For two decades, even after becoming friends, Brian Michael Bendis and David Walker worked in parallel spaces.
This week, with the release of their new comic Naomi, the world gets to see what happens when two comics writers with very different backgrounds come together to create a new superhero story.
Around 20 years ago, Bendis wrote and drew Fortune and Glory, a miniseries which chronicled his fledgling attempts to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. A few years before that, Walker was writing and publishing a zine called Bad Azz Mofo, where he and others explored pop culture creations from the 1970s through to the present.
A random encounter at a comic convention led to a friendship that’s in its second decade, and different paths took them through the worlds of independent publishing and mainstream comics writing. Despite the fact that both men eventually wound up working alongside each other at Marvel Comics — as well as teaching a class together at Portland State University — Walker and Bendis never really collaborated until a few years ago.
The fruit of their labors is Naomi, a new ongoing series from the youth-focused <Wonder Comics imprint that Bendis is spearheading at DC Comics. It’s out this week, with art by Jamal Campbell and Josh Reed. The title character is a young black girl who becomes fixated on her possible connection to a secret superhero history after Superman thwarts would-be conqueror Mongul in her hometown.
I spoke to Bendis and Walker over the phone last week to find out how they met, how their personal lives are informing Naomi, and who the series’ real MVP creator is.
Kotaku: So far, your output at DC has a very different tonality from your work at Marvel. Is that an intentional shift?
Brian Michael Bendis: I wanted a great deal of it to feel purposeful. I’ve made this joke online a few times, but [moving to DC Comics] really made me go, “Well...if I was a fan of mine...” — I’m not, but if I was — “what would blow my mind?” That’s been a good kind of motto for all these things, and Wonder Comics. We have a great opportunity to blow the roof off the place. Every way we can. Or at least try.
Kotaku: You’re saying “we”, which reminds me that I don’t think I know how you and David met and became friends, so let me hear your side of that.
Bendis: My side of that is, we were in Portland. I think it was the first show that I did here, and Kurt Busiek and Gail Simone were there. It was a lot of comic creators. There was a scene that had been going on for many years before I got here, and in that scene was a local film critic and expert on all things blaxploitation — and the publisher and head writer of Badass Mofo Magazine, David Walker.
We met at this basement show and I got some copies of his magazine, one of which I had already gotten in Cleveland, so, I was pretty excited to meet him. And also, he’s a film critic, I’m a big film nerd, I was like, “Oh, we’re going to be best friends.”
And we were — I’d say it was one of those slow burn friendships. Over the years we became closer. Originally, he would like, call me, “I’m doing this critic screening Wednesday night, come and talk about the movie” and I would run and come join him. Stuff like that. And then over the years we had dinners and he became a regular Friday night guest over here, and he just became part of our family. Then, after I’d been teaching for a while, I knew I needed a co-teacher and a co-perspective.
After talking to David over the years at my house, I was like, “That’s a different perspective.” So I asked him to come teach with me, which surprised him by a little, but it was a really great partnership for the students. And then also, as we were sharing the classroom and co-lecturing about the hero’s journey, we kept looking at each other like, “We’re going to do this together, too.” It’s going to happen. And that was really the birth of Naomi.
Just years of lecturing on what everyone should be doing, we realised we should be doing it as well.
Kotaku: It’s been more than a decade at this point, right? How long have you been in Portland?
Bendis: I’ve been in Portland since 2001. I knew David, I think, about 15 years? But the other important part of that chapter is that David was enormously helpful during the birth of Miles Morales and during the years we were really building the mythology that became Spider-Verse. David was an enormous help and just a guiding force.
Joe Quesada was another one, but, I’d say David Walker was up there, too. And I said to myself, “Next time we’re having this conversation, it’s going to be about an original character that we both have investment in,” and that’s where the process of Naomi started.
[David Walker joins the call.]
Bendis: I am so excited. David, you get to read my version of our friendship in this article! You just missed my answer.
Walker: OK, perfect. I can’t wait to, uh, see it.
Kotaku: Just so we can get both sides of the coin, how did you meet Brian?
