Part of the fun of going back to revisit all of these old “Palmer’s Picks” columns from Wizard magazine is seeing what happened to all of the creators that I profiled. Most have stuck around the comics scene in some form or another, and a few have faded away into obscurity. And there are a handful that have gone on to fame and fortune. Which brings us to the subject of this post: Brian Michael Bendis.
Shortly after this profile from the summer of 1996, Bendis took his creator-owned crime comics to Image, and soon joined Todd McFarlane’s wing of the company to write the Spawn spin-off Sam and Twitch. He would also launch two new comics at Image, the true-crime thriller Torso (co-written by Marc Andreyko and drawn by Bendis), and the superhero detective series Powers (with art by Michael Avon Oeming). As Bendis’ profile grew in the late ’90s, he was sought out by Marvel and signed on to help launch the company’s Ultimate line of comics with Ultimate Spider-Man, along with artist Mark Bagley. From there, he’s gone on to write a whole mess of top-selling comics for Marvel, and he has recently stepped over to the other side and signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics. If there’s a writer who has defined the modern age of superhero comics for the big two publishers, it has to be Brian Michael Bendis. And to think, I wrote about him way back when!
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Brian Michael Bendis, creator of the critically-acclaimed AKA Goldfish series and the new bimonthly crime-noir comic Jinx, has done his homework. He’s spent time researching his subjects. He’s interviewed cops and real-life bounty hunters. He’s studied conversational dialogue and film editing and lighting techniques. But the important thing is that he’s able to pull all these sources together to make enjoyable and well-crafted crime comics.
For Bendis, a 28-year-old resident of Cleveland, Ohio, creating a deep background for his fictional characters seemed like a natural thing to do. “I started putting these real things that I had witnessed or heard about into my fictional characters,” he explains. “I wanted to go out there and start picking at people to see what they’ve got. People have unbelievable stories to tell you and they don’t have any desire to create them for themselves. They just don’t care.”
One of Bendis’ real-life inspirations came when he met a professional bounty hunter while working on an illustration assignment. He enthusiastically asked her to sit down for an interview, and she became the basis for the tide character in Bendis’ Jinx, as well as for a number of specific scenes in the comic. “She’s been a wishing well of anecdotes and attitudes,” he reveals.
Bendis’ comics aren’t just full of bounty hunters, though. You’ll find your fair share of con artists, crooked cops and slick gangsters. The cast of Jinx includes not only the bounty hunter title character herself, but also the slick grifter named Goldfish (from Bendis’ previous series AKA Goldfish) and his bald partner in crime Columbia. Goldfish’s life of petty crime and three-card monte takes an interesting turn when he falls for Jinx. But no matter what these characters do, they all have one thing in common: They’re not the usual, generic types found in crime comics. Bendis is able to develop well-rounded characters that fit perfectly in his crisp, black-and-white comic pages.
One of the important things Bendis uses to develop his characters is realistic dialogue. Inspired by the work of screenwriters and playwrights like David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Untouchables”) and Richard Price (“The Color of Money,” “Sea of Love”), Bendis pays close attention to the structure of conversations and what they reveal about characters. “A lot of comics, movies and plays have people talking at each other to further the plot along,” he explains. “But if you listen to any real conversation, people talk to each other, people talk away from each other, they interrupt each other, they stutter, they say things they don’t mean, they say a word five or six times in a row without realizing it.
“Conversational dialogue says a lot about the dynamics between the characters, and it also creates characters that talk and act in contradictory ways. When you talk to your mom, you don’t talk the same way as you talk to your business associates or your friends.”
Bendis’ quest for realism also encompasses his artwork. He shoots a lot of photographic reference around Cleveland, and he frequently uses photos in the backgrounds of his comics. Other artists consider this a shortcut, but it’s a very useful tool for Bendis. “If you’re trying to get a certain feel or you have an idea in your head but can’t get it on paper exactly, and someone could pose to show you exactly what it’s like, then go ahead and do it.”
