Wednesday, June 28, 2017

CITIZEN OF THE ZONE—REVISTED

The great Rod Serling passed away forty-one years ago today.  In his honor, I'm re-posting this essay that first appeared here back in 2009.  Enjoy! 


  

Our psyches are so tender, so innocently open, when we’re children that stories enchant us in primal ways they rarely can again.  As a kid, I was a story addict—devouring everything from comic books (didn’t matter if it was Richie Rich, Archie, Superman or Spider-Man.  I adored them all) to the legends of King Arthur (I was fixated on a knight named Sir Tristram, who, I decided, was so much cooler than that overrated bum, Sir Lancelot); John R. Tunis baseball novels (interesting, considering I was in no way a sports enthusiast) to history (I was obsessed with Remember the Alamo! by Robert Penn Warren.  What boy in the 60’s, raised on TV Westerns, could resist Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie fighting, and dying, side by side?).  And then there was the singular genius of Dr. Seuss:  I have a clear memory of clutching my parents hands as we walked to Brooklyn’s Avenue J Library; then sitting, transfixed, in the children’s section, discovering Theodor Geisel’s absurd, illuminating universe for the first time.

All of those wonderful books impacted and influenced me (and, in the case of comic books, launched me on my career path), but some of the stories that left the deepest echoes in my young soul were stories that, for the most part, I first encountered on television:

There was The Wizard of Oz, played once a year, every year.  (Can a child today, able to watch the film ad infinitum on DVD, possibly imagine the thrill of pulling a chair up close to the TV and waiting, with almost desperate anticipation, for that MGM lion to roar?)  A Christmas Carol, which, every Christmas Eve in New York, would be played at least three times (on The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, and The Late, Late, Late Show.  Two runs for the absolutely perfect 1951 version with Alistair Sim, with the 1938 Reginald Owen interpretation sandwiched in between.  My mother would eventually shuffle off to sleep, but my father and sister always stayed up with me to watch them all).  I adore Disney’s Peter Pan (the scene of Peter and the children flying over London is one of the most thrilling in screen history), but it was the Mary Martin version—which appeared on television with less frequency than Oz and so, in some ways, was even more of a special event—that first captured me.  Especially the ending:  The eternally-young Peter returns to London, not realizing that decades have passed, and is horrified to find Wendy ”ever so much more than twenty.”  I was horrified, too—and deeply moved, in ways my young mind couldn’t really fathom, by the strange, sad tricks of Time.

Then of course there was the King of the Modern Imagination—a man who remains one of my heroes—Walt Disney:  feeding me his dreams through the movie houses, certainly (the first movie I remember seeing was a re-release of Disney’s Cinderella, when I was two or three:  sitting on my mother’s lap, watching those birds and mice caper across a mind-bogglingly huge screen), but far more intimately through weekly doses of Walt Disney Presents—which later became The Wonderful World of Color (made no difference to me, since we had a black and white television).  The Disney story that impacted me more than any other was Pinocchio.  I’m pretty sure I saw the movie—the Citizen Kane of animated films—when I was a kid, but what I remember most was a record I owned (yes, a record.  Those large, disc-shaped objects that existed before CDs) which featured Jiminy Cricket himself narrating Pinoke’s story, with music and dialogue from the film.  I would listen to that recording again and again and again; lost, in terror and amazement, in the belly of the great whale, Monstro.

When I finally got around to actually reading those childhood classics, my respect for the tales deepened even more.  Okay, so I never actually finished Collodi’s Pinocchio—the Disney version is so perfect that it pretty much ruined me for any other interpretation—but Barrie, Dickens and Baum quickly became friends; Dickens and Baum two of the greatest friends I’ve ever had.  I could write essays about all of these extraordinary tales—and, with time and luck, I will—but there’s another television-borne story I’d like to focus on here; actually a series of stories that permeated the deeps of my child-mind in wonderful—and wonderfully chilling—ways:

The Twilight Zone.

