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ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN: Brian Michael Bendis

Spidey's new writer discusses putting a modern spin on Marvel's marquee superhero.

By Edward Gross     September 13, 2000

Marvel Comics will be the first to admit that comics have hit on hard times in recent years. Some of the company's key titles have lost their once impenetrable foothold in the marketplace, and marquee characters such as Spider-Man have lost their stature in comicdom's cutthroat pecking order. With the recent appointment of Joe Quesada as editor-in-chief, however, there's now a determination to turn things around, to turn the house that Stan Lee built--the self-ascribed 'House of Ideas'--back into the creative force it once was.

One of the first steps in that process is the highly-promoted 'Ultimate' line. The Ultimate books will essentially relaunch several of Marvel's most important characters from ground zero in new 'Ultimate XXX' books, which will be published concurrently with the regular continuity titles. As a result, the Ultimate characters' origins will take place in the year 2000 (or whenever subsequent first issues are published) and their adventures will continue from that point on. The hope behind the new imprint is that this approach will attract readers--particularly many new readers--who are turned off by the idea of having to plow through 40 to 50 years worth of continuity in order to read the current books.

Ultimate Spider-Man is the Ultimate line's first effort, allowing writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley to start fresh. And starting fresh means just that--watching as nerdy high schooler Peter Parker is first bitten by a radioactive spider at age 15, develops his powers and gradually transforms into a superhero, growing up along the way. It's an ambitious and risky endeavor, and Bendis sat down with Fandom recently to spin the tale of how it all came together.

FANDOM: RELAUNCHING A CHARACTER LIKE SPIDER-MAN IS NO SMALL THING. HOW MUCH PRESSURE ARE YOU FEELING RIGHT NOW?

Brian Michael Bendis: It's not a lot of pressure. Nuclear scientists have pressure. Surgeons have pressure. This is comic books. I feel a lot of respect for the material, but I'm not losing sleep over it. Plus, the first issue is out and it seems that a great many people enjoyed it. It's like when they release a movie. They pretty much know how it's going to do beforehand. We pretty much had the same situation with Ultimate Spider-Man. Tons of people had read it before it saw the light of day, so I knew an overall reaction. I have a message board, and a lot readers of my others books have come in with their response, and it seems that most people like it.

ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT NEGATIVE REACTION FROM DIE-HARD SPIDER-MAN FANS, WHO DON'T WANT TO SEE THE CHARACTER CHANGED IN ANY FORM?

There's always a die-hard Spider-Man fan base that wants their Spider-Man, but they [still] get their Spider-Man, so I don't understand what they're worried about. They seem to be worried that this is going to replace the other Spider-Man, but it has nothing to do with that. There are a few people who can't separate the marketing from the reality. They can't sort of see it for what it is, which is a fresh start on Spider-Man, whereas if you're coming with this history of 40-years of continuity because you've read it, you're going to have another take on it. You're comparing it to something, whereas most people will read it and not compare it to anything. We have a lot of people who do read comics and haven't read Spider-Man in a while, and they enjoyed it.

I harken it to a lot of people who saw the X-Men movie who never read the X-Men comics. They had nothing to compare it to and they enjoyed it immensely. Then you get those guys who compare it to the Byrne X-Men or to the Paul Smith X-Men. I sort of invited people to separate themselves from the marketing of it and just enjoy the book. Most people who have been able to [do that] have been able to see that me and Mark came to the project with a lot of love. I have a lot of affection towards the history of the character and what our responsibilities are. My job is to take the basic idea of the book and go back to it. What we're doing is crafting the story for a general audience to sort of introduce it to people. That's all we've done. It's a great gig, and the response has been real pleasant.

HAVE YOU KEPT UP WITH THE CURRENT SPIDER-MAN TITLES OVER THE YEARS?

I had read a lot of Spider-Man and I'm actually a huge fan of [former Amazing Spider-Man artist] John Romita, Sr. That, to me, is the level of achievement in characterizations and ideas worth striving for. In the beginning of Spider-Man, and I think Stan Lee will admit to this, they were making up the rules as they went along a little bit. I sort of can see that Stan got into a groove of really understanding the character. The popularity of the character was sort of defining itself and the rules of the character. I'm just a huge fan of that stuff.

