Wednesday, September 21, 2016

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, CAPTAIN AMERICA!

This year marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest characters in the history of comics, Captain America.  In Cap's honor—and in honor of his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby—here's an essay that originally appeared here back in 2011 (and that first appeared in Robert G. Weiner's book Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero).  Enjoy!

***

The first time I ever laid eyes on Captain America was on the cover of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13.  It’s a tribute to the character, and the man who drew that cover, Cap's co-creator Jack Kirby, that the image has remained lodged in my memory and imagination ever since.  The Marvel covers of the era were—in contrast to their streamlined and sedate DC counterparts—gaudy and garish, crammed full of copy:  simultaneously cheap, raw and incredibly vital.  Cap’s costume—the stars and stripes, the fat A on his forehead—was equally garish, even by super hero standards; and the look in his eyes...well, the guy seemed a little crazy.


I had no idea who Captain America was.  Despite the fact that the cover copy proclaimed Cap and his young partner, Bucky, “the overwhelming stars of the Golden Age of Comics,” I’d never heard of them.  Even the phrase “Golden Age” was new to me.  To my ten year old mind, any comics that existed before I was born were as ancient and unfathomable as an Egyptian tomb.  Which, of course, made the character seem bizarre and appealing.  Add in that dynamic Kirby artwork, with Cap—in an impossible, but somehow believable, pose—dominating the scene, and I just had to read that story.  Read it?  I devoured it.

Flash forward fifteen or so years.  I’m brand new to the comic book business, having written a number of stories for the DC anthology titles, and just getting my foot in the door at Marvel Comics—where editor-in-chief Jim Shooter hands me an assignment.  “There’s a new Captain America TV movie coming out,” he says, “and we want to do a tie in.  Come up with a story.”  I’d seen the first Cap TV movie—let’s just say it was disappointing and leave it at that—but I dutifully set to work, weaving Cap, his long-time enemy, the Red Skull, and real life actor Reb Brown into a story that, I hoped, was more than just a cheesy TV cash-in.  By the time I’d finished the plot outline, someone at Marvel came to his senses and Reb Brown was removed from the story, along with all references to the movie.  I was told to rework the story as a three-parter for the monthly Cap comic, which I did:  it finally saw print in Captain America #s  261—263.

The story wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, the opening sequence, which featured Steve Rogers getting a little drunk with his buddies, was a major blunder—but it did get me a regular gig writing Cap’s adventures.  (You can read this early effort, warts and all, in the Captain America vs. The Red Skull collection.)  Working primarily with Mike Zeck—the starting point of a fruitful collaboration that would reach its peak seven years later with our Spider-Man saga Kraven’s Last Hunt—and British superstar Paul Neary (with some terrific fill-in work from the amazing Sal Buscema), I got to spend the next three years exploring the life, times and psyche of one of the great American icons. 

I’d been a loyal Captain America reader, of course—with a special fondness for the Lee-Kirby, Englehart, Gerber and Stern-Byrne eras—but I can’t say that Cap was a major god in my comic book pantheon:  I enjoyed the stories immensely, but, to my mind, Cap was no Silver Surfer, Superman or Doctor Strange.  Of course reading about a character and writing that character are two very different experiences—and the deeper I submerged myself in Steve Rogers’ world, the more I appreciated Captain America:  not so much the icon as the man.  In costume, Rogers was larger-than-life:  “the whole country—squeezed into one pair of pants.”  (That line, spoken about theater legend George M. Cohan, is from Yankee Doodle Dandy—one of the great movie musicals—and it describes Cap The Icon better than I ever could.)  I was more intrigued by the person behind the mask.  Rogers—to dip into movie lore once more—was the George Bailey of super heroes:  a simple, honest man of inherent decency, who always struggled to do the right thing—no matter how difficult it was.  He wasn’t concerned with ideologies or the politics of the moment.  He was concerned with the American  Dream.  He believed, to the core of his being, in what America could be.  Rogers was certainly well aware of the many times the United States had failed to live up to its own ideals—and those failures disheartened him—but he never gave up believing because his faith and hope weren’t invested in any elected official or political party.  They were invested in the spiritual core of America:  something deep and true and unchanging that lay beneath world affairs and shifting political currents.

