, well, Daredevil got beat up every issue. Does that mean I’m anti-Catholic? I mean, when the male characters are beat up, it’s okay? I always feel like it’s reverse-sexism or something, like the female characters aren’t allowed to get their ass beat. I mean, Spider-Man just got his ass beat in the last issue of Spider-Man just as bad. So, I don’t think of it in sexual terms. I just don’t. There wasn’t anything sexual to it, except that her costume happens to be a bikini. That wasn’t why she was chosen. The bikini never ripped off her body and they never raped her or did anything like that. They beat her up. It was very business like. It was in fact that coldness of it that I think was what disturbed people.
WO: And when I read the scene, I definitely don’t see any intent in there, but. . .
BMB: Well, I posted the script. That’s what I did. I didn’t ruin the end. I posted the script as written, because I thought that’s all I can do. I’m not going to ruin the end of my story because I got a couple people concerned on the Internet. And also I feel bad, because I saw a couple people online who are just looking for it everywhere they go, and I totally see where they’re coming from, and there’s a lot of sexualized female work in comics, because sure, mainstream comics can be a big sausage fest of creators and we’re all alone in our basement all horned up, and I’m not saying that there isn’t that cheesecake element of it that can get there, it’s just not part of my work.
And even when I was working with Frank Cho, I specifically wrote straight, because I knew he was going to cheesecake. If I wrote toward the cheesecake, you know what I mean, who knows what will happen? I don’t know how far it will go.
WO: I do feel like I remember there were a few times when you were talking about [Mighty Avengers], there were some quotes where you would emphasize that as a selling point a little bit, weren’t there?
BMB: Well, no, because I actually think it’s a phenomenal style. I was a big Dave Stephens fan, I’m not against it. I’m a big Milo Manara fan. When done well, it’s fantastic. Like everything, when it’s done badly, it’s horrible. So I’m not against cheesecake and sexuality, obviously, in any form, and while I don’t shy away from the subject matter, both overtly and subtextually, but that is not what that Tigra scene is about. That’s all I wanted to show. I was surprised by the reaction, to be honest with you. I was like, “Really? Ah, okay.”
WO: On the Tigra scene, as I was saying, I definitely in reading your script saw no intent for that sort of thing, but what I would say that I did notice is that she’s hit a couple times in the face and that somehow causes her shirt to fly open, and she’s screaming in a way that I don’t imagine, say, Daredevil doing if he were attacked.
BMB: Maybe, but that’s that character versus the other character.
WO: Fair enough.
BMB: I won’t shy away from that. That’s exactly what happened. And again, I’m more selling the terror of the Hood than I am trying to sexually bash a cartoon character.
WO: Yeah, and a lot of it did seem like it was within a context, and you say that you’re not particularly aware of or looking at that context so much. . .
BMB: I wasn’t going for it, and I didn’t see it myself, when it was drawn. The pulling of the bikini wasn’t anything but the same thing that would happen if Spider-Man’s costume gets ripped every time he gets in any fight. Dr. Doom rips Spider-Man’s costume while they’re fighting, I don’t go, “Ooh, he’s showing a nipple.” It’s honestly where I was coming from. I don’t see anything but physics.
WO: Okay, but do you feel that the context should inform a reader, or should books just be looked at on their own?
BMB: Nah, like I said before, I can see why it was lumped in, but I’m just saying that that’s not where I was going, and my only response was, “Here, this is what I wrote.” I totally get it, man, but it seems to happen every once in awhile, you go to the movies and every movie is just, euuww. There’s too many horror movies or whatever, but meanwhile they were all made individually. It’s not like someone said, “Hey, let’s make five. . .”
WO: So, it’s not just in the water, you don’t think? It’s just a couple of individual things that happen to come out at the same time?
BMB: Yeah. Look, I’m in the room with these guys, and it’s a bunch of guys, you know what I mean? Yeah, that’s not what’s going on. Listen, I have a wife and a daughter and I was raised by my mom as a single parent. I have a lot of women in my life and sometimes I’m the only guy in the room. It’s not where my mind’s at, so I can’t speak for anyone but myself, and if I was in a room with everyone and it was getting weird, I wouldn’t be in the room.
WO: The scene also reads to me as a part of your larger theme that you like to look at how people react on their worst day. In the first issue of Powers, Walker has a speech about, “How you deal with things on the shit day shows what you’re made of,” and I think in the “Clone Saga,” Peter Parker has a very similar speech.
BMB: I guess so, yeah.
WO: So, is that one of your favorite themes that you like to return to?
BMB: It’s one of the themes. Alvin Sargent’s a screenwriter who literally said the best way to construct your story is take your character and whatever the worst thing that could happen in the scene to the character, do that. Alvin Sargent wrote Spider-Man 2. When you think about the scene where Peter’s taking photographs at the party, and Harry slaps him right in front of everybody, then MJ gets engaged and he has to take a picture of it, and even he can’t get a drink and he can’t get the food, every moment is he can’t have whatever he wants. And it just builds and builds and builds, and that was almost a perfect scene, where it’s just a pile on.
And, so yeah, you push them against the wall. This goes back to my time as a pure crime writer. That’s what one of the rules of crime fiction is. You take the character, you shove them up against the wall. You pick them up by the collar, and you shove them into a corner, what are they going to do now? And that’s almost every scene in crime fiction, a version of that. And so I’ve taken that from Daredevil on. You pick up Daredevil, you pull off his mask, and you throw him down, now what are you going to do? That’s it.
WO: Right. And so does that, for you, come from working in crime fiction, or is that part of the reason that working in crime fiction appealed to you in the first place?
