Brian Michael Bendis on Leaving Marvel for DC, Facing Death, and Why America Still Needs Superman
The switch shocked the comic book world and Bendis is already off to a flying start at DC after sealing the return of Superman’s red undies.
Brian Michael Bendis rocked the comic book-reading world last November with a sudden announcement: He, a 17-year superstar veteran of Marvel Comics, the writer who reshaped nearly every major title from Daredevil to Spider-Man to the Avengers (and co-created beloved new characters including Jessica Jones and Miles Morales), would be defecting to rival DC. It was the publisher's greatest coup since Jack Kirby ditched the House of Ideas in 1970. And it was no less than the chance to write DC’s most iconic hero himself, Superman, that lured Bendis away.
Imagine his shock then when, less than a month later, Bendis awoke in a hospital and learned he had nearly died.
Bendis was rushed to intensive care three times last December in Portland after a MRSA infection temporarily blinded him and nearly claimed his life. “I had never faced anything like that before, even though I write about life and death all the time,” he says now. “We all know about it in theory, and everyone has a different relationship with their mortality, but this was a big punch in the face for me.” Friends, family, and fellow comic-book writers stayed at his bedside for days. Seeing them as he drifted in and out of sleep humbled Bendis, he says, and influenced his farewell to Miles Morales, the black Latino Spider-Man he co-created in 2011. In his final issue with the character, Miles contracts an infection and wakes in a hospital to find other superheroes rallied around him. He learns that “his friends are much better friends than he thought that they were,” Bendis says.
The work ahead at DC and with Superman helped power Bendis through months of recovery. (“I was literally falling to my computer during my infection trying to finish my stories,” he laughs.) On Wednesday, his DC debut hits stands in Action Comics No. 1000, a lovingly-assembled issue celebrating the 80th anniversary of Superman. Bendis’s story, illustrated by star artist Jim Lee, is a precursor to his six-issue Man of Steel weekly miniseries that launches in May (that will be followed by his ongoing stewardship of Superman and Action Comics in July). It introduces a new villain, Rogol Zaar, and aims to destabilize what Kal-el knows about his home planet Krypton, his father Jor-el, and his purpose on Earth.
The rest of the issue, meanwhile, celebrates the qualities often misunderstood—and misinterpreted as “boring”—about the character: his profound capacity for compassion, even toward his enemies; his unshakeable faith in the goodness of humanity; and his ability to inspire others to live up to their potential. A who’s who of past Superman talent, including writers Louise Simonson, Scott Snyder, Paul Dini, and Geoff Johns (paired with Superman director Richard Donner!) create a book of vignettes highlighting 80 years of lore, to touchingly sentimental effect.
In another timeline, someplace else in the multiverse, the catchphrase “truth, justice, and the American way” might still seem a bit corny. But in the America we live in now, they are notions “under siege,” Bendis says. “These ideas need to be fought for, and that’s what Superman does.” The Daily Beast spoke to Bendis about his plans for Superman, the return of the hero’s iconic red underpants, leaving Marvel for DC, and how his near-death experience reshaped him.
First, I wanted to ask how you’re recovering. How are you?
I’m very, very happy to report as of this weekend, I am back to full health. So that is a huge relief because as time has gone on, I have become inundated with stories about the type of infection I had and how lucky I am to have survived it. In my desperate need to get past it, I haven’t been talking about it and this worries people, so I have to remember to tell people I’m OK. I got better and went, “OK, let’s get back to work!” and people around me go, “Uh, are you OK?”
What helped pull you through it? I saw you tweet that Matt Fraction was by your bedside for two days.
(Laughs.) Well, a lot of my friends. Matt is someone people know. But my wife has saved my life quite a few times, no joke, and my friends and family whom I’m lucky I have not had to call upon like this, it was lovely to find out what good friends they are. But also, I had my work in front of me. Last night I did the lettering proof on my last issue of Spider-Man, for which I decided to junk what I was going to do for my finale. I did a story about Miles having an infection and waking up in a hospital and finding out that his friends are much better friends than he thought that they were, and kind of having moments with each member of his life. I just flat-out did what I tell my students to do every day, which is write it, write your pain, put it in there. I did it right after I was sick. And then, weeks later, to get the lettering back when all the pieces of the comic book have come together and have another bout of therapy was a nice little surprise that I gave myself. I created a situation where I kept having to go back to this and process it and it was very healthy.
