Thursday, July 28, 2011


    “Do you remember,” the old woman said gravely, “what Rajah Merogji told Prince Imaginalis, at the end of Flight From Forever?  That he had to defeat Pralaya, but do it without violence?  Without vengeance?”
    “Yes,” Mehera said.  “How could I forget?  That’s my favorite scene in all the books.  I even did a report on it for my English class and—”
    “Don’t interrupt,” Morice-Gilland snapped. 
    “Sorry,” Mehera said, meekly.  Facing down Pralaya was one thing, Mrs. Morice-Gilland was quite another.
    “By restoring Pralaya,” the old woman went on, “you did precisely what the Rajah of the Swan instructed.  Brought down the enemy with compassion, not brutality.  I had no idea how that could happen...I was terrified that I’d written myself into a corner...but you...”  She shook her head in amazement.  “You did it.”
    “I didn’t do anything,” Mehera said.  “It was the Silver Queen.”
    “Did it even occur to you,” Morice-Gilland said, “that what you thought was the Silver Queen was just the deeper, the better, the truer part of yourself?  That your unconscious mind just manufactured the image of the Silver Queen as a way to do something that is the very essence of Imaginalis?”  Mehera looked at the old woman blankly.  “You pushed past your limits,” Mrs. Morice-Gilland continued.  “You aimed for the impossible and hit the target, dead-center.”.
    “Are you saying.” the lion growled softly, with evident displeasure, “that our Silver Queen—isn’t real?  That the tales about her are lies?”
    “Not at all,” Morice-Gilland replied.  “I’m just saying that the line between Silver Queens and little girls, between gods and men, between who we think we are and who we really are is thinner than we can imagine.”
    The lion nodded his shaggy head, apparently satisfied.  Mehera, on the other hand, didn’t understand the explanation at all and Mrs. Morice-Gilland read the bafflement on her face.  “Let’s just say,” the old woman offered, “that you helped create a new kind of story today...”

My novel Imaginalis is a fantasy about the interface between life and fiction, imagination and reality, the manifestation of our highest dreams and—as evidenced by the above sequence—the need for a new kind of story.  I love—and love might be too small a word—working in the fields of pop culture, but I also think that much of what we do boils the richness and complexity of life down to violent confrontation.  No matter how hard we try to disguise it with psychology and philosophy, social commentary and humor, popular stories of fantasy, science-fiction and adventure too-often come down to characters beating the hell out of each other while bombs explode, phasers shoot, magic spells crackle, entire cities collapse.  In the end, the villain lies dead and the hero rises from the rubble while the audience, primed by years of devouring similar tales, reflexively cheers.  We’ve seen this same story play out, on page and screen, again and again and again; and it’s become clear that we’re stuck in a narrative feedback loop, endlessly regurgitating old myths.  With the world at a point where it seems that every choice we make could lead us to either a golden age or an incredibly dark one, perhaps it’s time to widen our imaginations and create new myths, new stories, new solutions.  As writers—and as human beings sharing the planet—we need to dream new dreams and feed the broader culture in a more nourishing way.

I know there are those who say that it’s not a writer's business to nurture, that we live in a violent, perhaps even evil, world and we have to tell tales that reflect what we see in the dark heart of what I call the CNN Reality.  I also understand that the classic good versus evil scenario is therapeutic:  a way for us to deal with the primal fears brought on by life’s often hideous uncertainties; and, as my wife recently reminded me, these battles often echo, in ways that are healing to both psyche and soul, the various battles being waged inside ourselves.  So, yes, I know the value—and, let’s be honest—the sheer fun of these stories.  (I’ve written many a super hero slugfest and had a fine old time doing it.  I’m intimately familiar with the child-like awe and joy that can be derived from writing a scene where Captain Marvel drops an entire building on Superman’s head, where Spider-Man knocks Venom across half the city.)  But I think that, after a certain point, the personal mirror we hold up to the world mirror becomes a kind of a negative reinforcement, each vision feeding the other; and those stories that reduce human beings to simple-minded cliches—they’re bad, we’re good, kick their asses—and celebrate the idea that complex problems can be solved through violence just keep gaining more power in the consensus reality.  Someone recently said to me that it’s simply the way of the world:  there are no new stories, just a set of myths that we, as humans, have been recycling since the dawn of time.  And there’s truth in that:  Yes. we've been repeating one set of primal tales; but aren’t there other myths kicking around in the collective unconscious, waiting to be reinvented?  New paradigms for drama that can feed new paradigms for life?  As a writer, I’m in complete control of the paradigm:  characters punch and shoot and kill only if I say they do.  So why keep saying it?