Unquestionably my favorite television show ever (the original Star Trek is a close second; but, sorry Captain Kirk, not close enough).  I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing a new story and then suddenly realized that, in some way, it was done before, and better, on The Twilight Zone.  Go to the movies, turn on your television, and you’ll see Rod Serling’s fingerprints everywhere.  (And let’s give credit to Serling’s brilliant collaborators, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson—as well as to the man who influenced all of them, the literary god who looms so large on my altar, Ray Bradbury.)

I have a clear and powerful memory of the first Zone episode I ever saw (I was five years old, staying up late at my Aunt’s house on a Friday night):  it was called “Time Enough At Last” and if you’re a TZ aficionado you probably know that it’s the episode featuring Burgess Meredith as a bespectacled bookworm who inadvertently survives a nuclear attack and becomes the last man on Earth (or at least in New York).  Meredith’s character, Mr. Henry Bemis, is miserable, lonely, despairing.  On the verge of suicide he stumbles through the ruins, looks up—and sees a library:  a massive, glorious library that wouldn’t look out of place in Emerald City.  In the next scene, Bemis has got books, miles of books, spread out across the library steps. He’s happier than he’s ever been.  “Time enough at last,” he says, ready to begin the feast.  And then his glasses slip from his sweaty face, fall—and shatter.  An absolutely heartbreaking ending (so much so that my daughter, who, thanks to her cultured father, has received an in-depth TZ education, refuses to watch it.  Oh, she knows what the ending is, she made me tell her.  But just hearing about it made her cry).

Despite the tragic ending, despite the haunting—and, at the time of broadcast, frighteningly relevant—images of post-nuclear devastation (the episode never addresses the fact that Bemis will undoubtedly die of radiation poisoning; or perhaps the broken glasses themselves are the metaphor), the image that mesmerized me was the library.  Equally significant was Mr. Bemis’s extraordinary solitude.  I’ve always been someone who enjoyed the universes inside his own head as much as—sometimes more than—the alleged Real World, so, even at that young age, the idea of one man absolutely alone with all the books he could ever want was tantalizing.  Magical.

In a strange way I grew up to become a kind of Mr. Bemis, spending decades alone in a room with stories as my only companions.  Okay, so I’m writing them, and Bemis was reading them; but, in both cases, it’s about immersing your consciousness in alternate worlds; in preferring those worlds to the bogus reality being fed to us daily by the maya-weavers at CNN.  And I have to wonder:  Did my impressionable young mind respond so powerfully to that episode because it was in my nature to?  Or did “Time Enough At Last” somehow dictate what that nature would be?  Who I would become as I grew older?

Even more significant, I think, is the world view that those collective TZ episodes created.  Serling, Matheson and the rest birthed a vision of a universe that moved and had purpose.  A universe that was alive:  conscious and interactive.  Looking back, the vision could be cynical on occasion, cruel and unfair (the fate of poor Mr. Bemis being a prime example)—but, at its best (“Walking Distance,” “A Stop At Willoughby,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The After Hours” come immediately to mind), the Zone universe was one that responded to our deepest wishes and our soul’s needs.  It offered up opportunities for redemption (often to people society viewed as beyond saving) or, when necessary, a swift, cosmic kick in the pants.  Years of spiritual search have convinced me that Serling and his collaborators were right:  the universe is very much alive and interactive; is in fact a reflection of our own minds and hearts and truest, deepest Selves.  Every day of our lives is a journey through “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”

And again I wonder:  Did the Zone somehow prepare me for the spiritual search that gripped my soul at a young age, perhaps even inspire it in some way?  Or did I respond to those stories because, in my heart, I understood that The Twilight Zone reflected the truth of our lives far better than stories that claimed to be, excuse the expression, “realistic”?  I tend to think the latter is true:  When our souls are set aflame by an idea, a philosophy, a story, it’s because we’re responding to eternal truths that we already know and believe—even if they might seem (to our conscious minds) blazingly, brilliantly, new.  Our deepest wisdom, our deepest joy, is already there, like a long-buried memory, inside us, just waiting to be reawakened.   

At five years old, up past my bedtime, bathing in the television’s blue glow, Rod Serling’s universe wasn’t alien to me:  I recognized it.  I was home.  So you could say I was born a citizen of The Twilight Zone.  For that matter, I was born a citizen of Oz and Neverland, Dickens’s London and The Magic Kingdom.  All these stories continue to echo through my consciousness and influence my work, and my life, in strange, miraculous ways I still don’t completely understand.

