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This is Part 2 of Comic Foundry’s interview with famed comic scribe, Brian Bendis. Brian leads Marvel’s event of the year with House of M, which debuts in stores today. Part 1 of the interview is available here.
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/