It's 80 years since Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 and DC Comics has a year of celebrations in store. Undoubtedly, the announcement of Superman's newest writer has garnered the most excitement and speculation from fans so far as Brian Michael Bendis made an unexpected move from Marvel to the Distinguished Competition to take on the most iconic hero of the past century. The release of Bendis' first Superman series begins with Man Of Steel #1 on May 30th, and I chatted to the superstar comic creator about everything from his first memories of Superman to his first interaction with Stan Lee, as well as which classic Superman creator he'd collaborate with if he got the chance.
For Bendis, a Cleveland native, Superman has always been a presence in his life. "I'm from Cleveland so it's everywhere," Bendis told me. "Honestly, when you grow up in Cleveland all you hear about is 'You know we invented Superman and rock 'n' roll.' It's part of my DNA, so when I as a young Jewish man took to comics, people would say to me 'You know Superman was created by two Jews from Cleveland just like you.' And it does help to see that it's something that other people in my position have made happen, and although you don't have any idea how it could happen to you, it gets you on the road to thinking 'Oh, I could do that,'" Bendis added with a laugh.
Bendis wasn't kidding about being surrounded by Supes as he grew up, and when I asked him about a formative memory of Superman he didn't disappoint.
"I was in college in Cleveland. I would hit the job board everyday and it said 'illustrator wanted for Superman parade to celebrate a statue of Superman in the center of the city at the Superman museum,'" Bendis explained. "They did this big parade with all these guests and they hired me to be the parade artist, and I got to draw all these signs for the guests artists and got to meet some of my favorite artists. George Perez, that was the first time I ever got to meet him."
This anecdote that Bendis shared with me was one that not only centered around everyone's favorite superpowered farm boy, but also foreshadowed his decades-long career in comics.
"One of my coolest memories--and I did a cartoon about this--was that Siegel was supposed to come to be at the parade, but he fell ill so instead Stan Lee came in his stead, and it was a big deal that the competition was coming to support this great moment. So I had to stay up all night drawing a sign for Stan Lee," Bendis chuckled. "So it's 6 a.m. and I'm completely covered in ink and paint, and the bus pulls up and Stan Lee gets off. He looks at me and he says, 'Brian Michael Bendis!' I'm completely confused--I'm 19-years-old--and I'm like 'You know my name?' And he leaned over and said, 'You're wearing a name tag, schmuck!' And he walked off. So that's my great Superman memory, [because] it's also my great Stan memory, and decades later here I am."
Superman is a universally recognized figure, but how did growing up in the Man of Steel's shadow affect Bendis when it came time to take up the mantle of Superwriter.
"You always feel the legacy of the character when you hop on, and I've had that joy a couple of times, but there's something different about Superman," Bendis explained. "I've written big icons. Not to brag, but to a lot of people Iron Man and Superman are peers, and I've written Iron Man. So why is Superman different? He just is, and you feel it from the first sentence that you write," Bendis pondered. "Because when a character that invents the genre, sometimes those characters don't age well. They fall out of favor as the genre explodes, they don't go the distance. But Superman did. I think there's something fascinating about the fact that not only did this character invent the genre but it stayed true and became the core, soul, and center of the genre for the entirety of its existence."
The responsibility of taking on one of the most iconic heroes to have ever put on a cape is not lost on Bendis.
"Last week The Siegel & Shuster Society gave me a brick from the chimney of the house where Superman was born, and it's sitting in my office reminding me not to f--k up!" Bendis revealed. "I joke, but it's really reminding me to write honest, write true, and write bold. It reminds me to write the most honest thing you can write cos anytime you do that you never fail."
Man of Steel is an unusual start to such a huge task as each issue is drawn by a different artistic team--starting with Ivan Reis, Jason Fabok, Joe Prado, and Alex Sinclair--but for Bendis that has only enriched his experience.
"I live by this philosophy very deeply, that collaboration for the writer should be in service of the artist. There are certain writers who write a script and say 'Draw for me!' But that's not why we make comics. When people do that, they're missing the magic of making comics. What I do is that I write towards that artist. I call them and ask what they want to draw! For some artists, like Doc Shaner [who's drawing Man of Steel #2], I didn't even have to call him. You just look at his Twitter feed and you can see what he wants to draw! You want a Green Lantern scene? You're definitely getting a Green Lantern scene!" Bendis exclaimed. "Some of it is obvious, and some of it is 'I'm a huge fan of this person and I've never seen them do this, and I bet they would kickass at this.' Then you go to that person and say, 'I think you'd kickass at this.' And most of the time they're very challenged and charmed by the fact that you think so much of their work."
There've been many classic Superman artists over the decades who've left their visual stamp on the hero. Selecting from some of the Big Blue Boy Scout's most iconic artists, I asked Bendis with whom he'd most like to collaborate-- Golden Age co-creator Joe Shuster, Silver Age perfectionist Curt Swan, or Bronze Age reinventor John Byrne.
"It would be Curt Swan. What Curt did and how much Curt did and how consistent Curt was is one of the true beauties. There's something magical about when Alan Moore wrote for him," Bendis gushed. "It gave him something to draw that was so much more emotional and truthful than he sometimes got--cos Curt did some of the craziest Superman stories--but he had him draw real emotion."
Curt Swan's Superman | Image: DC Comics
"Ivan [Reis] will talk about how Superman just putting his head down and crying is one of the most emotional moments in all of comics, and Curt brought it with the most elegant of cartooning," he continued. "So it would have to be Curt even though, listen, I'm a craft junkie--get me in a time machine and get me in a room with Siegel and Schuster and I'll stay all day. I have a million questions for those guys! A million!"
As for what has Bendis most excited about when it comes to Superman, well, it's actually about a whole lot more than just the Last Son of Krypton.
"It's the overall journey at DC that I'm most proud of," Bendis revealed with a smile. "It's not just Superman; it's the overall deal that we've created at DC. I couldn't be more challenged, I couldn't be more excited. It's an overwhelming amount of good people that I'm working with, and having left a situation with that, it's almost startling to find it again. I've got a whole bunch of new people that I get to collaborate with, and I still have all my old friends. It's fantastic!"
And it's not just his collaborators that have him excited, but also the support of the fans.
"Genuinely, I'm filled with this sense that people really want us to kick ass and do well, and you can just feel that people are really rooting for us, so I just let that fill me and get to work."
Man of Steel #1 is available on May 30, 2018.
Images: DC Comics