An Interview with Brian Michael Bendis
Like any great myth that is reinterpreted from one generation to the next, Spider-Man has evolved in strange ways during his nearly 50 years of existence. In 2000, Brian Michael Bendis, who was then best-known for his independent crime comic fiction in such work as Jinx and Goldfish, was enlisted to restart Spider-Man from scratch for the Millennial generation in the series Ultimate Spider-Man. In Bendis’s telling, Peter Parker attends a high school where everyone speaks with the ironic but warm dialogue of a John Hughes movie, Uncle Ben and Aunt May spent some time on a commune, and the villains are often created through genetic experiments gone awry as opposed to the many radioactive gamma rays that caused so many abnormalities in ’60s Marvel Comics.
Bendis is particularly prolific. Besides the 129 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man he has so far written, he has also lent his talents to New Avengers, Ultimate X-Men, as well as more adult titles. His bleak series Alias re-imagined a C-list Marvel super-heroine, Jessica Jones, as an alcoholic private detective.
Bendis is 41 and was born and raised in Cleveland, OH. He spent five years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he came a few credits short of graduating. He now lives in Portland, OR with his wife and two small daughters. We spoke by phone on January 15. Despite the range of his career, our conversation focused almost entirely on Ultimate Spider-Man.
When Stan Lee was writing Marvel Comics, he wasn’t writing them as a fan boy. He had never been a fan boy growing up. But the people writing Marvel Comics today generally are people like you who grew up reading Marvel Comics. Stan Lee did not think of X-Men, when he created it in the ‘60s, as a metaphor for racism or homophobia. That’s something the fans read into the story. And when they grew up and started writing the comics, they spelled those aspects out explicitly. Was there something in Spider-Man that you saw in the ’70s and ’80s as you were growing up that you decided to make more explicit as an adult when you were writing Ultimate Spider-Man?
You said a couple of things there that I carry with me an awful lot. When Stan and Jack [Kirby] and Steve Ditko and others created the Marvel Universe they were middle-aged. They were a little older than me. People forget that. It feels like the work of young [men] but they had already all had decades of work under their belts. Some of it was good. And some of it was cute. And some of it was just getting the work done. And if you follow the history of it, it’s hard to separate what it was going to become from what was going on [at the time]. It does seem that Stan had one last chance to make good and all of the sudden had this flow of ideas that was able to burst forth. All of it came rather quickly in a short period of time after literally decades of it not being there or it not being ready to be produced or what have you. A lot of people think [it was] little teen Stan Lee and little teen Jack Kirby, but it wasn’t the case at all.
In that work there is an awful lot of Cold War paranoia and a lot of stuff about fathers. Almost every story is about a father having abandoned or a father having screwed over [his son]. Norman and Harry [Osborn]. Matt Murdock. Peter Parker. I don’t think Stan was totally aware [of those aspects] while he was writing. I’ve talked to Stan a few times. It’s a hard question to ask an older man. “So what’s the deal with your father?” But it was there subconsciously or unconsciously. Stan has said publicly and privately that he didn’t know some of the stuff that was brewing in the work, like the Cold War paranoia or the racism in the X-Men and all that stuff. But I do think it was there even if he didn’t have his head wrapped around it totally. It’s so apparent and it’s so clear in those very short origin stories.
Now you say he wasn’t a fan boy. He was. He was a working comic book writer for decades and looked around and [knew] what he didn’t see and wanted to produce. And his work was reacting to DC, [and] the Comics Code Authority that had strangled some of the creativity out of some of the more mainstream titles. So, absolutely, the job that Stan and Jack were doing wasn’t that different from the jobs that we have, other than the fact that in a small period of time they were able to create 20 icons quickly and expertly. That’s a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle that only happens once a century or something.
As far as what I take out of the work that I didn’t think was there or I think was there that might not have been there… That’s an interesting thing because that was the question that was asked when I got Ultimate Spider-Man in the beginning. I was offered to start Spider-Man over from scratch. And I had also been given the job after someone else had had it and not done well. I also had been given the job after John Byrne did a re-vamp. It was before us but I don’t know if it was a year or two before us. I can’t remember. So there was a lot of thinking about revamping Spider-Man for the modern age. Because of this other writer, I got to read his draft and saw what he did wrong. He did a verbatim word-for-word adaptation that was just not as exciting as Amazing Fantasy #15. And I go, “Okay that’s not what to do. That doesn’t work.” And I might have done that on my own if I hadn’t been able to see the other writer trying it. Like a mental patient I got involved in Spider-Man, in what works, what doesn’t work, what’s the essence of Spider-Man. [I] really [came] to terms with the fact that it is absolutely not broken. It’s almost Shakespearean in the sense that the theme of it, the morality of it, all of it holds true. And you can change the setting, you could put it all on a space station and the story of Peter Parker getting bit by a spider would resonate all these ideas. So once I came to terms with that, that I’m adapting a work by Shakespeare, it became very freeing. At the same time you just knew what worked and what didn’t. It’s funny how much of it worked. The wrestling worked. All of the little bits and pieces still hold up as modern. What’s missing from it is not as important as what’s worth keeping from it.