BMB: Probably both. Probably both. When you find out the rules of crime fiction, and you realize how appealing they are to you, that’s why aesthetically you love them so much. You find out, “Oh, the city is an equal part of the story.” It’s an actual lead character, the city. These things, these excite me. Don’t be afraid of the shadows, be afraid of the light. These things have carried me throughout my entire adult life. So, yes, I apply them directly to the mainstream work as well.
WO: What are some other themes of yours that you feel like you’ve sort of brought up again and again, or have tried to work in?
BMB: You definitely can’t help but have the ongoing, “What is a hero?” What is a hero in this society, what would the society allow to be as a hero? As soon as someone is labeled “good,” half the people want to do something to prove that that’s not true, because they’re desperate to prove that there’s no good in the world. It’s ongoing, very attractive to me, the media saturated celebrity culture that we live in. These things feed me tremendously.
WO: So, where does the superheroes as celebrity metaphor come in? What was the thought process that got that started?
BMB: Probably Watchmen. You’ve got to remember, me and my peers were all kids of the ‘80s, so we’re all kids of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, Batman:Year One, Born Again, and the movie Network. I’ll say probably Paddy Chayefsky is the thing that drives me the most down this road. You watch Network today and it almost all happened, and that’s amazing, because it seems so crazy. It was so funny, but now you watch it and think, “That’s really right on the nose.” And just think about if we had superheroes, how we would treat them. In this world, not Stan Lee’s world. He started it. Stan started it, that was a Stan Lee thing, but this world is much more, bash ‘em over the head until they’re dead and even when they’re dead, take pictures of it.
WO: We don’t like people to be better than us.
BMB: No, we say, “You’re better than us. Fuck you!” We announce it, and then say, “Fuck you.” It’s true about a lot of things. But the flip side of it is something Bill Jemas said about Ultimate Spider-Man: the key to the magic of comics is if you were walking down the street and Spider-Man swung by, that would fucking blow your mind. You would need to lie down. That would be it for you,that would be the end of you day. That would be the craziest thing you ever saw. And that shock and awe of it, that dazzle of superhero comics, shouldn’t be taken for granted, it should be celebrated and it should never get old. So we put that back in. In the ‘90s it was all “Rrraaaahhh, who cares? Blah blah blah.” You were trying to be too cool. I see it the other way. I say, imagine the world, Superman flew by, you would crap your pants. That would be it. The flip side of the stronger the hero is how much would that affect your life.
WO: So, as far as themes in Ultimate Spider-Man, in the first hundred issues you did a lot again and again with people who were genetically altered or had somehow enhanced themselves, and it sort of played out each time that that was a bad idea. Spider-Man is this incredible, one-in-a-million thing he didn’t even want to happen, and then everyone else tries to recreate it to disastrous consequences. And the “Clone Saga” seemed the culmination of that. Was that sort of a hundred issue long arc and then you’ll be moving on?
BMB: It’s about responsibility. The whole book’s about responsibility. And genetic power is genetic responsibility. It feeds in every aspect of it. But yeah, every time it was a bad idea, but gee, it did make Spider-Man or it did make Captain America, so it’s not impossible that it would happen, and you can see why they would keep trying and keep trying and make mistakes. Not unlike if you follow the secret history of a lot of sciences and the mistakes that were made before we got something good.
It’s gross, but how many scientific breakthroughs there were from the human experimentation the Nazis did on Jews during World War II. Believe me, I don’t approve of that. I’m just saying that it did happen, that it’s not impossible to see a version of the fantastical story that we’re telling. You can’t imagine that somewhere Google doesn’t have a secret laboratory where they’re implanting Google into people’s heads to see if it drives them nuts or not.
WO: One thing that you’d said was going to happen was that in the hundredth issue Peter would have a birthday, and that he’d age a year every hundred issues. That obviously got pushed back.
WO: Is he going to at some point have a birthday?
BMB: I would like to. I would still like to get him up to sixteen, because I thinks it’s a more responsible age. I don’t know, it’s just there’s something about sixteen. It’s not eighteen, but you can drive, society’s on the fence whether you go to jail in an adult prison or juvie.
WO: You’ve always talked about how important research is, and doing things like ride-alongs in your crime fiction days. I remember you mentioning in an interview researching cloning for the “Clone Saga,” which is obviously a very different kind of research. Now that most of the stories you tell are of a more fantastical bent than your early work, and tied to a specific continuity, how has that changed the research you do?
BMB: It’s fantastical, but it all has a basis in something. There’s something people know is true. Whether it be a science or an emotion. Even my alien stuff has been fully researched. The book Alien Agenda by Jim Marrs had a huge influence on Powers and Secret Invasion.
WO: Powers was one that seemed to start out pretty straightforward, it did what it said on the box, and now as it’s grown, you’ve expanded the world, made it a lot bigger, and now had consecutive storylines where, in one, there’s an alien abduction scene, and in the next, the villain turns out to essentially be Satan, which are pretty diverse concepts. Is Powers the sort of broad, umbrella concept at this point that you feel like you can fit in whatever’s interesting you at the moment?
BMB: No, the worst idea for a book like Powers, and there’ve been a lot of Powers knockoff books over the last few years, which is flattering, but the disaster of it would be to do the beats, again and again and again, repeat them. And that’s what C.S.I. is, and Law & Order, it’s just the same beats, even with different characters and colorful things, it’s the same structure every single time. That would be a disaster for Powers, a disaster. It would be gone. There are a lot of indie books that last ten issues, no matter who’s on them or what’s going on.
