Thursday, February 25, 2021

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AVATAR MEHER BABA!

 “The book that I shall make people read is the book of the heart, which holds the key to the mystery of life.”

Avatar Meher Baba





Tuesday, February 9, 2021

IMAGINING

"JM is a patient and respectful mentor who exudes a genuine love for teaching. I’ve been a working writer for over 20 years, and even I found plenty to take away from JM’s lessons and advice. A better title for the workshop may well be Inspiration 101."

David Baldy, writer/producer ("Wilfred," "Deadbeat") 

The first online incarnation of my Imagination 101 workshop exceeded my expectations and the class will be returning to Comixplex.com in April.  Two weekends, ten hours.  Click here to register. 

And if you've already taken 101, click here to register for March's Imagination 201.

Come join us!   



Tuesday, January 26, 2021

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOHN AND SAL!


It's been a significant few days in the Spider-Man universe:  January 24th was the 91st birthday of the great John Romita, Sr—the artist whose work made me fall in love with the character when I was in junior high—and today is the 85th birthday of the equally-great Sal Buscema, whose run on Spectacular Spider-Man is the stuff of legends.  Both are among the finest artists—and nicest people—to ever wield a pencil in this business and I wish them the very best.  

Thanks for the extraordinary work, gentlemen.  We are blessed to have you!



Friday, January 22, 2021

ROBERT, ROY AND BARRY






Since it's the birthday of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, I thought I'd re-present this essay, from a few years back, about my discovery of a certain Cimmerian. Enjoy!

***

One afternoon in the summer of 1970, I was sitting out in front of my apartment building, flipping through one of the many Marvel Comics I regularly devoured, when I saw an ad for a new title: The image featured a half-naked guy with a sword, rock star hair and a somewhat goofy helmet. I’d never heard of this Conan, nor had I heard of his creator, Robert E. Howard—although the fact that he was mentioned in the ad at all led me to believe I should have heard of him. My ignorance prevented me from being impressed; but what did impress me was the fact that this new comic book didn’t look remotely like a super hero title. In the preceding decade, Marvel had made its name revolutionizing and re-energizing the super hero. No one bought Stan Lee’s line of books for Patsy Walker (well, maybe your kid sister did) or Two-Gun Kid (okay, I occasionally read the Westerns, but only when I was desperate for a Marvel fix), you bought it for Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But this Conan character wasn’t wearing a mask or a cape and that intrigued me.

(Although I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, I think super hero fatigue was settling over me. In the decade that followed, many, if not most, of my favorite series didn’t star super-types at all. Oh, they nodded in the genre’s direction—they had to—but books like Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula and Master of Kung Fu broke new ground. Even Jack Kirby’s brilliant New Gods material, which, on the surface, looked like super hero fare, was far too specific to the unique cosmic universe inside its creator’s head to be lumped in with Superman and his spawn. But all those titles were yet to appear: at the time, Conan seemed utterly unique to my spandex-saturated eyeballs.)

In the weeks between that first ad and the appearance of Conan the Barbarian #1, I decided to learn more about this Robert E. Howard guy and his helmet-headed creation (after all, if he was good enough for Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, he was good enough for me). This required a mythical journey of my own—to a mysterious place called My Friend’s Book Store. Located on Flatbush Avenue, at the end of a long, dark, and disturbingly spooky, alley that deposited me just a few doors away, My Friend’s Book Store was the kind of place a Stygian wizard might have called home: cramped, moldy, thick with dust. Towers of books—many, if not most, of them science-fiction and fantasy—seemed to rise skyward into faraway dimensions, parallel universes. MFBS was also the only place I’d ever been in my entire life where you could actually see, and occasionally be allowed to touch, precious back issues of comic books. (A six year old Fantastic Four issue seemed so ancient, and so priceless, to me that it might might as well have come from King Tut’s tomb.)

The cigar-smoking owner pointed me toward the Lancer paperback editions of the Conan stories and it didn’t take long for me to fall completely under REH’s spell. It’s not hard to see how a sword-wielding, head-lopping barbarian with a taste for blood and willing women would appeal to an angry, frustrated, hormonally-imbalanced sixteen year old; but, for me, that was only a small part of Conan’s appeal. I enjoyed violent catharsis as much as the next guy, but this was the sixties (believe me, the date might have been l970 but it was still very much the sixties): I’d been raised on “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace A Chance.” I’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers—watched the horrific images of the Viet Nam War on the news almost every night—and realized, early on, that violence, while a great outlet for fantasy, was an extraordinarily bad choice for reality.

