Bendis’ first successes, on Spider-Man and Daredevil, hit just as comics were climbing out of the malaise of the ’90s, while Tom King’s co-writer stint on Grayson put him on the map in the comparatively young year of 2014. Bendis’ work on the Avengers and his invention of Jessica Jones and Miles Morales has defined Marvel Comics to the wider world. And while Tom King’s Vision was a big Marvel hit, he’s primarily produced critically-acclaimed-book after book for DC Comics with Omega Men, Mister Miracle and more.
Today, Bendis and King are at the top of their game, working on the most famous superheroes in the world, Superman and Batman. While King is penning a 100-issue epic in Batman, and gearing up for this week’s release of Heroes in Crisis #1, Bendis is shepherding both main Superman titles, Action Comics and Superman. And this month they’ll trade places in a new DC Comics initiative, a series of DC anthology books sold only at Walmart, in which they each have a 12-issue story of 12-page installments, with King writing Superman and Bendis writing Batman.
If you put them on a call together, where would the two find common ground? Where would their histories and perspectives on growing up in comics differ? We wanted to know, so we got them both on the phone.
Polygon started with a big question: What comic made you start liking comics?
Brian Bendis: What was the comic that destroyed us forever as adults and made it so we can’t work for a living except for doing this [laughs]?
Yeah, for me it was it was superhero comics. I was a little boy and I didn’t know all this at the time, but now I know: my parents were getting divorced. My dad wasn’t around, so the comics were like this great place for me to visit. It was also a great place to get some good moralization and just hang around with people with a good point of view, a good moral center. And then you start discovering the art form, then it becomes more of a just an exciting story being told you start pulling apart “Why is this affecting me so much? Why do I love this? What is it about comics?” And you start memorizing the names of the creators and then before you know it you’re obsessed with the art form and everything you can do and you’re like ‘How can I do this?’ and then that starts the journey. And for me I was very young when it started, I was in grade school. How old were you, Tom?
Tom King: …’87? It’s funny that you say it, because I think it was right when my parents got divorced, too. My dad walked out. I remember the comic, though, it was Avengers #300 by Walt Simonson and John Buscema. I don’t think Walt likes it — I’ve talked to him about it. Gilgamesh was one of the stars of the issue. It was fun, it was crazy, but in the back of the issue they had a list of every Avenger and they had a little John Buscema picture of them and what issues they had been in. And I went over it like the Zapruder film, “Why did Thor come in and go out? Now he’s dead. Now he’s alive.” It was like there was this sort of hidden mythical history that I had just found to dip into, I couldn’t believe it was all connected and all through one story.
Bendis: Our generation — and some of it was accidental, now knowing the history and everything — but [comic writers of the time] were very good at sucking us in just enough that we were like “Oh my god, there’s so much mythology!” but not enough to go “I can’t do it, it’s too much!” I never felt like when I was reading it was too much. You never felt that way reading Marvel or DC Comics, even though it was elaborate! The most dense tapestry of characters; hundreds of characters involved with each other and it’s quite amazing and you can get sucked in. If the real world isn’t doing it for you, you know, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on on at Marvel and DC.
I think about that every day when we’re doing our stuff. The things that got me. Even like, watching Thor fly by in a Spider-Man comic, that would get me. That would make me feel like I was part of something. And I try to get kind of stuff in almost every issue I do. I’ll do a pass looking for “Where’s the fun stuff for 8-year-old Brian, you got anything for him?” But the good news is now I have my five-year-old son who literally follows me around the house and is the voice of the younger me, constantly asking me for things that I would have wanted.
King: I think I was fairly convinced at a young age that Stan Lee had directed all comics for 30 years, almost like he had come down from the mountain with these scrolls that had to be followed by other people. “And Roy Thomas said unto me …”
Bendis: I was a Marvel kid, but I was a DC teenager; a lot of my favorite creators, once I learned who they were, ended up going into DC Comics at a time I was at my most passionate and most in tune with it. So when Frank Miller and John Byrne and George Pérez were all on Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, they brought me to DC. And it happened to be at a time when DC was at a zenith of just amazing comics, Vertigo Comics, all of them were set at the top of its game. So that’s the moment I was really ruined. Like, “Oh, you can do this for a living and it all can be art and it can be art in any direction? On any title? Do anything? I’m in.” So the late ’80s were tough for us creators in DC Comics.
