Sunday, August 30, 2015

HOW MANY LIFETIMES?

I discovered today that the fine folks at CD Baby have put all the songs from my 1997 album How Many Lifetimes? on Youtube—which means I can share the music right here, starting with the title track.  Enjoy!  (And if you're interested in buying the album, just hop over to the Creation Point music page.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

HAIL TO THE KING!

In honor of Jack Kirby’s birthday, here’s an essay I first posted here back in 2010.  Enjoy!



Like most people too in love with their own opinions, I’m fond of sweeping statements, and one of the sweeping statements I often toss out when the subject of comic books comes up is this:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two formidable talents who forged the Marvel Age of Comics—and, one might argue, all comics that followed—were the Lennon and McCartney of their medium.  Rock and roll and comic books were two of my greatest passions growing up and the link has always seemed obvious to me.  The Beatles, led by John and Paul, redefined popular music in the sixties, just as Marvel, led by Stan and Jack, redefined comics.  (Not that DC was sitting around doing nothing, mind you...any more than Dylan, the Stones and the Who were; but the Beatles and Marvel, at least in this writer’s opinion, were way ahead of the pack.)  But all that blew apart when the decade turned.

Those of you too young to have been comics fans in 1970—that tumultuous twelve months of Kent State, student strikes and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip—can’t begin to grasp the impact that three words—”Kirby Is Here!”—had when they appeared on the cover of, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  I was sixteen, a devoted Marvel follower, and still naive enough to believe that Lee and Kirby were as inseparable as, well, Lennon and McCartney.  Of course 1970 was also the year in which the Beatles publicly disintegrated, as well.  “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang—and it certainly was.  Across the board.  Across the country.  The idealism, the optimism, the inspired lunacy of the sixties—which had spread throughout our culture via music, film, novels, and, yes, comics—was beginning to turn sour.  Let’s face it:  if Stan and Jack, if John and Paul, couldn’t keep it together, what possible chance did the rest of us have?  (This sounds incredibly silly now, but, believe me, this was an unbelievably urgent question then.  At least to me.) 

But the energy and enthusiasm of those years was still pushing us forward and, in some ways, the creative energy of the early seventies surpassed the sixties.  Sure, the Beatles were a dead issue, but the music Lennon produced in the years after the split, most notably the brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, was some of the most powerful, important music rock and roll had ever heard.   (I told you I was fond of sweeping statements.)  And this music was produced as a direct result of Lennon’s boredom with the Beatles, of his pulling away from McCartney’s influence, from the security of success.  He danced out on a limb, the limb held, and the result was Art.


The same can be said of Kirby.  With Lee, he had taken mainstream comics and turned them inside out, upside down, and left his mark forever.  But, as his later Marvel work too clearly showed, he was bored.  How many times can the Thing turn against his partners?  How often can Loki tiptoe past Odin’s bed and usurp the throne of Asgard?  Pretty often—but too often for a restless limb-dancer like Jack Kirby.  As with Lennon, Kirby’s vision was unique, singular; and, if his collaboration with Lee (as important to Marvel’s success as McCartney was to the Beatles’; neither man should be understimated) brought Kirby to new levels, those levels had now been attained, a plateau had been reached, and it was time to move on.  Without collaboration.  Artists, real artists, tend to burn.  When they’ve burned long enough, the smoke starts pouring through their lips and they’ve got to spit the fire out. 

