Sunday, August 21, 2016

Defending Brian Michael Bendis (or How to Alienate Yourself from Comic Book Fans)

I'm simultaneously terrified and excited.
I was recently on Reddit in r/comicbooks when I found a thread about Brian Michael Bendis, a rather divisive writer in comics fandom. Some readers love Bendis’ down-to-earth approach while others find his narrative decisions to be lacking more often than not. To me, Bendis is one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. He’s up there with Grant Morrison, Stan Lee, Mark Waid, Jerry Siegel, Dennis O’Neil, Bill Finger, and other luminaries who have unquestionably changed the medium. And we’ll get into exactly why in a bit.

On the relevant subreddit thread, one user claimed he didn’t like Bendis as a person. Another user asked, “Are you sure that you don’t like him or do you hate his writing?”, a valid question. The original user’s response was, “Well his writing is an extension of himself…and his writing is poor in my opinion because of the lack of effort and work that he puts into things that are given to him. So I’d have to say that I don’t like him.”

Let’s unpack this opinion piece by piece.

“Gerald” (the fake name I’ve chosen for this random Reddit user) doesn’t see a distinction between the writing and the writer. To Gerald, the two are inseparable – Bendis writes “bad” comic books so he must be a bad person. This is a rather simplistic take on the complex topic of separating the artist from his/her art, an old debate that dates back for centuries because as long as there has been art, critique of the artist by way of the work has always been divisive. Just because I understand that Kanye West is often a narcissistic jackass doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy his albums, which I do. I don’t like Eminem’s music, but I respect that he stood up for himself against the media’s assumption that he advocated for murder, domestic abuse, homophobia, and general violence simply because he created a fictional narrative (complete with an alter ego in Slim Shady) through a popular art form.

This isn’t to say that artists and their art are always mutually exclusive, because they aren’t – some musicians, writers, artists, and producers absolutely present a facsimile of themselves in their work – but pigeonholing storytellers' ability seems narrow-minded and stubborn. The assumption that a writer’s work is inherently an extension of the writer’s character or personality is a fallacy, especially with a genre of comics that has been around for over 75 years, includes literally thousands of diverse characters living in shared universes, and includes innovation a central tenet. Which leads me to the second part of Gerald’s opinion.

“…[His] writing is poor in my opinion because of the lack of effort and work…” There’s no substance to this part of Gerald’s explanation because it doesn’t give any examples of exactly why he believes Bendis doesn’t work as hard or put in as much effort as other writers. What Gerald fails to take into account (subconsciously or purposefully) is that Bendis has produced some of the most critically-acclaimed comic books of the Modern Age. Ultimate Spider-Man, Alias, House of M, The New Avengers, Powers, and his run on Daredevil are all seen as high water marks of the superhero genre, and all for different reasons. For years, Bendis was head writer for the entire Avengers line, directing the narrative flow for Earth’s Mightiest while the Marvel Cinematic Universe was making these heroes more recognizable than ever before. Bendis created Miles Morales, a character who – in less than five years – has grown into one of Marvel’s most popular heroes. House of M fundamentally changed the mutant paradigm in the Marvel universe for nearly six years that led to Avengers vs. X-Men.

Bendis isn’t perfect, however, and his duds have been many. While he greatly affected mutant storylines with House of M, Bendis’ time on the X-franchise writing All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men is plagued by mediocrity and a fundamental misunderstanding of many key X-Men. But even in this case, it’s hard to argue that Bendis didn’t work hard or put in the effort to make his mark on these characters – he brought the original five X-Men from the 1960s into the modern day, turned Cyclops from an idealist into a radical revolutionary, delved into sins passed to affect current goings-on, and retconned Bobby Drake as a gay man. Whether you love or hate what Bendis has done with the X-Men, the fact remains that the man absolutely went to great lengths to develop the specific story he wanted to tell. Pair that with his similarly-mediocre-yet-also-totally-Bendis Guardians of the Galaxy and its multiple crossovers with his X-titles and it’s nearly impossible to deny the creative lengths Bendis takes to achieve his vision.