No, there was something else at work in Howard’s writing: his power as a literary shaman. Someone who could rip away veils of time and place, transporting the reader to antediluvian kingdoms—dangerous, mysterious, seductive, frightening—that seemed totally alien yet unnervingly familiar. Losing myself in a Howard story was like losing myself in a past incarnation. I felt as if I’d walked those streets before, seen those faces, encountered those awe-inspiring cosmic mysteries. Howard’s best work was wonderfully unsettling because it brought our assumptions about reality itself into question.

Hooked on Conan’s world, I eagerly anticipated the character’s debut in comic book form.

I wasn’t remotely disappointed.

I was already a huge fan of Roy Thomas’s work—he’d brought new levels of depth and poetry to the universe that Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko created—but his work on Conan was something new. Free of the Stan Lee Template, inspired by Howard’s evocative prose, Roy brought his own distinct voice to these stories: His writing was muscular, lyrical and wonderfully atmospheric. Reading that first issue of Conan the Barbarian was unlike any comic book reading experience I’d ever had.

Thomas couldn’t have done it without the brilliant Barry Smith, who, more than any other Conan artist, had an intuitive, almost supernatural, ability to give visual life to the Hyborian Age. I bow to none in my admiration for the artists who followed Smith on Marvel’s Conan, especially John Buscema—whose Silver Surfer run I cherish—and Gil Kane—one of the brightest stars in my Comic Gods Firmament; in fact you could argue, convincingly, that their Conan—the character of Conan—was far more definitive. But the universe Conan inhabited? It belonged to Smith—who achieved something no other Conan artist ever has: He managed to simultaneously make the lands the Cimmerian journeyed through seem convincingly real and utterly unreal—as if we were walking through a haze of our own long-buried memories. As if one of the many wizards Conan encountered had exposed us to mystic vapors that unlocked heretofore unknown doors in our own psyches. Looking back, Smith’s early work may seem crude when compared to later efforts like “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” “Song of Red Sonja” and “Red Nails.” But his abilities as a visual shaman were there from the very first issue.

The Thomas-Smith Conan the Barbarian was a mold-breaker: an important turning point in modern American comics. Considering the series’ lengthy run, Barry Smith didn’t really last all that long on the title; but the fact that I’m writing, so rapturously, about his work more than forty years later is proof of its enduring value. After Smith’s departure, Roy Thomas soldiered on, accompanied for most of the journey by the aforementioned John Buscema: keeping the monthly Conan comic book, and its various spin-offs, consistently smart, exciting, literate, entertaining—and true to the Howard spirit. That Thomas did it, on a variety of titles, for a full decade is a striking achievement.

But the spells that Roy and Barry wove together were, for me, the most enchanting of all.


© copyright 2021 J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, December 28, 2020

THE MAN

Happy Birthday to the one and only Stan Lee—wherever in the multiverse he is!  (And if you want to know how much Stan and his work mean to me, just read this.)

Excelsior!


Friday, December 18, 2020

THE STRANGEST SEASON

If you follow this blog you know how much Christmas means to me and, if you’ve lived through 2020, you know how strange this Christmas season feels.  No family gathered around the hearth, no friends gathered around the dinner table.  There was a point, a few weeks back, when I even pondered not getting a tree this year—which would have been a lifetime first for me.

My wife, God bless her, convinced me otherwise and we found a sweet little tree—a large one just didn’t feel right—which now stands in our family room, blinking beacons of Christmas love at me.  And I’ve realized that, given the state of the world, I have to celebrate Christmas this year.  That it’s more important than ever to invite the unique magic of the season into my heart.  To root and ground in the warmth, the compassion, the connectedness (to both God and our fellow creatures) that seems to radiate from the deeps of our souls every December 25th.  To fill the Yule cup to the brim, drink deeply, and carry that energy into the new year:  a year that, I hope and pray, brings much-needed health, sanity, and compassion to the entire world.


And now, without commercial interruption, here's Creation Point's yearly Christmas Special:  my (very) short story, "The Truth About Santa Claus," illustrated by the great Vassilis Gogtzilas. 

