Interview: J.M. DeMatteis
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 28 February 2009
Links: Wikepedia Entry / Review: Live and Times of Savior 28 / Show Official Info /
Born in Brooklyn, he was a musician and music reviewer (including work for Rolling Stone) before finding his way into comics. Since then, he has achieved legendary status, with milestone achievements at both DC Comics and Marvel Comics.
Perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work with Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire on DC's Justice League, he has also written works that delve into philosophy (Seekers into the Mystery), psychology (Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt) and fantasy (Moonshadow). Recently, in collaboration with artist Mike Ploog, DeMatteis created two comic series: The Stardust Kid and Abadazad, the latter of which was acquired by the Disney Company and turned into three illustrated books for children.
Looking over reviews of his work, one is struck by the diversity and depth of his accomplishments in this field of entertainment. But it does not stop there.
He has also worked in television, writing scripts for the current Batman: The Brave & The Bold cartoon series, as well as a top secret TV project with long-time collaborator Giffen.
In 2009, DeMatteis and artist Mike Cavallero will release The Life and Times of Savior 28 from IDW, about a hero confronting challenges that cannot be punched or locked away in prison.
SFRevu is very pleased to welcome J.M. DeMatteis.
SFRevu: You've been working in comics for many years now, including the legendary run on Justice League with Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire. But your resume is packed with heavy-hitting titles, as well as a formidable array of creator-owned projects (including Abadazad). Starting from the beginning, then... how did you get started?
J.M: I spent my childhood and teenage years writing and drawing and playing music...and, of course, reading comics by the truckload. Art was my first love and, after high school, I was accepted at New York's School of Visual Arts—-but my family couldn't swing it financially. In college, my interest in art began to wane—-maybe because I was too lazy to really develop my skills—-and my interest in writing and music intensified.
I played in bands for years...and still play music and write songs. (You can find my 90's CD How Many Lifetimes? at the iTunes store and CDBaby.com.) But somewhere along the line my love of the written word took center stage... probably because I could actually make a living at it.
I spent a few years as a rock and roll journalist, doing reviews and interviews for a variety of publications. Around the same time (the late '70s) I began freelancing for DC Comics, writing for the late seventies/early eighties mystery line: House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Weird War Tales... all those oddball titles. It was like Comic Book Vaudeville: a great place to learn my craft before moving on to bigger and better things.
And I had terrific editors like Len Wein, Paul Levitz, and Jack C. Harris teaching me. That began a career that has spanned thirty years and has branched out to include writing for television, film and books.
SFRevu: In a nutshell, what is THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAVIOR 28 about?
J.M.: The story, at its core, has to do with violence in super hero comics, in pop culture in general and, ultimately, in our world. Despite my deep love of the genre, I've always had a problem with the violent content in super hero comics; the mindset that, however much we struggle to disguise it, says "All problems are ultimately solved by dropping a building on a so-called bad guy's head." It's a dangerous concept, especially in a world where too many of our political leaders seem to have the same black and white vision. "Hey, those guys over there are 'evildoers,' so let's bomb the hell out of them because we're the 'good guys' fighting for truth and freedom."
Savior 28 grew out of my desire to craft a story that would face this issue head-on. As I continued to develop the idea, it grew into a saga that spanned seventy years of American pop culture and politics.
Strange as it sounds, Savior 28 is both a tribute to the genre and a condemnation of it. It's rooted in tradition... and completely explodes the tradition at the same time.
SFRevu: Who are the main characters and what can you tell us about them (without spoiling the first issue)?
J.M.: Our main character, Savior 28, is a hero from the Golden Age, the same era that gave us the original versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. We follow his evolution through the decades—-reaching the crisis point where a series of traumatic events conspire to push S-28 over the edge. He finally sees that the way he's been doing things all these years isn't just wrong, it's insane.
He realizes he has to find a New Way to live, to work for change in the world. Problem is, after seven decades of solving problems with his fists, he has no clue what that Way is. And when he finally does find The Way, he discovers that most of the world isn't ready to go along with him.
Our other major character—-and the narrator of the series—-is Dennis McNulty who, back in the 1940s, was S-28's sidekick, The Daring Disciple. He and 28 have had a long and tempestuous history; Dennis both worships and loathes his former partner and, as you'll see in the first issue, that relationship has been brought to the boiling point.
SFRevu: This series feels very different from things you've done most recently. Is how you write this series different from how you approach other projects? What creative muscles do you get to flex here that may not be exercised elsewhere?
J.M.: Well, Abadazad and Stardust Kid were all-ages projects, with a very specific tone and voice. S-28 is written for an adult audience. It's pretty hard-eged—although there's a big heart at its core.
The hardest part of any project is finding the narrative voice. And each voice is unique. Once I find that voice—-in this case, it's Dennis McNulty—-I can follow the narrator and let him lead me on, deeper into the story, And I'm almost always surprised where the journey takes me. (One of the things I've seen over the years is that writing is less a work of conscious creation and much more about channeling: being an open receiver who can let the stories and characters flow through you.)
One of the biggest challenges with Savior 28 has been the structure, which has quite a bit of Citizen Kane-like cutting back and forth to different periods in our lead character's life. I can work out the essence of a particular issue pretty easily...but finding the structure, especially on the first few issues, has been incredibly difficult—-and incredibly rewarding. But, again, the more I open myself up, the more I get out of the way of the story and allow it to move through me, the easier it gets.