Not only do we have the platform in which to build a mythology and the ideas into the series, but because it’s our book, nobody own it, the rules of some continuing comics are thrown out the window. I could kill Christian Walker, I absolutely can. I can’t kill Spider-Man. I can’t do it, you know what I mean? Then you kind of get horny for that, “I can fucking do anything!” So, conceptually, you think, “Walker versus Satan. That’s a good story.”
And, yeah, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You genuinely don’t. I know what’s going to happen next, but the reader shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. The most jaded, movie nerd reader in the world shouldn’t know what’s going to happen next. And that’s mostly what our audience is. Our audience is pretty hardcore savvy about two genres: crime and superheroes. They’ve seen a lot of shit, and they’re coming to Powers for something else. So I’m very aware of that. It’s actually what I want to sell, and it’s what they want to buy, so we’re in a good place with that. I wish we could get out sooner, with our schedule thing, but that’s life.
WO: How do you imagine a lot of these elements coexisting? Is it, you can do whatever you want in Powers, so you do?
BMB: No, there’s a logic. There’s an absolute logic to it, and we’ve followed that logic pretty carefully. It’s got to have a reason to it in the mythology, and once we set that up in “Forever,” flat out showed our cards, it does open questions up and give answers. There was nothing more exciting than when I told Mike [Oeming] that, “Hey, just so you know, Walker’s getting his powers back, Deena’s going to have powers and she’s going down the rabbit hole, and he’s going to ascend.” And no one reading the first issue of this would have seen that.
And right now we’re in that, like when Larry Sanders in their third season––you ever seen Larry Sanders?––the third season Larry Sanders became a drug addict. The whole season they did this, and it was still funny and it was dark, and you were legitimately scared. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next episode. This is uncharted sitcom territory.” You want to be that. Not just for shock value, but for genuine entertainment value.
WO: So, you definitely have got it figured out in your head how, for instance, alien abduction and Satan, all of that coexists?
WO: Are you able to shed any light on that without giving anything away?
BMB: Well, some of it is, you’ve got to remember, this is always saying that this is what life is like for a cop in a superhero world, and in a superhero world we do have Mephisto and Kree, you do have these things as part of the landscape.
WO: So, there’s the layer on which Powers is the metaphor for how this would be in real life, but there’s also another level where it incorporates everything we know about the superhero genre as well?
BMB: Crime story, superhero landscape. We stay down here, keep our feet on the ground. But it’s all there. And we dropped a lot of hints in that first arc. There’s a lot of talk of shit that’s gone down.
WO: All the Retro Girl, reincarnation and so forth.
BMB: Yeah. Exactly.
WO: You seem really good at sort of knowing when stories are over. How did you figure out that Jessica Jones had more story to be told, but Alias was done?
BMB: It was weird. I didn’t figure it out; it just happened, and then when I wrote it, I thought, “This is weird.” I actually had never had that feeling before. With Jinx, I knew the ending and said, “Okay, that’s the end of Jinx, and that’s the end of Goldfish,” and they were contained stories a la a movie or a play, but with Alias it crept up on me. I got to the end and the characters are kind of writing themselves, and well, she came out of that, she’s good. She figured it out, and Luke and Jessica had their moment and you say, “Oh, well, I think I’m done.”
WO: Right, and that leaves you in this interesting place of, “I still want to know what happens to her next, but this thematically feels fulfilled.”
BMB: Well, that was the conversation. I called Joe Quesada and I said, “This is weird. I think I’m done.” And he says, “Well, y’know, it’s a very strong female creation of modern Marvel. Don’t throw her out. And also, we do want an investigative book in the Marvel Universe, like a C.S.I.” So he says, “Think about maybe teaming her up with Ben Urich or something.” And I said, “Let me think about that. Maybe she gets a new job,” and her and Jonah had already had this relationship that I liked and about a week later I said, “Hey, I think I got something.”
And from there, I found that, though the story of Alias was done, I did want to see Luke and Jessica make it. And then I became––I’m remembering something––I became very aware that I was in very excellent relationship with my wife, and I still am. I was just very, very proud of my relationship with my wife, but every relationship I was writing was disastrous. And of course that has to do writing the worst day of anyone’s life, your girlfriend breaks up with you. So then I started thinking, “Am I not capable of writing the relationship I actually am in? Am I scared of it?” And so I said, “You know what, I’m going to write a book about Luke and Jessica, and I want Luke and Jessica to have the baby.” My wife was pregnant and I was going through all those feelings. I wanted to represent that.
At the time [Jim] Valentino wanted me to actually write a book about being a dad. He was coming by the house, he was hearing me spinning my yarns. He says, “You know what, this could be a graphic novel.” And I’m like, “Nah, it’s too Bill Cosby: ‘Y’know, I know everything about being a dad.’” So I passed on that, but he was right that I should use this material. I should use that feeling of new fatherhood and not waste it. So that’s how I knew to keep going. And the fact that they ended up crawling into New Avengers, and now Jessica is the star of the number two book in the country––Luke and Jessica breaking up was the number two book last month––was hilarious to me. With Gaydos drawing. Alias barely hit the top seventy, because it was MAX and rated “R” and that’s how it is, but there was something exceptionally sweet about seeing an issue of Alias up there. That was pretty cool.
WO: So, following Alias, The Pulse was really stylistically and thematically very different, and I think it lasted about half the length of Alias. . .
BMB: Well, it was supposed to keep going. It was actually in a very good place sales-wise. It wasn’t a top ten book, but it was solid as a rock, and I left––Why did I leave? I left for something, probably Avengers, so well, something’s got to go.
