Over the past two months in Action Comics, writer Brian Michael Bendis has been systematically dismantling the covert-ops organizations of the DC Universe. And if there’s one thing that’s become clear, there are a truly unwieldy number of secret organizations in the DCU.
Checkmate, Spyral, Leviathan, Cadmus, the Kobra Cult, Taskforce X (aka the Suicide Squad), ARGUS (the Advanced Research Group Uniting Super-humans), SHADE (the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive), the DEO (the Department of Extranormal Operations) — it’s a lot! Many of them even have overlapping goals, whether it’s keeping world peace, destroying world peace, policing superheroes, or making superheroes work for the government.
There was room for some pruning of the super-spy tree here, some repotting of a secretive cult there, which is exactly how the idea for Event Leviathan, a six-issue summer miniseries written by Bendis and drawn by artist Alex Maleev, started.
But Event Leviathan’s two spin-off books, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, have an equally interesting — and much less pragmatic — secret origin: They were both conceived while Bendis was in hospital with a near-deadly case of MRSA, as his friends, comics writers Greg Rucka and Matt Fraction, tried to keep him occupied and less stressed.
Polygon sat down with Bendis this week to discover the secrets of Event Leviathan, and along the way we touched on Superman, spy redundancy, and the power of a good story between friends.
Polygon: What is Event Leviathan? Is it a crossover? Is it a springboard for other stories?
Brian Bendis: I’m referring to it as a DC thriller. Summer events — and I’ve been the author of a few of them — often have the story structure of a disaster movie: Something huge happens; invasions and stuff like that. This is a thriller. Something’s happened and detectives are solving the case. I start with that because it’s very unique for comics that that’s the story; [the big thing has] already happened and the detectives are trying to figure out what happened, who and why.
And what has happened is there is an organization called Leviathan, and they used to have been run by Talia al Ghul, who’s one of the big villains in Batman. They were arms dealers and [did] all kinds of shenanigans, but over the course of this last year, under the noses of all the superheroes, Leviathan’s been slowly sucking up all of these other organizations that were around. Cadmus and ARGUS and Spyral — DC has lots of spy organizations, some of which are a little redundant, and that’s what inspired the idea. But Leviathan is sucking them up and making some huge moves, getting rid of the DEO, getting rid of Spyral, getting rid of major tentpoles of the DC Universe.
Who’s doing it, and why, is the story of Event Leviathan. Batman and Lois Lane gather the greatest detectives in the DC Universe to solve the case of Who is Leviathan? All of the organizations have fallen, and they’re terrified of what’s going to happen in the morning.
You mentioned redundancy in spy organizations, was that a genuine goal of this series? To reduce the number of sci-fi spy organizations in the DCU?
Well, yeah, it was funny, [it came up in] literally my first sit down with [DC co-publisher] Dan DiDio over coffee, about figuring out if we wanted to make comics together. He brought up, Hey, you know what story problem we have that I would love a story solution for? Is that we have 30 organizations that all do the same thing. The writers all had noble ideas when they [created them], they’re all good ideas, but they’re kind of stumbling all over each other. And it feels to me like there’s a story where not only are they not stumbling over each other, but the threat gets so enormous that the heroes aren’t prepared for it on any level.
And that started clicking in my head. I got a big smile on my face, because that scratched six or seven itches for me as a writer just in my natural state. So I spent this whole year doing research — and some of these characters go back so far. So I did all the research and all the backstory and came up with a real big thriller that involves all these cool characters — Amanda Waller, and Sam Lane, and Steve Trevor. Really cool supporting characters that have been a real big part of some major, major plays, and now they’re all suspects in this Leviathan attack that has already done such enormous damage.
Is it a Superman event — or is it a DC-wide event?
It starts as a Superman story. It starts in the pages of Action Comics, because it’s the reporters at the Daily Planet who started getting the first taste of what’s going on, with Superman realizing early on that this is a story where he can’t punch his way through the truth — that Clark has to do this story. Clark has to roll up his sleeves and get to it.
One of my favorite things about the character of Superman is that there are stories that punching isn’t the answer to. It’s great, because there’s this whole other part of his character that doesn’t always get the same amount of screen time. And so Clark and Lois have reunited as reporters to figure out who Leviathan is. That’s the story we’ve been telling all through Action Comics in the last two months. And it’s in Superman: Leviathan Rising Special that we find out that Leviathan has been taken from Talia al Ghul by a mystery person and that their goal is not to fight with Superman, not to pick fights with superheroes.
[Their goal is] something else, and that is going to be a big frustration to Superman. If Leviathan doesn’t see him as that as an antagonist, if [Leviathan] sees [superheroes] as someone who will be on the same side as them, eventually, then they’re playing at a completely different game than the one Batman and Superman the others are used to playing.
