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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

WHERE THE BOOMING HEAVENS ROAR

With the kind permission of the artist, here's a spectacular two-page spread by Brian Ching, illustrator of the Chaos War:  Thor mini-series I'm writing for Marvel.  Click on the image below to get the full impact:

Chaos War:  Thor will hit comics shops in November.  End of hype.  (For now, anyway!)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

AN EMPIRE OF MY OWN

Ah, how misinformation floods the internet!  Yesterday a press release went out announcing that Ardden Entertainment—an indie comics company I’ve been working with as editor-in-chief (I hope you’ve read our Flash Gordon and Casper and the Spectrals books)—is collaborating with Jason Goodman, grandson of Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman, on relaunching a couple of the old Atlas Comics characters:  Grim Ghost and Phoenix.  (Atlas, if you don’t know, is a short-lived company that Martin Goodman launched back in the 70’s, after leaving Marvel, in a quest to dethrone Stan Lee and Company from the top of the super hero heap.  They published dozens of titles and have a deep library of interesting characters.)  Somehow, as the word bounced around the Net, the story morphed and I became editor-in-chief of a resurrected Atlas Comics empire, ready to do battle with Marvel and DC.  Yes, just picture me now in my posh office, barking orders, marshaling my creative forces, eating organic filet mignon from solid gold plates and getting ready to flood the market with new material! 

Sorry:  It just ain’t so.

Right now Ardden—working with Jason and his partners (who are deeply involved in the creative process)—is putting out mini-series starring Grim Ghost and Phoenix.  Two books.  That's it.  (There will be Zero Issues available at the upcoming New York Comic Con.)  If these do well—as everyone involved hopes—there will no doubt be more.  But for now...

No empire for JMD.  Don’t get me wrong:  I wouldn’t mind ruling an empire or two—and maybe one day I will.

But not today!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

SUMMER READING


There’s something about summer—the deliciously slower pace, the opportunity to escape the structure of everyday life and melt into in a new environment—that makes reading an even more pleasurable experience.  During the school year—and for me, life is still defined by school:  driving my daughter every morning, picking her up in the afternoon, taking her to ballet class, voice lessons, play rehearsals—I’m so exhausted by the end of the day that it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open through The Daily Show and then collapse into unconsciousness.  Oh, I certainly read—fiction, non-fiction, comics, magazines, endless articles on the internet—but, in some ways, I don’t READ:  meaning, it’s often difficult to find the pocket of stillness—inner and outer—that allows me to utterly lose myself in the pages of a good book.

This summer’s reading blitz got off to a great start with the opportunity—detailed in a previous post—to reacquaint myself with Ray Bradbury’s Bradbury Speaks and J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.  After that—safely ensconced in the Internet Free Zone, sitting on a breezy porch, staring out at a lake alive with fish, turtles and alligators (yes, I said alligators)—I took a trip to Roger Zelazny’s Kingdom of Amber.  I’m not a Zelazny aficionado:  before entering Amber, I’d only read one of his books, Lord of Light (one and a half if you include his collaboration with the brilliant Philip K. Dick:  Deus Irae), but I’d heard great things about him (in her college days, my wife devoured just about everything Zelazny wrote) and, especially, about the Amber series.  The books are hard to find individually, but clicking over to Amazon, I discovered a genuine bargain:  all ten Amber novels, collected together in one massive, hernia-inducing volume, for just under seventeen dollars. 

Have you ever just looked at a book and fallen in love with it?  That’s the way I felt about The Great Book of Amber.  I pulled it out of the box and somehow knew that it would be my ticket to a deep, rich alternate world that would be perfect for the IF Zone.  I pretty much blew through the first five books in the series (considered, by Zelaznytes, to be far better than the second cycle of five) while on that aforementioned porch.  Was Amber the perfect fantasy series?   No.  Did it transcend the genre and crash straight through into the realm of high literature?  Probably not.  Was it a profoundly satisfying, mind-bogglingly creative, beautifully written tale that nourished, inspired and enchanted me?  Absolutely.  Whatever the fantasy pundits may say, I look forward to reading the next five:  in fact, I’ve already started Trumps of Doom.

After Amber, I returned to the alleged real world for Chris Welles Feder’s wonderful memoir about life with her father, Orson Welles:  In My Father’s Shadow.  I probably own more books about Welles than just about any other pop-culture figure, with the exception (no surprise) of John Lennon.  In My Father’s Shadow doesn’t attempt to be a definitive portrayal:  it’s a sad, touching, genuinely heartfelt story about a daughter and the hugely-talented, and hugely imperfect, parent who would appear in her life like a fiery comet and then vanish into the folds of space again, sometimes for years at a time.  Feder’s story shines a new, and incredibly compassionate, light on Welles the man, as opposed to the (literally) larger-than-life legend.

Next came Nine Lives:  In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple—a look at (again, no surprise) the lives of nine seekers of God in contemporary India.  The first few portraits in the book didn’t especially move me and, at one point, I seriously considered putting Nine Lives aside (I no longer feel compelled, as I did when I was younger, to finish every book I start).  I’m happy I stuck with it:  as I continued reading, the lives chronicled—in clear, compassionate prose—became more and more fascinating, and, on occasion, heartbreaking:  The collision between ancient and modern culture in India threatens to wipe away traditions that have gone on, uninterrupted, for thousands of years and most of Dalrymple’s seekers struggle with that knowledge in some way.  There’s a lovely chapter about a Sufi devotee in southern Pakistan—she’s known as the Red Fairy—that illuminates the lyrical, mystical side of Islam.  Considering the current mood in the United States, it should be compulsory reading for every American who thinks the Taliban and Al-Qaeda represent the totality of Muslim life.

Summer reading ended with pure pop culture indulgence:  Martin Gram’s Twilight Zone:  Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic.  Not the best written book on Rod Serling’s classic series—Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion remains my favorite—but absolutely the most exhaustive, filled with more details than most people would ever need to know, and compulsively readable.  At least as far as this Zone-junkie is concerned.

Again, I invite you all to fill me in on what books nourished, or for that matter malnourished, you these past three months.  I’ve enjoyed your responses immensely:  keep ‘em coming.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FINE TUNING

I've been fiddling with the design and layout of this blog all day today—if you've popped in and noticed it morphing before your eyes, that's why—and I'll probably be fine tuning for a few more days.  Bear with me.  We'll arrive at the new normal shortly.

And, with a little luck, I'll be back in a day or so to discuss my summer reading.  While you're waiting, feel free to post and let me know what you read these past few months.