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Few writers in comics have reached the critical, financial and writing success (and hatred) of Brian Bendis. He currently pens Powers, Ultimate Spider-Man, the Pullse, New Avengers and Brian is now adding House of M, Marvel’s crossover event of the year, to the load. Brian talked with CF late one night about the book, his dialogue and everything else he’s learned over the years.
This is Part One of Two. The second half will be available one week later, June 1.
I remember reading an interview with you when you first got offered X-Men and you were saying that it wasn’t a great fit for you because you were better working on a one- or two-person lead instead of a group. How did you overcome that?
It wasn’t so much “overcome” – I felt that, here I was in mainstream comics, and I was hired to do a couple of books that I groomed myself, unknowingly, to write perfectly for, (those being Spider-Man and Daredevil), both of which lead to the strengths that I built up over the years. Whereas X-Men, I hadn’t practiced enough at that specific kind of comic book, and I really felt that at this level of play, with X-Men being the gold ring of mainstream comics, I shouldn’t be practicing on the job. I knew I would get there, but I shouldn’t be doing it publicly just because I got offered it. Maybe no one would’ve noticed but me, maybe I was the only one, but I didn’t get the same “Oooohhhh” that you get when you’re writing something you are at least confident enough to hand in. With X-Men I was writing my little heart out, but I said, “You know what? I feel like I’m practicing, and I don’t feel like I’m actually writing X-Men.” So I waited until I thought I wasn’t practicing anymore and gave it what I got. I’m very happy with that decision, by the way, because it was the right thing to do.
What have you learned since then?
There were other arcs and other projects that I’d done where there were multiple leads carrying the story and you say, “OK, there are six leads in this scene, whose point of view is most interesting? Who’s learning the most? Who’s got the most agenda?” You take it from there, and it’s a lesson you have to learn yourself and figure out what it is you want to do with a group book. And I was happy that I learned that lesson enough that I was confident enough to go into these things, and it’s certainly been building even more in my New Avengers work.
And in writing a big, sweeping crossover where you have not one, but two, groups at once, maybe even more …
What changes in the way you write when you have so many characters?
First of all, you have to have a point. A lot of the time I see books, and I read them, and I’m not exactly sure what the point was. It doesn’t even have to be a deep point – it could be “I love kung fu movies.” But I can’t find any point, and I really look at something and say: “What is the point of this?” Like, House of M has a very specific point and so does New Avengers. With Spider-Man you’re handed a book that already has a great point: “With power comes with responsibility.” What a great point – it’ll never get old analyzing that idea. So with these other things you create or you put together you really have to sit there and go, “What is the point of this?” And once you have that, most of the time you’ll be able to judge whose point of view the story should be told from.
So would you say House of M is more character-based than plot-based?
It’s very heavily plotted in that big things happen, but my proudest moments in the series are the ones I’ve been getting the most feedback on from my collaborators: the character moments that I did not shy away from. In fact, I really thought about the big, giant books I loved in the past and the ones that kinda held over the years are the ones that didn’t shy away from getting emotional. You read Crisis on Infinite Earth and there are a lot of emotional beats in that, and it’s a big story and there are a lot of times they just stop it and have a moment and go, “Oh, shit” and deal with a loss.
Do you find that the characters get lost because there are so many?
It’s like those big action movies that suck. Everything gets lost in the explosions, and the ones that are better movies are the ones that don’t forget the characters. Anything from Die Hard to The Matrix, you really care about the characters and really feel like you want to follow them. Just really think about that. That goes with any character for any book I write. If no one cares about the characters, no one’s going to care what’s going on. I know sometimes I take it to the extreme and people say, “Let’s get a move on!” But I’d rather spend the time. Anyone can blow shit up. It’s more interesting to see the “before” and the “after.”
And I guess that’s how even though you have so many people in the book and so much going on that you’re still able to create new people like Layla Miller.
Haha, nice try.
In the grand tradition of event comics, a new character will burst forth and follow herself into the Marvel Universe, so hopefully people like her. I like her.
For you, what makes a good story?
