Interview conducted 02.01.00 by Alan David Doane
It's pretty hard to be a comics fan these days without hearing about Brian Michael Bendis. His work for Image on Sam and Twitch has gotten rave reviews, and he's written a Daredevil story arc to be illustrated by David Mack for the Marvel Knights line. In addition, his Fortune and Glory from Oni Press is, in my opinion, one of the best comics to come out in years. I interviewed Brian for my radio show Tuesday, February 1st, 2000.
Alan David Doane: It's difficult to know how to credit you, you're a writer and an artist and now a filmmaker, and there's really a lot that I want to talk to you about. It seems like the last week or so it's been very hard to read any kind of a press release that hasn't had your name included in it.
Brian Michael Bendis: I know, isn't it disgusting? It really is, I'm gonna go crawl under a rock and you'll see me in the spring.
ADD: Basically, I've got a checklist of things I want to ask you about here, if I forget about anything and you want to plug something, just let me know.
ADD: I first became aware of your work through Fortune and Glory, subtitled A True Hollywood Comic Book Story...
ADD: The tale of how one of your comics got optioned to be a movie in Hollywood. Before we get into the actual movie tale, tell us a little bit about the genesis of the comic.
BMB: The genesis of the comic came from what was a--I'm from Cleveland, I don't live in L.A., and I don't have a lot to do with the Hollywood system. And after some good fortune where one of my books got some nice, decent, mainstream media press, like in Spin Magazine and such--
ADD: Now, which one was that?
BMB: Jinx and Goldfish both. They sort of came out within a year of each other and people were talking about them in the same breath. They're my first crime novels, and people were liking them and being very nice about them and they were getting some nice press and what happened was, after the press came, Hollywood came calling and I was getting a myriad of bizarre phone calls, and half-offers and interesting notions and eventually actually, Miramax Films did option the work, and the process of the whole situation to Miramax was just filled with nonsense and silliness...the best part, of course, was Miramax, who has been very good to me, but all the people in between who were trying to get to it. It was fascinating and silly--it was just ridiculous phone calls, and ridiculous meetings, and the whole process got me so many anecdotes. I mean, literally 150 pages worth of cartoon anecdotes. I said, you know, it'd be a waste to take this material and waste it.
ADD: One of the best scenes in Fortune and Glory is when those phone calls start rolling in. Tell us a little bit about what it was like the first time you picked up the phone and somebody that you had never heard of was telling you how great you were.
BMB: Well yeah, it's almost like that scene in The Big Picture where that agent says to Kevin Bacon, "You're a genius, I haven't read your work but I'm never wrong." It's the same thing, I mean, they call you up, they've not read your work but they're telling you how much they love you and how much money everyone's gonna make and what a genius you are and then they realize they haven't even read the book. They literally give you a ten-minute speech about how they're the perfect place for you to be, and then "Could you send us a copy?"
ADD: So it's as flattering as it is insulting?
BMB: No, it's not flattering at all, it's ridiculous, it's nothing, it's air, it's ether. It's just nonsense.
ADD: Okay, so it's just insulting.
BMB: It takes a while for you to figure it out. At the time you go, "Hey, look who's calling!" Because I remember when no one was calling, and what that felt like. But they were ridiculous phone calls, and literally every thing in that book is true. That's the funny part, I wasn't padding it for a gag.
ADD: The thing that really struck me about it is, reading Fortune and Glory cold for the first time, not really having an awareness of your work, every single moment int he book has the ring of truth.
BMB: Yeah, I wasn't patting myself on the back, and I wasn't going for the cheap gags. I was just trying to relate the information.Because the other funny part of it was, the readers of my books, which are a very nice group of people, every time I meet them, any e-mail I get, if they hear there's a Hollywood connection to your book, they always want to hear about that. That's very interesting to everybody. And I realized it is interesting to a lot of people. It would be interesting to me. If someone sat down and told me this story, I would be fascinated. So I thought, okay, that'll be my next book.
ADD: At what point in the process did you realize rather than making a movie here, possibly I'm gonna end up making a comic book about trying to make a movie?
BMB: It's funny, in the middle of what will be the third issue of the comic, the end of the comic, I had already decided to do the comic book of it. And I was really hoping by the end of the time that it takes to make this comic that I would have a happy ending, which was very Hollywood of me. So it's hard to say, I did decide that--you know what's funny? A development executive at Disney and I were having a nice, friendly chat and I was telling him some of the nonsense meetings I had had, and he was laughing hysterically, and he said "There's your movie!" And I said, "There's my comic, that's what that is."
