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Between the Panels: Writer J.M. DeMatteis on Following the Story, 1980s Comics, and the Handshake He’ll Never Forget

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Moonshadow. Justice League International. “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” J.M. DeMatteis has his name on some of the most beloved series ever published, but he was plugging away selling comic stories long before he hit the big time. He’s a continually evolving writer, working now both in comics and TV — including assignments adapting famous storylines for the small screen.

First, the particulars…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer

Your home base: New York State

Website: www.jmdematteis.com

Social Media

Twitter: @jmdematteis

FacebookJMDematteis

Current projects:
 
Deathstroke:  Knights & Dragons (CW Seed)
Superman: Red Son (Blu-ray and streaming)
Marvel’s Spider-Man (upcoming episode: “Vengeance of Venom”)
Star Trek: Hell’s Mirror (IDW)




Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Of all the fields in which a writer can ply their trade, what attracts you to writing for the comics form specifically?

JM DeMatteis: I’ve always been creative — I spent my childhood constantly drawing, then, as I got older, moved on to playing guitar, writing songs, writing short stories — and I’ve always loved comics. Can’t remember a time when I didn’t read them.  At a certain point, my love of comics and my love of writing collided and that was that!

KS: Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted some kind of career in the arts? Or was it something long simmering?

JMD: I think I always knew it, perhaps intuitively at first, but it became clear at a very young age. I remember being maybe fourteen and telling a friend that I’d never work in the 9-to-5 world. I knew then that the creative path was my only path.

KS: What’s the first “real” piece of creative writing you remember creating? Something that felt like a serious project at the time, whatever age that was...



JMD: I have clear memories of creating an original comic book with my best friend Bob Izzo.  It was called The Daring Diamond Brothers — about three (or was it four?) brothers in different branches of the service during World War II.  I read a lot of war comics as a kid.  We co-wrote the comic, I drew it, and we both colored it in with our Crayolas.  Thenm we sold it to Bob’s father for a quarter!  

KS: Aside from that quarter, what was your first paid job in comics? 



JMD: My first comics-adjacent sale was to Marvel’s Mad knock-off, Crazy magazine.  I knew a guy who worked in production at Marvel, and he introduced me to Crazy’s editor. If I’m remembering correctly, I sold them a couple of pieces, hoping it would lead to a connection on the comics side of things — but it didn’t.  

My first “official” comics sale was to Paul Levitz for House of Mystery, after some months of pitching and being rejected: a deathless tale called “The Lady Killer Craves Blood!” [#282]. I’ll never forget Paul shaking my hand and saying, “Welcome to the business.” Still one of the highlights of my professional life.

KS: Do you remember when you initially saw a physical comic with your name on it? Was there at all a sense of “making it” then?

JMD: I think the first comic that came out with my name on it was an issue of Weird War Tales — also edited by Paul — that featured my story, “The Blood Boat.”  (A lot of blood in those titles.)  Did I think I’d made it?  No. I knew there was a lot of work ahead. But I was still thrilled.




KS: Backing up further, what were your comic buying and reading habits growing up?


JMD: I devoured all kinds of comics, from just about every publisher.  And, when I was a kid in the '60s, that meant every style and genre. I just loved that magical combo of words and pictures and couldn’t get enough of them.

KS: Where did you used to find your floppies in those pre-direct market days?

JMD: In Brooklyn, where I grew up, we got them at the local candy store.  When I was I in junior high, I discovered a local used book store that had back issues and it was like I’d discovered King Tut’s tomb.

KS: Did you gravitate toward any favorite titles or characters?

JMD: As noted, I loved just about everything I read — from Archie to Jerry Lewis to Classics Illustrated — but I had a deep, deep love for superheroes, especially Justice League and Green Lantern.  Then, in seventh grade, I discovered Marvel and the top of my head blew off.

KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience.  What was a particular comic story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader?

JMD: A story from when I was very young that still haunts me is the Batman tale, “Robin Dies at Dawn” [Batman #156].  Actually, it’s not the story that haunts me— that was just a fake-out — it’s the cover, with Batman cradling the dead Robin in his arms while the sun rises behind him.  



KS: The first time I personally remember seeing your name in credits was the 1980s, a decade regarded by many as a high point for the industry. Looking back now from our present vantage point, what do you think made those years such a fertile time for comics?



JMD: Creator rights were coming in, creator-owned projects, new imprints, new genres.  It was an incredible, intoxicating era of expansion and creative freedom.  I remember looking around at things like Ronin and Camelot 3000 at DC, the Epic Line at Marvel, and thinking: “I need to be a part of this.” I pitched Jim Shooter Moonshadow — an idea I’d been playing with for some years — he sent me over to Archie Goodwin at Epic, and it transformed my professional life. Finding the brilliant Jon J Muth to illustrate… was the icing on the cake.  




KS: What was the experience like of working in the center of that creative cauldron?