In the original Spider-Man, Uncle Ben is a Greatest Generation dad. He provides for the family. He has these Levittown values even though he lives in Queens. You made Uncle Ben into a hippie father. Your Uncle Ben is going to have very different values based on what generation he’s from. But Peter Parker’s view of Uncle Ben in your version isn’t different from his view of him in the previous version.
That’s just one of those cosmetic changes because of the timeline. Stan has said in hundreds of interviews that the reason the Amazing Fantasy #15 story is so short is because that was all the pages he was allotted. So he got right to it. He didn’t get to show Uncle Ben be anything in that note that we saw. And we care about Uncle Ben because Peter told us to. And I thought, “Oh, here’s an opportunity to show the relationship, to show that he is that good man. But that Peter is a teenager and he’s wrestling [with all the frustration that entails.]” And I can’t think of one person in the world who hasn’t lashed out at their parents or their guardian at a time when they’re trying to figure out their humanity for themselves. [I wanted] to really get into that and show the culture clash and really make you feel it when Uncle Ben [dies]. It isn’t just because Peter told us, hopefully you’ll feel bad. So that was the goal there. There were still people who didn’t totally get the point of Ultimate Spider-Man. When Uncle Ben died they go, “Ah, it was such a great opportunity to kill Aunt May instead.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, it’s not broken.” This is the story.
I read a note from you saying that you had modeled Aunt May on your own mother.
She is a pretty tough woman, but at the same time we see this figure with a terrible emotional weight on her shoulders try to work through her issues. Most superhero parents are just these cardboard visions of virtue. This is the enigmatic parent that all children try to but can’t fully understand.
This goes back to the genius of what Stan set up here. The spider is a metaphor for puberty. I’ve said this in a couple of interviews and people look at me like I’m some kind of a mental patient, but it is. He gets bit by a spider and now he’s a man. It’s his bar mitzvah. He’s a man, but he’s stuck in a boy’s body and he’s in that place where his relationship with your parent is going to alter or change, for better or worse, because you don’t need them anymore. But you’re not done yet.
Writing a character that exists that has been shared, that has been developed, and interpreted by other writers and finding your take on it is a very unique thing. And what I do is try to look for people in my life that remind me of that person or have something about that person that I know I could write as true. The easiest one I ever had in my life was when I sat down with Aunt May and I asked, “Who is Aunt May?” And I listed all of her quirks and what have you and I go, “Shit, that’s my mom.” My mom is such a rich personality and such a strong person, but so emotional. I dug in there. But the only person who ever really knows how dead-on an imitation it was of my mother was my brother.
Well how did your mother feel when she read it?
She can’t see herself. You know how sometimes people can’t hear an imitation of themselves. She’s not sure if I’m making fun of her or not. But I’m not. It’s really a nice valentine to her. She knows now. At the time, she was like, “Are you making fun of me in this?” And I was like, “No, no, no.”
For everyone like Aunt May there is another one who the Internet will smack me around for an interpretation of a character. I’ll have them say something they haven’t said before. If I have them say something they’ve never said before I must be a bad person. So it’s part of this quest I’m on to give characters -- some of which have wrestled with the third dimension -- to really give them that third dimension, to have them interact in a way we see as real. At the same time [they] keep their iconic posturing. It’s a little bit of a wrestle but it’s a worthwhile goal. Every generation has to push things further.
I would have traded Peter Parker’s high school experience for mine.
Yeah, me too. (laughs)
He says he doesn’t have friends. It’s not true. He has friends. He has a hot girlfriend. He experiences bullying but nowhere to the degree that I’ve seen in real life. And you depicted a much grimmer high school experience in Alias. Why did you not want to depict Peter Parker’s high school experience as being quite so bleak?
