Written by: Brian Michael Bendis
Art and cover by: Sanford Greene
Colors by: Matt Herms and Sanford Greene
I like the fact that Brian Michael Bendis still writes superhero comic books. I know you could make the argument that his writing stopped being interesting a long time ago. He’s kept to his same signature style, dialogue-heavy, decompressed scenes of character development, and he hasn’t really let up. But, I’d disagree with you. There is a particular use of the form inherent to most all of his comics that tell you they’re by Bendis. He is a writer with a certain voice and viewpoint, and his craft has been practiced and employed. And while I think in a better world, voice and viewpoint wouldn’t be such signifiers. And instead, they would act as a baseline for superheroes or other categories of popular media — That just isn’t the case. So, it’s a real positive thing when someone manages to do it. Because it’s an example of someone cutting through commercial products, like superhero teams and crossover universes, to expand their language, exposing us, the audience, to some different tone. Even something that’s actually human. And maybe that is progress? I mean, superheroes and their stories are going to hold a place in popular culture for the foreseeable future. For whatever their numerous subjective reasons are, many, many people find this kind of fiction compelling, and so corporations are happy to sell it. There’s the argument that this is rotting our brains and stupefying our culture. I can see reasons to agree with it, even. But, if this is the fiction most of us engage in, and if superheroes are a collective way for people to interact with their imaginations, then there has to be value in the efforts made to make these stories, these products, a little more malleable to creative risk, right? If make-believe is a core aspect of being a person, if it’s how we play in our minds, see things anew, and regenerate the world through different filters and shapes, then any little divergence is a worthwhile move away from the hard definitions we’ve forced on our lives, yes? I mean, I know that’s a heady concept to attach to something childish like Superman, but it’s also true that we forget things as we age, and adults can end up lost to expectations. We all know, on some level, that stories and fictions are powerful to human beings, and while it would be arguably preferable for our stories to not be dominated by one, corporate concept — for the superhero genre to take a backseat or even be destroyed — it’s just not in the cards right now. And either way, a writer named Alan Moore already tried and failed to move us along from superhero stories 36 years ago. He tried to give the genre a bookend with his and Dave Gibbons’ series, Watchmen, and he tried to show us how the superhero concept is arguably broken. But we didn’t want anything like that. Instead, we read Watchmen in 1986 and demanded more things like it, and we kept reading and watching and gaming for 36 years after that. And maybe that’s just our mistake and ignorance? Maybe Alan Moore was right? Maybe superheroes overstay their welcome beyond their youth-inspired gleam and become a nostalgic, commercial poison that stunts us? But here we are, they’re everywhere. So, what do we do with them, now?
I think many comic book writers who started in the 90s and 00s have tried to answer this question. Names like Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Joe Casey, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman, and Brian Michael Bendis come to mind. I think there are a few ways you can view their efforts. They either made career moves, chasing elevation, or they wrote the stories they wanted to read. Or it’s both, and so much more. Their efforts in this genre may involve everything that’s inherent to their particular person. All of their characteristics and moral qualities could be intermingling in a push-and-pull, that’s held together by tension and conflicting human wants. And maybe it’s this dance that created things like The Authority, Punisher MAX, and Godland? But beyond all that, I do believe each of these people has tried to answer the question: What do we do with superheroes now, as a fictitious device? Each of their bibliographies contains work that’s idiosyncratic, and even innovative in its approach to narrative. And each of their names can be identified by specific stylistic choices or aesthetics that are consistently presented across their bodies of fiction. Not to mention, many of the high-concepts driving their superhero plots tried to reimagine the genre for a modern era. Rather than read Watchmen and agree with it, then look to other creative outlets as new avenues of opportunity, these people, and so many others like them, decided there’s still more work to do. They sat and thought … Superheroes aren’t going anywhere. So, what if we wrote them, and what could we do with them?
This line of thought started a takeover. They were readers and fans who applied their talents and slowly took the reins from the professionals who ran the show, who made the comic books, and they became the pros themselves. Their thoughts of what if we wrote them? led to paying gigs that turned into careers. And some of them are pretty long by now. Brian Michael Bendis, for instance, is looking at 29 years in this line of work. And, I don’t know, maybe I’m too easily impressed, but I think a 29-year career in the comic book business is an accomplishment, of some sort.
