As a follow-up to my recent post about my first published comic book story, the not-exactly-classic “Blood Boat,” I thought I’d re-present the True Shocking Tale of how I made my first comic book sale. (Okay, it’s not remotely shocking, but it is true.) Enjoy...
A few years back, the New York Times ran an article about DC Comics’ then-new web venture, Zudacomics.com, described as a “virtual slush pile,” a place for new writers and artists to break into the business. Near the end of the article I came across the following:
Like book publishing, the comic book industry has a history of authors who vaulted to prominence after their work was plucked from a heap of unsolicited manuscripts. “One of my proudest moments as an editor was buying a Marc DeMatteis story out of a slush pile,” said Mr. Levitz of DC. Mr. DeMatteis has gone on to write countless titles for DC, Marvel and other publishers.
“Mr. Levitz” would be Paul Levitz, DC’s president and publisher. Aside from being both delighted and deeply touched by Paul’s comment, his words got me thinking about the fact that I sold Paul my very first comic book script in December of l977. Which means that I’ve been at this game for more than thirty years. It’s true that it took a few more years of struggle, elation, depression and head-banging to get regular work that I could actually depend on, but that first script was the Big Breakthrough.
Comic books were a passion that grabbed me at a very early age (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I don’t recall a time when I didn’t read comics) and never let go. Sure, I moved on to Dostoyevsky, Bradbury, Hesse and Vonnegut but I never abandoned Lee, Kirby, Broome, Kane and the other comic book masters who inspired and nurtured me growing up.
I was always creative, obsessed with drawing, playing guitar, writing stories and songs. In many ways, these things weren’t just my passions, they were what defined me. They were me. Which meant I didn't just want to read comics, I wanted to write them—as desperately as I wanted to be a rock and roll star. (I’ll save the story of my musical adventures for another time, but if anyone’s interested in hearing some of my songs, feel free to click here or here to check out my l997 CD, How Many Lifetimes?)
I made several aborted attempts to enter the comic book business before my success with the legendary Mr. Levitz (who was, I think, all of twenty at the time. He’d been working at DC since high school): Five years earlier, I’d written a script sample and sent it to Marvel Comics. I had no clue what a comic book script looked like and I’m sure that what I submitted was less-than brilliant. The assistant editor who read my sample thought so, too, and told me just that, in no uncertain terms. (I’ve learned, over the years, that it’s important to encourage new talent regardless of the face value of their work. Even if the samples you’re evaluating are abysmal, you have to find something encouraging to say. Humans—especially the sensitive, neurotic, artistic variety—desperately need encouragement. The smallest crumb of kindness becomes a mountain of hope. I suspect that nameless assistant editor was overwhelmed, having a rough day, and he simply couldn’t bear to plow through yet another wretched submission. But he could have made my day much brighter by simply saying, “You’re not there yet, kid, but keep at it. Don’t give up.”)
A year or two later, DC began a short-lived apprentice program: a rare opportunity for novices to be trained by seasoned pros in the craft of writing for comics. Aspiring writers were encouraged to submit their work and those with the best submissions would be chosen for the program. (David Michelinie—a wonderful writer who went on to script Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, Superman and many other titles—got his start as a DC apprentice). I decided to write a Justice League script, a fact I now find hilarious: Team books are difficult for even the most experienced writer—I don’t think I’ve ever mastered the form—but there I was, nineteen years old, and ready to give it my all.
I didn’t make it into the program—frankly, I didn’t deserve to—but I received some extremely helpful feedback from a woman on the DC staff named Val Eades. It was the first time I was encouraged by a professional and it meant the world to me. Understand: I was just some kid from Brooklyn who grew up in a lower middle class family. My father worked for the New York City Parks Department, raking leaves and shoveling snow in a local park. My mother was a switchboard operator. Growing up, I’d never encountered anyone even vaguely resembling a professional writer or artist. (My best friend’s older brother was a working musician, part of a Las Vegas lounge act: that was the closest I ever came to hobnobbing with the rich and famous.) Making it as a writer seemed about as easy as scaling the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001. Which is why that small encouragement from Val Eades was so important to me. (Ms. Eades, if you’re out there, God bless you!)
A few years later, a fellow student, and comic book fanatic, at Brooklyn College—his name was Warren Reece—actually made it over the Monolith: he got a job at Marvel, working in the production department. Warren, very kindly, submitted some of my material to the folks at Marvel Editorial, but I never received a response (which, in some ways, was worse than being rejected). Warren then encouraged me to submit some samples to Crazy magazine (Marvel’s attempt at a Mad-style humor publication...although I don’t think Mad was worried). Truth is, I had no interest in writing for Crazy—I possessed zero skills in that arena—but, miraculously, editor Paul Laikin bought one of my pitches and, even more miraculously, I got a check in the mail with Spider-Man’s picture on it. (So blessings to Mr. Laikin and Mr. Reece both.) I’d hoped that selling something to Crazy would get me an “in” with the comic book side of Marvel, but it didn’t. Still, it allowed me to say that I was a (kinda/sorta/maybe/but not really) professional.
