Brian Michael Bendis has created a lot of landmark characters and worlds over the course of his career thus far: Jessica Jones, Miles Morales, the new Marvel Universe after the latest Secret War, the House of M storyline, and countless others. Some of his most beloved creations, however, are his creator-owned Jinxworld books, including Powers and now Pearl.
Bendis signed exclusively with DC Comics in 2017 and the company will be distributing the Jinxworld books going forward, but those books will remain creator owned. I spoke to Brian about balancing all of his projects, research deep dives, and what he’s reading now.
BR: How the heck are you juggling Superman and all of the ongoing/new Jinxworld titles?
BMB: I had a landmark birthday, and even though things are going well, you think “What can I do better?” and “What can I do more of? Where have I not met my goals personally?” and it was in this (the creator owned) area. It was such a lovely thing that at the lunch, when we were talking about DC, I didn’t have to pitch them on Jinxworld; they said, “And could you please come here and do more creator-owned stuff, it’s annoying that you’re not doing more.” I said, “Great, that’s what we’re going to do next.” It included Pearl and Scarlet and some other projects we’ll be doing later…I told them that me and Michael Gaydos had a new project, that we hadn’t put out a new baby in a while, and they said, “Great, let’s do it.” Instead of me doing four DC Universe titles a month, I’m mixing it up. It’s Superman and these. It’s always going to be a nice mixture of the two but with a heavy dose of new stuff, new characters, new worlds, and that’s what Pearl represents.
BR: Which leads so nicely in to my next question: Pearl (the titular character of the comic) is your first original creation with Michael Gaydos since Jessica Jones. Was there something in particular that sparked the impulse to create her now, or has she been sitting there for a while? How did she come about?
BMB: We’ve been slow cooking…we wanted to embark on a world that was completely different from Jessica’s…especially in comics, when someone has an established hit, they just do variations on that and that’s okay [but] in this particular instance we wanted to really challenge ourselves to create a unique, truthful character with a set of unique, thoughtful themes and desires. I was actually researching two other things—I’d gone down a couple of different roads on organized crimes stuff I was researching—and at the same time, I had become quite charmed and obsessed with other people’s passions in the trade of art. As you get older—my passion for comics is so intense—you end up meeting a lot of people in other mediums and cultures who are just as passionate about their choices as a creative person; the art of tattooing is a big deal in a lot of places, but obviously, in Portland, it’s a big deal and I, having had not much connection to it, became obsessed over the last few years with how many of my friends have embarked on very elaborate choices in this area, so I was doing a lot of research—which led to more organized crime research…which led us to be able to do a valentine to the art of tattooing and tell some really interesting truthful stories about the modern Yakuza; those two things meshed perfectly. But there was still that one thing that made me think, “What makes this difference from other things?”
Michael Gaydos and I were talking about tattoos and he said, “There’s something about one of my children I never told you about.” He has a very fascinating skin condition where if he scars, it will fill in when he’s upset. You can actually see the scar fill in. He talked to another tattoo artist who had tattooed someone with that condition with an empty gun, and you could only see the tattoo when they were upset or excited. It was such an interesting way to approach that character and I thought, “Now we have a character who is so unique, who we’ve never seen before,” and it went into this beautiful stew of everything I would ever want to write about that was new and exciting—and I couldn’t believe Michael had the missing piece right in his own home. It makes you feel like…that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
I think what you’ll notice in the book is that many of the clichés of the Yakuza storytelling have been removed. One of them being that when the woman is tattooed, it becomes this sensual experience and nothing else, there’s nothing else behind it, and that’s not true. That’s not what tattoos are for people. Getting back to that truthfulness with female energy, which sometimes gets taken away by male creators, and getting into that with some of my friends and making sure we represented that properly, was a big deal. There are a lot of things about tattoos that are cliché or silly, but there’s so much behind it and we’re going to use that as part of it, help explore that.
On top of that, Michael Gaydos and I have been working together for a long time, and I challenged us, on every level, to break every cliché we have ever made for ourselves in storytelling. By doing that, it opened up Michael in every way possible and we have this beautiful, beautiful book that has floored everyone who’s a fan of his who has seen it. Everyone I show it to says, “is this the best thing Michael has ever done?” Yeah, it’s insane.
BR: At SDCC, I was talking to some of the new Vertigo creators and Zöe Quinn referenced a love for “messy, complicated” women. A lot of people shy away from that; you have not. What makes them particularly strong anchors for your books?
