Sunday, July 31, 2005

Brian Bendis Syndrome

So, watching Elephant and the Bad News Bears, I saw two very different works from directors who started out as indie filmmakers and have gone on to flirt with the mainstream. In recent years, most filmmakers start out not within the studio system, but as indie directors, who are then offered studio support for their next project. As a wannabe director, I'm always fascinated to see what people do as they move from the independent scene to the studio system. A lot of the time, it isn't good. And this just isn't in films, it's also in comics, most notably in the sad tale of Brian Michael Bendis, a man who became the most powerful writer in comics, but along the way, lost his soul...

Well, he didn't exactly lose his soul, but his tale still is quite interesting. In the late 90s, Bendis was a writer/artist, publishing his books through small publishers. He did a number of books, but his two most successful were Jinx and Goldfish. These were two serialized noir graphic novels that he wrote and drew. I'm a huge fan of both books, the art is really innovative, and the stories are emotionally engaging. Both books are just well told original tales, something that there isn't enough of in comics.

So, Bendis was a unique new voice in the medium, with the potential to be the next Frank Miller, a writer/artist who would change what the medium could do, or at least create some cool noir comics. Bendis' books were picked up by Image Comics, and published under that banner, along with a new series called Powers, which is about cops in a world of superheroes. It's a pretty solid book, that riffs on all kinds of archetypes from years of comics. So, Bendis was on a roll.

In 2000, Marvel was starting up a new line of comics, which would reinvent their characters for a new generation, in a new continuity. They went to Bendis to write Ultimate Spider-Man, a controversial pick, but one that was generally hailed, Bendis was seen as someone who could bring an indie sensibility to this mainstream comic, someone with a more unique than your average Marvel writer.

So, in the five years between the start of Ultimate Spider-Man and the present, Bendis has become Marvel's lead writer, with four or five books going at once, all set in the Marvel universe, except for Powers, which continues. Bendis hasn't stopped being a good writer, his Daredevil is excellent, and Ultimate Spider-man has its moments, though the early issues are much stronger than the recent stuff. I haven't read much of Bendis' recent Marvel output, like New Avengers or House of M, but going off his other Marvel stuff, I'd imagine it's competent, entertaining stuff that lacks the originality and emotional bite of his early, creator owned stuff.

Bendis seems to have become so enamored of writing in the Marvel universe, writing the characters he read as a child, that he's forgotten the virtue of creating an original story. Alias, a book about a private eye in the Marvel universe, has some good character stuff, but it's an exercise similar to Powers, the entire pleasure is in seeing how two disparate genres mash together. And with House of M, Bendis is writing an entirely conventional superhero story, one that hasn't been getting particularly good reviews.

So, Bendis went from innovative indie comics writer to someone whose only book not set in the Marvel universe is a riff on superhero universes. I'm not saying that doing work in the Marvel universe is pointless, or that working within the superhero genre is a bad thing. Grant Morrison is someone who frequently works within the Marvel or DC universe, and the work he does there is frequently some of his best. But, first, step back and consider how the story of Bendis is not unique to comics.

Music is the medium where an artist is most frequently accused of selling out, but I think it's the medium where selling out is much less of a concern. In comics, a lot of creators have this desire to write the characters they grew up on, and end up writing only those books, as in the case of Bendis. In film, it's a bit more complex. Other than Bond, there's no franchises that are ongoing and always switch directors. But the Bendis problem still exists.

Take a look at the career of Brian Singer. This is a guy who came to prominence with the film, The Usual Suspects. I think it's an overrated movie, but it's still original and stylish. After Suspects, Singer made Apt Pupil, a film that wasn't too successful. However, his big change happened with X-Men, he directed the film and it was a big hit, so he was hired to do the sequel. After X2, he was booked for X3, only to leave that to direct the new Superman film. Much like Bendis, this was a guy who started out doing small indie films, and in a short amount of time finds himself working exclusively on corporate properties.

Superman Returns is symptomatic of an increasing problem in film. As directors become more powerful, you'll see a lot of them do vanity projects in which they pay homage to a film they loved in their youth. With Superman Returns, Singer's goal is to recreate the feeling of the 1979 Superman movie, a film that's not that good, and isn't even that old. Why not come up with a new take on the character instead of making a slavish homage to a work that is by no means the definitive take on the character. Similarly, Peter Jackon's King Kong is a salute to a film he loved in his youth, but why salute it by just making it again, knowing that you'll probably never match the original. The worst of these was the shot for shot Psycho remake, by Gus Van Sant, an utterly pointless film.