I can’t imagine that was easy.
Well, yeah, it was a real near-death experience and I don’t want it to make light of it because it was certainly the most scary thing that’s ever happened to me. I had never faced anything like that before, even though I write about life and death all the time. We all know about it in theory and everyone has a different relationship with their mortality, but this was a big punch in the face for me. And so yeah, so I’m still dealing with it. But the headline was that I came away going, “Wow, I love my wife, I love my wife, I love my kids.” And I didn’t come out of it going, “What have I done with my life?” I came out of it very proud of what I’d built and also with this craziness. People who are writers who’ve had this experience go, I’m almost done, if I could just finish this last page, I will have finished my project. I know I’m sick but if I could just finish this… So I was literally falling to my computer during my infection trying to finish my stories because I was so scared. Oh my god, I only have three pages left of Defenders! I was legitimately worried I wasn't going to be able to finish or to be able to start my Superman run. And I was so excited about it that it was tearing me apart that it might not happen. I was very grateful to bounce back.
Who first implanted the idea that you should consider leaving Marvel after 17 years and sign exclusively with DC?
Oh, that would be Diane Nelson. We’d been friendly over the years, you know, as business friends, where we’d get together at conventions and talk shop. We’d always toy with maybe doing a crossover or something. Over the years there’d been talk like, “Hey, what are you thinking? Would you ever come over here?” That kind of thing. And a few years ago we’d had a very serious conversation about coming over there. But at the time, faced with the choice, it really felt like I just wasn’t done with what I was doing at Marvel yet. As good as the offer was, it wasn’t enough to turn to my friends at Marvel—and they are my friends—and go, “Listen I gotta go,” and have them go, “Oh yeah, you've gotta go,” and not be bummed out about it.
This time, Diane reached out and I had thought about it and was like, “Yeah! You know what, I feel maybe it is time, let’s see what they have to say.” And then I met with Dan [Didio, DC Comics co-publisher] in L.A. We had a lovely afternoon having coffee, just getting to know each other. And immediately, we realized not only are we on the same page about a lot of stuff but we probably would have been best friends in high school. His nerd buttons are very close to mine. But beyond that, his plans for the future seemed to be a very proactive building of our industry and I was really, really, really into it because I love this industry and this medium. I wanted to be somewhere where they’re really gonna go for it and it seemed to me like he really was.
They made a really strong and meaningful offer to me not only to come write books for them, but to partner with them and create new stuff and publish my own work with them. He came to me as a business partner and as a fan and told me what he wanted from me and it was literally the list of things I needed to get done. I’m at an age where I start looking, “OK, what do I need to do? What haven't I done?” With the lesson in mortality that I got in December, it certainly refocused me. And so as soon as we were out of the hospital, here we are.
Had you essentially felt you had accomplished what you set out to do at Marvel? Do you ever feel ready to let go of characters you helped create?
You know, with creativity, you never feel “done.” You know what I mean? I learned this lesson in art school when my art teacher said a piece of art is never done, it’s just finished. “Do another one.” I had thought about that in relation to this and you’re like, yeah, you’ll never feel done with Spider-Man. So you have to just figure, have you done what you set out to do? I’m consulting on a Spider-Verse movie that’s coming out from Sony in December which is very heavily about Miles Morales. Jessica Jones has a TV show. The characters that I love and that I helped create are on Agents of SHIELD, I really put a lot of meaningful toys in the toy box. And there’s a lot of new creators at Marvel that I really, really like and they’re gonna shepherd and parent these characters with a lot of love and affection. I looked at them and talked to them and at one point you go, you know, I was allowed to come into Marvel and just go nuts. I should get out of the way and let these guys have the opportunity that I had. And that’s what’s happening.
And to be fair, and I say this not to be braggy but to be fair to Marvel, they had also made a wonderful offer to keep me and made a very clear statement that it was my home if I wanted it. So I’m grateful to both companies. But DC offered a more meaningful partnership and, at the same time, it was scarier. I knew could do the Marvel thing. The DC thing was more of a challenge. I just made myself go, if you’re creatively scared then you have to do it. There’s no other answer.
