The announcement of Brian Michael Bendis' move to DC Comics came with news of writing Superman and Batman, but the most exciting aspect to the deal was that there would be new creator-owned books and extended life for his current Jinxworld catalog. The first of the new ongoing series will be Pearl and its first issue will debut this Wednesday at comic book shops and in digital format.
Pearl is set in modern-day San Francisco and centers on an incredible tattoo artist who is also an assassin for the Yakuza. Flourishing in one life, Pearl was unfortunately born into another life that she is desperately trying to free herself from, but her talents and a special ability complicate things.
SYFY WIRE has an exclusive preview art and interview with co-creator Brian Michael Bendis about the new ongoing series, coming back to crime stories, Yakuza in American culture, more representation in comics and more.
Alias debuted in 2001, introducing the world to Jessica Jones, the foul-mouthed Avengers flunkie turned private eye. Her prominence grew over the next decade and a half, then skyrocketed with the Netflix series that stars Krysten Ritter. Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos returned to write more adventures the hero, but with Jessica Jones so embedded in the public consciousness, Pearl represents a new space for Bendis and Gaydos to create, free from expectations and restrictions.
"Our goal was to create something that was authentic as Jessica, but completely different in every way," Bendis tells SYFY WIRE. "There's a history in comics, where if someone has a hit or a genre passion, they'll do a variation of that hit in a creator-owned book. I get that instinct, and I won't say if I've done that or I haven't done that (in the past). But in this particular instance, Jessica has become so out-of-our-hands iconic that we had to make sure whatever we put next in the world was unique and as inviting.”
Arrested by Crime
Something that is a trademark of Bendis' creator-owned work is how steeped it is in crime fiction. While his legacy will include Spider-Man, Superman and The Avengers, street-level stories like his runs on Sam and Twitch, Daredevil, Powers and Torso rank among his best. Bendis told me that he attempted to steer away from the crime genre for his early Jinxworld-DC books, but in the nature of trading stories creatively, amongst creators he looked up to and his peers, especially in a comics-rich town like Portland, great crime stories would come up.
"I'm getting loaded up with great organized crime stories that I'm going to HAVE to tell because I can't stop myself," he says. "Not only when I was researching Pearl did I find all of these beautiful reasons for her existence, but I was given this incredible backdrop of stories that were inspiring me to go. I was looking not to do organized crime, yet they're the best stories! It's messy people getting in trouble. Who doesn't want to read, write and analyze that?”
Bendis says that he loves the genre because it's an opportunity to tell a story about characters at their most stressed state. Crime fiction is typically about people making decisions and facing the consequences. Pearl winds up doing something in the first issue that draws her some unneeded attention.
"Now because it's crime fiction," Bendis explained. "My job is to show characters thrown against the wall and you find out what they really are. When you shake characters and put them in a crime fiction situation, it's almost a shortcut to getting to what are they made out of? What are the choices they make in the story? I get obsessed with out of control characters. That's what I end up writing about”
Yakuza in America
Pearl features an American Yakuza story, but Bendis and Gaydos made it a point to veer from the numerous cliches regarding Yakuza. The goal was to avoid creating things like the 1989 Ridley Scott film, Black Rain. Instead, Bendis looked to other '80s films like Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988) for inspiration.
"These movies remove all the cliches of the story you're used to hearing from gangster stories and came back with something completely charming, because they broke every rule," Bendis admired. "I wanted to apply that to this. I wanted to attack this story about the Yakuza by removing all the clichés, all the stuff you see all the time in films like Black Rain and get into something more real and maybe more fun.”
It's a change from what he did in earlier books, such as Daredevil's Yakuza storyline. As a Filipino-American, I was curious about Bendis' thoughts on that Daredevil arc while working on Pearl, and writing an Asian-American story and his choice to feature an Asian woman and as his protagonist along with her culture.
"If I could go back, I'd represent those Yakuza characters differently," he admits. "There's more I could have done but I was very focused on Matt Murdock, but here I am with more years under my belt. I thought of Daredevil when I was doing Pearl. Then, doing research, I woman was telling me a story last year in San Francisco. She was just a person telling me a story of her life and her dealing with Yakuza-tinged organized crime and it had so much different and fascinating color that I was a bit embarrassed by the Yakuza story that I had told in Daredevil.
Gaydos and Bendis began talking about how the Yakuza in particular were being represented in American culture and wanting to add something different to the conversation.
