A long, long time ago, I wrote an article entitled Author Retrospective in which I wrote all about the career of a very illustrious creator: Brian Michael Bendis. At the end of the article, I speculated, “What would it take to get him to do an interview with us?” Turns out it was just a simple e-mail request.
With that in mind, I present to you part one of my interview with Brian Michael Bendis. Part one focuses on Bendis’ writing process and provides insight into his weekly work ethic. It’s got some pretty great ideas for aspiring writers looking to figure out how to go about catching a break.
You were part of a wave of new writers who originated in far more independent work like Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Marc Andreyko and more. It seemed like that this group managed to start small yet move into mainstream, universe altering works without minimizing the storytelling that made their independent works so unique. How was it that you all managed to transition so cleanly?
BMB: Well yeah, I think about that a lot. I think back to the thing that I’m probably most proud of in that not only do I get to do these things but I’ve somehow been able to get to do them my way, and you know, it’s funny — the group I came out of, I was being published by a comic book company called Caliber Comics, and it was me, Ed Brubaker, Mike Oeming, David Mack, Marc Andreyko, and a slew of others, and almost like it’s the Roger Corman Film Company. We all kinda made it, we all graduated (if that’s the word) to bigger things.
And yeah, you know, when I was hired by Joe Quesada years ago that was my first worry, like, “well, am I going to get to write the way I wanna write?” If that’s good, or uncharacteristically positive about the direction that I’ve set myself. And I just, you know, I just studied all my heroes, and they all just did it, and they took their beatings if they had beatings coming, and just write the way you want to write. Write a book you would want to buy! And I think because of the timing of our move in, because Marvel was just coming out of bankruptcy, things were at their lowest there, they were much more open to the idea of people with voices, you know, putting their foot down and doing something legitimately expressive, honest writing, and it paid off for them which is great news. Like, who knew if that would pay off? But it did, and I got hired to write Daredevil off a book that was barely selling 2,000 copies, and they didn’t even blink at me just doing what I wanted to do, and I think that bravery…I was thrilled and was rewarded, and hoped that it should be rewarded again.
But again the good news too is that for me personally, and Ed too, is that for those who…you hear folks sometimes from the top of the sales charts, there’s an instinct to always to yell “sell out.” You remember when you see a band that you really love and all of a sudden they have a hit record, you have people start yelling “Sell out!” But it’s not selling out, it’s you’re actually making something you would buy, you know, you’re actually doing that.
I also believe that most of us kept making our creator owned books like we never stopped, like I’m still making Powers, and I’ve got new stuff coming out this year. And I think that allows some of the audience some slack. They give you some slack because you did not abandon your independent roots for superheroes — you’re doing both. That’s always great, and for me it was great because my books never sold that well prior to Ultimate Spider-Man, so even now over the years they’re still selling, and those books were a lot of work, Jinx and Goldfish, those were a lot of work so I’m thrilled they found an audience eventually. I don’t care how long it takes as long as it happens!Continued below
Of the four that I mentioned, with you and Rucka and Brubaker and Adreyko, the four of you in particular are really known for strong female leads. What is it that you think allows you to understand the female psyche so well and create such exceptional female characters while some other writers struggle? You had books like Alias, and looking back on that now, it’s really great and I know a lot of fans are excited for it to possibly come back in some way in the future.
BMB: Well, you know, it’s not female characters, it’s all characters. We take the craft of writing very seriously. We take our skills at observation very seriously, we do our research very seriously. These are four writers who I’ve known or I know pretty well and we embrace all aspects of writing as if we were real authors way before we were real authors. And with that comes, hopefully, well rounded characters of all shapes and sizes, not just female characters. People point out the female characters in comics because when they see one that’s fully rendered, they’re startled because it’s an anomaly. But really, if you look around now, it isn’t that big of an anomaly anymore which I’m thrilled about, we’ve kinda forced some writers with the… cheesecake cleavage bullshit and really get down to writing the character for real. The audience’s taste has graduated tremendously over the years, and expect that from almost every character, which I’m thrilled about. That makes me extremely happy. So I think writer’s write, and writer’s write honestly.