It’s an old “This is Spinal Tap” joke: It’s a fine line between clever and stupid. I really do tend to enjoy someone who rolls up their sleeves and shows me something I haven’t seen before or thought of myself. I’m the most non-genre snob I know. I don’t care what genre it’s in – good superhero, good crime, good indie, autobiographical – if someone being clever or if someone telling a story that’s just…“goddamn, they have to tell it” – you know what I mean? When someone surpasses from their story from their story then in translates all the way to the printed page onto your fingers that are holding the book – and you can feel it on the book — that’s amazing.
It’s that passion …
Yeah, and really you could get it reading Superman because goddamn, this guy wanted to tell this story so bad I’m getting chills. It’s so hard to do. You can do everything right and it’s not working. You see comics and movies and TV shows where so many good people are involved and then you just go, “Wow, that didn’t work at all.” Everyone tried, but it just didn’t work. And all of a sudden, magic hits. It’s really ethereal.
I guess if people really knew, they’d be selling them like crazy.
Yeah, there’s no magic formula, but I do know that if I’m really passionate to the point that I’m emotional while I’m writing something, even if it’s a scene between MJ and Peter and I’m getting emotional while I’m writing it, 99 percent of the time (Mark) Bagley will get emotional penciling it, the inker will get emotional inking it and the editor will get emotional putting it together, and it goes all the way out the door and we get the same response from the reader. But, as a writer I can’t control everyone’s emotions – I could get emotional but Bagley could just be “Whatever,” but most of the time we’re on the same page. Does that make sense?
I guess it starts with you, and if you don’t have it in you to tell the story, then the reader won’t have it in them to read it.
You know what doesn’t make a good story? Trying to make a comic book so you can sell it to Hollywood. Don’t do it. It’s never worked in the history of comics, that someone’s purposely gone to make a comic book so that Hollywood will look at it and make it into a big movie, and you can retire. It never happens, so stop doing it. If you make a comic because you want to make a comic, and be happy if Hollywood comes. Or it’s “Get out of here, no one wants you here.”
I was reading somewhere, and David Mamet said, “Nothing artistic has ever come from the conscious mind.” Do you think that’s true?
I think everything he says is true. I have a book of Mamet interviews on my nightstand that I go through like the Bible. If I’m having a doubt of spirits I just open it up and somewhere on the page he’ll say something and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s so true” and I feel better and go back to sleep.
He’s just so smart, it’s ridiculous.
Yeah, he’s so goddamn smart. There’s also something about the way he works because he’s such a Talmudic scholar, as a Jew. And I was raised by Talmudic scholars, so there’s something about the way he talks, even though he doesn’t talk the way I talk, it just soothes me. The thing he says that’s so fucking true is that the key to great dialogue is letting the voices in your head talk to each other instead of talking to you. And then you sit there and transcribe it.
And, for all the laymen out there, what do you mean by that?
Everyone has voices in their head – when you’re talking to yourself about little stuff: “I don’t know, should I have a cheeseburger or should I have spaghetti?” You’re talking to yourself. Instead of that, you let the voices talk to each other and then you’ll get good dialogue. You’ve got to be open to the experience, though. I believe there’s bipolarism involved, and there’s levels of bipolarism, and you need the perfect amount to be creative and function in society. A little too much and you’re not functioning in society; a too little and you’re not being very creative. But everyone I know that’s truly inspired, creatively, they seem to be a little nuts. It’s a pleasure to be around.
Robert McKee’s “Story” – What’s the best lesson learned from that book?
That the three-act structure works. And it’s funny because people think if you read it you have to follow it like the Bible. No, but you have to know what works and why it works before you can start fucking around with it. Everyone wants to write their thing – “When Quentin Tarantino did ‘Pulp Fiction’ the first act was the third act and…” Yeah, fine, but he can do it. It doesn’t mean he didn’t learn how to do it first. Picasso learned how to paint like a master before he started going cubist. You have to read it and go, “What works? Why does it work?” I’ve done many, many three-act structured stories and then afterward you start going, “OK, well what happens if I don’t do a second act? What happens if the third act’s the fifth act?” You start picking around, and you find new language for yourself as a storyteller, but first you have to know what works. Does that make sense?
Yeah, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Thank you. You said it so…And learn how to talk succinctly instead of babbling on.
Well, I guess that’s what happens when it’s late at night.
I haven’t learned that one yet…
And, you’re probably one of the highest-regarded people in comics today…
Yuh-huh … Well, I think it depends on the day. It’s nice to be regarded at all.
