Brian Bendis: All That and a Bag of Tricks – Part 4

DT: Speaking of Ultimate Spider-Man, that’s a good chance to segue into that. You were talking about the Marvel purists not wanting anything changed or having their set expectations. That’s an interesting thing about the whole Ultimate project, ’cause one of the stated things, in a lot of the marketing, was to strip the characters down to their essence, and strip away the barnacles or whatever you want to call it. That’s gotta be a challenging thing to do, to figure out, “What is the essence of any of these characters to begin with, and how do I get a whole readership to agree with what I think is the essence?” Was that a challenge?

BB: Well that’s true and there’s a leap of faith there as far as that goes. When the first issue came out, it was a big, “Pheew!” Because if you’re gonna buy this, you’re gonna buy the series, right? It’s 40 pages, there’s no costume, obviously we’re gonna take our time telling the story. Because other than the way comics were done in the 60s, audiences are a little more sophisticated now, and you have to spend time with the characters to make us care for them. You can’t just go into the fight scenes and have a blast. That’s true with anything, you know? People expect a lot now, they don’t want to be talked down to. And also there’s that shared experience of Spider-Man that we’ve all grown up on, and an interpretation should done lovingly, it shouldn’t be done rushed. I think people saw right away that I don’t think I’m smarter than Stan Lee and I don’t think that Spider-Man was broken at all. There’s nothing wrong with it. But just like Shakespeare, it can be taken into a new context, and all of the themes remain true, and all of the characterization and the moral humanity remain true. I really do hold it up to Shakespeare. If you do this again in twenty years, it’ll still work, because the theme of the story totally works.

DT: That was an interesting thing, that a story that was originally told in one issue, you took seven issues. And that wasn’t wasted space, it was a sign of how comics have changed.

BB: Plus, you know, if you know the story of how Spider-Man was created, he had 11 pages, so he told the story in 11 pages. You know, I bet if he had a hundred pages, he would have done a hundred pages. That’s what he had, he had 11 pages. Everyone goes, “oh look.” That’s always the negative look at it, they go, “Hey, Stan Lee did this in 11 pages!” I don’t know, it’s just a funny thing to say. I could tell it on one page — would that make me a genius?

DT: Another thing with Ultimate Spider-Man, you spent a lot of time pushing issue 13 —

BB: Yeah, and I think I did so expertly, thank you, by the way.

DT: Absolutely. There was certainly a lot of attention and expectation going into that and trying to figure out exactly what would be going on. What was it that made you decide that that story should be treated in that way?

BB: Six issues in I knew that clearly . . . the characters take over the story. Starting from the base of what Stan Lee created, they become their own entities, and they write the stories themselves. They take over. Clearly, in the modern world, having a secret identity is not as easy as it was in the 60s. We live in an all permeating, all seeing society of super information, and I can’t imagine how you’d have a secret identity, and also I can’t imagine how you’d hold it back from people you care about. That was always one of the things . . . that was like a plot thing that they tried that they sort of buried themselves into, that became like a staple of comics without anyone thinking, “OK, what would happen if he did tell his girlfriend?” He’s got one friend in the world is this girl, he’s fifteen years old. He’s fifteen, he’s got one friend, it’s her, he’s gonna hurt her feelings and alienate her? Or is he gonna go, “I have to tell you this.” I remember when I was fifteen, my best friend was my girlfriend, or was the girl who became my girlfriend. Right? And there’s nothing . . . I told her stuff I didn’t even tell my friends, my guy friends. My first person I really expressed my secrets and desires to, and I do see myself as Peter Parker when I was fifteen, right? And I go, if I were fifteen, I would have told her.

I told this to Joe [Quesada] and Bill [Jemas] who run Marvel, about six issues into the story, I said, I have to build up to it, but you tell her. And we debated it back and forth, and they let me go for it, and I expressed to them, if we’re exploring modern society, the secret identity thing is what’s different now . . . . there’s two things that we’re not going to be able to do that they were able to do in the older Spider-Man. One is that a lot of the Marvel characters were created from nuclear paranoia, they were all radioactive spiders and gamma bombs and cosmic rays. And that’s not going to be the overall origin, the radioactive whatever is not going to be how we accomplish things, they have to be more about our society, because we don’t live with nuclear paranoia. But we do live with other things in our lives and we’re going to explore them. And within the confines of that, is the fact that he’s fifteen and this is what I thought he would do, and the characters wrote it themselves. Nobody who read it said, “He’d never do that!” It was all, “Oh, I can’t believe . . . of course he would do that!” It was a lot of fun to write, and it was also a lot of fun to write a one scene comic. Which I know was a little harder for some of the purists, but there was something really gratifying about being able to put out a comic that was all taking place in the bedroom and was all just a conversation and to see if I could hold someone’s interest for the whole time.