BMB: To be fair, I’m a huge fan of “strong, messy” humans of all types. The people who are living contradictions, I gravitate to—I might be married to one—I’m completely enamored with the human condition and nothing expresses that more than what you just described. I find myself writing about that in almost every condition. I would include Peter Parker and Matt Murdock in the “messy human” department. When creating new characters, I find a lot of people sometimes forget the messy part because they’re so in love with their new creation and their new work that they forget that the messy part’s the part everyone is going to relate to, no matter what that is, no matter how that represents itself. If anything, I find myself having to remember to get to the other parts and not just the messy parts. Don’t you think that’s where the beauty of all of it is? It’s choosing things instinctually they later regret, it happens all the time. I think you, like me—we love forgetting we’re reading a book. When the characters are messy but unpredictable, but in that way you know is true, you forget that you’re reading a book, and that’s the hardest thing to do. Don’t you like when you’re reading or watching a movie and you don’t think, “the screenplay is telling them to do this,” [you think] that they’re a full fledged character? I get hypersensitive to that, and these are the results.
You’re also talking about…we’re really on a quest, because we’re doing such heavy genre material, to make sure we break the clichés of the genre, every one we can that’s truthful to the characters. By challenging ourselves to do that, we’re creating new stories with new kinds of characters, even if it’s in a familiar role. When Mike asked “What would be your number one influence on this?” I said, “You’re going to laugh, but Jonathan Demme movies of the late ’80s.” Something Wild and Married to the Mob, which are really funny, cute Jonathan Demme movies, but if you break them down, they’re genre pictures that completely avoid the clichés of the genre at every turn, and by the end of the movie you’ve seen something completely new and are completely entertained. I took that philosophy with this project because I love it so much and wanted to see what would happen if I applied it to my sensibilities.
BR: Is that why crime drama is particularly compelling for you to write?
BMB: It’s a couple things. Number one, I have keratoconus, which is an eye situation which makes the world look very noir to me on a daily basis. I didn’t know this when I was younger but I’m so viscerally attracted to the aesthetics of film noir and it’s because, “Oh. That’s what I see a lot of the time.” It was that that drew me to those kind of stories. Also, I grew up in Cleveland, on the streets downtown riding my bike, and now I ride my bike downtown on the streets of Portland. I’m constantly being bombed with these stories. People turn to you and say, “Oh, I have a story to tell you,” and it will go into the crime fiction category, it’s always something bad that happened to somebody…when you’re told truly phenomenal stories…it feels like “I’m the writer and I’m supposed to write this down and tell everybody else. This person can’t write their story…they don’t have the ability to do it. They told me to do it.” That’s how culture works; the storyteller tells the story and I keep gravitating to these stories. This is something I figured out over years, it wasn’t something I knew as a younger creator, but as an older creator, I think “Oh, this is why I gravitate to this.” And then it goes back to messy people. Messy people find themselves in these stories, they kind of lend themselves to it.
BR: There’s a hint of the supernatural in Pearl that many of your books have. It’s not anything obvious, it’s always something that could potentially be explained, but it’s lurking. What was the attraction to that in this particular book?
BMB: My film student teenage daughter and I were having a very long conversation about the Coen brothers and why there’s always a force at work underneath the plot in every movie…always some underpinning of the unexplained. While these stories were being told to me and while I was doing the research, there’s so much spirituality involved, so much unspoken spirituality, it affected the storyline. As we got to issues 4 and 5, it will reveal itself more…the conversation about how people in life feel like there are forces working beneath them. The hand of God or spirituality in their daily lives, and it’s not written about a lot in comics because it immediately goes to a religious place, but that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about here.
BR: What are you reading right now?
BMB: On top of completely immersing in a massive DC read, which has been all-consuming since I got there, I’ve been completely wrapped around some of the great DC graphic novels I hadn’t gotten to. Ryan Hughes finally put out a book of his art and it’s absolutely gorgeous and I love it. The other thing I’m completely obsessed with this week is Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir from Jim Heimann. I love Heimann. And, there’s an Akira rerelease, a big giant brick of all the graphic novels. It may be the best formatted book of the year, in terms of people who love that next level design. It’s one of the great things I own. And, one more: A Contract with God from Dark Horse and Kitchen sink. It’s a two volume slip case, Will Eisner signed—I don’t know how they got Will Eisner to sign it but he did—and it’s gorgeous.
Pearl #1 drops 08/15/18.