Is there a character apart from Superman who would have been No. 1 on your list at DC?
Oh yeah, we haven’t even gotten to my list yet. This is just the first little—I’m not gonna say “little,” it’s huge—but this is just the first part of what we have set up. Right after Superman launches with Man of Steel: Superman in Action, we’re gonna be debuting a brand-new Jinxworld book. It’s a creator-owned book that I’m doing with Michael Gaydos, who did Jessica Jones with me. David Mack, who also is part of Jessica Jones and is one of my dearest friends in the creative kabuki, we’re doing a brand-new book called Cover together. Both will be debuting, as will the return of Scarlet, The United States of Murder, and Powers, along with my entire archive of backlist stuff that we’ve been doing over the years. That’s all coming to DC. And then later we’ll be debuting the imprint that my wife and I are shepherding. This imprint is as big a statement about DC Comics and what I feel and what I love about them as anything.
Were you involved in the decision to bring back Superman’s red undies? I’m happy to see them again.
I was, in a way. I seemed to be the catalyst with which to bring them back but at the time I was in Marvel land and totally unaware of the ongoing controversy about Superman and his trunks. After we decided that it’s gonna be Superman and it’s gonna be Action Comics No. 1000 and all the pieces were coming together in a very lovely way, I get a call from Dan who goes, “Hey! You wanna bring back the trunks?” And I go, “What do you mean?” He goes, “The red underwear.” And I go, “Oh yeah, yeah, of course I do! Superman has to wear the red underwear.” And he goes, “Well, there’s been a bit of controversy around here but I think it’s time. People will like that you're bringing them back, it’ll be an interesting conversation. So if you want ’em, you can have ’em.” And I go, “Yeah, I totally want them.” Then I get a call from one of the DC editors: “How did you do it? How’d you get the red underpants back?” Everyone had been working Dan for a long time and I was like the final little bit. There are a lot of creators that are a little sore I’m getting the underpants, but I said to all those creators, we all get them back. Don’t look at who got it back, we all get the underpants back.
But I will say, I just got back from C2E2, which is the big Chicago convention, where I signed more underpants than comic books. People are very very happy about the underpants. Victoria’s Secret models don’t get as many pictures of people’s red underpants on Twitter as I got.
Apart from the undies, the thing about Superman is that even more than his strength, flying, laser vision, all of that, his most striking power is his capacity for compassion and how he inspires others through that compassion.
Oh, absolutely. Powers or no powers, it’s the person inside. It’s the choices a person makes with the powers.
Right. So with Superman, how do you view the potential of a lawful good character like that in times like the ones we’re in now?
In my opinion, a lot of people want more of that in the world. It’s not like they're saying “Ugh, too much compassion.” (Laughs.) Everyone wants more. People want people who are gonna stand up for what they believe in and not vary in the face of the changing winds of society. They’re like, no, there’s right and wrong. It’s not complicated. Words matter, choices matter, actions matter. And Superman stands for that. That’s what he was created for, to give people someone to look to and go, “Oh, there’s a good dude.” He was created in a time of incredible international tumult and here we are today and it feels we’re still in some version of international tumult. We’re not a world at war, but we’re a world struggling to find itself. And Superman standing there, trying to do his best is a book I want to read, and certainly a book I love writing. Because he cares a great deal. He cares about all of it, and he can hear all of it and see all of it. So we dive into that and what his perspective is and what his takeaway on all of this is.
I think some people find his do-gooder persona, the whole Big Blue Boy Scout thing, dull compared to broodier heroes like Batman. But in such divisive, bleak times, that persona sort of takes on renewed meaning.
What we’ve heard for decades is “truth, justice, and the American way.” When people think about Superman, that’s what they hear. Much like when they think of Spider-Man they hear, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” for Superman it’s “truth, justice, and the American way.” At one point, I would hear those words and think them corny. And now I look at them and go, oh no, this is a unique time we live in when this is not an absolutely defined thing. It’s under siege. Social media has revealed that justice is not equal for everyone. Whereas the American way, the idea that you can come here from wherever you are and live free, this is also under siege. These ideas need to be fought for and that’s what Superman does. For an author, when you step back and think about it, that gets very exciting and very relatable. That’s something with Superman that people always worry about, his relatability. And I find him extremely relatable, like deeply relatable. So I’m gonna prove that with every issue.
