Brian Michael Bendis is an award-winning Marvel Comics writer best known for his work on Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers, Jessica Jones and, most recently, Civil War II. It’s evident that the five-time Eisner Award winner has a knack for creating masterpieces.
With the recent premiere of Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming release of its next comic book installment, Civil War II, we thought there was no better time to share our recent Q&A with Bendis. We discussed how he became involved in the industry, the scoop on Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and a sneak peek at Civil War II.
Q: Based on our research, it seems like you knew from a young age that you wanted to be involved in the comic book industry. How did you figure this out?
I took to comics at a young age and, even as a toddler, there are memories of me running around the house as Spider-Man. But as you get older, things start to connect. You start noticing the credits in the front of the book, or you just start reading a comic and think, “Wow, this is a really good comic!” You flip to the front and go, “Oh! These are the people that made this comic that I like so much.” Then, you want to be one of the names in the credits, so that became the goal.
As you get older you think, “How do you do this? How do you draw?” You start reverse engineering every comic that you like, and you try to figure out what to do. I just wanted to give whatever that feeling is that you get when you watch a really good movie or read a really good comic. Only later you find out that giving that feeling is 50 times better than getting that feeling.
It’s great that you figured that out at such a young age!
Oh yea, I declared it at like….a Passover dinner. I stood up and said I was going to be the artist of Spider-Man and only my mom really appreciates how really close I got. That’s pretty impressive.
Q: Once you made your declaration, what steps did you take to ensure success in such a competitive industry?
Looking back I can see what I did, so I don’t want to sound too much like I had it all figured out. But at a young age (and all throughout junior high school, high school and college) I made making comics part of my lifestyle, which means that just like eating and sleeping, I made writing and drawing part of my life. It just became part of me. I also realized that I was a better person to be around if I had created something. Not that I was a monster if I hadn’t, but I was a much more complete human being. I studied every artist and writer from every walk of life and held onto philosophies that they found.
There are people that do and there are people that don’t, and the people that do have an 80% chance of getting what they want. I’m constantly telling this to my students and readers who are asking me, “How do I do this?” I’m like, “Just do it!” Do it and you’re more than halfway there. All of a sudden you have a body of work. Years go by, you make a bunch of comics, and then – one day – the right people read them and say, “Hey, you want to start Spider-Man over from scratch?” Then all of a sudden you’re working for Marvel Comics.
Q: At Barnes & Noble College, our main focus is on our students. What advice do you have for college students or recent grads working to get their careers off the ground? Are there any insights you can pull from your own experiences?
I teach comic writing at Portland State and I have done a lot of lecturing students. Every single faculty member tells me that the biggest problem they have with students in the creative field is people finishing their work or their projects…and it really is. To really figure out who you are as a creative person, you have to finish what you started. The difference between the people that do and the people that don’t is seismic. It’s gigantic.
People sometimes take creativity and label it something else like it’s this extracurricular thing they do. Let’s say, like most of us, you’ve got a day job. With your day job you have a responsibility and the things that get thrown by the wayside are the creative parts. You have to restructure your life where the creative parts are as important as sleeping. Don’t let life get in the way of you doing the thing that makes you a special person. If your goal is to be in comics, or if your goal is to be a musician, just decide that you are that and then do it.
In another way, it’s not enough to just decide that you are that. This is an argument I see on Tumblr all the time. People say, “I’m a writer but I haven’t written in a couple years.” If you’re a writer, then you’re writing every day. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace every day, but it’s part of who you are. The other thing that people ask me all the time is, “How do I break in?” Make a comic, post it online, you’re in. That’s it – you’re in the industry. There’s nothing standing in your way other than you. Just do it. And then do it better. And then do it better than that.
Q: A massive audience was just introduced to the Marvel Cinematic version of Civil War, but that’s not the only Civil War project brewing at Marvel right now. Can you give us a tease about the upcoming Civil War II?
It’s coming out very soon, actually. The zero issue hits this week. It is a spiritual sequel to the first Civil War, not a retread of the original. It’s years later with a different cast of characters, but the Marvel Universe and the superhero community find themselves at odds again. This time, an inhuman offers the uncanny power to a see a very specific future and the visions of this future are very powerful imagery – a lot of it very disastrous. Some of the heroes, like Carol Danvers, want to use these visions to stop things before they happen, whereas Tony Stark thinks it’s a slippery slope and all-around bad idea.
It’s really about personal accountability and profiling, which is a big part of what’s going on in our world today. It’s interesting because we started planning this way over a year ago, and the themes of it are so similar to what’s going on in the news today.
Q: It’s clear that the themes you write about are relevant to current events happening around us. Can you dig deeper into any of these themes we’ll see in Civil War II?
We labeled this Civil War II and not something else because it’s one of those ideas, like the first Civil War, where you can see both sides of it. Neither side is right or wrong, and it’s really up to the audience to decide which side they’re on. It’s also up to us as creators to challenge the readers’ ideas as the series continues. You might open up the first issue and go, “I’m totally with Carol. Carol is right on the money. I’m with her.” Then, three issues later you go, “You know what, Tony made a good point. Hold on.”
