Jessica Jones’ creator on the biggest change from comics to her Netflix show

Senior Television Writer
06.29.16 11 Comments

After Greg Berlanti and Geoff Johns, few creative types have had as big an influence over the current state of superhero TV than Brian Michael Bendis. Netflix's current line of Marvel Comics shows may as well be called the Bendis Cinematic Universe, since in the comics he co-created Jessica Jones, promoted Luke Cage from Marvel's C-list into the vital character he is today, and wrote one of the definitive modern Daredevil runs. (He also put Iron Fist into the Avengers, though it remains to be seen what comics influences his upcoming Netflix show will draw upon.) He's also co-creator of Powers, a comic about human cops who investigate murders tied to superheroes and villains, and an executive producer of the TV version, which is in the midst of its second season on the PlayStation Network. And during an appearance at the ATX Television Festival earlier this month, Bendis let slip that Cinemax is developing his comic book Scarlet, about a young woman from Portland who starts a violent revolution against what she feels is a corrupt American society.

A few hours after Bendis went off-script from the usual Marvel/HBO publicity machine (which led to his phone blowing up for the entirety of our interview), I sat down with him to talk about the revamped Powers (where Remi Aubuchon replaced season 1 showrunner Charlie Huston), his feelings about the success of Jessica Jones – and about the significant change the TV show made to her backstory – his work creating Miles Morales, the Spider-Man for a new generation (who recently switched over from the comics' Ultimate universe to the same reality as the classic Peter Parker), and the way in which he feels luckier than even Stan Lee.

What did you feel that Powers needed to change from season 1 to season 2?

Brian Michael Bendis: From my personal taste, it needed more of a visual style. It's so hard when you're adapting something that's so visually scrumptious like Mike Oeming's drawings. They're so unique to comics, but they're a voice. In terms of what I love, I wanted to be sure this season had a look. Remi and I sat down, and he goes, “There's got to be a way to make the visceral and in-your-face style of Mike's artwork in the show without it just being shots from the comic book.” We posed this idea to our new cinematographer, our new costume designer, our new production designer, our new stunt coordinator, and said, “This is the philosophy we want to accomplish.” I have a very strong color theory, for instance, where in Powers, green means powerless, and red means power, and none of that came across in the first season. The story was all there, but I was desperate to make sure that extra level was the case. And from the first dailies of the season, I was clapping, “We got it!” Everybody made the kind of television that I really like. Our cinematographer did Banshee, which is a really good-looking show, and Torchwood, which is a good-looking show, and our costume designer is Joss Whedon's costume designer, and I was getting very excited as it went. And I'm excited because it's out, and the response has been what I always wanted the response to Powers to be.

In the comics, Deena Pilgrim is the audience POV character, and she stands out because of that aggressive and foul-mouthed personality. In the first season, she was more subdued and very much taking a backseat to Christian Walker.

Brian Michael Bendis: Charlie Huston, who showran the first season, is a novelist, and likes to internalize fiction as a novelist does. One of the changes we made to season 2 was to externalize things more. One of the things I like to do is people's hearts are on their sleeve, whether it's a good or a bad heart. And I think that's one of the things living in a world with powers would do: it's too theatrical not to express yourself constantly. It would change them socially and sexually, everything would be altered because of superheroes. Deena was this character without powers, who was a cop's cop, and powerless in this world. So her power was her wits, really – and her belly-button. We had that to give, and Susan could give it to us; that's why we hired her. In the second season, Susan (Heyward) is giving it to us, and she's amazing. In the comic, it looks like Christian is the lead character, but it's Deena's perspective that's the most unique. And we got to more of that in the second season, which I'm really proud of. Susan walks around like that all day, just bottled up and ready to explode, and I'm glad we could let her do it.

