Can This Man Save Superman?


“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.”

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When Mr. Bendis went to DC, he chose to reinvigorate Superman, a character others have struggled with.

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DC Entertainment

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.)

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Mr. Bendis begins putting his spin on Superman with Action Comics No. 1000, with art by Jim Lee.

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DC Entertainment

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.”

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Robert Grossman, Illustrator With a Brash Touch, Dies at 78


A 1972 gatefold cover for National Lampoon depicted Nixon with a very long nose, one that seemed to run off the page; when the foldout was opened, the rest of the nose appeared, and on the end of it was perched a tiny Henry Kissinger, depicted as Jiminy Cricket.

For a 2006 Rolling Stone cover, he put the second President Bush on a stool in a corner wearing a dunce cap; the headline beside him read, “The Worst President in History?”

Mr. Grossman also drew President Ronald Reagan in Mickey Mouse ears and Bill and Hillary Clinton in a Stone Age serial called “The Klintstones.”

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Mr. Grossman depicted President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 with a nose to rival Pinocchio’s. Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser, was depicted as Jiminy Cricket.

In a 2008 interview with The New York Times, he was asked about the complaint that caricatures of presidents and presidential candidates were undignified.

“Undignified?” he said. “Virtually anything has more dignity than lying and blundering before the whole stupefied world, which seems to be the politician’s eternal role.”

Robert Samuel Grossman was born on March 1, 1940, in Brooklyn. His father, Joseph, owned a silk-screen printing shop, Masta Displays, and his mother, the former Ethel Stern, was a homemaker and the shop’s bookkeeper.

As a child, Robert sometimes attended art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. He graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and received a bachelor of arts degree at Yale in 1961.

While at Yale he edited the humor magazine The Yale Record, creating a parody issue of The New Yorker and drawing its spot-on cover, which had the magazine’s name as The Yew Norker. Apparently the real New Yorker did not take offense, because his first job out of college was as an assistant to the magazine’s art editor.

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Mr. Grossman’s parody of The New Yorker for The Yale Record while he was student.

Mr. Grossman, though, spent virtually all of his career as a freelance illustrator for hire, and he was hired a lot. He drew more than 500 magazine covers. One of his regular customers was The Times, particularly its Sunday book review section.

Steven Heller, a former art director at The Times and now the co-chairman of the M.F.A. design department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, said Mr. Grossman was one of four artists — along with David Levine, Edward Sorel and Jules Feiffer — who found the 1960s and beyond to be fertile ground. Mr. Grossman, he said, gave his work a distinctive look.

“Grossman kind of redefined the genre of caricature by introducing the airbrush as a tool,” Mr. Heller said. “He gave it a kind of sculptural but at the same time comic form. He gave it shades and gradients that the others didn’t do. And at the same time he also captured likenesses with brilliant precision and great wit.”

Mr. Grossman, whose mentors included Harvey Kurtzman of Mad magazine, found a nice niche in the early 1970s when New York magazine gave him a regular space to fill under its weekly politics column.

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Mr. Grossman’s take on the 1976 presidential match: Jimmy Carter vs. President Gerald B. Ford.

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Grossman

“It was Watergate time and there was much talk about bugs and bugging,” he recalled in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012. “I drew some insects named Haldebug and Ehrlichbug serving their master, the terrifying Richard M. Nightcrawler.”

Decades later, during the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign, he would reach back to the very beginning of his career for an inspiration. In the early 1960s he had drawn a black superhero named Captain Melanin.

“It was the civil rights era,” he said. “Suddenly in early 2007 there was Barack Obama, whose extraordinary poise and charisma seemed to be inspiring messianic hopes in a portion of the population. So it wasn’t hard to imagine for him a secret identity with the ability to fly and to lead stranded whales to safety by walking on water.”

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Mr. Grossman’s rendition of President George W. Bush for a 2006 cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

He created O-Man, who lived in O-Manland and went up against characters like Milt Rhomboid and Rich Gingnewt. O-Man’s adventures appeared in The New York Observer, then in The Nation, then on a website Mr. Grossman created to continue them.

Mr. Grossman was not about to leave the current goings-on in government unremarked upon. He had of late been posting on his website episodes of a strip called “Twump and Pooty,” whose title characters look suspiciously like President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But for all of his politically oriented drawings, his best-known work might well have been the poster he created for “Airplane!,” a 1980 disaster-movie parody that became a box-office hit. It shows an airplane whose bizarrely flexible front end is tied in a knot.

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For all of Mr. Grossman’s political drawings, his best-known work may be this poster illustration for the hit movie “Airplane!”

He also drew the occasional book and album cover and made animated commercials.

Mr. Grossman’s first marriage, to Donna Lundvall in 1964, ended in divorce in 1980. His second marriage, to Vicki Anne Morgan, ended in divorce in 1987. In addition to his son Alex, his survivors include his partner of 24 years, Elaine Louie; another son, Michael Jonathan Grossman Rimbaud; two daughters, Leila Suzanna Grossman and Anna Jane Grossman Pedicone; two brothers, James and David; and five grandchildren.

In a 2008 interview with The Tennessean, Mr. Grossman explained why, of the various jobs that fit under the big tent of journalism, he preferred illustrator.

“Reporters labor under the terrible requirement that what they report must be true,” he said. “Opinion writers need to endure the less stringent demand that what they opine be at least plausible. Nobody ever expects what cartoonists do to be either true or even plausible. That’s why we’re all as happy as larks.”

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Mr. Grossman’s take on Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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