Thursday, March 29, 2012


This week Marvel released a trade paperback called Captain America: Death of the Red Skull, which collects the stories from my final year writing the Cap series:  an ongoing saga (illustrated by the excellent British artist Paul Neary) that chronicled Steve Rogers’s final battle with his longtime foe, Johann Schmidt.  Along with yours truly, you’ll also find several other familiar writers in the collection—there’s a Bill Mantlo fill-in issue, a Mike Carlin follow-up—and one name that has been baffling people for years:  Michael Ellis, who shared writing credit with me in my final issue, Captain America #300.  Ellis’s name had never appeared in a Marvel Comic before then and he vanished immediately thereafter, leaving a star-spangled mystery in his wake.  With the release of the Cap tpb, I think it’s time to reveal the shocking truth about Michael to the world.  (Okay, it’s not really shocking, but I’ve got to get you to the next paragraph, don’t I?)

I had, as mentioned, been nursing my story along for many months and the plan was for the Cap-Skull epic to reach its climax in a double-sized Cap #300 that would see the Red Skull die (a death that was—in my mind, at least—for real.  Well, as real as a comic book death can be.)  Steve Rogers, after (at the time) forty-plus years of solving problems with his fists, would then begin to wonder if there was another way to live his ideals and create positive change in the world. 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 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 fairly radical idea for its day.)  The world would then turn against Cap, his own country rejecting him as un-American, other world leaders shunning him, the super-hero community aghast at his position:  the only allies Rogers was going to to find in his quest for global transformation would be the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom. 

This was the period when the Bucky of the 1950′s, Jack Monroe—aka Nomad—was Cap’s partner and Jack was going to be manipulated by Cap’s enemies, turning Nomad’s hero worship to hate.  In the climax, we’d find Cap speaking to his few remaining supporters at a New York rally.  Nomad, perched on a roof across the way, would fire three bullets into Steve Rogers, assassinating him.  Only then, with Cap dead, would the world realize what they had.  In tribute to this great hero, all nations of the world would lay down their weapons for one hour and, for sixty short minutes, the world would know peace.

Of course I didn’t expect Captain America to stay dead—he was one of Marvel’s first, and greatest, heroes after all—but I was hoping the death would stick for a while, at least.  I even selected his replacement.  At first I toyed with the idea of Sam Wilson, the Falcon, becoming the new Cap, but, as I recall—and, let’s face it, it’s been a while—I finally settled on Black Crow, a Native American character I’d created for the book.  Who better to represent America, I reasoned, than one of the first Americans?

Gruenwald approved all this, I wrote the double-sized Cap #300, went ahead and plotted the next two or three stories in the arc; but editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, hearing what we were planning, shot the idea down. Jim said, essentially, that my idea violated Cap’s character, that Steve Rogers would never act in such a way.  Shooter then cut the story in half and rewrote some of my dialogue (or perhaps it was Gruenwald under Jim’s direction).  I left my name on the plot, but told Mark I wouldn’t, couldn't, take credit for the altered script.  Gruenwald suggested I use a pseudonym and came up with the name Michael Ellis, which is from a classic Monty Python sketch:  he's a man who's often mentioned but never actually appears.

I was angry at the time, so angry I quit the book, but, looking back, I see that Jim—a superb editor who really helped me along when I was starting out in the business—was just doing his job as custodian of the Marvel Universe, supervising a stable of idiosyncratic writers and artists and protecting Marvel's characters as he understood them.  The truth is, if you have one of your major icons questioning violent confrontation as a viable solution—and deciding it’s a fruitless pursuit—you're questioning the essence of not just the entire Marvel line, but the entire superhero genre.  Which, of course, was my intention.

In the end, though, I'm happy the story was bounced, because, eventually (and a very long eventually it was, too:  it took twenty five years), I turned the whole thing into The Life and Times of Savior 28, a piece of work I consider one of the high-points of my career.

As for the mysterious Michael Ellis, he made one more appearance on the four color stage.  A few years after the Cap debacle, Andy Helfer (one of the best editors who ever sat behind a DC desk) asked me to dialogue Justice League of America #255 over a Gerry Conway plot.  Having just finished Moonshadow and Blood:  a tale—two deeply personal and creatively life-changing projects—I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep writing superhero comics and so I was reluctant to use my own name. (Sounds astonishingly stupid in retrospect, doesn’t it?)  Paul Levitz, who was running the DC ship in those days, heard about this and decreed, in no uncertain terms,  "No pseudonyms!"—and, with the next JLA issue (Andy convinced me to stick around), I was back to being me. So the second coming of Michael Ellis wasn't the same as Cap #300, where I took my name off because my story had been turned inside out (and sideways) by The Powers That Be. Conway's plot was excellent and my dialogue was exactly as I wrote it. I was just going through an odd creative crisis that, happily, passed. In fact, a few months after writing the finale for Conway's JL Detroit era, I found myself working on a revived, revamped Justice League with mad genius (and all-around swell guy) Keith Giffen and embarking on one of the most wonderful gigs of my career.

