Like most people, I first encountered Brian Bendis by having someone read his comic Fortune and Glory to me over the phone. Within its pages he told the story of his attempts to get first 'Goldfish' and then 'Torso' made into a movie with such straightforward clarity and catty superiority that it was impossible not to like the man, if not exactly admire him. I rushed out and picked up 'Torso', hoping to see what all the fuss was about.
It was a decision that I regretted almost immediately. What had been pitched as 'The Tale of Elliot Ness vs. America's First Serial Killer' was, in fact, just the story of Elliot Ness sitting around wondering how one might go about finding a serial killer, but not really doing much, until the bodies started really piling up, when he burned down the shanty town where all the transient people lived (this was during the great depression), hoping to deprive the torso killer of any more victims.
And the 'shocking ending' he pitched enthusiastically? The ending so shocking you won’t believe it! The killer was the son of a rich guy, so they had to let him get away. This isn't backed up by any evidence, mind you, so we have to assume that the best ending Bendis could think up was to use the same theory that like 90 percent of Jack the Ripper stories go with: Society guy killer, so 'the man' had to cover up for him. It wasn't a terrible story, but it certainly wasn't worth the fifty-odd dollars it cost me, and I suddenly had a better understanding of why it hadn't made it to the big screen yet. I set the volume aside, assuming I'd never have to hear from Mister Bendis again.
And then he took over Marvel. I'm not going to write out some laundry list of all of the choices he's made that I've disagreed with – I'm sure the rest of the ol' webternet has that covered pretty well. No, I just want to talk about the four panels that that define everything I hate about Brian Bendis' superhero writing for Marvel.
The big galoot is Man-Mountain Marko, an eighth-string Spider-Man villain. Up until this point, he's never been depicted as anything other than a thug. Yet here he is, announcing his plans to strangle a woman to death (which he's been paid to do), and then rape her corpse (which is a perk of the job to which he is very much looking forward). I'm not saying this is out of character for M-MM, he didn't have any character to be out of.
This lack of any real character framework, though, means that Bendis decided all on his own to make Triple M such a monster. This mostly results from Bendis' desire to add a bit of verite to the comic, suggesting that the story's main character, one Jessica Jones, lives in a dangerous and oft-times unpleasant world. There's a problem with his execution, though, and that problem has spread from this incident out into the Marvel Universe at large. He wants the villains to be 'realistically' awful, as he imagines psychopaths with bullet-resistant skin and monstrous muscles would be, but he doesn't acknowledge the fact that, were the Marvel Universe packed to the gills with serial killing sexual deviants, heroes would have taken off the gloves a long time ago.
My point is this – upon gaining the upper hand, Jessica Jones does not proceed to beat Man-Mountain Marko to death. That's right, a superpowered monstrosity announced that not only was he going to murder her and rape her corpse, but that he was positively gleeful about the prospect of doing so. Any sane, rational person put in that situation wouldn't stop hitting that man until his brains were leaking out all over the asphalt. Not just because of what he threatened to do to her, but as a punishment for all the implied atrocities he'd committed in the past, and to prevent the litany of crimes he would go on to one day commit. You know what? No one would blame Jessica for doing this.
There would likely be parades.
This disparity has only grown as the stories continued. The villains grew progressively worse, and the heroes stagnated, adhering to 'moral codes' that were created by governmental edict and had no relevance in the modern writer's world. To put it simply: If Purple Man (who can control people's actions) is a thief and spy who uses his mind control powers to rob banks and steal government secrets, it's acceptable to have him locked up at the end of a story. If Purple Man is a serial rapist and mass murderer (as Bendis depicts him), then the only sensible way a story in which he appears can end is with his decapitation.
Bendisification has become a plague afflicting the comic book industry. His Daredevil stories depicted the Kingpin sinking to unfathomable depths of evil depravity, but allowing Daredevil the option of putting the Kingpin out of the whole world's misery never came up, despite the character being willing to consider murder back in the 80s (although, to be fair, he was being written by Frank Miller at the time). He never exactly went through with it, but in the case of Bullseye at least, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
This isn't isolated to Marvel, of course – Batman's gone from a man who didn't give tossing people off roofs a second thought to someone who can't bring himself to murder someone who's killed more people than smoking. In fact, everywhere I turn I see heroes plagued by murderous psychopaths bent on killing them, everyone they love, and anyone who looks at them sideway. Yet for no discernible reason, the heroes elect to do nothing about the situation but feel sorry for themselves. Ed Brubaker, normally an excellent crime writer, pits Daredevil and Captain America against against mass-murderers nearly every month, and has them let the villains off with little more than a scolding, so they're free to go on murdering just a few months later.
Did Bendis start this trend? No, but he's certainly at the forefront of it. I'm not suggesting comics regress to the harmlessness of the 60s, or the ploddingly dull 70s, with their affected hyper-relevance. A trip back to the 40s when Batman used to throw people off of roofs might be nice, though.
All I want is for the writers to stop treating the Heroes and Villains with such disparity. In a world where every villain is the Marquis De Sade, it would be nice if there were a few Heroes that weren't forced to act like Quakers.