These thoughts aren’t new, of course.  Anyone who’s followed my work knows that I’ve been wrestling with these issues, on the page and in my heart, for as long as I’ve been writing.  I’ve created numerous stories over the years—most recently Imaginalis and The Life and Times of Savior 28—that have attempted to upend expectations, shift perspectives; tell exciting, challenging stories of fantasy and adventure in unexpected ways.  Some have been successful, some have failed miserably.  I’m certainly not alone in this endeavor:  one look at the fictional landscape reveals many other like-minded dreamers offering up their unique visions of the new paradigm.  (Why, some might ask, even bother telling tales of myth and fantasy?  Why not use more “mature” narrative forms?  For me, myth and fantasy reflect the interior landscape, the spiritual and psychological worlds, far better than allegedly realistic fiction.  And not just the interior:  it’s been my experience that, when we look that Real World square in the eye, it’s far more fantastic, mystical and surreal than anything you could ever find in the pages of a comic book.)

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve sometimes been criticized—both in my mainstream and more personal work—for being too spiritual, too preachy.  I’ve also heard the complaint that I’ve written one-too many stories that resolve conflict through the power of love.  Fair enough:  I have no problem with sincere, intelligent criticism—the best of it has contributed to my creative growth—but here’s the interesting part:  I don’t ever recall anyone criticizing any story of mine for sending out the message—as superhero tales inevitably do—that a fist is in the face is a viable solution.  No one has ever accused me of preaching violence.  Love, God, compassion:  these are the issues that seem to set people off.  (Which, in the end, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)
All of this was swirling in my head when I saw the most recent Harry Potter film.  I’m rereading the first Potter right now and I’d forgotten how light, how playful and charming, that book is.  (The back cover copy, very rightly, evokes the spirits of  Roald Dahl and P.L. Travers.)  By the end of the saga, the story has turned very grim; in its transition to film, almost unbearably so.  (Call it Dark Knight syndrome.)  This is a problem when you lose the author’s voice; and also, when you’re translating prose to a primarily visual medium.  The tendency in film is, understandably, to go for the spectacle‚—which is why I was so disappointed to see Deathly Hallows Part Two, however beautifully-crafted, reduced to yet another fantasy-fueled war movie.      

I had a similar feeling a few years back when the first of the Narnia films came out:  in both cases, it was almost as if I was watching an Army recruitment film—a sure-fire guarantee that we’ll have piles of warm bodies to fight our ever-increasing number of wars.  Look, kids, grab your wands, put on your armor, and head off into battle!  There’s an evil White Witch out there and we’ve got to stop her!  Lord Voldemort’s on the loose—he’s bad, kids, bad—and we can’t stop till he and his minions are all annihilated!  Substitute the names of those literary villains with the names of Our Latest Enemies—they seem to change with alarming regularity—and you can see how easily those images can root in the unconscious, filling young, impressionable minds with the idea that war is a given, a solution not to be rejected, but to be embraced.  (One of the things I love most about the final Potter book, and it’s the highlight of the movie for me, is the revelation that Snape—exquisitely played by the great Alan Rickman—the hissing snake of a man we’ve been loathing for years, is, in actuality, the true hero of the series.  Rowling upends the readers’ expectations beautifully and forces them to reassess their idea of what an enemy really is.)

In the end, the “realists” may be right:  maybe human nature will never change, maybe war will always be with us, maybe the violent solution is sometimes the best one.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all decided to laugh in reality’s face and not accept that?  If we focus exclusively on the way things have always been, if we lock ourselves into the vision of a world where hideous violence is accepted as the way things are, then that’s the world we’re going to be living in.  

I believe that there’s a deeper, a truer, reality beneath the skin of the world, one that has the potential to transform both the individual soul and the entire planet.  The microcosm, as they say, is the macrocosm:  The smallest acts of kindness and compassion can act as a bridge between those inner and outer universes, rippling out and transforming the world.  The old model—the one that clings to the concept of war as just and necessary—can collapse in the time it takes us to change our minds.  To change our dreams.  To change our stories.