In 1970, Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC and started spitting fire.  The fire was called The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Jimmy Olsen and Forever People.  Books as important to comics as Lennon’s POB album was to rock.  Books that opened new doors, set new standards, did things that comics had never dared to do before.  New Gods was clearly the most focused, perhaps the best of the bunch; Mister Miracle offered the most flat-out fun; Jimmy Olsen was as wonderfully bizarre, in its way, as those Silver Age stories that featured Jimmy turning into aliens, werewolves and giant turtles.  Forever People—which featured Kirby’s cosmic hippies, the embodiment of youth and naivete, idealism and dreams—was my personal favorite; encapsulating, as it did, Kirby’s (and my own) hope for the future.  True, the dialogue in these stories was sometimes awkward—but dialogue was never Kirby’s forte.  Story-telling was.  Spirit was.  Vision was.  And these stories had them all.  They ran, they rambled, they surprised, they exploded.  (The language often did the same thing:  the dialogue, as noted, may have been clunky, but Kirby’s prose was also so wildly passionate, so utterly idiosyncratic, that it achieved a kind of mad poetic grandeur.)  There seemed no definite beginning, middle, or end; there was just the constant search, the quest for an intangible something that could never be defined.  The characters themselves couldn’t be called three dimensional, in the conventional sense, but they existed in a dimension all their own.   Orion and Lightray, Scott and Barda, Big Bear, Serafin, Desaad and, perhaps the greatest villain in the history of comic books, Darkseid:  these were people that I, as a reader, cared passionately about.  I enjoyed their company—and looked forward to their evolution.  Unfortunately, for reasons that I’ve never heard adequately explained, that evolution was cut short.  With the exception of Mister Miracle (which staggered on for several more issues), all the “Fourth World” titles were axed.

But you can’t kill a dream—and these stories live on, resonating not just through the DC Universe but all of popular culture.  The word genius is one that’s often overused, and cheapened by that overuse, but if the comic book business has ever produced a genius, Jack Kirby was it.  And that genius’s magnum opus was unquestionably the “Fourth World” saga.  If you’ve read it before, I urge you to read it again.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to put aside your preconceptions, grab the first volume of the Fourth World Omnibus and surrender to one of the 20th Century’s master storytellers. 


© copyright 2015 J.M. DeMatteis 

Monday, August 17, 2015

WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE...?

This is a revised and updated version of a post from 2009.  Enjoy!

***

One of the questions writers often get—from both interviewers and fans—is “Of all the things you’ve worked on, what’s your favorite?”  Well, if you’ve only been a professional writer for a few years, that’s probably an easy question to answer.  If you’ve been doing it for more than thirty five years, as I have, it’s a little harder to winnow things down.

That said, I’ve decided to indulge myself and compile a Top Ten list.   (And, yes, I cheated by occasionally listing more than one story or series in an entry.)  Keep in mind these aren’t necessarily the best things I’ve ever done—I’ll leave that for other people to decide—these are the projects that brought me the most joy, the most creative challenges.  That stretched me—as both a craftsman and an artist.  That were just plain fun.  (I'm just focusing on comic books here:  perhaps I'll do a post about my work in other media another time.)

Here they are, in no particular order:

1)  ABADAZAD/THE STARDUST KID




Back in the mid-1980’s I had an idea for a story called “Silver Shoes.”  It was about a little girl, living with her abusive father, who’s befriended by an old woman named Dorothy.  Not just any Dorothy:  this old lady claims to be Dorothy Gale, from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz.  After Dorothy passes away, the girl finds a gift the old woman has left behind for her:  a pair of silver shoes (that’s what they were in Baum’s book.  MGM magically transformed them into technicolor-friendly ruby slippers for the 1939 film) that the girl uses to escape her father and live happily ever after in Oz.  It was, I thought, a wonderful idea, but I never did much with it.  I just filed the story away and forgot about it. 

For ten years.

In the mid-90’s I started toying with an idea about a mother who discovers that her abducted son has been taken to a magical world that—she’d assumed—only existed in books.  I named the world Abadazad and began developing the story, but it wasn’t until 2003 that a new company called CrossGen enthusiastically agreed to publish the book.   CrossGen head honcho Mark Alessi recruited Mike Ploog—one of the greatest fantasy illustrators on the planet—to do the art and so began one of the most magical collaborations of my career.  (I also have to acknowledge the extraordinary work of Nick Bell, one of the finest colorists I’ve ever worked with.)

Then, after only three issues of Abadazad—all of them very well-received—had seen print, our publisher crashed and burned:  CrossGen went bankrupt.  I don’t need to go into all the depressing details here but we were eventually rescued from oblivion by Brenda Bowen, who was then the vice-president and editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books For Children.  We signed for a six book series (combining sequential comics with illustrated prose)—with the aim of doing six more beyond that—but, again, by the time the first three books came out we were dead in the water.  The reasons were complex—it wasn’t just about sales—but the bottom line was that the Abadazad series was cancelled.  Again.

