At the age of six, I stood in front of my family and declared myself the writer and artist of Spider-Man. I had no idea what it meant. I had no idea what I was saying. But it was declared.
Say what you will about me, but I stick to my guns.
From the moment I discovered their existence, I wanted to be one of the names in the credit boxes of my comic books. Every time I read something that I truly loved, I skipped back to the first page and memorized the names of the people responsible for the awesomeness. I knew I wanted to be a comic book professional, but I had no idea how to get from my bedroom in Cleveland to the little credit boxes in my comics.
As soon as allowance became part of my life, I spent every cent of it on pursuing this dream. Yes, that meant collecting comics, but it also meant searching for answers. How do you make comic books? And how do you make them awesome?
I bought every publication that featured an interview with a creator. Pre-Internet, finding a lengthy interview of real substance on George Pérez or Frank Miller was a rare treat. Comics Scene
, Comic Buyer’s Guide
, and Amazing Heroes
magazines were my grade school.
My copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way
by Stan Lee and John Buscema, which I still own, looks like it survived a couple of world wars. Every page has been picked over and analyzed, drawn on and annotated.
As I got older, the quest became more passionate and more diverse. Every convention offered the opportunity to meet creators and ask them questions—even if it was a creator whose work I didn’t know.
My fondest early convention memory is, at age twelve, attending a comic book show in downtown Cleveland where comic legend Gil Kane was conducting a “How to Draw Comics” seminar. My father signed me up, even though he had no idea who Gil Kane was, and, at my young age, I didn’t know either. I knew he was the writer/artist of Sword of the Atom
and I knew he had something to do with Green Lantern
, but I didn’t know until later that he was a bona fide comics legend. Atom and Green Lantern? He CREATED the modern versions of those characters. He was partly responsible for some of the most important Spider-Man stories of all time. He published some of the very first modern graphic novels, and he is in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame. It would take a couple of years for me to be completely floored by the fact that I was taught anatomy by Gil Kane. It’s like being taught how to work a film camera by Sidney Lumet. I remember the class as if it were the day before yesterday. I was so hungry for any knowledge. I was raw. I didn’t even know what a gesture drawing was. I learned that from Gil Kane.
The first issue of Frank Miller’s Ronin
was all the rage, a real sensation, and someone in the class asked Gil Kane what he thought of it. Steam literally started to fly out of Kane’s ears. He went to his easel and started to furiously draw a horse, all the while growling at us that “THAT’S
what a horse REALLY
looks like.” At that age, Frank Miller was God to me. And I, up until that moment, had never seen a grown man be furiously jealous of another man’s success.
These were all firsts for me. I was dizzy. I was like Lorraine Bracco in the beginning of Goodfellas
: I couldn’t WAIT
to become a comic book professional.
That next year there was a smaller comic book show not far from my house, where a very young John Totleben was a guest. John had just started his soon-to-be legendary run on Swamp Thing
with Alan Moore, and was just there making sketches and selling pages of artwork. There was no one at the show, so I got a lot of face time with John. I looked through his artwork, and was truly stunned at how horrifying it was. I was a baby of artists like John Byrne, Walt Simonson, and George Pérez, so John’s work, at that time, was something way beyond my comprehension. But it was probably the first original artwork I had ever seen in person. It was the first time I had touched someone else’s ink on paper. In just a few years, those pages would become some of my favorite comics ever, but the first impression was too much for me.
I asked John every dumb question a young person asks a comic book artist, and he couldn’t have been more gracious in answering me. He showed me the difference between the printed work and the original artwork, and I was quite amazed at how much of a difference there was.
If you’ve never seen John’s work in person, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that with all its pixilation and pointillism and heavy ink work that the tactile sensation of touching the artwork is closer to touching a painting than it is to touching a standard page of comic book art. It is the type of artwork that you can touch and actually feel all of the hard work that went into it. It isn’t something that is just drawn, it is labored over.
What was clear at the time was that there were textures on the page that were so fine that when they printed on the newsprint, standard for all comics at the time, they just turned to mud. It would be years until the industry standard for printing would allow anyone to see all that hard work.
I asked him why he went to all the trouble if no one was even going to see it. He shrugged and said, “It makes me happy.” THAT was Life-Changing Lesson-of-the-Day Number One.
My father said something about how surprisingly quiet the show was. John said that there was a much larger convention across the street, and that Walt Simonson was the guest.
My jaw hit the floor. “Walt Simonson??!! Thor’s
Walt Simonson??!! X-Men versus Teen Titans’s
Walt Simonson??!! Is here??! In Cleveland??!!”
I grabbed my artwork and yelled, “Walt Simonson??!! Let’s get out of here!” And ran out of the room.
Over the course of my career, especially during my early days as an independent comic book artist, I have spent many hours behind the tables in “artist alleys” where someone has said or done something that was accidentally hurtful. When it happens, I always smile to myself because I know that’s exactly what I did to young John Totleben that day. I have gotten to a place in my life where I have been able to not only apologize profusely to John, but also actually work with him. For the record, he didn’t remember it. I would have.
But that wasn’t Life-Changing Lesson-of-the-Day Number Two . . .
Life-Changing Lesson-of-the-Day Number Two came when I ran across the street and right up to Walt Simonson at the other show. I ran up to his table, out of breath, I’m sure pushing past the people who were waiting for their turn, and bluntly asked Walt for the answers to all of life’s riddles. With my arms full of my very rudimentary artwork, I begged him to show me the light.
Instead of calling security, he graciously took me behind his table and went through all of my artwork and actually had a serious answer for the dumbest question I had ever asked another human being: How do you know what to draw first—the perspective or the anatomy?
Think about that question for a minute. It’s really a dumb, dumb, very dumb question.