ADD: (Fortune and Glory) is not something just for comic book fans, it's not just for people that want to know behind-the-scenes music stuff; there's such a truth that you bring out in just what it's like to get close to making your dreams come true.
BMB: Honestly, this is one of those things where I can't say that I was so aware that this was going to resonate so well for people. I really didn't know. You put stuff out that's of interest to you. You think you've got a good yarn to tell and you tell it. I'm very surprised how well this has been received.
ADD: So now the irony is, that it turns out you are making a movie.
BMB: Yeah, it is, and still with Miramax. Our book Torso, which is based on the Torso Killer murders of the 1930s and Elliot Ness's chase of them...
ADD: It's a true story, right?
BMB: It's a true story. Here in Cleveland, it's one of Cleveland's dark secrets. After the Untouchables (era), Elliot Ness actually moved to Cleveland and was running the police force, where he did most of his most amazing stuff. And it was there that he was faced with the work of the first serial killer that ever worked on American soil, and was called the Torso Killer. And at the time, it was the hugest deal. It was as huge as Jack the Ripper. And it was one of those things that people sort of forgot about. It didn't sort of hold up to the test of time. But the story, on every level, is totally fascinating. And we're working on the script now for Miramax and Todd McFarlane, and McFarlane Entertainment is producing it. It's been pretty pleasant. And Miramax is happy because they're the heroes of my book.
ADD: How did you get involved with (McFarlane's) production company?
BMB: Honestly, I've been at Image for a few years, and he's one of the co-founders of Image Comics, but I had no communication with him, he had no knowledge of me, and literally out of the blue one day a couple of years ago he called me up. He had just read Goldfish, and just said "I want to be in business with you." And he made some outlandish promises, and I went, "Yeah, okay." And literally he has held up to every single one, it's amazing. He said "I'm gonna make a movie with you." Well, we're making a movie!
ADD: It was just announced that you're going to be doing a Daredevil series...
BMB: Yeah, I'm doing a little arc on Daredevil, which is one of Marvel's highest selling books. It's kind of a very nice place to be, I'm sort of right in between Kevin Smith's run and Bob Gale's run. And I'm working on it with a good friend of mine, David Mack. I've already finished that, I did that in secret over the last six months. I'm very very psyched for people to see that later in the year.
ADD: Would you like to give us a hint as to what the story might entail?
BMB: The story is being tailored for David Mack's artwork, that's all I'm gonna say. You have to announce these things so early, that by the time people read it they've already decided what it will be. Sort of like when Star Wars came out, people already decided what theyt hought it should be, so when it comes out no matter what it is it's not good enough.
ADD: Well, you've got to admit they were right about Jar Jar Binks.
BMB: Oh, yeah, they were right about that, but you know what I'm talking about; hype is a killer. I liked when the Matrix came out, there wasn't--people weren't all focused on it. Just put it out, and let people go "wow," you know?
ADD: What else have you got coming up?
BMB: Monthly I write Sam and Twitch for McFarlane Entertainment. They gave me a monthly crime comic just to go nuts on, and it's a dream job. Creatively it's such a good experience, there's no rewriting, there's no editorial interference...
ADD: That's an interesting case, too, because historically, I don't think I'm revealing any secrets to say that Spawn books haven't exactly been critically acclaimed, and yet, pretty much universally your work on Sam and Twitch is being praised.
BMB: And again, it's one of those situations where this is a book where absolutely no one expected a thing from. A knock-off book of Spawn, no one thinks a thing of. And so, it was fun for like a year ahead of time to have seen the artwork, which I don't do, but to know the artwork's killer, to be proud of the story, and just to like, let it come out. And people are all like, "Hey, you don't suck!" It's kind of nice.
ADD: What is the angle you come at those characters from?
BMB: I literally write them as human as possible. I don't do any Abott and Costello nonsense. More times than not, in Spawn they're comic relief. I absolutely removed that element from their dynamic.
ADD: I was wondering, did you feel constrained by the previous--I almost hesitate to use the word "continuity" of the characters?
BMB: No, no, you know, that's one of the things he explained he really had no interest in us continuing along those lines. That he'd done that already, and that he as a publisher is trying to mature his product and he literally hired people he thought who could deliver the goods. And he wanted one of his books to be like a hard-boiled crime comic that felt like Goldfish, and he said "Let's get that guy!" I gotta tell you, it's been very pleasant. I have a lot of friends that work at Marvel and DC on some really high profile books, and there's constant rewriting behind the scenes without anyone--they rewrite the person's stuff without telling them, and they don't take their name off it, it's not very creatively conducive. None of that happens. (McFarlane's) very, very creator-friendly because he is, in fact, a comic book artist. So why would he treat comic artists badly?