Walker: Oh, man. Well, as best as I recall, I was introduced to Brian by Diana Schutz before he had moved to Portland. And she said to me, “There’s this guy I want you to meet. You guys both really like movies.” It was almost like a blind date. This had to have been 2000 or 2001. It was just like...he’s a super nerd, you know? And that was that.
So, Brian and his wife moved to Portland, and we just kind of hung around because not that many people like either of us, so it was just a good, natural fit.
Bendis: I said it was at that basement convention when we met...
Walker: Yeah, you were at that convention and I don’t think you guys had lived in Portland more than two or three months. That was the first time I met Alisa [Bendis] and she scared the hell out of me. But we really bonded over a combination of a love of movies and comics and all things nerdy. The thing you have to keep in mind is that it wasn’t that long ago when all this stuff was not something you talked about that much publicly!
You wouldn’t admit you read comics or were into that sort of stuff. If you were over the age of 14 and you met someone your own age into that stuff, it’s like the clouds parting. I think that was part of it. Kindred spirits meeting later in life.
Kotaku: I’ve been thinking about your parallel career paths and where the intersections have and haven’t happened. I want to ask Brian — what was your reaction to David’s work like <Nighthawk?
Bendis: That’s a book that pulled no punches. By the time David had done Nighthawk, it was very different from, say, things like Cyborg at DC. There wasn’t much surprise for me because we’re so very involved in each other’s careers and choices and creative choices. Not just me and David, but our whole circle of friends.
We get together at dinner pretty regularly and really sound out our creative frustrations because we’re in a group of peers that can really understand this unique environment we’ve created for ourselves.
Making comics has its own environment. And you do need to share that experience with other people so you can stay focused and level-headed because there’s a fine line between a great idea and a stupid idea. And your friends are very helpful. I think about this all the time: we live in such a strange world where even the crazy ideas are great ideas, like a crazy idea in comics is now a legitimately great cinematic idea.
So, all of that we wrap our heads around. And so while I’m working on my own stuff, David’s working on Nighthawk. We were comparing notes and really kind of emboldening each other to tell our truth. That’s really what we do most of the time. Make sure we’re remaining true to ourselves. Because, all of our friends are really excellent at their jobs, and when they’re true to themselves, there’s nothing better.
We’re just kind of reading for each other, really. To stay on track. And that’s what David and I have been doing for years. And David competes with me, because I want that feeling all the time.
Kotaku: So, let’s talk about Naomi. You guys have been friends and co-workers, at what point did the idea come up? Was it the character first or the germ of a thematic idea first? Was it the desire to work together?
Bendis: For me, it started with David. He had talked about—at great length—what it was like him growing up as a young person in his part of the world, when it was different than it is now. Portland still has a long ways to go as far as cultural diversity and whatnot, but, it’s way better than it used to be since before I moved here.
David would talk about it at great lengths and with great honesty, and it seemed like something that needed to be expressed in work, in literature. So that was the first stepping stone of where to go.
And then we were in class, every year, talking about the creative journey and the hero’s journey, and we would look at each other and I would think, “We’re going to have to take everything we’ve been talking about privately and put it into this hero’s journey.” And see what we get. And on top of that, he knows my life outside of comics involves adoption — two of my children are adopted, and though Naomi is not in any way, shape, or form based on them — my life and lives of other adopted families and culture is part of your life.
So there’s a lot of stories and truth I’m witness to all the time. So it’s David’s truth and everything we were picking up around our lives. And we kind of combined them into Naomi, the story of the only brown-skinned girl in her part of town. She has a very happy, loving relationship with her adopted family but when Superman literally bounces into town, it causes a domino effect.
Naomi questions her adoption and then goes kicking around the town trying to figure out exactly what has happened in the past. And what the secrets of the town are, and what they have to do with her.
Kotaku: OK, now, David — your side of that? Nighthawk was filled with frustration and anger at the facts of what black people have to live through in America. In Bitter Root, you’re dealing with similar themes in a more metaphorical and fantastical way. Occupy Avengers was about how we all find our different modes of heroism. How is Naomi different from the stuff you’ve written before?
Walker: Well, one of the things that’s different is, this is me getting a little bit closer to doing something for a different kind of audience. I don’t want to say “younger readers” because then it sounds like an all-ages book, or whatever. But one of the things Brian and I have talked about at length is that so many new comics that come out aren’t necessarily that accessible to younger people. Or new readers, I should say.