Louise Simonson’s story in this issue, “Five Minutes,” emphasizes how Clark’s reporting abilities are like another superpower. She has a great line about it: “Good reporting is like looking at an event with X-ray vision.”
I think I might steal that line, thank you.
How do you want to approach that part of the character—again, especially through the lens of how vital real journalism is today?
I actually worked at a newspaper in my younger years in Cleveland, so I have a great deal of almost fanboy appreciation for journalism. I was the editorial cartoonist for two years at The Plain Dealer so I worked in the bullpen and sidled right up to journalists. I’m kind of a journalism nerd. And so when you think about Clark, there’s two things about him being a reporter that occurred to me recently that had never occurred to me before. Because I have adopted children, you become aware of how much stuff just happens to them. At a young age, you don't have a lot of control. One of my daughters is coming to terms with the fact that big choices have been made for her and she’s going to walk on that path. That same thing happened to Clark. He was sent here, he was told what to do—things happened to him. But the first choice he made for himself was to be a reporter. He could have been anything; he could have been nothing. He could have just been Superman all day. But he made an active choice to become a reporter. And I think if you unpack it, it’s because then he can tell truths that Superman can’t. There’s a level of truth Superman can get to because he’s Superman. And then there’s a level of truth he can’t because being Superman isn’t the answer, being Clark Kent is the answer. Clark can go get that truth and put it out there for people to see. And that’s exciting.
This Superman is already married to Lois Lane, with whom he shares a son, Jon. How do you want to approach the complexity of that family? Beyond just positioning his loved ones as a liability?
It is a liability. I mean, he’s married. You’re constantly living in fear of that which you can’t control, which is the safety and health of living beings, right? It’s all delicate. You know, the way I look at it, I love my marriage, I’ve been married for a very long time and I love my kids. So I relate to this part of Superman a great deal. We have a very unique lifestyle. I don’t have a “job” job, but I still go to work every day. We have adoption in our house and we’re multiracial. So everything about our house is unique and different and we kind of have to make our own rules in how we relate to each other and how we act as a family. I think about that and I think the same things would apply to Lois and Clark and Jon. They’re not a normal family and it’s not a normal situation so to act like it is would be ridiculous. And yeah, the job is gonna be high drama because they live dangerous lives, but the drama is very similar, in my opinion, to every family. Every day they struggle to keep the house from falling over and everybody clean and out of jail and all the things you're supposed to do as a parent. (Laughs.) There’s a lot out of place. There’s no Dr. Spock book for how to raise Superboy, you know? So they kind of make it up as they go and I think a lot of parents kind of feel that.
Your debut here ends with a pretty major “oh shit” moment in which a new villain, Rogol Zaar—which is a hell of a name, by the way.
Thank you. I named it after the doctor who saved my life in the hospital last December, Rogol. I was blind for a few days so I couldn't actually see her, I could just feel her stabbing my head and whatever she was doing to save my life. And after a few days, I told her that I think I’m gonna name the Superman villain after her. She didn’t know what I did for a living or what that meant so I sounded like a crazy person. She had to Google me and come back the next day, but she was very excited when she found out who I was and what I do for a living. We just heard from her, she’s thrilled to bits about this nonsense.
Rogol Zaar tells Superman that he promised his father, Jor-el, that he would “end the Kryptonian sickness.” How deep into Superman’s mythology are we revising things here?
One of my first things was, and this is something I thought about when I was working on Tony Stark as well, is that compared to their peers, Superman doesn’t have as big a rogue’s gallery as let’s say Batman or Spider-Man. It’s a little shallow and there haven’t been a lot of new characters lately. DC created a situation where they were like, “Create! Do!” So I was very motivated to create new characters. And for Superman, it’s really about who’s gonna get under his skin? What I love about the Kingpin and Daredevil is that Kingpin gets under Daredevil’s skin. Like, he gets to him, right? So who would get to Superman? How do you get under that guy’s skin? With a character who has information that Superman did not, stuff that completely changes what he thought about himself. His relationship to Krypton and the galaxy is completely different coming out of this and creates all kinds of new stories for us. And we’re very excited, it sets up the whole first new year of Superman in a very big way.