How do you improve as a writer when you’re already so accomplished?
First of all, regard has nothing to do with craft. At all. That’s one of those things that drives me nuts is when people think that just because someone says something nice about you yesterday means you know all the answers to everything. If I knew all the answers I would write the perfect story and retire. I don’t. It’s a constant battle of self-will, and just trying to do this thing that’s impossible to describe to people. Every day you try harder and try new things and push this way and that way and sometimes it makes your audience uncomfortable, but nine out of 10 times, I think, you’ll feel much more fulfilled than if you just say, “The book’s selling, so I guess I’ll just go on doing that over and over again the same exact way.” One has nothing to do with the other. I don’t know why people say nice things about me, and I don’t know why people say mean things about me, because it’s equal amounts. You can’t control it, so you just go on, so you just go and worry about what your job is. There’s no difference between how I produce a page now then when I was doing Goldfish.
So there hasn’t been an evolution?
There’s an evolution in craft, hopefully. Hopefully I’m a better storyteller than I was, but the actual sit-down and mind-set – with the sweaty brow, “Is this going to work?” – it’s still the same. I just threw out an entire two issues of New Avengers because I just looked at it and said, “That is not good,” and I started again. Marvel approved them and I just went: “Eh, I don’t like it.”
Do you have a litmus test for that sort of thing? What’s the standard? How do you know?
I hope the fact that I don’t know shows people what I’m talking about. It has absolutely nothing to do with monetary success or getting an award. You never know. But what you do know is: It’s never finished, it’s just done. That’s the only good lesson that I learned in art school. My art teacher once said: “If you finish an illustration and you think it’s perfect, there’s something wrong with you. There’s no such thing! All it is, is done. You finished it, now go make another one. Hopefully it’ll be better than the last one.” Now that was a good lesson.
What about the best writing lesson you learned?
I think the same lesson applies. I’ve never written a perfect script. It’s just that the script was done, and we’ll try another one and we’ll see how that one does.
What advice would you give to aspiring comic writers?
My big life lesson that I try to bestow on anyone who will listen is: Write for yourself, do not write for other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a big movie or TV show or video game, write something you’d really like to see come to life, be it with art or with actors or whatever. Don’t try to guess what other people want.
I think the example I was given was, let’s say orange is all the rage this summer. Everybody loves orange. So you go, “I’d like to be liked. I’ll do an orange thing too.” By the time you’re finished with your orange thing and get it out in the fall, everybody likes pink now. Now you’re stuck with this orange thing that even you didn’t want.
So, you’re best off writing something you’d really like to read. Or, something that you feel, “If I don’t write this, I’m going to stick a gun in my mouth, so I better write this down instead.” That’s what you do, not to be too morbid. It’s not like I’m sitting here with a gun typing The Pulse… But as far as comics go, I really am making comics I’d really like to buy, and I only work with artists whose comics I would buy. I never work with anybody who I would go, “Ehhhh…”
What about dialogue? I think this is one area where most people really stand behind you.
It’s very nice because it’s the very passion of my life. All I think about all day long is the music of language and applying it to comics and gutting the dead fish of exposition out of our comic-book pages forever and ever and ever. Everyone hears the world differently. Write characters that talk to each other – not at each other, but to further the plot along for the reader. It’s so easy to have one of the characters look at the readers and tell them everything. It’s so unclever. Anyone can do it, as we’ve seen. What you want to do is find a way to get that information you need for your story across in a unique way, and at the same time, create characters that are contradictory, that will say one thing one day and say something else later — like life.
You come home, your girlfriend says something nice to you, the next day she says something mean to you. It’s the same person, it’s just contradictory behavior. It’s a tough thing to pull off in comics – people get impatient – but I think there’s a payoff, and it’s worth exploring, and I hope more people do. The cool thing is, there are a lot of people doing it right now: (Brian K.) Vaughan, (Warren) Ellis. There are a lot of people who are not lowering the bar. They’re all working hard to push it up.
Do you have a sounding board for anything like that?
I’m blessed with a very large sounding board with people at Marvel and in my private life who will tell me if something isn’t a good idea. My wife is an outstanding sounding board too. There have been many times where they said not to do something, and I did it anyhow and then it turns out they’re right. I appreciate my relationship with Marvel because I can count on them to tell me if something sucks.
