The fact that Marvel Comics’ latest company-wide crossover is called Civil War II, and that the first issue debuts the month after the release of Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War hits theaters, isn’t exactly a coincidence–but according to writer Brian Michael Bendis, it wasn’t as calculated as it might look at first glance, either. “Some people think it’s like this conspiratorial thing–‘Oh, I get it, there’s a movie coming out,'” Bendis says. “And when we were making the pros and cons list, yeah, that went on the ‘pro’ list. But Marvel historically hasn’t followed whatever’s going on in the movies. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.”
Bendis would know. Since beginning his tenure at Marvel in 2000 with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis has gone on to become one of the definitive architects of the Marvel Universe. His 200-plus issues of Ultimate Spider-Man comprise the longest run any writer has ever published on the character, and the more than 170 issues of Avengers comics he wrote claim the throne for that title, too. In the process of those runs–not to mention his time with the X-Men, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Daredevil–he helped shape the Marvel Universe into something fundamentally different from what came before it. Something, in fact, that was creatively vibrant enough to build a multibillion-dollar cinematic and television franchise around. Characters Bendis created–breakout star Jessica Jones, S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Maria Hill, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lead Daisy Johnson–populate Marvel movies and TV shows. His run on Daredevil helped set much of the tone for the Netflix series of the same name, and his take on a teenage Spider-Man over his decade and a half with Ultimate Spider-Man look to be the basis for the Marvel/Sony reboot of the franchise. His 2004 Avengers run restored the franchise to prominence four years before the release of Iron Man, and properties from Guardians of the Galaxy to Age of Ultron bear his stamp, as well.
All of which equips Bendis nicely for the multiple roles he occupies. At Marvel Comics, his fingers are in every pie they publish. For Marvel Entertainment, he’s served on the creative committee, along with CCO Joe Quesada, publisher Dan Buckley, and president Alan Fine. On his creator-owned comics–a line that includes Powers, Takio, Scarlet, and United States of Murder, Inc.–he’s once more a busy and prolific writer, and on the Powers TV show, which streams exclusively on Sony’s PlayStation Network, he wears the hat of executive producer.
It’s a hell of a workload, but one that Bendis is happy to take on. “I say yes to everything, and then I hope for the best,” he laughs of his approach, before he gets serious. “No, I love what I do on every conceivable level. Even on a crap day, guess what I did today? I made comics.” Co.Create caught up with Bendis to learn how he keeps those fires burning, what he has planned for Civil War II, and which ideas he’s kept in his notebook for 15 years.
“I’m enough of a showbiz professor to know that, eventually, they’ll stop asking,” Bendis says of his “say yes to everything” philosophy. “While they’re asking, why not do a lot of work you’re really proud of and do it as well as you can? Nine out of 10 times, I’m making comics with really good friends of mine, and it’s very challenging to me creatively and mentally, so it’s not hard to be inspired to get all of this done.”
Bendis leans heavily on his wife to keep his own creative space available to him (“she runs the business,” he says) while the two of them raise their four children. Part of getting to that creative space involves physical activity–Bendis is an avid cyclist who’s long advocated bike rides as a place to do his creative thinking–and also actively parenting. “The only thing that’s changed is that I have a lot of children now. It’s hard to say, ‘Daddy’s going on a bike ride, you just watch me from the window,'” he says. “So instead, I have all the kids on a long wagon train–it’s like a 16-foot bike wagon train, and I ride them to the park and stuff like that.” After the kids are in bed, all of that gets unleashed on the page.
“I sleep, get a lot of business calls done, the kids come home. and I’m Superdad till they go to bed, Superhusband until I’m no longer needed, and then I go downstairs and work all night and get a lot done,” he says. “You can get a lot of work done because people aren’t calling all the time. Like, last night I was up until four in the morning just writing Civil War–then you wake up in the morning, and it’s done. Editors love me because I’m like a keyboard elf.”
Bendis maintains that process as much as possible, even when the situation isn’t as stable as pulling bike trains and playing Superdad–like when his responsibilities on Powers had him on set for a few months. “But even then, I had a little table in the video village, and I was writing comics during those down times when they’re doing the lighting,” he says. “Just because I have kids, I can write anywhere. I’ve learned that trick–I can block out anybody and just start writing.”
Bendis is in a unique position in his Marvel work, in that the characters he’s working with have personalities outside of himself. Not only is it impossible to read anybody’s interpretation of Tony Stark these days without hearing Robert Downey Jr.’s voice in your head, most of these characters are being written by multiple writers, often at the same time.
When it comes to writing a massive hero vs. hero throwdown like Civil War II, that’s a huge creative asset. Bendis was able to find character motivations in events that happened to the characters he’s working with that he wasn’t involved in writing. “They all went through the first Civil War,” Bendis explains. “I have a beat in the first issue where, the minute Steve Rogers starts arguing with Tony about something, and Tony goes, ‘Nope, nope, we’re not doing this.’ Eventually, the story starts to write itself, and the characters take over and tell you what’s going to happen.”
The first Civil War told the story of a rift between Captain America and Iron Man along the lines of civil liberties and government overreach, while the sequel pits Iron Man and Captain Marvel (soon to appear in her own standalone Marvel movie) on opposite sides of a battle regarding profiling of people with superpowers and pre-emptive strikes. And Bendis sees his role as ensuring that the characters who are going to take over his creative process get the chance to pick sides in a way that feels authentic to them. “My job is to put out an equally balanced argument to get into one side’s head as much as the other,” Bendis says. “In this instance, you’re just writing about two people who are looking at something completely differently, and just make sure that both of their arguments are concrete. You have to balance it.”