But we have discovered through the years that everyone has a different story about what brought them in and it completely informs them and the work that they do, the books that they like. It’s genuinely fascinating. Do you find that, Tom?
King: I came in through Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and I feel like I am just constantly reflective of them in one way or another, but I have guys who came into through Grant Morrison, like Tim Seeley or Steve Orlando, they’re constantly comparing “What kind of comics are you writing? Oh, you’re trying to write those other kinds of comics.” I think your origins are always with you.
Bendis: When people reflect to us about them, if our work was the first thing, I know what that feels like, and I try to get over my self-loathing and enjoy that moment with them, because that is terrifying. My first years in comics when people would say “The first book I ever read was Daredevil!” and I’d go “Oh, I’m sorry” and then I’d start apologizing. Then I was like “Oh, I’m ruining this moment for this person because I have issues. Why don’t I just smile and say thank you? Because that’s why you made it, stupid.”
King: I’m way too young for that kind of stuff.
Bendis: Oh you! It’ll happen one day young whippersnapper, don’t you worry.
King: But your comics brought me back into comics. I did that thing a lot of people, at least in my generation, did, where in the late ‘90s, as I was entering high school and college, I dropped comics and came back them in the early ‘00s. It was sort of a gap from ‘97 to 2005. It was your comics, Brian, that brought me back in.
Bendis: You literally are just testing me to see what I’ll say now, because my first instinct was to go [apologetically] “Oh, well, you know…”
King: Well, when I was in Iraq my mother sent me Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 1, I still have it and Secret War? That one really, that was the big one for me, your Secret War, I was like ‘Oh, comics are something totally different now.’
Bendis: First of all, there’s no way for you to say all the words you just said without me feeling like the Crypt Keeper, but other than that, it’s an amazing experience.
Years ago me and David Mack were working with Bill Sienkiewicz, and he said to us, “You know it’s so funny, when I was working on New Mutants we’d get one or two letters, tops. People didn’t write in. So we’d get one or two enthusiastic letters. But I had no idea people were being rattled by what we were doing until like a decade later.”
Nowadays we hear immediately, instantaneously, whether or not the book touched people or succeeded at its goal, and we’re so lucky. And it really keeps us so honest. Even thinking back to 2005, I had a message board and all kinds of social media, but still you feel so surprised when you hear from someone outside of your world. Surprised that they get touched by the work, even though that was the point of it. I’m just grateful that our generation gets this immediate feedback. And I kinda always want to tell creators that may not know that how special it is. It’s a very unique experience between creators and readers now. It just fascinates me. Literally, I woke up this morning and I already got reviews for a book that’s coming out tomorrow. That never happened 10 years ago. That is crazy.
King: This is somber, but this is a thing that struck me once was that someone came up to me and said “My friend who passed away was a huge fan of yours, and I just want to tell you how much he appreciated your work.” And it just hit me on some fundamental level, that someone had read my stuff and passed from this life.
Bendis: Not only passed from this life, but it meant so much to them that they said “Hey if you see them, tell them.” It’s quite special, and I think, Tom, you have developed a special relationship with a lot of your audience because of your ability to dive into your own pain or other pain that you’ve discovered.
And I must say I find myself — you know the year I’ve gone through — find myself connecting to your work more than most because of it.
[Editor’s Note: Shortly after his move from Marvel to DC was announced in late 2017, Bendis was hospitalized with a near-fatal MRSA infection and spent nearly a month in a hospital, including three trips to the intensive care unit. He has spoken openly about how the experience, understandably, gave him a new sense of focus and purpose on his work and family.]
I find myself so surprised by it, because usually when I’m connecting to someone’s work because of something in my life it’s not so painfully obvious what the connection is. And I know this is a very long question but I was wondering how you’re handling it? You’ve opened a door to a lot of people expressing themselves to you. I see sometimes you taking on a lot of other people’s stresses and pain. That’s a plus and a negative, and I want to see how you’re doing with all of that, because it’s such a unique experience.
King: I feel like — maybe you feel this way sometimes — comics are such a deadline medium. You always have to get another one out, so you don’t have time to not write about your own pain [laughs].