It’s funny. One person’s hell is another person’s heaven. You just said that right there. I think one swirly or wedgie can really ruin your high school year. I didn’t think anything beyond that was needed. There’s a difference between being picked on and abused. There are people who go to high school who are literally physically and mentally abused the entire time they’re there. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. You either go down the road where he gets his spider powers, goes to high school, and then turns into Carrie and murders everybody. Or you watch him just persevere. This is the “with great power comes great responsibility” thing. If you have someone who is that abused then the audience wants to see him on a vengeance quest.
Doing my initial Spider-Man research, in going back and reading everything, [I found] for a sad sack this guy was getting laid left and right. This guy had more girlfriends than I ever had in high school. Betty Brant was hitting on him. MJ, Gwen. There were girls everywhere. There is an element of Peter that sees himself a certain way. But the reality is that he’s doing much better than he thinks. That’s always been there. It was only accentuated during the [John] Romita years where everyone looked real good. Everyone started looking very attractive and romance comic-y. And my goal overall was to hit the spirit of the Romita years. That’s when I thought the rules of Spider-Man really kicked in.
This is using a little bit of my personal life. There’s an argument about this. People should tell stories. And when you tell Spider-Man stories, you tell a Spider-Man story. You don’t involve yourself. But it’s almost impossible if you’re writing honestly not to write something that you’ve either witnessed or is a part of you. When I started writing Peter the teenager I was amazed how fresh the wounds of high school were. And how very easy it was to pick that scab open and remember all those feelings and all those slights and embarrassments and all those things that you still can’t believe you said or did. And you just write them down. And I had yet to, in any other work that I had done, reveal any of that stuff or put it down. I was a short little Jewish guy but I had a girlfriend and I had friends. There were bullies in school and I was a target. But at the same time I wasn’t the main target because I wasn’t the biggest loser in the class, thank God. My comic book art made me more interesting. That’s what I did. I was going to be a comic book writer. So I just applied that to the character.
You mentioned that in the Romita years, Spider-Man was drawn like a romance comic. That always turned me off a little bit to Spider-Man. It made it too much of a fantasy. I always preferred the Ditko years because the characters looked like people I knew. I know you don’t draw Ultimate Spider-Man. Which would you have preferred? A Tobey-Maguire, teen-idol Peter Parker? Or a Steve-Buscemi Peter Parker?
(laughs) I totally get what you’re saying. I lean towards Romita. That’s just my personal taste. It’s more than just the look. It’s the storytelling. The feel of it seems to match. I like the juxtaposition of the Spider-Man costume in that romantic world. Romita was drawing them with their hearts on their sleeves. It really amped up the soap opera of Spider-Man. Nine out of 10 times [it’s] what people really respond to. Even in this interview you haven’t really brought up any of the external battles of Spider-Man.
With [Mark] Bagley’s interpretation of the character we had the best of both worlds. We had him perpetually in need of a haircut, perpetually wearing clothes that don’t fit him. So we got our Ditko and our Romita too. I tell you what’s interesting from Ditko’s perspective. I am absolutely fascinated how iconic and recognizable that costume is on the most primordial level. As far as my daughter is concerned all I do is write Spider-Man. That is the most known thing to her. And I think she has seen the movie like once. [At a grocery store] you see a two-year-old who couldn’t possibly have seen Spider-Man do anything, who has never read a comic book, and will see Spider-Man and go “Oh, Spider-Man.” I’ve seen this a couple of times. It’s so identifiable. It’s such an odd costume, design-wise. It’s so peculiar. I’m fascinated by why that works so well.
Nick Fury seems to reflect all your ambiguous feelings about American power. He’s the father figure who has all your best interests at heart and you accept it though you are not sure if you should.
Some of that is Mark [Millar]’s fascist-socialist leanings. [NOTE: Mark Millar wrote Ultimate X-Men for 33 issues, and The Ultimates, which stars Nick Fury]. (laughs) He’s got an agenda, which I love about him. There are a couple of characters in Ultimate Spider-Man that represent Peter Parker learning what life’s really about, of looking at the compromise of adulthood with fresh wide eyes and getting mad about it. That’s what teen life is. He’s not a father figure to Peter but there’s something like that going on.