You've said that you don't think adaptations should be beat-for-beat from the source material, and that changes can be very good. In the comics, you make it a point that Kilgrave never physically touches Jessica Jones – in fact, makes it part of her torture that she is forced to beg him for sex that he won't give her. One of the biggest changes Melissa Rosenberg made for the show was to make it a physical rape as well as an emotional one. How do you feel about that?

Brian Michael Bendis: I thought about it, and the reason I didn't, I just thought as a man, that's not my road to go down. That's not my place. There was something going on in comics where there was just a lot of raping going on. I don't know what it was, but it seemed like this thing in comics where if people wanted to really shock you, they'd go, “Ohmigod, there was a raping!” And I thought there was a much more complex and dangerous road to go down that doesn't have that in it, and as a male creator, do that: teach by example. And at the same time, Melissa and all the writers – a lot of which are female – absolutely have every right in the world to take that material and go there, because that's the world that they live in.  Even look at what's going on this week with that dude from Stanford, and everyone's different perspective on it, and the dad going, “It's just 20 minutes!” No, you're wrong. And that just proved even more so that there are people to tell those stories, and when people talk about diversity and more perspectives, that's a perfect example.

So I'm curious: if you can remove the context of that time in comics from it, and your own perspective, do you think the story works better with that aspect?

Brian Michael Bendis: No, but it does show the difference between comics and television. This is something I learned when I was working at a newspaper: when you put something on paper, whether it's words or pictures, and it's staring back at the reader, they are now alone in the room with them for as long as it takes them to turn the page. Whereas on television, the images fly by. Watching an image of rape, versus the television allowing them to tell the story they way they did, it's two different universes. I think it's completely appropriate. And I'm not just saying it because the show works. I think (comics) imagery of that could be damaging and distasteful at best, whereas in there, it worked in context of the character. There's also an empowerment that Krysten was bringing to the character, that cannot be discounted. With the right actor and director, you can get the right stuff across.

(Here, by the way, is Rosenberg's explanation for why she decided to make the rape explicit, rather than metaphorical.)

As of now, Jessica will probably go down as your most important Marvel creation.

Brian Michael Bendis: Either her or Miles Morales, though he hasn't yet had the crossover moment that she has. Before the TV show of Jessica Jones, the response to Miles is so overwhelming, and so constant, and it's been five years now. I can't even express to you how powerful it is on my end. It's overwhelming how much it was needed, that I didn't know that's what was needed.

We're now on our third recent screen version of Peter Parker. Do you get the sense that there might be room for a live-action Miles sometime soon?

Brian Michael Bendis: There absolutely is. I have ideas for it, but I don't own it, so it's not up to me for it to happen. But if we've proven anything, it's that there's a huge audience for it. When it was announced that Spider-Man was going to be in Captain America: Civil War, “Miles Morales” was trending on Twitter for like a week. More people than I ever thought had heard of it. Listen, people go to Build-a-Bear and make your Miles Morales Build-a-Bears and tell everybody that's what we want!

The fact that you now have Miles and Peter in the same comics universe might help pave the way.

Brian Michael Bendis: It also helps that what Dan Slott is doing with Peter Parker in the comics has elevated him to something else, so that Miles at the moment is the more traditional Spider-Man figure in the universe: the high school student trying to balance high school and superheroics, and he can't catch a break. That was Peter's role, but it's not his role anymore, and it's Miles' role. That was given to me, and it's pretty cool.

The one thing that Jessica and Miles have in common is that there's a great many people in the audience who were desperate for that kind of material. They didn't say anything, didn't tell anybody. Miles came out of this conversation about what we did right and wrong with the Ultimate universe, where I said, “If you really look at it, and where he grew up, with his aunt, today he would probably be a kid of color. Why didn't we do that?” And then we did it. When we said we were going to do it, I was on the set of the first Powers pilot, and an actor of color came up to me and said, “When I was a kid, my friends wouldn't let me play Batman or Superman, because I wasn't their color. But they would let me play Spider-Man. And that's the difference.” And I realized I had heard this story a hundred times from different people, but I wasn't there in my head yet. I was listening to the inclusiveness of Spider-Man, and why he's so appealing to so many people, but I didn't connect it all at first. But then when we did the moment where he pulls off the mask and he's a kid of color, I didn't realize how much that image needed to be shown to certain kids.