                                                       ***  

THE TRUTH ABOUT SANTA CLAUS


"THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!"

He’d been thinking about it for days—ever since he heard Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo announce it on the school bus—and he didn’t believe a word of it, not one word.  (Well, maybe ONE.)  But Cody had to be sure, absolutely, positively sure—

—and that’s why he was hiding behind the couch at midnight on Christmas Eve.



His mother was there, asleep in his dad’s old easy chair, the reds and blues of the Christmas tree lights making her look peaceful and happy and impossibly young.

The tree, by the way, had not ONE SINGLE PRESENT underneath it.

That didn’t make sense.  If there WAS no Santa Claus, if his mother was the one who bought the presents, wrapped the presents, stacked them under the tree, then how come she hadn’t done it?  How come she wasn’t awake RIGHT NOW arranging them all?

He got scared.  Maybe there wasn’t going to BE a Christmas this year.  Maybe Mom had lost her job and they didn’t have any money and so she COULDN’T buy him any presents and—

And then Cody glanced over at the windows and noticed that it was snowing.

Or was it?

If that was snow, it was the WHITEST snow he’d ever seen.  It was snow as bright as moonbeams, as bright as sunlight, as bright as...

Stardust.

Quickly, but quietly (he didn’t want to wake his mother), he scurried to the window and looked out.

It was coming down and coming down and COMING DOWN all across town, whirling and whipping, spinning and gyrating, out of the night sky.  Glowing so brightly that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it.  And Cody saw that it certainly wasn’t snow, and it absolutely wasn’t rain, it wasn’t ANYTHING he’d ever seen before.  But each drop, no...each flake, no... each BALL of glowing WHATEVER IT WAS, seemed to pulse and spin, soar and vibrate, as if it were alive.

And the stuff, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS (and he knew now that it was magic.  He just KNEW), wasn’t collecting on the streets, wasn’t piling up on the rooftops.  It was MELTING INTO (that’s the only way he could put it:  MELTING INTO) every house (no matter how small) and apartment building (no matter how big).




EVERY house and apartment building.

EVERY.

He looked up.

And there it was:  coming RIGHT THROUGH THE CEILING of Apartment 3F, HIS apartment, swirling, like a tornado of light, around the chandelier and then down, down, down—

—STRAIGHT FOR HIS MOTHER.

At first he almost yelled out a warning, “Mom!  Wake up!  MOM!”  But something made him stop.

Instead of yelling he ducked back behind the couch and watched, eyes peering over the top.

Watched as the light-tornado wheeled around his mother, so fast, so bright, that he could hardly even SEE her.  But he COULD see her.  Most of her, anyway.

And what he SAW...

The light poured in through the top of her head, through her eyes, through her chest, through her toes.  It lifted her up—still sleeping!—and carried her out of her chair and across the room.  And as she floated—

—she started to change:

Her hair became white, her nose became red, her belly ballooned like the most pregnant woman in the history of the world.  Her feet grew boots, her head grew a hat, her nightgown grew fur.  An overstuffed sack sprouted, like a lumpy angel’s wing, from her shoulder.  And then—

AndthenandthenandTHEN, it wasn’t his mother there at all, it was him, it was SANTA CLAUS!  STANDING RIGHT THERE IN CODY’S LIVING ROOM!  Santa Claus who, with a laugh (exactly like the laugh Cody always knew he had, only better) and a twinkle in his eyes (exactly like the twinkle he’d always imagined, ONLY BETTER) reached into his sack and pulled out package after package, present after present, and placed them, carefully, like some  Great Artist contemplating his masterpiece, under the tree.

When he was done, Santa Claus stood there, grinning and shaking his head, as if he couldn’t BELIEVE what a beautiful tree this was, how wonderful the presents looked beneath it.  As if this moment was the greatest moment in the history of Christmas, as if this apartment was the only place in all the universes that such a Christmas could ever POSSIBLY happen.

And then the MOST amazing thing happened:

Santa Claus turned.

He turned slowly.  So slowly Cody couldn’t even tell at first that he was moving at all.  And—slowly, SLOWLY—those twinkling eyes, that Smile of smiles, fixed itself on the two boy-eyes peering, in wonder, over the top of the couch.


