Thursday, December 23, 2010

A CHRISTMAS RERUN

A few years ago—born out of my inordinate love for this heart-filling, soul-transforming, sacred and transcendent season—I wrote a short Christmas tale called The Truth About Santa Claus.  Last year, I offered it here at Creation Point as a cyber Christmas present:  my way of wishing all of you who visit this site the happiest of holidays and the most magical of Christmases.  I offer it again this year:  call it a Christmas rerun.  So grab a plate of Christmas cookies, pull a chair up close to the fireplace and enjoy. 

Here's to a healthy, happy, joyful, abundant, prosperous, peaceful and -- most important of all -- love-filled 2011.  See you all in January.

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.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

SPEAKING OF CHRISTMAS

Yes, this is the season of Christmas feasts and gifts piled high under the tree, but it’s also the season of giving to those in need.  Of course, in this difficult economy, when people everywhere are struggling just to meet their bills—let alone provide a memorable Christmas for their families—it can be hard to find the extra cash to contribute to a worthy charity; which is why I want to draw your attention to The Hunger Site, a truly wonderful website that allows you to help bring food to those who desperately need it—just by clicking a mouse.  Want more information?  Here it is, directly from the site itself:

The Hunger Site was founded to focus the power of the Internet on a specific humanitarian need; the eradication of world hunger. Since its launch in June 1999, the site has established itself as a leader in online activism, helping to feed the world's hungry and food insecure. On average, over 220,000 individuals from around the world visit the site each day to click the yellow "Click Here to Give - it's FREE" button. Its grassroots popularity has been recognized with Web awards in the activism category — a Cool Site of the Year Award and a People's Voice winner at the Webby Awards. Since its inception, visitors at The Hunger Site and shoppers at The Hunger Site store have given more than 671 million cups of food.
 
The staple food funded by clicks at The Hunger Site is paid for by site sponsors and distributed to those in need by Mercy Corps, Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest), and Millennium Promise. 100% of sponsor advertising fees goes to our charitable partners. Funds are split between these organizations and go to the aid of hungry people in over 74 countries, including those in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America.
 
Got that?  You click, they feed.  Simple, elegant—and something that could only happen in this miraculous Internet Age.  If you’re so inclined, click over to The Hunger Site not just at Christmastime—but every day. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

SPEAKING OF LENNON

Back in 1971, John and Yoko took the bare bones of a traditional  folk song called "Stewball" and transformed it into a Christmas classic.  "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" is a heartfelt mix of clear-eyed Lennon honesty and starry-eyed Lennon idealism.  It's also—in my hyperbolic opinion—one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written.  So let's officially kick off the Creation Point Christmas Celebration with the video below.  And feel free to sing along.

Monday, December 13, 2010

MEETING LENNON, PART TWO

Between the celebration of John Lennon’s 70th birthday in October—which included the release of the wonderful Double Fantasy Stripped Down and Ken Sharp’s equally-wonderful book on the making of that classic album—and the thirtieth anniversary of JL’s assassination last week (capped by Paul McCartney singing a memorable medley of "A Day in the Life" and “Give Peace A Chance” on Saturday Night Live), the pop culture world has been in a state of renewed Lennonmania for months now.  Seems like the perfect time to chronicle my second encounter with my one true rock and roll hero. 

Back in April, I wrote about that magical night in January of 1975, when I found myself sitting on the floor of a small rehearsal room in New York’s famous Record Plant East recording studio, watching Lennon, who was standing perhaps four feet away, teaching my old friend—and master piano player—Jon Cobert’s band, BOMF, the basics of a then-new musical style called disco.  (We’d never heard of disco before that night—but Lennon was predicting, correctly, that it would be “the next big thing.”)  Unforgettable?  Absolutely.  But a few months later—March 18th according to Wikipedia (although they got the name of the recording studio wrong, so who can say for sure?)—thanks to Jonny C’s gracious invitation, I got to spend the good part of a day in JL’s presence, watching him film—again accompanied by BOMF—videos for the recently released Rock 'n' Roll tracks “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me.”  (The videos were intended for a British television show called The Old Grey Whistle Test.  You can see one of the clips—along with a short interview Lennon did for the show—at the end of this post.)

Looking back, it’s amazing that I was allowed in at all.  Jonny C and I were good friends, of course, but I suspect it helped that we were also songwriting partners (Jon provided the music, I provided the lyrics):  a number of songs we created together were part of BOMF’s repertoire and, as a result, we were both under contract to Roy Cicala:  BOMF’s manager, Lennon’s principal engineer and the man who ran the ship at the Record Plant.  (The contract sounds impressive, but it didn’t lead me to rock and roll fame and fortune.  Jonny, on the other hand, has had a long, successful—and well-deserved—musical career.)  In any case, on that sunny March day, I skipped my classes at Brooklyn College (something I was in the habit of doing, anyway), hopped the subway into Manhattan and hustled over to West 44th Street, where the Record Plant was located. 

As I recall—and, in retrospect, it’s fairly astonishing—there was no security detail to pass through:  I just walked in, headed straight for the studio and opened the door.   There, leaning over the sound board was John Lennon, who looked up, peered over his glasses and said, in that sharp, utterly distinctive Liverpudlian voice, “Is this the place?”  I scanned the room, looking for Jonny C—who was my ticket in—but he wasn’t there; so, utterly intimidated (just because I’d encountered Lennon before didn’t mean I was any less overwhelmed by his flesh-and-blood presence), I muttered, “Uh...yeah, it is, but I’ll wait outside...”, closed the door and retreated to a nearby couch.  I probably would have sat out there all day if a couple of the BOMF boys hadn’t come by, noticed me and alerted Jon to my presence. 

Jonny C promptly appeared and ushered me into the studio—where I was soon sitting comfortably in a chair in the engineer’s booth while, on the other side of the glass, John Lennon and the band ran through take after take of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and  “Stand By Me” for the film crew.  (BOMF was actually miming to prerecorded tracks from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album.  Lennon, though, was doing a live vocal.)  Anyone who’s followed this blog for more than five minutes understands how profoundly JL—as a Beatle, as a solo artist, as a human on the planet—has inspired me; so I think you can imagine what it was like for me to sit there, for hours, watching him perform, running the band through their paces (miming, as I learned that day, isn’t as easy as you’d think); one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll singing take after take:  laughing, joking and, well, being John Lennon.  (In 1972 I’d seen John and Yoko at the One-to-One concert at Madison Square Garden.  I was way up, in the cheap seats, and he was a small figure, haloed in light, on a stage that seemed miles away.  Now I had the best seats in the house.  Maybe in the universe.)