Do you write your dialogue knowing that it will be read and not spoken? Or knowing that something reads better than it sounds, or vice versa?
In the past, people have come and acted out the dialogue, and I’ve been lucky enough to have actors act out my dialogue when I was doing the Spider-Man cartoon. There’s a gigantic difference between the two. I’m also obsessed with how it looks on the page. Sometimes I wrangle a page that has almost 60 balloons on it. I really design the balloon placement myself because the timing of it is so important, and how they’re arranged and touching and not touching … So I spend an enormous amount of time on every issue of every book doing do a dialogue polish on the lettering as well. I write it out full-script, and then I do another polish after I see the pencils. Then on the pencils I do the balloon placement. Then I give it to the letterer and the letterer letters it. And then my editor gives me the lettered version and I do another polish. Sometimes that polish is just four or five little fixes, but sometimes I yank balloons right off the page – I don’t need them because the face says everything. That happens with Bagley a lot. We just finished a story line where there’s a very emotional scene between MJ and Peter, and there were 15 lines of dialogue, but I yanked them all because the whole page said everything. I’m very conscious of how it’s read as opposed to it’s said aloud.
Do you think the dialogue should sound realistic?
It’s very hard to say what people consider realistic and what they don’t. People swear a lot. Ultimate Spider-Man should be wall-to-wall swearing – that’s how kids talk. I like to read them. I get a real charge out of reading naturalistic dialogue in playwriting or fiction or anything. There are guys before me who did naturalistic dialogue in comics. Guys like Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore did it on certain projects — and I don’t think he (Moore) gets enough credit for that, actually. It’s something that gives me a legitimate thrill.
But in superhero books, though, there’s a certain suspension of reality. How does that play into the mix?
There are two things going on: One – and I was faced with this really hard when I first came to Marvel – old school guys were really annoyed by me. And I was like, “Listen, it’s OK. You’re trained one way to read a comic and if a page has 50 balloons on it and it’s all exposition with ‘Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice …’ that’s how you’ve been trained to read a comic, but it doesn’t mean they all have to be produced that way.” It’s OK to make them, and great comics were made that way, but I’m just trying to do something else. People to this day get very angry if Captain America stutters on a word. Somehow that shows a weakened character or something, but that’s not the case. Even the most powerful person stops mid-sentence and starts again.
Right, even David Mamet has stuttered at one point.
How do you think comics as an industry is doing right now?
Well, it’s in a transition stage right now and it’s a very exciting one. Not enough attention is paid to online about the massive audience of trade paperbacks. Trade paperbacks are selling so much more than they ever did before, to the point that some of my books doubled the audience with the inclusion of my trade paperback readers. Powers – we just got the numbers for our new trade – I was shocked. And it’s exciting that those are readers. Sometimes people only count the monthlies as readers, but we’ve got a whole other audience buying them in trades. I don’t think the monthly comics are going away, but there’s certainly a transition going on about how people buy their comics. The audience is split down the middle, even, about how they want their comics read and how they want to purchase their stories.
I’ll tell you what’s healthy about it: Both competing companies are producing high-quality material using very talented people. And so far the audience has set the bar very, very high as to what they’ll consider good. They don’t seem to want to take any shit at all, and I’m really happy about that. People always put up with shitty comics for nothing, and now even if you feel angry about the direction of your book, you can’t help but say, “Well, that’s certainly being well-crafted.” At least they’re trying to. I think it’s very nice there are so many writers working hard to make good comics and working with better artists than comics has ever had. I think there are guys working in mainstream comics that are so much better than their forefathers as far as craft of illustration. It has never been better. And sometimes you’ll see someone bitching about Astonishing X-Men and they’ll say, “I don’t like it!” And I say, “It’s never been better in the entire world of mutants. X-Men has never been better crafted than it is right now.”
Yeah, I was at this Joe Quesada panel at MoCCA and he was saying that if today’s creators had existed in the ’80s with Watchmen and The Dark Knight, it would’ve completely changed the dynamic of comics.