©copyright 2017  J.M. DeMatteis

Saturday, June 10, 2017

THE STORY BEHIND THE HUNT—2017

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Kraven's Last Hunt, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post this essay from a few years back that details the creation of the story.  Enjoy!  (Update:  Just found out the first chapter came out in July, not June, but let's pretend it's June for the sake of this post!)




Confession:  I didn’t write Kraven's Last Hunt.

Well, not in the way you think.

Writers like to to believe they’re in control of their material, but that’s just a comforting lie.  After more than twenty-five years of making my living as a storyteller, it’s become extremely—sometimes painfully—clear to me that I’m just a vehicle, a way for the story to get out into the world.  But it’s the story itself that does the telling.  If that sounds like I’m saying stories have lives of their own, well...that’s exactly right.  I’m convinced that stories are living creatures:  they move, they think, they breathe.  Maybe not in the way we flesh-and-blood humans do; but in some unfathomable fashion, in some unfathomable realm, these creatures we call Stories —I think the capital S is deserved—exist.  And so do the characters that populate them.  And the Stories—not the writers, artists, or editors—are very much in control.  Some of these Imaginal Worlds choose to emerge, fully formed, in a white heat of creation-energy.  Others—like the Kraven Saga—well, they like to take their time.
  
It was a long road from the first glimmer of inspiration, somewhere around 1984 or ‘85, to the final, published work.  If it had been up to me—and thank goodness it wasn’t—the original idea would have seen print as, of all things, a Wonder Man mini-series (Simon Williams—defeated in battle by his brother, the Grim Reaper—awakens in a coffin, claws his way out and discovers that he’s been buried alive for months).  But the Story knew better.  It knew that it needed time to brew in my unconscious and find the proper form.  Tom DeFalco—then Marvel’s Executive Editor—agreed.  When I pitched him my Wonder Man idea, he promptly rejected it.  But there was something in that “return from the grave” concept that wouldn’t let go.
  
My next stop, some months later, was DC Comics, where I pitched what I thought was an incredible idea to editor Len Wein (who was then overseeing the Batman line):  the Joker kills Batman—at least he believes he does—and, with the primary reason for his existence eliminated, the villain’s mind snaps.  Of course the Joker is already insane, so when he snaps...he goes sane.  Batman, meanwhile, is buried and when, weeks later, he claws his way up from the grave—the Joker’s fragile new existence is tragically upended.  Len had another Batman-Joker story on his desk—something called The Killing Joke by a new British writer named Alan Moore (what ever happened to him, anyway?)—and thought that the Joker elements in my story overlapped certain elements in Alan’s.

Rejection.  Again.  (I managed to revive the "Going Sane" idea nearly a decade later—and it's gone on to become one of my all-time favorites.)
 
I was disappointed—but I suspect the Story was quite pleased with these events.  It knew the timing wasn’t right.  Knew what elements it needed for its emergence.  And so it waited patiently while I—
  
Well, I rewrote it again.  As a Spider-Man story?  No.  As yet another Batman story.  I dumped the Joker and replaced him with Hugo Strange.  I recalled a classic Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers story where Strange—for all of two pages, I think—was wearing Batman’s costume.  And I thought:  Wouldn’t it be interesting if Hugo Strange is the one who apparently kills Batman and, in his arrogance and ego, decides to become Batman, putting on the costume, taking over the role, in order to prove his superiority?  I was convinced I now had a story no editor could turn down.
  
By this time, Len Wein had gone freelance and Denny O’Neil had replaced him as Batman editor.  Guess what?
  
Denny bounced it.
  
So now I’ve had this idea rejected three times, by three of the best editors in the business.  Maybe, I thought, I’m delusional.  Maybe I should just give up and move on.
  
But the Story wouldn’t let me.
  