And yet as I watched Lennon work, it seemed as if—despite more than a decade as one of the most famous, admired men on Earth—being on camera, the center of all that attention, made him uncomfortable.  His attitude, his bearing, wasn’t that of the Clever Beatle, the peacenik sage, the political firebrand:  it felt as if he’d retreated into Hamburg John, the young, rock and roll tough guy.  It was a subtle thing and there was certainly none of the aggression or anger that often got him in trouble:  he was, as expected, charismatic and charming.  Still it seemed to me that he was wearing a mask to protect himself and keep the world at bay.  In a few short months he’d retire completely from music to concentrate on being a husband and father (by March of ’75 “Lost Weekend” girlfriend May Pang was gone and Lennon had reunited with Yoko, who was pregnant with Sean) and it’s clear—in retrospect, at least—that he was, in fact, sick of "riding on the merry-go-round" (as he sang in "Watching the Wheels") and was preparing for his retreat.  Soon he’d be shedding all his personas and reconnecting with the person he’d been before the Beatles.  Until then, he’d keep pretending to be some version of Famous John Lennon. 

There was a telling moment when, during one break between songs, he muttered—it was more like a discussion with himself than a request to the group—”Anybody got any coke?”  (And, no, he wasn’t talking about Coca Cola.)  A second later he shook his head.  “Nah,” he said, retracting the request, “if I do that, I’ll probably bite Tom Snyder’s head off.”  (He was scheduled to tape an interview for Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show that night.  You can watch it here.)  The coke request seemed like an old reflex, the immediate denial of the request reflecting a high level of post-”Lost Weekend” self-awareness—and a signpost to the new, family-centered life that was waiting for him at the Dakota.  (It’s very possible I’m reading into this—after all, I didn’t know the man, who am I to analyze him?—and yet, given my own intuition and the insights Lennon himself provided in interviews he gave after his emergence from his five years of House Husbanding, it feels true.)    

After they ran through both songs a number of times, Lennon and the band took a break and the musicians filed back into the engineer’s booth.  Everyone was standing around chatting, the vibe amiable and low-key (well, I was low-key on the outside, but in my head I was doing backflips and screaming “John Lennon!  I’m standing here with John Lennon!  Dear God—how is this even possible?!”).  Jonny C took this opportunity to formally introduce me to Lennon.  “John,” he said, trying hard to sound casual (yet knowing full well what a Momentous Occasion this was for me), “have you met Marc, my lyricist?”

Lennon quickly looked me over and then offered a perfect, deadpan Lennon greeting.  “Hello, Marc my lyricist,” he said, as if "my lyricist" wasn't a description, but my last name.

So there I was, standing  face to face with John Winston Ono Lennon.  He’d just greeted me with a clever quip and I desperately needed something to say in reply.  It was like flash cards were flipping over in my mind, each one stamped with a possible answer:  I could tell him, I thought, studying the cards, how much he means to me; how his Beatles music—from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “I Am The Walrus”—completely rocked my world and my consciousness; how John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—aside from being one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music—helped get me through an incredibly difficult period in my life; how brilliant I think Walls and Bridges is.  There were so many things I could have said, but I rejected them all.  I kept returning to the fact that Lennon had greeted me with “Hello, Marc my lyricist”—and I knew I needed to come up with a matching quip, something sharp and witty.  In the name of symmetry, it had to begin with “Hello, John my...”  But “John my” what?  My internal computer frantically scanned the Lennon archives, recalling a story about JL meeting Chuck Berry, during the taping of a Mike Douglas Show; how Lennon—always a teenaged rock and roll fan at heart—greeted Berry by calling him his hero.  (Keep in mind that all of these mental acrobatics actually happened in a matter of, at best, two or three seconds.  Subjectively, it felt like an eternity.)
 
And then it clicked—and I had my reply.  

“Hello, John, my hero,” I said.  As soon as it came out of my mouth I felt like a total fool.  This wasn’t cleverness, this was revealing myself as a transparent Beatles fanboy.  I was certain my idiocy would get me ejected from the building, unceremoniously tossed out onto 44th Street and banned from the Record Plant for life.  To my immense relief, the group laughed—not at me, they actually seemed to find my answer amusing (or perhaps they were just acknowledging the unspoken fact that they all felt the same way)—but Lennon had an odd reaction.  For a  moment—just for a moment—he pulled back, as if he couldn’t believe One Of Them had gotten in:  another wide-eyed, open-mouthed Beatlemaniac trying to make him into the god he didn’t want to be.  He recovered quickly, but I’d noticed—and it underlined the sense I had about how uncomfortable he was wearing the fame he’d been cloaked in since 1964.

Soon after that, Lennon and the band went back to work, finishing up the videos.  The last bit of filming was of the musicians in the booth, gathered around the sound board, listening back to the tracks.  I was hoping no one would realize I was still there and I’d get myself immortalized on film with John Lennon—but Jonny C quickly gave me A Look and I knew I had to retreat.  In the end it didn’t matter:  the film of that day had been forever imprinted on my mind.

A little later, Jonny and I were heading upstairs to the band’s rehearsal room and we found ourselves standing in the elevator with Lennon, who was also heading up.  This would have been the perfect chance to say something, anything, else and perhaps atone for my humiliating “my hero!” outburst—but I couldn’t get a word out.  The elevator stopped, Lennon went his way and we went ours.    

My time with John Lennon was over that day, but Jonny’s wasn’t.  Not long after the Rock ‘n’ Roll videos were filmed, Lennon recruited BOMF to appear with him on a television special called A Salute to Sir Lew Grade.  This time the band didn’t just mime, they actually got to record—and perform—a new version of “Imagine.”  This turned out to be the last public performance of John Lennon’s lifetime.   Have a look.  (If you’re wondering about the two-headed masks BOMF had on, this was apparently Lennon’s way of commenting on Sir Lew’s two-faced business dealings.)