But yeah, I wish I could write a comic that was a perfect Die Hard-like action movie; that was something that didn’t involve myself at all and was just wonderfully zeitgeist-y and brilliant but … you write every week and you write every week. Eventually you run out of movies that you know well enough to steal from and you just have to kind of steal from yourself, the closest object in the room. Like improvisation.
Bendis: I had a friend who did what you did, in that they open themselves up very, very much. And then it became almost like they were overwhelmed by the people reaching out for help. Like, “I need help” and it was like, “Yeah, you do. And I’m a comic book writer. I can’t help you.” He became overwhelmed and kind of shut down from it.
And I find myself … I shared a lot, too, and because I have shared the stuff that happened to me that was life and death, and that you’re now sharing a lot of yourself, and you don’t always get to pick when you turn it on and off. You know what I mean? Like you might want to go online and just look at scores and someone’s there asking for help because you understand their pain. I know it’s a weird question; it’s unique to us and it’s unique to you and it’s something I wanted to talk about, see how you’re feeling about it.
King: When people come up to me at cons they’ll talk about the deep depression stuff they got, or suicide stuff from Mister Miracle or something like that. It’s kind of a deflection in some sense, but I honestly resort to, like, “Isn’t it annoying?” I feel like people make things these things more transcendent than they are — when you have different pains or whatever in life that I write about — but what they come across every day is the frustration of it, and the little things. And then we start laughing about it and then it gets OK. So I deflect the deep by making a joke.
Bendis: Well that’s one way to handle it. It’s so emotional. It is why I like to do appearances. Signing books is lovely, but it really is hugging and talking that’s the best part. That’s all I ever remember, is the emotional stuff, and I think a lot of times people only see the stuff online with people yelling and screaming about whatever. But most of our stuff is just really beautiful emotions and people just trying to heal and get through stuff and it’s amazing that comics can do it. More than I thought when I started, if I look back at what my goals were and what I thought the relationship would be to the readers, I didn’t expect it to be so emotional.
King: I’m half Jewish and half Midwestern, so when everyone comes up to me with one of those big moments, I get this idea in your head that “Oh you’re not that big a deal, this is not real.”
Bendis: [laughing] Sorry, I’m laughing at the image that you’re Midwestern, because I just say “Everyone’s problems are my problems, everyone’s faults are my fault. I have to take this —” It’s completely different relationship to it.
King: Yeah, anything that’s that heavy or big or complimentary — there must be some sort of misunderstanding or something. You retreat to the humble.
Bendis: Yeah, I found this year’s journey surprised me in how much of it was about surviving using your work, you know what I mean? Like I just wanted to make my comics, and then you look back and go “Oh, look what I’m dealing with. Look at all the stuff I’m dealing with.’ I thought I’d talk about it with the man who writes the books about dealing with stuff.
Bendis: How are you feeling about Heroes in Crisis, how’s it going?
King: It’s very pretty. The art is beautiful, I can say that much.
Bendis: This is a very beautiful book that I connected to. So I’m just seeing how you’re doing, how many issues are you in?
King: Three are in. Yeah, no, I feel good. I feel nervous about it!
Bendis: What are your hopes? What are your feelings about it? When you close your eyes and imagine it, what are you…
King: What do I hope? I don’t know, to me it’s not as ambitious as … I don’t know. I’m worried about the mechanics of it. I hope that the mystery works. I hope that people don’t solve it right away once people are involved with it. I really hope people keep turning the pages.
Bendis: All right! You got it down to some very Zen simple things.
King: It’s that worry, when you’re writing something where … the background to the book is going to be the “deep themes” or whatever, you want those deep themes to stay in the background and that people should be interested in the story. My fear is that the story itself should be the driver and not the themes. I don’t want anyone to come to [Heroes in Crisis] and say “Ugh, this feels like great homework, I give it an A.” I want people to come to it and be like “Holy crap what just happened, I want to find out.”
Bendis: No, don’t lecture. I feel like I want to go online every day and tell everyone, “Don’t lecture.” Everyone’s getting a little close to lecturing in their work.
King: You can make a point without lecturing.
Bendis: No one wants to be lectured to. I forget who said this… “People who agree with you want to be lectured to less than people who don’t.” I try to remind people, you can have a great point but please don’t yell. I feel like Twitter is getting into people’s narratives. “I’m going to tweet my story!” and I’m like “No no, tell your story. Tweeting is yelling, tweeting is lecturing.”