The last bit of the sentence, “[His] writing is poor in my opinion because of the lack of effort and work that he puts into things that are given to him.” conveys a sense of animosity towards the high-profile titles Bendis writes, as if he hasn’t been a mainstay in the industry for over two decades, like he didn’t writer over one hundred issues straight of Ultimate Spider-Man, as though he’s produced nothing but crap and somehow keeps being gifted top shelf franchises just because. It’s rather insulting to insinuate that a writer doesn’t deserve to tackle a certain project based on subjective factors. Now, I get having a bias against a specific writer, as I have a rather deep dislike for comics by Scott Lobdell. That said, I don’t disparage the man or his career because I personally don’t enjoy his style. Obviously some do, and the same can be said for Bendis who has affected the Marvel universe more than nearly any other modern writer aside from maybe Jonathan Hickman, and even then Hickman is definitely in second place.

House of M wasn’t even the beginning; Avengers: Disassembled rewrote the rules for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in 2004 and ushered in a new age for Marvel Comics. Though Mark Millar and Steve McNiven are responsible for 2007’s Civil War, Bendis wrote 2008’s Secret Invasion, 2010’s Siege, 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men (as co-writer), 2013’s Age of Ultron, and currently Civil War II. All but two of those events are great, and Age of Ultron is a lot better in retrospect because it can fit in almost anywhere between AvX and Infinity. And these are just the events. Implying that Bendis somehow hasn’t earned his place at Marvel is ridiculous. To be sure: Civil War II is kind of a train wreck, but you can’t win them all.

Spider-Man's reaction is indicative of Marvel fans right now.
I’ll never advocate for censoring criticism of a writer’s work. I’ll also never agree that art is inherently an extension of the artist’s self. To be clear, art is always an extension of the artist, but as to the inextricable connection to an artist’s person and character – that’s simply ludicrous. Scott Lobdell might be an incredible person that I’d at least have something to talk about with given we both love comic books and superheroes. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion on his work. Alan Moore is totally nihilistic, obtusely negative, and needlessly critical of a medium he helped mold, but I can still enjoy Watchmen and V for Vendetta. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the best albums of the past decade, but Kanye West is a glamor-mongering, ego-fueled mess of an individual.

Assuming the art is an extension of an unworthy artist is a self-fulfilling prophecy just waiting to rear its head: if you believe Bendis is a just bad, you’ll likely find his work to be bad and vice-versa in a weirdly cyclical pattern of hate for hate’s sake. If you don’t enjoy a comic book, don’t read it. If you don’t like a person but like his or her work, take the art at face value and let it speak for itself. Or don’t listen to me at all – I’m not your mom or your boss or any figure of authority. What I am, however, is a person who gets frustrated over this needless negativity and can’t not say something, even if it’s just online posted to my own blog.

There’s a culture of negativity in comic book fandom, and while I can usually ignore and/or at least tolerate the constant bickering and judgmental reactions to pushes for diversity and inclusion, finding such a glaringly uninformed comment like I did on Reddit made me pause and take account of where the industry is heading and how the fans have morphed into both the benefit and the detriment of the medium, a group of people who continue to read comics yet perpetually complain about how everything’s going to shit. In most spheres of fandom – cinema, television, literature, etc. – this kind of mindset is the fringe, the overly-dramatic few that make up the pompous, elitist margin. In the world of comic books, pessimism and self-righteousness are the norm, which is scary and disappointing.

The angry few shout louder and more often than the content majority, and logically I know that on a larger scale, the comic book industry is heading in the right direction with fans more willing to accept change. The holdouts seem to be the “old guard” still clinging to traditions and antiquated concepts of mob mentality. “BENDIS BAD!” has been the rallying cry for “hardcore” fans for a long time to the point where admitting to this crowd that you like Bendis’ work is basically a statement on your lack of intelligence – and that’s kind of embarrassing. No one should be made to feel bad about the art they enjoy (except for Scott Lobdell – if you like his comics, you’re dead to me), and no artist should feel personally attacked based on the quality of his or her work. It’s not an exact analogy, but sending death threats to Nick Spencer over Captain America decreeing “Hail Hydra!” isn’t far from claiming you don’t like Brian Michael Bendis as a person simply because you don’t like his comic book writing.

Final Note: I know that on some level, I might be making a mountain out of a single comment molehill, but the principle of the issue comes down to respect and human decency in my eyes. Outside of “The Comic Book Revue”, I also write creatively, and while I get nervous when I email bits of my work to friends for critique, I know they’re not going to judge me as a person based on how much or how little they enjoy my book. I know I don’t have a personal relationship with Brian Michael Bendis, but that doesn’t matter – being kind isn’t hard, and everyone knows what happens when you assume: it makes an ass out of you…not me, though; I have nothing to do with it.

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