Not a lot of people do it, for one, and it seems like a hard job to hold. You have all the deadlines attached to writing multiple books, and there’s the pressure to deliver stories that satisfy passionate fans. You have to deliver this certain, professional level of work while maintaining an online presence that’s mostly used to market yourself. And for that, too, you have to produce content. Personally, I could see writing a comic book or some series being an enjoyable challenge. But when I think about doing all the rest of it that’s required to have a career, it sounds kind of draining. Maybe it actually isn’t. I mean, I’m not living the life I’m describing here, and I really don’t know what it’s like. Maybe the whole thing really is fun and fulfilling? But I don’t know, it seems like there are a lot of ugly stories from the comic book business and its history. And it sounds like the business takes a lot from the people who give to and work in it. For example, just look at all the money that’s owed to the working-class people who created these superhero characters in the 1960s and on. They did this work for a paycheck on tight deadlines, sacrificing time away from their families and themselves, and their efforts were absorbed by private companies under “work-for-hire” contracts and then milked in every possible manner for money. Now, Hollywood makes enormous profits from their labor, but the people who originally had the ideas and actually made them exist haven’t really shared in this gain. Or, for another example, you can think about the instances of artistic frustration and theft that really challenged the people who cared about this artform. For instance, the original comic book artwork drawn for classic Marvel and DC comic books is now worth thousands of dollars. While actual people drew those images, and that artwork bears their name and their craft, the private companies that employed them often assumed ownership of these art pieces, and the artists were often denied possession of it along with the opportunity to reap any monetary reward from its sale. Today, it seems like comic book creators, even after decades of activism for content rights and better pay, are still just trying to secure opportunities and keep their careers alive. Recent news of Substack providing grants to comic book writers and artists to produce new work (without claiming intellectual property rights) could represent a shift in reader consumption and creative careers, pushing the business in a new direction. Or it may just amount to a select few producing projects that previously wouldn’t have been made because of limited resources. Either way, comic book creators today seem to be trying to find a reliable path through a professional life while embracing their idea of creativity, where they can make something that they have more say in, unedited. But there’s a scarcity complex in the comic book business. There are only so few spots available to write or draw stories on a mass audience scale, and people compete for those positions — Everyone thinks they can make it. And if you get in, it’s really about staying in. And to stay in, what does it take?
Maybe by writing all that, I’ve somehow incriminated Brian Michael Bendis. I’ve done the thing, where I sit here and type my thoughts and assume to know something. But, I mean, if someone lasts 29 years in this dirty business, they must be dirty, too, right? Wasn’t that one of the points of The Wire? But, I don’t know Brian Michael Bendis personally. I know nothing about his actual life, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. It’s bad enough that I’m here attempting to make any sense of an entertainment medium, a complicated business, or the concept of fiction as a human being with an isolated, limited, biased perspective — who knows nothing. And honestly, in this long, long introduction to where we are now, I can’t even say I have an exact point to make by writing all this, which is why I’ve never been a real critic or writer of any merit. I guess I just want to start this way, so you know where I’m coming from when I read and respond to one of Brian Michael Bendis’ latest comic books, Justice League 2022 Annual #1.
Now, this is where I’ll be really annoying and just totally flip the script on you. I really just want to say something about artist Sanford Greene’s artwork in this comic book. Even for someone with just a passing interest in superheroes or illustration and visual art, these drawings are eye-catchers. They’re striking. Look:
The first thing I notice is the style, the overall look and feel of Greene’s visual interpretation of a Justice League comic book. I see the influences of artists like Jack Kirby, Paul Pope, and Darwyn Cooke. With Kirby, it’s that superhero bombast where worlds collide and punches get thrown. For Pope, it’s an appearance of flow and liquidity, the line art drips, and it’s all vibe with a knack for storytelling. And then you have Cooke — who implies that chiseled jawline, the iconic, the statuesque man in a cape smiling at you, here to help.
But I also see Greene being Greene.