WO: So it was just a casualty of your schedule?
BMB: Yeah, it was a casualty of schedule, and they said, “Oh, no, no. [Paul] Jenkins wants it.” I said, “Oh, great. Okay, cool. That’ll be cool.” And also I was of the mindset, as I’ve been about other people’s work, that if Jessica’s really going to survive, other writers have to start writing her, but I wasn’t going to force that, but if someone wants to, like Alan Heinberg, who said, “Hey, can I use Jessica in Young Avengers?” I’m like, “Oh, please.”
WO: I forgot she was in that.
BMB: And I felt the same way about The Sentry and Echo and the Hood. It was all these new characters, and no one else is writing them except for the person who created them, and then they die away, because they need screen time to really connect.
WO: So where else has Jessica shown up? I know she was in Marvel Knights 4.
BMB: Quite a few places, but Young Avengers was the biggest thing she’s done. He wanted her to train them, and I thought, “That’s funny.” And he told me why, and I said, “Yeah, that’s cool. I never would have gone there.” I know when Alan brings back Young Avengers that she’ll be part of it still. We just talked about it last night, actually. I forget what you asked.
WO: The Pulse.
BMB: Oh, yeah. So, The Pulse actually, they turned into Frontline. They said, “Oh, but The Pulse will turn into this reaction to House of M or reaction to Civil War book.” And they say, “The newspaper part actually changes into Frontline.”
WO: Kind of what you did with the “Secret War” arc of The Pulse.
BMB: Yeah. Yeah, they liked that a lot. It was a great way to accentuate the experience of it and [Paul] decided he didn’t want to do Jessica. He wanted to do these other characters, so they turned it into Frontline. So Frontline is The Pulse.
WO: Okay. Interesting.
BMB: Because it would have been weird to have The Pulse, and The Pulse is not talking about the biggest event, but this other book is, but it’s the same book.
WO: On a related note to all of that, you generally seem very savvy in figuring out, in addition to telling your own story and making your own story work, also what will serve the characters, even beyond your tenure on the book, and how to promote these things. Is it something that––
BMB: What do you mean? An example.
WO: When you talk about Daredevil, that “I would have ended it differently if I didn’t know the writer who was following it up, because I needed to do the best thing for the next writer, and for Marvel,” and so forth. So I was wondering, is that sort of business savviness the result of having done your own promotion and editing for so long before working with Marvel?
BMB: No, it’s not so much savvy as. . . Aaron Sorkin is probably one of my favorite writers of all time. You ever see his last episode of West Wing?
WO: Yeah, the “screen goes white” thing.
BMB: The president’s daughter’s kidnapped, he steps down, the [Speaker of the House] is in charge, blah blah, here comes John Goodman, everyone’s fucking, and he really made this colossal mess for the next writer, that they literally took a whole season, they could not get themselves out. They could not figure out what the fuck to do.
WO: What’s interesting is, I actually heard him talk about that on the commentary and he actually claimed that was the nicer thing to, rather than tie up and have them look at a blank piece of paper.
BMB: No, I’m telling you subconsciously it’s obnoxious.
WO: I mean in his case.
BMB: I loved it. I was laughing the entire time. It’s almost like, “See you later, fuckos!” So I wanted to make the work matter. I mean, you see people online sometimes talk about the ongoing-ness, the pluses and minuses of the continuous saga. How do you write stuff that stays? And knowing Ed [Brubaker] was there––I just didn’t want with the next writer, I write them in to a hole and the next writer goes, “Whoa-oh, it was all a dream.” That’s what you don’t want. You don’t want your work not to matter immediately.
So Ed’s my friend, and been my friend since our Caliber days and it was his big “coming to Marvel” book, and everyone who knew Ed was saying, “Why isn’t Ed the biggest writer in comics?” He’s by far one of the best. Why wasn’t he connecting at DC like he did at Marvel? And I just wanted to set him up good, so not only do I get to end strong, he gets to start strong where he wanted to start, in the hole, because he’s a crime writer, too. So, it wasn’t so much savvy as just us using our superpowers the best way we could.
WO: I also feel like you’ve done a really effective job with either revitalizing older characters or older franchises.
BMB: But that’s not so much savvy as I really do like those characters and I have a passion for them. Any writer in the world, if it’s something you really love, it would be very easy to get that love across in the writing. It would be very easy to express that to the reader, and really I’ve found that’s all a reader wants . “Show me a good time, show me something cool, and mean it. Just mean it. Be genuine.” So I’ve picked characters I’ve felt like I could genuinely do that with, and some of them are very popular, like Wolverine and Spider-Man, and some of them are. . . I’ll never forget when I wanted to do Spider-Woman as a series years ago and Jemas said, “No one likes her but you. If you want to, fine. Nobody cares.” So then I say “I do care.” And so now my feeling is, well, maybe I can express why I care. Maybe I can show you why I care. And that’s interesting.
And every writer in the history of comics has done that. When they’re on their “A” game, that’s what they’re doing. When Miller was on Daredevil, he loved Daredevil. That’s why it all worked. Alan Moore and Swamp Thing. If you can make me care about a big lump of moss, you give a shit, you care. You can’t fake it. People can smell the fake down the street, too. I’ve seen some of my peers take books I know they wouldn’t buy. They’re taking it because it’s a gig. I don’t begrudge anybody taking a job to work, but it is then up to you to make that something you would buy and something you love, and they don’t, and they bitch about it the whole time, or they’re fighting with the artist the whole time, and then the book comes out and, though there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not connecting. Because the audience can tell. They know, they smell you don’t care. Even people who can’t stand my fucking head, I know they know I care. They know I’m not lazy. They know I earned my balls to get here. Now there’s answers to ten more questions you didn’t ask.