Ten or so years ago, when I was writing The Spectre for DC Comics, I gave the main character, Hal Jordon, the following monologue:

It could be that I’m wrong.  Heaven knows I’ve been wrong before.  But what if I’m not?  What if we aren’t standing on the threshold of extinction—as so many doomsayers so desperately want us to believe—but on the edge of a glorious new world?  

And if I
am wrong...?  There are worse things than focusing my energy and will, my passion and faith and love, on a dream of hope.  On your redemption...and mine.

Those words were written from the very core of my heart.  Time has only deepened those convictions. 

Understand:  I’m not saying that we need to destroy the old template; as noted, I’m incredibly fond of it, both as a writer and a member of the audience.  (Yesterday I saw the new Captain America movie—how could I not?—and walked out of the theater with a grin on my face:  the creative team told Cap’s story with such intelligence, style, wit and, most important, heart, that the old myth felt brand new again.  The recent X-Men and Thor films were equally enjoyable.  And if you think I wouldn’t have been delighted to contribute to any of them, think again.)  What I am saying is that the time has long-since come to seed the collective consciousness with as many new dreams, new myths, new paradigms as we can imagine.  Who knows?  They might eventually sprout from the fertile ground of our imaginations and forever alter this shared dream we call the world.

©copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Since I'm rereading Philip Norman's wonderful book, John Lennon:  The Life, I thought I'd dust off a review I wrote for the Lost Amazon Archives back in 2008.  Enjoy.


Some people, attached to the cuddly mop-top Beatles image, are shocked that Lennon—who was, by most accounts, profoundly idealistic, generous to a fault, fiercely intelligent and a brilliant wit—could also be a perfect idiot:  rude, angry, cynical, cruel, and, on occasion, violent.  That’s precisely why I’ve always felt a profound connection to the man:  He was wonderfully, horribly, fully human—trapped in a yin-yang spiral, constantly seeking transcendence through mind-altering substances, God, politics, family.  Throughout his career, his songs painted the portrait of a man always reaching for Heaven—and often tumbling straight into Hell along the way:  forever questing—desperately, defiantly, and always with a sense of humor—to understand himself.

I wrote those words in a post a few years ago, discussing my lifelong fascination with, and admiration for, my one true rock and roll hero:  John Lennon.  That fascination was reignited—not that it ever really dimmed—with the arrival of Philip Norman’s wonderful new Lennon biography, John Lennon:  The Life.  Norman’s book on the Beatles, Shout, is a classic and his admiration for Lennon shone through on every page.  The same can be said for The Life.  As Norman noted in a recent interview, “(Lennon) behaved badly, but we all behave badly... The overwhelming number of people who met him really adored him."  And that’s the overwhelming feeling this incredibly detailed, and incredibly compassionate, book leaves you with:  admiration for a flawed man, and towering artist, who lived the full spectrum of his humanity.    

Strange, then, that a number of reviewers have written about The Life as if it’s a scathing portrait of a violent, drug-addled, womanizing monster, whose idealistic and political stances were hypocritical poses.  It’s as if they simply can’t fathom that a man can contain opposites or comprehend the vast difference between hypocrisy and contradiction.  (Or perhaps it’s just that they can’t bear to look at the contradictions in their own souls.)  “Good and evil,” as another hero of mine, Dostoyesvsky, wrote, “are monstrously mixed up in man.”  John Lennon lived that.  More important:  he knew it.

The joke here—and one that, I think, Lennon would appreciate—is that most of the “shocking revelations” in The Life aren’t new:  any fan with more than a cursory knowledge of the Beatles has heard them before—and from Lennon’s own lips.  “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.”  That unsettling line came smack in the middle of “Getting Better,” an optimistic piece of McCartneyism turned on its head by Lennon’s naked admission of his violent past.  How about this, from the brilliant Walls and Bridges track, “Scared”:  “Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me, I guess I knew it right from the start. Sing out about love and peace, don't wanna see the red raw meat, the green eyed goddamn straight from your heart.”  No biographer could capture the contradictions of John Lennon’s soul more forcefully than the man did himself, both in song and in his always honest and revealing interviews.  “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically,” Lennon told interviewer David Sheff, a few months before his assassination, “any woman. I was a hitter.  I couldn't express myself and I hit.  I fought men and I hit women.  That is why I am always on about peace, you see.  It is the most violent people who go for love and peace.  Everything's the opposite.  But I sincerely believe in love and peace.  I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.  I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”

