Seismic shifts in comics don’t really happen as often as the fluidity of the comics world would have you imagine. A new writer gets announced for a popular book or even, a character finally gets their own solo series? All cool, engaging news that we get excited about. The we being a site that does much of its business in comic books, so those kinds of announcements are exciting to us. But game changers happen a lot less frequently. The acquisition of Ta-Nehisi Coates crossing into comics and taking up the pen of the most iconic Black superhero in comics lore was such shift. One that was hard to see coming and yet made all the sense in its implementation.
So, today, as I thought I would spend a day off of work catching up on middling tasks and going about my business in a low stakes fare, instead raced home when news dropped that Brian Michael Bendis was switching sides and signing an exclusive agreement with DC Comics. For those that know comics but don’t necessarily know comics, basically this is LeBron leaving the Cavs to go win championships in Miami.
If you don’t know sports, then maybe this is the smug “can you hear me now” dude that went from Verizon to Sprint. Either way, you get the point. Bendis has been the most valued and visible writer for Marvel Comics for almost twenty years now. This is, for all intents and purposes, as big a deal as it gets in comics.
Living Myth and the Price of it All
Brian Michael Bendis, from my beloved home state of Ohio is a Titan in major comics. Regardless of criticism (many of which has some validity), this cannot be disputed. Whether you are a comic book aficianado or not, many of your favorite Marvel characters or least their most prominent iterations came from Bendis’ influence.
Jessica Jones‘ first season on Netflix? From Bendis’ Alias series (as he is the co-creator of the character). The current Spider-Man, Afro-Latino hero Miles Morales? Created by Bendis and one of the last remnants of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Iceman’s coming out? The non-caricature of Luke Cage? Post-Professor X-Men? The top 3 Daredevil storylines you probably know of? The list goes on and on. There hasn’t been a more influential writer in comics, let alone Marvel, in about a decade.
Has everything been flawless? Most definitely not. While Bendis, like many star writers enjoyed a time of being untouchable, the last couple of years have been a mixed bag. Some of the more overt themes around racial politics and socialization have made their way into some of our favorite stories such as the most recent Spider-Man. Or seeing the death of a popular Black character such as Rhodey aka War Machine during the uninspiring Civil War II event.
Outside of those specific controversies, Bendis just suffers from being a popular writer on popular characters in the comic book world, which means the outsized opinions of comic book fans often lead to a lot of “Brian Michael Bendis” is terrible narratives. Which of course flies in the face of books like Invincible Iron Man aka Iron Heart featuring Riri Williams, the Black teenage girl headlining one of the best comic books out right now. Period. The truth isn’t necessarily somewhere in the middle is it is most likely a lot closer to “damn good with some stumbles.”
Marvel: So What We Supposed to do Now Huh? It’s all Fucked Up Now
I mean, probably not. But to say that Marvel has went through an identity crisis over the last 2-3 years is to say that gun control is somewhat difficult to get done. To be clear, I don’t necessarily mean identity crisis with the negative connotation it usually carries. Marvel has made a large initiative to diversify its characters, even if for a while, it was predominantly cosmetic. What started with the big almost simultaneous announcements of Sam Wilson becoming Captain America and Thor being identified as a woman being added to a successful Ms. Marvel book would grow further in that way.
It would soon include the official passing of the torch to Miles Morales Spider-Man, books like the Ultimates being comprised of mostly POC characters, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, America Chavez getting her own book, Coates on Black Panther and the expansion of Wakanda, etc. These were not subtle moves and they weren’t done without a deliberate strategy. Even if high ranking Marvel execs expressed remorse over it.
And when the rightful criticism grew regarding the growth of diverse characters but not diverse writers, that began to be addressed as well, starting with Roxane Gay becoming the first Black Woman writer of a mainstream comic book in history. A long, long way to go and I have enough skepticism for everyone when it comes to moves like this, but I can recognize what the attempts look like and may possibly signify for a more permanent status quo. Which is to say, Marvel is at least trying something, even if it isn’t always neat in its delivery.
But what about the state of Marvel’s books right now? This is actually debatable. There are a lot of good (even great) books in Marvel’s arsenal right now, but possibly just as many “ok” or ho hum titles. Which would be fine if Marvel wasn’t always reminding us in some fashion how badly their books have been selling of late. Even so, Bendis titles either by reputation or quality (mostly likely both) never seem to be underperforming. Which makes his departure a big deal in Marvel’s bottom line.