ADD: It seems to me one of the things that is hurting mainstream comics right now is this sort of return to the Mort Weisenger days of the editor sort of guiding the story, which we've seen in X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman--most of the major, major titles from the Big Two seem to be--
BMB: It's funny, because I've, like, avoided it. I think it's always sort of been there, I just think you're hearing about it a lot more because what you've got now is creators like myself and David Mack who decided not to pursue mainstream work as a way to pay the rent, and instead focused on creator-owned books they owned outright. There was no editorial supervision, for better or worse. So you got guys like us who did our own thing and now Marvel and DC come lookin' for us to do our little, give them the Barton Fink feeling, right? And then, on the other hand you've got these other guys who've been trying, "All I want to write is Cape and Boots-Man," and they get to do it, and it's not the dream job that they imagined in their head, which was to have this creative freedom to just do your thing. So, the two worlds are clashing; it's the creator-owned guys who have a lot of freedom because we're used to it and demand it and get it. And then these other guys who don't get it, and find out that other people get it and get upset. And start yelling on the Internet, "They rewrote me!"
ADD: The Internet seems to have had sort of a mini-revolution on comics in the last couple of years, what do you think--
BMB: Well, I like it because up until very recently, I was strictly an independent comic book artist. That means I'm working in a black and white medium, and it's very, very hard to get your book on the shelves in most stores. It doesn't mean there isn't interest in it, it's just harder to convince a retailer that it's worth them spending their non-refundable money on your book. And with the web site and message boards and Internet sites it's much easier to get your book into their hands. Anyone around the world who's heard about it and wants it. And this is a very hungry audience that will do anything to get the book, and I appreciate that so much. On that level it's very good. The other thing comics has that a lot of other mediums have, except for maybe like Country music, is a lot of accessibility for fans to get to the creators. There's a lot of chit chat amongst the two, if you want to talk to literally anyone in comics you pretty much can. At least the nice guys (laughs).
ADD: And that, historically, has not been the case.
BMB: At conventions it's always been the case. I mean, you never see a Rock and Roll music convention where all the Rock stars are out and you can get their picture signed.
ADD: But when you think about the pre-EC days in the 40s and 50s when it was just sort of assumed by the readers that these things just appeared out of the ether, that there was no human being involved.
BMB: Yeah, and most of the time there wasn't even credits in the comic. It's much different now, it's sort of accumulating. It happened in the '80s with people like Frank Miller and Chaykin and other people, like, make a real name for themselves. It's such an identifiable name that people seek out that name. Stan Lee did it, I mean, Stan Lee's name was all over the place. And it sort of accumulated with the height of the IMage craziness in the early '90s where they brought the Rock star status of a comic book artist to the highest level, and with that came the highest bunch of nuttiness, too, which they all admit to. Everything's sort of calmed down a little, but more times than not it's the creator that is as important a property as something like Spider-Man or Batman. Sometimes who's writing Batman is much more interesting to the genral comic book audience than just Batman. And that's what Daredevil's been going through lately with these killer writers that they've had on it, Bob Gale wrote Back to the Future, he's writing comics, Kevin Smith, independent filmmaker. It's not just the character, it's who's doing it. That's what you get.
ADD: Can we talk a little bit about your background? How is it that you found yourself working in comics?
BMB: I always wanted to do it. I was doing it since I was a wee little kid. I was, like, publishing my own books in third grade. Bad ones, but nonetheless...I read them as a kid, mostly superhero comics, and just as I said, I so badly wanted to be George Perez, I so badly--to me this guy was like a rock star, he's Bruce Springsteen. I'm reading his stuff every week, I'm like, oh my God, I love this, I want to be this guy. And you just start practicing and practicing and practicing. But for me, as I got older, I lost a little bit of the superhero edge. There wasn't as much interest to me as just telling interest stories were. And crime fiction became a genre that I have a great affection for, and a talent for, and an understanding of. And I went to the Institute of Art here in Cleveland, which is sort of a fancy, fine arts school which would have nothing to do with comics and were quite annoyed by my existence and a couple of my friends, all of which broke into comics and are successful. But we all had a hard time in class. But I did train, and I broke into comics while I was in college, I did a couple of self-published books for Caliber Press, which is a lot of my friends like David Mack and Mark Andreyko, have all moved on from. We all met there at Caliber and after a couple of years there, after I sort of like found my voice or like the beginning of the road to where my voice would be, I moved on to Image where I've been ever since.