WO: So, some of things, where you do think about what the next writer’s going to have to go through, and where you do think about, “How do you make a character live on?” by using other people’s characters or spreading your character around, do you think those sorts of considerations, when people ask you if you intend to edit, do you think some of those considerations are the reason why people ask that, or why people wonder about that?
BMB: Oh, no, no, that’s different. The reason I would never be an editor is a couple things. “A” is it’s a different skill set. If you saw my unedited scripts, you would see that I completely would not have the ability to do that job. I think an editor should know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and “their” and “they’re,” so right there I would not get that job.
WO: Do you think that these sorts of considerations are why people ask if you’re going to do it?
BMB: They ask because people know that they bring me in for editorial stuff, that I’m included in the decision-making process. Me and Jeph Loeb and Ed and a couple other guys are, and have been for a few years. So they know that my relationship with Marvel has editorial in it, and the reason is because I’m a publisher. I mean, when they hired me to write, they actually liked how I was publishing as well, so they wanted the whole brain, though that brain does not include any of the skill sets of an editor, which includes paperwork, spelling and grammatical ability.
And also, I would fire everybody. I would. When people get annoyed about late books and superstar artists who can’t get their shit together, nothing annoys me more. It drives me up the fucking wall, and I don’t care how many books you’re selling, you’re out. You get the book in or you’re gone. And I would also make them––I would buy a McDonald’s franchise that’s sole purpose is to make artists that forgot what it’s like to have a real job, to make them work there for a week, remind them how shitty it is, and then watch them get back to work and never be late again. So, that’s why I’m not an editor, because you have to be much more savvy than that to actually do it.
BMB: But, put me in a room with Jeph Loeb and Joe and all those guys and we shoot story and come up with shit, absolutely, I love doing it, I love that they love me doing it, even though we sometimes terrorize each other while we’re in the room. Nothing feels more like, “Wow, I’m really doing something that’s going to stay,” you know what I mean? And you get in a room and all anyone’s talking about is story and not marketing and not market share, it’s all about story and character; nothing better. That part I love doing and that part they have me doing. So, really I shouldn’t do anything else.
WO: As far as the Daredevil ending with Ed Brubaker, did you have another ending in mind if it wasn’t going to be Ed, or did you not even have to think about that?
BMB: Yeah, I knew it was going to be Ed eight months before I got to it, so it wasn’t something I had to think about.
WO: That’s too bad. I was hoping I could get the exclusive alternate ending.
BMB: Yeah, no, you know what, you sometimes get an ending in your head and you try to, by sheer force of will, just make it happen one way or another. But when Ed signed on, I thought, “Oh, I can do my ending.” I say, “The ending of the story is he goes to jail,” and he says, “Well, I’d do that.” So maybe I subliminally sold it as he was excited to get the gig. I won’t say it wasn’t a tad manipulative, but he did want to do it and had a big story to tell. I didn’t know he was going to throw Mila in the nuthouse. I would have voted against that, but y’know. . .
WO: On your video game work, you’ve done both sides of that street now, where you’ve written the Ultimate Spider-Man game and also are now adapting Halo into comics.
BMB: And I’ll give you an exclusive. I was briefly one of the executive producers of the Marvel MMO that fell apart. There you go.
WO: How is writing for video games different?
BMB: Oh, I had a sweet deal, because I literally was surrounded by people who adored the comic book. Brian Reed, who was one of the producers, loved the comic book. They immediately bee-lined to hire me and Bagley, which if I was doing the job is exactly what I would do. So I’m surrounded by like-minded people, and they said, “We just want to do well by the book.”
So it was a big love-fest and we had a great time, and they let me be there for the voice acting, so I got to help direct the voices, like I did on the Spider-Man CGI cartoon. It was a great experience, but I was very aware that I was having a great experience where others may not have. Like I was definitely riding a wave of good natured will toward me and the work.
WO: On the literal writing side of it, there obviously would be requirements of it that are different. How was it planning moments and things rather than writing a more linear story?
BMB: Yeah. Well, first of all, there are limitations, because you’re writing toward the mechanics of what the game can do well, and what characters we’re allowed to use. So, when we found out we could use Wolverine and Venom, you want to have Wolverine beat up Venom just because that’s a great boss level. Any video game brain says that. You don’t not do that, you do that. It’s back to what I was saying, that’s the smartest idea, no one’s done that before. We’re doing it. When I’m adapting the story into comic book form, that scene’s not in there. It doesn’t further the story at all, but yeah.
So you write a story that is fun and like the comic book, but for the game engine. And it’s funny, because like you can’t use Doctor Octopus, because they didn’t have the mechanics of it, so there’re things you can’t do, and you just write the things you can do. And then you’ve got to write the ten different lines of, “My eye!” “Oh, my God!” or “What did––?!” Brian wrote those. There was an ongoing bit of “I ain’t taking no shit from Galactus,” or whatever it was when you hit the street. All the street dialogue we wrote ourselves. They told us we could hire out, but we wrote it all ourselves, because we just thought it was the least we could do to actually write the words people are saying.
And also the actual engineers of the game write scenes as well and tell us, “Well, this is what we can do. Give us five lines.”
WO: So you end up writing a lot of isolated bits of dialogue. Depending on whether the player goes down that street or that street, they’ll see that one and not that one.
