Brian Michael Bendis is the Quentin Tarantino of comics. Three-time winner of the Eisner award, this Cleveland artist's career has followed a spectacular path ever since the comic that started his career, Jinx. Jinx, typifies the cinematic, fragmented, verbose scripts that transform every page of Bendis' comics into an often-parodied bubble bath of dialog. His style saturates his work on Marvel’s Daredevil and Ultimate Spiderman, both entertaining comics, but his comics that should demand even more of our attention are his pre-superhero stories from the mid ‘90s that he produced for a Cleveland publisher called Caliber Comics.
These comics began as a series of one-shot short stories titled AKA Goldfish about an enigmatic, small-time Cleveland scam-artist “with a wrap-sheet longer than Tupac's” named David “Goldfish” Gold. AKA Goldfish was a character-driven, experimental “crime-noir” comic that wove inked drawings, Xeroxed photographs, and collage into a high-contrast layout which juxtaposed flowing sections of dense dialog with ebbs of silent, moment-to-moment animation.
The style and the characters from AKA Goldfish crystallized in his ten-issue masterpiece Jinx.
The plot mixed up two con-artists, a bounty-hunter, and three million dollars, and then let it play out. The titular character, Jinx Alameda, is the most interesting twist on the story: a quiet, tea-and-crumpets Jewish girl who spends most nights writing in a journal who, in the course of things, winds up as the toughened bail bondsman of the story.
The dialog, though, is indisputably the main draw of his work. Several readers are frustrated with the densely packed pages, and complain that his books are “slow reads”, but I see this complaint as the kind of response that always rides in the wake of an artist doing something really different innovative. The conversations are very natural, and build the character from the way in which their dialog is written. My favorite aspect is when a character, especially Goldfish, digresses from the plot to tell a story. The whole aura of Storytelling is captured, from language to gestures and expressions. In the same way that one stops consciously noticing subtitles while watching a foreign film, so also does the storytelling in Jinx and Bendis's other comics break the shackles of their medium.
So how did Bendis's career suddenly diverge from this work? A digression into the context of comic publishing fifteen years ago would help frame this analysis. The business of publishing comics then was very lucrative, easily trumping both the golden age and silver age of comics combined. This invited the kind of rampant speculation that characterized the economics of the early '90s. Independent publishers found a veritable wellspring of capital to fund as many artists as could be weeded out of art school. By far the most successful of this new generation of publishers was Image Comics, formed by frustrated artists from both Marvel and DC, who exploded onto the market mainly by virtue of Todd McFarland's hugely successful Spawn. Image's enormous capital made them an avant-garde recruitment machine. Their most famous recruit was The Maxx creator Sam Keith, whose story could be a column in and of itself. Bendis, however, was recruited at the same time from Caliber.
After being recruited, Bendis's old comics virtually disappeared including his few other Jinx-related stories that he made early on for Image, a spy comic called Fire, and another dark comic, Torso, about an actual '30s Cleveland serial killer. He translated some of the ideas and style into a Spawn spin-off called Sam and Twitch, which put him on the fast-track to success and landed him in the gainful writing position he has today. The speculation bubble burst, however, leaving Bendis forced to work on superhero comics presently. This isn't entirely a loss, however, as his critique of the whole superhero culture, Powers, has been compared to Alan Moore's landmark comic The Watchmen, with a kind-of police-drama twist. Furthermore, his mainstream popularity has created a kind of Renaissance for his early work, which are now being published as graphic novels.