Now that DC has officially announced its "Retro-Active" one-shots—including a Justice League International story which reunites the Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire team—I thought it would be fun to resurrect a JLI essay from the Great Lost Amazon Archives (thus saving it from disintegrating in the bowels of cyber-space). Hope you enjoy this look back at one of the most purely delightful gigs of my comics career.
I didn’t want to do it. Really. It was late 1986 and I’d just completed the four-part “End of the Justice League of America”—wrapping up the infamous Justice League Detroit era and clearing the path for a JLA reboot—and I was anxious to move on to More Important Personal Projects. But Andy Helfer—one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with (which makes sense since he grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood I did)—kept saying, “Yeah, well, I might need you to dialogue the new Justice League book.” “But Andy,” I said, “I don’t want to dialogue the new Justice League book.” Andy nodded, puffed out a stream of cigarette smoke and smiled.
Just a little thing, that smile. But it spoke volumes. “I’ve got you, DeMatteis,” that smile said. “You’re mine.”
And, somehow, he did get me. Andy gave me copies of the first issue pencils, done by some new kid named Kevin Maguire. He just wanted me to look it over, he said. Keith Giffen—who plotted the story—had already dialogued it, but neither Andy nor Keith (who, in those days, was primarily known as an artist) was pleased with the finished product, he said. I protested. “Just look at it,” quoth the Helfer. And he smiled again.
So I looked it over. This Maguire, whoever he was, was pretty damn good—Andy had Terry Austin lined up to ink, so I knew this was going to be a beautiful-looking book. (For the record: Kevin, Master of the Expressive Face, was in no small part responsible for the new League’s instant popularity. He set the tone for all the artists to follow.) Despite what I’d been told, I thought Keith had done a great job on the dialogue. It was fast and funny and yet the characters seemed three-dimensional and real. “Andy,” I said, “you don’t need me. Keith’s doing a terrific job and—” “Keith doesn’t think he can do it every month. He’s afraid he’ll choke up.” “But—” He smiled again.
So there I was, rewriting Keith’s script. I didn’t know why I was doing it—I don’t remember ever actually agreeing to do it—but there I was. And maybe, just maybe, it was fun. Kinda. Not that I was going to admit it to that bum, Helfer. Anyway, I was sure I could weasel out after the first issue.
But, somehow, the second issue plot arrived at my door. No script from Keith this time, just his delightful, Harvey Kurtzman-like layouts, with the foundation of the story mapped out in fairly succinct word balloons. Well, I thought, the story’s pretty good. And Keith’s situations are pretty funny. And he’s sure got some terrific one-liners in here. And...
Five years went by. Five years of what evolved into one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever had in comics. Every month I’d get another Giffen plot dropped into my lap, I’d write the first—and very often the silliest—things that would pop into my head, filling up the pages with all the fast-and-loose repartee I could muster, and Helfer and Giffen would tell me what a terrific job I’d done: This wasn’t work, this was play. And they were paying me for it. And not only that:
An odd thing began to happen. Our outrageous—some would say obnoxious—cast of characters began to (I know it’s a cliche, folks, but it’s true) come alive for us. Something about those Martians and ice-goddesses and time travelers was very real. Far more real, I think, than many—if not most—of the ever-so-serious super-heroes out there in Angst Land (and keep in mind that this observation is coming from a writer who’s made his reputation trafficking in angst). Most people would say that the key to the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League’s success was its humor; that people read it for the goofy dialogue and the wild situations. And that’s certainly a large part of it. But the humor wouldn’t have worked if we—readers and creators alike—hadn’t believed in those characters.
The Leaguers reminded me of the gang of friends I grew up with in Brooklyn, sitting around on Saturday nights, putting our feet up, dropping our defenses, ragging on each other, sharing our problems. Just being ourselves, without the pressures of the world intruding. Justice League became my comic book Saturday night. A place I could go to drop the Serious Writer mask and just write for the sheer fun of it. Keith and Andy had the real headaches: they had to make up the stories! I just had to put words in the mouths of my friends. No problem.
Another wonderful thing that began to happen was the chemistry between myself and Mr. Giffen. Ours was (and remains) a collaboration based on two ingredients: spontaneity—people don’t believe me, but I often had no idea what was coming up in the next issue until Keith’s plot arrived—and trust. The trust was the key, I think. No, I never knew what to expect in a given month, but I knew that Keith—one of the most purely creative human beings I’ve ever met; the guy comes up with more viable story ideas in a day than I do all year—would deliver the goods. And Keith—the fool!—trusted me enough to give me all the rope I needed to hang myself. Sometimes I stayed tightly within the parameters of the Giffen universe, but other times I took off for universes of my own. Whole new relationships and plot twists emerged in the dialogue. What saw print was sometimes far removed from Keith’s intentions. And never once did Keith complain. Never once did even a hint of ego arise. Writing Justice League was like a relaxed game of tennis: Keith would lob the ball to me, I’d lob it back to him, he’d lob it back again, and, with each whack of the racket, the stories would grow far beyond what either of us intended.