For Civil War II, as much as it was about letting the characters find their own paths in the story, it was also about collaboratively letting the people who know them best help shape it. “We brought the basic idea to the Marvel retreat, where the most very active Marvel writers attend, and we literally had the writers say which side they thought their characters would take,” Bendis explains. “Everyone wants their character to be the one who switches sides in the middle, because that’s so interesting, and we had to balance that out–but when it all falls into place, the sides look equal on their own, and it just accentuates the idea that we’re telling the right story.”
The first Civil War was a Bush-era parable on the PATRIOT Act and civil liberties, while the sequel looks at “personal accountability,” according to Bendis. While he’s not interested in the sort of circular storytelling that would ensure that Civil War II echoes the beats of the first crossover, it was important to him to make sure that the story stayed relevant to the time in which it’s being published.
“The idea has been about finding the story where the heroes would draw moral lines with each other that neither could cross. At the time [of the first Civil War], the PATRIOT Act and civil liberties were really there, and it really felt like any day we’d wake up and something would have happened to take that away from us,” he says. “While we were cooking up this story, we were very focused on personal accountability. We’re seeing the first generation of Tweeters who are finding that their words matter–you can’t just go online and Tweet whatever rage-hate that you think, and then go look for a job in four years. We’re at an interesting time with personal accountability. We’re in an election cycle that will basically be about that once all the dust settles. It’s fascinating to watch, and while we were thinking of that, and thinking of what the superhero version of that story would be, we landed on Civil War II.”
People who come out of a screening of Captain America: Civil War are likely to find a relevant story that explores real-world issues through a superhero lens if they pick up Civil War II or the associated titles–but they’re not going to find a retelling of the movie, or even a Marvel Universe that bears much resemblance to the one they saw at the cineplex the previous month. Not only have Marvel Comics not followed the paths tread by the movies, they’ve gone pretty aggressively in new directions.
“I think the comics, almost wholeheartedly, have just been ahead of the movies. We’re just forward-thinking as far as the characters are concerned, and if you look at what’s going on in the Marvel Universe right now, it’s completely different than what’s going on in the Cinematic Universe. The Cinematic Universe is filled with all these really cool characters, and it’s completely full of stuff we love—but there’s been a lot going on in a lot of the franchise books that is just way different,” Bendis says. “I would be curious to see which of that stuff ends up making it into movies or television shows.”
The path from comic book plot to movie or TV show is often a pretty straight one—Bendis notes that, if the first Civil War hadn’t been a commercial and creative success, we’d be watching a different third film in the Captain America franchise in May, and if the Guardians of the Galaxy we saw in 2014 were taken directly from a 2008 reboot–but he denies that the big changes going on at Marvel are motivated by a desire to see those things work in movies. When I ask him about the fact that of the core Marvel superhero identities—Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and on—only Iron Man is the same person wearing the costume as fans are familiar with, he insists that it’s not about movie contracts. Changing the genders and identities of iconic characters like Thor, Hulk, and Spider-Man were not decisions made because Marvel wants to see what they can do with these characters on the big screen when, say, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are out of contract.
“Honestly, I’ve been in the room for so many of them, and I’ve sometimes been the writer trying it,” he says. “It started with [new Spider-Man] Miles Morales, where we were sitting around talking about Ultimate Spider-Man, which we were very proud of, but what would we have done differently–and we got on the idea that in the origin, if you really think about it, that could and maybe should have been a kid of color. Just that idea rolling around brought Miles Morales–nothing else.”
From there, Bendis says, the success of Miles Morales as Spider-Man opened the floodgates.
“The fact that Miles worked was insane. From Miles came [new Ms. Marvel] Kamala Khan, and then from there came all of these other ways to create a more diverse lineup of characters–some that we know and some that are brand-new–all finding their place in the Marvel Universe. That’s where it came from, wholeheartedly, with absolutely no other agenda. I was there for it. It wholly came out of, ‘What if these comics reflected the world we live in just a little more?’ That’s not to take anything away from all of the characters that were created in the ’60s, but there were a lot of white, crew-cut dudes. That’s not the world I live in. It’s not about casting contracts and all of that. It’s very touchy stuff, because you’re basically evolving the story into really new places. Our biggest fear with Miles Morales was that Peter Parker wasn’t broken–but sometimes you have to take a chance and just see what happens. Every one of these is a huge chance. You can imagine the bad versions.”
When you write as many titles as Bendis does, part of your job is finding a way to shift gears. Or, as he puts it, “The challenge is that you wake up one morning and you’re like, ‘Shit, I’m in an Iron Man space, and then you type, and then you go take a shower or go for a bike ride and then it’s, ‘Shit, I’m in a Spider-Man space, and you stay in that Spider-Man space for like a month–you’re just there.”
The key to avoiding having to shift gears before he’s ready, for Bendis, is to stay ahead of deadlines.
“I’m a big believer in going with whatever the muse is, whatever that subconscious needs to write at that moment, you should do that–even if you don’t use all of it, there’s going to be something there that may be the best thing you do in five years. So you write it out. The trick there is trying to stay ahead of your deadlines so you’re not like, ‘Shit, nah, I gotta write Iron Man today, sorry.’ That’s been one of my tricks–and also, I hold onto my scripts until they’re needed. I keep them here and keep messing with them. I put them away for a couple of days, then I come back. I’m a picker. I pick all the time.”
Sometimes that picking process takes a long time, too. Bendis keeps notebooks full of ideas at the ready at all times, whether because he needs an idea or because he needs to put one down on paper. “I write everything down the minute I think of it,” he says. “That’s my number one suggestion to writers–write it down the minute you think of it. You will forget it, even this great idea you think is worth a billion dollars. You will forget it tomorrow. Also, the act of writing it down makes it more concrete–you can then look at it and go, ‘Is that a good idea, or am I just remembering The Matrix? You write it down and see that it is a good idea–it becomes like a reality, and not just a thought in your head.”