"I am a Ridley Scott fan, and I looked at Black Rain and that film is filled with cliches. (Another) one was Rising Sun," he says. "I caught a bit of that recently, it's difficult for me to watch. These are good storytellers with some lousy representation in their story that begs for it. So, I said, let's try to do the opposite of that, because it's true and it makes a better story.”
Skin Deep and Beneath
What separates Pearl from the average bit of crime fiction is its elements of science fiction. Tattoos emerge on Pearl's skin, in response to her changing emotions.
"It's a unique skin condition and (is just) one of her unique situations. We started talking with everyone about tattoo stuff and tattoo guns and (Michael) mentioned that someone very close to him had a rare skin condition, that when the person got angry or excited, the scars fills in. Another artist had pointed that they had tattooed themselves with an empty tattoo gun, and it fills in when they're angry. You couldn't see the ink. There's no ink there, but the scar was there, and this idea of having someone having a skin condition when they get flushed, becomes a tattoo, is a very exciting visual. After that we were off to the races!”
Pearl is also an albino, and albinism has always largely been ignored in comics, save for defining traits in the occasional villain. Pearl encompasses the complexities of being many things to many different cultures, but most importantly, the lead character.
"That was another thing I was happy to get rid of: Albinos always being the creepy assassin. I read an article about how there are no lead albino hero or characters. So as we're talking about representation in comics and media, then there seems to be a good one to fix. I was happy to course correct as much as we can. Pearl's a very unique person; no else has this.”
Beyond Pearl herself, the comic draws from largely true stories. When visiting San Francisco one day, Bendis found himself in a once-segregated neighborhood that banned Asian residents.
"As a Jewish person, I can relate to someone being told they're not allowed in," he says. "I was boiling. In Pearl, the crime boss actually buys the once 'No Oriental' San Fran neighborhood. That's based on a true story. That's one example, but there are dozens more in the first issue."
Being Authentic is Being True to Yourself
Now to me, good stories reflect well on the storytellers, regardless of who that storyteller is. Bendis has a history of creating and writing diverse characters, including Luke Cage, Riri Williams, Miles Morales and Jessica Jones. Writing about an Asian woman will open him up for criticism again, but he takes it all in stride, letting his gut and his instinct lead the way.
"No writer is perfect and always makes the perfect choices," he says. "It's art. It's messy. Listen, I spend all day looking for truth and honest moments. I do the work. I do the research. I keep my eyes and heart open to the world around me and I try to reflect it in my work. That's the point of doing this. I listen to everything. Especially stuff I don't like or understand.”
Still, criticism can persist, and it gets understandably pointed when a storyteller is visiting unfamiliar cultures and lands. Countless things swirl around amidst the neurosis of a writer, that it's only human to second-guess and wonder what Bendis thinks of when trying to broaden the scope of the stories we get to read.
"I do contemplate if I'm the right person to tell a story or not. It's not even about a cultural thing. Like watching Ready Player One I was saying, was Spielberg really the right person to direct that movie? Should someone else have done that because it was really about him?" he notes. "When I was sick in the hospital, these Jinxworld books, and Superman, were what kept me focussed and not screaming into the abyss. So I know, this time at least that these are the stories I need to tell and the people I need to tell them with."
The Art of War
Fans of Alias and Jessica Jones will tell you that it was visually a very dark series, as if the scenes on the page were lit with old yellow bulbs. Pearl offers a different aesthetic, with a white fluorescence and loads of visual eye candy. Gaydos is fully painting Pearl and it's arguably his best work to date.
In constructing the world of tattoo artist, Bendis has even contemplated getting ink himself and has the artists narrowed down a New York artist who goes by the name Yuuz, who works out of Bang Bang NYC. Who could resist?
"Someday, I'll come to New York and have the guts to have a tattoo by Yuuz," Bendis gushed before pausing. "But, I am a little Jewish Boy and I have a little voice that says Tattoos or Verbotten! – DON'T DO IT! I don't get into it in the book, but as a Jewish person we were told no tattoos and that was our religion and tattoos were used as a punishment in the camps. Part of this book is looking at all of this, as the art that it is."
SYFY WIRE has an exclusive eight-page preview of Pearl #1. Check out Michael Gaydos' stunning art without text. Let us know what you think of Michael's art and our interview with Brian Bendis in the comments below.