Bendis vs. Johns: Conquering the Big Threat

June 10th, 2012 by | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m one of those comic fans who tries not to allow himself to be dragged into the whole Marvel vs. DC argument based purely on the characters and being loyal to them. It’s all about the writers and the quality that comes with it. Sure, there are many times when the scale is skewed immensely, such as pre-Flashpoint when I was only reading a couple DC comics compared to now, but that’s on them. For the past 6-7 years, when you compare Marvel and DC, there’s no better writer sample size than Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns. These two are the butt of a crazy amount of jokes about how they each write 80% of the comics of their respective companies.

Hell, I’m guilty of this myself. If they ever brought back Amalgam Comics, every issue would be written by Geoff Bendis.

They both have their strengths and weaknesses. I dropped all the Bendis Avengers books after growing impatient and realizing that the only reason I was reading them in the first place was because of enjoying what he used to write. At the same time, I’m really loving Ultimate Spider-Man and the whole Miles Morales experiment. With Johns, I lost complete interest in Justice League shortly after the origin arc, yet I eat up his Green Lantern and think his Sinestro is the most compelling character going in DC. Not that that’s hard, considering he has a head start over 95% of the New DC cast.

This isn’t so much a simple Bendis vs. John post, but more a comparison over something Johns does that I’ve always dug about his work and really helps earn him his spot as “that DC Comics guy”. It’s also something that I’ve found Bendis to almost get, only to drop the ball and go the opposite direction.

What I’m talking about is setting up a threat, usually in the first act, that allows the readers to say out loud, “These heroes are absolutely screwed.” This is a lot better as a selling point to a comic than “it’s important.”

I’m going to focus on the event storylines, since these are the ones given more emphasis and put under such a microscope that the two writers have to make extra sure that their threat is something that can’t simply be waved away.

I’m also going to skip over Avengers Disassembled and Green Lantern: Rebirth, since I don’t even really see those as events as just gigantic plot points meant to set up the next several years of storyline. Disassembled is something I read years after the fact and found it to be kind of a mess in terms of storytelling and Green Lantern: Rebirth was a big mess of retcons and reveals meant to pave the way for Johns’ lengthy run on the Lantern corner of the universe.

First up is House of M by Bendis. The 8-issue miniseries deals with an intriguing concept of an unhinged Scarlet Witch using her powers to reshape reality in a way that almost everyone gets what they want. For the most part, I love this event. The tie-ins each had a different flavor and were mostly quite good. The various Christos Gage follow-up miniseries that came out years after were pretty fun too.

The idea of a world rewritten is a great one because how do you fight that? Even when they find a plot device to make key heroes remember everything, how are they going to force Scarlet Witch to set everything right? They don’t even really have a plan other than, “Let’s go beat up Magneto, guys!” Considering Marvel events have since become about arguing points of view, it’s unfortunate how swept under the rug the whole debate against returning the world to how it was is.

Spider-Woman briefly goes on a rant about how maybe they should just do what they can with this transformed world, since it’s a better start than the real one. This would be a fantastic moment for someone with a good head on their shoulders to say, “No, you’re wrong because _____,” but instead we get Wolverine telling her, “You’re wrong because you are and you’ll figure out why one day.” It’s cheapened even more when it’s revealed years after the fact that this isn’t even the real Jessica Drew and that she’s really saying this just to push everyone towards Wolverine’s line of thinking. The only one to give it any real support is Kitty Pryde and she’s ignored.

House of M is probably the best ending to an event Bendis has written, which says a lot because it really isn’t all that good. A big fight happens and the heroes only win through dumb luck. The luck of causing Magneto and Quicksilver to get in such a spat that Scarlet Witch will angrily force the world back to how it was. And even then, they all lose because most of the mutant race is wiped out and the final issue is less of a conclusion and more of a set of previews for upcoming Marvel plotlines somewhat related to this.

In DC, we’re deep into Infinite Crisis, an event that may be a little too ambitious, but I didn’t notice at the time because I was just getting back into comics and also because it really helped keep the tie-ins feel fresh by going in so many directions. Infinite Crisis is the culmination of four concurrent events, turning it into a big mega-event. So the heroes are up against a rogue satellite turning regular people into hero-murdering cyborgs, one of the most powerful beings in the universe going on a mindless rampage against all magical beings, a war in space that nobody cares about and the biggest villain conglomerate in history. And THEN it’s all revealed to be part of a plan to sculpt the world into something brighter and better against the public’s will.