I wanted to be involved in something that would appeal to someone who maybe has never read a comic before or only read a few comics. Then, to take that one step further, a huge part of the motivation was, “Well, I’d like to try to have a hand in creating a character that also speaks to people who haven’t had characters that they can relate to.”
We’ve reached a point with superheroes and superhero mythology where it’s like, “Well, it’s everywhere.” There’s the movies and the TV shows and the video games. Superheroes have become so accepted within the mainstream culture just within the last 5-10 years. So, now it’s about getting superheroes in there that aren’t just the same old soup, reheated.
When we got really serious with this particular project, Brian definitely had to reel me back in because I was saying things like, “Do we even really want to follow the traditional hero’s journey? It’s been done a million times.” And then Brian said, “Yeah, but, we might feel like its old and tired to us, but we’re writing this for a generation that have never heard of it. That’s never heard of Joseph Campbell.
That maybe have never seen the original Star Wars movie or maybe they haven’t seen Wizard of Oz.” And we were talking about that. As much as him and I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, most of our students haven’t seen it. Because that movie is pushing on 40 years old. And so, a lot of it was about getting back in touch with the thing I love about comics and the medium and the sort of folklore we’re creating but then also reinvigorating it in a way that seems new and fresh. Not just for myself, as a creator, but for anybody that’s going to pick it up and read it.
Kotaku: I want to get into nuts and bolts…I’ve written a few comics now. I know how I write them is different than, say, how Ta-Nehisi [Coates] writes them. I can’t write them how he does. David, what are your scripts like? And what are Brian’s scripts like? And who does what in this process?
Walker: We both do a whole lot of everything. And, well, I will say my spelling is a whole lot better than Brian’s.
Bendis: Wow, what an achievement! [laughs]
Walker: But, in my estimation, it’s a very organic process and, in some ways, it’s almost counterintuitive to what we teach our students to do. Because we’re always talking about the importance of outlining and making sure you’ve got everything planned out, and then the two of us sort fly by the seat of our pants.
I’ll write a script and then hand it to Brian, and then he does a revision and it goes off on a tangent and he hands me that, and I do a revision and it goes off on a tangent. And I think for both of us—and I don’t want to speak for Brian here — to me, it’s all about creating the best book possible.
I’m not concerned when people read and wonder, “Who do you think wrote that dialogue? You think that’s Bendis or Walker?” I’m just concerned with them going, “Wow, that’s a great scene. These characters are compelling.” And then to add to that, what Jamal is bringing from a visual standpoint is so amazing that Brian and I both…the character designs really clued us in that we struck gold.
When the pages started coming in, we realised was that Jamal was bringing not only his A game, but his A+ game. And then we had to rethink some of the stuff we were writing.
Some artists have maybe a dozen emotions in their bag of tricks. But Jamal has a thousand. And so, I know when I’m writing now, I’m not thinking so much about, “Oh, how is Brian going to react to this?” Or, “How is he going to riff on it and spin this in a different and better direction?” I’m thinking more about, “How is this going to look?” Because I know that Jamal is going to bring that extra specialness to it.
So, it’s been a really interesting process. I think that, you know, I know I’m learning more about myself, I’m learning more about how I play with others but I’m also having a really good time with it. Because I feel like when I read — whether it’s Brian handing me something that he’s written cold, or he’s handing me back something that I’ve worked on and he’s polished or tweaked or revised — I’m learning more about writing.
The options of how a scene can be executed. Of how emotions can be mined and how we can dig for the truth. So, to me, it’s been a great learning experience.
Kotaku: Brian, was there a scene you guys fought over in the first issue?
Bendis: No. Honestly, David came to me and said what the first page is. Literally, that was like, when the book launched. He said, “the first page is a grid of white faces describing something.” And then I go, “!” And that’s the only time we ever discuss the racial makeup of the book, or what her situation is. You know what I mean? Like, he had this idea and I was like, “That’s the best grid of heads I’ve ever heard.” And that was it.
