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Bend It Like Bendis

Longbox Graveyard #96

I’ve made few pains to hide my biases here at Longbox Graveyard. Readers who have stuck with me for the last hundred-odd weeks won’t be surprised when I say I favor the Silver and Bronze Age of comics to contemporary books, or that I prefer four-color superheroes to the grim vigilantes of the current age. I am stuck in the past, and happily so.

Let's Level With Daredevil!

There are exceptions. One of my earliest reviews at Longbox Graveyard — and one of my highest grades — went to Ed Brubaker’s 2004-12 run on Captain America. I gave high marks to The Walking Dead and have favorably reviewed digital initiatives like Condito Comics’ Operation Ajax, or DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight. I named Saga my best book of the year for 2012. In my “Few 52” Podcast last I even admitted affection for DC’s controversial reboot of their superhero line. My reading isn’t entirely confined to comics of the past.

Spend any time reading contemporary comics and you’re going to encounter Brian Michael Bendis. After starting his career at Caliber and Image Comics, Bendis has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s Ultimate line, and becoming a mainstay on Marvel event books and Avengers titles. But it was Bendis’ lengthy run on Daredevil that first got my attention, and really got me to thinking about comics as a storytelling form.

Daredevil, Alex Maleev

Alex Maleev’s Daredevil does a mean Buscema Slouch!

Starting in 2001, and working primarily with artist Alex Maleev, Bendis crafted a spectacular fifty-odd issue Daredevil run that ranks among the best for a character that has seen signature work from some of the field’s top talents. Bendis’ take is grim, realistic, and street-level. With his identity revealed, Matt Murdoch is pressed to the breaking point and beyond, crossing the line from vigilante to criminal in his fight for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a sophisticated and emotionally-mature work that offers an in-depth look at identity and ethics through the lens of a comic book. It is less about costumes than it is a gritty crime drama that would be perfectly at home on film or as an HBO drama.

I thought it was a great story.

I also thought it was a very poor comic book story.

It’s going to seem like I’m picking on Bendis here but that is not my intent. I quite like his stories — I read and enjoyed this entire Daredevil run, and I like what I’ve seen of his other Marvel titles. He’s committed to his craft; seems like a genuinely nice guy; and runs a great Tumblr blog that I shamelessly plunder for my Instagram feed. Bendis is hugely successful in his field — he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement, and criticism at Longbox Graveyard isn’t going to bring him to his knees.

I’ve selected Bendis only because his style bends the comics form until it breaks.

Consider the image below, which is typical of Bendis’ work. To my mind, this is not a comic book. This is an explosion in the word balloon factory.

Of course, it is a comic book. It is a story told with words and pictures and the only limitations imposed on the form are those created by artists and writers (and bloviating bloggers). What I’m getting at is that this is far from an ideal use of the form. It is not a story that takes advantage of the things that comics do well (and in some cases, do better an any other form of storytelling). This story feels like a teleplay or a radio drama force-fitted into comic book form where the characters are reduced to visual anchors for Bendis’ (generally quite good) dialogue and characterization.

This style of storytelling reminds me more of a fumetti or photonovel than anything else.

photonovel form

(And fotonovels can be artistic in their own right, but this seems rarely the case).

Many fans and critics will not see a problem here. Bendis has a shelf-full of Eisner Awards, so what do I know? But I still see this run as a missed opportunity. It told a great story of a very dark period of Matt Murdoch’s life but it did so in spite of being a comic, not because of it. Very little about the comic book form was used to good effect. Save for the (occasional) appearance of men in costume beating the crap out of each other, you might not recognize it as a superhero comic book at all.

If I’ve called out this Daredevil run as being especially ill-suited to comics, it’s only fair that I provide a counterexample that more fully explores the dimensions of the form.

Comparing apples to oranges, here’s a two-page spread from the recent vintage of Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera.

