When Bendis was 6 years old, he got up at the Passover table like a plump little Babe Ruth and called his shot: He was going to draw Spider-Man.
Oddly, Bendis’ path parallels that of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Bendis grew up in University Heights, where Siegel lived after moving out of Glenville. Bendis’ parents divorced when he was young; Siegel’s father died during a robbery in Siegel’s youth. His mother’s job in publishing meant they had little money, like Siegel. And, like Siegel and Shuster, Bendis was infatuated with the pulpiest literature available — comics.
“The draw is story,” Bendis says. ”When you’re young, your hero is the hero of the story itself. But as you get older, you start to realize your hero is the person who wrote it.”
Bendis wanted what every kid wants: to be a hero. So he applied to the Cleveland Institute of Art.
He got his start while still in school. Bendis’ earliest successes were crime comics for independent presses, many of them set on the streets of Cleveland. Bendis wrote what he saw riding his bicycle throughout the city and heard as he worked at Super City Comics in the Arcade.
That’s where Michael Sangiacomo, a Plain Dealer reporter and writer of the Journey Into Comics column, first met Bendis. They became friends.
“He was stealing as many comics as he could, slacking off most of the time, reading books and drawing,” says Sangiacomo. “He had the greatest job in the world. He’d just sit there, draw and take comics.”
In the early days, Bendis used himself and his friends as models for his work, posing them for photographs in real-life settings that he then drew. A.K.A. Goldfish was about a con man, modeled on his librarian friend John Skrtic. Based on a gun-toting woman he met at a Cleveland coffee shop, Jinx told the story of a Cleveland bounty hunter named Jinx Alameda and featured Bendis’ stand-in as a no-good two-timer named Columbia.
Cleveland factored into Bendis’ later work too, such as a fictionalized version of Eliot Ness chasing the torso murderer in a graphic novel called Torso. In United States of Murder Inc., a graphic novel about a young Mafioso, Bendis even named a crime family after Sangiacomo.
Inspired by the plays of David Mamet and the novels of Richard Price, Bendis gravitated toward rat-a-tat dialogue that often draws comparisons to Aaron Sorkin. He also illustrated some of his own work and wasn’t afraid to cleave with comics convention.
In several spreads of Torso, which Bendis wrote and penciled, the panels tumble down the page like a falling stack of cards, forcing the reader to turn the book vertically to keep reading. In another, as Eliot Ness questions a suspect, the panels spiral inward. The reader must turn the book round and round, mirroring the experience of the interrogation.
“I took big swings, and I like that those things are what people remember,” Bendis says. “That’s what got me to Marvel.”
On the side, Bendis contributed illustrations to The Plain Dealer Sunday magazine and to Cleveland Magazine. With stories and work keeping Bendis busy into the nighttime hours, he had trouble dragging himself to an 8:30 a.m. art history class. A few electives short, he never finished the degree.
“School seemed to be actually getting in the way,” Bendis says. “So I just stopped and started making my comics, continuing my education and journey on my own.”
Bendis’ break into the comics mainstream came in 2000, when he started writing Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil for Marvel Comics, which was clawing its way back from bankruptcy. His rise paralleled Marvel’s resurgence, as he took a turn writing what seems like every character in the Marvel universe: X-Men, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man. He created his own characters too, like the iconic Jessica Jones.
But his 2011 breakout was Miles Morales, the new kid behind Spider-Man’s mask. Half-black and half-Latino, Morales had to navigate not just the life of a young person with extraordinary powers, but the reality of doing so with dark skin.
The character set off a media firestorm. Glenn Beck criticized the change on his radio show, which led to a Bendis appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. But most of the response Bendis received directly, he says, was positive.
Bendis had a similarly affirmational experience with Superman. DC Comics had already offered him the opportunity to write any marquee character when Bendis traveled to Cleveland for his brother Jared’s wedding last October.
Skrtic, now the director of public services at the Cleveland Public Library, had been bugging Bendis about creating a living archive of his work at CPL, but also insisted he check out the library’s Superman: From Cleveland to Krypton exhibit. So Bendis stopped by.
Bendis posted a short video of his visit on YouTube. He wanders wordlessly among the comics in glass cases, checks out the excerpts from the Superman movies and weaves around the David Deming statue of Superman in flight.
“Profound” is how Bendis describes the experience to me. Here was Superman, in the place he used to hang out when he first started making comics, right across the street from the Arcade where he used to work. It all seemed like a flashing cosmic sign.
“I was like, ‘OK, God,’?” Bendis recalls. “I get it.”
* * *
Superman embodies truth, justice and the American way, but he loathes politics. When Americans start fighting over their ideals, Superman often steps into the background.
“He represents the America that we want to be,” says Weldon. “Not necessarily the America we are.”
But Superman was not always so circumspect. At his creation, in fact, Siegel and Shuster’s pre-war Superman was a New Dealer gone militant, a vigilante.
