December 15, 2006
Bendis on Transmedia and Continuity in the Marvel Universe: Thinking About Comics Vis-a-Vis Television

My colleague here at the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey Long, sent me a great interview with Marvel comics writer and all-around prolific creator Brian Michael Bendis. The interview, conducted by Danny Fingeroth and transcribed by Steven Tice at Newsarama, was conducted back in October, focusing on the comic writer's success in the super hero world of Marvel but also the ways in which he has become a transmedia creator (as many comic books writers have.) But perhaps what interested me as much was his discussion of continuity in a universe that has built up a substantial backlog of history through all the comic books over the years.

Bendis writes about his experiences working on films and television shows, as compared to the time he spends in comics. For instance, he writes about the time he spent working on the Spider-Man show on MTV, as compared to his experience writing the Ultimate Spider-Man series for Marvel. At Marvel, he basically took over the character of Spider-Man and recreated the story, starting at square one in a contemporary setting with the character and telling new versions of the events that first happened back in the 1960s to Spidey. Since launching that series from the very first issue, he's already made it now to more than 100 issues. He writes, "I was writing the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, and it's the greatest job I'd ever had in my life. It's completely fulfilling on every conceivable level. So I figured that writing the TV show in addition would be twice as good. And when I started working on the show, immediately it was not fun." As an example, he shares a story of meeting with an executive who questions "why does it have to be a spider."

Bendis spends his time talking about transmedia experience to emphasize the artistry of comic books and why he prefers working in what has been considered by many to be a fringe media form.

He writes:

There's this false thing that floats out there that movies and television are better than comics. And they're not at all. In fact, there's a lot of arguments that say that comics are five years ahead of every pop culture curve that has come our way. Whatever's going on in comics, five years later happens in movies. I remember some executive telling me when I was working on the show and I was frustrated with some lines getting dropped or whatever, and he said, "Well, you know, in television, if you get forty percent of your script on-screen, it's considered a success." And I was like, "Wow! No wonder all of TV sucks." Not that everyone ever thought it was genius, but you're shooting for forty percent? You're aiming for it? How about aim for a hundred?

He says that, even though he is "working for a big corporation, Marvel Comics, every work you write gets on the page," which leaves only the writer to blame if something goes wrong, but "it's immediate and it's visceral, and there's a lot to be said for that."

I was most interested in his discussion of continuity in the Marvel universe, however. Bendis admits that one of the reasons the Ultimate series has been created for various heroes is that "there's a lot of baggage" in the original runs of Marvel series by this point because there are decades worth of stories. What complicates things for many comics characters is that comics attempt to be contemporary while their heroes can't age at normal time, so there is a strange sense of continuity as compared to television shows. However, he points out that, if that "baggage" is managed well, it can be "an excuse for creativity. It really is. I embrace it fully."

I've written before about the soap opera industry and how history there can seem like baggage to some as well. Some writers basically only learn as minimal amount of the history of a show as possible and then only acknowledge their own history with the show to any important degree. Fans, however, see the continuity as stretching across writing teams and focus on the character and the way the story has evolved. And fans basically look at it from the perspective that, since it is not their job to know continuity but they try to learn backstories, that it is particularly infuriating that the gatekeepers of the official content don't play creatively off the history of these shows.

That's why Bendis' comments are appropriate. Even as you don't want to get buried in arcane references to the histories of these books, knowing that history well to make meaningful links to the past is important and rewards long-term readership and the work of those who came before you.

These were what I considered meaningful pieces of the conversation that transcend comics fandom, but the article is worth looking into further as a whole for those interested in Bendis' work or super hero comics.