To my mind, Captain America’s greatest power wasn’t the strength he gained from the super-soldier formula:  it was the depth of his compassion, his caring.  His belief in the revolutionary power of simple human decency. 

The nature of the character dictated that the stories I wrote explored issues larger than the latest hero-villain slugfest.  The canvas had to be huge—encompassing action, psychology and broader political, spiritual and philosophical issues.  Some of my attempts failed spectacularly, some succeeded—but I thought I’d finally hit my stride during my last year on the book:  an ongoing saga involving Captain America’s final battle with the Red Skull that was to reach its turning point with a double-sized Captain America #300 in which the Skull dies and Cap, after (at the time) forty-plus years of solving problems with his fists, begins to wonder if there’s another way to live his ideals and change the world.  (Despite my love of the super hero genre, the inherent—and often mindless—violence in super hero comics has always disturbed me.  This story was my way of attacking the issue head on.)  In the proposal I presented to my editor—the late, great Mark Gruenwald—Cap was, ultimately, going to disavow violence as a tool for change—essentially rejecting the fundamental super hero mindset—and start working for world peace.  (Keep in mind that this was at the height of the Reagan “evil empire”/cold war period, so it was a pretty radical idea for its day.)  There was much more to the story—including Steve Rogers’ apparent assassination by his then-partner, Nomad, and the emergence of a new Captain America, a Native American named Jesse Black Crow—and I was eager to spend the next year exploring these challenging issues.



Gruenwald approved my proposal, I wrote the double-sized Cap #300 then went ahead and plotted the next two or three stories in the arc; but Jim Shooter, hearing what we were planning, shot the idea down.  Jim thought my idea violated Cap’s character, that Steve Rogers would never do the things I was suggesting.  Captain America #300 was then cut down to a normal-sized issue and substantially rewritten, I think by Jim himself—or perhaps Gruenwald under Jim’s direction. (Which is why I used a fake name in the credits and immediately quit the book.)  At the time I was angry but, in retrospect, I totally understand Shooter’s POV.  Jim—a brilliant editor who really helped me along in the early days of my career—was the custodian of the Marvel Universe:  he had to protect the characters as he understood them.  Me?  I think my Cap saga would have been an emotional and thought-provoking piece of pop fiction.   

(This idea—a long-time super hero finally realizing that violence is a dead end—obsessed me, in various forms, from the moment I conceived it in l983.  The concept evolved considerably over the years and finally saw print in 2009 as The Life and Times of Savior 28:  for my money the best superhero story I've ever written.)

My journey with Captain America ended then—but the character remains as fascinating as he seemed when I first glimpsed him on that Sgt. Fury cover more than forty years ago.  Some people view Cap as an anachronism, a throwback to another era.  Worse, some see him as a symbol of American Imperialism.  They miss the point.  Captain America, the costumed hero, is the embodiment of all that’s best and brightest in the concept of America:  a concept that transcends the nation that birthed it.  Steve Rogers, the man, represents everyone who seeks a better world for himself and his neighbors; who strives to live a decent, compassionate life.  That makes him one of us—all of us, no matter our country of origin—and insures that the character will still be with us, in all his gaudy, vibrant glory, for decades to come.

©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis

Thursday, September 8, 2016

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, STAR TREK!

Star Trek premiered fifty years ago today. No moment encapsulates the essence of the series better than this one: words (fittingly) by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, delivered with passion and power by the great William Shatner. (And, yes, it's way past time for me to do a list of my all-time favorite episodes. I'll get on it right away, Captain!)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

BACK FROM BALTIMORE

Had an exhilarating, and exhausting, three days at the Baltimore Comic Con (as the photos below will attest).  I spent most of the con side-by-side with my long-time collaborators Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire and we must have signed hundreds of JLI comics (covering all the League's various incarnations).  I also got to see old friends, meet an amazing group of fans, participate in some fascinating panels and spend a few evenings enjoying the Baltimore waterfront.  Big thanks to Marc Nathan, Brad Tree and all the fine folks at BCC for showing us a great time.

