Posted by Don MacPherson on February 26th, 2008
Brian 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.