Peter lashes out at Nick Fury because Nick Fury is telling him how it is and Peter doesn’t want to hear how it is. Nick’s not wrong. It’s just disappointing to find out the world works that way. It’s disappointing to find out that you arrest the Kingpin and then he walks. The first time you find out that the world sucks, it’s really a bummer. It’s really upsetting. So that’s what Peter’s going through. That’s very appealing because everyone remembers that feeling. Or is going through that feeling now. Or maybe I’m teaching them that for the first time. I’ve gotten that mail too. “Really is that the way the world is? Shit. I am 12-years-old and that is really disappointing to hear. I’m going to go play in a rock band.”
I wanted to ask about John Hughes and your pop culture references in general.
I reference him every five issues. (laughs)
There’s an interview I saw with Quentin Tarantino. He said he didn’t use pop culture references to be ironic. He was taking these things seriously.
I would agree with that more or less. I don’t do ironic pop culture. Maybe I’ve done it in the far past. It’s not terribly clever for literature. It’s very great for talk show hosts and comedians. But you can’t make a pop culture reference and not worry about how horribly dated it is. When you make a John Hughes reference you have a better chance of it lasting or it still being funny in 20 years, as opposed to making a Spice Girls reference. I get hyperly-crazy about it. “Will this hold up?” You can’t control what will hold up and what doesn’t. Look at the ‘70s Marvel team-ups with Peter Parker in a disco suit. Let’s try not to do that if we at all possibly can. I remember at one time, just to show you how long Ultimate Spider-Man has been around, someone said let’s put a Fred Durst red cap on Peter. I was just like “Noooooooo.” I could see that shelf life coming down the street. “That ain’t going to last a year. You’re going to put that on. That will be dated before the trade hits.”
September 11 didn’t have a huge impact on your book. Maybe I’m missing something.
I had written and I think there may be a page drawn of Doctor Octopus literally pulling a building down on Peter’s head. It was written before 9-11, and it was being produced around 9-11 and we decided it was wildly inappropriate on numerous levels. And I had written it wrong. So that was the only overt one. At the same time, JMS [NOTE: JMS is the popular shorthand for writer J. Michael Straczynski] was doing his issue of Amazing Spider-Man and we were doing the tribute issue and we had all done a story and I chose a true story of a friend about 9-11. But I remember reading the JMS one and thinking I’m glad he did that because he needed to do it. There were other people who read it who needed it. I didn’t need to mix the icons and this incredibly serious real life thing so close to the actual thing. It just wasn’t for me. But the New York that Spider-Man lives in is that New York. I think the resilience of the city is really what’s there fundamentally as the story goes on.
Aunt May is a lot more accepting of Peter Parker being Spider-Man than I could imagine any mother being.
It’s funny because JMS has written his Aunt May [revelation story] and I remember I was in Greg Rucka’s [NOTE: Rucka is best known for his interpretations of Daredevil and Wolverine] garage and we were talking about if we had written that story Aunt May would have leveled him. “How could you blah blah blah blah blah…” And then I realized we both had Jewish mothers. We just had a different take on the relationship. And my mom would not stop. And then when I wrote it, it did become like my mother again where the instinct was “I’m so mad at you.” And she was pretty mad. And then there’s acceptance. Other than murdering someone I don’t think there’s anything I could do that my mother wouldn’t come to terms with. Any lifestyle I would choose my mom would handle. And that’s true but it wouldn’t be an easy road. And it’s still not an easy road. And [Aunt May] knowing just makes her much smarter. Someone coming out of the closet is the best version of that.
There’s Superman who’s the greatest American hero. He’s a liar. He’s lying to Lois Lane. He’s lying, lying, lying all the time. That’s not very heroic. It would be more interesting for people to know or for Peter to make the mistake of telling them. It is a mistake and Nick Fury told him it was a mistake and he has paid for that mistake dearly. I don’t want to ruin stuff that hasn’t come out yet, but I’ve written material with Aunt May recently concerning her immense pride over Peter and the massive sacrifice she’s made for him. To see him come out as such a great hero makes it all worthwhile. All that loss, all that loneliness, it’s all worthwhile. That definitely is something I relate to in my life. My mother did sacrifice an awful lot. She raised my brother and myself all by herself in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And it wasn’t easy. And she worked full-time and raised us and I know that not just with my career, but with my family and my children, that there’s a relief that washes over my mother. It was all worth it. I didn’t end up in jail. That is definitely the feeling I wanted to produce in the work because I definitely think they’re getting there.
I wanted to talk about Alias. There was a scene early on in the first issue that I found particularly disturbing. I couldn’t get my head around it. It was the sex scene between Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Yes, and by the way the novelty of saying “the sex scene with Luke Cage” has not worn off. It’s hilarious that those words are even spoken in the English language.