BMB: Yeah. If I did it again, would I? Not sure. I might just read what someone else did and pepper it up and approve it. It was a lot of work. But literally I remember even, they’d say, “We want ten versions of ‘Ow’.” You write six and you say, “I’m out. I can’t think of another way to say this.” And I think, “Really, you don’t have this left over from the other Spider-Man games?” There’s not a pile of dialogue sitting around somewhere?
WO: So, as far as going the other way then, when you adapt Halo into comics, have you and Alex Maleev sort of isolated what are video game aesthetics, things that you know make something look video-gamey and tried to incorporate that?
BMB: No, in that instance the video game is the ultimate Master Chief experience, the physical one. You are Master Chief, you are shooting the aliens, it’s a very visceral storyline, a very visceral experience. So, to try to match that or one-up it, huge mistake. What you want to do is what you can only do in the comic, which is subtextual and backstory, and open the world of Halo up. I mean there’s a great mythology to it. The Halo guys actually gave us a chunk of mythology and said, “You can do this.” They gave me Cleveland, because I’m from Cleveland. They said, “Here, you’re doing New Cleveland and you have to get Master Chief from the end of Halo 2 and here is”––literally, they gave me the ending––“here is where Master Chief is at the beginning of Halo 3, so here’s your beginning and here’s your ending. Fill in.” And that was kind of cool.
WO: So it bridges the games.
BMB: Yeah. I was like, “Oh, coming up with the ending’s always the hardest part. All I have to do is get him here. That’s an interesting bit of business.” So, I also wanted to show the mythology from a non-Spartan point of view that’s been in some of the novels and such. And they did it in the graphic novel, I think. Moebius did the best one, where here’s what the world is. So we took it from there. Now, has the approval process been punishing? Yes. It’s just insane. But harder on Alex than me. But it will come out eventually.
WO: Scott McCloud said this was a really stupid question about comics fifteen years ago, but I’m going to ask it about video games anyway. Can video games be art?
BMB: Oh, yeah, they are. Absolutely they are.
WO: How do they function similarly or differently from other art?
BMB: But like most things, it’s up to the individuals who are making them to decide that they are, you know what I mean? Like my whole operation when I was working on the games was, I can’t make them visually. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know a polygon from my asshole. But I do know what good dialogue sounds like and video games, like comics, can be filled with exposition, just filled with setting up the game. I’m thinking, “Can we do it in a way that sounds more natural?”
And some of the games that are great games, like BioShock or the Grand Theft Auto series do that, and get that response from the audience. I thought, well, a lot of superhero games really just get to it. If Ultimate Spider-Man will be different from the movie games, it will be because it feels like Ultimate Spider-Man, so let’s do that. So my art form was to give Peter and MJ a voice, hire actors that sounded like the actors that were in my head, which we did, and that’s that.
So absolutely, you look at like Okami and BioShock. I’m a big Call of Duty guy; I end up playing games where I can shoot people just because I do story all day and I need that visceral shooting, but every once in awhile you run up against a game and go, “Well, that’s just something. That’s just a group of artists creating.” Agent 13 had it. You know, just unique perspectives on the world, not just Grand Theft Auto knockoffs and Halo knockoffs.
WO: And what makes a story great in a video game? Is it the same things, different things?
BMB: Similar themes. There’s a point to it. Really that’s all you need is a point. You’d be surprised how many people don’t have a point. They go, “Well, it’s monkeys versus robots.” Why? “I dunno.” “I dunno” is not a good answer. You can do monkeys versus robots, tell me why.
WO: You mean James Kochalka’s or just generally?
BMB: I don’t mean James Kochalka. Actually, that one had a point.
WO: Yeah, that was nature versus machinery.
BMB: Exactly. Say that, I’m done. You can monkey versus robot me all day. I’m talking about some mainstream comics where a good guy’s beating a bad guy, and I don’t know what anybody wants. And, literally, Dr. Doom wants his mommy, that’s all we need to know. That’s fine, good. I’m good, I’m gold. Take me for a ride.
So video games are the same thing. I think that’s why BioShock was my favorite game last year, because I thought the writing was exceptional, the storytelling technique was exceptional.
WO: It seems like not a lot of people ask you about your art anymore.
BMB: It’s worse than that. They say, “Oh, you draw? When did you draw?”
WO: So, I’m curious: you’ve been asked about your influences as a writer; who are some of your influences as an artist?
BMB: I’m really all over the map here. Steranko would probably be number one, and Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson. But you’ll notice a lot of them are writer-artists. Frank Miller’s storytelling. John Totleben was a huge influence on me when I was a kid.
What happened is, I actually ended up meeting a lot of these people when I was a young adult or teenager and they were very, very good to me. John Totleben and Walt Simonson particularly went out of their way to be generous with me in a way that I couldn’t even express to you in words. They would mail me books, Totleben put my work on Karen Berger’s desk way before I was ready to give them a shot, and not only are they amazing draftsmen, but they were amazing people. I said, “When I grow up not only do I want my work to be as good as theirs, I want to be as good a person as they are.”
Milo Manara, Dave Stevens, Enki Bilal. . . Literally, just stop me because I could go on and on and on, but Art Adams. It just goes on and on and on.
But what I ended up doing when I actually started to draw was what they did. I looked outside of comics for my influence. My influences are mostly cinematographers. My film noir style is that of John Alton, who invented film noir cinematography when he was on T-Men and if you watch the movie Visions of Light, you’ll see about ten minutes dedicated to his work. That movie profoundly rocked my world. It did, just under my skin, fucked up my shit, because I was on that road, without knowing some of the things that I discovered in that documentary, and then went and found out about. John Alton wrote a textbook in the ‘50s; I actually owned a copy. And, so John Alton and Janusz Kaminski and all these cinematographers, they’re telling stories with pictures. And I thought writers should look outside comics for their writing, artists should look outside of maybe even art or painting or whatever as their thing, at cinematographers.