So it starts as a Superman story, becomes a DC story, and may end up becoming another kind of story once we find out who Leviathan is. Which we will find out in the pages of Event Leviathan. It is an existing DC character. That is the only hint I’m giving, because that’s fair.
Mysteries in comics are always tough because they’re monthly and everyone’s online talking and talking about them. I always try to be fair with the clues a little bit. And I think it fair that if you’re saying it’s a mystery, that it be a mystery you can solve, so yes, it is a mystery that people can solve. But I’ll also say, [speaking to a hypothetical reader] Don’t be upset — if Batman hasn’t solved it yet, don’t beat yourself up about not solving it before Batman. He’s really good at this. If Batman hasn’t solved it yet, don’t worry about it. Lois Lane hasn’t figured it out yet. Don’t worry. She’s smarter than you, I don’t know you, but I’m telling you, Lois Lane is smarter than you.
Speaking of Lois, there’s a Lois series spinning out of Event Leviathan — and clearly she’s very much involved.
In Event Leviathan, Lois is kind of the lead of the Superman family characters, and she’s teaming up with Batman to really lock this down and figure out who, what and where. And her deep connection to it is, of course, that her father, Sam Lane, it was a high ranking member of ARGUS and already a victim of the attack.
Batman’s the greatest detective in the world and Lois Lane is the greatest investigative reporter in the world. So if you put them together, that could be a very scary combination for bad guys.
Well, it’s certainly a fun combination to write. I’m debating whether I’ll release it, or maybe put it in the trade — but the opening scene of Event Leviathan #1 with Lois and Bruce ... the original version of it might be 20 pages long, because they are fun to write. They are two smart people that genuinely like each other and like each other’s craftwork. And I like that they’re not really around each other much without Superman. I’m sure you have that your life, people in your life that you only know because you’re connected to them through another person. She has that with Batman and I don’t think they realize it until this moment, which I like.
And you’re pulling in other characters, not just from the Superman world. Barbara Gordon, Manhunter, the Question —
The Question is almost every issue. Green Arrow, Plastic Man, there’s quite a few, and all of them are suspects and they’re all trying to solve it.
Those are all characters that are new to you, how did you choose which to bring into the story?
Well, first of all, it’s all still new to me; everything in DC. It’s funny, because I’m comfortable at my desk at the Daily Planet, but if I turn the corner — Oop, that’s a new corner, I’ve not been in that corner! Everyday is a new trip. But what happened in this instance is the story itself [chose] the characters. I know who [Leviathan] is and I know the moves that they’ve already made. I know everything that the detectives don’t know. So, I was able to reverse engineer the story so I could tell whose attention the story would get.
I know why Plastic Man is here even though he doesn’t know why. He’s going to find out in the second issue, and the Question is going to find out in the third issue. They’re all going to find out why and what their connection is.
Really it was Leviathan in control of the story, which brought these characters together. That’s why Superman’s not involved in it in the beginning, because Leviathan doesn’t want him. That is not a winning move for him, or her.
You outlined Leviathan’s take on how to handle Superman in the Event Leviathan special, in a very cool scene.
Yeah, that’s a big one for people. Like, Yeah, he’s not fighting Superman. Oh, that’s different. That already puts him in a different category than the others. I like the mindset of If I’m fighting with Superman, I’m the bad guy. There’s no other way to look at it. I like that self awareness of the person. No, no, no, I’m going to have Superman agree with me and then I’m the good guy. The end. What’s cool about that is that that’s a philosophy that Batman and Superman don’t often face, that already makes him a more potent adversary.
The last time I talked to you about Superman, it was last summer, and you weren’t super far into your run yet, but you spoke about what you understood about the character and the things you were learning about him. Almost a year on, has any of that changed? Have you learned or discovered new things about Superman that you enjoy?
Dear lord, yes. I mean, so much. It’s such a journey. Tom King tweeted — because he’s working on the Superman thing for Walmart — and he wrote how, it’s funny, it almost feels like cheating because every other character, they’re conflicted. But with Superman, he’s just the best guy and he’s really going to do the best thing. His goal is: What’s the best thing I could say or do right now. To spend time with that person all day long. It’s like a therapeutic gift.
I’m going back on Seth Meyers next month, and I was thinking about how his job is that he has to listen to everything this administration says — he has to, right? Think about it. All day. That’s his job.
My job is to think about what Superman would do all day, and react. It’s a much better place to be; I get to spend all day with the best guy. It inspires me in my behavior, it inspires me in my work ethic. It’s just a great place to be. And I know when I’m reflecting it well if I get it back from the audience — the audience feels like they just spend that time with a good person. And it’s sad that we live in a world where we kind of need that right now, you know?
