Smash Pages Q&A: Brian Michael Bendis on ‘Joy Operations’

The Jinxworld creator discusses his newest comic, ‘Joy Operations’ with Stephen Byrne; the move to Dark Horse; and more.

Brian Michael Bendis has made so many comics over the years. For some people, he will always be the writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, one of the great Daredevil writers, the co-creator of Jessica Jones and Miles Morales, and one of a handful of creators who helped shape the Marvel Universe in innumerable ways. Others know him for his more recent work at DC Comics as the writer of the Superman titles, Justice League and other books, co-creating and co-writing Naomi in addition to curating the Wonder Comics imprint at the company. For others, he’s the writer behind Powers, Takio, Pearl and Cover. And for some of us, he will always be the man behind Jinx and AKA Goldfish

It was announced this summer that Bendis’s Jinxworld imprint is moving to Dark Horse Comics, which will include new editions of older comics, continuations of series, and brand new projects. The first to launch is Joy Operations, a five-issue miniseries drawn by Stephen Byrne (Wonder Twins) that launches in November. I spoke with Bendis recently about the science fiction saga, and how (and why) he’s returning to the drawing board with a new series.

Joy Operations #1 variant cover by David Mack

I’m curious where Joy Operations began.

Sometimes you’re typing things and you don’t know why, but with this I was aware of what was driving the inspiration. Sci-fi is a genre that I find myself being very prickly about as a fan. When you’re associated as a creative person with certain genres, like crime fiction or superheroes, you would think those would be the ones I’d be prickly about, but those I tend to give a sympathetic pass. But I get very grumpy if sci-fi is not the way I think it should be.

There are quite a few things in these franchises that hurt me, and I’m always thinking about them as a writing puzzle in my head. So my frustration with franchises made me go, “Make the thing you want to see.” That’s what I tell my students all the time. Make the thing you want to see. So I came to Stephen with a few ideas, and we started building it together.

When you meet new collaborators it’s always an interesting dance to find out what their strengths are, what their passions are, what will bring the best out of them. With Stephen I was dazzled by what he was doing on Wonder Twins and the minute he was available I grabbed him for an issue of Legion of Superheroes. Which was mean because Legion of Superheroes is a really hard book to draw, and it was right in the middle of someone else’s run, and he just killed on this issue. I said, “Do you want to build something from scratch?” The other part of this was who Joy was, where she is in her life, what she wants out of her life. All these things we’ll discover in the first three issues. Coming up with a character as deeply rooted in her genre as Jessica Jones was in hers was very exciting to me. I’m so excited that Stephen and I teamed up for this because he was the perfect person for it. 

Is this how you enjoy or prefer to work on a project like this — coming to an artist with story and character elements, and building it together?

Everyone is different, but I have discovered that if you go “I have to do this”, then immediately stop what you’re doing and put the collaboration together. If you’re going to do this with someone else, it’s important to work with them as early as possible. I’ve worked all different ways. I completely wrote all of Jessica Jones before Michael even saw it. There have been other things where I’m with someone and one of us will say a word and we’re off to the races. As close as you can to starting from day one together, you’ll get the best, most unique, most surprising stuff. Your collaborator will feel more empowered to share and collaborate. Once you’ve written stuff down, people feel even subconsciously, well you’ve written it so I don’t want to give notes, you already wrote it. I get it but even when I do write something, it’s a discussion document, it’s not written in blood. But sometimes it can feel that way. So you make it a real partnership as quickly as you can, because that’s where the real great stuff comes from. A lot of the design work you see in Joy came from the fact that Stephen was on as early as he could start. He knew everything we were building from the first day.

Joy Operations #1 cover by Stephen Byrne

Speaking of Stephen, I think Wonder Twins was one of the best DC books in recent years.

I’m immensely proud of every word you just said. Of all the books at Wonder Comics, it was the one that was green lit the most reluctantly. It was green lit because of their enthusiasm for me being there and my passion for it, but every time Dan Didio referred to it in emails, it was as “the goddamn Wonder Twins.” What I found out later was that many people had tried to get the Wonder Twins off the ground. To the point where if you said the words, he would say no. I didn’t know that at the time. I went out and found a creative team that would make it undeniable to publish. Because Mark Russell just killed it with The Flintstones and he’ll kill it here. I’m very proud of the book.

As someone who loved Wonder Twins and what Stephen did, I was not prepared for what he does in Joy Operations.

It’s so exciting when you’re around someone who gets to the next level in their work. Sometimes you can feel it’s coming. There was something going on in those Legion pages. I’ve been there before with Sara Pichelli or David Marquez, where they were good but they were about to get great. When an artist is good or very good and about to hit that next level, it’s exciting to be a part of that. To be a part of the inspiration for that. It’s why you make comics. And it gets more and more beautiful. The third issue is just gorgeous. Whatever you think of what I type, it’s stunning to look at. 

When the news broke of Amazon looking into building a company town, were you going, “Well, this is great publicity“?

There have been a couple of news announcements about that the past couple months. We’ve been working on this for a year and a half. It’s not hard to imagine that this was coming. The idea came from a couple years ago when Detroit was having a run of bad luck and someone mentioned, “Amazon should just buy it and fix it. If America won’t, Amazon will.” I thought, “This is where we’re headed.” 

Like tech companies and their campuses, which have every amenity except a place to sleep. And urban campuses in New York and Seattle have apartment buildings in the same block.

What you’re saying about the campuses, if they were an amusement park and campus, they would have a theme to them. We’re going to visit other trusts and see the contrasts between them and see that people make a lifestyle choice to live here or live there. You’re committing to a certain kind of life, at least for a time. We see in the real world people committing to a certain kind of lifestyle, but taking that to the next level was an interesting science fiction idea that I wanted to pursue. We’re saying that Joy takes place 55 years from now and in that time period, our relationships to technology and corporations and cities will shift dramatically and here’s what it will feel like.

Joy Operations #2 cover by Stephen Byrne

I wanted to talk a little about moving Jinxworld to Dark Horse.

It’s a blessing to be published. It’s a privilege. I spend most of my day not tweeting “Thank you,” but I live in this constant state of gratitude. DC has been through a couple of changes, and it was obviously time to move on. Before I moved to DC, I thought we were going to end up at Dark Horse. I have a relationship with them. I’ve been close friends with Diana Schutz for like 20 years. She’s why I teach and she’s a very important person in my life. Mike Richardson and I have had all these interesting moments together and he said years ago, “You’re coming here.” Again my plate has been always filled with cool stuff, so I’m not hurting.

You mentioned before when I was that kid making Jinx that got hired to write Spider-Man; when I was that kid I would pine for Dark Horse. All my favorite creators were there doing the work of their life. It was like the mountain top. We all looked at Dark Horse as the brass ring for what we were doing, which was creator-owned comics. And me and David Mack and Mike Oeming were all at Caliber together and now here we are at Dark Horse feeling very much at home. 

It’s interesting how Dark Horse became the home for multiple generations of creators. People from Comico, Caliber and Slave Labor.

David Mack and Mike Oeming are two of my closest friends, and they were already doing projects at Dark Horse and having the time you want to have in comics. A calm, trustworthy, peaceful place to publish your work. It just made it almost inevitable that I would end up there. It sounded great. I had lunch with Mike Richardson the other day, planning out everything, and it’s just a lovely place filled with people making things for the right reasons. I’m stammering for words because I’m trying to say I find that I’m home, and that’s a weird thing to say about a company. Especially when I’m promoting Joy Operations.

Also you didn’t want to just make graphic novels or digital comics or newsletters, you wanted to make comics. This format clearly means something to you.

Everything you said is something interesting to me. Any kind of storytelling vessel that’s unique and interesting, I’m interested in. But what did I want as a kid? I wanted this. I wanted it with my whole heart. And I’m so grateful to find myself here. And also I feel like I’ve come to Dark Horse at a great time in the company’s history. The lineup of comics is amazing. Their lineup in other media is amazing. The machine that supports it all is one of the best I’ve ever been associated with. All the people working there really know their shit and they’re amazing.