And what Cody felt then he could never really say:  only that it was better than any present anyone could ever get.  Only that it made his heart so warm it melted like magical WHATEVER IT WAS, trickling down through his whole body.  Only that it made him want to reach out his arms and hug Santa Claus, hug his mother, hug his father (and FORGIVE him too, for running out on them) and his aunts and uncles and cousins (even his Cousin Erskine who was SUCH a pain) and Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo (who really wasn’t so bad most of the time) and all his  friends and teachers and the kid in his karate class who always smelled SO BAD and, embarrassing as it sounds, it made him want to hug everyone and everything in the whole world including rabbits and snakes and trees and lizards and grass and lions and mountains and, yes, the EARTH HERSELF.

Cody wanted to hold that gaze, to keep his eyes locked on Santa’s, forever. (Or longer, if he could.)  Wanted to swim in that incredible feeling, drown in it, till GOD HIMSELF came down to say:  “Enough!”

Except that he blinked.  Just once.  But in that wink of an eye, Santa was gone.  Cody’s mother was asleep in the chair again and, for one terrible moment, the boy thought that the whole thing must have been a dream.

Except, under the tree:  THERE WERE THE PRESENTS.

Except, out the window:  THERE WAS THE SNOW, the rain, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS, shooting up, like a blizzard in reverse, from every house, every apartment building.  Shooting up into the heavens, gathering together like a fireball, like a white-hot comet—

—and fading away into the night:  going, going...

Gone.

Without so much as a tinkling sleigh-bell or a “Ho-ho-ho.”

Not that it mattered.

Cody looked at his mom.

Cody kissed her.

“I love you,” he said.  And he was crying.  Happy tears.  Christmas tears.  Like moonbeams, like sunlight.  Like stardust.

Mom stirred in the chair, smiled the softest sweetest smile Cody had ever seen. “I love you, too,” she said.

And then she drifted back to sleep.

Cody sat at her feet, warming himself, warming his SOUL, by the lights of the tree.

And soon, he, too, was drifting off to sleep.  And as he drifted, a wonderful thought rose up, like a balloon, inside him.  Rose, then POPPED—spreading the thought to every corner of his mind.  Giving him great comfort.  Great delight:

“One day,” the thought whispered, “when you’re all grown-up, when you have children of your own.  ONE DAY,” the thought went on...

“It will be YOUR TURN.”

Merry Christmas.

Story ©copyright 2020 J.M. DeMatteis
Art ©copyright 2020 Vassilis Gogtzilas

Thursday, December 17, 2020

COMIC BOOK COLLEGE

DC Comics just released a hefty tome entitled DC Through The 80s: The End of Eras.  Edited by the great Paul Levitz, it looks back at the early part of that transformative decade through reprinted stories and new essays, one of which was contributed by yours truly.  As a teaser for this wonderful collection, here's my essay (in its original, unedited form).  Enjoy!


Comic books were a passion that grabbed me at a very early age (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again:  I don’t recall a time when I didn’t read comics) and never let go.  Sure, I moved on to Dostoyevsky, Bradbury, Hesse and Vonnegut but I never abandoned Lee, Kirby, Broome, Kane and the other comic book masters who inspired and nurtured me growing up. 


I was always creative, obsessed with drawing, playing guitar, writing stories and songs.  In many ways, these things weren’t just my passions, they were what defined me.  They were me.  Which meant I didn't just want to read comics, I wanted to write them—as desperately as I wanted to be a rock and roll star.


In the late 1970’s, when I was taking my first, very awkward, steps as a comic book writer—until then I’d been making my living, such as it was, playing in rock and roll bands and working as a rock music journalist—I had a very simple rule that served me well:  The editor is always right.  I was hungry to work and the men and women sitting behind the desks, handing out the assignments, held the keys to the kingdom I so desperately wanted to enter.  More important:  they had knowledge and experience that they were willing to share. 

Over the years young writers have occasionally come to me for guidance and some of them, when offered advice, become instantly defensive, wasting their time and mine by explaining exactly why they don’t need to take that advice, why their stories are just fine, thank you, and shouldn’t be altered.  “Well, if it’s just fine,” I’ve often wondered, “what are you coming to me for?”  I never saw things that way.  I wanted to learn, I wanted to grow as a writer and soak in all that wisdom my editors had amassed.  If one of them said, “No more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than 5.5 panels per page,” well, then, I went home and counted every single word, averaged out my panels. If I was told that my dialogue was flat, I reworked it.  If the brilliant (in my own mind, at least) sequence I labored over all night didn’t work, I cut it.