John Lennon:  The Life isn’t perfect:  no single biography could be.  A man’s life—especially a man like Lennon, who was the focus of an entire generation’s dreams and aspirations—is a mirror.  A biographer often sees more of himself in that mirror than he does of his subject.  (The same can be said of the people who review those biographies—myself included.)  Despite its great length—more than 800 pages—I would have liked a little more psychological insight, a little more spiritual depth (Lennon was as much a fervent spiritual seeker as his bandmate, George Harrison).  Although it’s refreshing to see a book that presents Yoko Ono as a vulnerable human being and an artist of worth—as opposed to the Dragon Lady caricature that’s marred one too many Beatle-related books—Norman seems to accept Yoko’s version of events too easily and without question.  That said, when you’re chronicling the life and times of a man with kaleidoscope eyes and multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots, the definitive account will always be elusive.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, July 11, 2011


The SyFy Channel ran a Twilight Zone marathon over the July 4th weekend.  Despite the fact that I own all the episodes on DVD, I ended up watching one after another after another, filled with the same wonder, terror and delight that I felt when I was a kid, seeing those imagination-exploding shows for the first time.  Inspired by the marathon, I decided it was long past time to put together a list of my ten favorite Zone episodes.  By the time I was done, I’d included sixteen episodes, but let’s all pretend it’s a top ten list.  It sounds better that way.

“Time Enough At Last” which is first on the list, is probably my all-time favorite, perhaps because it’s the first one I remember seeing; but, really, the numbering doesn't matter:  they all hold an equal place in my heart, continuing—even after all these years—to echo on in the deeps of my psyche and soul.

1)  “Time Enough At Last”
Written by Rod Serling.  As noted, the first episode I remember seeing—I think I was five or six—and one that’s never let me go.  Burgess Meredith is brilliant as the bookish Henry Bemis:  a man, abused by the world, who’s never happy unless he’s reading.  The ending is the most tragic, and unfair, in all the Zone; but what touched me as a child, and still does to this day, is Bemis’s love of literature and the strange charms of being the only person left alone in the world.  By becoming a professional writer—someone who spends a good part of his life alone with his own imagination—you could say I became a Henry Bemis myself. 

2)  “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”/”Nick of Time”
Written by Richard Matheson.  Two classic episodes starring the incomparable William Shatner.  In “Nightmare...”, Shatner gives a career-defining performance as a passenger fighting for both his life and his sanity on an airplane.  It’s a tribute to Shatner, Matheson and director Richard Donner that the first time I ever got on a plane, the first thing I did was look out the window to check and see if there was anything...strange out there on the wing.  In “Nick of Time,” Shatner is equally terrific in another Matheson story, this one delicately, and brilliantly, walking a fine line between the supernatural and the psychological.  And who could forget that bobbing devil-head?

3)  “Walking Distance”
Written by Rod Serling.  “Walking Distance” owes something to the work of Ray Bradbury—filled as it is with a longing for a simpler age of childhood innocence and merry-go-rounds—but the bittersweet soul of the story is pure Serling.  Gig Young gives a heartfelt—and heartbreaking—performance as a desperate man seeking solace in his own fragile past.  As perfect a TZ as was ever filmed, this is Serling at the very top of his game, using the show’s format to explore the human condition with a power and eloquence rarely seen on television, then or now.

4)  “A Stop At Willoughby”
Written by Rod Serling.  A companion piece to “Walking Distance,” this wonderful episode features James Daley—who went on to appear in one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, “Requiem for Methuselah”—giving a superb performance as a businessman longing for escape from the pressures of his life.  He finds it in a place called Willoughby—which may very well be Heaven itself.  Despite hints of misogyny—there are one too many harpy wives in Serling’s work—this is a deeply moving, and deeply magical story, that manages to transform tragic death into eternal triumph.  Many a time I’ve been on an Amtrak train wondering if the conductor would shout out, “Willoughby!  This stop is Willoughby!”  If he did, would I get off?  Would you?