The event is such a clusterfuck, but that adds to the fact that you don’t even know where to start when it comes to saving the day. Granted, there is a bunch of good guys vs. bunch of bad guys fight scene, but even then it only covers part of the overall threat and isn’t even the climax. The climax is Superman and Earth-2 Superman vs. Superboy Prime (AKA the best character). Everything else was dealt with through various forms of teamwork, use of specialty abilities, plot devices and characters using their heads. It’s really busy and the art rushes every scene by adding too much detail, but there’s a good story buried underneath it all.

Johns and Dave Gibbons set up a big event story in Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps where Sinestro starts building up his own army. That makes sense with his recent return. Sure, he is on even terms with Jordan, but there’s an entire Green Lantern Corps to contend with. Having him create a Yellow Lantern Corps is a natural step, but therein lies a problem. All it’s doing is creating another “evil double” storyline. Sinestro and his new allies don’t really have any advantage over the Green Lanterns other than surprise and the ability to kill, and once you put a hero and an evil double villain on even enough terms, the good guy will usually win. It sounds like a cool story and all, but it isn’t that much of a threat on paper.

Well, Johns turned that challenge into the poster boy for this little thesis. By the cliffhanger of the first issue of Sinestro Corps War, we’re shown that not only does Sinestro have an entire army of fear-slingers, but he has Parallax (using Kyle Rayner as a host), Superboy Prime, Cyborg Superman and the freaking ANTI-MONITOR on his side. I’ve never seen a more stacked villain team. These guys would have easily wiped out the Secret Society from Infinite Crisis if they felt like it. This is a group where the weakest member of the team is a Superman clone with added super-tech. When I read this, I was hooked out of curiosity because how in the HELL are the Green Lanterns going to beat them?

Over many issues and an almost unnecessary twist where the final battle takes place on Earth, they do turn the tide. As predicted, the Green Lantern Corps defeats the Sinestro Corps on an even playing ground, as does Hal Jordan against Sinestro. The other big players are taken out in various ways, leading to a pleasing conclusion that does a good job setting up future storylines without being overly dedicated to it like the end of House of M.

Bendis is back in the saddle for Secret Invasion, a massive event and miniseries based on shape-shifting Skrulls taking the form of heroes and hiding in their place for years undetected. Bendis had been setting this one up since the start of New Avengers years earlier, so this had a lot of hype to it. Unfortunately, while Sinestro Corps War is a perfect example of Johns doing things right, Secret Invasion is a perfect example of Bendis doing things wrong. Not his fault, but the biggest pain is that the thing is eight issues with a lengthy lead-up and a million tie-ins. You know what we get in those tie-ins? THE SAME SHIT AS THE OTHER TIE-INS! There are some unique pieces in there and a couple gems (Jason Aaron’s Black Panther, most definitely), but a lot of it feels redundant.

Bendis does a great job setting the scale and even before the first issue, there’s a question of how our heroes have a chance. The big road bump in all of this is how Bendis shows the backstory in one of his Avengers books and reveals the Skrull queen’s great idea for a plan: Whenever they fight Earth’s heroes head-on, they lose. Therefore, let’s do a plot against them that doesn’t involve fighting them head-on. Phenomenal! Brilliant! I love it! I’m on the edge of my fucking seat and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Then the last few issues are based on the Skrulls fighting the heroes head-on. And it’s boring. Like Skrull Queen Spider-Woman suggested, they get slaughtered. I remember David Uzumeri telling me how the series acts in reverse, when it starts out all amazing and slowly scales itself down into a big pile of nothing.

Back in DC, we have Blackest Night, which parallels Secret Invasion in presentation. There’s months of build-up, a lengthy eight issues that didn’t need to be eight issues and so many tie-ins that give us the same story again and again. It felt even more tedious than the Skrull fights. At least with the Skrull stuff, there was the element of surprise of who would try to destroy the team from within. The Blackest Night issues were mostly this:

“Hey, [hero]! It’s me, [dead hero/villain/loved one]!”

