Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Will the Real Brian Bendis Please Stand Up?

Posted by Don MacPherson on February 26th, 2008

Brian Michael BendisBrian Michael Bendis. He’s been a cornerstone of Marvel’s creative efforts for the past several years, even serving as the single most vital creator in the publisher’s stable of talent as the 21st century got underway. He remains a cornerstone of Marvel’s comics, and there’s been no sign that the professional pairing is going to change in any way in the near future. There was a time when any mention of his name in connection with a new project had me chomping at the bit to check it out. While I still read his work today, I haven’t been really excited about Bendis’s comics in some time, though.

The bloom is off his particular rose, but the question arises: why? Have I just moved on to focus on other voices? Has his work grown repetitive? Has it weakened? I find it difficult to choose just one answer, and I think that perhaps they all apply. To hash it all out, perhaps a subjective examination of recent issues of Bendis’s current ongoing projects will be of help.

The reason I chose to write about these questions is because of one particular recent release penned by Bendis. New Avengers #38 reminded me why I was once so excited about seeing the writer’s name among the credits for a comic book. Though immersed such event-driven storylines as Civil War and Secret Invasion, this conflict in NA #38 was an emotional, interpersonal one. I was riveted by Bendis’s revisiting of the relationship between Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. More importantly, I appreciated the new look at Jessica’s personality, beliefs and priorities.

As those who have been following Bendis’s work for some time know, Jessica was the damaged heroine of Bendis’s private-eye series, Alias, set in Marvel’s shared-continuity, super-hero universe. Alias was an important series to those of us who delighted at Bendis’s earlier noir work, such as Jinx and AKA Goldfish. It demonstrated that despite his immersion in a world of spandex and super-powers, he still had stories to tell that weren’t about alien infiltrations and mutant manifestations. Illustrated in a dark, non-super-hero style by artist Michael Gaydos, Alias allowed Bendis to explore disconcerting corners of urban life and of the human soul. It stands out as Bendis’s best work at Marvel.

New Avengers #38 recaptured the strength of Alias, and it’s clear that Marvel knew this particular issue would appeal to those of us who remember that mature-readers series with fondness. It brought back Gaydos to illustrate the issue. Yes, the visuals were much brighter this time around, but the characters are in a much different mode now as well. The argument between Jessica and Luke allowed Bendis to show off the wonderful beats he can bring to dialogue and the convincing tone with which he dazzled so many readers early on in his career in comics.

Mind you, the 38th issue was really an aberration in the overall picture of New Avengers. Lately, it’s been far more focused on plot than character, on action rather than substances. It’s been criticized (justifiably so, to a certain degree) for misogynist leanings, and despite a strong start, it’s been spinning its wheels with its current “outlaw Avengers” riff. The “Return to Alias” issue show what a strong title it could be, but it also doesn’t leave the reader with the impression that the creators plan a creative shift, with a strong focus on characterization, for the title.

Now, one could argue that Bendis still has his outlet for darker stories, for crime drama and for studies of shattered psyches in Powers. Originally published by Image Comics but now under Marvel’s Icon imprint, Powers is a mix of gritty cop drama and super-hero genre elements. Like Alias and other Bendis projects, when the creator-owned title debuted, it was met with critical acclaim and a small but rabid fanbase. Though far more sporadically published as compared to his work-for-hire stuff for Marvel, it is encouraging that it’s continued its run for so long, with no apparent end in sight… which may be the title’s problem at this point.

Powers is still engaging, but one really doesn’t hear much about it anymore. Is it just a case of people growing tired of the same old thing? I don’t think so. With Powers, the two main characters — detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim — have changed drastically over the course of the series. Avoiding the status quo is always a welcome thing in any comic book connected with the super-hero genre, but those down-to-earth protagonists are now removed from their early grounded incarnations. Walker is secretly an intergalactic guardian. Pilgrim is cursed with powers she can’t control and a murder she must hide from the world. Powers started off being about two regular cops in a surreal world. I’m also left with a sense as of late that the plotting in Powers is almost random. It doesn’t feel as though it’s leading to any particular destination, to an ending. I have no way of knowing for sure if that’s the case, but that’s how it feels to me.