King: I don’t know if I’m right, but I never want to have a message in my work. I don’t want to be like “Aha, you guessed my secret message! This is about how everyone should care about each other or something.”
Bendis: But it’s there, which is all the more haunting, because when you don’t focus on your message yet it shows up so strong, you’ve got to go “Ooh, I am, I am working on something.”
I’ve done this, too, when you’re writing and the message keeps revealing itself. To me it feels like Heroes in Crisis — might be like, it could be — your big statement, your final statement on this part of the human psyche that you’ve been writing about. Do you see it that way, or is it just the beginning?
King: I think that’s right, I think I’m ready to write my last — well I don’t know, I’ll still be dealing with that stuff in Batman the idea of trauma all that.
I wrote these three books, Sheriff of Babylon, Omega Men, and Vision and I thought they were three different books and they all turned out to be the same book. It’s just like what you we’re saying “Oh, I’m just writing the same theme over and over again, it’s about a guy who tries to do something well and finds out something’s more complicated it all goes to shit.” I was like, “Oh, this is my CIA experience.”
Bendis: [laughs] That’s my dad experience.
King: [laughs] Yeah, there you go. And now I’m doing Batman and Mister Miracle and now like “Oh, I’m just writing about — you go through trauma but your family puts you back together, that’s my 2016 nervous breakdown experience.”
King: Hopefully there will be some other theme that emerges from my work on the next thing.
Bendis: It will. Do you consciously decide “OK this will be my final statement, for now, about this this part”? You can force yourself into a different environment to get to that next thing?
It’s part of what we’re dealing with in Jinxworld — every creator I’m working with is someone I’ve done a great deal of work with and we just said, “You know what, let’s not do anything we’ve done before. Everything, let’s just scrape it all away. Everything we’re known for, let’s not do that anymore.”
We did that. And it was a weird process, but at the end of it we ended up making more streamlined, better versions of the things we’ve done. We got back to the basic basics of it. It was a really great experience, and I’m trying to tell anyone who would be in a position to try that to try it, because it was a really good creative experience that I think will inform you for like the next 10 years. I know this is like a high class dude thing to say, but you’re at that place where you could do it, too.
King: Yeah, I totally agree. I was writing a scene just the other day, another Batman-being-sad scene, and I finished it and I was ready to turn it in and just read it and I was like “I don’t like this, it feels almost rote. I don’t want to write a traumatized hero right now, I want to write a badass hero.” I can feel that you want to grasp for the new, do something more interesting. Which is why doing Superman in these Walmart books is like a breath of fresh air.
Bendis: What an outstanding segue! Well done! You don’t get enough credit for your segues, man, that was fantastic.
Bendis: Yeah, no, my whole Walmart thing is fear-based. I was terrified to write Batman. I said yes right away, because I was like “Alright, that scares me, I’m doing it.” But you had already written Superman, you had a different experience with it.
[Swapping characters for the Walmart books] was Dan DiDio’s idea, I think…
King: No, that was my idea! [laughing]
Bendis: Was it? Oh, OK. It was pitched to me! It’s a great idea and it kicked me right in the balls, because when I got to DC I think everyone thought there was some Batman project coming, and I didn’t take Batman, and it threw everybody.
Now, I think [DC was] going to say “Well, Batman’s taken care of right now, what else do you want to do?” But I didn’t even go there because I knew Batman was taken care of, and also I was very focused on Superman. But the whole time we were talking about it everyone would bring up “Oh, we thought you were to come in for Batman.” And I said “Nope!” and then I realized, they think I’m scared of Batman, I might be scared of Batman.
And then when they said — literally a week later — “Hey, guess what, there’s this interesting Walmart gig.” Which is genuinely interesting; 12 issues, 12 pages, which is a very different format than our normal, and with an artist I adore, and you can really go places with it. And I was like “Yeah I’m in,” because I knew I was scared of it. But I’m so glad I’m in, because working with Nick Derington was one of the best things that’s happened to me this year. Batman has been the greatest travel partner through the DC Universe; I started using the job to take Batman on a road trip to places in the DC Universe to see where I wanted to spend some time in my other books, and we’re just having a blast.
King: I’ve read the first issue. It might be my favorite comic of the whole year. I loved it.