JMD: By stepping outside the confines of the established superhero universes, I was able to find my own distinctive voice as a writer, telling the kind of tale I wanted to tell in exactly the way I wanted to tell it.  Moonshadow set me free as a writer, and I brought that freedom with me when I stepped back into the Marvel/DC universes.  There couldn’t have been a “Kraven’s Last Hunt” if I hadn’t done Moonshadow first.  I’ve been bouncing back and forth between established characters and creator-owned work ever since.  

The '80s were an amazing opportunity for me as a writer.  I think I was writing Blood: A Tale for Epic, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” for Marvel, and Justice League International for DC at the same time.  Three totally different stories that tapped, and expanded, different parts of my creative brain.  All done with top-flight collaborators and wonderful editors.  Great days.

KS: Let’s pause on Moonshadow, which was re-released by Dark Horse last year. What memories did that bring up as you flipped through it with fresh eyes?

JMD: The warmest memories are of working with Jon J Muth, who remains a good friend to this day.  It was an exhilarating collaboration.  His art dared me to be better—and I hope my writing did the same for him.  It was also wonderful working with the Epic crew — Archie, Margaret Clark, Laurie Sutton — on that project.  They gave us all the freedom we needed to spread our wings and really fly.




KS: Whether it’s comics or TV writing, do you have a typical work schedule these days?

JMD: I’m a “follow the story” kind of writer… I just let the story flow and go where it leads.  Some days, that may be just a couple of hours; other days, it could be hours and hours and hours.  Some days, it’s just staring into space watching the story unfold in my head! But it’s that connection, that excitement, that leads me on.

  And, of course, a deadline always helps!

KS: Yay or nay: listening to music while you write?

JMD: I’m a musician, music is an important part of my life, but I can’t really listen while I’m writing.  It’s too distracting.  I can occasionally listen to purely instrumental music — New Age, ambient, soundtracks — but there comes a point in the process where even that gets distracting.



On the other hand, when I’m in the editing stage of things —going over a script, fine-tuning, making corrections — I can listen to anything.

KS: You’ve adapted different comic stories for Warner Bros. animated movies. While most adaptations are from prose or stage to screen, this is going from one illustrated medium to another. Can you talk a bit about that process from a writer’s point of view?

JMD: It’s really about staying true to the essence of the story you’re adapting.  Not the details, but the heart and soul of the tale.  Translating to another medium, things are going to change, they have to. Besides, who wants to see an exact translation?  If you do, just read the book. But what you aim for is catching that essence and keeping true to it as you build your new version of the story.

KS: What’s one word that sums up an important trait for being successful in the creative arts?

JMD: If I had to pick one word it would be “will.”  You need a fierce will to succeed in the arts.  Talent is important, of course, but I’ve seen talented people run with their tails between their legs at the first sign of rejection.  A fierce will keeps you going no matter how many doors are slammed in your face.  A fierce will also gives you the tenacity to master your craft — even if you’re starting out with less raw talent then the next guy — because you keep at it, you refuse to give up.  

It also helps to have a very hard head, because there’s so much rejection in this game, so those two things together —fierce will + hard head— will take you a long way.

KS: Hypothetical time: You can write one story to be drawn by any artist from the history of comics whom you haven’t worked with before… Who do you choose?

JMD: Jack Kirby!  If anyone in the history of comics deserves to be called a genius, it’s Kirby.  One of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. I’m more in awe of him now than ever. Kirby’s work deepens, broadens, with the passing of the years.  What an inspiration! And how amazing would it have been to actually work with him?

I would have loved to work with Bernie Wrightson, as well.  I knew Bernie a little, adored his work, but never got to collaborate with him.

Not sure what Barry Windsor-Smith is up to these days, but I would love to collaborate with him, too.  I’m in awe of his work.

KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel that you look at as an example of the craft at its highest form?

JMD: Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: Brilliant. Heartfelt. True. Achingly human. A seamless weaving of words and pictures. Eisner’s stories were an incredible inspiration when I set out to write my autobiographical graphic novel, Brooklyn Dreams — and A Contract With God is, in my opinion, the greatest work of a true master of the form.

KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now — that you can reveal — and what we should be on the lookout for in 2020.

JMD: [Y]ou can currently find the animated Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons series on CW Seed (the free streaming app of the CW network). That will be followed by a full-length movie for streaming platforms and DVD that will include 15-20 minutes of extra story.



The Superman: Red Son animated movie is out now on Blu-ray/DVD and also available for streaming on various platforms.



I’ve got an episode of Marvel’s Spider-Man (featuring Moon Knight) coming up on Disney XD in June.



IDW will be releasing my Star Trek one-shot, “Hell’s Mirror,” August 26.  It’s a Mirror Universe tale of Khan, Kirk, and Spock that turns the established Khan mythos on its head.



And the new collected editions of Moonshadow (from Dark Horse) and Impossible, Inc. (from IDW), two projects I’m very proud of.






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