Thursday, March 1, 2012


Once upon a time, the Western—that wildly romanticized, deeply American vision of cowboys, Indians, outlaws and blazing six-shooters—dominated the pop culture consciousness.  I’ve got photos of myself—three, four years old—wearing my Roy Rogers cowboy suit and riding my hobby horse (a golden palomino, just like Roy’s horse, Trigger), galloping off into the far reaches of my own imagination.  Roy was my first hero:  I watched his TV show, played with Roy Rogers toys (one of the few surviving relics from my childhood is an RR action figure:  Roy, atop a rearing-up Trigger, with a big grin on his face, waving.  I’ve lost Roy’s guns and hat, his saddle’s cracked and Trigger’s tail is missing, but that action figure still holds a place of honor on my office shelf).  My sister and I would even duet to “Happy Trails,” just like Roy and his wife, Dale Evans.  There were other kid-friendly westerns I remember from that age—The Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickock (with the squeaky-voiced character actor Andy Devine as Wild Bill’s sidekick, Jingles), Davy Crockett—but Roy, Dale, Trigger, Pat Brady and Nellybelle (which, believe it or not, was Roy’s jeep) commanded my heart.  If there was someone I wanted to be when I grew up, it was Roy, the King of the Cowboys. 

This obsession with All Things Old West only intensified with time.  In the fall of 1960, when I was six, there were just three major television networks and, out of all the prime-time shows they had on the air, something like twenty of them were Westerns.  Maverick, The Lawman, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Wyatt Earp, Wagon Train, Bat Masterson, Bonanza:  each one imprinted on my consciousness like a cattle brand.  It’s no wonder that, a few years later, my favorite book was Robert Penn Warren’s Remember the Alamo!  What boy in the early 60’s could resist the tale of the aforementioned Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and a hardy band of sharp-shooting hombres dying in the name of (what seemed like) a noble cause?  
As I got older, though, the Westerns lost their grip on my imagination.  Another television show I discovered at a tender ageThe Twilight Zone—seeped deeper and deeper into my soul because it touched something essential, vital, in me.  Something metaphysical and cosmically true.  Comic books and science-fiction had a similar effect:  they wove so-called fantasy and so-called reality together in a way that spoke to another dimension of existence; one that, even as a child, I sensed lurking just beyond the periphery of my consciousness.  Cowboys?  Not so much. 
The more I learned about the era, especially the genocide we perpetrated on the Native Americans, what little charm the Old West retained blew away like so much sagebrush.  (To read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is to have your own heart pierced and broken, chapter after chapter.)  Oh, there was the rare Western film that caught my attention—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (if you’ve never read William Goldman’s screenplay for this classic, which you can find in his wonderful book Adventures in the Screen Trade, do it now), Clint Eastwood’s  brilliant anti-western, Unforgiven—but, for the most part, the genre became a massive turn-off.  To this day, as I channel surf across the cable dial, the sight of a cowboy hat or six-shooter usually makes me move on with lightning speed.
Which makes what happened in October of 2011 very odd.
I woke up one morning with a story in my head.  I don’t know where it came from, I certainly didn’t ask for it to start playing, like a 3D movie, across the insides of my eyelids.  But there it was:  a Western.  Okay, it wasn’t a conventional western—I’m very protective of new stories, so I won’t be sharing any details here—but it certainly had all the staples of the genre.  I watched the movie play out with curiosity and wonder, rushed into my office to write up some notes based on what I’d just seen—and then forgot about it.  “A Western,” I thought.  “How strange!”
Months passed and I found myself in conversation with my old friend and collaborator Mike Ploog.  We’d been trying to find a new project to work on together but, with several ideas pitched across the Atlantic (Mike lives in England), we weren’t getting anywhere.  Then, suddenly, I remembered that Mike loves Westerns.  That he had a childhood love for Roy Rogers that probably trumped mine.  Excited, I resurrected the idea that had appeared—in a cloud of dust, like a fiery horse with the speed of light (to paraphrase the opening of the Lone Ranger television series)—that October morning and emailed it to Mike.   He was intrigued—I knew he would be—we discussed the idea a little and then...
Mike came back to me with his own offbeat Western idea, one he’d been chewing over for years.  And a problem quickly arose:  No matter how hard I tried to get Mike excited about my idea, he returned to his; no matter how hard Mike tried to get me excited about his idea, I returned to mine.  (Don’t worry:  We eventually found another, non-Western story that excited us both equally and we’re developing it now.)  Still, that brief conversation with Mr. Ploog opened up a corral gate in my imagination and I was stampeded by characters, events, details, themes, concepts that I couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop.  Day after day I’d wake up with another Western epic playing in my head; intrigued, excited, obsessed by this tale.  I couldn't get it out of my mind.
And I kept turning to my wife, scratching my head and saying, “A Western?  Really?
But when you’re a writer, you just (to keep extending the Old West metaphor, perhaps too far) saddle up the Story, climb on its back and let it gallop off, leading you down the trail—and this one has been leading me down some very interesting trails indeed.   I’m still not sure what destination we’re headed for but, so far, it’s been a fantastic ride.  The idea could evolve into a movie, a TV series, a novel; but, at the moment, I see it as a comic book, an ongoing.  One I could write, month after month, for the next five or so years.  
“A Western?  Really?