I was frustrated, to say the least, by all the doors slamming in my face, but this seed of an idea—well, by this time it had pushed up through the soil and was sprouting branches and leaves—just kept growing, unfolding at its own pace, in its own time.  It knew, even if I clearly didn’t, that it would soon find the form, and, most important, the characters, it had been seeking all along.
  
Autumn, 1986.  I was visiting the Marvel office one day when Jim Owsley, editor of the Spider-Man line, and Tom DeFalco (what?  Him again?) invited me out to lunch.  They wanted me to pick up the writing duties on Spectacular Spider-Man but I was reluctant to commit to another monthly book.  Owsley and DeFalco were insistent.  I weakened.  They pushed harder.  I agreed.
  
And, by the time I got home, I realized what a stroke of good fortune this was:  I now had another chance, probably my last chance, to take a crack at this “back from the grave” idea.  More important:  I discovered, as I worked away on the proposal, that Spider-Man—recently married to Mary Jane—was a far better choice than either Wonder Man or Batman.  Peter Parker is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any super-hero universe.  Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read—and write—about him:  the quintessential Everyman.  And that Everyman’s love for his new wife, for the new life they were building together, was the emotional fuel that ignited the story.  It was Mary Jane’s presence, her heart and soul, that reached down into the deeps of Peter’s heart and soul, forcing him up out of that coffin, out of the grave, into the light.
  
And that’s how Kraven’s Last Hunt was born.
  
Well, not really.  You see, Kraven wasn’t in the picture yet.  Genius that I am, I thought:  Okay, so I can’t use Hugo Strange.  Why not create my own villain—a new villain—to play that role in the story?  And that’s what I did.  (Don’t ask me the name of this brilliant new creation...or anything else about him...because, honestly, I don’t recall a thing!)  Off the outline went to Owsley.  He loved it.  “Let’s do it,” he said.  I was ecstatic.  The journey was finally done.
  
Well, it might have been done for me—but not for the Story.  There were a few final elements it needed to complete itself.
 
I was sitting in my office one afternoon, doing what all writers do best:  avoiding work, wasting time.  This was before the internet—the single greatest time-wasting tool in the history of humanity—so I was browsing through some comics that had piled up on the floor.  I picked up a Marvel Universe Handbook.  Stopped, for no particular reason, at the entry for Kraven the Hunter.
  
Please understand that I had no interest whatsoever in Kraven.  In fact, I always thought he was one of the most generic, uninteresting villains in the Spider-Man gallery.  Couldn’t hold a candle to Doc Ock or the Green Goblin.
  
But buried in this Marvel Universe entry was one intriguing fact:  Kraven—was Russian.  (To this day I don’t know if this was something that had been established in continuity or if the writer of that particular entry tossed it in on a whim.)
  
Russian?  Russian!
  
Why should that excite me so?  One word:  Dostoyevsky.  When I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in high school, they seeped in through my brain, wormed their way down into my nervous system...and ripped me to shreds.  No other novelist has ever explored the staggering duality of existence, illuminated the mystical heights and the despicable depths of the human heart, with the brilliance of Dostoyevsky.  The Russian soul, as exposed in his novels, was really the Universal Soul.  It was my soul.
  
And Kraven was Russian.
  
In an instant, I understood Sergei Kravinov.  In an instant, the entire story changed focus.  In an instant, I called Owsley, told him to forget The New Villain.  This was a Kraven the Hunter story.
  
Jim wasn’t thrilled with the idea.  He liked the new villain.  But, God bless him, he let me have my way.
  
And now the story was complete, right?
  
Almost.  You see, Owsley had cajoled Mike Zeck into drawing Spectacular Spider-Man.  Mike and I had worked together, for several years, on Captain America.  I can think of a handful of super-hero artists as good as Zeck, but I can’t think of a single one who’s better.  Mike’s drawing is fluid, energetic, deeply emotional...and he tells a story with such apparent effortlessness that scripting from his pages feels equally effortless.  Mike left the Cap series (to draw the original Secret Wars) just as we were hitting our collaborative stride—and I was thrilled by the chance to pick up where we’d left off.      
   
