A-List writers at “Big Two” superhero publishers don’t just appear out of thin air, unless they have a background in another medium. If that’s the path they want their careers to take, writers work and graft for years, sometimes decades, to get a shot at writing a superhero story for Marvel or DC and they’re not just going to get handed the keys to the kingdom right out of the gate. Pretty much every big name you know in superhero comics started small, usually with self-publishing or through an independent like Image, Dark Horse or Oni and when they do get a chance to write for Marvel or DC, that first gig is usually something smaller, weirder and more unique than any of the bigger, world-shattering stories they’re better known for.
I wanted to go back and read some of these early superhero stories by some of the biggest names in the genre, but I don’t want to come across like I’m saying that if you haven’t written for Marvel or DC you haven’t had your big break. There’s so many paths to success within the comics industry and superhero publishing companies are just one of them. This isn’t a comment on legitimacy within comics publishing, it’s just a fun look back at small, forgotten stories that you probably didn’t know were ever published.
I’m starting this week with the man who is possibly the biggest name in superhero comics for the past twenty years, Brian Michael Bendis. Before he wrote Avengers, Uncanny X-Men or Action Comics, Bendis was known as a crime and thriller writer/artist and had already made a name for himself by the late-nineties for Image Comics series like Goldfish and Jinx. Heading into the 21st century, he was preparing his biggest creator owned series Powers with Michael Avon Oeming and working with Todd McFarlane on Spawn spin-offs like Sam and Twitch and Hellspawn.
2000 saw Bendis’ first work on a big two superhero but while he’d spend most of the decade at Marvel, making a name for himself on titles like Alias, Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil, his first crack at a corporately owned superhero was in The Batman Chronicles #21. The series was an anthology which ran from 1995 to 2001 and was published quarterly, so there were only a total of twenty-three issues across six years. This particular issue is somewhat of an Elseworlds affair with three stories in total giving us different versions of Batman and while Bendis’ might not be the most interesting of the three, it’s a great insight into the kind of stories he found interesting two decades ago.
Bendis’ story, with art by future long-time collaborator Michael Gaydos, is titled “Citizen Wayne” and it is exactly what you think it is; it’s a Batman-inspired pastiche of Citizen Kane with Clark Kent taking the role of Jerry Thompson, interviewing those closest to the reclusive billionaire to discover why his final word was “Rosebud.” We see Wellesian takes on Dick Grayson, Jim Gordon, Catwoman and The Joker over the course of Clark’s investigation but it’s not until the end of the tale that Alfred reveals the truth about the meaning of the word, which I won’t reveal here but feels a bit… forced.
It’s a fairly unremarkable six-pager and there’s certainly nothing in here that would make you think “this guy is going to be the biggest name in superhero comics for the next two decades” but it’s not bad, either. It’s definitely most notable for being what I believe to be the earliest collaboration between Bendis and Gaydos, who would launch Alias just about a year after the release of this issue and now Jessica Jones is a character most people are aware of in the general pop culture sphere.
There are two other stories in here that I think are worth mentioning. The first is “Apocalypse Girl” by Arnold and Jacob Pander, which is a story where are young woman is accidentally teleported futuristic sci-fi world where Batman is a brand used by corporations and criminals alike, and she discovers that being from an alternate reality, he touch is corrosive to brings native to this universe. The other story in Batman Chronicles #21 is what I think to be the real highlight. Titled “A Silent Tale of the Bat” it takes place in a world where literally everyone is Batman and all children go through a rite of passage similar to the fateful night in which Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down in order to earn their cape and cowl.
The Batman Chronicles #21 is a strange comic that could probably only exist on a quarterly schedule but it provided a place for non-traditional comic creators to play with the biggest toy in one of the biggest toy boxes. Compared to the other two stories in this issue, “Citzen Wayne” feels like Bendis playing it safe but very much to his strengths as someone primarily known as a crime writer. He’s not quite there as a superhero comics writer yet but I doubt even he knew just how important that genre was going to be as a part of his career, way back when.
Bendis would return to Batman nearly two decades later after making the jump from Marvel to DC in 2018. Batman Universe, first published in Walmart exclusive anthologies before being released as a miniseries, is everything “Citizen Wayne” is not and is a massive celebration of Batman as a superhero. Teamed with Nick Derington, Dave Stewart and Josh Reed, his second swing at Batman was a bright, colourful romp across the DC Universe with guest stars galore.
Reading the two Batman stories as bookends to Bendis’ career at Marvel really helps give an insight into the ways he learned and grew as a superhero writer over the course of seventeen years. Batman Universe is one of Bendis’ best ever comics and it all starts back in 2000 with this six-page story that starts with the death of Bruce Wayne. As a historical curiosity, it’s interesting to go back to but as a standalone story, I don’t know that I can recommend it on its own merits.