Brian Michael Bendis Survived a Near-Death Experience—Now He’s Ready to Make the Best Comics of His Career
Cover With David Mack & United States vs. Murder, Inc. With Michael Avon Oeming are Just Two of Bendis’ New Jinxworld Series at DC ComicsMain Art by Michael Avon Oeming & Taki Soma/ David Mack Comics Features Brian Michael Bendis
Few announcements in recent memory shook the world of comics harder than the news that Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel’s most influential creative architect for over a decade, had signed an exclusive contract to write for DC Comics. The writer behind two wildly successful Ultimate Spider-Man eras, the man who helped jumpstart the Avengers, one of the most impactful Daredevil writers of all time and Marvel’s go-to event-comic scribe departed the House of Ideas to work on DC’s legendary stable of icons. Bendis’ career move wasn’t just a chance to put his mark on the Man of Steel though—DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio’s offer included a commitment to Bendis’ Jinxworld, his line of creator-owned original series including Powers and United States of Murder, Inc. with Michael Avon Oeming, Scarlet with Alex Maleev, and new series Pearl with Michael Gaydos and Cover with David Mack. Before Bendis could properly celebrate (and wrap up his remaining Marvel series), the prolific writer was hospitalized with a near-fatal MRSA infection, an event that refocused his dedication to both his creative endeavors and his family life. With details on fall series beginning to emerge, Paste jumped on the phone with Bendis to discuss two of his new Jinxworld projects—Cover with David Mack and United States vs. Murder, Inc. with Michael Avon Oeming and Taki Soma—and to learn more about his newly focused passion for making the best books he can with the best friends he’s got. We’ve also got an exclusive first look at stunning interior artwork and covers from Oeming and Mack.
Paste: Before we talk about the specific books, what does it mean to you to be able to continue your original series under the DC Comics umbrella? And not only that, but to kick off new titles like Cover. Was that support a big component of signing on with the publisher?
Brian Michael Bendis: Yeah, everyone obviously gets nerdy-excited about what am I going to write, what DC characters am I going to write, and we were excited about that as well, obviously, but what really turned our heads, what really made the deal something we couldn’t pass up was Dan DiDio sitting down and going, “Listen, not only am I a big fan of your writing, I’m a big fan of your creator-owned work, and as a fan, I would like to offer you the opportunity to refocus your energies in that direction because you need to do more of that. And I would like to see more of that.” And I was like, whoa, is he reading my diary? Because literally, I made a list of things I wanted to do. I hit a birthday and I made a list of what haven’t I done, what I need to do more of, and I was already [thinking] this is going to be a period of my life where I balance it a little better, where I do a lot more creator-owned work and put a lot more new characters out there, not only for ourselves, but also in the DC Universe.
So we created this opportunity where I could just go nuts, and me and my friends could just tell our stories. On top of it being a big deal for us, it’s also a big deal in what time of my life this is. Me and my friends—David Mack, Alex Maleev and Mike Oeming, particularly—are at the core of what we’re doing. We’ve grown up together. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and we’ve gotten to a place in our careers where we may very well be at that perfect annex where our craft is at our highest level and our understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing is at our highest level, and that’s usually when really special work can happen. I’m not comparing myself to other creators, but other creators at this age—this is when Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] started really cooking on the Marvel Universe, this is when Jack did the Fourth World. There’s so many creators that, at this age, is really when they put down that special thing that they brought to comics.
So I challenged everyone I’m working with—I said, I think we’re at that age where this is as good as we’ll ever be, so let’s make something that’s as good as we’ll ever be. This is it, right? Some of us may get older and not have our facilities. Right now, this is as good as it gets, so let’s think about that. Here we are a couple months later, and the work that everyone has done, I can’t believe how inspired everyone was. It’s work from my dear friends and collaborators and it’s such a high level that I’m almost on a daily basis moved, just completely moved. The art comes in and it’s a little rattling, it’s so good. So what’s happened is DC has created this opportunity for us, [and] we are making the absolute most of it as creators, as creative people, and now I think fans are going to get big results from it.
Paste: More than anything else—how do you find the time? You’ve always been prolific, but how do you break down your workweek to swap between Superman stories, mafia noir, Yakuza romance, etc.?
Bendis: [Laughs] There’s a great deal of research that I’ve been doing for quite a few years now on some of these projects that are coming to fruition. It can feel a little schizophrenic that they’re so different, but a lot of work was done behind the scenes and they were written in different mindsets and periods. But the real answer, and I don’t mean to get too dramatic, is that on top of being prolific, right after I signed the deal to do this, I got a MRSA infection that went septic and I spent most of December in a hospital room, and I was in the ICU three times.