I’ve been been playing this game long enough to know that writer/artist chemistry can’t be created or forced:  it’s either there or it’s not.  With Mike, it was there...and then some.  If any other artist had drawn this story—even if every single plot point, every single word, had been exactly the same—it wouldn’t have touched people in the same way or garnered the enthusiastic response that it’s still getting, more than twenty years after its creation.   It wouldn’t have been Kraven’s Last Hunt.  (Not my title, by the way.  I called it Fearful Symmetry—in honor of another of my literary heroes, William Blake.  Jim Salicrup, who took over the editing chores when Jim Owsley left staff, was the one who came up with KLH.  Salicrup was also the guy who had a genius idea that people have been copying ever since:  run the six-part story through all three Spider-books, over the course of two months.  We’re accustomed to seeing that today.  In 1987 it was revolutionary.)     
  
Because Zeck was on board, I decided to toss a Captain America villain we created together—the man-rat called Vermin—into the mix.  A casual decision (well, it seemed casual to me; but I suspect the Story knew otherwise) that proved extremely important:  Vermin turned out to be the pivotal element, providing the contrast between Peter Parker’s vision of Spider-Man and Kraven’s distorted mirror image.   
  
Now here’s the strangest part:  In the years that had passed from the time I pitched the original Wonder Man idea, my personal life had gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket.  I’ll spare you the sordid details:  Let’s just say I was in a period of my life where each day was a Herculean struggle.  I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker; as much a dweller in the depths as Vermin; as lost, as desperate, as shattered as Sergei Kravinov.
  
In short, it was a miserable time to be me—but the perfect time to write the story.  Had I created a version of Last Hunt a few years before, or a few years after (when my life had healed itself in miraculous ways), it wouldn’t have been the same.  My own personal struggles, mirrored in the struggles of our three main characters, were, I think, what gave the writing such urgency and emotional honesty.  (I don’t know what inspired Zeck’s brilliant work, but I hope it wasn’t anything as harrowing.)
  
So tell me:  Who, exactly, is in charge here?  Who really wrote that story?  I thought it was me—but, all along, there was something growing, evolving, emerging in its own time, when the creative conditions were absolutely perfect.  Oh, I’ll cash the checks.  I’ll even accept the praise.  But, in my heart, I know there’s Something Bigger out there, working its magic through me...and through all of us who call ourselves writers.
  
Stories have lives of their own.
  
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.





© copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis

Thursday, June 1, 2017

WITH THE BEATLES

Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—an album many consider the Beatles’ greatest.  I don’t know if anyone is really capable of judging what the “greatest” anything is—I certainly can’t—but I can certainly offer up my list of favorite Beatles albums, starting with my top pick and moving on down the list. 



1.  The Beatles aka The White Album (1968)
For years if you asked me what my favorite Beatles album was I’d say, “It’s either The White Album or Abbey Road.”  But then came the 2009 remastering of the Beatles catalogue and The White Album—its sound refreshed, restored, revitalized—beat Abbey Road to the finish line.  This, for me, is the greatest—and most diverse—collection of Beatles material:  John is in absolute peak form, delivering everything from the haunting acoustic longing of “Julia” to the soul-ravaged desperation of “Yer Blues,” from the sunshine-euphoria of “Dear Prudence” to the twisted genius of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” one of the single greatest, and most under-appreciated, gems in the Beatles canon.  (And yes, I think “Revolution #9” is brilliant.  And, no, I don’t listen to it very often.)  Paul’s not far behind, trying his hand at vaudeville (“Honey Pie”), shrieking rock (“Helter Skelter”),  pseudo-Beach Boys (“Back in the USSR”) and delivering one of his true masterpieces, “Blackbird.”  George serves up three of his best (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies” and “Long, Long, Long” and a fun throwaway, “Savoy Truffle”) and even Ringo gets in on the action, contributing his first solo composition, warbling an off-kilter country tune.

In the end, The White Album is an almost-overwhelming explosion of ideas, styles and genres:  there’s musical shrapnel flying in every direction.  Some people—George Martin among them—thought the album would have been better had the Beatles winnowed it down to a single LP, that the whole thing was a little too messy, too chaotic.  I respectfully, and wholeheartedly, disagree.