And all the while that guy Helfer would sit in the bleachers, coaching us, cheering us, occasionally chewing us out, and always puffing on that cigarette, smiling that devilish smile.
At the end of five years (during which we also worked on a seemingly-endless array of JL-related spin-offs) Keith, Andy and I were all exhausted and pretty much done with the League. I continued to work with Helfer on projects—Brooklyn Dreams was done for DC’s ahead-of-its-time Paradox Press imprint, which Andy supervised—but Keith and I rarely saw each other: our creative paths just didn’t cross. Over the years, there was occasional talk of a reunion project, but I don’t think any of us—and that included the folks at DC—were all that enthusiastic about it. We’d moved on. The past was the past.
In 2003, editor Dan Raspler managed to convince both Keith and the Powers That Be at DC that a Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire reunion would be a good thing. I wasn’t so sure. In fact, I was afraid that the result would be just the opposite. My mind was flooded with visions of all those execrable TV reunion movies (y’know, Mary, Rhoda and Gilligan Return To Mayberry?): embarrassing endeavors that only ended up tarnishing the reputations of everyone involved. But it had been more than ten years since I’d worked with Keith and I was eager to collaborate again, so I took a deep breath and agreed.
I received Keith’s plot for the first issue and it was, unsurprisingly, terrific. I, on the other hand, felt myself stumbling and stalling as I scripted the first five or six pages. But then a funny thing happened: the characters began talking—to each other and to me—the words started spilling across the page and it was 1987 all over again. Only better. The result, perfectly visualized by Kevin Maguire, was Formerly Known As The Justice League, which won the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication. But, for me, the real award was the startling revelation that Keith and I were a damn good writing team. That may sound strange—okay, it is strange—but I swear it wasn’t until we worked on that reunion series that the two of us realized just how special our collaboration is.
Back in the 80’s we were two freelancers recruited by a brilliant and crafty editor to do a job. We did it, we had fun—but it was Just Another Gig to us. With Formerly Known As and its sequel, I Can’t Believe Its Not The Justice League, we were old (but not too old) and wise (but not too wise) enough to finally understand that, however good we were individually, something unique happened when we put our two warped and graying heads together.
Andy Helfer knew it right from the start. I guess that’s why he was smiling.
© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis
"Occassionally chewing us out"?ReplyDelete
I can't help but picture Helfer calling you into his office and screaming, "DeMatteis, you're a loose cannon!" at the top of his lungs, talking about how much collateral damage you'd done to the League's serious reputation, and making you turn over your DC credentials until the latest JLI sales vindicate your rogue scripting style yet again...
I mean, I know that's not how it happened at all, but it's fun to think so.
Pretty cool that things clicked as phenomenally as they did, which it sounds like no anticipated...except perhaps Helfer.
Andy H wasn't a screamer: he was more like a Jewish mother, masterfully using JUST the right amount of guilt to get you to do things his way.ReplyDelete
I stand corrected then, sounds like the way it happened was more fun.ReplyDelete
"No, no, don't worry about my job. Just write the irreverent jokes you want to tell, because all I've ever wanted out of life is for DeMatteis and Giffen to feel fulfilled. That's why I talked you guys up to the EIC for nine months. Nine months I carried you...but hey, I'll just go pack my things now. I'm only crying because I'm so happy you're finally getting to tell that joke that's been on your mind for at least five minutes..."
You're getting closer, David!ReplyDelete
But, seriously, Andy was a joy to work for. Incredibly smart and creative, a terrific guy and a good friend. You can't ask for more in an editor. We've lost touch over the years, but I have very warm memories of those days and all the work we did together.
"And that's why the epic Wonder Woman/G'Nort romance was over before it began..."ReplyDelete
But he really must be good, since he not only helped reshape JL history, but collaborated on what's arguably your greatest accomplishment, BROOKLYN DREAMS. I say arguably because I'm not the kind to commit to one work. My favorites of anything tend to vary from day to day...