Well, it’s really disturbing. She has anal sex with a black man in order to feel degraded.
I don’t know if he has sex with her anally.
It looked like it.
It could be. But it’s not about him being a black man. I can one thousand percent absolutely promise you that was not my agenda or the case. It had nothing to do with him being a black man. It could easily have been Wonder Man. It’s just not the relationship, how it was written. And I can only promise you that. It is interesting that that element of it still stirs in some people. It’s why the book was not printed at its original printer which was shocking to us as well. I didn’t think that that was a problem. I know that some people, particularly friends of mine, had an issue with a woman punishing herself with sex or whatever that sexual act was. They would come up to me and go, “Women don’t do that.” I would go, “No, not all women, but some women and some men do that.” And they’d say, “Well, that’s true.” It’s weird the way people take that. “I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about her.” I absolutely have known people who do that and I know some people who continue to do that well past an age where you think they would stop. And I wanted to write about it. And I am shocked I get to write about it in a Marvel comic book.
I can promise you as far as race relations are concerned, [and] I’ve proven this over the course of the relationship which has gone all the way to a marriage and parenting, that race is one thousand percent not an issue in their life as much as it is an issue for other people. But it’s not an issue for them. And it’s not an issue for me in my life. I have a multi-racial family.
This may go back to our first question, but tell me as much as you want to tell me about your relationship with Stan Lee.
My relationship is defined by his reaction to the fact that I even exist. When I got the Ultimate Spider-Man gig I really did not want Stan to hate me for it. If he came out and said “I hate this thing,” that would have killed me because that would be the complete opposite of the reason why I was doing it. And when we were running around promoting the thing I was desperate to make sure people heard that I didn’t think that Spider-Man was broken and I’m going to fix it.
[Stan] and Marvel have waves where things aren’t good and then things are good. And Wizard without asking me or telling me -- not that they should or have to -- had gone and asked Stan for his quotes on Ultimate Spider-Man. And he was just thankfully over-the-top with praise for the book. And it was such a relief. Soon after that I was invited to see the first Spider-Man movie in Sam Raimi’s office. Marvel wanted me to take a look at it. So I’m having this nerd-gasm of seeing the movie in Sam Raimi’s office. It was unfinished. It was six months before it came out. I was sitting on a couch next to Stan Lee who I really had never met. That was a really profound day for me. I did watch Stan the entire time and not the movie because I was much more interested in what was going through his head than what was going on in the movie. Honestly, I don’t think I said a damn thing. When the movie was over there were a couple of places where Sam Raimi was specifically asking for help. Stan was very emotional, not boo-hooey emotional, but very verklempt. He finally saw his vision come to life. Technology had finally caught up with his imagination. He got to watch it. I watched all this happen and literally when Sam said, “Do you think you could write a line of dialogue?” Stan literally just grabbed his coat and said, “Hey buddy, I wrote 129 issues. You can have any line of dialogue you want from them. I’m out of here. See you later guys. Bye, bye.” He’s out. And I stayed for hours because I was honored that they even asked me. An hour in, I was sitting in the office there and writing lines of dialogue. I thought at the time the one thing that was missing that they did eventually fix was that Spider-Man had no funny lines. He’s not trash-talking. So I wrote a line of dialogue that made fun of the Green Goblin costume. And one of the producers looked at me like I had just peed on her. She goes, “That costume costs a lot of money.” I say, “I know but he would make fun of it. He would make fun of everything. He’s a trash-talking basketball player.” And I could see that look of “Get the fuck out of here,” but she hadn’t said that yet. And I thought Stan’s a genius. He knew to leave. This man knew, “Go. Run.” He knew. That’s a man who has experience in the world.
I have notes from him that I will literally cherish for the rest of my life. And if I may bring it full circle to you I didn’t have a father growing up. And I realize I was very emotional in his acceptance of me. And I told my wife about this. Stan had written me and it made me very emotional. And then later on that day, my wife just happened to have the Sci-Fi Channel on and Stan had that superhero show on with people dressed up as superheroes. And Stan would say something nice to them and they would cry. I said, “Oh my God, I’m that idiot.” My wife said, “No, no you’re not on TV dressed as a superhero. You actually had a moment with the guy.” I go, “You’re right. That’s a different thing.” So I didn’t have a father and then Stan Lee is nice to me and I act like he’s my father. I found the full circle for you man. There’s some journalism for you.
Special thanks to Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, MD for assisting in this interview’s preparation.