As for me, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, and the knowledge of the tragic fate that awaited Lennon outside the Dakota in 1980, I’m far less embarrassed by what I said to him at the Record Plant that day—and far more grateful.  He was my hero and I got to tell him that.  

That’s not humiliation, that’s grace.



© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

PORTALS TO OTHER DIMENSIONS—TEN CENTS EACH!

Illustrator and Comic Book Blogmeister Rob Kelly—Lord of The Aquaman Shrine and other wonderful, geek-friendly sites—is putting together a book called Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From The Spinner Rack.  In Rob’s words, it’s “a book collecting stories from people of all walks of life, all of whom have fond memories of reading, collecting, and/or obsessing over comic books.”  I recently finished an essay for Hey, Kids and thought it would be fun to post an excerpt here at Creation Point.  Enjoy!
***

I've said this before and it's true:  I don't remember ever not reading comic books.  I can’t say for sure who first exposed me to them, but I do recall a married couple that lived in my apartment building (the kind of adults you’d expect to be reading comics in the late 50's and early 60's:  smiley, rotund, slightly odd people) and they had a treasure trove of comics—stacks and stacks of them—they’d often share with me.  I also remember a cousin giving me what must have been twenty or so comics (to my young eyes, they seemed more like twenty thousand).  There was something deeply satisfying in spreading them all out on the floor—like a four-color carpet—not to be read, but to be stared at, studied, absorbed to the deeps of my soul.  I enjoyed comic book covers as much as I enjoyed reading the stories.  I could sit there, in a quasi-hypnotic state, and study the illustrations for hours:  they were like cosmic portals, opening up doorways to other dimensions; colorful parallel universes far preferable to the one I inhabited. 

The best covers communicated an entire story in one image and my mind would wander off and run the story in my head like a movie (which was often far different from the one that unfolded inside the books:  sometimes it was better).  Drawing was one of my great obsessions as a kid and I could spend an entire afternoon on the living room floor, with pencil and paper, studying a Batman cover—I’m talking about the Dick Sprang-era, square-jawed, fun-loving Bats, not the ultra-serious Dark Knight of today—and trying to replicate it, line-for-line, freehand.  (Tracing, of course, was verboten.) 



My family didn’t have much money—we were lower middle class, my father worked for the New York City Parks Department (he was the guy who raked the leaves and shoveled the snow) and my mother was a switchboard operator for the New York State Parole Board—but I never felt materially deprived.  My parents were always incredibly generous.  And they generously indulged my passion for comics.   

I have very vivid memories of being six, seven years old and taking walks with my father on summer evenings after dinner:  We'd head for the local candy store, which—in Brooklyn, at least—was its own magic world, with a long soda fountain inevitably presided over by an elderly Jewish wizard who could magically conjure egg creams (if you’ve never had one, you have my sincere condolences); more comics, newspapers and magazines than you could count; every gloriously trashy candy bar in existence; and an odd assortment of toys, from Duncan Yo-Yos to that lost ancient artifact, the Pensy Pinky.  My father would buy a newspaper for himself and a comic book for me.   A comic was ten cents in those days—which was probably more than my dad’s New York Daily News cost—but it was still a bargain.  (When my best friend, Bob Izzo, was going to the hospital for minor surgery—I think he was having a mole removed—his mother gave him an entire dollar and he bought ten comic books.  I was paralyzed with envy.)

I was seven when, after three decades, the price jumped from ten to twelve cents:  I walked into the candy store with my mother one afternoon and Eva—the not-to-be-trifled-with wife of the egg cream making wizard—was in shock, ranting about this outrageous price hike.  My mother was equally irate.  “Twelve cents,” she gasped, “for a comic book?”  

To my immense relief, the extra two cents didn’t dissuade my parents from buying me comics—and I continued to consume them.  It didn’t matter what the comic book was, I read everything—from Hot Stuff and Casper to Sad Sack and Bob Hope (given the current comic book market, it’s astonishing to realize that the Hope series ran for eighteen years.  The Adventures of Jerry Lewis lasted even longer).  Today the super hero dominates the mainstream market, but, back then, the variety of comic books—all of them kid-friendly—was astounding.  Still, to a boy raised on George Reeves flying across his black and white television screen, the DC super hero comics were the Holy Grail.


We took it for granted that every male under the age of twelve worshipped Superman and Batman—and most of them did—but each of us had our special favorites.  Mine were Justice League and Green Lantern.  GL was the perfect vehicle to capture the mind of a child.  The concept was as elegant as it was simple:  the hero just thought of something—brought his will and imagination to bear—and he manifested it.  (Even as an adult the concept still works:  I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the way we should all live our lives.)   John Broome’s wonderful stories spanned the galaxies—his place in Comic Book Heaven is secure—but, for me, the the primal enchantment came from Gil Kane's extraordinary artwork.  Before I discovered the force of nature that was Jack Kirby, Kane was the artist whose work meant the most to me:  a mixture of elegance, power and crystal clear storytelling.  As noted, drawing was my childhood obsession and one of my absolute favorite things to draw was Kane’s flying figure of Green Lantern, ring-hand confidently outthrust, one leg cocked back (almost as if it was amputated).


When I was in Junior High School, I underwent a religious conversion.  No, I didn’t suddenly become a Hindu or a Born-Again Christian:  I converted from DC to Marvel. 

***

I'll end the excerpt there.  If you want to read the rest, along with reminiscences by Steve Englehart,  Alan Brennert, Mike Carlin, Jonathan Lethem and many more, you'll have to buy Rob's book.  I'll be sure to let you know when Hey Kids, Comics! is ready to enter the world.


© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Saturday, November 27, 2010

BLOOD: A MOVIE

Director Marc Rosenbush is preparing to go into production on his movie version of Blood:  A Tale—the graphic novel I co-created with illustrator Kent Williams back in the late 80's—and he's just launched a website to promote the film.  If you don't know, Blood is an odd, eerie fever-dream of a story set in an odd, eerie fever-dream of a world.  As the title indicates, there are vampires in it, but, beyond the obvious fangs and blood, the story has very little in common with Bram Stoker and Stephenie Meyer.  In fact it's like nothing else I've ever written.  (When it first came out, my old friend, Vertigo head honcho Karen Berger, called it "an Ingmar Bergman comic book.")  When Marc R first expressed interest in adapting Blood for the screen, I was taken  by surprise:  it's the last story of mine I'd ever imagine being a movie; you might as well try to film my unconscious mind.  To his eternal credit, Marc has taken something I thought was unfilmable and turned it into a fascinating, well-crafted—and, yes, commercial—metaphysical horror script that stays true to the heart and soul of the source material.  Filming is slated to begin in the summer of 2011 and, if you sign up over at Marc's site, you'll be in on the creative process every step of the way.

Guess it's only a matter of time now till Marvel gets going on a big-budget Greenberg the Vampire movie.

Or maybe not.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER

I recently got in a conversation with some folks here at Creation Point about the programs we all seem to have—some of us more than others—worming through our hearts and minds, telling us that we’re not good enough.  That we somehow don’t deserve the best that life has to offer.  That we’re small, insignificant, unworthy.  At the same time, my wife—who (among her many other talents) is an interfaith minister and a practitioner of Process Acupressure—told me about several clients and friends that were facing the same issues.  It was as if the universe was drawing a line under the subject, asking us both to examine our own self-defeating delusions.  (You can read Diane’s take on the subject right here.)

I’ve danced with those delusions—as many of us have—for a good part of my life.  It’s like there’s a constant tug of war going on between who I think I am and who I really am.  It’s not always overt, I’m often not even aware of it; but, sometimes, God draws that underline in a huge, and unforgettable,  way.  (Perhaps because I’m too dumb to get it when He’s being subtle.) 

The biggest underline I’ve ever encountered came in 1988, on my second trip to Meher Baba’s Tomb-Shrine (also known as the Samadhi) near Ahmednagar, India.  I’d been to Meherabad for the first time in the summer of 1987 and was planning a return trip the following July.  But in early March of 1988 something strange happened:  One morning I woke up—abruptly yanked into awareness—to hear a voice:  very clear, very powerful, as if someone was in the room talking to me.  Only the voice wasn’t coming from across the room, it was coming from inside me.  It was coming the center of my chest, from my heart.  I don’t recall the exact words, but the message—actually, it was more like an order—boiled down to this:  “Come to Meherabad.  Come now.”  Those words had such force, such impact, that I couldn’t ignore them.  Oh, I tried to.  There was no way I could just drop everything, get on a plane and go to India.  I had work, I had obligations.  Even if, by some miracle, I could go, the ashram where most visitors to the Samadhi stay during their pilgrimage was only open until March 15th.  (After that, the Maharashtra heat becomes unbearable.  The Meher Pilgrim Center doesn’t reopen till the end of June.)   If I was going to travel around the world, I’d need to stay for at least two weeks, not swoop in and out like some spiritual lunatic.   Nope, no matter what that voice was, no matter where it came from (a passing angel, my unconscious mind or Meher Baba Himself), I was ignoring this order.

But the thing is I couldn’t ignore it.   It was as if the order itself contained the ability to execute it.  As if each of those words, spoken in my heart, were energy-eggs that cracked open and provided the strength and will for me to (with seeming effortlessness, I don’t recall there being any blockades along the way) rearrange my life, race to the Indian Consulate for a tourist visa, buy a plane ticket and—within a few days—fasten my seat belt for a journey to Bombay (which, for the record, didn’t become Mumbai till 1995).

By the time I arrived in India, I was—as I’d been the first time around—a sleep-deprived wreck (I’m not one of those people who can sleep on airplanes.  I’m from the fitful dozing school).  I hustled from the international to the domestic airport, waited the requisite interminable hours, then took an Indian Airlines flight—aboard a small, propeller-driven plane—to Pune.  From there, I rickshawed to a taxi stand and began the long drive to Ahmednagar.  You can imagine the shape I was in when I got there:  it was as if I was a creature molded from cracked glass and every step brought me closer to totally shattering.  But, after arriving at my destination and settling into my room at the Pilgrim Center, I couldn’t go to sleep.  However exhausted I was, I had to make the trip up the hill to Meher Baba’s Tomb-Shrine.  I had to lay down my head at his feet and say, “Baba, I’m here.  I listened to the voice, I followed the order, now wrap your arms around me and flood me with your love.”  (One thing you have to grok in order for this story to work:  Despite the fact that He died in 1969, my experience with Avatar Meher Baba has been that He’s very much alive, and incredibly accessible.  Master and companion, guide and best friend.  And MB’s Tomb-Shrine is, for me, like a direct radio link to that Living Presence.  You don’t have to believe that—feel free to think I’m completely nuts (you won’t be the first)—I’m just asking you to understand it.)

So up the hill I staggered, into the Samadhi I went.  But there was no love-bomb waiting to engulf me, no warm arms waiting to envelop me.  The instant I rested my head against the cloth-covered marble, it was as if a Cosmic Hand sliced open my mind, reached in and untapped a psychic geyser that had been waiting years to explode:  all my self-loathing—every wretched program that told me I was small, insignificant, unworthy, a hopeless waste of space on the planet—erupted up and out, wave after wave of psychic sludge:  pitch black, oily and utterly repugnant.  I felt poisoned, toxic, as it flooded every cell of my body, every corner of my soul, washing away all other thoughts and feelings, every other aspect of Self, until all that remained was the Black Sludge of Unworthiness.  How bad was it?  I remember noticing a bug crawling across the Tomb floor and feeling that the only difference between us was that the insect had more of a right to be alive than I did.
Devastated, I staggered out of the Samadhi and down to my room. wondering why the hell I’d dropped everything and raced across half the world only to be spiritually ambushed by a God who suddenly seemed less-than benevolent. 

Once I was rested, free of jet lag and psychic aftershocks, I began to understand what had happened.  I’d been with Meher Baba long enough to know that one of His methods is to shine a light on the shadowed corners of the soul, corners we’re often not even aware of, peeling back the hardened layers of psychic excrement that cover up the Divinity we all are.  Magnifying those aspects and dragging them to the surface of our minds allows us to work with them more directly and, ultimately, dissolve them in the light of awareness.  By letting me see the Black Sludge in its full, flowering ugliness, Baba gave me the tools to deal with it in a conscious way.  Twenty-two years later, I can’t claim the Sludge is gone—I suspect that, being human, I’ll always carry echoes of it, sometimes faint, sometimes loud—but, since that day, it’s certainly diminished in power.   