The truth, of course, is that the editor isn’t always right—sometimes he’s spectacularly wrong—and it’s a writer’s responsibility to stand up for himself and his work and, when necessary, challenge his editors; but a neophyte writer still grappling with the fundamentals of his craft would do well to save his battles for a later date.  One thing I intuited in those early days was that no matter what the editor asked of me—shy of requesting something morally or artistically abhorrent, which, for the record, never happened—I could take it as a challenge and, more important, learn something from it.  Those early years at DC Comics were my Comic Book College:  I was an over-eager freshman and, happily, I had a trio of superb professors.  And the first of them was a young man named Paul Levitz.


I made several aborted attempts to enter the comic book business before my success with the legendary Mr. Levitz:  Five years earlier, I’d written a script sample and sent it to Marvel Comics.  I had no clue what a comic book script looked like and I’m sure that what I submitted was less-than brilliant.  The assistant editor who read my sample thought so, too, and told me just that, in no uncertain terms.  (I’ve learned, over the years, that it’s important to encourage new talent regardless of the face value of their work.  Even if the samples you’re evaluating are abysmal, you have to find something encouraging to say.  Humans—especially the sensitive, neurotic, artistic variety—desperately need encouragement.  The smallest crumb of kindness becomes a mountain of hope.  I suspect that nameless assistant editor was overwhelmed, having a rough day, and he simply couldn’t bear to plow through yet another wretched submission.  But he could have made my day much brighter by simply saying, “You’re not there yet, kid, but keep at it.  Don’t give up.”)


A year or two later, DC began a short-lived apprentice program:  a rare opportunity for novices to be trained by seasoned pros in the craft of writing for comics.  Aspiring writers were encouraged  to submit their work and those with the best submissions would be chosen for the program.  (David Michelinie—a wonderful writer who went on to script Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, Superman and many other titles—got his start as a DC apprentice).  I decided to write a Justice League script, a fact I now find hilarious:  Team books are difficult for even the most experienced writer—I don’t think I’ve ever mastered the form—but there I was, nineteen years old, and ready to give it my all.


I didn’t make it into the program—frankly, I didn’t deserve to—but I received some extremely helpful feedback from a woman on the DC staff named Val Eades.  It was the first time I was encouraged by a professional and it meant the world to me.  Understand:  I was just some kid from Brooklyn who grew up in a lower middle class family.  My father worked for the New York City Parks Department, raking leaves and shoveling snow in a local park.  My mother was a switchboard operator.  Growing up, I’d never encountered anyone even vaguely resembling a professional writer or artist.  (My best friend’s older brother was a working musician, part of a Las Vegas lounge act:  that was the closest I ever came to hobnobbing with the rich and famous.)  Making it as a writer seemed about as easy as scaling the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001.  Which is why that small encouragement from Val Eades was so important to me.  (Ms. Eades, if you’re out there, God bless you!) 


A few years later, a fellow student, and comic book fanatic, at Brooklyn College, Warren Reece, actually made it over the Monolith:  he got a job at Marvel, working in the production department.  Warren, very kindly, submitted some of my material to the folks at Marvel Editorial, but I never received a response (which, in some ways, was worse than being rejected).  Warren then encouraged me to submit some samples to Crazy magazine (Marvel’s attempt at a Mad-style humor publication...although I don’t think Mad was worried).  Truth is, I had no interest in writing for Crazy—I possessed zero skills in that arena—but, miraculously, editor Paul Laikin bought one of my pitches and, even more miraculously, I got a check in the mail with Spider-Man’s picture on it.  (So blessings to Mr. Laikin and Mr. Reece both.)  I’d hoped that selling something to Crazy would get me an “in” with the comic book side of Marvel, but it didn’t.  Still, it allowed me to say that I was a (kinda/sorta/maybe/but not really) professional. 