5)  “A World of Difference”
Written by Richard Matheson.  Another Matheson gem, one of the very best of the Zones that question both personal identity and the nature of reality.  
Howard Duff is perfectly cast as a man trying desperately to escape an existence he believes is a lie and return to a life that everyone else claims is a madman’s delusion.   The moment when Duff is sitting in his office at work and an offscreen voice yells, "Cut!"—revealing the world we've been watching to be a movie set—is one of the most thrilling and disturbing in the series.    

6)  “The After Hours”
Written by Rod Serling.  Another challenge to personal identity, perhaps to our humanity itself.  “The After Hours” terrified and fascinated me as a kid.  It also had me wondering, every time I passed a department store mannequin, if there was more to them, and to the universe, than met the eye.  That, to me, was the greatest gift of The Twilight Zone:  it exploded safe assumptions and challenged you to look, really look, and discover the miracles hidden just beneath the skin of the world. 

7)  “The Purple Testament”/”A Quality of Mercy”
Written by Rod Serling.  This pair of superb episodes, both inspired by Serling’s experiences fighting in the Pacific during World War II, always seemed of a piece to me.  Both are resonant with sorrow, outrage and compassion—and could only have been created by a man who’d witnessed the horrors of war first hand.  “Mercy’s” ability to shift perspective, to let us see war from the enemy’s POV, was a real eye opener to me as a kid.  It broke apart the simplistic good guy/bad guy paradigm that mass media, and our political culture, had been feeding my young, impressionable mind and helped me to understand that all of us—so-called heroes and so-called villains alike—are united by our humanity.

8)  “King Nine Will Not Return”
Written by Rod Serling.  Only Twilight Zone could give you thirty minutes of Robert Cummings staggering around in the desert alone, speaking primarily through interior monologue, and make it a classic.  Cummings, who learned his craft in movies but became a household name as the star of amiable, unchallenging sitcoms, proved that his dramatic chops were still intact with this wonderful portrayal of a man caught between past and future, guilt and madness.  The sand in the shoe at the end was the icing on the cake.

9)  “The Eye of the Beholder”
Written by Rod Serling.  Okay, go to the mirror, pull down your bottom eyelids, push up your nose and scare the hell out of yourself the same way those doctors and nurses scared the hell of you the first time you saw this episode.  A perfect mix of the aural and the visual, “The Eye of the Beholder” is skillfully directed by Douglas Heyes and beautifully acted by Maxine Stewart, who, hidden as she is beneath bandages, gives what is essentially the greatest radio performance in the history of television.  (When the bandages come off at the end, it’s a little disconcerting to find Elly May Clampett underneath.)  Serling loved to rail against conformity and totalitarianism (among other things)—and sometimes the railing overwhelmed the writing.  Here everything is in perfect balance.  Yes, there’s a point to be made, but it’s the humanity of the story that stays with you. 

10) “The Odyssey of Flight 33”
Written by Rod Serling.  A simple, brilliant premise:  a passenger jet lost in time.  What’s amazing about the show is that—despite a few briefly-seen effects shots, some equally brief stock footage and a handful of passenger reactions—the bulk of the story takes place in the cockpit of the plane.  It’s all talk.  And yet Serling manages to make us believe that we’re trapped on that plane along with the crew and passengers, adrift in the timestream—and that we may never return.  That’s called great writing, folks.

11) “Night of the Meek”
Written by Rod Serling.  The great Art Carney as a down-on-his-luck boozer who, on a snowy December night, finds himself transformed into Santa Claus.  Be forewarned:  this is no Tim Allen Disney comedy.  It’s a genuinely moving tale of redemption:  Serling at his sweetest, but not losing his edge, either.  A show that demands re-watching every 25th of December.

12)  “It’s a Good Life”

Written by Rod Serling.  Billy Mumy wishing people into the cornfield.  What more needs to be said?  Just this:  the moment when Mumy’s six year old terror Anthony Fremont turns Don Keefer’s character, Dan Hollis, into a human jack-in-the-box is one of the most chilling moments ever broadcast on television.  And what makes it work is how little we actually see.  Most of what we get is shadow and suggestion, letting our imaginations fill in the horrifying details.