Paradox Press was ahead of its time, both in its content and format. Working on BD was a dream (no pun intended): I was left alone to tell the story my way, with no interference and maximum support.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing this. I always like reading about behind-the-scenes type of stuff. I was a little bit too young when JLI was first released, but I read the first year's worth of stories right before Formerly Known As came out. Those were some really fun comics.ReplyDelete
One of my favorite scenes in Formerly Known As is that gang of hoodlums who came from an Ivy League background. How long did it take you to come up with their dialogue?
Glad you enjoyed it, Dru. As for the dialogue: It was a spontaneous thing. I just thought it would upend the stereotype if these inner city gangbangers were actually Ivy League intellectuals. As best I recall, I pretty much made it up as I went along.ReplyDelete
Andrew Helfer is a name that's already dear to my heart due to the fact that he wrote my favorite comic of all time (the Two-Face origin, "Eye of the Beholder," which few realize directly influenced "The Long Halloween" and, thus, "The Dark Knight" movie), as well as his "Shadow" run.ReplyDelete
But then, not too long ago, I realized that Helfer seemed to additionally be a guiding force on three of my very favorite, most formative comics: the Green Lantern series relaunch, "Legends of the Dark Knight" (especially the Hugo Strange epic "Prey"), and, of course, you guys. Bear in mind, I didn't read these comics when they actually came out, having to dig back and find them several years after the fact.
Perhaps it's just personal bias, but damn, I don't know why Helfer isn't hailed as one of the more important names. As a comics fan (and comic store clerk) today, I hold him in highest esteem, and often find myself recommending his works and those he helped create... even though most are out of print. Sigh.
Well, John, I certainly hold Andy in highest esteem...and I'll bet most of the writers and artists who worked for him do, too. It was a great loss for DC when he left staff.ReplyDelete
I agree, too, that Andy is a superb writer, with a unique and distinctive voice. I always used to encourage him to do more writing, but -- back then at least -- it was hard for him to juggle his full-time editing gig and writing assignments.
It was a great loss for DC when he left staff.ReplyDelete
Honestly, I think it also showed in the overall output of comics at the time, not to mention the way the winds were blowing creatively in general.
Coincidentally to what you were saying in other comments, I managed to obtain "Brooklyn Dreams" in the original four books, and will finally be giving it a read very soon. I've heard nothing but great things. I wonder if Paradox Press was simply ahead of its time, because it really was one of the most intriguing and exciting imprints to come out of DC.
Hope you enjoy BROOKLYN DREAMS, John: it's near and dear to my heart. And I'm happy to add that there will be a new hardcover collection of BD coming out -- probably in the fall -- from IDW.ReplyDelete
Yes, Paradox Press was absolutely ahead of its time...especially in its manga-like format. From my perspective, DC never gave the line the time and support it needed. (I'll also add that the man who originally bought BD -- and found the great Glenn Barr -- was a guy named Mark Nevelow, who ran the imprint when it was called Piranha Press. Andy then came on board and transformed Piranha to Paradox.)
And while I'm giving credit where credit's due, our editor on BD was Margaret Clark, who was also one of my editors on MOONSHADOW when she worked at Marvel/Epic. Andy and Margaret allowed us to tell our story our way. They were incredibly supportive and gave us all the creative freedom we required...and more.
What issue is "Eye of the Beholder" in? I've loved Two-Face ever since I read "A Lonely Place of Dying," the first Tim Drake story.ReplyDelete
I've never read "Prey," but I love the Englehart Hugo Strange story, and who could forget that cover? I might have to check it out, as "Prey" is rumored to be the inspiration for the third and final installment of the Nolan trilogy.
Not sure what issue the Two-Face story was in, David. You'll have to scour the net.ReplyDelete
@David: "Eye of the Beholder" was published in Batman Annual #14, which featured a stellar Neal Adams cover (http://www.comicvine.com/batman-annual-the-eye-of-the-beholder/37-82299/). I've often found it in dollar bins, sadly. The story was reprinted only once in this book (http://www.amazon.com/Batman-Featuring-Two-Face-Neil-Gaiman/dp/1563891980), which is long out of print but can be found used. It's well worth checking out for the bonus of "Secret Origins Special" #1.ReplyDelete
@JMD: Sorry if I hijacked your blog for a second there. Will the IDW version have new material, thus making me curse my impatience and short-sightedness?
That was easier than I thought--never underestimate the power of a search engine! A quick check says it's Batman Annual #14 (1990). Don't recall that issue, so I'll check it out. Always interesting to trace all the elements that slowly make their way to a longstanding character's origin.ReplyDelete
Loved the Crime & Punishment one-shot, incidentally.