Bendis: Oh, you did? Oh, thank you! Oh, I didn’t get to see yours yet, that’s not fair.
King: [tauntingly] Ha!
Bendis: I didn’t get to see it! Well, I saw your Action #1000 story. What is going on in your book?
King: I’m with Andy Kubert.
King: Of all the people I’ve worked with he’s the greatest designer of comic book art. He’s the best storyteller I’ve ever worked with.
Bendis: Yeah, he’s one of the guys who does not get enough credit at all.
King: See, probably because I’ve learned from you, Brian, I love storytelling inside boxes, because it’s one thing after another, it’s an easy way to tell a story. I feel like when people break all those boxes up it really doesn’t work and it gets — unless you can draw like MacFarlane or Lee where the art is the object, not the story — it just loses it for me. But then I see Andy, who kind of throws away all the rules and reinvents them, and I was like, “Oh you can do this, you can break every rule as long as you’re a genius at it.”
Bendis: Well, he’s also a teacher, he’s an educator, so he’s constantly going back to the basics and learning where to pick them. Those who teach, I always find, get to a real next-level in their work. Because they’re forcing themselves to go back to the basics every semester, and it just makes your brain look at your work differently. I’ve experienced that, but the visual artists that are teachers? You can totally see the difference.
King: That’s funny. Oh, and the story is just, it’s like The Searchers but in the sky. Superman is trying to rescue a little girl that’s been kidnapped.
King: Through space.
Bendis: Awesome. What do you think about the 12 pages? I love the 12-page chapters! I love them.
King: Yeah, no, nobody will be able to tell this it’s not a super experimental storytelling technique, but every page turn in the comic is a new scene.
Bendis: That’s fantastic.
King: So each each installment can be such a good short story because you have 12 stories. Which is more than I usually have in a 20-page comic, I just had to find the way to make it work.
Bendis: That’s fantastic. For people who don’t know, most comics are 20, 22 pages, so you’re used to structuring your stories or your chapters to a certain beat, right? So this one, at first you’re like “Oh, I have to get to the beat faster,” and then you’re like “No, there’s something weird.”
I think I genuinely had some giant cliffhanger at the end of my second act of a 20-page issue. So my page 12s or 13s were usually when I was trying to really put on a show, and then I get there naturally in the Walmart books, and I’m so frickin’ excited about it. And I know I sound like a dork but I literally was like, to anyone, ‘12-page stories might be our future,’ I’m so in love with it. I get so much done in that 12 pages that I feel like, just a good person when I’m done. It’s weird.
King: I feel like it’s a throwback to those EC Comics stories that were always 8 to 10 pages. It’s a way to do short stories, every one has to be it’s own little episode of the series, it has to have a cliffhanger and everything. I love it.
Bendis: And just so people know, the stakes are very, very high. In issue six of my Batman story, Green Lantern spends most of the issue complaining about how Batman has never been to his house.
Bendis: And then you find out that Batman doesn’t doesn’t know where Green Lantern lives, and they’ve known each other for years. And that Green Lantern has been to his house numerous, numerous times. And then Batman finally says “I’m sorry, is your house, like, nicer than mine?” And he goes “Nicer than stately Wayne Manor? No!” And Batman goes “Then what are we talking about?” And that’s the whole story. I’m having a very good time with it.
I must say, I think most people … that’s their number one thing that they like about comics. That the artistry and ingenuity is all there, and the basics of the character and the basic building blocks. We were talking about this online, when people refer to what they remember in your story they never say, “Remember that connected action beat you did? That was fantastic!” They say, “Remember when Batman made me cry” or “Remember when Superman said that and it made me laugh?” It’s always the moments of humanity. Always. Without question.
You can’t force them, but you think about them. Sometimes writers or editors or try to trim out some of that stuff, and yeah, sometimes you’ve got to get to the story. But other times you go, “No no no, that’s sometimes the magic.” Sometimes the only thing they’ll remember from the book.
King: But I feel all the great bombast of comics is all just a metaphor for those personal moments. Like Grant Morrison said, Superman is the same as us, he plays fetch with his dog, but he just throws the stick to Saturn and it makes it cooler visually. We use all the fighting and all the blowing up as metaphors for small conflicts in our lives.