“No! You’re not real! You’re just trying to trick me!”

“Haha! Let me feast upon your [emotion]!”

That said, Johns was able to give us a truly terrifying threat of space zombies that could instantly heal from headshots. They’re nearly impossible to destroy and they’re everywhere! On top of that, the big bad is Nekron. Not only is he immune to the Spectre’s vengeance, but when all the Lantern Corps leaders combine their powers against him – which most writers would use and then call it a day – Nekron simply eats it up and uses it to power himself up.

The ending has some good ideas in it, especially with the surprise where Johns briefly prepares to have Sinestro be the hero of the story, but between the fatigue of the event and the insistence that Hal Jordan has to be the guy to fix it all by becoming the White Lantern (which everyone predicted from day 1), it feels pretty flawed. That said, there’s a strong solution to the crisis that involves bringing the character Black Hand back to life, as his death is what caused all this in the first place. Then they destroy Nekron’s stuff to make sure this doesn’t happen again and go on about how if a character dies now, they’re totally dead this time and DC won’t bring them back. Which is a moot point considering the reboot.

Bendis’ next big event would be Siege and longtime readers might remember that this one completely pissed me off. Marvel was pretty brilliant around this time with the Dark Reign status quo and Dark Avengers being so readable. Siege was the natural finale for it all, as well as this era of distrust that’s been stewing since Avengers Disassembled, plus it was only half as long as the excruciating Secret Invasion and Blackest Night with far less in terms of tie-ins.

The whole thing is a big us vs. them battle, so Bendis is in his element here and it makes sense and it all leads into the big everybody vs. Sentry/Void fight that people have been awaiting for years. The Void is defeated by having a SHIELD Helicarrier dropped on him and after the explosion, Thor blasts him to death with his hammer. In a vacuum, that would have been all right. But it’s not in a vacuum when compared to everything else Bendis has done with the character.

Not only does the ending show the Avengers as completely callous in what’s meant to be the springboard to the Heroic Age, but it spits in the face of what Bendis established for the past couple years. In his various Avengers books, especially Dark Avengers, Sentry/Void was made to look completely unbeatable by any conventional means. Bendis went completely ridiculous with the concept. Magic him away so he doesn’t exist? He’ll come back. Tear him apart on a molecular level? He’ll come back. Have him fly into the sun in an act of attempted suicide? Won’t work. Much like Nekron, we’re dealing with a threat that can’t be taken down by simply hitting him REALLY, REALLY hard.

So anyway, the Void is defeated by being hit REALLY, REALLY hard. *sigh*

Last thing to mention is Johns’ Flashpoint, a story that I’m almost certain wasn’t originally meant to be an event because it doesn’t read like one. The story has a ton of parallels to House of M, only with everything sucking for the heroes instead of it being a borderline paradise. It too features a big clusterfuck fight in the final act, but I feel that it’s handled slightly better, at least within the story itself. Granted, the lack of any real closure to the battle makes most of the tie-ins worthless, but I’ve always liked the reason why Flash enters the fray. It isn’t because he thinks that doing so will fix his problem and set the world back to how it’s supposed to be. He does it because he’s a hero and while this may not be his world, it’s still a world of people and it’s up to him to protect them. Even though he unknowingly caused all this with his own selfishness, he ends up stumbling upon the solution by being completely selfless.

And there’s your Goofus and Gallant. I hold both guys in roughly the same regard, but in terms of big stories, I trust Johns in a heartbeat. He may go a little overboard with pulling ideas out of his ass and I could do without the excess gore, but I’d choose that over slamming action figures together in panel form.

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14 comments to “Bendis vs. Johns: Conquering the Big Threat”

  1. “slamming action figures together in panel form.”


  2. I’m fairly sure Bendis has said in various places that he finds superhero battles boring, preferring to write character interaction. That would be a valid point of view, except that he WRITES SUPERHERO COMICS EXCLUSIVELY! I always get the impression when he writes these big crossovers that he is out of his element and doing it in as perfunctory a manner as possible. I imagine him thinking, “All right, plebs. This is what you want? Well I’ll give it to you!” Then he writes the most artless and uninteresting superhero battles imaginable and shouts, “Are you not entertained?!” But of course people are anyway, and his paychecks just get bigger.

