Brian Michael Bendis On Crafting Superman And Tearing Down (And Rebuilding) The DC Universe [Exclusive]

Brian Michael Bendis shares a figurative and literal home with Superman – both of the comic book icons hail from Cleveland, Ohio. So for Bendis, the Man of Steel is in his blood.

I recently sat down with the newly minted DC superstar (who crossed the aisle after years at Marvel) to chat about creating a comic around a character as iconic as Krypton's last son, as well as the joy of collaboration and the future of the DC Universe.

With Great Power...

For a lifelong comic creator and fan, getting the chance to write Superman #1 was another huge milestone for Bendis.

"In my world it feels enormous. It also feels almost surreal. You know, one of my peers said to me, 'You'll have written Superman #1, Spider-Man #1 and Avengers #1. Not a lot of people can say that!" And I was like, 'Yeah, aww that's right,'" shared Bendis. But despite his extensive experience, taking the reins on Superman isn't a role he takes lightly. "It feels like – to steal a line from my Marvel days – a huge responsibility. 'With great power comes great responsibility' does fit this. It's Superman, you're in charge of it, don't mess it up. All I can do with that is write as honestly as I can, which is kind of my goal anyhow. So it's nice that my job and my life goal are in sync."

Action Comics #1001 cover by Patrick Gleeson and Brad Anderson

Clark Kent, Journalist

The upcoming Action Comics #1001 is a surprisingly intimate comic which focuses heavily on Clark Kent, his interior life, and – most importantly for Bendis – Clark's role as a journalist. "Regardless of it being on everyone's minds in the last couple of years, you know what journalism is, what truth is, and what facts are. That's one of my bugaboos, and something I've loved to write about ever since the early days of Powers," explained the writer, who even has experience in a newsroom himself. "I used to work at The Cleveland Plain Dealer as a cartoonist, so I used to work in a newsroom. I do think that if this had not worked out for me, I'd probably be working in a newsroom. I'd probably be a political cartoonist trying to become an investigative reporter."

That real world energy and passion for journalism and truth is Bendis' number one inspiration for his Action Comics run. "Now I've been writing it for a while, you really get into the mindset of, 'What has Clark done for himself?' Superman is a character who's had a lot happen to him. You've been rocketed to Earth, you're going to be Superman, the world needs you. So out of all these things, the one choice that Clark made for himself was that he was going to be a journalist. He could've not done anything for a living. No one said, 'Oh and when you get there, pull out your tax forms and get a job.' It's just go and make the world better. With the concept of truth, justice, and the American way, truth is what Clark can do as a journalist that sometimes Superman can't. And even if Superman can find the truth, it's Clark who can reveal the truth," mused Bendis.

Action Comics #1001 art by Patrick Gleeson and Alejandro Sanchez

Two Superman Tales

Another real life inspiration for his story in Action Comics is the notorious Murder, Inc., the name given to the enforcement arm of the mob in '30s and '40s New York. "We're telling a story in Metropolis about an invisible mafia that's been working right under Superman's nose without him even knowing about it. What kind of people would do that? What kind of people would be like, 'Yeah, Metropolis is where we're going to do our crimes'? We're going to really get into that mindset. This is also based on some real world stuff. A lot of people don't remember that the original version of Murder, Inc. was around for years before the FBI even knew what the mafia was," Bendis explained.

Meanwhile, his titular Superman story in the parallel series is cosmic in scope and vision, and Bendis says it will keep expanding. "The stories in the Superman book will be the biggest stories told in the DC Universe this year. We're laying the foundation of an epic story that will take Superman all over the galaxy, and land something at the end of the year that we've never had in the DC Universe before. I'm very excited about this. It involves the entire Superman family, so that's an enormous story!" Bendis exclaimed.