Bendis: I’m remembering now, Scorsese taught Bryan Hill at NYU, and Scorsese said no one remembers the story. All they remember are the moments.
It’s just very frustrating when you spend 90 percent of your day constructing a story.
King: But Brian, don’t you find as a writer that, when you think of your story, you’re very proud of the moments? But when you get feedback they’re like, “Well this person didn’t do this thing and this would have been more logical” and you’re like “I’m fine with that, I was focused on exactly what he needs to say in that moment.” I tend to think that writers write for the moment, not for plot, but people pay more more attention to the plot.
Bendis: I learned this when we started working on TV shows. Comics people really get to live in the moment. We really get to live in that page, in a way that even TV, which you’d think is so immediate you have to reach for it, but comics — it’s so deeply personal.
It’s hard to describe, but it really is, still, in this day and age, the act of someone in the corner of their room and the only thing they’re holding is your comic. It’s just you and them, together, having a moment.
Now they share them with us. Usually, you just have that moment and it was yours and you didn’t get to share with anyone. Now people, like, tweet us! “I’m literally having a moment! Right now!” Like, live. It’s quite something. So I never get, like — when the audience comes to you with their perspective, I always like that, actually. I always like to be reminded by other people’s perspective that are different than mine. Because even if I didn’t get it in this issue, I’ll find it somewhere in the story. Like if someone reminds me of the truth, I’m quite grateful.
King: There’s definitely been a sea change [with the perception of comics]. I mean, Stan Lee talks about how in the ’60s he was at a party with his wife on Long Island and people would ask him if he was a writer and he’d try to change the conversation because he didn’t want to admit he was a comic book writer because then they’d all treat him as a pariah. And now, I go out with my kids and if I say “I write Batman” suddenly all the other dads are like “Oh, that’s so cool!” [laughs]
Bendis: Yeah, not be braggy, but I must say, in the eons of time that I have been making comics, the shift in the way people perceive them and the way people react to you when you say what you do, it’s pretty amazing. And it has to do with the film and television shows legitimizing us. I wish that wasn’t the case, I wish the art form itself brought it on, but just a general sense: you say Batman or Superman and people literally stop.
Literally, 10 years ago, somebody said “Oh, people still make those, that’s something humans make?” Like a computer did them. And it went from that to, genuinely, someone said “Oh, you’re on Superman? You must know what you’re doing.” And I was like “Oh, that’s sweet of you. Oh yeah, I guess that’s true.” That’s the difference now, that people used to look at it like it was just garbage. And now when you say it’s a cornerstone of our culture they go “Oh yeah, it is.”
They’re not there yet, but they’re getting to that place where they realize how important the books are or how important the characters are. From what you were saying earlier, though, there’s always been, literally since DC and Vertigo, there’s been a place for people to tell more mature stories and places for Superman to punch someone in the face. And by the way both things are valid storytelling and both things are very valid ways to express yourself through the characters.
Just to speak to that a little bit, the mature adult situations, which you and I are desperate to get in our books, they take up almost all of our time. But I will tell you I know there are people who buy our books because the world is very screwed up right now and they would like to see the good guy punch the bad guy. They want a decisive “good guy wins.” That’s what comics always did in World War II and all the way through after. “The world is a murky, confusing place, I don’t know where my dad is, he went off to war. Oh, good, Captain America just punched Hitler in the face. Thank you. I just needed that.”
We think about that a lot, when we’re doing our books. You can get very complicated and very inventive with your plot, and have the villain have a bittersweet win. And I’ve done that. But sometimes … let the bad guy go to jail. A decisive good guy win is what people are really coming here for. Don’t forget that.
King: I was just reading an interview with Neal Adams from, like, 1980 or something, and he was asked — he was starting a new line of comics — “Is your new line of comics going to move beyond the adolescent fantasies of super heroes.” And Neal’s like “I take umbrage at the idea that adolescent fantasies are bad. That sounds like someone who still likes something but they’re ashamed to say they like it.” And I think that’s true, just like Brian was saying, that comics can do some fantastic and fantasy things. I think the best thing a comic can do, or at least a Batman comic could do, is give you a 10-minute break from your day and just let you relax for a second. I think that’s a legitimately wonderful thing.