We just don’t know what that will look like yet. And until we have details of when this is going down, the fates of Invincible Iron Man, Spider-Man (Miles has only ever been written by Bendis in a Spider-Man title aside from the great YA novel by Jason Reynolds) are completely up in the air. Though, there is already some interest.
New Major Comic Book Publisher, Who Dis
Let’s be honest, DC probably started doing cartwheels this morning and may not stop for a while. Getting Bendis is a coup. Straight up. Let’s not mince words here. Marvel has lost some really good writers over the years (Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction spring to mind) but usually that was to write Indie books. But it wasn’t to go write for their main competitor. Remember my previous analogy of LeBron leaving the Cavs to sign with Miami? It’s important to note that Miami went to the Finals every year LeBron played there and won two rings. This shit is serious.
They say you should always negotiate from a place of strength and as weird as this looks to write it, DC was pretty strong before this move. Which is the come up, cuz DC had seen some dark times. If we go back to the New 52, the universally hated reboot of the DC universe, the publisher has stumbled, tripped, fell and eventually climbed its way back to prominence.
[As I came to comics more recently than most die-hards and wasn’t affected by the reboot effect of the New 52, I would argue that some really good books came out of it, especially from the flagship titles, but anyways…]
If the opposite of Love isn’t hate but indifference, then that would some up Convergence, which was mostly bad except for the tie-ins that featured lots of fan favorites coming back to write fan favorite characters (such as Rucka on The Question and Simone on Batgirl and Nightwing). It all paved the way for Rebirth, another if not somewhat softer reboot of the universe that didn’t blow everything up, but rather reframed a lot of its heroes.
The result? A pretty damn good line-up. Rucka kicked things off a great Wonder Woman run. Nightwing came back with Seeley penning a good and original story. Made Damian Wayne his own man, boy, Robin, whatever. Deathstroke written by Priest. Steve Orlando picked to write multiple titles. And, my god, Tom King is writing the best Batman book since, ya know, Synder wrote the best Batman book since almost ever. I don’t even have time to gush over the Metal event going right now which looks like a legend in the making. DC, dare I say, is in a good place. Mostly.
DC still has plenty of work to do. There are plenty of POC characters in the DC world, though they are mostly scattered and typically don’t have their own ongoing series. Cyborg having his own series, Green Lantern with Simon and Jessica, then Vixen leading the JLA being the exceptions (there is a Black Lightning book right now, but it’s a mini-series). This also plays into the fundamental difference between DC and Marvel philosophies as they see their heroes. Marvel trends towards the idea of having super capable people transforming in some shape or another to an action hero. This has allowed them to brand their heroes as monikers and move different people into the roles easily. Miles became the new Spider-Man. Riri replaced Tony Stark. Amadeus Cho is now the Hulk. Sam Wilson as Cap. Jane Foster becomes Thor. You see the point.
With DC, the heroes are always in hero form, they just suppress themselves to move about in everyday life. Wonder Woman is still an Amazon, even when she puts on some jeans and leaves the sword at home. Clark puts on glasses. Flash keeps his costume in his ring. It’s also why Bruce Wayne, the most technological savvy person in DC Universe will never build himself a suit that can fly. The person is the hero is the person, and DC never wants you to forget that. But it also means there’s a lot more resistance to changing those heroes in anyway because the lore has become so fundamental to identity they’ve been sculpting for 70 years.
So what does that mean with Bendis? I honestly don’t know. Bendis has a reputation for his creation of (marginalized) characters, which I’m not sure is fair to project or even a good idea with his move to DC. While DC’s unwillingness to tamper with the Holy Trinity’s (Superman, Wonder Woman or Batman) identity, physical or otherwise in anyway, I’m not sure that’s the thing Bendis should or will be playing with.
What is probably gained from Bendis being there is filling the hole that Geoff Johns left behind when he was promoted to President of DC Entertainment. Johns was very much the Bendis of DC. The Cleaner, as we in the BNP offices called him. Oh, you need Aquaman to be relevant again? I got you. We taking Superman in a new direction and we need a jump off? Johns got you. Need the Justice League to come back in a big way? Can I interest you in some Darkseid War? Johns is a busy man these days with higher responsibilities, so bringing in another writer, that prolific and that prominent is no small thing.
There are still plenty of details we need, from both what will happen at Marvel, when this deal starts and what Bendis’ first projects will be. But its fair to say, the game done changed. Or, as Slim Charles would say from the DC side, just got more fierce.