Last March, DC Entertainment, the arm of Warner Bros. that controls the commercial rights to the comic book icons Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, among other superheroes, decided it was time to brag about its newest hire.
Four months earlier, it had announced that it had lured away Brian Michael Bendis from rival Marvel, snagging the writer who for nearly two decades had helped reshape and create the characters that served as the basis for multimillion-dollar movie franchises along with animated series and four Netflix shows. It was a seismic industry move, not unlike when ABC’s chief hitmaker Shonda Rhimes suddenly moved to Netflix last year, roiling the TV world.
Now, DC wanted to further ratchet up expectations.
On advertising posters placed in popular comic book stores around the country and on full-page ads within its books, like Wonder Woman and Justice League, a smiling, triumphant Superman, his hands at his hips, was standing alongside a chunk of large, bold type that announced: “BENDIS IS COMING!”
Besides promoting Mr. Bendis, the ad was a homage to perhaps the last hire from Marvel that was this significant: Jack Kirby, in the early 1970s. Mr. Kirby was one of the creators of, among other characters, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Avengers, Hulk, Thor and the X-Men. Back then, in an attempt to lure Marvel’s loyal fan base to DC, the company blared, “KIRBY IS COMING.”
Today, Mr. Bendis, 50, is one of a handful of writers and artists (including Jason Aaron, Gail Simone and Scott Snyder) whom readers will follow from title to title, and whose interpretations can completely help redefine a character and provide plotlines for television and film.
“Think about how much Bendis has shaped what is the current Marvel world,” said Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.” “He is in the position to have a big effect on DC.”
There’s no denying the effect Mr. Bendis had on the Disney-owned Marvel, but also on popular culture. He reinvigorated Daredevil, restarted the Avengers in 2004 and introduced Jessica Jones, the dark, foul-mouthed superpowered private investigator who is now known by millions of binge watchers through her onscreen adaptation on Netflix. That same streaming service also features “Luke Cage,” who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Bendis’ interpretation of the street-level hero.
“There are very few creators who can be an impact player from the moment they walk in the door,” said Jim Lee, the DC co-publisher. “And Brian is one of those people. As soon as he walked in, you knew he was going to make a difference. Not only the attention he brings, but the quality of story he tells.”
There are those who have declared the fate of any superhero on the page irrelevant, given the financial success of movies and television and video games based on those same characters. But as John Jackson Miller, a comic book writer and former trade magazine editor who tracks industry circulation for comichron.com, points out, the death of the medium is a myth — for now. From 2011 to 2016, there was intense growth in sales across print and digital — largely because of individual comic books acting as a serial outlet for graphic novels. In 2016, sales in the industry hovered around $1.08 billion. And while numbers for last year are expected to show a decline in overall sales (most notably with Marvel), those numbers will still exceed $1 billion.
“Comics readers — the ones buying the monthly comics — are the focus group,” Mr. Miller said. “They are the ones with the early access fee to get into what’s going to be hot, what’s going to be in theaters, in video games, in Netflix shows.”
Mr. Bendis has not been shy about his desire to move beyond word balloons. He is currently writing an X-Men spinoff movie for Fox to be directed by the “Deadpool” director Tim Miller. His original character, Scarlet, which he created with the artist Alex Maleev, has been picked up by a television network that Mr. Bendis said he couldn’t yet name.
He’s fully aware, however, of the limitations of comics. After all, to date, “Black Panther” has made $667 million domestically, and become a pinpoint in popular culture — but that won’t mean $667 million in new comic book sales for the Black Panther character.
“That has never has happened,” Mr. Bendis said, referring to the bump effect of a popular film. “Since the Christopher Reeve Superman movie, there’s just people who will never read anything — comics, magazines, books; they love their television and film.
“And that’s the way they want to experience these characters,” Mr. Bendis added. “But inside that mix is a group of people, usually young people like myself when I was a kid, that finds a character that captivates you, and someone says you should read the comic, and all of a sudden you’re reading the comic and are a die-hard fan of comics. You become a die-hard fan of the medium.”
Mr. Bendis, who lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife, Alisa, and their four children, was born in Cleveland, the older of two brothers, and raised by their mother. At age 6, when he discovered that writing and drawing comic books was an actual profession, he declared that someday he would be the artist on Spider-Man. By 19, he managed, after a rejection, to get accepted by the Cleveland Institute of Art. While still in the city, he began drawing cartoons for The Plain Dealer while also working on independent comics that brought him critical if not financial success. In order to stay afloat, Mr. Bendis worked as a caricature artist, even at bar mitzvahs and weddings.