2.  Abbey Road (1969)
Side one of the band’s final album (Let It Be was released later, but this was the last the four created together) gives us two certifiable Lennon classics (“Come Together”—driven by the hypnotic combination of Paul's bass and Ringo's drums—and the primal scream precursor “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”), George’s most celebrated song (“Something”) and a charming Ringo ditty (“Octopus’s Garden”).  If Paul doesn’t quite keep up—“Oh, Darling” offers an astounding McCartney vocal, but “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is one of my least favorite Beatles songs—he more than makes up for the lack on side two.

Technically, the famous medley doesn’t start till a few songs in, but I’ve always considered the entire side to be all of a piece, starting with George’s masterpiece, “Here Comes The Sun”—the greatest Lennon-McCartney song that John and Paul never wrote—leading into John’s gorgeous “Because” (featuring Paul, John and George harmonizing like it’s still 1960) and on through a dizzying array of brilliant music that climaxes with McCartney, at the very top of his game, leading his bandmates through a grand finale that writes an ending not just to this album but to the Beatles’ extraordinary career.  The production, by the impeccable George Martin, feels fresh—utterly contemporary—nearly fifty years later.  The miracle of Abbey Road is that the Beatles, in the process of dissolving, never sounded better.  Talk about going out on top.

3.  Rubber Soul (1965)
Recorded in a white heat while the band was still on a constant touring treadmill, Rubber Soul, more than any other Beatles album, buried the band’s mop-top image and announced to the world that these four young men were artists with a capital A.  The Lennon-McCartney songs are mature, insightful, weary, cynical, nostalgic, hopeful (a far cry from “She Loves You” recorded only two years before): “In My Life,” “Nowhere Man” “Girl” and “Norwegian Wood” are among the best they ever composed.  George Harrison takes a giant leap forward as a songwriter with “Think For Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone.”   And it’s all wrapped in George Martin production that’s warm, inviting and intimate.  The audiences were still screaming but, if you were really listening, you could hear, beneath the din, the sound of four young musicians smashing through their limitations—and ours, too.

4.  A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Do you want to know what Beatlemania was all about?  Put on this album and feel the energy, the optimism, the sense of something new and wonderful rising like a wave across the world.  (There are shadows of the darker music to come, as well, lurking on the second, non-soundtrack side.) A Hard Day’s Night, the movie, revolutionized rock and roll cinema, but this album was the soundtrack of our hearts and souls, capturing the moment as expertly as Pepper captured the Summer of Love three years later.  Lennon is at another peak here, the title track alone secures him a place in the songwriter’s hall of fame, but Paul’s not exactly slacking with “And I Love Her” and “Things We Said Today.”  And both sing as if their lives depended on it, which maybe they did.  Much has been made of the fact that two such talented songwriters could end up together in the same band, but it’s equally astonishing that Lennon and McCartney, singularly and together, were two of the greatest singers in the history of popular music.

5.  Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Pepper gets all the love, but when I want to listen to psychedelic-era Beatles, this is the album I turn to.  (Yes, I know it’s not technically a real album—it’s Capital Records cross-breeding a British EP with a group of uncollected singles—  but MMT transcends its cash-grab roots.)  Pepper captured the spirit of ’67, to be sure, but the songs here are so much stronger, from “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” (yanked off the Sgt. Pepper album for a two-headed monster of a single) to the ultimate flower power anthem “All You Need Is Love”; from Paul’s gorgeous and insightful “Fool on the Hill” to John’s surreal masterpiece “I Am The Walrus.”  This is the Beatles experimenting—in the studio and in their own heads—and creating musical landscapes that had never been heard before.

6.  Revolver (1966)
Many critics rate Revolver as the Beatles’ greatest album—and I understand why.  This is where the studio experimentation began in earnest (there had never been a pop song like Lennon’s Tibetan-acid mantra “Tomorrow Never Knows” before; even to call it a pop song seems wrong, somehow).  John is moving deeper into his own head, with songs like the aforementioned “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and what, for me, is the album’s best song, “She Said She Said.”  Paul’s melodic and lyrical genius comes into full flower with “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One”; and, for the first time, George gets three tracks—all of them solid—onto a Beatles album, creating one of the first true East-West musical hybrids with “Love You To.” 

