In the 1980s, comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns introduced a more mature tone to superhero comics that led to them being considered respected works of literature by some critics. Decades later, in 2008, The Dark Knight proved that superhero movies could be cinematic masterpieces. Noted works like these, with dark, edgy undertones, have unfortunately led to a misconception that being dark is what it takes to be artistically profound.
A great comic book writer can write dark stories, but it takes an even greater writer to maintain both the wonder and insanity that define classic superhero comics. Above all else, the stories need to have engaging narratives with fully developed characters whose personalities remain intact or gradually develop from one work to the next.
One writer that really masters both the dark noir-influenced stories and the more over-the-top comics is Brian Michael Bendis. My first exposure to Bendis’s writing, and one of my first exposures to Marvel comics, was through Ultimate Spider-Man trades at the library. USM and New Avengers are some of my favorite comics of his and are arguably some of the best to feature Spider-Man and the Avengers, respectively.
Born in Cleveland in 1967 to a Jewish family, Brian Michael Bendis had always been a big fan of Marvel comics, later getting into crime comics. Bendis taught himself how to write, citing Robert McKee’s Story and various screenplays in helping him develop as a writer. He started doing caricatures for Cleveland Newspaper, The Plain Dealer, before getting his first comic job at Calibur (Dean).
One of Bendis’s earliest works was the neo-noir comic Goldfish, which Bendis both wrote and drew. The comic is about a con artist known as “Goldfish” returning home to take his son back from his former lover. The comic spawned a prequel, Jinx, about a female bounty hunter who gets involved in a search for valuable treasure. Bendis’s creator-owned comics have been published by various publishers and continue to be published under the Jinxworld imprint at DC comics. One of these creator-owned comics, the superhero crime series Powers, was adapted into a TV series as part of Sony’s brief foray into original video content on the PlayStation Network (Bendis).
In 1998, Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to several failed business decisions. As part of their recovery, Marvel turned to Event Comics, a publisher co-founded by future Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. Event comics were given a few of the Marvel comics that were under-performing at the time, such as Daredevil, The Punisher, Inhumans, and Black Panther (Riesman).
In 2000, in a further attempt to pull out of financial trouble, Marvel launched the Ultimate imprint, a series of comics aimed at new readers without the pre-established continuity. On Quesada’s recommendation, Bendis was brought in to reboot Spider-Man, with veteran artist Mark Bagley penciling the comic (Buscema). Ultimate Spider-Man served as a modern take on Stan Lee’s original stories, setting the stage for later Ultimate titles. These included Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, one of the comics that influenced the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ultimate Spider-Man was a best-seller for Marvel, with Bendis and Bagley working together for 111 straight issues, beating out the record held by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with Fantastic Four. In 2011, Bendis did the unthinkable, killing off Peter Parker and introducing biracial superhero Miles Morales. Initially, the character was divisive, with many seeing him as a publicity stunt, but he has gained a loyal following over the years (Gaupmann). Miles was integrated into the main Marvel universe when the Ultimate Universe was destroyed in 2015’s Secret Wars, eventually joining the Avengers. In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was released, making the groundbreaking character of Miles Morales into a worldwide icon.
Bendis’s contributions to Marvel go far beyond the Ultimate universe. 2001 marked the start of Marvel’s mature-readers MAX imprint. The first book under this imprint saw Bendis go to his noir roots with Alias. Initially set to star Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman, Bendis instead created an original character, former superhero turned private investigator Jessica Jones. In 2015, Netflix would adapt Alias into the series Jessica Jones, starring Krysten Ritter, for which Bendis was brought on to help with the writing.
Over the years, Bendis would become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers. From 2001 to 2006, he wrote for Daredevil, a comic firmly rooted in neo-noir, courtesy of the legendary Frank Miller. From 2005 to 2012, Bendis wrote New Avengers, bringing Marvel’s most popular characters at the time, Spider-Man and Wolverine, along with then-lesser-known characters such as Luke Cage and Spider-Woman onto Marvel’s all-star team. He would even write Marvel’s mega-crossovers such as House of M and Secret Invasion. In the lead-up to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Bendis was assigned the task of rebooting the future space opera icons.
In 2018, after 17 years with Marvel, Bendis signed on with Marvel’s rival, DC. It’s very common for writers and artists to work for both of the big two comic publishers, but Bendis had worked almost exclusively with Marvel. His first task at DC was to write the 1000th issue of Action Comics, the comic which birthed the superhero genre in 1938 with Superman. In 2019, Bendis would establish a new imprint, Wonder Comics, which would revamp established comics such as Young Justice and Wonder Twins, as well as create new characters. This is where Bendis co-created Naomi, a comic about a Superman fangirl from another universe who becomes a superhero herself. In January, a TV adaptation co-created by Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay premiered on the CW, helping to cement her legacy in the DC universe.
Whether in reality-grounded neo-noirs like Jinx, grand superhero stories like Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers, or combinations of the two like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Brian Michael Bendis’s impact on the multimedia world of superhero comics is undeniable.
Bendis, Brian Michael. “Bendis! Bio.” JINXWORLD, http://jinxworld.com/wordpress/?page_id=12.
Dean, Michael. “Brian Michael Bendis.” The Comics Journal: Interviews, Feb. 2005, https://web.archive.org/web/20060505021407/http://www.tcj.com/266/i_bendis.html.
Graupmann, Michael. “Publicity Stunt or Long Overdue? New Spider-Man Swaps Skin Color in Latest Marvel Comic Book.” CultureMap Houston, 4 Aug. 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20190408184740/http://houston.culturemap.com/news/entertainment/08-04-11-marvel-comics-spiderman-swaps-skin-color/#slide=0.
Knight, Rosie. “How Marvel Knights Changed the Face and Fate of Marvel Comics.” Nerdist, 23 May 2018, https://nerdist.com/article/marvel-knights-history-importance-punisher-black-panther/.
Riesman, Abraham. “The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, The Experiment That Changed Superheroes Forever.” Vulture, 25 May 2015, https://www.vulture.com/2015/05/secret-history-of-ultimate-marvel.html.