I haven't read a lot of the stuff that's going on now. That's not to take away from anything those guys were doing, but I think it's probably one of the reasons I was a good choice to write this book. I was coming at it pretty fresh, with a lot of love and overall feeling towards the character, rather than being immersed in it. That's what I can bring to it. I'm in love with the essence of the character rather than the specifics of what's been going on.

THE SPIDER-TITLES HAVE FALLEN ON HARD TIMES RECENTLY. EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVEN'T BEEN READING THEM LATELY, ANY THEORIES AS TO WHY?

I can't even make an opinion about what the reasons are. A lot of the times, and it's not specific to this case, people just over think stuff. Things just get a little off-track. A lot of things aren't broken and you don't have to fix them. You have these characters with 40- or 50-year histories and they're going to get into areas where they're more popular than others. Sometimes people are doing amazing work on the books and they're just not popular or beloved until later on--even Frank Miller taking over on Daredevil [in the 1980s] at the brink of cancellation. Those first few issues sold terribly because no one was paying attention. Now you can't even imagine that.

It's not really for me to say why a book is or isn't capturing the attention of people. Obviously the book does sell, so people are reading it, but I do know from the letters I've gotten on Ultimate Spider-Man that there is an innocence to it that people respond to. That is something we're coming at at full guns, because that, I think, is an appeal for people about Spider-Man. Truthfully, I've tried not to look into it because I don't want to get caught up in it. I just want to stick with my Ultimate universe.

WHAT'S THE APPEAL OF SPIDER-MAN FOR YOU, THEN?

When you make generalizations, people always stand up and say, 'Hey, not me!' But I do feel I was, and many of my friends who were into comics, were sort of the physical underachievers in the group--the geeks and the dorks. Peter Parker is a dork. I saw that Sam Raimi said about the movie that the appeal of Spider-Man is that Clark Kent was always pretending to be a dork, but Peter always was a dork. Even after he got his powers he was still a dork. That's the appeal. Everyone can sort of relate to trying to break out of that shell. Of all the characters ever in comics, I literally thought I was Peter Parker--except for the cool job, powers and ability to be a brilliant scientist.

That being said, it's very easy for me to tap into the psyche and charm of the guy. Also, in my own writing outside of the work for hire stuff, I've never yet dealt with my personal adolescent neurosis. So it was fun to open that box again and find out how fresh the wounds were. It's been eighteen years and I'm still pissed. See, that's where Stan Lee's genius was. The idea of creating these superheroes with a lot of personal problems is such a brilliant idea and it never gets tired. That's why the X-Men movie was a hit. People can relate to it. People don't see themselves as Superman. They probably think that even if they had superpowers, they'd still have to deal with a lot of crap in their lives. Also, and not to get too cheesy, there's something about the spider powers being a metaphor for adolescence. There's something about the growing pains of him getting the powers when he's a kid. It fascinates me.

SO, HOW DID THE IDEA FOR ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN COME ABOUT?

Basically, comics are in a sales slump. There's just no two ways about it. There's not enough people reading mainstay comics to sustain them commercially. People try to pretend that's not the truth because it upsets people, but it's the way it is. A plan has been put down to create a line of comics using the most beloved characters. Supposedly Spider-Man is just the hugest license. Anything they put it on does hugely well, except for the comics. That means that people love the character, but just aren't grabbing on to the comics.

So the idea was that they had these characters and they should be brought down to the basic idea--deshackle them from continuity. They did some research and people felt that if they picked up a copy of Spider-Man, they'd need to read like a thousand issues to really get a sense of the whole picture. So I wanted to go back to the initial concept that Peter Parker is fifteen years old and gets bit by a spider. That was the origin of Spider-Man. Now he's in his 30s and on his second wife or something. Whatever it is, it's off the mark from the initial concept. So let's go back to the initial concept, except that it takes place today. Tell the story as logically and emotionally as possible, using this basic concept that it takes place today.

GIVEN THAT, HOW WILL THE CONCEPT BE ADAPTED TO TODAY'S SENSIBLITIES?

Comics are a little bit more of a mature medium than they were in the 1960s. A lot more can and needs to be expressed to tell a more fully layered story. The original Amazing Fantasy #15 [in which Spider-Man debuted] is only like fifteen pages long, whereas we're taking the same story and sort of spreading it out over a six-issue arc. We want to get a sense of Peter's home and who he was before hand. In the original, somebody said, 'Hey, Parker, you loser,' and he goes into the lab and gets bitten by the spider. And we see Uncle Ben for like one panel before he dies. Of course it works, because we're with him and it's sad to imagine somebody in your family dying.