It was the biggest heartbreak of my career—I think I’m still in mourning—but I still hold tight to the belief that, some day, some way, Abadazad will be back.  Magical thinking?  Perhaps.  But it’s a magical story.

I can’t talk about  ‘Zad without mentioning another all-ages project:  The Stardust Kid, which reunited the entire Abadazad creative team, features  some of the finest work of Mike Ploog’s amazing career.  (He may have actually topped his work on Abadazad.)  I created the story when my son was four years old, sold it to DC in the 80’s, bought it back, and, by the time it finally saw print, Cody was one of the book’s editors.  (Yes, some tales take a very long time to find their way into the world.)  The final version evolved considerably from my original conception—thanks, in no small part, to Ploog’s contributions—and it’s a fantasy-adventure that I remain incredibly proud of.       

2)  THE COMPLEAT MOONSHADOW


In my early years in comics I blundered along, trying desperately to find my own voice as a writer and ending up sounding like a damaged clone, created from the badly-mixed DNA of Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Roy Thomas and half-a-dozen other comic book writers I admired.  It’s not that my work was bad—well, actually, some of it was fairly horrendous—it’s just that I hadn’t found the way to fully express myself in the form.  Looking back, I think I was trapped by the super-hero genre itself.  As long as I was writing about the Defenders or Captain America, I would, in some way, be parroting stories, and styles, I’d been absorbing all my life.

Moonshadow changed that.

Someone (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who!) once said that whatever story you’re working on should be written as if it’s the only one you’ll ever tell—pouring all your thoughts, feelings, ideas, ideals, passions, philosophies, hopes and dreams...every iota of Who You Are...into it.  That’s what I did with Moonshadow.  And it allowed me to step outside the Marvel-DC mindset and discover my own voice.

Of course it didn’t hurt that I was working with Jon J Muth, as brilliant an artist as the medium has ever seen.  His work always challenged me.  Dared me to be better.  I hope I did the same for him.

Nearly ten years after the original Moonshadow series saw print, Muth and I reunited for a one-shot graphic novel called Farewell, Moonshadow that I think is, in some ways, even better than the original run. 

3)  BROOKLYN DREAMS


If I was forced to pick a single favorite on this list, it would probably be Brooklyn Dreams.  In an odd way it’s the same story as the one I told in Moonshadow, only it’s not presented as a fairy tale set in the far reaches of space, it’s a (very) thinly-disguised autobiography that takes place on the streets of Brooklyn.  I remember working on the script and feeling scared to death because BD was the single most personal piece I’d ever attempted.  The main character’s name may have been different, but it was my life I was writing about, in shameless, intimate detail.  I’ve learned, over the years, that being terrified is usually a sign that I’m on to something good.  It was certainly true in this case.  

When I was developing Brooklyn Dreams, I had a certain art style in my head.  In fact I knew exactly how I wanted the book to look, exactly how the drawing should interpret my elliptical, and time-jumping, story.  When I first laid eyes on Glenn Barr’s work, my head nearly exploded:  What was there on the page was what I’d been seeing in my mind all along.  And Glenn’s uncanny resonance with the story remained, and deepened, throughout our collaboration.

Chemistry between a writer and artist can’t be created.  It’s either there or it’s not. I’ve worked on projects where the script was strong, the art was strong, but that indefinable magic between writer and illustrator simply wasn’t there and the story just died on the page.  Not so with Glenn Barr.  Our collaboration was instant magic—and, for that, I am forever grateful.

4)  DR. FATE


Dr. Fate is a DC Comics character who’s been around since the l940’s.  In l987, I revamped the character—with considerable help from the frighteningly-creative Keith Giffen—for a mini-series and then, some months later, continued the story in an ongoing series, wonderfully illustrated, with both humor and humanity, by Shawn McManus.  I’d hazard a guess that most comics fans have never read our Dr. Fate run and that many who did were baffled by it.  I understand their confusion:  Our Fate series wove together mysticism, sit-com silliness, super-hero action, romance, Eastern philosophy, infantile toilet jokes and Serious Musings On The Nature Of Existence.  But that’s exactly why I loved working on it. 