  3. What I love about Johns is, he knows to remember what lies at the core of a given hero, and that’s what saves the day. He can do that all he wants and I won’t ever tire of it. Barry in Flashpoint is a good example of that. Another good one was the conclusion of 52, where the entire multiverse was on the line, and it came down to Michael Carter (Booster Gold) being able to throw a football. Sounds really stupid when I put it that way, but in context it was the right ending: what saved the day was Michael Carter, not Booster Gold or the technology at his disposal.

    Another one from JSA #10, where a post traumatic stressed KC Superman was apparently on a rampage, only it turned out he heard someone in need, and that snapped him out of everything he was going through. That’s who Superman is: the guy who won’t let you down, no matter what. Kudos to Johns also for pulling such a successful switcheroo on the reader, where it looked like Superman was angrily rejecting the world but we were actually seeing what he was hearing (which was a young woman about to jump to her death, saying her goodbyes).

  4. I really can’t see how one is better than the other…
    To me the problem I keep coming back to is the fact that the present you with a set up, they get caught in it and they cheat their way out of it, and when you criticize, you are the idiot fan who’s bitter, when you like it, then they are great writers.

    None of those stories make any sense within themselves. The one I liked better was Sinestro Corps, but I’m not really sure that that was an event.

    I’m more of a DC reader so I hate Johns the most. I guess you must be more of a Marvel reader.

    Flashpoint doesn’t make any sense. But to me things started to go bad the minute Johns decided that Flash needed to be a tragic hero… regardless of that, Flashpoint has tons of stories that amount to nothing. If you are writing an elseworlds, much like in a dystopian sci-fi Novel, you need to have a point, the changes have to originate from somewhere and have to be reflective of a certain choice made in that world that was either, wrong or right, compared to the other reality (or to “the reality”), so you get to think about the differences. Flashpoint doesn’t do any of that… is Flashpointless.

  5. This was good, and basically how I feel about Johns’s strengths, too. He’s good at making these stupid old cape fights into really exciting things, and it helps that he’s got dudes like Ivan Reis drawing his scripts. He gets stakes in an interesting way, even when he goes over the top violent, and so his stuff tends to end satisfyingly.

  6. Now I kinda want a fighting game that just 5 characters on each side but 20 known writers of DC and marvel that you can select to play as, and you just battle out which one could write up a better scene. stages are selected by known artist with a bonus stage by Stan lee for that in joke.

    “Select your Writer: Bendis! vs… Kirby!
    Select your illustrator: Stan lee’s Doodlarium”

  7. wait Kirby an artist not a writer… whoops.

  8. @SomerandomGuy: Kirby was both. Actually, Kirby did everything.

  9. Well then best shove Kirby To Final boss and swap that with Alan moore. Kirby dot teleportation, booming voice, have a super(eureka!) that just pulling the writer into the Kirby dimension and having them fight a Kirby style version of themselves.

  10. […] Comics | David Brothers discusses the way Geoff Johns sets up a threat that makes the reader really fear for the characters — and how Brian Michael Bendis misses the mark. [4thletter!] […]

  11. It’s funny because what is marked out as Johns’ strength in comparison to Bendis, is the same thing I find is his greatest flaw. Having great big superhero and villain brawls is all very good, but it is also completely predictable, quickly over (Battle for Metropolis in IC was something like half an issue) and usually without anyone other than C or D list characters getting killed at best and worst of all just a boring addition when it’s not made the main thing.

  12. I honestly can’t say one is better than the other since any event that I’ve read since reading Annihilation has paled in comparison.

  13. @Esteban Pedreros: The Flashpoint Batman series was the only good thing to come out of that event.

  14. Great read. I haven’t been reading much of bendis’ avengers work, so it’s good to know that ultimate spiderman is still the preferred child.

    Marvels events are like a tna ppv: one or two good moments, a lackluster main event and things that should be settled are passed over in favor of setting up the next tv tapings (or comics).

    Powers is still the bendis benchmark for me though. I wish it was still regular…