Paolo Rivera & Mark Waid

Not every page of every comic is going to be like this (just like not every page of Bendis’ work swarms with word balloons), but this does serve to make a point. There’s so much to unpack in this panel — and much of what happens here can happen only in comics. Unique to the form is a single master shot that in still form depicts both time and motion with multiple portrayals of our principle characters — Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. In this single image we see two worlds at the same time — the mundane world that Foggy perceives (watch out for that doggy doo, Councillor!) and the world revealed by Matt’s enhanced senses. Matt’s world is a mosaic of smells, vibrations, and overheard conversations brilliantly displayed with inset panels emphasizing tiny details inside this same master shot. Add to this a balance between words and art — which lets us admire Rivera’s scene-setting draftsmanship, while at the same time wonderfully framing Waid’s dialogue that advances the story and illuminates character — and we lose ourselves in a story that fully embraces (rather than fights) everything that comics do well.

While any kind of story can be told in comics, I am most interested in those that can only or best be told in comics form — where words AND pictures are used to best effect. To be fair, many of the comics I laud here at Longbox Graveyard do not fit this description — for all that I cherish Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories, they don’t always take best advantage of the form. At the same time, these classic stories weren’t trying to be anything other than comic books. They might not always have been great comics, but they weren’t trying to be film or television (for the most part), and when Steranko or Paul Gulacy adopted cinematic techniques in their comics art, it was as a means of revolutionizing or revitalizing the comic book form, rather than imitating another type of media.

But there is very little competition for the heart of an old-time comic book reader such as myself. If you want those kinds of stories, there’s really only one place to get them — old comics.

Master of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug MoenchMaster of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug Moench

My problem with the Bendis approach is that by electing not to play to the particular strength of comics, Bendis can’t help but compete with other forms of media which do these kinds of tales as well or better. With all this character-driven dialogue (which Bendis does very well), I can’t help but feel I’m reading a television script. Rather than read Bendis’ Daredevil, a part of me would rather re-watch The Wire or The Sopranos. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing both, but I come to comics with a set of expectations, and one of those expectations is that they are going to give me a story that I can’t get anywhere else, whether it is a cosmic Jack Kirby space epic, or the unique exploration of the printed page demonstrated by Will Eisner. When a comic tale puts aside so many of its tools and techniques in favor of dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue (however clever), I can’t help but feel some fundamental aspect of the form has gone missing.

Bendis wears me out with his dialogue-heavy style, but I do like his stories, so I thought I’d search for his work in other forms.

I thought I’d struck paydirt with the motion comics version of SpiderWoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. After all, I kept thinking of Bendis’ work as a television script. What could be better than a comic book animatic?

Unfortunately, this form wasn’t much better than a Bendis comic. Without all those word balloons it looked cleaner, but the story was still too talky and static. Practically the entire first episode was two characters talking on a bus. Even Sandra Bullock and a satchel full of TNT would have a hard time livening up this scene. Maybe it gets better in later episodes, but I couldn’t be bothered.

More recently, though, I have found that the man and the hour have met at last in Bendis’ relaunch of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, not the best-selling comic. I’m talking about the “Infinite Comics” prequel stories that have been made available for free in the run-up to the new series.

This format is still clearly a comic. There’s no distracting audio, and the reader controls the pace of the presentation. Transitions and scenes are presented in conventional comic book style. But the ability to re-use space finally gives Bendis’ dialogue has the physical word-space it needs to breathe, and the minimal change of art from panel-to-panel doesn’t feel as much the cheat here that it does on the printed page.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

It may not look like a lot here in still images, but through the “Infinite” format, with balloons transitioning in and out … it works! These are essentially the same kind of minimally-changing images that annoyed me in Bendis’ Daredevil, but only seeing one panel a time makes Bendis’ wall-of-words less intimidating, and the transitions help denote passage of time and make it easier to notice and enjoy story and dialogue beats. These are lightweight little stories — especially when compared with Bendis’ heavy Daredevil run — but they’re fun and they do show a promising evolution of the comic book form. The effect is much easier to judge by experiencing it for yourself, and the books are free at Comixology, so check them out.

In the end it comes down to personal preference, and I’m willing to admit my tastes are idiosyncratic. What do you think? Am I being too narrow with the way I define the best use of the comics form? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #97 Top Ten Captain America Foes

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