Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Bendis Factor

Douglas Wolk reviews Siege #1 and asks, in the comments section, what the popular appeal of Brian Michael Bendis' Marvel Universe work is. After all, Bendis' New Avengers and its various off-shoots (including Mighty Avengers, Dark Avengers and the crossovers House of M, Secret Invasion and now Siege) have been among Marvel's top-selling comic books for ages.

My take: Bendis has mentioned listening to teenagers to get a sense of how they talk and what they care about, so he could tap into that with Ultimate Spider-Man. His Avengers comics suggest he's done the same thing with Avengers fans on the Internet.

If there's a big break between how Bendis approaches the series and how previous writers approached the series, it's that characters now communicate less with each other and more with the audience, in terms that are more familiar to the fans—by saying the kinds of things the fans say and speaking to the kinds of issues that come up on message boards.

More so than any previous Avengers writer, Bendis wants the fans to know that hey, I'm a a big fan, too, by relying on a vernacular that they immediately recognize as their own.

An early example of this is the Avengers Finale one-shot he did, right after his first arc, "Avengers: Disassembled." Finale—so titled because it's a bookend to the original Avengers series, which Bendis relaunched as New Avengers in 2004—is basically a clip show in which the Avengers reminisce about "their favorite Avengers moments." Those moments are then illustrated in lush splash pages by an all-star roster of Avengers artists.

It's just like one of those threads that'll crop up on any Avengers-themed message board sooner or later, in other words, and the dialogue even reads like it could have been lifted straight from a message board. And it's all illustrated by people like George Pérez.

That, to me, is Bendis' approach to the Avengers in a nutshell—and, by extension, Bendis' approach the Marvel Universe: Bendis, like no other writer working in comics right now, is able to distill and dramatize how Marvel Universe fans talk to each other and what they talk about.

(Mind you, he got much of it wrong in Finale; there are a lot of characters mentioning moments where they weren't present, or which you'd think would be much too traumatic for them to feel nostalgic about. Bendis' later work is much more refined, and while the gaffes are still present, they get much subtler.)

So, even when Spider-Man and Luke Cage talk to each other in New Avengers, say, it doesn't seem like they're really talking to each other. Rather, it seems they're talking to the reader, much more pronouncedly than you usually find in fiction, and are trying to push the kinds of buttons that bring the reader closer to the fiction—and make them cheer the fiction on: Everybody can join the Avengers, it says, in a sense, and hang out with Luke and Peter at the club house.

It's not something I find appealing, personally; I think it's pandering more than storytelling, and too bluntly manipulative. I prefer it when the characters and their voices are expressions of something other than the writer's attempt to convince me to love their fiction because they think they've got it figured out what I think the characters should be saying or doing in a given moment in order for me to like the story.

(I get a similar sense from Brad Meltzer's writing, based on the one issue of his Justice League of America that I read. Meltzer's characters are all chums, referring to each other by their first names a dozen times per page; and they want the reader to be part of it. Also see much of Mark Millar's and Jeph Loeb's output.)

That said, it's fair to say that, if you assume Bendis—consciously or subconsciously—is pandering to his audience with those particular comics, and that his primary concern is for those comics and himself to be popular, then he's certainly been very good at that.

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