Just yesterday I got my comp batch of #1000 and I got to see it all put together for the first time. It’s such a beautiful anniversary issue and I was flipping through all this work from all these creators that I love and I was so happy that our story is the last story. The last line of #1000 is the surprise that Rogol has for Superman and it’s also a surprise for the audience. After 80 pages of Superman imagery, you think you’ve seen everything there is to know about Superman, then here comes this big whopper that really sets up the next chapter. It’s a hell of a book. We’re really proud of it.
On a more general comics note, in recent years there’s been a call from certain fans to have characters of color penned by writers of color, including some you’ve created, like Riri Williams and Miles Morales. Do you feel like that’s a valid point? Were you ever aware of yourself having blind spots in writing characters of different cultural backgrounds?
Oh yeah, no, I’m very aware. I’m a Jewish man and I know where I came from. (Laughs.) I’ve been writing for a long time and I really am writing from my experience. There have been times where I’m writing flat-out biographical stuff. But if I’m writing about Daredevil, who is a blind Catholic warrior, there couldn't be a character more different than me. It’s funny, with skin color people get wrapped up about that. Now, there is just as much research that goes into writing Daredevil as goes into writing Miles. It’s a character perspective, a character experience. And as a writer, you don’t know what you don’t know until you go find it. So you have to go do research and talk to people and get their perspective. But this idea that everybody should be writing in their lane is weird. That’s not how it works. Yes, everybody’s voice should be heard and people who have a unique perspective should have that platform. But every writer should have that platform to write whatever they want. Most writers write about what they don't know, what they haven't experienced, because they try to figure it out. So I say to you yes, if you’re writing outside your experience, go do your research like every writer has ever done in every medium. It’s worth it. You shouldn’t just sit there like you’ve seen people at the mall who look different than you, so you think you can write them. No. You have to go and find out.
And I tell my students and every writer, anybody you ask for help will help you. I have never been turned down by anybody when I said, “Listen, I’m writing a character who’s like you, who was born like you, who’s got this thing and I just wanted to ask you some questions.” No one’s ever said no to me. They're so happy that you're acknowledging their experience and their passion and they want you to do right by everything. The wrong thing to do, to me, would be to not write outside yourself because you're never gonna learn anything about yourself or the world. But at the same time, the people who have that experience and want to write should do that as well. If you’re a brown-skinned person who wants to write brown-skinned people, absolutely you should, but it’s not the only thing. I would write about everything.
There’s also been a lot of debate about stalled growth in the industry in the last two years. People often ask why the popularity of the Marvel movies, for instance, hasn’t really translated into comics sales.
It’s not as black and white as that. There’s a massive amount of people who read the comics because they saw the movies or the TV shows. The TV shows are a big conduit, particularly for DC, because they're more of a sister storytelling device. There’s subplots and “to be continued,” it’s much more serialized. So people kind of gravitate to both. Now I get frustrated because I don't think people read enough at all, no matter what they like. The movies are so spectacular and beautiful and well done and they are an amazing way to see the characters. But there is an intimacy and explosive imagination in the comics that are basically the building blocks of all the stuff that people are seeing in the movies and the TV shows. So I always tell people, yeah, you like that movie? You really should read the comic. It’ll get you on levels the movies and TV shows are just not able to, because the intimacy of reading a comic is so powerful.
That’s another thing we tell people who are super nerds about this stuff like I am. Like, good news, you can be like five years ahead of the curb every day if you read comics. People who read comics now, you know, we already saw Infinity War, we know what happens! We knew what happened in Civil War, we read that ten years ago! But also, my biggest takeaway when I see people who love superheroes or just the medium, I get so like, oh my god, if you read comics, you would get so excited on a constant basis. I just came from C2E2 where it was just a parade of people who feel the same way, overwhelmed at what’s going on in our medium. It’s the best way to experience the characters. As good as the movies and TV shows are, nothing beats the comics.
This interview has been edited and condensed.