Over on his other Avengers title — Mighty Avengers – Bendis’s talent with dialogue is probably the book’s greatest strength. However, he approaches the scripting of that book in a different way, combining word and thought balloons to spotlight inner conflicts and distrust among the cast of characters. The balloons come in quick spurts, maintaining a breakneck pace, which is in keeping with the action-oriented, old-school super-heroics that are at the heart of the series. But while those afore-mentioned thought balloons do provide some insight into the characters (or how Bendis envisions them), the series is clearly driven by larger-than-life stories of cataclysms and hostile monsters.

The hectic pace Bendis tried to establish for the series was unfortunately countered by artist Frank Cho’s slow turnaround time, leaving significant gaps of time between the release dates of the early issues. Mark Bagley’s fill-in stint for the second story arc has brought the book up to the speed as intended, and his angular, kinetic, loose style is certainly in keeping with the hurried pace the writer had in mind from the start. The most recent issue — Might Avengers #9 — spotlighted just how light on content Bendis’s scripts are, though. Never has it been more apparent just how empty the writer’s attempts at “nouveau old-school” super-hero storytelling are.

In that ninth issue, Bagley provides a stunning double-page spread that demonstrates the immensity of the scope of a battle on foreign soil. It reinforces the notion that going up against Dr. Doom is no run-of-the-mill Avengers mission. The problem is that Bendis’s script follows up on that double-page spread with another one, depicting the same sort of action. And then he hits us with another double after that. It quickly goes from writing action for effect to filling up pages to reach the standard issue quota. That problem isn’t just a matter of perception and disinterest in his work over time. It might be a sign that he’s spread too thin.

Of course, Bendis made his biggest splash at Marvel years ago with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man, which was the publisher’s biggest seller for quite some time, if memory serves. Ultimate Spidey was the flagship of the juggernaut Ultimate brand, but as sales charts today show, that brand isn’t nearly as big a draw and cash cow for Marvel as it once was. Still, the only thing about the Ultimate brand that remains the same today as it was in 2000 is Bendis’s involvement with the Spidey title.

Every issue of the earlier Ultimate Spidey story arcs had me enthralled, and the reason was clear: again, it was Bendis’s strong characterization and catchy dialogue. As the series progressed, it seemed as though there was a growing focus on super-hero plotlines rather than the teenage drama that was so well realized early on in the series. I remain an Ultimate Spider-Man reader to this day, enjoying the new look that artist Stuart Immonen brought to the title after replacing the original series artist — frequent Bendis collaborator Bagley. Bendis still offers some issues that focus on the kids rather than the kinetically explosive conflicts of Spider-Man’s world, but we’ve also had to contend with clones, mutant mayhem and clumsy bounty hunters more often than not.

Honestly, I don’t think Ultimate Spider-Man is a significantly weaker series than it was when it began. The problem may be that Bendis seems to have said and done it all when it comes to these characters. While I feel invested in his take on these characters, I think I’d be more interested in them without the super-powers and secret identities. Of course, one has to also acknowledge that personal tastes change. I’m far from the same person I was when this series began. Mind you, extending that logical, one also has to realize that Bendis isn’t the same writer he was when USM got underway.

There’s no denying Bendis is still a valuable asset for Marvel, and his involvement in so many projects and his upcoming guidance of the Secret Invasion event are testaments to that fact. But I miss the Brian Michael Bendis of the mid to late 1990s. I miss the Bendis that created Jinx. I miss the Bendis that breathed life into Spawn’s supporting cast members in Sam & Twitch. And God I miss the Bendis of Fortune & Glory. Is it too early to eulogize those Bendises? (Or is it Bendii?)

Only the writer himself can pen those obituaries … or give us some hope that those men within the man will be found alive and well.

23 Responses to “Will the Real Brian Bendis Please Stand Up?”

  1. Ray Says:

    I think Bendis is today’s Byrne. What Bendis is doing with Marvel is similar to what Byrne did with the rebooting of Superman and many Marvel characters. Powers is much like Next Men, in that it started off big, but lost focus when the writer spread himself too thin.

    Bendis seems more business savy and the better shill.