Next on the list?  Bangalore Comic Con in November.  My first time back in India in over ten years.


Saturday's writer's panel—with Amy Chu, Mark Waid, Bob Greenberger, Paul Storrie and Hope Larson
Building Fictional Words—with Walt Simonsson, Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen & Fabian Nicieza

The Three Stoogers reunited:  Giffen, DeMatteis & Maguire



Music and Comic Books—with Amy Chu, Charles Soule, James Tynion IV and Christy Blanch



The best part of the weekend?  I got to spend it with my beautiful wife.
Proof that hotshot artists aren't the only ones doing conventions sketches

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ON TO BALTIMORE




Here's my panel schedule for this weekend's Baltimore Comic Con.  The rest of the time I'll be at my table signing books.  If you're at the convention, please come by and say hello!

FRIDAY

Room 343-344
2:30-3:30 - J.M. DeMatteis Spotlight
Award-winning writer J.M. DeMatteis began his career in the late-'70s working on DC Comics' horror line of books. In 1980, he moved over to Marvel, where he worked on The Defenders and Captain America. He is currently working with long-time collaborator, Keith Giffen on DC's Scooby Apocalypse, as well as The Adventures of the Augusta Wind Vol. 2: The Last Story and The Last One from IDW Publishing. Join DeMatteis, along with moderator Robert Greenberger, for a look back at his amazing career!

SATURDAY

Room 343-344
12:15-1:15 - The Process of Writing
One of the big questions asked of writers is "how do you do it?" That's difficult to answer because there are many ways to write. Join writers J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Storrie, Amy Chu, Mark Waid, and Hope Larson as they discuss how they write. Moderated by Robert Greenberger.

SUNDAY
Room 343-344
12:15-1:15 - Worlds to Build
Building a new world for comic characters to inhabit takes skill and planning. J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Walter Simonson, and Fabian Nicieza along with moderator Paul Levitz talk about the power of world building.

Room 347-348
 1:30-2:30 - Music and Comic Books

Comic books are silent - no music. But what about comic book creators? Join Charles Soule, J. M. DeMatteis, Amy Chu, and karaoke king James Tynion as they discuss how music influences them and their creativity. Moderated by Christina Blanch.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MEN

Last week at Terrificon, I did a Spider-Man panel with Dan Slott, Roger Stern and Peter David where we discussed what it was like for us writing the life and times of Peter Parker.  You can view it below.  Enjoy!  (And, no, that's not how you pronounce my last name, but it always seems to trip people up.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ROASTING GIFFEN

Here's a video of Saturday's Keith Giffen Roast at Terrificon.  We were supposed to be insulting and degrading Keith (all in the name of humor, of course), but, as you'll see, we have such respect and affection for the guy that this was less a roast than a celebration of an extraordinary forty year career.   

That said, there is quite a bit of profanity flying around, so forewarned is forearmed.

Monday, August 22, 2016

POST-CON CONTENTMENT

Back from Terrificon at Mohegan Sun and it was...well...terrific.  Got to meet some wonderful—and wonderfully heartfelt—fans.  Spent a lot of time with that upstart kid, Keith Giffen.  (On Saturday we did a Giffen Roast that basically turned into a Giffen Lovefest.)  Had a great Spider-Man panel with Dan Slott, Peter David and Roger Stern (who I hadn't seen in something like twenty years).  Chatted with folks like Scott Kolins, Paul Levitz, Joe Staton and Todd Dezago (to name a few).  And did I mention the wonderfully heartfelt fans?

Thanks to Mitch Hallock and Spencer Beck for being such good hosts.  On to Baltimore!

Blue Beetle and Booster Gold meet Giffen and DeMatteis
Roasting Giffen (that's Paul Levitz next to Keith)
The Spider-Man panel with Dan Slott, Peter David, JMD and Roger Stern

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