I think the goal as a filmmaker should not be to remake the films you liked when you were young, instead to try and capture the feeling they gave you and update that into a new film. Look at Star Wars, Lucas set out to remake Flash Gordon, but he couldn't get the rights, so he made an original story that does so much more, and has become a totally unique piece of cultural mythology, while the 1980 Flash Gordon remake occasionally turns up on Saturday afternoon TV. He did the same thing with Indiana Jones, rather than remaking an adventure serial, he takes the best elements of them and creates the definitive version. Tarantino's Kill Bill is another example. These works go beyond their inspiration, rather than just trying to recapture the feeling of something that's already been made.

Did all these directors really get into filmmaking to remake movies they liked as a kid? Did Bendis get into comics to write yet another bloated Marvel crossover?

Things are really different in indie comics and indie film. It's conceivable that all Brian Singer wanted to do was make comic book movies, and he made his early stuff as a way of making his name, so he could get the budget for these films. For the successful indie filmmaker, the time always comes when they get studio funding for a film, and looking at this transition movie is critical to seeing what kind of director they want to be. For Kevin Smith, the restraint of Clerks totally falls away when he makes the generic teen comedy, Mallrats. However, Richard Linklater keeps his indie sensibility and fits it into a slightly more traditional narrative structure in Dazed and Confused. Linklater has generally remained more independent than Smith, who has made plays for the mainstream, retreating to more indie work when he fails, as in the case of Chasing Amy and the upcoming Clerks sequel. Clearly Smith's indie work is better than his mainstream films, so why does he keep making stuff like Jersey Girl?

Ultimately, a director's path may not be theirs to choose. For indie directors who succeed making studio films, it's difficult to get back on the indie path. If Superman Returns is a huge failure, Singer may go back to smaller movies, but for now, he's carried along on the momentum of his big budget success. Look at David Lynch's career, if Dune had been a success, he would have made a sequel to it, and from there, he might have taken on another big studio franchise, and never made Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Then, we'd have David Lynch, mainstream director, with that one wacky indie film, Eraserhead behind him. Similarly, Kevin Smith would likely never have made Chasing Amy if Mallrats had succeeded.

It seems that failure is the best way to get a director away from the mainstream. All directors who have flirted with mainstream, but remained independent have had one big failure that forces them back to the indie world. Look at Gus Van Sant, after the failure of Finding Forrester, a totally mainstream film, he took stock and went back to the indie world, with his most indie films yet.

In comics, I think the biggest problem is that people start writing with the end goal of writing the superheros they knew as a child. If you look at Bendis' output, it would seem that he has reached his goal, the original work serving merely as a stepping stone to his time on Daredevil. The main difference between comics and film is that in terms of story content, indie comics have no budget restrictions, it's all what you can imagine, so there's no need to get a bigger budget to tell your story, if you've got a story to tell, you can do it just as easily on your own as you can with Marvel. However, if your story involves Wolverine, you do need Marvel.

So, indie comics creators will make their own book as a way to get attention and then wind up writing superhero comics down the line. Unfortunately, to a mainstream audience, a book like Jinx is much more accessible than House of M, that's where the comics marketplace is skewed. What is so called 'mainstream' (i.e. the superhero comic) is actually a genre that has taken over the whole medium. That's not to say that superhero stories aren't popular, in films almost every successful action film this summer has some ties to the genre. Even critically mauled films like Fantastic Four can be saved by their comics connections, while a film with slightly better critical reaction, The Island, just dies, because it has no built in audience.

But, the basic point is, now that he has the ability to do whatever book he wants, what is that drives Bendis to write only Marvel books? Doesn't he have any of his own stories to tell, a story that doesn't involve costumed people fighting evil. Maybe that's what he wanted to do all along, but I'd like to think that people would rather bring original characters and stories into the world, rather than just rework pre-existing concepts.

In film, Chris Nolan may have made a faithful Batman movie, but he didn't add anything to the character as Tim Burton did with Batman Returns. Batman Returns used the character as a way to explore issues really close to Burton, Nolan changed his style to fit the material, while Burton fit the material into the style. Most people don't go Burton's route. What Burton did is the same thing as Morrison did with the X-Men, he used the characters to explore things that were really interesting to him, he didn't worry about what had come before, he drew on the archetypes, and ended up writing much better comics than people who were dreadfully faithful to the material.

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