It’s a rare occasion when you can work on a preexisting DC or Marvel character and be allowed to completely stamp it with your own unique, and very personal, vision.  It couldn’t have happened with one of the Major Icons, and I’m not sure it could happen at all in today’s comic book climate.  But the 80’s were the “anything goes” era in modern comics.  Writers, artists and editors were willing to push the boundaries to wonderful (and sometimes ludicrous) extremes.   It was an exciting time—and Dr. Fate was an exciting project.  My editors—Karen Berger and Art Young—gave me the freedom to follow my muse wherever it led me.  And, no matter what bizarre twists and turns the scripts took, Shawn was always there to bring them to vibrant life.

5) BATMAN:  GOING SANE


When people talk to me about my super-hero stories, they inevitably bring up Kraven’s Last Hunt as an example of my finest work—and who am I to argue?

Well, I guess I have to.

I think the best mainstream super-hero story I ever wrote was "Going Sane," which originally ran in four issues of DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight.   Here’s the premise:  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.  Joe Kerr soon creates a new life for himself, complete with an office job and a loving fiancĂ©.  Batman, meanwhile, finds himself recuperating in a small town, far away from the madness of Gotham—and has to reassess his life and his identity.  When the two finally come back together at the story’s end, well...if you’re as sentimental as I am, you just might find yourself shedding a tear for the Joker.

Again, no comic book story can succeed without the artwork—and the amazing Joe Staton (the guy has drawn everything from Scooby-Doo to Green Lantern) turned in some of the finest work of his career.  

6)  SPIDER-MAN: 
      KRAVEN’S LAST HUNT
      “BEST OF ENEMIES”
      (SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #200)
      “THE GIFT” (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400)
      “THE KISS” (WEBSPINNERS #1)

      “SPIDER DREAMS” (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #700)


I’ve written more Spider-Man stories than I’d care to count.  No matter how many times I walk away from the character, I keep coming back, because he’s real to me.  I don’t think there’s a character, in any super-hero universe, more psychologically nuanced, emotionally-compelling and wonderfully-neurotic than Peter Parker.  To this day I don’t think of Peter as a fictional character:  I think of him as an old friend.

As you can see, I cheated here.  I didn’t select one story, I selected six.  (I could easily have added more:  Spider-Man:  the Lost Years comes immediately to mind.)  The multi-part story collected as Kraven's Last Hunt—illustrated by Mike Zeck, at the top of his form—was the first super-hero story I wrote that allowed me to bring the lessons I’d learned writing Moonshadow over to the Marvel/DC mainstream.  (I wrote a lengthy, and, I hope, interesting introduction for the collected edition, detailing the story’s genesis.)   “Best of Enemies” was the culmination of a two year storyline (and a two-year collaboration with one of my personal comic book heroes, Sal Buscema) exploring the relationship between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn—and it’s my single favorite Spidey tale.  “The Gift”—illustrated by one of the all-time great Spider-artists, Mark Bagley—featured the death of Aunt May (don’t worry, she got better) and its publication resulted in one of the highlights of my career:  a phone call from comics legend John Romita, Sr. telling me that the story had moved him to tears.  “The Kiss” topped that, because I actually got to collaborate with Romita, Sr—on a short, sweet story about the last night Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy spent together.  “Spider Dreams” was my chance to say thank you to Peter Parker for all he’s given me over the years, both as a reader and a writer, as well as an opportunity to pay tribute to his web-headed alter ego and the men who created him.

7)  SEEKERS INTO THE MYSTERY


In the 90’s I did a number of projects for DC’S Vertigo line, but I can’t think of one that means more to me than Seekers Into The Mystery.  This was another case where the comics industry—specifically, editors Karen Berger and Shelly Bond—gave me a chance to write exactly what I wanted, in exactly the way I wanted.  No constraints, no directives.  And I got to do it in collaboration with the cream of the Vertigo crop:  Glenn Barr, Jon J Muth, Sandman’s Michael Zulli and Scary Godmother’s Jill Thompson.  