13) “To Serve Man”
Written by Rod Serling.  Three little words:  “It’s a cookbook!”  Yes, it’s all a little goofy, and there are some obvious plot holes, but, c’mon, “It’s a cookbook!”

14) “Death Ship”
Written by Richard Matheson.  The best of the hour long episodes, “Death Ship” is another Matheson gem that—as Marc Scott Zicree points out in his wonderful book, The Twilight Zone Companion (still the best TZ book out there, if you ask me)—skillfully straddles the line between science fiction and horror.  The performances by Ross Martin, Fred Beir and Zone repeat offender Jack Klugman are uniformly excellent.  This one sends a chill down your spine and pierces your heart at the same time:  an uncommon feat.  But, then, Matheson is an uncommon writer.

There are so many other episodes I could write about—”A World of His Own, “ “Nothing in the Dark,” “The Midnight Sun, “ “The Trade Ins” and “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” spring immediately to mind—but I’ve got to stop somewhere.  And, since the entire series is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, you should have no trouble tracking any of them down and losing yourself in the wonders and terrors of The Twilight Zone

All that said, I’m compelled to mention one more extraordinary episode that was part of the 1980’s reboot of the series.  (I sold my first television script to the 80’s Zone and I’ll be blogging about that memorable experience one of these days.  Soon I hope.)  The episode, “Her Pilgrim Soul,” written by the brilliant Alan Brennert, isn’t just one of the finest episodes of any incarnation of the Zone—right up there with the best of Serling, Matheson and Charles Beaumont—it’s one of the finest pieces I’ve ever seen on television.  In fact, it’s so good, you’ve got to click on this link and watch it right now.

©copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Since we're coming up fast on Independence Day, it's a good time to mention The Veteran's Site:  With one click of a mouse—and not a dime out of your own pocket—you can help feed homeless veterans, who are often forgotten in the flag-waving, bombs-bursting-in-air celebrations of the July 4th weekend.

Also in the spirit of the weekend (and, in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released movie), I  thought I’d offer up an edited version of an afterword I wrote for Robert G. Weiner's book Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero:  Critical Essays.  Enjoy!


The first time I ever laid eyes on Captain America was on the cover of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13.  It’s a tribute to the character, and the man who drew that cover, Cap's co-creator Jack Kirby, that the image has remained lodged in my memory and imagination ever since.  The Marvel covers of the era were—in contrast to their streamlined and sedate DC counterparts—gaudy and garish, crammed full of copy:  simultaneously cheap, raw and incredibly vital.  Cap’s costume—the stars and stripes, the fat A on his forehead—was equally garish, even by super hero standards; and the look in his eyes...well, the guy seemed a little crazy.

I had no idea who Captain America was.  Despite the fact that the cover copy proclaimed Cap and his young partner, Bucky, “the overwhelming stars of the Golden Age of Comics,” I’d never heard of them.  Even the phrase “Golden Age” was new to me.  To my ten year old mind, any comics that existed before I was born were as ancient and unfathomable as an Egyptian tomb.  Which, of course, made the character seem bizarre and appealing.  Add in that dynamic Kirby artwork, with Cap—in an impossible, but somehow believable, pose—dominating the scene, and I just had to read that story.  Read it?  I devoured it.

Flash forward fifteen or so years.  I’m brand new to the comic book business, having written a number of stories for the DC anthology titles, and just getting my foot in the door at Marvel Comics—where editor-in-chief Jim Shooter hands me an assignment.  “There’s a new Captain America TV movie coming out,” he says, “and we want to do a tie in.  Come up with a story.”  I’d seen the first Cap TV movie—let’s just say it was disappointing and leave it at that—but I dutifully set to work, weaving Cap, his long-time enemy, the Red Skull, and real life actor Reb Brown into a story that, I hoped, was more than just a cheesy TV cash-in.  By the time I’d finished the plot outline, someone at Marvel came to his senses and Reb Brown was removed from the story, along with all references to the movie.  I was told to rework the story as a three-parter for the monthly Cap comic, which I did:  it finally saw print in Captain America #s  261—263.