  2. Justin Boatwright Says:

    Well said Don. I was thinking a similar thing myself a few weeks ago when Ultimate Spider-Man #118 and New Avengers Annual #2 came out in the same week. USM #118 was one of the best issues of the series in a while because it focused on the characters and their relationships with one another while the NA Annual #2 was one of the worst Bendis comics I have read in a long time with some afwul dialogue of Loeb-ian proportions. And these books came out in the SAME WEEK.

    I’m not overly excited about Secret Invasion because, as you say, Bendis really seems to do his best work on smaller, character based stories, not on huge crossovers like his disapointing previous effort on House of M. He still has undeniable talent but for me his star doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it used to.

  3. Cory Just Says:

    You couldn’t have written a more spot-on critique. After reading NA #38, I was both enthralled and pissed at the same time. This issue was enthralling because it had been soooooo long since a Bendis story like this, which in turn pissed me off because it had indeed been so long.

    Looking back on those Alias issues, and early Powers issues, there was an urgency in the characters, that somehow their own idiosyncracies were more important than the events going on around them – the internal was more important than the external. It seems now that Bendis relies more on the events to create drama, instead of the characters themselves driving the narrative.

    I don’t know why that is, or if what I wrote even makes sense – but what I do know is that you took the thoughts right out of my head and wrote a smashing critique.

    Thank you.

  4. Tom Beland Says:

    I’ll put Bendis’s Powers run up against anything Byrne has written and it’s no contest. I think Byrne was in his writing heyday on Fantastic Four, but eventually, the wheels came off for me by the time Reed’s father was brought in. Powers was a force for a very, very long time.

    I miss the Bendis of Fortune and Glory days, only because I really loved that auto-bio aspect to his work and I’d love to see him revisit that type of story.

    But, c’mon… for the amount of work he produces, he has a huge percentage of hits.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Tom Beland wrote:
    But, c’mon… for the amount of work he produces, he has a huge percentage of hits.

    Well… “hits” doesn’t automatically translate into quality. Still, your point is well taken, and I don’t think my essay suggests Bendis has transformed into a poor writer, by any means.

  6. Don MacPherson Says:

    FYI, there’s a lengthy thread about the above essay underway on Bendis’s own message boards. You can find the thread by clicking here.

  7. Sam Says:

    Nice post, Don. I tend to agree with you about Bendis — a few years ago, I bought every comic he wrote, now none of his titles are on my pull list. I think part of it may simply fatigue — Bendis’s, and the reader’s. His work simply isn’t as fresh as it was at the start of the decade, which is a natural consequence of his omnipresence, I think.

    Also, I feel as BMB has a very similar voice across all his books. The verbal ticks, the pacing and flow of conversations, are the same, whether he’s writing Sam & Twitch, Daredevil or New Avengers. He’s not Alan Moore, someone who can flit between the vastly different styles of Top 10 and Tom Strong at the same time. That samey-ness perhaps has worn thin.

    But I also wonder whether he is somewhat burned out. I think, as you noted, the best of his work is from some years ago: Sam & Twitch, early USM, Alias, early Powers, DD. I don’t think his work of the past couple of years matches any of those. But given that he’s been writing 3-4 books a month for almost the past decade, who can blame him? Maybe, ideally, he needs a break, to come back and try something different. But, if Marvel gave you the keys to their universe, would you walk away from it?

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    Sam wrote:
    I feel as BMB has a very similar voice across all his books. The verbal ticks, the pacing and flow of conversations, are the same…

    Actually, his approach to the dialogue on Mighty Avengers has been different from his usual dialogue beats.

  9. Mory Buckman Says:

    I disagree that Bendis has lost his way. You’re right that he’s good at characterization, but I think you’re underselling his skill at plotting. Remember, this Secret Invasion is something he started working toward more than three years ago! If you look at the early New Avengers issues, you can also see how he’s setting up the relationship between Cap and Tony to make Civil War work well. Plus there’s how Disassembled, no matter what you thought of the story itself, led very neatly and naturally to House of M, which was a totally different kind of story. He’s really good at this sort of thing. He sees where the story is supposed to be going, he anticipates it far ahead of time, he hints at things, he has his multiple series bouncing off each other. I’d say he’s almost as good at plotting as he is at characterization!