But perhaps it hasn’t diminished:  perhaps it’s just transformed.

As the years have passed—and this is something that deserves a lengthy post of its own—I’ve come to believe (well, I think I’ve always believed it, I’ve just come to see it in a deeper way) that these seeming demons, these apparent nightmares born of our unconscious darkness, aren’t really there to prevent us from reaching our true height and power:  they’re here to help us reveal it.  In fact, I’m convinced these devils are actually angels-in-disguise, waiting for the moment when we recognize them so they can spread their wings wide and invite us to fly with them into the heart of a magical, and sacred, universe.   (I’ve also come to believe that it’s ultimately far easier to fly with angels than dance with demons, even illusory ones—that joy is a far more efficient, and delightful, path to awakening than suffering—but that, too, is another discussion for another time.)    

Our true height and power.  I had a memorable glimpse of just how high, just how powerful, we all are two years after my encounter with the Sludge.  It happened, again, in Meherabad—on a December night in 1990.  I had a dream—one of those dreams that seem more real than our waking life—in which I was at an event where one of the Meherabad residents, an extraordinary man called Mohammed the Mast (Mohammed, by the way, was the inspiration for Charlie Limbo in Seekers Into The Mystery), was sitting at a table signing...well, I’m not sure what he was signing:  it might have been books (which, given the dreamer in question, makes sense).  I approached the table, but, rather than sign my book, Mohammed instead scribbled on me, writing his way up from my hand to my upper arm.  When he did that I felt disrespected, powerless, small, ashamed—another echo, I see now, of the Black Sludge—and very angry.  But my anger was so bottled up, my rage so impotent, that I couldn’t express it.  The best I could do was grab Mohammed’s pen and throw it—without even looking—to the floor.  It was a pathetic throw, like something a weak, exhausted two year old would do.  (And that’s pretty much how I felt:  like a vulnerable, utterly overwhelmed child.)   But then...

Then I turned around—absolutely stunned to discover that my “pathetic” throw had sent the pen hurtling across the room, where it smashed into the wall, lodging there with such incredible force that it collapsed the entire thing, not just in the main room where we were, but in the adjoining room, as well.  And, in that moment of assumed weakness, revealed as inexplicable power...

I woke up—not just from sleep, but into myself.  To who and what I really am.  To my true height, my true power.  This wasn’t just an intellectual knowing, this was a visceral experience, an inner vision that touched a deeper reality.  I could see and feel that height, that power—I was that height and power—and it was far taller, far mightier, than anything I could have ever imagined:  like looking down at all Creation from the highest rung on Jacob’s Ladder.  I can’t say how long the experience lasted, maybe just a few seconds, maybe a few centuries, but looking at the universe, and at myself, from that extraordinary height became so dizzying, so overwhelming, that it actually frightened me. 

And the experience passed.

But the memory didn’t.  I’ve held tight to that vision, that gift of grace, and treasured it all these years, knowing that my job—no, not my job, my pleasure—is to grow into the height and power that I already am.  Looking back, I see that what I was shown was just what I could handle at the time.  It was only one small hint of my true height.  Jacob’s Ladder extends up into infinity (and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear would say)—and I can, I must, continue to grow with it.    



Understand, please, that this experience wasn’t unique to me.  It became very clear that this is the height we all truly are, the divinity that lives and breathes within every last one of us, if we could only see it.

And, yes, that includes you.

So when the Black Sludge comes calling, remember:  take a deep breath, grow tall.  And don’t be afraid to look down. 

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis        

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

THE EVERYTHING AND THE NOTHING

Watch this—and be humbled and amazed and inspired by the Infinite.  And ponder this:  What if all those galaxies out there are just reflections of the galaxies within us?  How limitless are we really?  How powerful? 

How utterly miraculous? 

 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD

If you're in the New York City area this Thursday, November 11th, you might want to drop by one of the very best children's book stores in the country, Books of Wonder, where I'll be appearing—along with an impressive group of fantasy authors—from 5 to 7 pm.  I'll be signing copies of Imaginalis and, I suspect, reading from the book, as well.

Books of Wonder, if you don't know, is also the company that publishes those miraculous facsimile editions of L. Frank Baum's Oz books.  They've got lots of other Oz-related goodies, as well.  (This time next month, I'll once again be hanging some of their limited edition, hand painted Oz ornaments on my Christmas tree.)  If you can't make it to the signing, then absolutely check out the B.O.W. site. 

See you in the Emerald City, I hope.

Friday, November 5, 2010

IMPOSSIBILITY REDUX

In a post back in early October, I mentioned Ellen J. Langer’s 1979 experiment in mind-body connection, in which she, in essence, mentally time-traveled a group of men in their seventies and eighties decades into the past, resulting in significant, positive changes in their physical health.  I was so intrigued by this story that I immediately ordered Langer’s book Counter Clockwise.  I’ve finally started reading it and it didn’t take long to come across a quote that went straight to the center of my soul:

The fact that something has not happened doesn’t mean it cannot happen; it only means the way to make it happen is as yet unknown.

As someone who believes that the (apparent) limits of the possible exist only to be exploded—as that quote over there on the left attests—I was delighted to come across such  a powerful reminder of a truth I already know, but still, for all my efforts, sometimes forget.

In my book Imaginalis, the main character, Mehera Crosby, is guided on her adventure by words that many would dismiss as childish imagination:  “Because it’s impossible, I’ll do it.  Because it’s unbelievable, I’ll believe.”  To me this isn’t an immature world view, this is the essence of our existence.  For all the strangeness and suffering life can offer, it’s been my experience that we truly inhabit a universe of magic and miracles—one universe in a simultaneity of universes that we step into and out of with more frequency than we realize—and the more we acknowledge that, the more we realize that the sky isn’t the limit, that the only real limits are in our own heads, the more that magic will come alive for us.  Respond to us.  Transform the world within and around us.  

Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t.  If we keep our eyes wide, open to the endless impossibilities the universe has to offer, the miracles will come.