It’s like I said in the first paragraph of this write-up: There is something positive to appreciate about someone who can smudge up the commercial sheen of superheroes and show us something personal. Especially at this point in our culture, when everything is so much a product. Look around you: Movies are franchises, YouTube is content. And it’s getting hard to find compelling artists working within our large, institutional venues. There are so many artists in this world, and so many of them are talented and have things to say or discuss, but it’s only a very select few who make it through and take on the societal duties of entertaining, informing, and challenging everyone else through globally shared fictional stories. Or music. Or film. Or whatever it is. A small percentage of those who do hold these positions of influence actually use them for anything interesting. I think a lot of people try to, to their credit, and I can appreciate their efforts, deeply and genuinely. But, ultimately, whoever makes it in the traditional sense, with money and a career, is really, actually, just a good employee. Like, think about it, Brian Michael Bendis and Sanford Greene are employees of DC Comics, who were hired to write and draw Justice League 2022 Annual #1. But with being good employees, I’d argue they both found some personal motivation in this assignment, and they made this comic book better than it had any right to be. It could have been dull, repetitive, piecemeal, and nerdy and still achieved solid, safe sales and got them paid. But both Bendis and Greene had fun with it. There’s no way they didn’t. I mean, look at what this comic book looks like:
Very few of the very good artists end up on the world’s stage. And The Justice League is the world stage of superhero comics. You can make the argument that other superhero teams take the cake. I mean, The Avengers seems to be everyone’s favorite. But the Justice League starts with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They are the originals. They are fucking superheroes. You cannot corrupt them. Because, thankfully, they represent our best moral selves. As real human beings, as the men and women who dreamt these characters up from our collective imaginations, these superheroes mean so many things to so many people, across the whole world. We, as the audience, have imprinted upon them our feedback and fan craze. We’re all responsible for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, in some sense. We’ve reflected our personal interpretations and obsessions onto them, and they have changed and evolved in response to that. A lot of care has gone into giving them worthwhile values, too, like fairness and justice. We’ve preserved this about them even though we have experimented with their presentation, at times. Conceptually, they are meant to save the day, to encourage peace. That’s their core. They’re superheroes, strong, but kind — what we want to be.
To see Greene’s talent on a world stage like this is exciting. His artwork feels totally his own. The way he draws carries with it a style and tone that can shake away all the background noise and cynicism that’s now attached to superheroes. It disrupts their corporate glow and presses pause on the broad cultural questions they beg we ask: Like, when is enough of a particular thing, enough? It connects you, instead, to the power of superheroes. Their visual presence. They stand tall and take command. They’re always up for an adventure to save the world. Too many other writers and artists have tried to tell superhero stories that are more “realistic” or broken and literary, to somehow say something of the genre’s capacity for “serious” stories. And there are even good examples of those comic books I can point you to. But this popular artistic tone and pursuit has also made the genre dull, made it corny. When it could have been wild, free, and dream-like.
Luckily, Greene draws superheroes as if they’re something to see. He presents these characters as if their actions can shape the planet and the universe. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman possess this might and godhood under Greene’s pencil. But they’re also humble. They can break away from their epic battles to throw a surprise party:
This isn’t the first time this has been seen in a superhero comic book. For example, some X-Men comics have shown this moment in a story to convey a family aspect that’s important to the Merry Mutants. In Bendis’ own comics, he’s used this framing device to evoke innocence or something wholesome. When I think about Bendis, now, I think of him as a dad. According to some interviews he’s given, he has several kids. He’s no longer the guy who wrote and drew Fire. He isn’t that young gun mixing things up. He’s the dad of the comic book business, now. His work has shifted in tone to present that. The “creation” of Miles Morales — Generation Z’s version of Spider-man — is the main example. Bendis thought up this character variation on Spider-man in order to reflect and capture our present youth’s attention. A new character named Miles Morales could much more effectively connect with a younger audience than our old friend Peter Parker, the 60-year-old, geeky teenager turned irresponsible, messy