Whatever else Walt Simonson said to me that day, he made me feel like a million bucks. I left there ready to become a comic book professional. Nothing was going to stop me. I was completely empowered.
Over the course of the next few years, every time I thought I had something worth showing I would mail it to Walt Simonson. I would mail it to a lot of people, but Walt Simonson would respond—always with encouraging words, always with some sort of guidance.
So as I spent the next several years working on my craft (which included drawing my version of Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark
because I thought they had screwed it up; writing and drawing a “Captain America versus Punisher” graphic novel over and over, six times in total, using the novelization of the Avengers: Ultron
story as a script for what I thought was going to be the greatest Avengers graphic novel ever created; and my brother and I getting the school art teacher to let us use the mimeograph to run off copies of our first original graphic novel The Powerful Pachyderm
, only to get in trouble once the school discovered we were selling it for profit. I said to myself that if I ever got to be a comic book professional, I would do whatever I could to share whatever I ended up learning with anyone who asked.
When I became a comic book professional, I thought to myself, “Whatever you do, wherever you go . . . be Walt Simonson.”
In that same day, I had two life-changing lessons: do what makes you happy, and be Walt Simonson.
At the same time, my frustration was insane. Information was so hard to come by. I felt like an archaeologist. It would be years until Scott McCloud put together Understanding Comics
, and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art
was not easy to find. Even when I got those books, I needed more. I was taking life-drawing classes after school at the community college, but no one there was teaching a course on comic books. All I had were my memories of a feisty Gil Kane and old issues of Comics
Without realizing it or declaring it to anybody, I had set forth on my life’s journey for information. Day after day, month after month, year after year, whether from some little bit in the Bullpen Bulletins page of any Marvel comic or in a Fantaco retrospective of George Pérez’s career, I was learning.
I eventually made it into the Cleveland Institute of Art (don’t ask me how), a very well-respected fine arts school that did not care what walls Dave McKean or Bill Sienkiewicz were breaking down in the world of mainstream comic books. I even stormed into class there one day with the latest copy of Print
magazine whose entire issue was dedicated to comics. It showcased the fact that the most important work going on in illustration and graphic design that year was actually happening in comics.
They didn’t care.
I was so frustrated. I wanted to take college-level classes about graphic novels. I wanted to take theoretical, historical and practical workshop classes on every facet of the business, art form, and industry.
But they were kind enough, or I was annoying enough, to finally allow me to go into an independent study program where I could make my comics and learn my craft. By myself.
It’s a good thing, too, because the only way I ever really learned my craft was by making comics.
And make comics I did.
Lots and lots of comics.
As the years went by, I became a fixture in the independent comic book scene of the 1990s. With every comic came another collaboration and another meeting of the minds with my peers and my heroes.
Every day I learned and studied. Every mistake I made was a chance to do it right the next time. Every mistake I watched someone else make was a reminder of how fragile a career in the creative arts is.
I would eventually make my way onto the great stage of Marvel Comics and become the writer of Spider-Man (for the series Ultimate Spider-Man
). As I stood on stage at the Eisners, shaking Will Eisner’s hand as he gave me the award named after him, and all I could think was: “You’re giving me this too early. I’m still learning!!”
Many years later, when I first moved to Portland, someone I admire a great deal, Dark Horse Executive Editor Diana Schutz, asked me if I would guest lecture her college class on graphic novels. “NOW
there’s a class on graphic novels??!!” She had been teaching for a while, and was using the growing comic book community in Portland as a fantastic resource to show her students a variety of opinions on a variety of subjects.
Speaking to her class over the next few years would always be an enjoyable experience and unusually fulfilling. Years later, when Portland State University asked her about starting a graphic novel class or program, she told them to get me. She knew I was busy with my young children and career, but she insisted that they bully me into doing it. It didn’t take long. I realized that everybody I admired in my life, past and present, was at one time or another a teacher. Including Walt Simonson.
So, though I never got to take the graphic novel college class I always dreamed of, I got to create it from scratch and share it with others.
For the last few years, I have been teaching graphic novel writing at Portland State University and I now teach for the University of Oregon, which, thanks to Professor Ben Saunders, has the first undergraduate degree in comics in the nation. And like Diana before me, I call upon my friends and colleagues to show my students all the choices that are in front of them.
What I am very proud of is that the class, and now this book, are not “How to Write like Brian Michael Bendis” lectures. I don’t want you to write like me. I want me
to write like me. If other people start writing like me, the value of my writing on the open market will go down considerably. Right now people who want a book that feels like it was written by me usually come to me
I don’t want you to write like me. I want you to write like you.
I want to offer you what I know to be true: There is no right or wrong way to create a comic book. There are, like Robert McKee says, just “things that work.” What’s fascinating about this unique art form is that what works for me may not work for you, and what works for my good friends Ed Brubaker or Matt Fraction may not work for me.
This book came out of learning that lesson.
What I’ve done here is offer a “nuts and bolts” look at the creation of modern comics. At the same time, I provide a look into the minds of many of my collaborators and peers. They are the people that I go to for inspiration.
Also, you will find I have included a chapter about the business of comic book and graphic novel publishing. One of the things that even the most wonderful writers fail at is running their business. Your business is as important as your art. Every day there is a headline featuring the results of a creator’s poor decision or a publisher’s poor behavior. Art and business are equally important and forever tied. You fancy yourself an artist? Grow up. You run a business.
Buying this book shows me that you, like me, are hungry for information. Creating this book offered me the unique chance to simultaneously fulfill my most important life lessons: it made me very happy and allowed me to act like Walt Simonson.
Excerpted from Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Michael Bendis. Excerpted by permission of Watson-Guptill, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.