Superman #1 art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Alex Sinclair

Working With the Best

Bendis started as a cartoonist, and so I asked if he's considered drawing a Superman comic himself. "Well, it would be the lowest selling Superman book of all time," Bendis joked. "I love drawing. I'm actually doing a couple of covers for some of my books at DC. But the funny thing is, my high class problem is that since I've stopped drawing on a regular basis I've been working with the best comic book artists on Earth. So as much of a struggle as it would be for me to sit down and draw a really good Superman, I can just write something really good for him to do and then go to sleep, and then when I wake up in the morning Ivan will have drawn it better than I could've ever hoped. So it's hard to muster the enthusiasm to do something I know I won't do as well as I want to. It's the same reason I don't play guitar for Led Zeppelin!"

Bendis is filled with praise for both of his creative collaborators, Ivan Reis on Superman and Patrick Gleason on Action Comics. "Patrick was actually the first person that I raised my hand to say, 'Is he busy? Can I have him without stealing him?' Because that's one of the weirdest problem with our jobs, accidentally stealing people from other books. Everyone does it, you say 'I really like this artist.' And you don't know that person is signed up to 17 other books. So you try not to cause too much chaos with your enthusiasm. Anyway, I asked, 'What's Patrick doing after Superman?' Because I think he's like my favorite artist and I really love his stuff. I think his interactions with the Superman family are why people love the family so much. What he brings to characters is a lot of subtext – you really feel like they're listening to each other and loving each other, which is hard to do. So when I find an artist that can really do subtext and honest emotion, I grab onto them and don't let go!"

Superman #1 art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Alex Sinclair

Steering Two Ships

The veteran author is currently doing something that seems incredibly hard – helming both Action Comics and Superman. He's writing two separate concurrent ongoing books, both of which need to have a definitive tone and style whilst remaining thematically and narratively coherent.

Once again for Bendis, it's all about the people he makes comics with. "Really, it gets super easy in that I write so deeply into the artist's perspective. I'm much more interested in writing something that would inspire great work in them, or that would lean towards their strengths or lean towards strengths that they didn't know they had. Sometimes you can see stuff in a panel that shows a strength that an artist isn't given a lot of opportunity to do. Maybe they don't even know they like to do it, maybe they do. I'm talking about small stuff. With Ultimate Spider-Man, [Mark] Bagley was never really given the chance to emote. But I thought his stuff was super emotional, so I would write all this emotional stuff hoping that he would like to draw it, hoping it would make the job really exciting for him. Every artist has stuff like that. So I talk to them, they tell me that stuff, and really that gets you about 80% of the way there as far as the book being unique. Because I'm not writing a bunch of me scripts. I'm writing a Patrick Gleason script or an Ivan Reis script or an Alex Maleev script. I write for them, not for me," said Bendis.

Unlikely Favorites

Whilst venturing into the world of such an iconic hero like Superman, I was interested in whether or not Bendis had discovered an unlikely favorite character to pen, and his answer definitely surprised me. "I knew that would happen, because it happens on every project! Like on X-Men, I always liked Storm, who doesn't like Storm? But I never sat and dreamed of all the Storm stories I was going to write. But then when I was on X-Men, she was my favorite person to write. I was just like, 'Oh my god, I love writing Storm!' So thinking of that, I know there are characters in the DC Universe that I absolutely love, there are so many characters I love. I wondered which character I would love writing and immediately it was Perry White. Some of that was because I was so emotionally involved with leaving Marvel and coming to DC that I was so deeply invested in publishing empires and the people running them," Bendis said. "And all that's been going on in the world and the universe, it was very easy to get to the core of what a newspaper man is right now."

Superman #1 art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Alex Sinclair

The Keys to the Castle

It's not just Superman and Action Comics that he'll be shaping, as DC has given Bendis the keys to the castle, along with permission to mess that castle up. "It's kind of what they wanted from me, you know?" Bendis laughed. "And they came to me and said, 'If you came here, you'd tear some stuff up!' And I was like, 'Yeah, let's have some fun! But only if it's additive.' The lessons I've learned in my career are if you come and start blowing things up because it looks cool, everything is still someone's favorite thing and these things mean stuff. So anything worth changing has to be additive to story, additive to character. It's not like I'm shepherding people's stories, but the stories I'm bringing are meant to bring some stuff to the table and add stuff to the DC Universe, starting with Superman and building out from there."