So I received a cool email offer from the online comic book superstore Things From Another World (also known as the place that sucks up my money) yesterday. In honor of Brian Michael Bendis‘ upcoming birthday, now through the 19th, they’re offering 25% off on anything he’s written; as someone who receives emails from them, I also got an additional $5 off.
I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll buy (have to buy textbooks soon after all) but the thought came to me that a lot of comics-reading folks over the past decade have come to hate the guy and well…I don’t.
OK: let’s back up. For the unfamiliar, Brian Michael Bendis is a writer who, after making it big with his noir-style crime comics like Powers, was hired by Marvel in 2000 to write the then-new Ultimate Spider-Man, the flagship book of the publisher’s Ultimate line which reimagined the characters as just starting out in the modern day. The book–which Bendis continues to write to this day–was so successful and acclaimed that Marvel has gradually let Bendis become one of the primary architects of the regular Marvel Universe, letting him write big, universe-altering crossovers like House of M and Secret Invasion while also expanding the Avengers line of comics and now currently working on the X-Men.
But as Bendis’ star has risen, his shine has dimmed. Oh make no mistake, he continues to be a big seller. But the fans have by and large turned against him, citing things like how he blew up the established Avengers team, replacing them with favorite characters of his like Spider-Woman and how he indulges in a style of decompressed writing more suited to reading in trade paperback form rather than in single issue, as failings.
While I get a fair number of these criticisms (seriously, Spider-Woman is an ill-conceived character), I can’t really find fault in his writing style. Granted, some of this comes out of nostalgia–Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic I ever subscribed to, and I’ve described before how the first issue changed my life–but honestly, decompression (which, just to clarify, is a type of comic storytelling characterized by emphasizing visuals or character interaction, thus stretching or “decompressing” the plot) would have become the norm in comics whether Bendis had come around or not. And yes, Bendis may have had a disporportionate affect on other writers and not everyone can copy his style.
But honestly, that style of writing really holds up well and can be very effective. For example, in Peter Parker’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15, Uncle Ben is only visible in 2 panels, barely a presence, and his death is affecting, but it is nothing more than a story beat. When Bendis started Ultimate Spider-Man, he took the original story–which is only 11 pages–and stretched it out for seven issues. This gave Uncle Ben a much bigger role and allowed us to get to know him better as a character; thus, when his death happened, it had some resonant impact because somebody we had grown to like suddenly taken away.
An even better example might be Bendis’ years-long run on Daredevil, which sees the superhero get involved in slow-burning plots that slowly become bigger, all-encompassing and threatening, as well as picking up strands previous writers left off, giving the feel of a well-crafted detective drama (the moody, stylish art of Alex Maleev helps sell this) and actually ends with Matt Murdock (Daredevil’s secret identity) put in prison alongside his worst enemy, the Kingpin. That’s a hell of a ride and the way Bendis paces his plotting, you get that same feeling of tension and suspense you do from reading, say, Raymond Chandler.
Don’t get me wrong; Bendis ain’t perfect. There’s some stuff in USM–at least what I’ve read–that doesn’t click, and his preference for certain characters is a real detriment sometimes (seriously, Spider-Woman?). But at the end of the day, this is a guy who is crafting some of the craftiest, slickest, most well-constructed superhero comics out there. And in a genre that gets beaten down by dang near everyone as stupid or naive in some way the moment puberty happens, that’s no small feat.
Also, quick fun fact: Jason Aaron, a current favorite at Marvel who’s written for Ghost Rider and Wolverine as well as the Native American murder drama book Scalped for Vertigo, has told the story here and elsewhere about how, in order to afford his first date with his now-wife, he sold his entire USM collection on Ebay.
So happy birthday, Mr. Bendis, whenever that may be. I look forward to reading stuff with your byline on it for years to come.