PDX Comics Kingpin Brian Michael Bendis Makes His Next Move
Brian Michael Bendis tried to stay Zen. After 13 years of never-made movie treatments and abandoned TV pilots, his comic book series Powers was cast and beginning production for a television show this past summer. The sets filled a monstrous repurposed complex in Atlanta. For the first table read, actor Eddie Izzard, who broke into the US mainstream with his transvestite stand-up routine, showed up in full drag, making one final sashay before donning the hirsute role of the supervillain Wolfe. The chemistry of the cast was so palpable that by the end of the read-through, Bendis’s cool snapped. The show was finally happening.
“I got so freaked out, I skipped the dinner—I just needed to be in my room,” he says in a Portland café in early November, looking faintly Hollywood in a black leather jacket, hoodie, and loose tie, black sunglasses balanced on his bald head.
Known for snappy, Aaron Sorkin–style dialogue that helped revive the industry during the commercial and aesthetic torpor of the new millennium and won him multiple “Best Writer” awards, the 47-year-old is a kingpin. The biggest name in Portland’s growing echelon of comics stars, Bendis is one of the most influential people in the industry as a whole (and very likely the busiest). He was the architect for the Marvel Ultimate universe and is entering his 15th year on Ultimate Spider-Man; he relaunched the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men franchises; he sits on the creative committee that oversees every Marvel-owned movie (“the first wall of nerdness,” as he calls it); and in any given month he writes six different titles and animated shows, including his own non-Marvel projects like Powers. He works all night, every night, staying up to send his kids off to school, then sleeps through the morning, getting up at 1 p.m. to do it all over again.
Bendis made national headlines in 2011 for killing Peter Parker (in the alternate Ultimate universe, at least) and making a black Latino boy named Miles Morales the new Spider-Man. “If you walk around Queens today and you think about a kid who lives alone with his aunt and he’s a science nerd—it’s hard to picture him white,” says Bendis. “The greatest experience I’ve had as a creator was the response of people who weren’t feeling represented. It was at the same time as my wife and I were adopting—two of my little girls are of color. We see firsthand how hard it is for them to find stuff they can point to and go, ‘That’s like me.’”
Before superheroes, Bendis spent the ’90s writing crime comics in his hometown of Cleveland. (He moved to Portland in 2001.) He created Powers in 2000, the same year he started writing for Marvel, to marry his love of crime, film noir, and superheroes. It follows a pair of homicide detectives who investigate the murders of individuals with superpowers. “It’s how the world we live in now would treat superheroes,” he said. “I use the rock-star motif: some would be one-hit wonders, some would be legends, and some we’d be waiting to tear down.”
Sony Pictures optioned rights to Powers in 2001 after watching the first X-Men movie prove comics’ contemporary box office potency. But the studio couldn’t manage to get either a movie or a TV show into full production, despite multiple attempts. Then last winter, a day after officially abandoning the pilot it had made for FX, Sony approached Bendis about making Powers its first foray into creating original content to stream to subscribers via its Sony PlayStation Network. Just as Netflix and Amazon have done with shows like House of Cards and Transparent, the studio spent like it was producing a high-quality cable series, says Bendis, who executive-produces. Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) and Susan Heyward star as the two detectives alongside Izzard. David Slade, whose credits include episodes of Breaking Bad and Hannibal, directs the first two episodes. The 10-episode season will debut this winter.
“Friends of mine thought I was in denial, because usually, when a pilot doesn’t happen, the show’s gone,” says Bendis. Instead, 2,200 people, some in homemade costumes styled after his characters, crowded into a hall at the recent New York City Comic Con to get a first look at the show. Bendis kept his cool.