I’m not trying to be overdramatic, but I was literally sitting in the dark in a hospital room for most of the month, not only with the desire to do this, but also with the unfettered opportunity already allowed. [DC Comics] were like, “If you get out of this hospital, you can go write whatever you want. You can go nuts. You and your friends can go make these beautiful comics together.” But now you’re blind and stuck in a hospital room, and you can’t get any work done and you don’t know if you’re going to get out. So once I did get out, I started writing my little ass off. You go flying out of that hospital with a new sense of purpose and direction. You sit home and get your work done and be the best father you can be. That’s what you learn staring at the abyss for a few weeks on end. The good news is that I came out of there loving my life and my family and my career and my opportunities to express myself, so I just refocused all my energies on it. Sitting in that room going, Oh boy, I really hope I get to tell all these stories that I’m dying to tell, the meaning that they have, their purpose became more meaningful to me, so that’s why it’s not hard to get the work done.
Paste: Well let’s talk about two of those stories specifically. Where does this new volume of United States of Murder, Inc. pick up? The first volume ends with a big game-changing cliffhanger. Will readers who didn’t follow the Icon series be able to start with the first DC-published issue?
Bendis: I looked at it very much like the strong opening of season two of a TV show, where if you hadn’t seen the first season, you’ll get it right away. Also, my favorite shows start every season as if it’s the first episode. The Shield was a template for me, where every season was its own kind of mini-series. So I look at Murder, Inc. in the same kind of way. You pick it up and the characters are in a new adventure, a new situation that’s informed by the last one. If you got the last one, you’re going to get a lot out of it; if not, it’s reader-friendly, you’re ready to go.
And right away, what we have in United States of Murder, Inc. is a unique alternative history where the Five Families, the classic Five Families of Murder, Incorporated. never let go of their power over the areas of the country that they had, and forced America’s hand in such a way that they ended up taking over certain parts of the country. How would the country react to part of our culture being completely taken over, our society being taken over? Part of what made this country great, part of what made this country unique, is now at the forefront. So our characters now are Made Men, but they’re also established members of society. They have now gone against the United States, the United States pushed them and they pushed back. So we’re going to open up our new volume with the Five Families being pushed by the American president, and what they do back will be what our story is about. And really it’s a story about what made America and how many different roads America could go down—and how many different roads America could go down and still be America and still feel like it. But at the same time, I think it explores very interesting ideas about our country and the world and how it came to be.
Paste: You’ve worked with Michael Avon Oeming on dozens of issues at this point—how does your process together break down now? Are you more hands-off with him than with other artists?
Bendis: It depends, there are certain things where you can go, “Oh, you know that thing.” [Laughs] With Mike, with collaborators I’ve worked a long time with, and Alex [Maleev] and Mike would be in the same group to me, you find out things don’t get easier, you find that this is someone I can challenge myself with, I can push him, we can push each other and try new things or try sometimes very subtle new things and sometimes very brassy new things, but we can try a lot of different things because we have that shorthand. But that shorthand shouldn’t be the shorthand to easy street, it should be the shorthand to what else can we do? What other scary things can we do that we haven’t tried before?
So in Murder, Inc., not only are we hitting all of the sweet spots, visually, about what we love about film noir and gangsters and all that stuff, but it’s also an opportunity to apply new ideas to that film noir that we love. So you’ll see these very bold color choices and these very bold shape choices. Mike actually draws Murder, Inc. differently than he draws Powers. Powers he draws with lines and Murder, Inc. he actually draws with shapes. He talks about it all the time. He creates shapes before he creates line art and the whole design of the page is different. Just one example of how we can approach the page differently than a normal comic.
Paste: And is Taki Soma back to color the new volume?
Bendis: Yes! Taki is back. This is one of those books, there’s a few of them on the market—most books are colored very similarly, using the same palettes and the same tools. We made some choices here, as Mike was drawing with shapes, that she can also color with shapes. So the colors and the color choices are bold and brassy and very unique, and they make me very happy.
Paste: You did variant covers for the original run—are you stretching your art muscles here again?
Bendis: I did, [but] I will not be this time. We did something cool instead—we had all the artists of Jinxworld, which right now is David Mack, Mike [Avon Oeming], Michael Gaydos and Alex [Maleev], all are doing variant covers on each other’s books and all are having a very good time. It scratches whatever competitive itch they have with each other. The Alex Maleev cover of Pearl is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever done. This is much better, a much better solution than me drawing. Eventually I will. Honestly, I love drawing, and I miss it. As we were putting together some of the older stuff I’ve drawn, you start getting that itch again. I’m not saying absolutely not, but my plate is very full this year, so definitely not this year.
Paste: Cover, your new project with David Mack, is based on a true story—like some of your earliest breakthrough work. What can you tell us about the inspiration that doesn’t give too much away about the story you’re creating?
Bendis: A couple of things. Number one, as I was very public about a year and a half ago, I spoke at Langley and I was vetted through the entire intelligence system to do so. You have to really be vetted to even visit Langley. It was a very cool, intense process, and, unrelated, I ended up doing some work for the State Department. I went to Bolivia and David Mack is going to Russia and some other places for the State Department. So in those travels, we found ourselves as comic creators intermingling with people we never thought we would. You think, “I hope I get to meet Walt Simonson!” let alone, “Hope I get to meet the guy who runs the C.I.A.!”