The series—centered on a soul-sick, failed screenwriter named Lucas Hart—touched on everything from the toxic effects of sexual abuse to the omnijective reality of UFOs; from the pain of divorce to the descent of the God-Man.  If I was listing these projects in order of preference, Seekers would be very close to the top. 

8)  GREENBERG THE VAMPIRE


Remember when I said that Moonshadow was the first project that allowed me to find my own voice as a writer?  Well, I lied.  (Or, as Mr. Spock might say, I exaggerated.)  A couple of years before Moonshadow, I did a story for Marvel’s black and white anthology magazine, Bizarre Adventures, about a reclusive Jewish horror writer who also happened to be a vampire.  I’d toyed with the idea as both a short story and a screenplay, which may explain why the characters hit the page fully alive and acting like, well, real people.  There was none of the clunky dialogue that was littering my super-hero stories.  Folks around the Marvel office responded very nicely to the story (which was beautifully illustrated by Steve Leialoha) but it was a one-shot deal...and I quickly went back to scripting earnest-but-awkward super-hero stories.  (The problem certainly wasn’t my passion:  I was pouring my heart into those stories.  It’s just that my craft hadn't yet caught up to my aspirations.)

Then came Moonshadow and the breakthrough that saved me as a writer.

Around the same time, I was renegotiating my contract with Marvel and I asked then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter if I could do an Oscar Greenberg graphic novel.  He said yes (I’m sure he was just being nice.  He couldn’t have possibly believed that a story that was a cross between Portnoy’s Complaint and Dracula—I didn’t come up with that description, Dwayne McDuffie did—would sell).  I called up a young artist named Mark Badger (at the time, we were working together on a mini-series called The Gargoyle—which just missed making this list) and Mark happily signed on.  Badger went on to become one of my favorite collaborators ever.  He’s a unique talent, a brilliant storyteller and his work on Greenberg was superb.

Greenberg allowed me to get in my little boat and push out into uncharted waters.  To try new things, explore new voices.  I’m delighted that a new edition, collecting both the original black and white story and the entire graphic novel, will be out in the fall. 

9)  THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAVIOR 28/“THAT WHICH IS MOST NEEDED”



Back in the 1980’s, when I was writing Captain America, I hatched a story that would have seen a disgusted Cap turn his back on violence and begin a new life as a global peace activist.  Marvel, unsurprisingly (well, it’s unsurprising in retrospect, it shocked me at the time) said no and I filed the idea away; returning to it periodically over the years.  Freed from the confines of the Marvel Universe, the idea slowly—very slowly, it took twenty-five years!—evolved into a saga, spanning seven decades of American pop culture and politics, called The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Illustrated by the amazing Mike Cavallaro—an artist who was every bit as passionate about the story as I was—S-28 became one of the single most challenging, and rewarding, comic book projects of my career.

I think the story was far more relevant at the end of the Age of Bush than it would have been had it come out in the Reagan Era.  Comic books (and pop culture in general) had become far more violent.  The spandex mindset that, however much we struggle to disguise it, says “All problems are ultimately solved by dropping a building on a so-called bad guy’s head” had become even more dangerous—especially in a post-9/11 world where terrible damage had been done by global leaders who simplistically divided humanity into “true believers” and “infidels,” “good guys” and “evil-doers.”

In the end, though, The Life and Times of Savior 28 isn’t really a story about politics, it’s about one flawed man’s attempt to change himself and the way he sees the world. 

Mike C also drew “That Which Is Most Needed,” a short story that appeared in the first volume of the Occupy Comics anthology.  Well, it’s less a story than an illustrated essay:  an opportunity to talk directly about the value of, and need for, compassion; to bring to life Buddha’s wonderful words:  “That which is most needed is a loving heart.”  Cavallaro's art was everything I expected and far more:  he brought heart and hope to the page in equal measure.  This is probably the most obscure story on this list, but if you enjoy my work, I think you’ll find it worth seeking out.

10) THE GIFFEN-DeMATTEIS UNIVERSE



Okay, so this one’s another cheat:  I’m collapsing my entire collaboration with Keith Giffen into one, but it really feels as if all our work together—from the 80’s Justice League to Boom!’s Hero Squared and our current work on Justice League 3001 (with the hugely gifted Howard Porter)—is one piece.  And that piece exists in its own little universe, far, far away from everything else I’ve done.  

