August 2014 saw a significant milestone that passed by relatively unheralded. That month marked ten years since Brian Michael Bendis announced his arrival in the mainstream Marvel Universe by dismantling the Avengers, setting the course for the sales juggernaut that was New Avengers and beginning his reign as the driving force behind the modern Marvel Universe. During this time he has regularly topped the sales charts, masterminded numerous line wide crossovers and has, of course, written hundreds of Comic books. Yet for all this success and influence, what impact has Bendis really had on the Marvel Universe? I would have to argue that aside from a few isolated successes, his legacy is a triumph of quantity over quality.
It’s easy to forget, now that Bendis is in with the proverbial bricks at Marvel, that he does not come from a superhero comic background, his early work dealing more with crime/noir themes in well-received indie titles such as Torso and Jinx. My first introduction to Bendis was in his run on Sam and Twitch and I was intrigued that he was able to craft an engaging, gritty tale using characters from Spawn, a book that I had always regarded as a classic example of style over substance. In 2000 he published Powers through Image comics, melding crime fiction with super heroics to great effect. Was it super heroics with a crime element or was it the reverse? In truth, all that I was sure of was that it was entertaining stuff.
Therefore, when Bendis was hired to write Ultimate Spider-Man I was curious to see how his style could be adapted to a more traditional superhero book. On the whole, I was impressed. Paying homage to the original tales and concepts without slavishly replicating them, Bendis reimagined Peter Parker’s world in a way that provided welcome relief to the moribund state of the MU Spider-Man comics under Mackie and Byrne. While some of his stylistic quirks quickly grew somewhat tiring (including slow pacing, repeated panels and his distinctive way of having characters speak), on the whole the first few years of the title were enjoyable stuff.
It was perhaps only natural that Bendis’ success on Ultimate Spider-Man would eventually lead to work in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and with his arrival on Daredevil – turning the title into a depressing yet gripping noir tale – he was able to effectively blend his two worlds of superhero comics and crime tales. This run, particularly the first two years, are a worthy addition to any comic fan’s bookcase and have recently been dissected on this very site. Other work at this time allowed Bendis to utilise Marvel Universe characters while still remaining on the fringes, giving him greater leeway to showcase his own style. Case in point: who can forget the… memorable way in which the reader was introduced to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in the opening issue of Alias?
However, in late 2004 all of this changed. Following Kurt Busiek’s lengthy tenure on The Avengers, a run by Geoff Johns was followed by one from Chuck Austen that was poorly received by fans, Austen at that time being fandom’s favourite whipping boy due to his controversial time on the X-titles. Bendis was brought in to reinvigorate the Avengers ship and in controversial fashion, did this by destroying the old team and rebuilding from the ground up. Where once the Avengers had been composed of ‘the big three’ of Captain America, Thor or Iron Man, along with a select band of second stringers, the launch of New Avengers saw the team moving towards a model closer to the JLA in which the Avengers featured Marvel’s marquee heroes. Fan favourite Avengers such as the Vision and Hawkeye were brutally dispatched and replaced by popular heroes such as Wolverine and Spider-Man. Stellar sales ensued.
They say that you can’t argue with success, and it’s true that the huge sales of New Avengers gave Bendis a growing amount of power and influence within Marvel. With the Avengers replacing the X-Men as Marvel’s premiere franchise, the re-establishment of the line-wide crossover inevitably meant that they – and Bendis, as their writer – would be heavily involved. One look at the tent pole events of the Marvel Universe in the years after this tells its own story. House of M, Secret Invasion, Siege and Age of Ultron all being written by Bendis, with him also being heavily involved in the planning of other events such as Civil War and Avengers vs X-Men. His star power is such that I doubt whether the Ultimate Universe would still exist in any form if it wasn’t for Bendis’ willingness to continue writing Ultimate Spider-Man.
That is a huge amount of influence on the direction of Marvel comics. By radically reducing the number of mutants, House of M had a drastic effect on the mutant books; Secret Invasion led to Norman Osborn’s time in charge of the Marvel Universe, while Siege led to the ‘Heroic age’ and a new direction for a number of characters. But that in itself is one of the biggest frustrations I have with Bendis’ time at Marvel. While he is great at building a largely self-contained story (a la Daredevil) or coming up with exciting concepts, I find he often fails to take advantage of the possibilities they deliver, with his stories and titles often seeming like they are treading water.