Feel free to remind me of that if I forget again.  And I hope, in some small way, I’ve reminded you.
 
©copyright 2010  J.M. DeMatteis

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A HALLOWEEN SCARE

I’d been under-the-weather earlier in the week—so much so that I had to cancel a trip to the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival—and was just starting to feel better.  My wife and I were out taking an afternoon walk, enjoying the fall weather, when I felt the beginnings of an allergic reaction:  face itching, red bumps forming on my face.  Well, I’ve got a host of food and environmental sensitivities that often seem to kick in without warning, so this wasn’t all-that surprising.  What did surprise me was the speed with which the reaction spread across my entire body.  By the time I’d reached my front steps, I was itching violently, covered in hives, the universe was spinning way too quickly and my vision was blurring.  Shortly after I staggered inside, I passed out (apparently my blood pressure had taken a precipitous dive):  I remember looking at my wife just before I descended into the Twilight Zone and she appeared to be standing at the wrong end of a telescope.  With her usual skill and determination, Diane managed to bring me around and, before I knew it, a band of angels, in the form of EMTs, had arrived to rescue me from the demonic depths:  I soon found myself on a stretcher, hooked up to an IV, taking my first-ever ride in an ambulance.  I ended up in the hospital overnight, body pumped full of Benadryl and steroids, the whole thing feeling like a Halloween hallucination of the first order.

I’ve been home for a few days now, still not quite right (for someone like me, ultra-sensitive to medications, the cure can sometimes be as bad as the disease), but certainly feeling better.  The strangest part of it all is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what caused the reaction:  I hadn’t eaten anything I’m allergic to, so my best guess is that there was some mutated mold lurking in a pile of autumn leaves, waiting to spring on the first biologically-vulnerable writer to pass by.  Either that or it was a genuine Halloween ghoul, arrived early to the party, ready for mischief.

In any case, the doorbell’s ringing, and a far friendlier class of spirit is on my porch.  I’m happy they’re here.  That other ghoul can stay away forever:  

Begone!


Happy Halloween to one and all.

©copyright 2010  J.M. DeMatteis 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

UNSOLVED MYSTERIES, SPIDER-MAN EDITION


I was going through some old files and came across my copy of an interview I did...well, I’m not sure when.  (At least five years ago, I’d guess.)  I’m also not sure who asked the questions.  And I’m almost certain that the interview never saw print.  The only thing I am sure about is that the interview related to my work on Spider-Man.  Rather than leave it gathering (cyber) dust on my computer, I thought I’d share it here.  And so—for your listening and dancing pleasure—here’s the Lost Spider-Man Interview...

Briefly, could you give me a rundown of your Spider-Man writing credits?

I started with Spider-Man way back in the early 80’s, doing a long run on Marvel Team-Up with two terrific artists:  Herb Trimpe and Kerry Gammill.  Not exactly a classic run on my part, but, hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere.

A few years later, I came back to Spider-Man for the six-part Kraven’s Last Hunt storyline.  I followed that up with the one-shot sequel, Soul Of The Hunter.  Then, in the early 90’s, I did a two-year run on Spectacular Spider-Man, followed by a lengthy run on Amazing Spider-Man, and then back for another couple of years on Spectacular.  Along the way, I did lots of mini-series, fill-ins and back-up stories.  Too many to mention here. 

What is it about the character that appealed to you as a writer? What made you stick around through various editors and titles?

I was always amazed at the way Spider-Man kept pulling me back.  I’d quit one book, thinking I never wanted to write another Spidey story again, then an offer would come along and I’d jump at it.  Why?  Because I missed Peter Parker.  He’s a wonderful character:  deep, interesting, funny, intelligent, decent, and wonderfully conflicted.  And that’s without the costume on!

Who was your favorite Spidey villain to write? Least favorite?

Finding new psychological wrinkles in the villains was one of my favorite things to do.  Kraven stands out, of course.  He was a character that was pretty much written off as a joke before Kraven’s Last Hunt—so it was terrific to develop him into a truly memorable bad guy...and then kill him off.  I also enjoyed probing into the psyches of the Vulture, Electro, Mysterio and, my absolute favorite, the Harry Osborn Green Goblin.  The relationship between Peter and Harry (both in and out of costume) fascinated me.  I think that the story in Spectacular Spider-Man #200,  in which Harry dies, is the best Spider-Man story I ever did.  We’d been building to that story for nearly two years...and I’m very proud of it.

What were your thoughts on Spider-Man’s supporting cast? Do you think it needs reinvigorating, fine as is? Which characters did you enjoy dealing with?

I think the character I enjoyed most was (believe it or not) Aunt May.  At the time I was writing Spider-Man, many writers and readers weren’t that interested in her.  She seemed to be a bland old worrywart; but from the first time I wrote her, I found May to be a woman of incredible intelligence, passion and, most of all, strength.  The story in Amazing Spider-Man #400, where Aunt May died in Peter’s arms (hey, I’m beginning to see a pattern here), is another of my all-time favorites.  But I wrote a number of Aunt May stories where I got to explore her from new and interesting angles.

Is there anything you would change in your previous Spidey work if given the chance?

Well, maybe I’d go back and rewrite a bunch of those Marvel Team-Up stories.  And I’d like to see the Clone Saga rewritten to reflect our original intentions.  But, no, I wouldn’t even do that.  For good or ill, all those stories were the very best I could do at the time.  As for the rest of it, there was an occasional turkey among the bunch, but, overall, I’m extremely proud of my work on the various Spider-Man titles.  I think it’s some of my very best.  

If you got another crack at writing the webslinger, what would you like to do with him?

I’ve written so many Spider-Man stories that I don’t know if there’s anything I could do with him!  I think I did everything I wanted to do.  Doesn’t mean I won’t wake up tomorrow morning with a fantastic idea... but right now, I certainly don’t have one.

What were some of your favorite story arcs that you worked on? Any particular artist that you were paired with that you felt a strong connection with?

As noted, Kraven’s Last Hunt, Spectacular Spider-Man #200 and Amazing Spider-Man #400 are real favorites.  It didn’t hurt that I was working with Mike Zeck, Mark Bagley and Sal Buscema, three of the top super-hero artists in the field.  I pretty much loved my entire two year run with Sal on Spectacular.  (Not long after that, the Spidey books started crossing over all the time...and I got awfully tired of writing chapter two of a four part story.)