The one thing that really fascinates a lot of us is personal accountability. We’re certainly finding ourselves in this first generation of people who talk smack on Twitter or Facebook and and then are shocked that there are repercussions for their words. Some people actually don’t think that their words mean anything. Between that and this idea of profiling, of seeing the future, can you punish someone before they do something just because you’re pretty sure they’re going to? It’s an interesting part of the world we live in now.
Q: Writing comics for Marvel requires constant creativity and inspiration. How do you stay inspired and motivated every day? Do you ever have trouble coming up with new ideas in your writing?
As you train yourself as a writer, and you train yourself to sit down and do your work, you’re also training yourself to listen and feel. You’re training yourself to really listen to what people are saying and listen to what people are not saying. I have a very rich life, somewhat by design and somewhat just by the way life happens. I have four children and because of my job I get to travel more than most, so I meet interesting people everywhere I go. Even just last week I spent the day at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., so I’m completely filled with ideas and stories for the next 10 years. Even before things were offered to me, I would go on ride-alongs with police officers and would involve myself in parts of the world that are not part of my daily life.
More times than not, it all comes down to the character. That’s really where the passion is. People often like characters more than the story, even though the story reveals who the character is. When you have characters and you build them in the proper way, they never let you down. They always inspire you to come up with new things for them, or they just take over the story. It’s really fascinating. Miles Morales, who’s Spider-Man in my book, takes over – I just have to type.
Q: If you were a Marvel superhero in the Civil War film or comic books, and you had to choose between Captain America and Iron Man, whose side would you be on?
It depends on where you are in the story. I tend to root for the underdog and so does most of the audience. In the movie, when we see authority coming down on Captain America, it’s hard not to root for him. Then, towards the end of the movie, Tony Stark becomes like the underdog so we move toward him. It really depends on where you are in the story. In the comics, Spider-Man switches sides. I do think I would probably be that person. I find myself rooting for the underdog, almost always.
Q: While we have you, we have to ask about Marvel’s Jessica Jones. The Netflix series recently received a Peabody Award and was greenlit for a second season. As both the character’s creator and a consulting producer on the series, how rewarding has that been for you?
Insanely rewarding…and I’m not talking about financially. Jessica is a very important part of my life and a very important part of me. A bad version of it would have destroyed me! You can do everything the right way and it still might not go right. It’s that special magical chemistry – the right actors, the right setting, and the right cinematography. Everything has to gel, and even if it does it can still be missing that spark. But Jessica had it, and it was a gigantic relief to me.
The goal was never, “In 14 years it’s going to be a hit show that wins a Peabody.” That’s never the goal. The goal is just to express all the things we talked about earlier. I wanted to read a book like Jessica Jones, and then we made it and then this happened. I have another show, Powers, and the second season is about to hit on May 31st. That one I worked more actively on. I was able to take the experiences with Jessica and applying it to Powers. I got to apply the feeling immediately to other work, and that was such a rewarding experience. Rewarding isn’t even the right word. It’s such a powerful thing, it’s hard to even describe.
Q: Writer, producer, graphic artist, creative committee member; it seems like the list of roles you’ve held goes on and on! If you had to choose, what’s your absolute favorite role in the comic book industry?
Well… it’s writer. Everything else just comes out of “writer” – like they’ll ask me to produce the stuff that I’m writing. Working and collaborating with the other artists is the thing I’m most addicted to. People ask, “Why do you write so much?” It’s because I get pages every day from the best artists in comics! Just 20 minutes ago, Mike Deodato who I worked with on Iron Man, handed in a double-paged spread that made everybody in Marvel go “WOW!” That’s a very potent experience. Being asked to consult and do the creative committee all comes out of what I do as a writer. I picked the right thing. I do like drawing, and I did it for many years, but I don’t anymore because it was so hard for me. The minute I stopped drawing my own stuff, my career exploded in such an insane way it’s almost laughable. I drew every day for like 12 years and the second I stopped and let Alex Maleev draw it, everybody went “Yay! Here’s some awards and money!” I’m like, “Oh. Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t draw so much.”
Q: You’ve certainly accomplished a lot in your career, but you show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. What’s next?
What’s next are some really fantastic opportunities. We’re just weeks away from debuting some really big projects that have consumed my world over the last year. It just so happens that Civil War II and Powers season two are coming out around the same time. I have some new television projects, I have a book I do called Scarlett with Alex Maleev, which HBO just bought. I have some new projects at Marvel coming out of Civil War that we’re very excited about. I’m actually flying to New York just to sit down and get all the pieces lined up. So, more comics and more (hopefully!) interesting and captivating television. There are a lot of interesting things going on in culture in other parts of the world, and some opportunities have been coming my way around those kinds of things. I’m interested to see what I have to offer in that area as well. So Iron Man, Spiderman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Powers, Scarlett, comics, television, and maybe beyond – whatever that means.
Brian Michael Bendis certainly has some great insights on achieving your goals. If you’re interested in digging deeper into what goes on behind comic book creation, check out Bendis’ book, Words for Pictures. Also, don’t miss the release of Civil War II this June!