So why isn’t Revolver higher on my list?  That’s something I’ve asked myself a number of times.  It could be because I came to the album a few years late—don’t ask me how, but it’s one of the few Beatles albums I didn’t purchase in real time, when it was released—but I think it has more to do with the production.  Unlike Rubber Soul before it, and Pepper afterwards, both of which were warm, welcoming and expansive, there’s something cold about Revolver’s production that creates a distance between the listener (well, this listener) and the music.  Which doesn’t make it any less brilliant or groundbreaking.  Distance or not, Revolver is a towering achievement.  

7.  Help! (1965)
This is another album that came alive for me in new ways with the 2009 remasters.  It’s always been a favorite, but the new version made it clear that Help! is Rubber Soul, Part One:  the two could be paired together as a double album and the union would be seamless.  (In fact, two of these tracks did appear on the American version of Rubber Soul and fit like a glove.)

There are weaknesses here:  George’s two contributions are just okay, his real breakthrough as a songwriter would come on Rubber Soul—and “Act Naturally” is a pleasant, but disposable, diversion for Ringo.  But the title track, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “Ticket to Ride” are three all-time Lennon greats (I’m also fond of the much-maligned “It’s Only Love”:  most of the maligning done by Lennon himself).  McCartney delivers up the heartfelt, exhilarating “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the underappreciated “Tell Me What You See” and a little ditty—perhaps you’ve heard of it?—called “Yesterday.”  And it’s all capped off with a look back at the band’s rock and roll roots, as Lennon screams his way through Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.”  If there’s an underrated album in the Beatles catalogue, this is it.



8.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Is Pepper the best album the Beatles ever recorded?  I don’t think so.  Is it the most influential pop album of all time?  Possibly.  Does it capture a time, a spirit, a sense of inward seeking and creative expansion, in a way few other albums do?  Absolutely.  I love Pepper’s freedom and playfulness, it’s open-armed embrace of the audience; and if “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” had been included as originally planned, I suspect it would be higher on my list.   But the bottom line is that, for the most part, the songs on Sgt. Pepper aren’t half as strong as the creativity brought to bear on those songs.

That said, John and Paul’s astonishing “A Day in the Life” is where the Pepper myth and reality collide:  the song deserves every accolade it’s ever received and more.  Lennon’s vocal alone—so cold it’s hot, so alienated it’s intimate—is enough to lodge the track in your heart and head forever.  And the climax feels like the end of one universe and the birth of another.  Which I suppose it was—although not in the way everyone expected at the time. 

9.  Let It Be (1970)
Yes, the sessions were, by all accounts, a nightmare.  Yes, Phil Spector’s production capsized “Long and Winding Road” and several other tracks.  But there’s so much good music on Let It Be—“I’ve Got A Feeling,” "One After 909," “Dig A Pony,” “Two of Us,” “Get Back,” all of it perfectly calibrated by Spector—that it almost (almost!) doesn’t matter.  Let It Be Naked, released decades later, was a good attempt at re-creating the band’s original vision, but while some of it (especially the stripped-down versions of “Long and Winding Road” and “Across The Universe” and the much-needed inclusion of “Don’t Let Me Down”) was wonderful, much of it seemed redundant.  For completists—and aren’t we all?—there are also the endlessly-bootlegged Glynn Johns-produced versions of the album that the band famously rejected.  Twice. 

I’m not necessarily a huge fan of endless reissues, but if any Beatles album deserves a new, deluxe treatment it’s this one. I’d love to see a triple album, bringing all these previously-released versions together.  No, make that a quadruple set, because there was so much recorded during these sessions that you’d need a fourth album to do this strange chapter in the Beatles story justice.  Yes, Let It Be was a sprawling mess, but there’s priceless treasure in that mess.

10.  Beatles For Sale (1964)
The myth says they were tired, burned out by Beatlemania, that they didn’t have enough material to make an album that met their considerable standards—and maybe that’s true.  But any album that includes “No Reply,” “I’m A Loser,” “I’ll Follow The Sun,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” “What You’re Doing” and “Eight Days A Week” can’t be written off.  If Beatles For Sale showcases the Beatles at their most uninspired, then the album is proof of their genius.  (And, oh yes, there’s also John kicking ass on Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and Paul doing the same with “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!”)