Other stories that come to mind are the Lost Years mini-series I did with John Romita, Jr.  (I loved Ben Reilly and Kaine...they were great characters...and I’m still sorry they're gone.)  And one of the highlights of my entire career was a story called “The Kiss” that I wrote as a back-up in the first issue of the short-lived Webslingers book.  It was illustrated by one of the giants of our industry, John Romita, Sr., at the very top of his game.  Romita was the artist on so many of my all-time favorite Spider-Man stories...and working with him was not just a thrill but a genuine honor.

There you have it.  If the person who interviewed me is out there reading this, please post a comment and let me know when we did this...and what publication it was intended for.  I’d love to solve this mystery. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

HELLO, I MUST BE GOING

After a couple of very enjoyable years as editor-in-chief of Ardden Entertainment—working on Flash Gordon, Casper and the Spectrals and the recently-announced Atlas Comics revival—I’ve decided to take my leave.  It’s been a great ride building this new company with Ardden co-publishers Brendan Deneen and Rich Emms—both of whom, I hasten to add, are terrific guys—but, as we’ve all worked together to prep the Atlas material, co-creating the new versions of Grim Ghost, Phoenix and Wulf the Barbarian, it’s become clear that we have different visions of how to proceed.  After pondering long and hard, I decided the best thing would be to put on my parachute and exit the Ardden Tower, leaving the Atlas revival in Brendan and Rich’s very capable hands.  It was fun flexing my editorial muscles, seeing the comics world from the other side of the desk, and I may do it again one of these days.


I wish Brendan, Rich and Jason Goodman’s Atlas team great good luck with the new books.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. L

And, to mark the occasion, here's one of the greatest Lennon tracks of all.  "We all shine on," indeed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

STAR WARS...AGAIN

A few weeks back I shared the tale of the one and only Star Wars comic book I ever wrote—and the way my story of a born-again pacifist named Cody Sunn-Childe was changed (maybe defaced would be a better word) by George Lucas's licensing lords.  Well, the estimable Brian Cronin—whose column at Comic Book Resources inspired my reminiscence—has actually tracked down the original ending of the story.  (You can find out how right here.)  Turns out that the unaltered version of the story—with my name in the credits and the ending intact—appeared in England, as part of a black and white star Star Wars magazine.  And now, thanks to Brian and one of his sharp-eyed readers, here's the pivotal last page:

Believe it or not, I have never seen this before.  So thanks to Brian, the man called Matchstick and the magic of the internet for providing the perfect afterword to the saga of Cody Sunn-Childe and Wally Lombego.

Monday, October 4, 2010

ODDS, ENDS—AND THE ILLUSORY NATURE OF TIME


This Friday, October 8th, kicks off the 2010 New York Comic Con.  I was hoping to be there, but plans have changed.  That said, NYCC is a big, noisy, wonderful convention (not yet as big and noisy as San Diego and far more comic book-centric), so if you’re in the New York area, and you love comics, you owe it to yourself to go. 

***

Friday the 8th is also the day my next episode of Batman:  The Brave and the Bold airs.  This one features the Doom Patrol and
I'm incredibly pleased with the way it turned out.  A word of warning:  The story skews a little darker than the average B & B episode.   As they say:  parental discretion is advised.  You can catch the show on Cartoon Network, Friday night at 7 pm.

***

October 9th is John Lennon’s birthday—my one true rock and roll hero would have been seventy—and this seems like the perfect opportunity to post the second part of my “Meeting Lennon” story.  (You can read part one here.)  I can’t promise I’ll make it by Saturday, but I’m aiming to post the story within a week of the big day.  If I blow that deadline, feel free to harass me about it.

***

I saw The Social Network over the weekend and thought it was terrific:  a strong, smart script (by Aaron Sorkin), incredibly well-acted, surprisingly moving—and director David Fincher kept the whole thing moving like a shot.  The reviews aren’t exaggerations:  TSN really is one of the best films of the year.   That said... 



A number of critics—and the film makers themselves—have called the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook a modern-day Citizen Kane.   Here’s the big difference I see:  although Welles based elements of CK on the life of William Randolph Heart, he didn’t pretend to be presenting a factual account of Hearst’s life.  And he certainly didn’t call his character W.R. Hearst.  By giving us an account of Zuckerberg’s life that is presented as a work of rigorously-researched non-fiction—Sorkin, in particular, is promoting it this way, despite many people pointing out the gap between movie-reality and the true story—the whole thing feels just a little...creepy.  Whatever the facts, this film will define Zuckerberg in the public mind for years to come.  However much I enjoyed The Social Network, I think I would have preferred a film about Charles Foster Zuck.
***

My previous post about Kraven’s Last Hunt—and the Russian origins of Sergei Kravinov—brought a flurry of comments about my literary idol, Dostoyevsky, whose work inspired my interpretation of Kraven the Hunter.  This, in turn, reminded me of a 1940’s radio adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that I heard a few months back:  a wonderful—if wildly-truncated—version of the story that appeared on a show called Mystery In The Air.  It starred Peter Lorre (who also starred in the 1935 film version) and you can download it, for free (and, yes, it’s perfectly legal), right here

***

The other day I got into an email discussion with a friend about the nature of time; specifically the idea, which I wholeheartedly subscribe to, that time isn’t linear.  “All moments are simultaneous,” I wrote him.  “Among other things, that means time-travel is more a problem of perception.  No time machine needed, just the mind aimed at a different moment.”  He, in turn, told me about an experiment done by a Harvard professor, Dr. Ellen Langer, that...  Well, here, I’ll let the Boston Globe explain:

The study...took place in 1979 and was, in its way, a feat of canny stagecraft. In an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., Langer and her students set up an elaborate time capsule of the world 20 years earlier, then sent two separate groups of men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week there. Each group spent the week immersed in the year 1959, discussing Castro’s advances in Cuba and the Colts’ victory in the NFL championship, listening to Perry Como and Nat King Cole, watching “North by Northwest” and “Some Like it Hot.” The only difference between the two groups was that one talked about the year in the present tense - they were pretending it was 1959 - and the other group referred to it in the past.