How satisfying is it that, of this current Netflix/Marvel run, you've got one character you created, one you defined for the modern era, and one you wrote a significant run on, and even Iron Fist, whom you put into the Avengers for the first time?

Brian Michael Bendis: It's insanely flattering. I obviously love those characters with my whole heart. I was on a one-man “Luke Cage is cool” campaign for most of the Aughts. When we announced the New Avengers line-up, and Luke Cage and Spider-Woman were there, a lot of fans went, “WHAT?!?!?! Bulls–t!” And I had to prove myself. They were right: I can't just announce they're cool. What's less cool than that? I have to show that they're cool! But this is way farther than I ever thought it would go.

The other cool thing is, even with Jessica, or Daredevil, I had taken a break from those characters for a while in the comics, so I can enjoy the shows without the agita. I completely love the Daredevil show. I feel no physical connection to it, because it was 10 years ago since I wrote that comic, so I can just enjoy it. And when people connect it in a positive way to me, I go, “Well, that's very f–king flattering!”

It's the Bendis Cinematic Universe.

Brian Michael Bendis: Jeph (Loeb) will call me with updates, and I'll go, “Are you f–king with me?” I never saw this coming, and certainly never saw it coming while I was still coherent and in the game. That's the difference between me and the previous generations. (Legendary X-Men writer) Chris Claremont had to wait decades before his s–t was on the screen. I was there when Sam Raimi showed Stan Lee the first cut of the first Spider-Man movie. I was on a couch next to Stan, watching how special effects had finally caught up to his imagination. It was insane. And I'm thinking, “He had to wait until he was 80 years old for that to happen.” When they announced Powers and Jessica Jones, I thought, “Oh, that's nice!”

What do you remember Stan's reaction was?

Brian Michael Bendis: I remember this with the same clarity I remember my children's birth and adoptions. Just to give you some backstory, I didn't know why I was coming to this room. Someone just told me to go to Sam Raimi's office. I knew that I uniquely had the comics version of his job, which was to take Spider-Man and put him into the modern day. But I thought, “Maybe he wants to tell me to cut it out.” So I come in, it's in his office, and then Stan Lee comes in, and I'd only ever met Stan as a fan, not as a professional. And then they sit us down on a couch, and roll in an AV cart with a TV on it and go, “We're going to show you the first cut of Spider-Man.” I couldn't take my eyes off of Stan! As good as the movie is, all I could think about is, “What's he thinking?” So the movie ended, and then he, very whimsically, expressed all of his feelings about how long he waited, and how the TV shows in the '70s were all, “If only they could do this,” and now they could. And he didn't get choked up and blubbery, but he was moved. Like, “Ohmigod, it happened while I was alive.” And I can't believe I got to see that. He was very raw. It was quite beautiful.

Back to your question, I don't take it for granted, because I saw the fruits of Stan's 50-year labor, and I didn't have to wait 50 years myself.

After all the texts and phone calls you've gotten just in the last 20 minutes, are you even allowed to tell me anything about the TV version of Scarlet? Like, how structurally similar it will be?

Brian Michael Bendis: At the moment, it looks like it's going to be very similar.

Even her direct address to the audience?

Brian Michael Bendis: It looks like it. That's what they liked, and that's what they bought: the dangerous of it, and the not compromising of it. It was a very excellent day over there at HBO/Cinemax when they bought it. I felt like I graduated television college, because they make amazing television. The person who said yes to Veep said yes to us, which made me feel very good about myself for five seconds. Which my self-loathing doesn't usually allow me to feel. Even I could not say that that wasn't a fun day.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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