Not solely, and I know that the art of moviemaking is not the same as comics making, but there is a visual language of storytelling with images that was very intoxicating to me, and still is. And most of my notes to artists are shots from movies or ideas from movies where I say, “You know that shot from No Country For Old Men, or that shot from Close Encounters?” And I became a nerd about that and my wife laughs that I will sometimes know the name of a cinematographer before I remember the name of the movie. I say, “Y’know, Gordon Willis lit it. Uh, Klute!” Like that, that’s a conversation with me over dinner.
WO: You have two main art styles; you have the Jinx style and the Fortune and Glory style. Is one more natural for you than the other?
|Fortune and Glory page 5.
Click for full-size image.
BMB: Well, yeah, the Fortune and Glory style is more natural. It’s just bobble-headed, anyone could do it. And that’s definitely Peter Bagge influenced, and Kyle Baker, and a few cartoonists. I’m not conscious of it while it’s happening, but afterward I see, “I’m doing Peter Bagge arms.” If I’d known I was doing it at the time I might not have done it, but sometimes you don’t know. But the storytelling is very similar in both styles, there are actually similar techniques in the storytelling.
WO: A lot of zooming in on the eyes and the like.
WO: But as far as just drafting, like the sort of more rubber-limbed, big head, that’s a little more just natural when you’re sketching?
BMB: Yeah. The other ones I’m building in photo reference, I’m hiring my friends as models, I’m texturing photographs. It’s more labor, whereas the other one I can just sit down and draw it on paper.
WO: How fast are you?
BMB: For drawing? Not fast at all.
WO: Is Fortune and Glory or Jinx, one of those faster?
BMB: Yes. Fortune and Glory is faster. It’s also easier to design the pages with dialogue because the shapes are simpler and more organic.
WO: About how long does it take you, with the photo reference and everything, to put together a Jinx-style page?
BMB: I don’t have a good answer for you, because I really gave it no thought. I wasn’t getting paid at all, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes, it just has to get done perfectly, so I would just do it over again if it had to be done over again.
WO: So, have you ever had to draw on a deadline?
BMB: Yeah, I did a piece for the New York Times a few months ago. They said, “We need this by Wednesday.” I really free myself up from deadlines [in terms of] what my monetary reward for it is. I see that could be a mistake that some people make, that they think, “Well, I’m only getting paid this.” It doesn’t matter what you’re getting paid or how long it. All that matters is that people are going to see it and your name’s on it. That’s all that matters. That you’re getting paid at all is a miracle.
WO: Are you still working on drawing, still improving your drawing skills while you’re working primarily as a writer, or do you not have time?
BMB: I still draw, and I will draw again. There are a couple graphic novels that I’m drawing, but not right now. And if I draw again, it’s like working out; you’ve got to get your muscles back up to shape. But I did a couple covers of Powers this year and I thought, “Oh, I can still draw!” It was exciting, like, “Hey!”
WO: Are you still getting better?
BMB: I’ve not done enough to say if I am or not. This is very hard to describe, but it’s sometimes hard for an artist to see their work as it is until it’s printed. And I used to be very bad at that, and when I would print it, I’d go, “Ahh!” It’s difficult to see what you actually drew. To this day, it’s sometimes a little hard to open up one of the graphic novels for myself. And I would never say what or why, because I don’t want to ruin it for people who genuinely liked the book, but all you can see is what you fucked up. So, I think I’m better at that now. I can see my work better.
You know the problem is––it sounds like a line, but it’s not a line––I am working with the best mainstream comic book artists, and some independent artists, on the planet. This is inarguable. So why on earth would I even attempt. . . ?
And also, I was trying so hard to draw like Alex. What attracted me to Alex Maleev is, that’s what I was trying to do. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. It’s very hard for me, and yet he’s there, better than me, he only wants to work with me, so I’ll just work with [him]. And it’s not lazy. It’s that that was exactly what I was trying to sell.
WO: So, I’ve noticed that yourself, and lot of the writers that have come up around the same time, you guys will take work like video game writing, TV writing, whatever, but you guys are very clear that comics are what you love and that you don’t see these other things as a step up.
BMB: You learn very quickly and very harshly that comics are much better. They just are. If you want to really tell your story, even with corporate, mainstream comics, every word that I write is the words on the page. No one’s rewriting me. I remember when I was working on that Spider-Man show, and one of the producers says, “Well, if you get 60% of your stuff on screen, that’s a win.” And I think, “That’s not a win. No wonder TV sucks.” What the fuck are you talking about? Why would you hire guys and then write all over them? I’m not saying that everything I write is pure genius, but at least it’s my mistakes if they’re mistakes. So, that’s why you see all these rich TV writers coming to work. It’s not as if they need a couple extra grand. It’s because they want that experience. That experience is vital.
But, yeah, we’re all fans of TV and movies and video games, and it’s cool when Dreamworks calls and says, “Hey, do you want to do this?” I’m like, “Well, actually, yeah, I do want to do that.” But it’s never in replacement of. It’s not a stepping stone. The stepping stone was getting to here. This was it.
WO: So, what differentiates you from previous generations of writers who maybe did see comics as a ghetto to get out of?
BMB: I don’t know. I don’t want to be too generalizing with it, because I think that most of the people who write comics actually do want to write comics. There’s no money. You’re doing it because you want to do it. Every once in awhile there is, and there still are people who are in comics, making comics specifically to pitch to Hollywood. They’re selling their storyboards as comic books.