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating:  Keith Giffen is as generous and gifted (well, gifted is too small a word.  Someone once called Keith the Jack Kirby of my generation and I couldn’t agree more) a collaborator as I’ve ever worked with.  If he called me up tomorrow and asked me to co-write a Millie the Model revival, I’d say yes without hesitation.  When I work with Giffen, it’s not about the particular project, it’s about the collaboration itself—and the tremendous fun we have together.  We’ve been going at this, on and off, for more than twenty-five years.  I don’t see any reason to stop now.

I can’t mention Keith without acknowledging Kevin Maguire, who illustrated so many of our stories in a style that many have tried to imitate but no one has ever equalled:  The guy is genre unto himself.  I’d do a new project with Keith and Kevin in a heartbeat.  (And, yes, I still nurture fantasies of the three of us bringing our unique brand of lunacy to Fantastic Four.)

***

There are other projects that could have easily been on this list—Blood: a tale with Kent Williams, my truncated Man Thing run with Liam Sharp, Mercy: Shake the World with Paul Johnson, The Last One with Dan Sweetman, Doctor Strange:  Into Shamballa with Dan Green, The Adventures of Augusta Wind with Vassilis Gogtzilas:  so many more.  But if I kept adding titles this would be the longest post in Creation Point history.

***  

I don’t want to end this without mentioning a few of the genuine turkeys I’ve birthed over the years.  Like the Marvel Team-Up issue featuring Spider-Man and Robert E. Howard’s King Kull.  (“Hiya, Kingsy,” a time-traveling Spidey exclaims, “what’s the haps?”)  Or the Defenders-Squadron Supreme epic that made almost no sense.  Or the Spider-Man annual that tried to tie up loose ends from the aforementioned Man-Thing series and ended up making even less sense than the Squadron Supreme story.  Or...



Well, I think you get the idea.  

The good news is that the failures can be as important as the successes.  (Although they’re definitely not as much fun.)  When you try something new and fall on your face you exercise creative muscles you never knew you had.  And then you can use those muscles, with far more skill, on the next project.  Of course, sometimes a bad story’s just a bad story—but I have to believe that even the genuine stinkers help us to become better writers.

The truth is that—with rare, and miraculous, exceptions—it’s pretty much impossible to judge your own work objectively.  Some of the stories I’ve listed here might be the genuine turkeys...and some of those stinkers I’m trying to forget might be sitting at the top of someone else’s Top Ten List. 

©copyright 2015  J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, July 27, 2015

FLOATING FREE


Floating on the waters of an Internet Free Zone, so if you've posted some comments or sent some tweets my way recently and you're wondering why there's been no response, be patient.  I'll address all comments/tweets when I've sailed back to (so-called) reality.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SILENCE DAY 2015

"You have had enough of words, I have had enough of words.  It is not through words that I give what I have to give.  In the silence of your perfect surrender, my love which is always silent can flow to you—to be yours always to keep and to share with those who seek Me.  When the Word of my Love breaks out of its silence and speaks in your hearts, telling you who I really am, you will know that that is the Real Word you have been always longing to hear."

Avatar Meher Baba

Friday, July 3, 2015

SUMMER REPEAT: CITIZEN OF THE ZONE

With the annual July Fourth Twilight Zone marathon coming up on the Syfy Channel, I thought this would be the ideal time to re-present an essay I originally posted here back in 2009:  "Citizen of the Zone."  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 2015  J.M. DeMatteis

GODS AND MONSTERS: ADDENDUM

Since there are people out there who don't read digital comics—I count myself among them—I thought it would be important to note that you can find the print versions of Gods and Monsters:  Batman and Gods and Monsters: Superman later in July (Batman on the 22nd, Superman on the 28th).  Gods and Monsters: Wonder Woman and the three-issue origin of the Justice League will be out in August—an issue a week, starting August 5th.

And, if you're interested in more information about the project, you can head over to NewsaramaComicvine and the Geek Cave Podcast where you'll find me talking (and talking and talking) about the series.   

Art by Darick Robertson