Bendis also expands on the normal ways of shooting photo reference. “I used to just have people pose for me without any understanding of what their character was,” he says, “but it always looked stiff. So now I write a script and lay out all the pages. Then I have certain actors who have been working with me for a while come over and work out the scenes or do improv scenes. I audiotape it and photograph it and go as far as I can to make it a little mini-production before I abstract it down to comic book form. I’ve tried to take photo reference a step further to make it a step of the creative process.”
If this whole process sounds a lot like making a movie, then it reflects on Bendis’ intense interest in film. Both AKA Goldfish and his breakthrough series Fire from 1993 featured characters based on the likenesses of such familiar personalities as Julia Roberts, Candice Bergen and David Cronenberg. Also, the plot of Jinx is loosely based on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” with the romance between Jinx and Goldfish complicating things.
Bendis has even studied documentaries like “Visions of Light” (a film produced by the American Cinematographer’s Institute) and countless movies to learn editing tricks and lighting techniques. “A lot of people get geeky about the correlation between film and comics, but film is a sequence of images and a lot can be learned from looking at it. I study it all the time and I’ve yet to find the bottom of the well.”
There’s also another reason why Bendis is so interested in film. If everything works out, you should be seeing a version of AKA Goldfish on the silver screen in the near future. The William Morris Agency is representing Bendis’ projects, and director Gary Fleder (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) has already been attached to a version of “AKA Goldfish” that Bendis is writing. “So far, it’s been very invigorating creatively,” Bendis reveals. “It’s almost like phone sex. They call me up and tell me what’s going on with the studios and tell me how wonderful life is. I hang up the phone and I draw like a maniac. They can charge me $3.99 a minute—I’d pay it!”
But even though Hollywood has already come knocking at his door, Bendis has no plans to give up comics. “I sincerely plan on keeping Jinx out on a bimonthly schedule until I’m done with it. I really like making comics. It’s not like lugging boxes or flipping burgers. I’m not even slightly bored with comics. Quite the opposite. It’s a form of therapy.”
Tom Palmer Jr. has been forced to be a freelance writer against his will. Someone please help him!
FYI: The third issue of Brian Michael Bendis’ bimonthly black-and-white Jinx will be on sale in July. If you can’t find a copy at your local comic store, all back issues are available from Caliber Press,
11904 Farmington Rd., Livonia, MI 48150. You can call 1-800-346-8940 to get a copy of their catalog. Bendis’ earlier books, AKA Goldfish and Fire, are also available as trade paperbacks from Caliber.
Brian Michael Bendis’ Recommended Reading
Brian Michael Bendis’ current favorite comics include Mark Ricketts’ Nowheresville, David Mack’s Kabuki: Circle of Bloodtrade paperback, Vertigo’s Preacher and Peter Kuper‘s The System. His all-time favorites are the complete works of Howard Chaykin (“He’s one of my few comic book heroes.”), Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, Billy Budd, KGB by Jerome Charyn, Kane by Paul Grist, James Hudnall’s Streets, the Jimi Hendrix graphic novel Voodoo Child by Bill Sienkiewicz and anything P. Craig Russell touches.
Breakneck Blvd: There’s a certain charm about Timothy Markin’s Breakneck Blvd. The rough situations that Frank Dunkard, the main character, gets himself into are anything but charming, but Markin has created a fascinating cast of characters and he has an excellent sense of mood and pacing. His artwork is tight enough to capture a wide range of emotions and situations, and loose enough to move the story along at a swift pace. While there is a continuing story in Breakneck Blvd, you can jump in at any time, because each issue is a self-contained story. If you can’t get it (issue #5 will be out in July) at your local comic store, then you can call
1-800-866-8929 or write Slave Labor Graphics, 979 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose, CA 95128 for a free catalog.
Funnytime Features and The Hoon:These two series from Eenie Weenie Comics are a real hoot. Derek Drymon is the crazed mind responsible for the adventures of Man-Myth and Inkblot in Funnytime Features. He has a cartoony drawing style that fits perfectly with his wacky storytelling. If you like your goofy superheroes realistically rendered, then pick up Robb Bihun’s The Hoon, which stars a calzone-loving superhero in the title role. Both of these black-and-white comics are very enjoyable and good for a few laughs. For more information on both Funnytime Features and The Hoon, write to Eenie Weenie Comics,
3315 Corse Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90068.