You didn't hijack anything, John. No worries!ReplyDelete
The new BD edition won't have new material -- although we're hoping for a new cover -- but it will be a beautiful hardcover.
Thanks, John: I'll check it out.ReplyDelete
Glad IDW will be handling BD. They've got gorgeous production values (well, Savior 28 did, anyway). Do you know what size format?
If memory serves, David, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT built on and expanded the backstory Andy Helfer established in EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. So round and round we go.ReplyDelete
I suspect the BD format will be almost identical to the DC format, David. But we haven't gotten that far yet. Contracts were JUST signed. Yes, you heard it here first, folks!ReplyDelete
Byrne taking Next Men to IDW began with reprints and eventually evolved into the long awaited continuation of the series. Is it possible we might see the same thing happen with BD???ReplyDelete
Hadn't really thought about continuing BD in any form, Jeff. That said, I HAVE thought about doing another autobiographical graphic novel. We'll see what the future brings!ReplyDelete
@JMD, your memory serves you correctly. In some ways, I think "Crime and Punishment" was the middle ground between the extremes of "Eye of the Beholder" and your Spider-Man story "The Child Within." I noticed a great deal of similarities in how you dealt with the psychological scars left behind from child abuse, as displayed between Two-Face and Vermin. Both are torn between love for their fathers, and festering rage at having been so horribly manipulated and abused.ReplyDelete
Interesting connection, John.ReplyDelete
Strangely, the roots of "The Child Within" were in another story that I pitched to LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT. Don't remember much about it -- although the idea of dissecting the abused psyches of both the hero and villain were definitely in there -- but I do recall that Archie Goodwin had a story relating to somewhat similar themes in the works and asked me to hold off on mine. I did...and eventually reworked it into "Child" -- which ended up being one of my all-time favorite Spider-Man stories...and perfectly suited to that book. (I think "Child" was also one of the first -- if not the first -- mainstream super hero story to deal very directly with sexual abuse.)
It's possible that elements also bled off into CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. It's been so long, I honestly can't say for sure!
Bates, Conway, and Giffen/DeMatteis back on JLA! WOOOOOOOO!!!!ReplyDelete
Gee, Rob, you could at least TRY to be enthusiastic about this.ReplyDelete
But, seriously: glad you're excited about "Retro-Active." I think these are going to be fun books. I should be starting the JLI script very soon and it features --
Nope, I'm not gonna tell you!
I should be starting the JLI script very soon and it features --ReplyDelete
"Aquaman as the unquestioned leader of the JLA. He single-handedly whips Guy Gardner into shape while fending off the advances of Fire and Ice."
That's what you were going to write, right?
Uh...yeah, Rob. You're absolutely right. How'd you know? :)ReplyDelete
Truth is, you won't be seeing Aquaman in our story (unless there's something Keith hasn't told me). That said, I have an episode of BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD coming up in two weeks that features the JLI...and Aquaman is a prominent part of the team (along with Fire, Ice, Booster, Blue Beetle and the Martian Manhunter). So you'll kinda/sorta get your wish.
The story, called "Shadow of the Bat," also feature the Demon, one of my favorite Jack Kirby creations. It's one of my absolute favorites out of all the episodes I've written for B & B.
Sweet! I loves me some Etrigan too.ReplyDelete
Like many of Kirby's 70's DC Kirby creations, Rob, the Demon seemed like a commercial failure at the time; but it's proved, over the years, to be an enduring classic.ReplyDelete
The man was a true genius, wasn't he?
Hey, Daniel Best --ReplyDelete
Your comment got swallowed up by my Spam folder and I just found it. Sorry! And thanks!
Having enjoyed your earlier work on titles such as Cap and Defenders, I was truly blown away by your turn at humor on JLI. Even so, one of the aspects I remember best was how you handled the darker stuff. Despero's return and Booster's departure stood out for me the most. It was a perfect balance of levity and pathos. Not every writer can get away with crafting serious stories for such a lighthearted series, but both Keith and yourself pulled it off marvelously.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, Joseph. One of the things we loved to do with JLI -- and it's something Keith and I have continued to do on subsequent projects -- is find that balance you're talking about. Just when things are at their silliest, turn them around and break your heart. And the same in reverse. Things are deadly serious? Time to get ridiculous. (I actually think we did it best with Hero Squared, but I'm certainly not objective.)ReplyDelete
Thanks for checking in at Creation Point. Much appreciated!
We do need more stuff like Hero Squared and JLI.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Ricardo. At the moment, I don't have any projects in the works with Giffen, but that could all change in a heartbeat. I certainly hope so.ReplyDelete