11.  With The Beatles (1963)
The band’s second album kicks off with Lennon, both desperate and exhilarated, singing “It Won’t Be Long” and ends with John almost (but not quite) topping “Twist and Shout” with a primal screaming interpretation of “Money.”  Paul’s “All My Loving” is an instant classic, imbued with all of his warmth and charm, George makes his songwriting debut with “Don’t Bother Me” and the rest of the album, though not always offering first-tier Beatles, still captures the raw energy, charisma and inventiveness of the band’s euphoric early days of global fame. 

12.  Please Please Me (1962)
A debut for the ages—and it begins and ends with all-time classics:  Paul’s exuberant “I Saw Her Standing There” and John’s throat-shredding interpretation of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”  In between we get the band’s first two hits—“Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”—and an always-engaging array of covers and originals, including the surprisingly introspective “There’s A Place,” one of the best of the early Lennon-McCartney collaborations. 

13.  Yellow Submarine (1968)
Mostly a combination of previously-released Beatles songs used in the animated movie and George Martin’s score for the film (which, as film music goes, is very good; it’s just not what we signed up for).  In many ways, this is a non-album.  The only lasting value is found in the four new tracks:  two underrated gems—John’s rocking “Hey Bulldog” and George’s cosmic epic “It’s All Too Much”—a cheerful McCartney throwaway, “All Together Now,” and one of George's lesser offerings, "It's Only A Northern Song."  If Yellow Submarine had been released in the digital age, people would have been downloading those four tracks and ignoring the rest of the album.   

Although they’re not “official” albums, I have to mention two more favorites—Past Masters Volumes One & Two—that collect various singles and EP tracks that never made it onto the original British albums.  You get everything from early hits like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to turning point songs like “We Can Work It Out” and “Rain” to later era classics  like “Hey Jude” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”  Hell, you even get the Beatles singing in German.  




©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, May 22, 2017

NERDERY

While I was at Houston's Comicpalooza last week, I did an interview with the Nerdery podcast.  The sound's a little wonky, but if you crank it up, you should be able to hear it all.  Enjoy!

(And, while you're at it, you might enjoy this interview I did with Tinker, Tailor, Comics, Writer.  You can read it right here.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

SIGNING FOR SPIDEY

My two year run on Spectacular Spider-Man, with the brilliant Sal Buscema, is one of my all-time favorite projects.  My creative chemistry with Sal was there from the first page, first panel, and I think we brought out the best in each other—and in Peter Parker.  

The Spec run has never been collected in its entirety, but an enterprising fan has started a petition in an attempt to make it so.  If you're so inclined, you can sign it here.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

JOURNEYS TO PODLANDIA

I've done a wave of podcast interviews the past couple of months and this is the most recent:  an interesting (well, I hope it's interesting) conversation with The Non Breaking Space Show.  The interview is embedded below.  Enjoy!

Monday, May 1, 2017

COASTING

Had a wonderful weekend at the East Coast Comicon, spending time with old friends (everyone from Bob Budiansky to Marv Wolfman, Ann Nocenti to Danny Fingeroth), meeting many wonderful fans and generally having a fine time.  

The highlights of the weekend were the two anniversary panels celebrating the 30th of both Kraven's Last Hunt and Justice League International.  For Kraven, we had just about the entire creative team together for the first time ever and for JLI—well, I never get tired of spending time with Giffen and Maguire.   

There'll be more JLI and Kraven anniversary fun in August at Terrificon and I'm looking forward to continuing the celebrations.

With my fellow Stooges, "Moe" Giffen and "Curly" Maguire


These guys looked so familiar, but I couldn't quite place them.


The Kraven Crew: Bob McLeod, JMD, Mike Zeck, Rick Parker and Jim Salicrup


Kraven conversations


My dear pal, and longtime Spider-editor, Danny Fingeroth.  (Maguire looks askance in the background)