Today that's not stuff we can really get away with. Our obligation really is to flesh out Peter's relationship with Ben, so that when that inevitable bad thing happens, hopefully it will be devastating. So we're telling the same story but in more of, I guess, a cinematic way, and in more mature language, but in an innocent way for people to enjoy it. People are very hung up on this 'being marketed for kids' thing. The idea, really, is to write something as emotionally honest as possible. Kids don't want to be talked down to. If you tell an honest story and put it out there, people will come to it. But if you start trying to pander, man, people hate that. We're not pandering. We're telling a very loving story of Spider-Man and Peter Parker.

DOES THIS INCLUDE ALL THE CLASSIC ELEMENTS OF THE ORIGIN: THE BURGLAR, UNCLE BEN'S DEATH, PETER WANTING TO BE A STAR, ETC.?

A lot of people seem to be very worried about me thinking I know more than Stan Lee. Because there have been some alterations for the modern-day story, people seem to think that Ben's going to be abducted by aliens or Aunt May is the Kingpin. There's all this conjecture and I don't want to ruin it for people who haven't read the story, but I'm going to say as many times as possible that I promise this is a very loving adaptation of the story. The wrestling's in there...

YOU CAN HAVE FUN WITH THAT TODAY, GIVEN THE POPULARITY OF WRESTLING.

There's the genius of Stan Lee, because a lot of the stuff really holds up today. I really harken it back to when you can take a Shakespeare play and adapt it to today. You can do all these things with Shakespeare and it still rings true. Stan Lee is the same kind of guy. There's not much you can do to it where the truth of the storyline doesn't come through. Literally, you've got a kid with his uncle and his aunt, a spider, and 'with great power comes great responsibility.' It all rings true! It's just making it a lot more palpable for a modern audience of people who don't know their history of comics.

Beyond what Marvel's doing, I see people from a grassroots level seeing this as an opportunity to open some personal doors to show people some comics. I'm thrilled with that, because that's always been the problem with comics. People listen to an album, they can't wait to share it with their friends. People read a book, they can't wait to lend it out. But with comics, they can't wait to shove it in a bag and hide it away and not show anybody. I never hid the fact that I read comics when I was a kid. A lot of people pretend that they don't and it's still a closet thing, which is part of the problem with comics as well.

Even after I got the Spider-Man job, I was on a plane and I was going to read some Doctor Octopus comics. And I remember thinking I didn't want to read these in front of people. Then I said, 'Oh my God, I'm the writer of Spider-Man, a thing in my career that I'm so proud of, and even I'm embarrassed.' I was so mad at myself that I whipped out these comics and walked around the cabin. Of course, no one cared.

WILL YOU BE REDEFINING ALL OF THE CLASSIC VILLAINS?

The second story arc involves the Kingpin [and he's] going through the least amount of redesigning. The Goblin is getting a big redesign, and that's a great looking character. I came up with such a great Kraven idea the other day; I was so happy. Doc Ock's arms look fantastic. I think the biggest redesign, but it's not going to be for a while, is Venom, because Venom's whole thing comes out of clones and Secret Wars and all that stuff. He's the one that comes the most out of continuity, so his origin is going to be pretty new and his look will be new.

GIVEN THE NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF THIS PROJECT, ARE YOU APPROACHING THIS ANY DIFFERENTLY AS A WRITER?

What I'm always trying to accomplish as a writer is to structure a plot that goes along its course--you're not rushing it if you don't have to--and each issue has enough drama to it. Most importantly, try to create dialogue and situations where the characters aren't talking at each other to further the plot, but are actually talking to each other; where they're embroiled in a conversation where not every line of dialogue is necessary, but you believe the characters are listening to each other. Like if Aunt May is talking, she can be having a whole other conversation than the one Peter wants to have.

I don't see a lot of that in comics. There are certain things that comics writers do that they just do. I personally like to see different styles of dialogue, and that's what was wanted on this book. It's not like I'm being asked to write like someone else. I'm just continuing my personal goals as a writer to bring the language up a little more. In doing this, I hope to accomplish a fun book at the same time. I'm not doing this to show how clever I am. Hopefully you won't even notice I'm doing it, but I'm trying to bring a whole modern cinematic feeling to the whole thing.

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