Bendis: And I must say there’s been, in the time I’ve been making comics, a great shift in how the media has perceived us. We still every once in a while have “Biff! Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t for kids anymore! Can you believe it!” kind of articles, but more often than not it’s thoughtful creators talking about next-level work and that in itself speaks to that a lot of people talk about us differently when they do.
I think why people love Batman so much because he can be both. There’s something really magical about the character where you can pretty much throw anything at him. I was just reading Frank Miller’s intro to his All-Star Batman Robin. He talked about how, I think it was Neal Adams, who said that you can literally throw anything at Batman. Batman could be as silly and as serious and as tragic and as hopeful, and will bounce back. And not a lot of characters can do that. And I’m just absolutely fascinated by it. Why the audience has chosen Batman as a character that they’ll let go through any gauntlet, whereas if we put Superman through the same thing, the audience would expect a different result.
King: And what is your difference there, why is it Batman? Batman wasn’t always more popular than Superman. Superman outsold Batman until the late ’70s, early ’80s.
Bendis: That’s all in Miller’s intro. It’s when “The Batusi” started and then you can go from The Batusi to Neal Adams’ Batman in the same year, and it’ll still be Batman. They just kept pushing and pulling it to see how much Batman could be Batman and the audience said “There’s no limit to how much Batman could be Batman.” It’s almost like a mythological creature. It’s fascinating.
Also [Superman] stands for hope. You can’t do a little bit of hope. You’ve gotta be all-in on the hope. And it’s so funny, when I started working on Superman there was an inordinate amount of artists working with us. We had this weekly series with different artists and then the artists on the main books. So we had at one point almost 10 different artists working on different Superman issues and all of them kept saying “I just don’t want to do alien god monster Superman, with, like, crazy eyes,” and I went “Yeah, we’re not doing it.”
I took that as a big lesson from the cosmos. I didn’t want to do it, but if you ever feel like “Superman’s gonna unleash!” Yeah, don’t. It’s Superman. He can unleash in a different way.
King: To me, the fundamental difference in the characters is it’s easier to understand the origin of Batman. And there’s something else in the visual design of the two of them, but — The idea that “My parents are dead, therefore I am seeking vengeance, but I can never be fulfilled” is so easy to understand and to relate to. I’m sure you and I would write essays on how nuanced and interesting his background makes him as a character, but it can’t be as simple as “His parents are dead, he’s trying to find happiness.” He can’t be boiled down.
Bendis: In this area I lucked out so well, because I have a lot of adoption in my family now, and more understanding about that than I ever would have if I was writing this as a younger man. I have different kids on different kind of quests in their own life as adopted kids. So, seeing Superman, Clark, as an adult, having gone all through that, having already made his choices and trying to figure out the parts of him that are in him biologically and the parts that have been trained by him, parts of him that are good old fashioned farm boy, that quality silence of a solid person who doesn’t need to speak all the time — unlike me. These are fascinating parts of him that are so deeply American that I’m kind of startled by them when I’m writing him. But my point is there’s a lot more to Superman than even Batman.
King: I mean, I agree with that. I think there are levels to that character and they come from Krypton and they come from the adoption and where it comes from, being raised in America. Jeph Loeb, it might have been in a Superman run, I remember him writing, “He could kill us all but he chooses not to every day.” [laughter]
Bendis: I don’t think he even thinks about it.
King: Yeah, he doesn’t even think about it!
I ask every single person who comes to my table, “What’s your favorite superhero?” It’s my question ask to fill the time while I’m signing. And 90 percent of the people who come to me say Batman, and I say “Why Batman?” And I’d say 80 percent of the answers are “because he’s human.” That’s what they mention the most, “He’s just like me. I could do what he could do.” Something like, “If I was motivated in the way he was motivated, I could do it.” Where it’s harder to relate to Superman because you clearly just, can’t be. Everyone has had some sort of pain in their life that’s almost the equivalent of Batman, not the same pain, but —
Bendis: No, no, it’s that Batman’s pain is visceral. Batman’s is visceral. You turn on the Batman VR — have you played the Batman virtual reality game?
King: [Jokingly] No, I’ve got deadlines, Brian!
Bendis: Right, that’s what you want to do when you’re done writing Batman all day, “I’ll go play Batman!”