Michael Ellis hasn’t been seen since—but he’s always waiting in the wings.  Just in case.

©copyright 2012 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. That was an interesting story and concept there. Who knows how things could've turned out had that radical idea has been kept and used, for one. And other times using a pseudonym may not've gotten you recognised as you should, either.

  2. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we'd gone through with the original Cap idea, Frobman. Maybe somewhere, in a parallel universe, we did.

    And, looking back, I'm VERY glad I didn't start using a pseudonym for my superhero stories. Michael Ellis would've gotten credit for Justice League, most of my Spider-Man work and so much more!

  3. And of course "J.M. Dematteis" is just a pseudonym for Dr. Leopold Normington IV, because after all the favorite son of old W.A.S.P.y New England money with many high class obligations and ties to every highbrow cultural event on the east coast (even a chair for the New York philharmonic), writing something as trivial and childish as a comic book... engaging in such flights of fancy, would be undignified and if nothing else social suicide. After all, I don't have to tell YOU how gossip in those little circles travels at the speed of light. and lord knows you don't want to be accused of lending to the fodder of mental junk food enjoyed by those that those old rich women refer to as "not our kind"

    Now onto the comic stuff, seeing both Savior 28 and your Justice league work (albeit not the famous JLI musings), I can't help but wonder why you never gave a solo Thing series a try. No matter how whacky and off the wall screwball it is, or how much prying into the human soul you do it always fits. From dark noirish tales to bright happy love stories, to sci-fi tales that challenge the imagination, to slice of life stories they always seem to work no matter what. combine that with your self professed love of Stan and Jack's F.F. tales it seems like a natural fit.

    But, I think that the real question is if you heard abot the future publishing of the long lost Steve Gerber Man-thing script this June?

    wishing you nothing, but goodwill and hipness from here to the stars,

  4. Well, Jack, since you've uncovered the truth, you can call me Dr. Normington IV from now on.
    But please don't spread this around: Dadsy and Mumsy will be soooo upset! : )

    Yes, I've heard about the Gerber Man-Thing script. BIG news for us Gerber fans.

    Re: the Thing. That's an interesting idea. I've always thought the FF would be the perfect vehicle for the GIffen-DeMatteis team (we almost did an FF story some years back), but Ben Grimm alone would be tremendous fun, as well. I don't see that happening any time soon, though.

    That said, I DO have something new coming from Marvel in June: The MIGHTY THOR ANNUAL features a 44 page story called "Scrier's Game." It's a big, cosmic epic featuring Thor, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Watcher, Oblivion, Scrier...and more. It's illustrated by a terrific artist, Richard Ellson.

    Thanks, as always, for checking in, Jack. Great to hear from you.

  5. It's definitely all worked out for the best. Marvel would have inevitably (and understandably) reversed the story, rendering Cap's life changing experience superficial at best. And hey, I'll admit, I like Cap hitting villains as much as the next guy!

    SAVIOR 28 benefits from your creative control and experience, ultimately bringing a more complex story to a more satisfying solution. I'd love to see that universe revisited through the lens of other comics eras, especially the zany sci-fi time travel of the Silver Age.

    So in the end, it's less 'having your cake and eating it, too' and more like getting a nutritious food-for-though steak dinner with veggies on the side and some pie for dessert!


  6. Sounds like a great meal, David! Yes, I'm happy that it worked out the way it did and I'd love to revisit the S-28 universe one of these days. So many more stories to tell!

  7. Wow very interesting story. I'm a big Cap fan and would have enjoyed seeing how that played out.

    In a way, I'm glad it didn't because your's and Mr. Giffen's run in JLA got me back into comics when I was in college and remain some of my favorite stuff to read in any medium.

    thanks again

  8. I'm constantly amazed, and deeply gratified, by the response our JLI work still gets, Lee. I love working with Keith and Kevin and I hope that we can reunite on a new project sometime soon.

    If the Cap story intrigues you, check out THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAVIOR 28: it's a piece of work I'm incredibly proud of.

    Thanks for checking in!

  9. I love "The Life and times of Savior 28", it was a great story. It's the book that got me to read your Imaginalis, which was also a very good read, specially at that time in my life when the violence in my home town was going up exponentially (it has since started to go down, fortunately).

    I should find my Savior 28 copy and reread it soon. I am between books (when I read a long book, I take a week off from another big book), so it's the right time to revisit the story.