The story wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, the opening sequence, which featured Steve Rogers getting a little drunk with his buddies, was a major blunder—but it did get me a regular gig writing Cap’s adventures.  (You can read this early effort, warts and all, in a brand new collection called Captain America vs. The Red Skull.)  Working primarily with Mike Zeck—the starting point of a fruitful collaboration that would reach its peak seven years later with our Spider-Man saga Kraven’s Last Hunt—and British superstar Paul Neary (with some terrific fill-in work from the amazing Sal Buscema), I got to spend the next three years exploring the life, times and psyche of one of the great American icons. 

I’d been a loyal Captain America reader, of course—with a special fondness for the Lee-Kirby, Englehart, Gerber and Stern-Byrne eras—but I can’t say that Cap was a major god in my comic book pantheon:  I enjoyed the stories immensely, but, to my mind, Cap was no Silver Surfer, Superman or Doctor Strange.  Of course reading about a character and writing that character are two very different experiences—and the deeper I submerged myself in Steve Rogers’ world, the more I appreciated Captain America:  not so much the icon as the man.  In costume, Rogers was larger-than-life:  “the whole country—squeezed into one pair of pants.”  (That line, spoken about theater legend George M. Cohan, is from Yankee Doodle Dandy—one of the great movie musicals—and it describes Cap The Icon better than I ever could.)  I was more intrigued by the person behind the mask.  Rogers—to dip into movie lore once more—was the George Bailey of super heroes:  a simple, honest man of inherent decency, who always struggled to do the right thing—no matter how difficult it was.  He wasn’t concerned with ideologies or the politics of the moment.  He was concerned with the American  Dream.  He believed, to the core of his being, in what America could be.  Rogers was certainly well aware of the many times the United States had failed to live up to its own ideals—and those failures disheartened him—but he never gave up believing because his faith and hope weren’t invested in any elected official or political party.  They were invested in the spiritual core of America:  something deep and true and unchanging that lay beneath world affairs and shifting political currents.

To my mind, Captain America’s greatest power wasn’t the strength he gained from the super-soldier formula:  it was the depth of his compassion, his caring.  His belief in the revolutionary power of simple human decency. 

The nature of the character dictated that the stories I wrote explored issues larger than the latest hero-villain slugfest.  The canvas had to be huge—encompassing action, psychology and broader political, spiritual and philosophical issues.  Some of my attempts failed spectacularly, some succeeded—but I thought I’d finally hit my stride during my last year on the book:  an ongoing saga involving Captain America’s final battle with the Red Skull that was to reach its turning point with a double-sized Captain America #300 in which the Skull dies and Cap, after (at the time) forty-plus years of solving problems with his fists, begins to wonder if there’s another way to live his ideals and change the world.  (Despite my love of the super hero genre, the inherent—and often mindless—violence in super hero comics has always disturbed me.  This story was my way of attacking the issue head on.)  In the proposal I presented to my editor—the late, great Mark Gruenwald—Cap was, ultimately, going to disavow violence as a tool for change—essentially rejecting the fundamental super hero mindset—and start working for world peace.  (Keep in mind that this was at the height of the Reagan “evil empire”/cold war period, so it was a pretty radical idea for its day.)  There was much more to the story—including Steve Rogers’ apparent assassination by his then-partner, Nomad, and the emergence of a new Captain America, a Native American named Jesse Black Crow—and I was eager to spend the next year exploring these challenging issues.

Gruenwald approved my proposal, I wrote the double-sized Cap #300 then went ahead and plotted the next two or three stories in the arc; but Jim Shooter, hearing what we were planning, shot the idea down.  Jim thought my idea violated Cap’s character, that Steve Rogers would never do the things I was suggesting.  Captain America #300 was then cut down to a normal-sized issue and substantially rewritten, I think by Jim himself—or perhaps Gruenwald under Jim’s direction. (Which is why I used a fake name in the credits and immediately quit the book.)  At the time I was angry but, in retrospect, I totally understand Shooter’s POV.  Jim—a brilliant editor who really helped me along in the early days of my career—was the custodian of the Marvel Universe:  he had to protect the characters as he understood them.  Me?  I think my Cap saga would have been an emotional and thought-provoking piece of pop fiction.   

(This idea—a long-time super hero finally realizing that violence is a dead end—obsessed me, in various forms, from the moment I conceived it in l983.  The concept evolved considerably over the years and finally saw print in 2009 as The Life and Times of Savior 28:  for my money the best superhero story I've ever written.)

