2.2.09

Brian Michael Bendis

I’m no patriot when it comes to comics, even though it is surprisingly easy to be one. Many of the most important writers in the field come from this side of the Atlantic: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar (although he really doesn’t deserve such company). All of these guys managed to write American superheroes better than the Americans. They are a big reason why mainstream comics today have become as sophisticated as TV shows, books and films.

Unfortunately, my favourite writer is not part of the so-called ‘British Invasion’, but is found amongst the American big-hitters: Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid. The American underground is also more vibrant and interesting. Writer/artists to check out include Matt Wagner, Mike Mignola, the Luna Brothers, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman and David Mack. The British comics scene revolves around the much-loved magazine 2000AD, which does showcase some of the most exciting artwork out there, but too often relies on stale characters like Judge Dredd and Slaine.

I don’t think there is an active anti-Americanism at play in the minds of British comics enthusiasts -- the medium is just too American. However, I do suspect that most would pick heroes of the British Invasion as their favourite writer, and take pride in how they beat the Americans at their own game. Which is why I feel I need to justify my love of Brian Michael Bendis (a bald jewish guy from Cleveland) a little more than may be necessary.

I often overhear staff at comic book shops (which I frequent maybe too often) grumble about Brian Michael Bendis. How his critically acclaimed run on Daredevil was overrated. How nothing really seems to happen in his comics. How there is always too much chatter and not enough action. These factors, annoying to some, are what makes Bendis’s work so distinctive to me. Uniquely in comics, he places emphasis on dialogue (and so, character) over action (or plot).

One can almost immediately recognize a Bendis comic by the quantity of speech balloons on the page. They often trail across several panels, and sometimes over entire double page spreads. His characters talk. A lot. Part of the reason this doesn’t overwhelm is that Bendis imbues his dialogue with a very sharp, dry, quick-fire wit. To make chatter interesting is very difficult to do, but Bendis has that gift. It’s amazing he didn’t end up writing television scrips, where such a talent is much more important. His writing often reminds me of ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Ally McBeal’, which both manage to make 40 minutes of watching people talking a gripping experience.

But all the chat serves another purpose. While most other comic book writers rely on the narrative voice (whether first or third person) to reveal the themes working behind the story, Bendis often uses a speech or a conversation. Many of his stories don’t end with an action climax and a cliffhanger, but a slow and quiet denouement, where the characters are shown dealing with what has just happened. Bendis’s particular genius is to make such conversations natural, whilst being loaded with meaning. Often, the dialogue centres on ordinary topics (an anecdote, a joke) which nevertheless ends up expressing something poignant and profound. In this sense, Bendis follows writers like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen, in that there is substance beneath all the noise and funny quips.

This is all rather different from the sometimes very intellectual style of British heavyweights like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Pat Mills. You don’t get veiled anarchist/feminist propaganda, vague postmodernist musing or overt references to Plato in a Bendis comic. Even so, there is an intelligence and subtlety in Bendis’s work that I think can compete with the grand masters. He has shown himself able to address multiple questions, from the personal (see ‘Alias’) to the political (see ‘Secret War’). And his work isn’t didactic -- it doesn’t provide answers. Instead, Bendis comics have open endings: an uncomfortable silence, or a challenge to what had previously been accepted, a counter-argument where you see the villain’s point of view. Bendis has the capacity to leave you thinking about what you have just read -- what his characters should have done, and what they will choose to do next. I think that is a sure mark of a great artist.

And it has made him a successful one. As I write, Bendis is driving forward Marvel’s big summer crossover event: ‘Secret Invasion’. Indeed, he is Marvel’s chief money-spinner, and I am but one amongst thousands of fans who will mindlessly devour anything he produces or recommends. That may be another reason for comic book obsessives grumbling -- no dribbling fanatic likes the starry heights of mainstream success. I, however, see Bendis’s status as a good sign for the state of the industry as a whole. In the past 5-6 years, the big two publishing houses have shown themselves remarkably open to indie creators like Bendis (and Ennis, and Brubaker...), and their new approaches to established characters. They have realized that copyright trademarks like Superman and Spiderman don’t sell on their own anymore, but need brilliant comic book writers behind them. Also, more and more fans are comfortable to stand in the middle-ground between mainstream and indie comics, as so many of their favourite creators work in both. I haven’t been an enthusiast (or alive) long enough to judge properly, but it seems as if there has never been a better time to read comics than now. I advise all of you to get on it.

Here are some of my faves from the Bendis back catalogue. Seek them out:

Daredevil vol. 7: The Daredevil series catapulted Bendis from indie nobody to Marvel’s wonder-boy. The ‘Hardcore’ arc is possibly his best story, but the entire run is amazing and should be sought out (libraries and bookshops usually stock it). Not only is it brilliantly written, but the rainy, grainy, gothic artwork (by Alex Maleev) is phenomenal.

Alias vol. 1: Jessica Jones is a former superhero and currently works as a private investigator. She is one of my favourite characters in comics, hard as nails and vulnerable at the same time. A complete antidote to the very cheesecake female characters of the ’90s. Again, wonderful noiry, grainy artwork by Michael Gaydos.

Goldfish: My favourite graphic novel. I found it I my local library, and picked it up only because it looked similar to the ‘Sin City’ series, which I was obsessed by. Reading through, I was a little disappointed at the lack of gratuitous sex and violence (there was lots in Frank Miller), and you do understand why Bendis gave up on drawing his comics soon after he graduated to the big-time. However, none of this matters, because when you finish the last page, you know you’ve read a masterpiece. This made me sit up and memorize the name Bendis, and seek out the other things he has done. If you come across it anywhere, I urge to to take a look.

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