adult. Miles instantly landed with a broad pop culture audience upon his debut, quickly making appearances in media beyond his singular comic book title: Ultimate Comics: Spider-man. His “creation” isn’t necessarily the most groundbreaking accomplishment, as Miles Morales is literally just a different interpretation of an already existing character, but he certainly holds his own. Readers care about the stories he inhabits. For Bendis, this success could absolutely be based on a calculated career choice. He could have pitched Marvel Comics this idea as a way to expand an iconic franchise and capitalize on a national conversation regarding diversity. The success of Miles Morales has most certainly helped Bendis remain in the comic book business this long; it’s undoubtedly helped his position as a good employee of the big publishers. But who am I to really know the actual intentions? It’s also possible that Miles Morales reflects the writer’s personal want to emphasize the idealism powering superheroes. Spider-man, with Peter Parker’s faults and tedious, relatable challenges such as paying rent and sustaining relationships, was always seen as a common man. He was someone underneath that mask who looked like us, just a mess trying to get through it. But he could still save the world, or at least New York City. He was a fucking nerd, but he was a Queens boy, too. He was from the boroughs. A New Yorker. And Miles Morales drives at this same sentiment. He’s connected to the city, where he lives, and he’s a kid just trying to figure things out. He’s speaking to a readership that isn’t yet so jaded or fed up with it. They all still have that thing that makes them kids. That thing a lot of us can lose and have lost. They get to have their own experience with Miles Morales, Spider-man. And that’s great for them. I’m happy to say.
It’s weird how in the last paragraph I had to get cynical about Miles Morales and Bendis’s intentions in co-creating him (Artist Sara Pichelli drew the character and is credited in his original appearance; Both Bendis and Pichelli co-created this successful superhero.). My cynicism is just meant to cover my bases. When writing about superhero comic books, there’s this tendency to defend yourself. You can feel that you have to defend your decision to spend time on this hobby, and at times obsession, that’s primarily focused on men and women in capes and costumes. Why would you write more than 3,000 words on this random issue of Justice League? Like, why? It feels like a justification is owed to anyone who glances at the post preview on social media. I have to explain myself and pretend to have authority in this subject. If I can get snobby, get snobby.
That’s where Zack Snyder’s Justice League tows a beautiful line.
It is at once a corney, beautiful, personal, gaudy, corporate, CrossFit version of a superhero movie starring Ben Affleck. It’s a divisive subject for some reason. Those that love it are still petitioning Warner Bros. for a full restoration of Zack Synder’s Justice League strategy and vision — The fans want him to make more of these movies. Maybe he’ll get to, someday. I wouldn’t be mad. Because I love that Zack Snyder is eagerly slapping his name on this stuff. Somebody has to. Somebody has to give it some charm. It’s everywhere, it’s all the movies now. Somebody needs to spice superheroes up. Give them a perspective that doesn’t ignore or pretend to be anything other than what it is. Looking at Snyder’s entries into the canon, (there’s quite a few to list; Google it), he seems like a pretty good fit for the job. I was actually a bit moved by The Snyder Cut. It really captures what’s so powerful about superheroes. There are stakes in the story that you actually care about. It totally commits to its scale where gods are at war for the fate of everything. It made me feel like a kid, just watching something without judgment or a takedown ready to go. I wasn’t trying to be smart. I knew that Snyder made this movie following the death of his daughter, and I could accept its expression because I could see the heart in its making. Maybe I am naive, but cynicism is just old.
So, back to the surprise party:
Beyond wholesome, I see vibrancy. I see real interest in each other. No one is shy, not one at all. It looks like a nice time. I don’t really know what happened behind the scenes to present this artwork and image to me. I know I had to pay money for it, that’s all. It showed up at my house in a brown box containing so many other superhero comic books. I struggle with the corporate greed and repetition, the impact on our critical thinking, the hollowness. But when it’s Saturday, and there’s nothing to do, reading these stories is a good way to let your thoughts run wild. They contain so much nonsense and high emotion. Even the bad ones do. But, when you get a Sanford Greene drawing like this, it makes you stop and appreciate the whole thing. Of how it’s possible to put something familiar into plastic. I don’t know how Sanford Greene became employed by DC Comics, but I like to sit here and think that Brian Michael Bendis helped him out. He used his position in the industry to give someone new a chance. So, if Bendis can do that after 29 years, I say he keeps his job.