SFRevu: Mike Cavallero is the artist for the series. How did you two connect, and what would you say he brings to the table art-wise?
J.M.: I met Mike through a woman who worked at Hyperion Books For Children, back when they were publishing Abadazad. She was telling me about a friend of hers who wrote and drew his own comics and I said I'd love to have a look at them, because I'm always interested in new talent.
I received a package from Mike with his self-published comic 66 Thousand Miles Per Hour and I was blown away by the amazing energy and movement in his work. We started corresponding, then finally met in person, and I knew that I wanted to find a project to work on with him.
One day last year Mike sent me a preview of his new web-comic, Loviathan, and, looking at it, I knew, in a flash, that he'd be perfect for The Life and Times of Savior 28. I'd had the S-28 idea for years...the original concept was born back when I was writing Captain America at Marvel in the early 80s... but the project had never quite come together.
I'd been talking to IDW about another project but decided to send them the S-28 proposal accompanied Mike's Loviathan art. They read it and approved the project the same day. It was as if the story had been waiting all these years for Mike to come along and, once he was attached, all the pieces fell into place.
As for what Mike brings to the table: creativity, intelligence, passion, dedication, craft, art, energy, and so much talent that it boggles the mind. He's both a wonderful artist and a wonderful guy... and you can't ask for more than that in a collaborator.
SFRevu: Savior 28 is far from your only project nowadays. You're also writing for BATMAN: THE BRAVE & THE BOLD on Cartoon Network. How did this come about and what can you tell us about your episodes?
J.M.: I've been doing animation for some years now and the folks from BRAVE AND THE BOLD knew me from the work I'd done for them on JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED and LEGION OF SUPER HEROES. B & B is a fun series in that it takes a lighter approach to Batman and the DC Universe. The stories are certainly serious, straight-ahead super-hero adventures... but they're filled with character-based humor: not unlike the work I do with Keith Giffen. So far I've done episodes teaming Batman with Red Tornado, the Green Lantern Corps, Green Arrow, and Blue Beetle. I'm hoping there are more on the horizon because it's been great fun writing for this show. SFRevu: Having written stories for many of the major characters at DC and Marvel, is there still one character you would most like to tackle?
J.M.: Not really. These days I'm more interested in doing originals than working on someone else's characters. (Mainly because, as you note, I've already written most of them.)
That said, I'm having a wonderful time working with Giffen and Kevin Maguire on a new Metal Men series for DC: 10 pages a month running in the back of the new Doom Patrol, which comes out in the summer of '09.
The Metal Men are characters that are very open to that slightly skewed, humor-oriented Giffen-DeMatteis POV...and having Kevin back to illustrate the series is the icing on the cake. I've also written a few stand-alone Spider-Man stories recently and it's been a sweet reunion with a character I have great affection for.
SFRevu: I wish ABADAZAD were still in production. Is there any hope of resurrection on that front?
J.M.: I still hold out hope for ABADAZAD—-but, at the moment, that hope isn't rooted in anything but my own love of the series and the desire to see it return in some form. I have this blind faith that it will find its way back. Meanwhile, I've taken my passion for children's fantasy and poured it all into the novel I'm writing for HarperCollins: IMAGINALIS. I think fans of ABADAZAD and STARDUST KID will find much to like in this book. I'm having an amazing time writing it. IMAGINALIS will be out in 2010.
SFRevu: When you're inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame, what would you like the program to say about you? J.M.: "Even when his work sucked, he poured his heart and soul into it"!
I could probably say that more eloquently, but really that's how I feel: I've done some work I'm incredibly proud of, some work I'm embarrassed by, and lots of work that falls between the two. But, with very rare exceptions (that I've inevitably regretted), I've cared passionately about everything I've done. I have to invest myself fully in my work or it feels absolutely hollow. And, really, why bother with a project if you're not invested in it?
I read something years ago—-and I'm not sure who said it, it may have been my literary hero, Ray Bradbury—-and the way I remember (or probably mis-remember) it is that you should treat every project you're working on as if it's the only project you'll ever write and pour all your thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, ideas and ideals and passions into it. That's been one of the great things about working in comics. If you want to, you really have tremendous freedom to pursue your own visions and develop your own voice.
SFRevu: For what do you think you'll be best remembered by fans? For what would you LIKE to be best remembered by fans?
J.M.: Being remembered seems to indicate an end of the road, a career that's over. You're looking back and wondering how your audience feels about your body of work. I'm not even remotely over...in fact, I'm busier now—-on a wide variety or projects in different media—-than I've been in years. So come back and ask me that question in another fifty years and maybe I'll have an answer for you!
Now if you want to know what some of my favorite projects have been till now, I'd say Moonshadow, Abadazad, Brooklyn Dreams, my collaborations with Keith Giffen, to name just a few. And Savior 28 seems to be quickly jumping on to that list.
SFRevu: We appreciate your taking the time for this interview, and are eager to see all the great projects you have coming up.
Special thanks to J.M. DeMatteis for this interview.
If you want to find out more about this author, straight from the source, visit his blog on Amazon.com. He said of the blog, "I'm not one of those "every day" bloggers, but I try to check in there once or twice a month." So visit his site and buy his books!