And that’s fine. I do find it disgusting and don’t want any part of it. I know it sounds disingenuous when I take television work or film work. I only know in my heart that Powers was written as a comic book, but I’m not dumb when somebody says, “Hey, we wanna make a movie.” I would like to see that movie. So, it’s a slippery slope, I understand that completely, but most people do love comics. The ones that do that, the ones who were only there for the money like the ‘90s bust guys, when the money left, they left. Good, get the fuck out of here, you ruined it. Then your heart wasn’t in the right place. It’s the guys like Jim Lee, who doesn’t have to do comics, that stayed, you think, “Oh, he loves comics. He doesn’t care. He’s a lifer.”
WO: And he kept getting better, too.
BMB: Yeah, exactly. But it was never about the money. It’s just, yeah, I’m not going to not take it, but it was about the comics. And I think generally the audience feels that. Like I said before, you can feel it, who’s full of shit and who’s not full of shit.
WO: As far as writing now, versus decades ago, do you think part of it is just that you don’t have to hide the fact that you write comics, as some writers may have once felt that they had to do, or maybe a lot of the opportunities of movies and television looked a lot better when they were unattainable, and now that you can get them, you can see them for what they are?
BMB: That’s when the movies come in. The movies legitimized it as pop culture, and it shouldn’t have been that way, but it’s absolutely true. I felt the difference when I was writing Spider-Man the year before the movie came out and how non-comic book people would say, “Really?” And then when the movie comes out it’s, “Oh, did you write the movie?” It’s much sexier and it’s seen as a legitimate part of pop culture, even though it’s been for a fucking century, not a decade, a century. It took a century, but it’s inarguable that it’s modern myth and pop culture in all its vibrancy, is right there. And you’ll notice the superhero movies, by and large, they’re not dumb movies. They’re real movies, big movies, y’know.
WO: Well, as you were saying, some of them were even too smart.
BMB: Well, yeah, that was one example. Every director has their they-try-too-hard movie, and that’s his.
WO: I thought Superman Returns might have been one of those, myself.
BMB: I liked it, but I see that there’s a huge disconnect in the third act. Joe Quesada actually said this, he said, “The problem with that movie is that it promised something in the first act that they didn’t deliver in the third act.” They said Superman wasn’t there for Lex Luthor’s trial and that’s why all of this happened, blah blah blah, so the ending has to be Lex Luthor’s trial and Superman shows up and they come full circle. A promise was made that never delivered. But all that other stuff was cool and the meditation stuff. I liked it. I can see why people were saying, “Come on, hit something,” but I enjoyed it.
WO: A last question on the respectability of comics. Getting back to your desire for things like your Daredevil run to last, something else that’s different from even just a few years ago is how much less disposable the medium is, now that the major companies are doing really permanent editions not just of old stuff, but also recent material. I’m thinking of things like the DC Absolute books and the Marvel Omnibuses, including the Brubaker Captain America one and the really beautiful Alias one, and I see they’ve announced at least one collecting your Daredevil run. How do you think seeing contemporary work go into such high-end, permanent editions affects the perception of the medium?
BMB: All I know is I love it! It makes you feel like you’ve actually done something with your life.
WO: So, getting toward the end, some simple questions. What are you reading these days?
BMB: Well, I read a lot of stuff for work, so I read a lot of books that connect to the characters I’m writing. The new Spider-Man stuff, Captain America. But what I really got under my skin recently was The Killer graphic novel, the hardcover, I just adored it. And Matt Wagner’s Grendel series. Matt’s work I’ve always been a huge fan of, but he really delivered something special.
And The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan. I’ve been a big fan of Brian forever. We both grew up in Cleveland. It’s kind of a valentine to Cleveland, too. I just adored it, I just thought it was fantastic. I know everyone is jumping up and down about Y, but I think The Escapists is actually better. So those are there. And I’m a big fan of Jonathan Hickman. He’s a new guy coming up I’m really digging. And Warren Ellis is my favorite writer, so basically anything he’s writing.
WO: Are you going to read Final Crisis?
BMB: Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m a Grant Morrison fan. Absolutely, I’m dying to see it. It’s funny, that’s that online shit. I’m not in competition with DC.
WO: Yeah, it really looked to me like you [and Grant] were just posturing for fun.
BMB: You know what, I copped to this online. I don’t know Grant at all. A lot of people I know pretty well, I don’t know Grant. He took some shots at me, and it was like a Friday late afternoon, and boy, I just wasn’t in the mood for it. It just kind of got me. I don’t know what happened, I was just, “Ah, fuck, what the fuck, man.” I wasn’t in the mood for it, so I snapped back and I immediately felt bad about it, and I told everyone I’m actually a big fan of All Star Superman and I’ve been a fan of Grant’s forever, so it was just. . .
WO: One of those days?
BMB: I just like when people market themselves. Tell me what’s great about you, don’t tell me what’s shitty about everyone else, even if you’re joking. And there’s a lot of that that goes on, especially online. Anyone can do it. It’s like when a guy’s trying to get with a girl by telling her what’s wrong with her boyfriend. Don’t do that, tell her how cool you are. So, I get a lot of that, and, boo hoo, it’s a high class problem, but I get a lot of guys dumping on Ultimates or something just to prop up their stuff.
So, no, I’m a big fan of Grant, I’m a huge fan of J.G. Jones, so I’m there. I don’t compete with DC, I don’t compete with any other writer, I’m just competing with myself. . . almost constantly.
Interview conducted, transcribed, and edited for length and clarity by Brendan Wright, proofread by participants.