Not long after that, I sent another batch of samples to DC. (I still have them filed away in my office: a Superman script, a Plastic Man script, and an original piece called Stardust—which was a very raw prototype for what would, seven or eight years later, evolve into Moonshadow.) I got a letter back from Somebody's Assistant saying, "We're not going to buy Superman scripts from a writer we've never heard of, but Paul Levitz is looking for material for House of Mystery and Weird War Tales." These were two of the many anthology comics that DC was publishing then. I never read those titles, hardly knew they existed, but you can bet I ran out and bought a stack of them, devoured them, and quickly (perhaps too quickly) developed some story ideas that I mailed off to Paul.
Paul’s reply, dated August 22, 1977 (yep, that's still in the files, too), very politely, succinctly—and accurately—tore my stories to shreds. The last line was a classic: "You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future, but I suggest you use a professional typing service or type more slowly. The physical presentation of your manuscripts leaves something to be desired.” He was right: This was the troglodytic era before computers and, in my hunger and enthusiasm, I had crossed things out, scrawled in the margins, written up and down the sides of the paper.
Paul’s criticism didn’t bother me. The only thing that mattered was that wondrous phrase, “You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future.” Which is what I immediately did: submitted again (and again) until, finally—this must have been November of that year—I made an appointment to go up to the DC offices (a thrill in itself) and meet with Paul. I remember sitting across the desk from him, nervous and intimidated, pitching ideas. When Paul actually liked one of my stories and asked me to work up a draft, I had a moment of dizzying, euphoric confusion: Wait a minute...WAIT a minute! Is he saying he actually wants me to WRITE THIS?!
The story in question—which eventually saw print in House of Mystery—was called (brace yourselves) "The Lady Killer Craves Blood." (I warned you.) It was based on the Son of Sam killings that had traumatized New York the previous summer. In my version, the Sam-like maniac murders a woman, not knowing that her husband is a (what a brilliant twist!) vampire. The vampire then hunts down the serial killer and, still mourning his lost love, submits himself to the obliterating rays of the morning sun. All in eight pages!
A week or so later, back to DC I went, script in hand, ready for Paul's dissection of my work. "No more than five panels per page," he wrote, on a piece of yellow lined paper (I've got that in the files, too), "no more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than two sentences per caption, clear transitional captions, don't forget your splash panel." I raced home, wrote another draft, incorporating Paul’s suggestions (well, as far as I was concerned, they were orders. My philosophy in those early days was simple: the editor is always right. I didn’t want to argue, I wanted to learn) and then, to my astonishment and delight, the next time we met, he bought it. What came next was one of the greatest moments of my professional life: Paul shook my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, "Welcome to the business."
I didn't need the D-train. I could have floated back to Brooklyn.
So here I sit, more than thirty years on, looking back on a career that has allowed me to write most of Marvel and DC’s iconic characters (from Spider-Man to the Justice League) and birth original visions from the deepest, truest parts of my soul (from Moonshadow to Brooklyn Dreams). Just as important, my work in comics has opened magical doors into the worlds of television, film and children’s books. The journey hasn’t always been easy—some of it has been incredibly difficult—but I’m grateful for every bit of it. All of which, I suppose, is my long-winded way of reiterating advice I've offered before (and I'll no doubt offer again):
Don’t get sidetracked by practicality. You’re a writer. If you were practical you’d be doing something else. Let your passions carry you forward and don’t listen to the Naysayers and the Practical People who are always around to tell you exactly why your dreams can never be realized. I’m here to tell you that your dreams CAN be realized, if you pursue them with all your heart. FOLLOW YOUR BLISS.
If it worked for this clueless kid from Brooklyn, it’ll work for anyone.
©copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis
GREAT story, JMD, and just what I need to hear (er, read) right now!ReplyDelete
I'm being told by many an "expert" that HKC! isn't commercial enough, but I'm persevering nonetheless...
Thanks for sharing that story, J.M. Such experiences are jewels to read about for aspiring artists (whether they are writers, actors, musicians, etc ...) as well as writers who have been at it for while (like me). I'd like to post your quote of 'advise' at the end on my Facebook page if you don't mind. I'll wait for your okay. Thanks again!ReplyDelete
Keep plugging, Rob: it's a great idea and I'm sure it'll make a great book.ReplyDelete
As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I've had projects take many years, sometimes decades, to make it into print. Every rejection felt like a spear in the chest; but I always came back again.
I'm not saying HKC will take decades to make it to print, just that you can't let the rejections wear you down. Hold on to your faith and belief and keep going!
