Twigg explores the themes of Bendis' earliest work for Marvel and how it mirrors his journey as a writer of superhero comics.
Brian Michael Bendis is a name I’m sure you are all aware of. A name that is now almost synonymous with Marvel comics and a name that has been at the forefront of the 616 for almost a decade now. Bendis is renowned for his stellar runs on such titles as Ultimate Spider-man, Daredevil, New Avengers and many more.
Yet it was not always this way. Brian Michael Bendis was once the darling of independent comics, with his run on Powers becoming massively popular and original works like Jinx and Goldfish earning critical acclaim.
So at what point did Bendis become a superhero writer? At what point did Bendis go from being a successful independent writer creating his own original properties to someone who has worked almost exclusively on large Marvel brands for years?
The answer lies over a decade ago now, in Bendis’ first ever Marvel script. Cast your mind back to Daredevil #16 originally published on the 1st of May 2001. Daredevil #16 was the beginning of Bendis’ now seminal run on Daredevil, and the arc is almost a transition from Bendis’ more experimental independent work to the mainstream writer we see today. The title of the arc is “Wake Up” and resolves around investigative reporter Ben Urich reaching out to perpetual loser Frog Man’s little child. The boy is in a state of shock and the police refuse to help, but with a little help from Urich, the child manages to integrate himself back into normal society.
Now it’s obvious throughout this arc the little child in question represents the author’s transition into mainstream comics. Bendis is new to the world of Marvel and is struggling to reconcile his older freelance work with the experience of an editorial driven superhero comic.
The arc kicks off with a parody of Marvel comics up until that point. Pages 1-4 of Daredevil #16 take place in the child’s imagination, and show Daredevil fighting with the supervillain “Fury”. Notice how even though the panels make use of the standard comic tropes such as over the top sound effects and ridiculous overuse of alliteration, a sense of unease is created by the use of shadow throughout the panels. Also notice how the “Fury’s” mask changing to resemble Captain America in the last panel. Indeed Captain America is referenced repeatedly throughout this arc as almost the embodiment of Marvel comics itself. If this takes place in the child’s imagination, it can be said that the “Fury” is trying to lure Bendis himself into the world of Marvel comics. “You’re the one that needs to be bought in.”
This is the last time Daredevil himself would appear for a few issues. Daredevil is only mentioned in passing comments, and the arc instead follows Ben Urich as he tries to figure out the traumatic memory that caused Frog-mans young child to start acting so incoherently. Bendis is rejecting Daredevil early on while he tries to find himself a place in the world.
If the child in the arc represents Bendis’ eventual movement into the Marvel Universe, Ben Urich represents the author himself. Ben is a journalist working under ridiculous constraints at a national newspaper. Ben wants to focus on the smaller stories. Bendis uses almost a page full of Urich monologue to introduce the reader to the character. It is the latter part of the speech that seems especially pertinent, “I could tell the world Daredevil is Matt Murdock and I would be rich and I would be famous and ... And I would be the worst person on the planet. Instead, I write stories”.
Once again its clear Urich represents Bendis in this arc. Bendis would later on reveal Daredevil’s secret identity to the world, effectively becoming the “worst person in the world.” This change to Daredevil would change the character forever, effectively “breaking” him for future writers and completely changing his status quo. Yet Bendis knows that by revealing his secret identity, the writer would be able to become rich and famous. Bendis seems to know that the key to future fame and fortune lies in an original epic which pushes the character forward, rather than just “telling stories” that repeat the status quo yet is worried about how fans will perceive him.
Later on Urich speaks to J Jonah Jameson, the repressive editor who orders Urich to write about the Kingpin case, (no prizes for guessing what this is an obvious reference towards) but Urich refuses, choosing to ignore J.J.J until the very end of the arc. Instead Urich and Bendis are drawn towards the more personal tale, “We need to show them the stories that reflect back into their lives” muses Urich, mirroring Bendis’ famous thoughts on a more grounded storytelling approach.
Jameson is understandably furious. “YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE COVERING THE TRIAL” he shouts. “I gave you this assignment because I thought you of all people would be able to convey a sense of closure to our readers ... Instead I’m reading this from our distinguished competition.” At this point Bendis is not even trying to hide his allusions to the comic book world, as the controlling editor even mentions D.C comics in an offhand way to criticise Urich’s work. Jameson is incredulous that Urich isn’t interested in the big overblown throw-downs of the Marvel universe, and is instead interested in the mundane stories that haven’t really been covered before.
This whole episode gives Urich nightmares. Urich starts to dream of Daredevil getting killed by Elektra. Obviously Bendis is not yet ready to move forward, and reacts badly to any thought of Daredevil.
The art in this book is often quite hard to decipher. Mack isn’t a typical superhero artist and he chooses to paint the comic here, producing a wonderful look into Ben Urich’s mind. However eventually the use of a more formulaic page becomes more and more evident, and by the end of the arc, Mack uses a more standard superhero panelled page to portray the story. The art in the story mimics Bendis’ journey as it starts out innovative and daring, yet eventually has to sacrifice a bit of what makes it unique to conform to readers’ expectations.
So when is the point that Bendis starts to reconcile himself with his future work? The important breakthrough in “Wake Up” comes when Urich tells the child in question to lay out his pictures like they were “in a comic.” Urich is able to find sense in the world by laying out the child’s pictures as if they were panels in a book that follow on consecutively. The panels show a superhero fight between Daredevil and Frog-man. The child here is showing Bendis what he has to do. In order for superhero comics to make sense, you sometimes have to have these overblown superhero fights with good versus evil.