  10. Nice to hear from you Quique: it's been a while. And thanks for the kind words about S-28, a project that remains very dear to my heart. (Thanks, too, for the kind words about IMAGINALIS.)

    I hope that, when you reread SAVIOR 28, you enjoy it as much as the first time. Please let me know your reaction to the 2nd read, good or bad.

    All the best -- JMD

  11. Comixology is having a 3-day April Fools' day sale on Joker comics, including the EMPEROR JOKER arc and yes, GOING SANE! Worth having in every format at almost any price, but .99 cents an issue is a steal!


  12. It is indeed, David. I think I've said before that EMPEROR JOKER is one of the few crossovers I've actually enjoyed participating in (the fact that the story is totally nuts helped) and, of course, I've long felt that GOING SANE is the best Marvel/DC superhero story I've ever written.

    Thanks for the info!

  13. EMPEROR JOKER is totally nuts in the best possible way. The concept has a distinct Silver Age sensibility, while the execution is more modern and focused. I especially enjoyed when Batman confronted Superman about taking on some of his pain, because it was such a great 'both characters in a nutshell' kind of moment. When Superman sees pain, he's willing to take it on for the sake of someone else, but Batman feels like it's his pain that defines him.


  14. Is the Death of the Red Skull new reader friendly? I've only read Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America and never kept track on the Captain America comics growing up.

    I have to admit though I'm glad you were able to turn your Cap story idea into your own original work. (Savior 28) A work that can stand on it's own with a beginning, middle, end and no reboot or recon in sight.

  15. You hit it right on the head, David, when you say that the story had a SIlver Age sensibility but done with a modern touch. I hadn't thought of that before...but you're exactly right. (As you often are!)

  16. I think you should be able to jump in and enjoy the tale on its own, Eve, without having a ton of continuity to lean on. All the big beats are right there in the collection. If you do give it a read, check back in here and let me know your thoughts. All the best -- JMD

  17. Hi JMD,

    Since you asked me to mention what I thought of my second read of S-28, I'll write about it here. For other blog readers, the following contains many SPOILERS.

    At first, I wasn't enjoying it as much, mainly because I remembered the first issue well, specially the sidekick being the killer. In the first half of the second issue I was enjoying the back story, but not enjoying the multiple suicide tries (although I did like the "Brothers Karamazov" book in the floor of the hotel, as I know it's one of your favorite books), but by the second half I was really enjoying the second read, and it was smooth sailing from there. I was able to read it in a different way than the first time. The first time, I was interested in knowing what was going to happen, but this time I was more interested in seeing the dichotomy between S-28 and his sidekick and the peace vs violence dilemma.

    I enjoyed the scene where S-28 "nobly" tries to save a criminal but ends up killing 56 people and destroying a wonderful sky city. At first I thought, the only other option was killing the criminal himself and that felt wrong too. But then I realized there was a third option, not hinted in the text, but hinted by the theme of the book. Savior 28 could have picked up the criminal and fly away. One thing that Savior didn't seem to realize is that fleeing can also be an honorable option (this applies also to the moment when Ms. Jupiter attacks S-28 in the peace rally).

    Another bit I greatly enjoyed in the book, is when S-28 is kidnapped by the superheroes thinking he is an impostor. That was a great idea. I think the dialogue here is the best in the book. This is where it clicks for me (and for Savior). The words are not just words to sound cool or hip, there are words with more behind them, they are determined, back with the sense that this time he means it and that the road can be traveled. I love it when S-28 talks about trying a new way, talking about how the old ways haven't worked.

    One thing that surprised me on the second reading was that the dilemma was more even-handed than I remember. I thought the story was just about choosing peace over violence, and that there wasn't much of a debate. But the case for violence is not flimsily defended. I mean, the story can be interpreted as Savior making the wrong choice, or at least going about it the wrong way. He could be seen as a traitor. I was surprised that I didn't notice it before.

    The one thing I am not as comfortable accepting, and perhaps this was because of lack of space (I know the series was initially intended as 6 issues), is that it was hard for me to accept that Dennis (the sidekick) would kill Savior. I just didn't see the motivation. I understand the government wanting him out of the picture (even though I like to think the government is not as evil as that), but I just don't see Dennis accepting the job of killing Savior.

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading the story again and enjoyed writing my thoughts about it. Thank you for getting this story out of the 20-year old purgatory and bringing it to life with Mike Cavallaro (the art is fantastic).

  18. Thanks so much for you lengthy and insightful comments, Quique. I'm deeply appreciative that you took the time to reread SAVIOR 28 and to write about it. That my story made you agree and disagree with the points I was trying to make, pondering and asking questions, is all I could ask for.
    All the best -- JMD