Not long after that, I sent another batch of samples to DC.  (I still have them filed away in my office:  a Superman script, a Plastic Man script, and an original piece called Stardust—which was a very raw prototype for what would, seven or eight years later, evolve into Moonshadow.)  I got a letter back from Somebody's Assistant saying, "We're not going to buy Superman scripts from a writer we've never heard of, but Paul Levitz is looking for material for House of Mystery and Weird War Tales." These were two of the many anthology comics—they called them “mystery books” in those days, because the companies were still afraid to use the word “horror”—that DC was publishing then.  Each title had multiple five to eight page tales, most of them supernatural stories with a Twilight Zone-ish twist ending.  I’d never read the anthologies, hardly knew they existed, but you can bet I ran out and bought a stack of them, devoured them, and quickly (perhaps too quickly) developed some story ideas that I mailed off to Paul. 


Given how raw my material was at the time, I wouldn’t have blamed Paul if he’d tossed my pitches into the trash, but, instead (and this speaks to the quality of the man), he took the time to analyze the stories and offer constructive, sometimes bluntly constructive, feedback.  His reply, dated August 22, 1977 (yep, that's still in the files, too), very politely, succinctly—and accurately—tore my stories to shreds.  The last line was a classic:  "You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future, but I suggest you use a professional typing service or type more slowly.  The physical presentation of your manuscripts leaves something to be desired.”  He was right:  This was the troglodytic era before computers and, in my hunger and enthusiasm, I had crossed things out, scrawled in the margins, written up and down the sides of the paper. 


Paul’s criticism didn’t bother me.  The only thing that mattered was that wondrous phrase, “You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future.”  Which is what I immediately did:  submitted again (and again) until, finally—this must have been November of that year—I made an appointment to go up to DC (a thrill in itself) and meet with Paul.  I walked into the office to find a skinny kid who, despite being only twenty at the time—I was an ancient twenty-three—had been working at DC since high school.  With the attempted mustache clinging to his lip and his extremely serious demeanor, he seemed like the world’s oldest young person.  (Or perhaps the world’s youngest old person?) 

I remember sitting across the desk from Paul, nervous and intimidated, pitching ideas.  When he actually liked one of my stories and asked me to work up a draft, I  had a moment of dizzying, euphoric confusion:  Wait a minute...WAIT a minute!  Is he saying he actually wants me to WRITE THIS?!


The story in question—which eventually saw print in House of Mystery—was called (brace yourselves) "The Lady Killer Craves Blood."  (I warned you.)  Illustrated by Gerry Talaoc, the story was based on the Son of Sam killings that had traumatized New York the previous summer.  In my version, the Sam-like maniac murders a woman, not knowing that her husband is a (what a brilliant twist!) vampire.  The vampire then hunts down the serial killer and, still mourning his lost love, submits himself to the obliterating rays of the morning sun.  All in eight pages!


The short story was the perfect way to learn the comics form.  You had five to eight pages to develop a complete plot, a full character arc, sharp dialogue and moody narration.  (Many of those shorts were so packed with plot that they could easily have been expanded to full-length stories.)  The anthologies weren’t high profile—I still think of them as the vaudeville of comics, the place you went to learn your craft till you were ready for Comic Book Broadway—and you got to master your craft, or at least wrestle with it, without the whole world watching and judging your every move.


A week or so after that first meeting, back to DC I went, my first-draft script in hand, ready for Paul's dissection of my work.  "No more than five panels per page," he wrote, on a piece of yellow lined paper (I've got that in the files, too), "no more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than two sentences per caption, clear transitional captions, don't forget your splash panel."  I raced home, wrote another draft, incorporating Paul’s suggestions (well, I took them as orders:  Believe me, I counted every damn word in each panel) and then, to my astonishment and delight, the next time we met, he bought it.  What came next remains one of the greatest, most magical moments of my professional life:  Paul Levitz shook my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, "Welcome to the business." I didn't need the D-train:  I could have floated back to Brooklyn.


I continued writing stories for Paul well into 1978, and, thanks to him, had the honor and privilege of working with artists far more skilled at their craft than I was at mine.  Those anthologies were home to veterans—masters!—like Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Gil Kane, Dan Spiegel, Don Newton, as well as newer, but no less talented, artists like Marshall Rogers and Tom Sutton.  (I had a similar experience at Marvel a little later, when some of my earliest work there was illustrated by giants like Kane, John Buscema and Gene Colan.)