But in the Batman virtual reality game you are literally little Bruce Wayne and they murder your parents in front of you. You can literally watch them die in the alley, and then the murderer comes in your face and threatens you. It is very visceral and it speaks a lot to the future of VR, but it also, that everyone has this terrifying moment.
Everyone’s got an alley, and some people have left their alley and some people haven’t. Batman has never left his alley. Right? And that’s what makes him magical, and I think people relate to that deeply. A lot of people have a metaphorical alley they have not left.
King: Shakespeare’s most popular play, you’d think it would be Hamlet, his dad died and he’s seeking revenge. Nobody loves Coriolanus, which is a straight Superman story: a guy who is really great at everything and has to deal with that. There’s something in the psyche that wants to love that story.
Bendis: Speaking of which, I love writing Batman and Superman being pals. I love it.
King: They are very fun as pals, I agree.
Bendis: It’s funny because it was one of those things. I love finding new friendships, but their friendship is [chef’s kiss noise]. What a fun thing to write.
I must say, I never had the experience of writing a character that just writing them makes you have to be a better person all day. You can’t spend six hours a day thinking, “What should the best person in the world be doing right now? What’s the what’s the best solution for Clark, who’s the best person?” and then go about your day being an asshole. You have to then go “Well, why can’t I be that? Why can’t I try to be as good as that?”
What I do find, though, is that Superman exudes patience for other people’s nonsense that very inspiring. And I find that I have inherited his patience. That I will often stand in the face of my children losing it and I instead of doing what I’ve been trained to do — which is Jewish Dad “Everybody stop!” — I will come with a more calm moment now that I am a writer of Superman. He taught me something.
King: I was raised by two women, my mother and my grandmother, and my mother was a classic Jewish mother, hugely smart, went to Harvard and everything, but always worried about every single little thing. And that was her motivator, that’s what gave her strength; she’d always focus on how everything could go wrong and how she had to constantly prepare. If things started to go wrong, she noticed.
Whereas my grandmother, on the Midwestern side, was from Nebraska, raised on a farm. And she never worried about negatives, she would always focus on the solution. That was her thing, “Stop worrying about the problem, just get it done.” And when I write Batman I’m writing my mother and I when I write Superman I write my grandmother.
Bendis: When I was writing Spider-Man I was such a jittery person, I remember being able to tap into it to write Spider-Man. And now that I’m writing Superman, and after what I’ve been through, I find myself at a calmer place and I’m grateful. But now I’m thinking, “Well, am I just being calmer because I’m writing Superman and I was acting more jittery because I was writing Spider-Man?” I can’t tell if I was leaning into it more because I was writing it. But it’s fascinating to have both voices in the same body; both the nervous Jewish voice of Spider-Man — yes, he was Jewish! — and Superman.
King: I’ll do a closing statement: It’s just a very strange thing that DC is doing. They’re putting what I think is probably some of my best work ever in a Walmart book and what I know is some of your best stuff ever, because I’ve read it. And it’s it’s going to be hard to find, legitimately, this entirely new distribution method; to get to Walmart and put these books out — and DC is working on fixing that. But I’m just saying these are worth seeing out and they’re worth demanding, because these are some of the best superhero stories being written right now. If you just love superheroes and you forget all that nonsense and just embrace that joy, this is where it’s at.
Bendis: There isn’t a person reading comics who doesn’t remember where they were when a comic first punched them in the face. We talked about this earlier, but when it really knocked you out.
And I remember standing in the local pharmacy reading Avenger’s Annual #10, which was the first appearance of Rogue, by Michael Golden, and it completely shattered me. And it was one of the best comics I’ve still ever seen. And when people are now going have the opportunity to go to Walmart, go to Action Alley, and get these books…
I’m telling you, beyond our stories, this package is exceptional. It is an exceptional, very inviting way to get new readers into these projects. When I was offered to come to DC this was one of the things that was on the table — this genuine opportunity to reach new readers, different readers than our awesome, every day readers — and they asked ‘You want to go all in on this?’ and I was like ‘Yes!’
It’s everything I’ve ever wanted comics to be, which is this beautiful invitation to everybody to come in and read these awesome characters, for people who see the movies and TV shows. People talk about the comics still, because real stuff going on in the comics; still, to this day, the real truth, the real firsts, the real magic of these characters starts from the comics. So if you want to see it first, that’s where you get to see it.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.