In this context, the commitment of Bendis to his titles can be a double edged sword. Unlike other big-name writers such as Mark Millar who routinely commit to a year, shake things up and then move on, Bendis certainly commits to his properties. Five years on Daredevil, Fourteen years and counting on Ultimate Spider-man, eight years on the Avengers titles. This even extends to writing multiple titles in the family at the same time, something he has done with the Avengers family (Mighty Avengers, Avengers Assemble and Dark Avengers), X-Men family (Uncanny X-Men following on from All New X-Men) and Guardians of the Galaxy family (The upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Team-up running alongside the main title). If you are a fan of a franchise and Bendis comes on board, you may be in for a long wait if you don’t care for his writing style. This huge body of work that Bendis has amassed since his arrival on the Avengers books is notable because it highlights what are, to my mind, recurring problems with his superhero work that aren’t as evident in his work on more grounded characters or concepts.
Readers with long memories may recall when Bendis first arrived at Marvel comics, and the hoo-ha generated by his use of dialogue. Critics proclaimed that characters were saved from the curse of speechifying and endless pontification that had been popularised by Stan Lee; instead they talked like real people, with all the non sequiturs, mumbling and repetition that this involved. Which was, in truth, a nice change of pace – at least at first. The fact is that natural dialogue doesn’t always translate well to the printed page and that, coupled with the fact that every character seemed to be given the same tone of voice, meant that it quickly lost its effectiveness.
The pacing of Bendis’ work is a particular bug bear of mine, even more so in the days when comics are ever increasing in price. His use of dialogue means that valuable page space can be taken up by trivialities, with the Avengers and their dinner table conversations quickly losing their appeal. His run on New Avengers went through a period where the same threats were being faced ad nauseam (particularly ninjas and the Hood’s foot soldiers), and often, interesting concepts just seem to be spinning wheels. Two years in to Uncanny X-Men, highlighting Cyclops’ supposed team of revolutionaries, do we even have clarity about their goal and what sets them apart from the other X-Men?
In terms of plotting, I have often found that Bendis is good at coming up with a big picture or a high concept, but less successful in developing them. Part of this may be due to Bendis playing the long-term goal or even as a result of spreading himself too thin among so many books, but often the resolution to his stories feels as if they just peter out. The recent revelation of the mastermind behind events in the Uncanny X-Men book, to give a recent example, gave the impression that instead of having a long-term plan and threading clues, Bendis stuck a pin in a random issue of the OHMU.
Which leads me to characterisation. I find Bendis a curious writer in that while he obviously carries out in-depth research for a lot of his projects (recently stating that he can place the exact point the original 5 X-Men were taken from their own time), I regularly feel that his portrayal of characters is poor with little regard shown to their existing characterisation. His use of Hawkeye was perhaps the most jarring example of this trend. The Avenger that perhaps more than any other stood for the credo that Avengers didn’t kill was regularly seen to use lethal force under Bendis’ pen, and at one point broke into Avengers Tower in an attempt to assassinate Norman Osborn. Then of course there’s his treatment of Scarlet Witch during Avengers Disassembled, his bizarre portrayal of modern day Iceman in All New X-Men, and countless others.
So, ten years after he fully arrived in the Marvel Universe, how can Bendis’ work be evaluated? If we look at sales, publicity, awards and influence then it’s clear that he remains one of the most important writers at Marvel and is the man without whom the last ten years of the Marvel Universe would look very different, for better or for worse. One man’s pleasure is another man’s pain and while I don’t rate much of his superhero work there’s no denying that he puts the work in, rivalling 60s era Stan Lee in body of work produced if not in quality. It’s perhaps telling, though, that his most consistent superhero work for Marvel has been on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-man, both being somewhat removed from the mainstream Marvel Universe and the responsibilities and obligations that brings.
Love him or hate him, it doesn’t look like Bendis is going anywhere soon. And for those of you that aren’t enjoying his current work on Guardians of the Galaxy or the X-titles, don’t fear. If past history is anything to go by then he should have left both franchises by, oooh, 2019 or thereabouts.