Feel free to quote me. A. Jaye. And thanks for asking. Very glad you enjoyed the post!ReplyDelete
In the vein of Brave and the Bold's Aquaman, I'll call this blog adventure, "THE TIME PAUL LEVITZ KICKSTARTED ONE OF THE MOST DISTINGUISHED CAREERS IN COMICS HISTORY!!!! OUTRAGEOUS!!!"ReplyDelete
And for all the bumps in the road along the way, David, I remain deeply grateful that I've been able to make my living doing something I love.ReplyDelete
And it shows, both in your work and your interaction with fans. It's the kind of blessing that just keeps on giving.ReplyDelete
Heartfelt thanks for the kind words, David. You can't know how much they're appreciated.ReplyDelete
Jim Shooter gave you a shout out in today's blog entry as someone he learned from. Big of him (or is that tall?)!ReplyDelete
Very nice of him to say. I sure learned a heckuva lot from him. One of the smartest editors I've ever worked with.ReplyDelete
BTW, "The Lady Killer Craves Blood!" sounds interesting enough. I remember picking up a Marvel reprint mag when I was a kid that had the brilliant if all too short Lee/Steranko Cap run, followed by a horror backup. Story was about a vampire who fell so madly in love, he decided to go through the wretched process of becoming a mortal--only to be victimized by his new lady love, who was also a vampire! When you're eight, that stuff blows your mind!!!!ReplyDelete
I can't tell you how many vampire stories I wrote for those DC anthology titles, David: those bloodsuckers really helped pay the rent.ReplyDelete
The first original comic book series I ever created was "I...Vampire!" for HOUSE OF MYSTERY. Around the same time I cooked up a series for WEIRD WAR TALES -- called "The Creature Commandos" -- that featured a vampire, a werewolf and a Frankenstein monster fighting in World War II! You had to be deep into Monster Mode writing for those comics.
I think that's one of the reasons that I turned Marvel's DEFENDERS into a mystical/horror comic when I took it over: I was just used to dealing with monsters.
There's no denying the timeless appeal of monsters, JMD! I wonder if any of these anthologies have been reprinted.ReplyDelete
Speaking of vampires, I've always been curious: was Greenberg the first vampire story where the protagonist didn't drink human blood? I'm not up enough on my vampire lore to know the answer. I think the 90s saw a surge of sympathetic vampire figures, but even those tended to lean toward overwhelming bloodthirst.
I still laugh out loud when I read the line, "Bram Stoker was an #$^!"
I have no idea if Greenberg was the first non-human blood drinking vampire, David; it just became clear to me, when I first conceived the story, that being transformed into a vampire didn't mean you'd immediately run off and start killing people. Especially if your brother was a kosher butcher!ReplyDelete
Greenberg remains one of my all-time favorite stories. We talked a little about a sequel back in the late 80's/early 90's, but nothing ever came of it. A return to Greenberg's world is something I would definitely welcome, but I don't see it happening in the current comic book climate.
Time for a new novel, I guess: HOROWITZ, THE WEREWOLF!
Finklestein the Mummy!ReplyDelete
BERNSTEIN, THE FRIENDLY GHOST?ReplyDelete
Jew-Sters on the prowl!ReplyDelete
6 more we have a minyan!ReplyDelete
This could go on all day, Jeff...so I'll pull the plug now so I can get to work!ReplyDelete
Before we move on from the subject, I would urge you, Jeff, or anyone interested in the subject of Jews and comics to pick up my buddy Danny Fingeroth's book, DISGUISED AS CLARK KENT. It's terrific.ReplyDelete
Okay, I'm off to work on ZUCKERBERG THE ZOMBIE...
It'd be an interesting time to revisit Greenberg. I sense that you poured a lot of your concerns about comic book violence into Greenberg's commitment to write about miracles insted of nightmares. Now that you've had the opportunity to fulfill Greenberg's liteary manifesto, so to speak, I wonder what kind of life experience you'd pour into him now?ReplyDelete
Since the graphic novel also dealt with film, the TWILIGHT craze might provide an amusing backdrop for Greenberg's development. Greenberg certainly has more testoterone than today's glittery creatures of the night!
For that matter, David, I wonder how things would have gone if I'd been able to continue with Greenberg back in the 80's. I think it would have evolved into something very special.ReplyDelete
And I'd love to know what Oscar thinks about TWILIGHT.
Oscar can forgive Denise for transforming him into a vampire, but never for taking him to TWILIGHT!ReplyDelete
I'd think Greenberg would be more of a fan of Leslie Nielsen in DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT.ReplyDelete
Blame Levitz, Blame Canada, blame Helfer, you just can't take responsibility for your own actions can you? That's the problem with you kids today, it's always someone else's fault isn't it?ReplyDelete
Wishing you nothing but, but good will and hipness from here to the stars,
I just can't resist a theme, Jack...but I'm not sure who to blame next!ReplyDelete
Hope all's very well with you. JMD
Greenberg not only has DEAD AND LOVING IT, but every film in the Leslie Nielsen catalogue...and don't call him Shirley!ReplyDelete
It sounds like your Jewish monster story is fast becoming a team book. I suggest the story of a Jewish werewolf who returns to his old haunt to teach some unruly kids about the value of a good education and a pork free diet:
WELCOME BACK, KOSHER!
I think you get the ULTIMATE GROANER AWARD, David. Congratulations! :)ReplyDelete
As Adam West's Batman would say, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"ReplyDelete
What a great story. I'm thankful that Mr. Levitz helped you kick off your career. I suppose if it weren't for him, we wouldn't have your wonderful JLI stories and others that you've worked on!ReplyDelete
The comic book biz has been, and continues to be, very good to me. So much to appreciate...not the least of which is the opportunity to interact with readers here at Creation Point, so thanks so much for checking in!ReplyDelete