Over the years, my heart would break when David would have a project or two that could have been a more exciting experience for him if others would have played better. If I’ve been lucky in this world, it’s really been with collaboration. My ratio of successful collaborations is getting longer. The artist is squeezing more out of my stuff than what it’d be without them, and that’s happened quite a few times.
I was frustrated that David hadn’t had that as many times as you would want your friend to have. So when we started, my goal was to make damn sure this was a positive creative experience for David. Hell or high water. And I thought, “Just let him sing!” That was the way to start here. And we were able to go by the seat of our pants because we had planned enormously what the book is about.
What her secret is. What she’s investigating is enormous. And it’s an enormous addition to the DC universe. So, we knew where we were headed so we could be as anti-cliché as possible getting there. And that was my number one goal. To know the audience would be as surprised as us, as well.
Kotaku: Has the development of this series taken you to surprising places?
Walker: Oh yeah. Well, for me, there’s been a couple. We got a couple emails from Jamal within the last week. Every time we get pages from him it’s like a breath of fresh air. But then, Brian had sent an email to Jamal sort of brainstorming some character ideas and concepts that, in another series might have just been two writers talking. Or the writer might have said something to the artist. But Brian sent this email to Jamal and said, “What do you think about this?” And Jamal sent this email back and it was like, such a beautiful read.
It was like, he’s as invested in this as we are. I’ve known this all along, but this took it to another level because it was just like...”Oh, he’s thinking about things the way we’re thinking about things.” He’s thinking not just “How do I make this the best looking book that I could draw?” But “How could I make this the best looking complete package?” The best looking complete story? And so, to me, that was one of the things that really was like, “this actually feels good.”
Just today on Twitter, some young woman posted a picture of herself next to Jamal’s picture of Naomi. And she was like, “this is me.” And I was wowed by that. That any person can have that level of reaction and that level of connection, and the book isn’t even out yet. This is exactly what I wanted. This is what I think all of us need. And people who pooh-pooh these things and are the negative naysayers, they don’t realise how much they need it.
And sometimes, they figure it out once they see it and sometimes they never figure it out. But, yeah, this is just a really positive experience. And, you know, like Brian was saying earlier, some of these experiences I’ve had have not been the best they possibly could have been. I’m coming out of 2018 and going into 2019 going into a lot more positive experiences. And just really blazing forward with, you know, “I’m going to get out of this what I put into this.”
If something isn’t working for me, I need a way to find it to work, rather than just complain about it.
Bendis: And I’m excited for you to see what it feels like to get more out of it than what you put into it. That’s an experience you just can’t fake. I will say, David is so right on the money about Jamal, because...I’ve had the genuinely joyful experience of being basically a stranger and going, “hey, let’s work together” — and suddenly realising you’re involved in a very special artist in a very special moment.
It happened with Sara Pichelli, it happened with David Marquez…we were like, “Oh, you’re a nice person, let’s work together” and they were like, “Ohhhh… something’s happening here.” It’s very special. And that’s what’s happening with Jamal. At one point in the project, right around New York Comic-Con, me and David just looked at each other and said, “Now just clear the lane for Jamal. Let him sing.” Like, this is his moment.
Every single page we get in, every single design we get in, you learn to take advantage of these moments and just include him in every creative decision that could be made that might inspire somebody. That has been really the deep-rooted thing that’s been going on behind the scenes for us.
Kotaku: Sorry if this sounds terribly inside baseball — and I might not even include this — but Jamal did a variant for Rise of The Black Panther #1 that was fucking amazing. Later on, the series editor Wil Moss and I were talking about a scene where T’Challa has to use a suit that he’s been testing. Wil asked me if I had any ideas what this suit should look like.
I immediately thought of the design that Jamal did for the variant from #1. I said, “let’s use that.” It was too good to just have it be on a variant and not be in the actual storytelling. I’m so happy that we did that and that Paul Renaud did such a great job of using it in the interior pages. He nailed it. But, anyway, that’s my own brush with how Jamal is amazing.
Bendis: By the way, you should include this in the article. That is part of our thought process as well. Things pop up. Artists do little doodles here and there and you go, “Ohh! That’s it!” Literally, from comic pages to covers, that’s where they create things, in these moments. It’s the history of comics: Someone does a little doodle and someone else gets a chill. Right? That’s some of the best parts of comics.