After six months of studying at Paul’s feet, two wonderful things happened:  1)  I was assigned my first full-length story—what the cover copy eventually called “a bonus-length, 22 page thriller!”—for Weird War Tales and 2)  my rate was raised from $13.00 a page to what seemed an exorbitant $15.00 a page.  There’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon where Daffy Duck, having found a pile of gold, shouts, “I'm rich!  I’m wealthy!  I’m independent!  I’m socially secure!”  Well, that’s how I felt.  But somewhere between the day I turned in the script and the day the check arrived that security evaporated…


…and DC imploded.  


In June of 1978, the company—which had gone through an expansion the previous year, the so-called “DC Explosion”—laid off staff and cancelled something like 40% of its line.  Marginal creators like myself found themselves cut off—I remember sitting in the DC waiting room with Paul as he gently explained the situation to me—and my march to comic book glory abruptly ended. (My band broke up right around the same time, so you can imagine my gloomy state of mind.) When my Weird War check arrived, I somehow managed to live off that $330.00 for the entire summer.  It helped that I had four roommates and the rent was cheap.


I continued on with music journalism, eventually getting a foot in the door at Rolling Stone, but never gave up on comics.  When, early in 1979, I got a call from editor Jack Harris (no doubt on Paul’s recommendation) about contributing to a new DC science fiction anthology, Time Warp, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.  Jack was a genuinely warm, welcoming guy who taught newbies like me through enthusiasm and encouragement.  He’d sometimes sit in the office and edit the scripts with me sitting across from him, telling me what he’d changed and why.  And always with a smile and a positive spin.  Time Warp was the crowbar that reopened the DC door for me.  I was soon working both with both Jack and Paul and feeling very much a part of the DC family.  (Around that time I sent my dear friend Karen Berger up to the office to meet Paul.  He was looking for an assistant and Karen, who’d just graduated from Brooklyn College with a journalism degree, was looking for a job.  They hit it off—and the rest is, quite literally, comic book history.) 


That family expanded when the late, great Len Wein joined to the DC staff.  Despite being just past thirty, Len was already a legend in the industry.  This was the writer who, with the equally-legendary Bernie Wrightson, created the groundbreaking Swamp Thing  series.  Unless you were around when that book debuted, you can’t really grasp how truly revolutionary Swamp Thing was, how different from everything that had come before it.  I remember being floored by the emotional power of the art, the pulp-poetry of the language and the big beating heart at the story’s core.  You couldn’t read an issue of Swamp Thing without feeling something, without being moved. 

If that series was all Len had done, his place in Comic Book Heaven would be secure, but he was also the guy who co-created Wolverine, one of the most successful, and popular, characters in the medium’s history...resurrected and revitalized the X-Men franchise...had memorable runs on everything from Justice League to Hulk, Batman to Spider-Man...and, oh, yes, was editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics along the way.  

 

Which is why, when I entered his office in the spring of ’79, I counted myself among the lucky ones:  I didn’t realize just how lucky until I got to know Len.  There are some writers whose work you admire, but then you meet them and it’s impossible to make the leap from the words on the page to the person across the table:  there seems to be some great cosmic disconnect—and, yes, a great disappointment, as well.  (It’s unfair to expect a writer or actor or musician to somehow be the embodiment his art—the work alone should be more than enough—but we hope for it nonetheless.)  With Len, though, the man and the work were one.  He was just like his stories:  charming, funny, eloquent and all heart. 


In a very short time, Len became not just my editor, but my friend and  mentor.  He saw a spark of something special in my stories and, through his patient guidance, helped fan that spark into a flame.  There I was, an insecure, working class kid from Brooklyn, uncertain of my own talent, wondering if I could carve a career for myself in this wonderful, and hugely peculiar, business—and there was The Legendary Len Wein providing the answer:  “If you want it, you absolutely can.”  You can’t put a price on that. 

The same can be said of the entire time I spent as a student at DC University.  I look back with great warmth, and great gratitude, on those days crafting short, spooky tales for the classic anthologies, hanging onto every word that Professors Levitz, Harris and Wein uttered.  Those three gifted gentlemen gave so much of themselves, so freely, and because of their generosity and wisdom I’ve had a long career traversing the worlds of comics, television, film and novels.  I will never stop being grateful to them—and to those oddball “mystery books” that were my entry into the unique and magical world of comic books.



©copyright 2020 J.M. DeMatteis