In 1938’s genre-defining Action Comics No. 1, Superman breaks into the governor’s mansion to stop an unjust execution. He scares the wits out of a scummy domestic abuser, whose knife shatters on Superman’s unbreakable skin. He weenies out of rescuing Lois Lane from some gruff gangsters as Clark Kent, then swoops in as Superman to save her. Then he uses his ability to leap over a building in a single bound to terrify a lobbyist who has been corrupting politicians.
“He was a progressive icon. He went after corporate fat cats, crooked government folks, people who sold slot machines in stores, reckless drivers,” says Weldon. “Basically, the title he got, long before ‘Man of Steel,’ long before ‘Man of Tomorrow,’ that is introduced in the very first issue, is ‘Champion of the Oppressed.’?”
But World War II, an existential threat to democracy, changed everything for Superman. Fighting in the war himself would have stretched his fiction to breaking. Instead, Superman reveled in symbolic gestures of support. He planted victory gardens, broke up spy rings and appeared on the cover of his comics with servicemen. Superman became a symbol of the system he once bucked.
The best any modern Superman can hope for, then, is to demonstrate the enduring importance of the ideals for which he fights but refrain from defining them, or risk writing off decades of history.
At times, that makes Superman a boring character, a hopeless square. He is a constant, so we take him for granted. But when the ideals Superman represents, and thus Superman himself, are under attack, he can roar. The question is how loud.
In 2000 and 2001, around the time of the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore campaign, Superman confronted the prescient oddity of archnemesis Lex Luthor winning the presidency. DC Comics reissued the story this year, featuring a cover portrait of Lex Luthor styled like Donald Trump on the The Art of the Deal.
At Luthor’s inauguration, a super-villainous terrorist named Earthquake attacks. Superman swoops in to save President Luthor and defeat Earthquake, who burrows back into the ground, crying, “Fools! Fools!! I didn’t come to battle any of you! I came to destroy the man we all agree is evil!”
But that would not be Superman’s way.
Later, Superman and Batman team up to fight Luthor. “If I am guilty of one mistake, it was putting my faith in the American public not to vote for him. The world will never know how I struggled with the decision to stay out of the electoral process,” Superman muses. “Should I have gone on television and told the voters not to elect this man? And what then?”
Telling Americans how to vote, how to define their ideals, would be antithetical to Superman’s code, even if he believes their choice was a mistake. This is Superman’s delicate balance: He must model good behavior, without making moral judgments.
Eventually, Superman and Batman use a kind of journalism to change public opinion: They broadcast Luthor’s my-evil-plan confession to televisions around the world during a very comic-y final battle.
Turns out, Luthor had been conspiring with Darkseid all along.
“I choose to fight for Truth, Justice and The American Way,” Superman thinks, as he punches Luthor into oblivion. “And for all its flaws, American democracy does work. That’s not just something I learned growing up on a farm in Kansas. That’s been my life.”
Batman and Superman effectively impeach Luthor with evidence of his misdeeds. But they intend to let the people decide the validity of Luthor’s presidency.
“The United States doesn’t need me to dictate, or worse, deprive her people of that most precious gift,” Superman thinks to himself. “The freedom of choice.”
As with every Superman writer, Bendis must wrestle with a character who lives such statements. Superman is not to be bent to anyone’s political ends. But, as Bendis writes him, Superman also won’t allow his ideals or his person to be abused. He is a reticent warrior, but a warrior nonetheless.
In Bendis’ Superman No. 1, Superman meets with the Martian Manhunter, J’Onn, for a conversation. J’Onn tells his Justice League teammate that it’s time he do more. Superman should step up as a world leader and speak a certain truth that the way the world works now, with wars and money and borders, is “garbage.”
“Could it be that the only thing the world needs more than Superman is a Superman who is actively leading the world into its future?” J’Onn says. “A Superman who is ready to take this great civilization to the stars?”
Superman’s face softens into a half-smile: “Lead the world?”
“Take over all of it and set it toward a future in which hope isn’t just an ideal, but a—” says J’Onn.
Superman’s eyes narrow and flick suddenly to J’Onn’s face. His eyebrows furrow. He frowns angrily: “Take?”
Bendis has shown what would happen if Superman were to use his power to put his ideals into practice — corruption, dictatorship and, ultimately, fear.
Superman uses his power sparingly, and only in service to the common good. He knows better than to use it to his own ends, even if he thinks them noble. Superman shows that truth, justice and the American way matter, but he would never try to reshape the world in their image.
He sets a humble example. He waits for us to do it for him, if we so choose.
Maybe that is brave. Maybe it is cowardly. But it is Superman’s way.
Writing that moment was special, Bendis says. “I got excited about it because it was one of the very first times where Superman himself was having the conversation for me,” Bendis says. “His morality was in the forefront of how I was reacting to the conversation, not mine.”
Bendis arrived at a truth about Superman, the quiet radical.
“Clark has a line in the sand,” Bendis says. “And that was it.”