Before and after, the men in both groups were given a battery of cognitive and physical tests. What Langer found was that the men in both groups seemed to have reversed many of the declines associated with aging - they were stronger and more flexible, their memories and their performance on intelligence tests improved. But the men who had acted as if it really was 1959 had improved significantly more. By mentally living as younger men for a week, they seemed actually to have turned back the clock.
 
Time travel indeed.  Something for all of us to think about and, if you’re inclined, discuss right here at Creation Point.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, September 27, 2010

THE STORY BEHIND THE HUNT—AGAIN

In response to a request from Creation Pointer Ken Fries, here—straight from the long-lost Amazon Blog Archives—is the story of how Kraven's Last Hunt came to be.  Enjoy!

***

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 Karamozov 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 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Friday, September 24, 2010

THE DREAMS OF WALLY LOMBEGO

Comic Book Resources has a regular feature that I always enjoy called Comic Book Legends Revealed and, in the current installment, they touch on an incident that happened very early in my career.  It involves Star Wars, the birth of my son and the value of pacifism.  (How’s that for a teaser?)  You can get the broad beats at CBR, but here’s the whole story:

It was 1980 and I was very new to comics:  I’d written a number of stories for DC—mostly for their anthologies—and a few for Gold Key, but I was just getting my foot in the door at Marvel.  I’d scripted a couple of fill-ins for editor-in-chief Jim Shooter—an Iron Man story, a Doctor Strange—but nothing had made it to print yet.  One day I got a call from editor Louise Jones (she’s Louise Simonson now) asking me if I wanted to write an issue of Marvel’s Star Wars monthly.  I, of course, immediately said yes because a) it was Marvel Comics, the house that Stan and Jack built and b) I couldn't afford to turn down the work.  I didn’t bother to mention to Louise that I had zero interest in Star Wars.  I’d seen the first movie, liked it well enough, but just couldn’t grok what all the fuss was about.  But an opportunity is an opportunity—and a good story is a good story, no matter what fictional universe it’s set in—so I got to work crafting a tale about Lando Calrissian and his encounter with a legendary rebel fighter, of my own creation, named Cody Sunn-Childe. 

Note the name, please:  Cody Sunn-Childe.  You see, my son Cody was born right around the time I got the assignment and, y’know, he’s my son.  And  my child.  So...

Okay, okay:  it wasn’t the most brilliant name for a character, but it meant something to me.

And so did the story.  As noted, I was new to comics, but I’d been writing—and, of course, reading—them long enough to know that the violent solutions presented in those magical, larger-than-life stories were often simplistic and, on occasion (maybe many occasions) stupid and harmful.  (I know we’ve gone over this ground before, talking about my IDW series The Life and Times of Savior 28—but this Star Wars story predates even the original glimmer of that idea.)  So I thought it would be an interesting touch to have Cody Sunn-Childe, this great warrior that Lando Calrissian idolized, go through a spiritual transformation and become a pacifist:  a man, totally disgusted by violence, who was seeking a different way to live his life.  



In the end, although an attack by the Empire tempts Sunn-Childe to return to his old ways, he decides that it’s better to allow himself to be killed, to die for a dream of peace, than to go down fighting.  His followers agree—and die by his side during the Empire’s assault.  (A side note:  a year or so before, I’d written an issue of Gold Key’s Buck Rogers that dealt with similar themes.  That was an equally-noble—but far clunkier—take on the material and I welcomed the chance to attempt the idea again in this new context.)

Keep in mind that I didn’t belittle the Star Wars characters, or their beliefs, in any way:  I was just presenting another point of view while keeping Calrissian and company true to their roots.  They had their views, Sunn-Childe had his:  let the readers decide who, if anyone, was right.  

“The Dreams of Cody Sunn-Childe” wasn’t a brilliant piece of work by any means (it was better than the Buck Rogers version, but I was still too new, and too raw, a writer to do the idea justice), but I think it had something of value to say.  And it was a “something” I wanted to pass on to my newborn son—which is why I named that new character after him.

Louise made some changes to my plot along the way—actually, her overeager assistant editor, a curly-haired lad named Fingeroth, made the changes, and I’ve been giving the poor guy grief about it ever since—but nothing that altered the fundamental point of my story.  The great Carmine Infantino drew the story, I wrote the final script (we were working “Marvel Style” in those days:  plot, then art, then dialogue), Louise edited it and the book went off to the Lucasfilm reps for approval. 

They weren’t happy.

Why?  It seemed that, to them, the very idea that a character in the Star Wars universe would voice an opinion that in any way contradicted the Skywalker Worldview was offensive.  The word came down that Sunn-Childe, in rejecting violence, made their characters look bad.  In other words, their universe wasn’t big enough to contain one single person with a point of view that suggested that non-violence was a reasonable alternative to war.  (So much for my follow-up story about Princess Leia traveling through time to meet Martin Luther King and Gandhi.)

Louise had no choice, this was a high-profile license and Marvel had to keep the Lucas people happy:  new dialogue was written for the last page—not by me!—and I’ll never forget this line that was added:  “He died for his dream of peace,” Calrissian said, “but he was wrong.”  No maybes about it:  Cody Sunn-Childe was an idiot who sacrificed his life for nothing.  (There was other lines added about letting the Empire’s ships—which had been damaged—rot in other-dimensional space.  This, we were led to believe, would have made Sunn-Childe happy.  A moment while I bang my head against the wall, for old time’s sake.)


To me, the Lucas people were the ones who were wrong; so wrong, in fact, that I took my name off the story, replacing it with the admittedly, and intentionally, ridiculous nom de plume Wally Lombego.  Looking back, I’m amazed that I did it:  I was in no position to jeopardize my working relationship with Marvel—or with any publisher.  I had a career to build, a new family to support.  But I simply couldn’t put my name on a story—dedicated to my son—that now meant exactly the opposite of what I intended.

To her credit, Louise totally understood my position—and no one at Marvel ever gave me any grief about it.  (In fact, not long afterwards I signed an exclusive writing contract with the company, so clearly no harm was done.)  Of course I never wrote another Star Wars story, but the good news was—I didn’t want to.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis