Seeing Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, & Kelly Sue DeConnick at Powell’s

Portland has its own fairly prominent comic book subculture. There’s 2 comic book stores on Sandy Blvd. and another about two streets away (and many other comic shops besides). There are many comic writers and artists who live here. Dark Horse Comics’ HQ is in Portland, as is Oni Press, plus there’s Periscope Studios which revolves around comic art. Yet for all that, the city is overlooked as a place to hold comic book conventions. Last night though, Powell’s City of Books helped make up for that by allowing three big stars of the comics world to hold a Q & A session, give some of their thoughts on their most recent projects, and do a signing.

If you haven’t heard of 1 or 2 or all 3, I’ll give a very brief overview. Brian Michael Bendis is the current writer of monthly Avengers, New Avengers, and Ultimate Spiderman comics, and if that wasn’t enough, he’s the writer of Powers which will soon (fingers crossed) become a series on the FX Network. Matt Fraction is another one of the Marvel Comics architects as they’re called, and he’s currently the writer of the main Fear Itself story. Kelly Sue DeConnick has written issues of Supergirl, a mini-series for Marvel called Osborne and has translated, by her count, about 10,000 pages of manga into English.

The project they were there to promote was a new graphic novel that’s a spin-off of the show Castle, which is now on its fourth season. Up until yesterday, to be honest, I’d never watched Castle because I’m not a huge fan of crime-dramas. I watched an episode before leaving the house though and found it’s a better show than I imagined; it doesn’t have the stodgy seriousness that too many procedural or investigation shows have.

The first half of last night’s talks focused on how Brian and Kelly colloborated to bring the comic together. Brian first said he’d been pitched the idea years ago by some of the executives at Disney (who bought Marvel). Originally, he wasn’t sure if he was going to do it, and Kelly jokingly said she remembered his original response was no until she helped talk him into it. Kelly is a big fan of the show. She said, while raising children, she only gets about 2 hours a week to watch TV, and one of those hours is devoted to Castle.

I should have brought a pen and paper to jot notes, but I didn’t so I’ll have to go from memory here. What interested me the most about their discussion of the Castle comic was talking about how they had to in some ways change their style to fit the tone of the show. Brian said that normally he does not use a lot of word boxes or interior narration, but that he did so here to create a strong pulp detective aspect of the book. Kelly then said when she got the script, it was like putting together a large puzzle, which was fine with her because she enjoys puzzles. She said that one of the things she focused on was creating consistency, one example being that she had to make sure the word boxes ran through the whole comic and not just parts of it.

Not many in the audience had read the Castle comic, so the night got more interesting when they opened the floor to Q & A. Surprisingly, a majority of the questions revolved around Brian’s work with Ultimate Spiderman. By surprising, I mean I was surprised that not a single person asked about The Avengers. Myself on the other hand, I’ve been so wrapped up in his Avengers work that I honestly forgot he was writing Spiderman.

The big question of the night was, essentially, “Will Peter Parker come back to life in the Ultimate Universe?” Just so there’s not any confusion here, Peter Parker is alive and well in the main Marvel Universe, but his character was killed off just a few months ago in the Ultimate Universe, and has since been replaced by Miles Morales, a young African-American character with similar powers. Brian laughed about it, and it did seem like he was responding to a question he’s been asked ten thousand times before. The reason for Parker’s death and replacement was actually pretty nice. It wasn’t about merchandising or starting up new profitable franchises. Instead, Brian said he was responding to how he heard, on many occasions, young ethnic children saying they liked Spiderman because they couldn’t be Batman and Superman for Halloween, but because Spiderman has a costume that covers all of his face, they could be him. To me, that’s a terribly sad state of affairs. Brian’s response to this was to create a Spiderman who really was ethnic (keep in mind, a vast majority of the characters created before the 1970s were white). He then said that he couldn’t make a young black Spiderman work if Peter were still around. There’d always be a question of “When is Peter coming back?” if he retired or anything. So the only way to do it was to kill Peter. While some fans have been negative about this, I support his decision, since Marvel already puts out tons of comics with Peter Parker each month anyways (he’s in the Avengers and in FF now).

Kelly Sue DeConnick, throughout the night, seemed too modest, and offered up too much self-criticism. There was a lot she could have bragged about, like how she’s one of the few women who have written comics both mainstream and independent, or how she manages to raise children and write comics at the same time, or how she helped bring so much manga to the US in her translations. On the other hand, that she could be critical of herself at all I think speaks to her integrity as an artist.

One of the really interesting things she talked about was how she first got into the business of comics. She was a theater major in New York at the time when she attended a comic convention where Neil Gaiman happened to make an appearance. Neil Gaiman has an enormous following (more than a million followers on Twitter, and I’m one of them). She said that she wrote a note and slipped it to one of the staff to give to Neil. The note basically just said “are you looking for an assistant in New York?” To her surprise, some time later Neil did write back to her and said he didn’t need an assistant, but would write back to her if anything came up. From that exchange, she ended up helping Neil with research for his novel American Gods.

The signing afterwards took about half an hour to get to the front of the line, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve been to signings in the past where they didn’t say anything or even look up. The worst one I’ve been to was also at Powell’s where the staff esentially herded people like cattle and actually shouted at us for stalling. This wasn’t like that. Brian and Kelly couldn’t have been more welcoming. They even brought cookies and free comics for everyone (I snagged four comics, but limited myself to one cookie). I had left the house in a hurry earlier, and didn’t have time to choose which Avengers comic I wanted Bendis to sign, so I had my girlfriend stick about 8 issues in her purse. Brian signed all of them. I also bought the Castle graphic novel, which Brian and Kelly both signed.

Matt Fraction, who is, by the way, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s husband, I think tried not to call a lot of atttention to himself. The show was meant to revolve around his wife and Brian’s book Castle, so he moderated the discussion and no one asked about Fear Itself (although I was very tempted). One of the funniest moments of the night was when a fan asked Brian if the death of Peter Parker was just a gimmick, then said “like The Human Torch’s death, or Bruce Wayne…” and Matt snickered “Or like Bucky Barnes.” Matt was the writer of Fear Itself 3 where Bucky is killed.

So all and all, it was a fun night. It was free, I got 4 comics out of it, a cookie, and got to hear more than I wanted to know about comics.

Also, a few days ago, I wrote on Twitter something like “I’m going to go see Brian M Bendis at Powell’s on Friday,” and a short time later, Brian retweeted my message, which was definitely a cool moment for me. That is, until some internet loser replied “Corey Pung I am not going to see Brian on Friday. I’d rather crap my pants.” So while that gentleman was crapping his pants, I got to experience a great night in the comic book community.

–Also, as I said, I got a bunch of issues signed. When I find the time, I’ll scan the covers and put them on this site.

I’ve written a book titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon and through the Barnes and Noble site. Click on the image below to see it on Amazon.

If you’re interested, I have also met Michael Chabon at a reading at Powell’s. If you’d like to read about that on my other site, click here.

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