    Lately, he’s been focusing on plot. That makes sense, given that he’s set up so many plot points and is juggling them all simultaneously while making it look easy. And as NA38 (and probably the upcoming Echo issue) shows, he’s not forgetting about the characters. But you’re right that the plot has taken the forefront, and the characters are getting swept along with it. As long as he keeps being so great at plotting, that’s fine with me.

  10. Mory Buckman Says:

    Oh, and don’t forget the Civil War issues of New Avengers, which were very much character driven. And even in House of M, he was focusing on the emotional states of all the superheroes who got pulled in. Don’t think that just because he’s working on a big crossover, he’s not going to keep taking the time to focus on his characters.

  11. Martin Says:

    Don wrote:
    “Honestly, I don’t think Ultimate Spider-Man is a significantly weaker series than it was when it began”.

    I think it’s stronger; #118 was great; I loved the rhythm to the writing, and Immonen is SO much better than Bagley.

  12. Gabriel Mckee Says:

    Tom wrote:
    But, c’mon… for the amount of work he produces, he has a huge percentage of hits.

    But that’s precisely the problem– back when he produced less volume, it was 100% hits. When Joe Q handed him the whole Marvel Universe and he started taking on title after title, that’s when we started to see misses. He spread himself very, very thin. There was a time when I would buy anything that had his name on it; now it’s basically down to just Powers and USM.

  13. Hellhound Says:

    For me, Bendis jumped the shark around the time of Avengers Disassembled. Not that everything he’s written since then has been total crap, but it’s not like it used to be. I won’t argue that he still has selling power, but that doesn’t mean he’s still good. I wonder if the quality slip is because his editors became afraid to criticize his work once he became one of Marvel’s big stars.

    Don you totally hit the nail on the head as far as Powers goes. The whole premise of the book was mundane cops dealing with super-powered problems which went right out the window after he gave both the characters their own powers.

  14. JohnnyZito Says:

    I like Bendis’ super hero work best when it most closely resembles crime fiction.

  15. Davey Boy Says:

    It is undeniable that the Bendis magic has waned in recent years. His work on Avengers has been terrible, making me long for the days when Busiek was writing the title. His dialogue on Mighty Avengers makes me cringe. He doesn’t know how to employ thought balloons! Thought balloons were once employed as a means of depicting extended inner monologues. Bendis instead uses them for quips, making them redudant as a result.
    Bendis was once in the position Brubaker finds himself in now. But whereas Brubaker has been able to deliver on a monthly basis, Bendis has stagnated by taking on books he is ill-suited for. He should be writing Spider-Woman with Alex Maleev on art instead of two flashy Avengers titles.

    IMO, Bendis has never been the comics god people made him out to be. The reason he was so popular a few years ago is because his writing on titles such as Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil was so distinct. He’s a niche writer. Hopefully, he will soon reassert his strengths and pick projects more in line with his style of writing.

  16. Fan4Fan Says:

    I never was a big Bendis fan.

    Torso was the first thing that I read and it was good enough to make me look at his other stuff. Jinx, Fortune and Glory, Powers, and his other indy work I couldn’t get into.

    The Ultimate stuff likewise was uninteresting (but – to be fair – I’m not much of a Spider-Man or X-Men fan)… as was Daredevil.

    I did like Alias (and later Pulse) very much and have seriously considered buying these for my collection.

    On the other hand, Bendis’s Avengers caused me to see the ludicrousness of team books and resulted in a massive culling of my collection and want list of all things Avengers (with some collateral damage to other team book titles).

    I agree with some of the others that he’s writing on books that may not play to his strengths… at least when he’s spread himself out over a fair number of titles.

  17. Steven R. Stahl Says:

    I and some other online posters have occasionally wondered why Bendis’s “Avengers” work sells, or is even published, given the plotting and grammatical problems that pop up issue after issue. Some examples of the problems:

    In MIGHTY AVENGERS #6, Bendis has Pym create a computer virus that can’t possibly work because it wouldn’t run “on” Ultron or any platform other than a Commodore 64-compatible computer. Bendis apparently confused programming languages with the platforms that pieces of executable code (programs) run on.