Somewhere in my mind, there’s a four year old, dressed like Roy Rogers, bobbing up and down on a golden hobby horse.
And he’s very, very happy. 

©copyright 2012 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. I enjoyed re-runs of THE LONE RANGER and ZORRO when I was a kid. I also remember picking up the novel SHANE from the school library in second or third grade, but I honestly can't recall whether I ever finished it.

    But I've generally been more impressed by sci-fi, supheroes, and fantasy, which retain the romantic aspects of the Western without the darker implications. At some point I realized that the West wasn't a nice place to live.

    Since I turned ten, my experience with Westerns has been limited. I enjoyed TOMBSTONE more than UNFORGIVEN. I also enjoyed the Western angle in BACK TO THE FUTURE III, which felt like a return to more innocent times. The directors actually cut a scene from the film where Mad Dog Tannen shot the Sheriff in cold blood, for which I'm thankful!

    All that said, I'm still very drawn to the idea of the Western. It's a nice backdrop for themes of redemption and mercy, especially since the American landscape is much safer now than it was then. So there's an element of hope on the horizon, even when the West is at its bleakest.

    Happy Trails to you and the Story, JMD!


  2. Thanks, David. I've never seen TOMBSTONE...maybe I'll check it out.

    I'm still marveling (and scratching my head) at the fact that I'm writing a Western. And I can't wait to see where this story leads me. It's been an exciting process.

    Happy Trails right back at you!

  3. Want to hear... well, read an interesting fact? My maternal grandfather in the years before he married my Jewish-born grandmother, was a cowboy of sorts. He broke, cared for and trained horses for the police, and other assorted areas, but that isn't where it gets interesting for you. At one point he was out in California, and was in a rodeo or two with Roy Rogers. Now, I don't think they where best friends or anything, but still, weird.
    Interested in another interesting fact? No? too bad, deal with it. My Father is a pretty big fan of the Lone Ranger, and even read Clayton Moore's biography a few years back. No, that wasn't the interesting part. Anyway, it turns out Jay Silver (Tonto) had Mr. Moore made an honorary member of his tribe. Contrary to popular belief, based of his last name most likely, Jay silver was not Jewish, he was a full-blooded member of the Mohawk tribe. And Silver was a stage name, his real last name was Silverheels. Well, that concludes the "fun fact" part of the communication.
    But if you need any inspiration to get western juices flowing of got a suggestion or two. First, "Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes," by the ever-talented Mr. John Ostrander. And Second is the television show Justified. While Justified takes place in modern times and is set in Kentuckey, it as absolutely in the western tradition. part western, part crime drama, and centered around a character created by the author of the short story which inspired "The 3:10 to Yuma" it is at least worth checking out. of course my guess is that this western will be more like "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" spliced with god only knows... and I look forward to it.
    It's interesting though, even three years ago I would have sighed at this news and said, "Well it IS Dematteis. I guess I'll check it out... maybe." Why? Well, despite my favorite Star Wars character being Han Solo, I never really dug westerns. I mean, sure I'd seen the great western films, and even read Jonah Hex monthly, and I wouldn't change the channel, just because one was on, but before that I just wasn't a big western guy. Then 3 years ago, for some reason it all clicked, all the things i liked that are found in westerns came together. I mean I still prefer science fiction (and non space Operas aka space westerns either) superheroes, film noir and horror a far more, but now there is a special place for westerns. There is just something infectious about the genre. So, to make all that rambling make sense I'll just say this, I am stoked to see what kind of western this could be.
    Well, all that is really left is the history of the west to discuss, and that is far too complicated to discuss in the very little space I have left, and especially ion such a friendly pace so...

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

  4. A number of people have recommended 3:10 TO YUMA and JUSTIFIED, Jack. I'll have to check them out. I've also heard great things about DEADWOOD.

    I love that your grandfather was in a rodeo with Roy Rogers! How incredibly cool is that?

    Ny the way, if you look at the old LONE RANGER shows, you'll see "Tonto" was always Jay Silverheels. He was never billed as Jay Silver. And here's another weird fact: When I was a kid in Brooklyn, it was taken as a fact that Silverheels lived not far from where I grew up. We all took it as a fact that "Tonto" lived on Ocean Parkway, but now, looking back, I wonder if it was true...

    Thanks for checking in, Jack. Always a pleasure. See you out on the plains!

  5. That's very interesting, Jack, and way cool! Han Solo is a great example of Western motifs being incorporated into a fantasy epic. Especially the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, which just screams Western.

    BTW, JMD, I got home from work Friday night and my son wanted to play cowboys! He hasn't touched his toy six-shooters since I don't know when, and suddenly we're running around the house playing Western. Really funny how stuff like that gels. And playing with him I realized that you never really transcend the things you love as a child. Not that you should try, anyway.

    Will this Western be all-ages? I know of at least one nine year old kid who's ready to roam the plains again.


  6. That's wonderful Western synchronicity, David. Interesting that he wanted to play cowboys when you consider that the Western is so distant from most kid-friendly pop culture these days.

    The idea I'm working on isn't all-ages. It's going to be pretty gritty and realistic (except for the parts that aren't, of course); so you're son's going to have to wait a decade or so to read it. Or watch it. Or WHATEVER this thing turns out to be!