THE BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS PROBLEM
There are two types of noteworthy actors; the ones that truly disappear into a role. Your Michael Fassbenders. Your Christian Bales. Then there are the actors that are reliable and dependable in the art of acting, but ultimately, there isn't a discernible core difference from movie to movie. Your Matt Damons. Your Samuel L. Jacksons. Both serve a greater purpose, the former provides the audience with unpredictable entertainment. The latter is analogous to comfort food.
Brian Michael Bendis is one of the greatest comic book writers alive today. Undoubtedly. When he is on, he is awn. And after an impactful and influential streak of published work, I am finding myself frustrated and disappointed by his recent output. This is because Bendis, while exceptionally capable, is comfort food.
I want to make two clarifications first:
1. I am not insulting or belittling his work. Comfort food carries with it a negative connotation that is not intended. I mean it simply as a qualifier for how his work always tastes good.
2. Bendis, like comfort food, has perfected his recipe in a way that, comparatively to his early work, feels lazy but also dependable. Tasty, but not adventurous. Palpable but lacking in provocation. Like sweatpants.
I've thought about this a great deal because I value his contributions. His work on Alias (or Jessica Jones), Goldfish, Torso, Ultimate Spider Man, Daredevil, amongst a few others were, for the most part, revelatory. However, his run on the Avengers, X-Men and especially Guardians of the Galaxy all read as non-essential contributions. Especially Guardians which has the potential to be a flagship title for Marvel in light of the titular movie's success, but instead it reads as a mish-mash of afterthoughts. And I truly care for this title. I want it to work so badly because it has crazy potential for depth and emotion and significance.
Because I genuinely care, more than a middle-aged father of three should, I've thought about why this is happening. Why is it that a marquee name like Bendis that was once synonymous with quality storytelling has reverted into a churning quip factory? What has happened to this once uncontested superstar of the comic world?
[Full disclosure: I once had an idea for a limited edition series starring the Israeli mutant Sabra. I think in light of Marvel's progressive initiative, it would be interesting to see how they would handle a superhero from Israel. But instead of relegating this thought to daydreaming, I wrote a draft of the first issue, and upon completion, I sent the draft to Bendis who still has his email address inexplicably posted on his personal website. I never heard back, which is understood.]
After having analyzed recent issues, I've come to a very simply conclusion for why Bendis hasn't been "killing it" of late. I'm almost disappointed by how simple it is.
Bendis excels when he's focused on one singular character. His tonality and voice is wholly distinct in a way that when it comes from one focal point, it's always entertaining. It's his distinctive mix of jaunty humor, the dark undertones, the humanity of the characters, which is a significant achievement when you'll consider that for nearly half a century comic books ostensibly served as escapism from humanity. You could almost say that Bendis is the Tarantino of comic book writers; a perfect amalgamation of sharp storytelling and winking self-awareness.
The problem is that when it comes to an ensemble cast, the characters all share one singular voice, and reading a comic in which a talking rodent sounds exactly as a half-Terran isn't much fun. There's too much dialogue. Too much "character." Everyone has a line. Everyone needs to banter. There's very little development, and even when there is, you don't care much about said development because as a reader, you don't feel connected to the characters. The connection is lacking because when nothing is distinctive, everything is a mess of affected blather. Generic is the enemy of empathy.
Or it could be the workload which has relegated Bendis into a story arc generator who feels like he has to provide on schedule with less and less opportunity to live with these characters in his mind. My proof for this is that the current Iron Man series, while not quite quality, is still an improvement over the disappointing Guardians.
One need only look at the year end lists which compile the great titles of the previous year. New Marvel series like Vision, Squirrel Girl or Dr. Strange make it. Even Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman is getting a tempered yet respectable nod. But nowhere have I found mention or hosannas for Bendis' 2015 contributions.
In order to restore his legacy, as far as I can tell, there are two solutions. Bendis needs to focus on a series that features a starring character. This is when he really shines. He also needs to soften the Disney touch on his current series and instill more of the noir element he was once known for. Guardians doesn't need to get darker necessarily, but it has to feel less non-essential. As it stands, it's a disposable space fantasy which features all the right ingredients but when it's cooked together, it's comfort food. Which, when you think about all the quality storytelling hitting newsstands now week after week, doesn't feel as enticing as it once did.
It's a great time to be a comic fan, but it's amazing to consider how much greater it could be with some quality Bendis work.