My journey with Captain America ended then—but the character remains as fascinating as he seemed when I first glimpsed him on that Sgt. Fury cover more than forty years ago.  Some people view Cap as an anachronism, a throwback to another era.  Worse, some see him as a symbol of American Imperialism.  They miss the point.  Captain America, the costumed hero, is the embodiment of all that’s best and brightest in the concept of America:  a concept that transcends the nation that birthed it.  Steve Rogers, the man, represents everyone who seeks a better world for himself and his neighbors; who strives to live a decent, compassionate life.  That makes him one of us—all of us, no matter our country of origin—and insures that the character will still be with us, in all his gaudy, vibrant glory, for decades to come.

©copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Friday, July 1, 2011


Do you remember when comic book conventions were just that:  places where fans and creators of comics could come together for a weekend of mutual appreciation—and mutual love of the medium—and there were no movie studios, actors, wrestlers, video game companies or porn stars in sight?  In recent years, it seems that many comic cons have mutated into multi-media events that have pushed the hardcore comic book fans farther and farther into limbo.  

Not in Baltimore.

As some of you know, I'm not a big convention goer—massive crowds and I don't always get along—but, a few years back, urged on by Mark Waid, I attended the Baltimore Comic Con and was delighted to find that it was one of the most relaxed and enjoyable conventions I've ever attended.  Best of all, it was all about the comics.  No other distractions.  (The only celebrity I saw the entire weekend was 30 Rock's Scott Adsit and he wasn't there promoting anything:  he was wandering the floor as a fan, apparently in  a state of nerdish bliss.)  Which is why I'm very happy to be returning to Baltimore in August for another weekend of panels, signings and—best of all—talking to the folks who read, and appreciate, my work.  And this year, two old friends will be joining me.  I'll let the official press release explain it:

The Baltimore Comic-Con is pleased to announce the addition of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire to the line-up of creators attending this year's show, taking place the weekend of August 20-21, 2011.

Keith Giffen, who will be making his only convention appearance this year at the Baltimore Comic-Con, is a writer/artist who has worked on such title as Legion of Super-Heroes, Nick Fury's Howling Commandos, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and his creator-owned series, Hero Squared. Most recently, Giffen was named artist on the DC title O.M.A.C., launching in September.

Writer J.M. DeMatteis began his career in the late '70s working on DC Comics' horror line of books. In 1980, he moved over to Marvel, where he worked on The Defenders and Captain America.  Over the next 30 years, DeMatteis would write nearly every major character in both the DC and Marvel Universes, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, Daredevil and Doctor Strange. In 2010, he teamed up with long-time collaborator, Keith Giffen on DC's Booster Gold series.

Artist Kevin Maguire, who has worked with both Giffen and DeMatteis on several books, began his a career in 1987. He has worked on such high-profile titles as Batman Confidential, Captain America and X-Men. Most recently, he worked on the latest relaunch of Doom Patrol at DC Comics.

Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire are well-known for their run on DC Comics' Justice League in the late '80s, which added a humorous brand of storytelling to the superhero team dynamic. Their appearance at the Baltimore Comic-Con marks only the second time they have all been together at a show. In addition, all three creators will be appearing on a panel together at the show.  "The three of us have only been together at a convention once before - and that ended in screaming, physical violence, and millions of dollars in property damage," said DeMatteis. "I look forward to doing it again!"

"With the recent release of the latest Justice League International trade from DC, we couldn't be happier to have the creative team behind that book at this year's show," said Marc Nathan, show promoter of the Baltimore Comic-Con. "That series' lighthearted tone and fantastic humor added something different to a comic landscape that was filled with 'grim and gritty' books and should be on everyone's essential reading lists."

It's a rare thing to find all three of us stooges together in the same place at the same time, so if you'd like a chance to meet us, talk with us—or hit us with a rubber chicken—think about coming to Baltimore in August.  Some guy named Stan Lee is going to be the Guest of Honor and the rest of the guest list is pretty impressive, too.

Oh, and speaking of the Giffen-DeMatteis-Maguire Justice League, Newsarama ran a nice piece the other day about our upcoming JLI Retro project and you can read it right here.

See you in Baltimore!