    In MIGHTY AVENGERS #8, Bendis claims that the Venom symbiote is a virus, which conflicts badly with the symbiote as used by other writers (who have had the symbiote act independently), and common sense. A virus infects individual cells, not the body as a whole. That issue also has the phrases “counteragent antibiotic antidote” and “backwards code it,” which join such memorable verbal blunders as “biological reverse engineering” (MA #6) and “homeopathic enchantment spells” (NA #28).

    In MIGHTY AVENGERS #9, Bendis has Doom take time to travel back in time when there was no need to (he could have returned a second after he left), and has Doom’s armor project the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, when Dr. Strange has to invoke Cyttorak via a spell.

    In NA ANNUAL #2, the plotline’s climax forces a reader to suppose that an injury to Strange’s hands would somehow interfere with the use of “white” magic, when there’s no basis for supposing that. The mischaracterization of Strange is consistent, at least, with the mischaracterization of Strange that dates back to AVENGERS #503.

    If you’ll critically read all of Bendis’s NEW AVENGERS and MIGHTY AVENGERS, you’ll find that he can fairly be described as scientifically illiterate, and as having problems with his vocabulary and word usage that practically never appear in commercial publications. You’re not alone in not publicizing these problems with his stories, though–but why? Would describing just how bad the stories are, compared to commercial fiction published elsewhere, seem to radicalize the reviewer’s opinion, or does the typical reviewer think that superhero fiction is so junky and juvenile that he’ll skim through the issue reading only a fraction of the dialogue and skipping over material that doesn’t immediately make sense?

    I’ve read that some prominent authors need to have their manuscripts cleaned up by editors before they’re published, and Marvel’s editors should be held accountable for the mistakes appearing in Bendis’s “Avengers” work–but his work is far, far worse than one would think from reading your critique.

    SRS

  18. Delmore Says:

    Powers used to be my favorite book and I dropped it last month. That’s the only book where I felt the tug of other projects taking hold (not only him, BTW, that’s right, Oeming). His Ultimate Spider-Man still kicks major ass, as anyone can plainly tell after reading this week’s installment.

  19. Chris Says:

    I too haven’t been as excited over BMB in recent years. I loved his Daredevil and Alias, and followed USM somewhat. His recent work hasn’t felt the same though. His dialogue just doesn’t have the same ring it used to. I have even found myself debating on whether or not to drop New and Mighty Avengers because of it. I wonder if his workload is too much? Still, he is by no means a bad writer.

  20. Don MacPherson Says:

    Chris wrote:
    I wonder if his workload is too much? Still, he is by no means a bad writer.

    A bad writer? Certainly not. I still read some of Bendis’s comics.

    An important point I should have made in the column is that his writing these days seems primarily driven by Marvel’s larger plans and needs. His work is driven by a Big Picture approach, whereas I think the work that allowed him to stand out from the creative crowd earlier in his career was built on more personal, character-driven writing.

  21. Steven R. Stahl Says:

    Don wrote:
    A bad writer? Certainly not. I still read some of Bendis’s comics.

    Huh? Are we reading the same comics? Or are you assuming, as you read the stories, that the typical comics writer doesn’t know enough about science to pass a high school test and needs to take a vocabulary-building class, if not a remedial English class?

  22. Don MacPherson Says:

    Steven wrote:
    Huh? Are we reading the same comics?

    So you’re reading comics regularly that you don’t enjoy?

  23. Doug G. Says:

    Sometimes I wonder if my issues with many of Bendis’s books are because of his stories or the editorial style at Marvel. Across the board, I’ve been less and less interested in Marvel’s output, because they’re heavy on setup and featherweight in resolution. Comics are a serial medium and I expect a cliffhanger here and there to keep me interested, but very few of the big Marvel ‘events’ in the last 4-5 years provided any real resolution by the end. Avengers Disassembled…House of M…Civil War…The Initiative…World War Hulk…One More Day. I felt strung along by every one of those storylines/sales ploys and ultimately disappointed.

    Instead of resolving stories and leaving threads to continue, Marvel (and Bendis is a prime culprit) love to unravel all the threads, continue with one and leave the rest frayed. I’ve stopped responding and more than half the Marvel books I read in 2004 are no longer on my pull list.