ADD: How do you reconcile the sort of doom-and-gloom predictions of many people that the industry is in its death knells with the seeming boom for someone like yourself who is really a hot property at a number of different companies?
BMB: You know what, the comics market overall is down, and a lot of it has to do with the major companies not coming to grips with the fact that kids aren't reading comics anymore. You go to comics shows, you go to comic book stores, you don't see one kid in there. Kids are playing video games. If I was a kid, and I could be Spider-Man instead of reading Spider-Man, I would be playing video games too! So comic books should be, and the more successful ones are, tailored to adult, or young adult, audiences. These are people that have an appreciation for the artform, and don't want to be talked down to.
ADD: But how do they develop that appreciation if they don't develop the language skills of reading them as kids?
BMB: Some do, some don't. I have a lot of fans that just got into it because they weren't getting what they wanted from film or from music, it's just a way to tell a story that people either glom on to or they don't. I know a lot of people who didn't get into comics until college. They just didn't understand how varied the medium could be. If you see a lot of superhero comics and superheroes are of no interest to you when you're a kid, and then you get into college, and your roommate's got a bunch of Peter Bagge Hate! comics laying around, and you read them and go "I love this! I really love--are there more of these?" And you find out there are forty titles that are of equal interest and merit, and then you've got yourself a comic reader. Almost everyone I've talked to--Sam and Twitch is not for children. It's not being marketed toward whatever the predetermined age of the Spawn audience is. It's being written for adults. It's a crime book. It's not a, "here, let's talk down to people" kind of thing. And I'm writing a book I would like to see, and I think if more people just wrote books that they would want to see and stop trying to second-guess what the audience for Cape and Boots-Man is, then it would be easier for people to be proud of being a comic book reader. It's still got that, what do you call it?
BMB: Yeah, it's got a stench about it.
BMB: And it's funny because no matter how many great comics are put out a year, and really the last couple of years have been, as far as quality goes, quite phenomenal, really have for a medium that's sort of in a sales slump, the quality is way high. And one of the reasons is when the going gets tough, a lot of people scamper. So you have a lot of lesser talents who were just in it for the buck running away, but the people who were very passionate about the medium, they stick to their guns. So you got rid of a lot of crappy artists and writers, and a lot of good ones that stuck around. Because they're not gonna let the market determine their value.
ADD: I think two of the most amazing books I've come across in the last couple of months, both were from Oni. Fortune and Glory, and also Greg Rucka's Whiteout.
BMB: Greg Rucka's fantastic. Absolutely. Here's a guy--you know, it's not good marketing sense for a novelist to be making comics. This guy loves comics. And he wants to tell stories, and it's a great way to do it.
ADD: Whiteout should be collected in some sort of either digest or inexpensive graphic novel format and be available in the checkout aisle of your Price Chopper, or whatever.
BMB: One of the reasons I went with Oni for my Hollywood book, my usual home is Image, number one I had a very nice relationship with those people and I believe very much in their company and they were very successful in doing some stuff that people said would not work. It was very obvious to those who read stuff outside the industry that "Clerks" would work as a comic book, and that Greg Rucka's work would work as a comic book. Also when I do Fortune and Glory, the obvious independent film/comic book connection made it very easy for people to understand what my point of view was going to be for Fortune and Glory. And the other thing was that Oni's got a very strong intention of getting their comic books into bookstores and not into the Humor section which drives me insane. You know, that gutter for all comic books?
ADD: Every time I see a graphic novel in between Dave Barry and Andy Rooney, it's like fingernails across the chalkboard.
BMB: Robert Crumb next to Wonder Woman--drives me insane. And you know how many times some grandmother goes in and buys someone a present and they get them the wrong comic because she doesn't know the difference between Robert Crumb and Wonder Woman. So it's really funny because locally I've had Borders put Jinx and Goldfish in the crime section, after explaining to them at great length why it doesn't belong in the humor section.
ADD: Now, how do they do there? Do the people find them?
BMB: Guess what? They're all gone, every single copy. Gone. The random, casual crime fiction reader who just goes into bookstores on a Friday night looking for a thrill is gonna pick it up and go "hmm." They're buying it because they weren't embarrassed to find it in the humor section next to, you know, Krazy Cat or whatever it is. That's one of the things about my relationship with Todd McFarlane is, I'm one little guy trying to push people into feeling this way. Here's a guy who not only agrees with all these things we've talked about, but he's got the money and resources behind him to actually do it. And I'll hold on to that coattail. It's a very positive thing.
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