Also, I’m not going to say which two, but two of those writers used to be women and had sex change operations in the late ‘90s, but I don’t know if you want to say that. I’ll leave that up to you.
You mentioned that you do a lot of research before you write. What’s that writing process like?
BMB: It depends on what I’m working on. When I was doing heavy procedural stuff, I did ride-alongs with cops. If there’s something I don’t know, I seek out someone who is an expert in that field and I interview them or really try and get in their head. I was writing a pilot for HBO about these blackjack players, and we went to Vegas and spent the week together. I just lived their life.
Other things are easier to do because you can look it up, sit down and do the research. Even when I was writing the Clone Saga for (Ultimate) Spider-Man, I spent months working and reading about DNA and such, and even though none of it actually made it into the book because it was boring for a superhero comic, it made me feel like I knew what I was talking about. And other times it’s a matter of, “You know what? I’m writing Tony Stark. I want to find the voice of Tony Stark.” And I’ll find someone in the real world who makes me think of Tony Stark and just really get into their lives, really try to figure out who they are. It’s always a mixture of that kinda stuff.
But you know what? I learned early on. When I was in college I was doing this book called Quivers, and I had inadvertently drawn this woman shooting a bow and arrow incorrectly, just ‘cause I didn’t know anything about bows and arrows! I didn’t know archers! So I had my photo reference done wrong, and someone wrote me a letter: “I know you don’t know anything about archery, but that’s not how you hold the bow.” And it scared the shit out of me! But it reminded me that, no matter what I’m writing about, someone out there is an expert at it and will know if you’re full of crap. And that includes Marvel continuity and that includes all kinds. So as a writer you have to do it, so that lesson was something I’m glad I learned early so I never allowed to let it happen again.Continued below
So what is the general writing process like for you? How do you set your mood before you get into your work, and once in the writing mode, how do you progress from there?
BMB: 90% of the time I, for me personally, I’m ahead of my deadline, which allows me the freedom to wake up in the morning and write whatever the hell I want. If I wake up and I think I’m in an Ultimate Spider-Man mood, but oh hey, I’m in an Avengers mood. Or hey I’m in a creator owned mood. I can switch without having to worry if, oh, this is due. I think that allows me an immense amount of creative freedom and I write better that way.
Some writers write better under the gun. They love that gun to their head. I don’t. I don’t like it. I always feel that I’ve maybe missed something I could’ve done. Also being ahead of my deadline allows me to put a script away for a while, come back to it, and as the kind of writer that doesn’t really remember what they wrote three weeks ago, I’ll come back and read it and the jokes are funny I’ll recognize that. If the script sucks I’ll recognize that and throw it out and start over. So sometimes I’ve written something and I’ll go “I don’t even know what I mean here!” And then it’s time to throw it out or put it away.
But if you read it back to yourself with distance, and you’re pleased or you’re excited about it then it was good honest writing. So that’s the number one — I don’t put barricades in front of me with that kind of open creativity. I kinda let the muses come as they may and depending on the project sometimes, I’ll do a lot more research. And you know what? Sometimes research can involve reading a lot of other comic books, just for character reference. But this week particularly I have a lot of research to do for something that isn’t announced yet, but involves at least for me a lot more cobbling together the roles of this creator owned book that I’m doing, so I’ve spent at least three or four days doing that instead of actually writing. And now I’m right back into the Ultimate universe writing my little butt off.
So it depends on the day and depends on what’s happening, but I try and get a book a week done. That’s my personal goal. A book a week to me makes me feel like I accomplished something that week, but not so much that it feels like hackery. I do believe if all these great television writers that I admire were able to put out a television show every week, then I can write a 22-page comic every week. I feel that that’s a good goal for myself and what I’ve held to for about ten years and it works for me. So sometimes a little bit more, but one a week on Monday makes me feel good, makes me feel the week was worth it.