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Like others drawn to stories of caped crusaders and mega-muscled heroes, Bendis was searching for a stand-in for his absentee father. Stan Lee, the Jewish co-creator of Spiderman and other comic book heroes, became something of a father figure for him. But the rabbis who taught him as a child weren’t too fond of Bendis’ hobby, fearing that his penchant for drawing men in tights indicated he might be gay.
“I would just start drawing without thinking and [suddenly] it’s a bunch of naked guys and I’d get sent home,” Bendis said.
After high school, Bendis attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. An independent comic book publisher picked up his final thesis and published it. After graduation, he continued working on comic books but supported himself doing freelance illustration and caricatures at bar and bat mitzvahs.
“It’s the lowest form of human existence – and I worked at McDonald’s,” he said.
Through the 1990s, Bendis hustled his work on the road with fellow independent comic book creators. Those years were somewhat of a golden age for the independent comic scene, producing a bevy of talented, original creators. But the period was financially rough for Bendis and his wife, Alisa, whom he met while doing a freelance assignment for the Hillel Foundation.
Even his successes didn’t change the basic financial equation. The day after his work on the crime comic JINX won an Eisner Award, the comic book equivalent of an Oscar, he was back at a bar mitzvah drawing caricatures.
Bendis’ explosion on the independent comic book scene coincided with a shakeup at Marvel Comics, the largest comic book publisher in the world. A new president and editor in chief wanted a fresh voice for the company. Joe Quesada, then the editor in chief, called Bendis in 2000 and told him that he wanted to bring him to Marvel.
“I asked, ‘What do you need an artist for?’ ” Bendis recalled. After what Bendis describes as a long “dead” silence, Quesada finally answered, “ ‘You know your art isn’t that good, but you’re an amazing writer.’ ”