Brian Bendis: All That and a Bag of Tricks

If you’ve been reading the Comics Forums, you know how much we love Brian Michael Bendis. He currently writes Powers for Image Comics and Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, Alias and Daredevil for Marvel Comics. He’s also written and drawn a number of excellent graphic novels, including the crime fiction books Goldfish and Jinx and the true-crime story Torso (which details Eliot Ness’s efforts to track down a serial killer in Cleveland). He recounted his adventures in Hollywood working on a film version of Goldfish in the hilarious Fortune & Glory, and recently re-released one of his earliest works, the spy thriller Fire. And he just moved from Cleveland to Portland. In other words, he’s a busy, busy man. But he took some time to talk to us about his career and what excites him about the medium — and since he has plenty to say, I’m gonna shut up and get out of the way. Let the Q and A begin.

DT: How’d you get started? What made you decide you wanted to do comics?

BB: That’s just simply a childhood love of them. They were a form of escapism that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. It was pure and I discovered it as entertainment, and then discovered what the art of the entertainment was. It was one of those expressions that was . . . it’s unlimited what could be done with it. As the information I had about the medium grew, my taste for the medium grew. It’s just a medium that has an immense about of things that it can accomplish. It excited me consistently, throughout my artistic growth.

DT: What first got you to look at the art of the medium?

BB: I was a Marvel kid when I was growing up. There’s an imagination and a morality that’s just . . . it’s like a comics page has an unlimited special effects budget. There’s no cap on what can be accomplished on the page other than your imagination, and that’s an amazing thing.

DT: Were you doing anything before you got into comics?

BB: I was doing comics ever since I was a kid. I broke into the business eight years ago while I was still in college. I was lucky enough to be able to get my books published but they weren’t enough to sustain any kind of life. So, you know, I took jobs. And I made a conscious decision that I will write and I will draw for a living in whatever medium I could get into. So I did greeting cards and caricatures and worked at newspapers and magazines. And over the last couple years, I’m pretty much just doing comics, and, you know, TV and movie stuff. But up until just a couple years ago, it was anything I could do to support myself and at the same time create my comics. ‘Cause you know, I never actually thought I’d have a hit comic, I just wanted to put out comics.

DT: A big element of a lot of the comics you’ve written and drawn has been the xerography, the design work, the photographic elements. When did you first start thinking that this was something you could do?

BB: Comics are a bastard medium, which means there’s no right way to make a comic. Rock and roll is a bastard medium where there’s no thing about rock and roll that is itself. It’s a crossgeneration of a bunch of different things, right? And it always succeeds when it looks outside itself, like when someone brings country or jazz or opera into rock and roll, it thrives. And comics are the same way. And comics always thrive as a medium of self expression when someone goes outside of comics and looks at something and brings it in. For me, it’s many things, but the thing you’re talking about that I capture most is the cinematography of film noir, the harsh black and white gritty look of film noir that is a language unto itself and it drives me crazy and I love it and I can’t get enough of it and I try to express that inside the comic book page, and I use the xerography and the photography which I have a great fondness for. And again, for independent comics guys, a lot of the times it’s creating a comic book that you would buy for no other reason than that you would have it. And if anyone else buys it, then that’s cool, but I would like to see a book with a lot of xerography and photography. That would be cool, and I’d like to see that expressed, so I tried it.

DT: Were there people who said, “Hey, you can’t do this? It’s a comic, it has to be drawn?”

BB: There’s always people that say that, and it usually means I try harder to do it. Even writing Spider-Man, someone says “You can’t have him not in the costume for five issues,” I’m like “Oh yeah? Bet you can!” There’s no rules, that’s the thing. Even like last night, you see people arguing if West Wing was really drama or not, I’m like, “Who cares? It was an expression, man! Let him say whatever he wants!” We’re putting rules on art, it drives me crazy. Especially comics. You’re gonna start putting rules on that? It’s silly. Every good comic that was ever made was a rule-breaking comic. Listen, you can overdo it, and you can fall on your ass, right? But I’d rather fall on my ass by overdoing it than by not trying anything. That’s the way I see it.

DT: The film noir look that’s in your crime comics, that wasn’t as heavy an influence in stuff like Fortune and Glory. How’d you develop that approach?

BB: I try to come up with a new bag of tricks for every project I do. I have certain things I try to do that I’m constantly exploring. I knew for Fortune and Glory, there was another way to present the material, and that the film noirish look at the world would have created a tone unlike what I wanted to achieve. So even with the stuff I’m doing for Marvel, my tastes for what I want to accomplish as a writer and as a storyteller are varied, so I will jump from very dark serial killer film noir to autobiographical humor to teenage drama to all kinds of stuff.

DT: Do you think there’s one style or approach that feels more natural to you at this point, or do they all feel like things you’re equally comfortable with?

BB: Writing is the most natural thing for me, and I don’t why that is, but it is. For drawing, I think my most natural drawing style is the Fortune and Glory drawing style. That’s what I draw without any bag of tricks or photo reference or anything like that. But I try to strengthen that, not, “Oh, this is what I do the easiest, that’ll be it for me.” So you try as an artist to do new things and accomplish new things. Like, for Torso, that drawing style, that has a lot of xerography and computer work, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done by far. Nothing about that is my natural style, but that’s the way I felt that book should look, or as close as I could get without going over. [Check out art samples from Torso, and some free web comics in the same autobiographical humor style of Fortune and Glory.]