Marvel Comics is waking up today, hungover after an 18-year Brian Michael Bender (sorry, couldn’t help it). Just imagine, there Marvel is in NYC, blinds drawn and AC up, shaking off cobwebs and trying to piece together the fog. It started innocently enough, a few rounds of a modern take on Spider-Man, then there was a Daredevil run everyone seemed to love, chased by Jessica Jones in Alias (which brought the Bender to a sloppy place in a good way), and, finally, shots of Avengers, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy, plus an Iron Man nightcap.
Now, here we are.
Okay, Bender gimmick over. Thanks for indulging me. Anyway, Brian Michael Bendis’ 18-year tenure as a Marvel-exclusive writer ended Wednesday with Invincible Iron Man #600. For comic fans, it’s not that sad, mostly because next week Bendis will be back with Man of Steel #1 for DC. But for Marvel, the publisher loses a defining voice, a writer who co-created some of its best new characters in years (Miles Morales, Jessica Jones), who enticed talented friends to work there (Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, plus artists), and whose contributions to movies and TV are evident to anyone deeply-versed in his work.
Yes, Bendis is gone and Marvel has a new reality. Online there has been a bit of negative chatter (shocker!), with some folks saying Bendis will wreck Superman while others insist Marvel has lost all its big talent. I’m a perpetual optimist, admittedly, but I don’t think either of those things are true and here’s why.
My official take is that in a deadline-driven business like corporate superhero comics, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day, to only see right in front of your cursor, to lose the creative joy central to storytelling. I’ve spent the past decade writing for three media companies, producing content for newspapers, websites, magazines. Believe me, I know.
Was Bendis burned out at Marvel? He’s a consummate pro and would never say, but all parties seem to realize that Civil War II (2016), which he helmed, was a bit of a dud, and some of his mid-tenure runs at Marvel—X-Men and Guardians—aren’t cited by many as favorites. To my outside eyes, it looked like Bendis over-extended himself in late 2015 and well into 2016, trying to fill the MASSIVE gap left by Jonathan Hickman. Then in the wake of criticism, he stepped his game up and put out some brief-but-excellent work for the publisher, including Infamous Iron Man, The Defenders, and another go around on Jessica Jones.
Then there’s Marvel. Was it leaning on Bendis? Knowing full-well sales of his books would probably always be stable? Was having ol’ Bendis a crutch? Maybe so. But that said, Bendis departure comes amid a wave of similar exits, including Fraction, DeConnick, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman, Kieron Gillen (almost), and Jeff Lemire (almost again). This has all forced Marvel to elevate newer writers perhaps faster than it otherwise would have.
To that end, the whole bye-bye Bendis business has resulted in a spike in creativity, like for example when Donny Cates got Thanos just before Infinity War and told one of my all-time favorite stories with the character, Thanos Wins. It’s led to Kelly Thompson’s relationship-defining mini-series Rogue and Gambit, and to Matthew Rosenberg writing Phoenix Resurrection, firmly in the top tier of X-Men stories of recent years. Oh, and Tom Taylor has turned X-Men: Red into the best mutant book I can remember.
Going back to the goofy bender metaphor from my lede, it’s a bit like a newly-sober drunk making major life changes because they skimmed rock bottom.
And there’s a lot to like at Marvel now. Here’s a quick rundown of five writers at Marvel I’m looking forward to reading (alphabetically):
Dan Slott on Fantastic Four: I know, Slott is polarizing and (I’ve been told) had some poor moments on social media, but his take on Silver Surfer with Mike Allred is among my all-time favorite superhero stories. I hope he brings the same deeply-personal sensibilities to the first family.
All Things Donny Cates: I loved what Donny Cates did with both Thanos and Doctor Strange, and the new books on his docket look great too, especially the Cosmic Ghost Rider, which grew from Thanos Wins.
More Jason Aaron: Jason Aaron’s Thor run is now Marvel’s best uninterrupted take on any character, and Marvel has now given Aaron the keys to its biggest franchise, The Avengers. More about why I like that here.
Kelly Thompson on West Coast Avengers: I live in California (Sacramento, the most underrated city in that state), and I know the sensibilities here well. The aesthetic of this book and the team lineup is right in line with them, somewhere between madcap fun and social responsibility. Her voice is also perfect. So, big expectations for her here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Captain America: This seems like a critical and commercial home run. I’ve had comics out when non-comic guests come over, and Coates' Black Panther is the only one that’s sparked conversation. His name alone is huge. Also, given current social and political climates in the country, Coates as a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer should have a relevant and important take on a character long functioning as an analog for the nation, its values, or both.
In terms of Bendis’ future, look—I’ve been reading Bendis’ work since I was 15 and Ultimate Spider-Man #1 hit my local shop with a take on the character I was desperate for then...a modern take that reflected my world. As I went to college, got a job, and met my wife, I kept up with this title throughout, watching Bendis grow as a writer, too. Spider-Man #240 was emotional for me, but the sting was short-lived because I’m following Bendis to his new publisher.
He’s written two teasers for Superman so far, which put together total roughly one issue. I liked the fight scene in Action Comics #1000. It had a modern yet classic feel to it, as his best Ultimate Spider-Man work did. I was lukewarm on his depiction of the Daily Planet. My wife and I work in print media (I know, scary), and his newsroom was anachronistic, which took me out of the story. It’s nit picky, and your mileage may vary. There’s also been clamoring online for him to clarify what his plans for Lois Lane (one of my favorite characters in comics). He seems to be dancing around clarifying a narrative twist in interviews. So, here’s hoping months from now we hardly remember this concern.
Overall, I’m bullish on Bendis at DC. I expect the new universe to challenge and rejuvenate him. He may not convert his harshest critics, but I think fans who keep an open mind will find much to appreciate, although isn’t that always the case with comics?
Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.