Joy Operations #2 variant cover by Michael Avon Oeming

You may have announced it recently, but it’s clearly been in the works for a while.

I felt very strange about promoting anything during the lockdown. Every day people were suffering. But people follow me because they want me to talk about Superman, so I tried to tweet dumb stuff and inspirational stuff. The short answer is, we’ve been cooking this for over a year, but we waited as long as possible to announce this, hoping the world would shift to a healthier place. And we’re getting there, but we have a ways to go.

I thought, in this environment, and with everything going on, let’s bank a lot of work and get pages done and make sure all the pieces are in place – and then we’ll announce. Also I knew that the retail community would appreciate that. Supporting them and doing that by making sure the material is ready and will come out on time. The weirdest part of the pandemic was everyone was stuck home and binge reading, binge watching, and sharing this with authors. I know I’m not alone in this, but almost every day people would say I just read every issue of Spider-Man you wrote. People were having an emotional reaction and sharing it with me and that’s everything you ever wanted as storytellers. To tell a story and get a reaction. Either revisiting it or getting around to it for the first time. And I get it. I had so many books I hadn’t read yet and then when we were stuck at home, I read. To be connected to all these people through story was such a brilliant thing to be a part of. It totally inspired the things that I’m putting out now. 

I’m sure there are plenty of books that we haven’t heard about yet, and I will ask the question you’ve been asked many times over the years – are you going to draw one of them?

Yes. 

I did a book years ago called Fortune and Glory about my travails in Hollywood. I always said I’d do another one if I had another experience. Cause since Fortune and Glory, a lot of things went all right. And that’s not a fun comic to read. [laughs] I wrote this book at Marvel and they made a movie about Miles and it won an Oscar. Nobody wants to hear you brag. So I was wrapping my head around what would I do, but then I read a couple things. One was Steve Martin’s book about stand up comedy, which I highly recommend. And Seth Rogan has a book out this year, Yearbook, which is filled with anecdotes and stories  in the same vein as Fortune and Glory. I realized that I could do a Fortune and Glory sequel about my time on the Spider-Man musical, which I hadn’t shared with anyone. And it’s good stuff. I was involved for two solid weeks. And it’s going to a 400 page graphic novel. That’s how much happened. [laughs] So I’m going to draw that. And when you write a story like that you don’t want to beat up on anyone but no one reading this will go, is the Spider-Man musical good? 

Joy Operations #3 variant cover by Declan Shalvey

I for one am glad that we’re seeing you draw again.

I just last night handed in a variant cover to Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Primordial. It’s my second cover this year. It’s very strange to be drawing again. It’s very nerve wracking. I handed in the cover last night and was like, this is why I stopped drawing. Handing in the cover and going, do you like it? I hate that part. But I am grateful to my friends who soft bullied me into drawing again.

That’s what it took? Soft bullying?

Matthew Rosenberg, who may be the biggest fan of my art – and by that I mean the only fan of my art – hit me up with it. Knowing that so many people had done us solids on our books that of course I would say yes. He told me that his goal was that if I drew a cover, I would want to draw again. That was super sweet and he was right. He did it. He got the pen back in my hand. Good old fashioned Jewish guilt. But it’s one of the brilliant things about comics. When we were coming up, everyone we asked a favor of did us one. And now that we’re in a position to do that for others, it’s great. And you realize that the DNA of the whole industry is that we have each other’s backs any time we can. 

Joy Operations #3 cover by Stephen Byrne

So Joy Operations launches in November and then there’s lots more coming out next year.

In production right now we have a new volume of Pearl. Michael Gaydos is topping himself once again. I can’t wait for people to see this. A new volume of Cover, which David is drawing. We’re also working on the pilot for HBO Max. They made a pilot and David’s animated work is something to see. The animated watercolor world of David Mack is something I can’t believe I’m looking at. We have a new volume of United States of Murder Inc. That’s me and Michael Oeming and Taki Soma. That is done and in the can. I have a new book with Jacob Edgar coming out. A new project with Alex Maleev coming out next year. And more.

Thanks, Brian.

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