I just said, eventually, we’re going to find a way to use that material in an entertaining fashion. So Cover is the story of a counter-intelligence agent who figures out that comic creators, who have to travel the world to sell their wares, could actually be excellent cover stories for intelligence agents. And someone gets recruited to do some stuff they’re surprised they’re getting asked to do. That opens up a whole door for this comic book creator and the world they find themselves in. So it’s a spy thriller, and it’s also a deep, beautiful valentine to making comic books, and comic creators, and comic conventions that we go to all over the world. It’s funny, it is gorgeous, it is David Mack at his highest level. I’m rattled by the artwork when it comes in. And believe it or not, as silly and as funny and as biting as it can be, it’s also probably the most personal book we’re putting out.
Paste: How serious is the tone for the book? Are you leaning into the spy craft or having fun with the premise of misfit creators getting thrust into this world?
Bendis: Here’s the thing, the entire thing the story is based on was a lot of fun, but at the same time, you couldn’t help feeling like, “Am I supposed to be here?” Not dangerous-dangerous, but enough where you’re going, [whispers] “I’m not where I’m supposed to be.” That was the instinct that inspired me to start writing. When I got into it, I realized I was writing something along the lines of the original In-Laws). It is funny, they’re funny people, everyone involved is very smart and clever. So I’m not shying away from their smartness and cleverness. You find this too with doctors, lawyers, policemen—they’re very funny, and with a very funny, biting humor that I love. Everyone I’ve met in this world is, so when you put it together it’s actually very funny. It’s funny and it’s beautiful.
Paste: Is it proving cathartic to flex your knowledge of the industry and vent some of your frustrations through this?
Bendis: Absolutely. I must say, for years, I was toying with doing, and may well still do, a comic-book-scene-in-the’90s graphic novel. It was a very interesting time in comics that we were there for, and now we’re feeling the fallout of. Everything that happened in the ‘90s in the comic book community is our pop culture today. I do want to do a story about that but this, to me, lets me do that. My favorite thing is convention stuff—so much happens at conventions, and it’s you with your friends. As creators, it’s that little pocket of friends you make that makes shows so interesting and so fascinating and maybe even a little scary sometimes, and writing about that is beautiful.
Paste: David doesn’t do too much interior work these days. What’s it like designing this book from the ground-up with him?
Bendis: As people very well know, David is one of my closest, best friends and brothers in the whole world. We have known each other since we were children, so it’s great to focus him on something that’s different than Kabuki; I’m specifically writing him things that he would not give himself to draw and that I know are very personally meaningful to him. And this is answering your earlier question about what it’s like to work with your friends at this level—I know David probably better than I know myself at this point. I’ve been able to write things for him that mean a lot to him. I know where his passions are and I know what his passions are that he hasn’t applied to his art yet, and I’m doing a lot of those, and to watch him unfold, and these pages come back, and to see him really dive in, in a way that I know that he means it, is one of the great things that’s happened to me in the last couple years.
Watching David make these pages for the right reasons, it’s really something. There’re pages that get made and there are pages that appear almost out of nowhere because the artist is the only person who could have created them, and that’s David Mack. So when you’re writing for someone like that, you write something that’s as anti-cliché and anti-anything-else-you’ve-seen that you can because you’ve seen what this person is capable of—why would you give them something anyone could do?
Paste: My next question was what makes these books you could only do with Michael and David, but I think you’ve covered that so thoroughly and beautifully throughout, so I’ll just ask: What else do you want readers to know about these books?
Bendis: Well, you know, sometimes, even today, people go, “What are these? Why aren’t these superheroes?” And particularly a big part of my readership is so used to Spider-Man and Superman that they get surprised that there are books like Scarlet or Cover in the world. It’s so exciting when they find them, and I know what it feels like, when you only knew the medium could do certain things, and then there’s that one book that changes your perception of the whole thing. I’ve been that for readers, other creators have been that for me, so we’re diving into this to make stuff that’s important to us, but at the same time to make comics that would surprise and delight our biggest fans and people who just don’t know what comic books are capable of.
I think about it every day, trying to create something as honest and beautiful I can with this unique opportunity DC has offered. Because going back to your original question, that really is the thing: this is the opportunity of a lifetime—what are you going to do with it? And what I learned is, what I’m going to do with it is be as honest a creator as I possibly can. That’s kind of my goal since getting out of the hospital. Just find real honesty anywhere you can. Just making that extra effort, making sure I’m doing that, has created a situation where I’m unusually proud of my work, which is not how I’m wired. [Laughs] So I’m excited to show people these things because they’re being created in such a beautiful environment, that I can’t help but think that people are going to respond very well to them. But I’ve been wrong! But I think, in this instance, these pages are so beautiful, and watching artists of such high caliber, like Gaydos and David Mack, ascend to something even higher, is just beautiful. It’s for fans of these artists, and if you’ve just wanted to see them go nuts, I’m so excited for you.
Paste: That was a real rollercoaster of positivity and negativity at the end there.
Bendis: Haha! Welcome to my brain!