Then came Marvel. Mr. Bendis, who began writing for the publisher in 1999, can remember vividly the moribund offices in New York as the company crawled out of its 1996 bankruptcy. This was not the raucous center of counterculture that Stan Lee had romanticized in the 1960s. This was a broken company, one where even the filing cabinets were being put up for sale. At the time, he wondered if he was going to be the person to write the final Marvel comic.
Instead, he had a front-row seat to what he described as the “great business comeback story of our time.” At Marvel, he was part of a select group of writers and editors who advised those assembling and reviving the company’s movie franchises. He consulted on the development of every Marvel movie from “Iron Man” to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” He wrote video games and worked on animated Spider-Man television shows. (Warner Bros. executives, responsible for bringing DC characters to the screen, have already expressed interest in Mr. Bendis’s participation in their endeavors.)
In August, as Mr. Bendis’s contract with Marvel was coming to an end, he sat down with the DC co-publisher, Dan DiDio, in Los Angeles for coffee. The two had never met, but they soon found common ground, talking about what characters they liked growing up, their visions for the industry and what Mr. Bendis could do in new environs.
Mr. DiDio made a lucrative and creatively powerful offer. DC would act as a distributor for Mr. Bendis’s independent, creator-owned works under his “Jinxworld” line, which he produces with artistic partners like Michael Avon Oeming and Mr. Maleev. Mr. Bendis would head up his own imprint using DC characters, overseeing a select group of artists and writers while also writing himself. Perhaps most symbolically, Mr. Bendis was given a chance to work on the established, marquee character of his choice. While Mr. DiDio expected him to pick Batman — everyone wants Batman — Mr. Bendis chose the Man of Steel, the most prominent and most difficult character in the DC canon.
“Even if Superman is not our best seller,” Mr. DiDio said, “the success and the positioning of the company works because of Superman. If Superman is working well, the entire line seems to be working well. If it’s not working well, then it seems like something’s out of whack. It’s intensely important for us to make sure that the Superman franchise is in good hands.”
Mr. Bendis said his decision came by accident. Last October, while in Cleveland for his brother Jared’s wedding, he walked into the public library. There, he stumbled on an exhibition celebrating the iconic character, which had been created by fellow Cleveland natives Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Christened “Superman: From Cleveland to Krypton,” the exhibition was complete with beautiful displays of his history in comics and television, radio and film. It was moving to Mr. Bendis, both as a fan and creator of comics. But at this particular moment, seeing the character’s history, it had a greater resonance.
“O.K., God,” Mr. Bendis said to himself. “I get it. Do Superman.”
When DC released the news on Twitter in November, outlets from industry websites to The Washington Post reacted and speculated on the move. After all, here was a man who had openly taken his shots at DC over the years, specifically questioning the company’s decision to entirely “reboot” the story lines in nearly all of its comics in 2011. And he was vociferous in his criticisms of the bleak and commercially disappointing films “Man of Steel” and “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
“I told Marvel that I don’t see this as going over to the competition,” Mr. Bendis said. “I told them I was going to the other side of the place that’s in charge of curating this beautiful medium I love so much and keeping these characters alive and vital and relevant.”
That said, Mr. Bendis came perilously close to losing this chance to reboot his own career. Last December, he nearly died of a MRSA infection, admitted to intensive care at a Portland hospital three times. For most of the month, he said, he could not see. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he would wake, often to find a member of Portland’s comic book community sitting by his bedside. That led him to rewrite his final Spider-Man story for Marvel, one in which Mr. Bendis’s version of the character — the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales — has a similar experience, finding different heroes of the Marvel universe there for him when he needed them most.
Now he will be leaving them, for Superman.
Mr. Bendis knows how other people have struggled with the character. Over the years, Superman has been stripped of his powers, split in half into red and blue versions, even killed. In the 1990s, he was “reborn” with what can best be described as a mullet. Now, Mr. Bendis — beginning with a 12-page story in Action Comics No. 1000 — will take on the task that many have tried and failed at: Invigorating a character that many see as, frankly, boring, without betraying the core of who Superman is.
“When you strip everything away on Superman you’re basically stripping away all the ridiculous stuff and getting to the real truths,” Mr. Bendis said. “It’s about making your own family versus the family you’re born with, about finding out who you are versus where you were put.
“These are big, big issues that we deal with,” he continued. “Truth, justice and the American way. These things are under siege. This is the world we live in. These are not absolute things anymore. These are things worth fighting for.”