Well, what I like about it, and sometimes we joke about it privately, is that in the ’90s, that money-ruined-everything type of thing. I know it’s a generalization, but it seemed to happen a lot. But everyone that was only here for money left when there was no more money. What you were left with was a lot of comic-book people who absolutely don’t care if they make money making comics. And a lot of people who do make money, it’s a total accident. There’s no way to know it’s going to happen. I include myself in that category. That is the kind of person you want making comics. They were going to stay, no matter what, even if we had to go to Kinko’s and staple them ourselves – that’s who you want making your comics. And our audience seems to be a very grateful group of comic readers who are very happy to get through comics every week. From there, you can build comics up again. I’m very happy to be making comics at this time.
Do you ever get to see any amateur books?
Every week I get stuff sent to me in the mail. It’s a lot of fun, and I go through all of them. I’ve called people with such enthusiasm when I saw something unique or new. That is what I like the most – if you made a comic, send it out to anyone you think can help you. It’s a business. Even if you’re making your own little indie book, you’ve got to treat it like a business. You’ve got to really hustle your ass to get people to read your book. Some people think just creating the book is enough – it really isn’t. You need to get out there and hustle.
When I was doing indie comics I spent more time hustling and banging my head against the wall than I did making comics. That’s what you have to do just to afford to make the next issue. To anyone who asks me what to do when they make their comic, I say, you send that comic to anyone who you think would say something nice to someone else about it that’d do you good. I sent my comic to people who I work with right now who never called me back. I sent my comics every month to Ralph Macchio (Marvel editor) and I never heard a word from him. And now I’m working with him every day, which is funny. I sent my comics out to everyone and who calls me out of the blue? Todd McFarlane. He gives me a book. Who would’ve thought that’d happen?
Not Ralph Macchio. Is there anything in those amateur books that sets the good and the bad apart? What makes the difference?
Usually it’s passion. I know I sound like “Inside the Actor’s Studio” bullshit, but it’s passion and some people – and I’m not included on this list – are very good at looking at the work and accessing it themselves and artistically looking at it and saying, “Is this what it looks like in my head?” And some people aren’t. The guys that are really good at that are capable of producing some really fine comics. Sometimes you just open it up and you go, “This is a really special, special thing.” Sometimes you open it and go, “Oh, that’s sad.” I get a lot of really bad comics too, and not everyone’s effort is golden.
And I guess learning from that, if you
don’t learn from history you’re bound to repeat it…
You know what? The biggest lesson I ever learned was producing my first comic. When I saw it printed I almost vomited on it, I was so disgusted. The whole time I thought it looked like something else. And then when I saw what it actually was, I was disgusted.
And what would you change?
Everything! Everything! I can’t even relate to you what an eye-opener that was. Really printing and really showing it to other people – that was a bad day. My inking style changed, my writing style changed, everything changed.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since coming into the industry?
Don’t be full of shit. Really. I’m never more happy with myself then when I’m not full of crap. I’m never more sickened by myself or other people when I see they’re full of crap. Even if you’re writing and you’re writing and you’re kind of fooling yourself and you’re writing something you think you can do. And not to be all full circle with you, but when I was writing the X-Men, I really tried to make that gig work the first time I had it, but I was full of shit. That went on for three months before I finally said, “No, I can’t do it.” But those were three months of tricking myself or trying to convince myself I’m not who I am. The lesson I learned there was, Don’t be full of shit. And don’t make other people pay for your shit, too. It’s a trickledown thing. If you’re full of shit – it’s like I said before about emotions – you’re going to make your collaborators full of shit, then the readers are going think it’s full of shit, and they’re full of shit for buying it and it’s not nice!
Let me just add that I know it’s very frustrating when someone says to you there’s magic and things you can’t control about how people read your work, but it’s the truth. And that’s why people keep making it up. That’s why we didn’t stop making comics after The Dark Knight Returns came out.
Here’s another thing I’ll leave you with that’ll drive you nuts: You can’t control the environment in which your work is read. Someone eats bad clams and reads an issue of one of my books and goes, “Ahh!” And they’re not in a good mood and they hate it. You can’t control that. So put that in the your pipe and smoke it. All that hard work you did and they’re pooping while they’re reading and they hate it. So they’re associating you with their tummy ache.
Down the drain, literally.
There you go, there’s my little lesson for you.
—Interview by Tim Leong
For more information on Brian and House of M, check out Jinx World at http://www.jinxworld.com/