Having that in my pocket while I’m writing is a really big deal for me. It’s hard to describe. It’s therapy, it’s inspiration. It’s all of that. And using that as my most motivating factor to produce this work has been a really fun year for me. Really something. I had that right away, but now it’s just gets deeper into the story. And so that’s when you’re seeing reflected in the “Unity Saga” [in Superman] or Event Leviathan or any of the other things we’re announcing, it’s just all a reflection of trying to create that feeling that everything’s going to be okay if we all do the right thing. It’s a pretty potent place to be as a storyteller.
A few months ago I talked to Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick together, and Matt said that one of the reasons that he’s at DC and writing Jimmy Olsen is because he spent time with you in your hospital room. You were excited about Superman and frustrated that you couldn’t get back to work, and you were just storytelling together to pass the time, and Jimmy Olsen and some other ideas came out of that. I was wondering if I could get your end of the story of how Fraction and Lieber’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins’ Lois Lane came to be.
I’ve been trying [to down play the connection], just because one of the downsides of having a near death experience is that people can only hear about it so much before it just bums them out, but in this instance it is so wrapped around that moment that it’s hard not to talk about it. I was in the hospital last year and I was told I wasn’t getting out. I was told MRSA doesn’t heal, write notes to your kids, you’re not leaving here. So I really got to look into the abyss.
And during that time quite a lot happened with finding out how great my friends are. Like they’ve always been great friends — I’ve been friends with Greg for over 20 years, I didn’t know he was that good of a friend. I didn’t know he was a friend who would sit there while you’re struck blind, and talk to you about a story you may never get to. He sat there at my hospital bed when I was literally — my face swollen to the point where I couldn’t see and I had Greg’s whispery voice talking about Superman, or Lois, and Jimmy.
And then when I could get my eyes back, I look over and Matt’s asleep in the corner and I’m like How long has he been there? He’s been there the entire time. So these two — among other friends, Kelly and everybody as well — but these two in particular were using writing and story just to keep my mind off of it and keep me focused. And knowing me as well as they knew, they knew if you just bring up a character, I’ll just start talking about them for three hours. And also, like, the day before I contracted MRSA, I was at dinner — we were on a double date, me and my wife were on a date with Matt and Kelly talking about Superman. So they knew it was all I was thinking about, and then this happened, right?
So the Superman: Leviathan Rising special that just came out last week that did so well and sold out — the reason I was bouncing off the walls about it being such a success was because it was a true reflection of all of that friendship that happened to me in the hospital. I got out of the hospital and I told my friends, you’re doing Lois and you’re doing Jimmy, and Dan’s all in. But they really made something special out of these characters, and now a year later, it happened. And I know it wasn’t supposed to — none of this was supposed to happen with my involvement and so the fact that I get it, it is a blessing, a real blessing that I just can’t believe I got to experience.
So yeah, whatever [Rucka and Fraction] say about this, I say it even more. They got as close as you could get to saving my life with story. My wife actually physically saved my life, but they got me out of that bed, they really helped me through. So the fact that the audience gets to read a story, that’s so potent and honest from all these creators, that came out of that? That’s just great. Like you never want to go to a hospital and told get any of that, but if you are ... let this be the result. Then you find out your friends are awesome, and make something great with your friends.
And as I’ve said to anybody who’ll listen, if my time at DC was all about bringing Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber to comics: Great. Mission accomplished. When the Superman: Leviathan Rising Special came out, Greg came to me and goes We are literally just a straight man for Matt Fraction. I said “I’ve never been more comfortable in my skin than being Matt Fraction’s straight man.” That is exactly where I should live.
Speaking of Greg Rucka, back in the day he did a lot of work on Checkmate and other covert corners of the DCU. Did you go to him when you decided to blow up all of the spy organizations in the DCU?
Oh, oh hell yes. Oh, it’s much worse than that. I had to pitch this in front of Geoff Johns, like Hey, I’m just blowing up all that shit you just built! You have to tell the other writers — and I’ve had writers do it to me too, We’re blowing up your thing. And writers, when they do this — the pleasant ones — they’re doing it because they’re building something better in complete respect of what you were doing. Greg was at my house two days ago, I have to look at him, so anything I do with Leviathan — it’s not like Twitter, I can’t put it off, he’s going to come over. So it’s all done with respect and it’s all done with his approval.
I was wondering more, not in terms of conflict, but in the terms of, did you go to him for research?
[No so much for that] because I was a big fan of that stuff while he was doing it. I will say I 100 percent came up to Greg and said I’m blowing up a lot of stuff. What do you absolutely not want blown up ever? What are the babies that must be saved? And he gave me the babies. And, may I say, they’re not a surprise, it’s the babies I was going to save anyhow. So it’s all good.
I look at it as a bit of a valentine to Greg’s Checkmate run. He did such immensely cool work with those characters and building all that up. Even in the pages of Action Comics, I did a page of Checkmate that would’ve been a Greg Rucka page as a flashback. Go read Checkmate, go read the Janus Initiative!