Wednesday, March 30, 2016


There's a brand-new book out called The Art of Ploog, celebrating the life and work of one of my all-time favorite collaborators, the brilliant Mike Ploog.  Mike asked me to write the introduction to the book, an offer I happily, and eagerly, accepted.  You can order The Art of Ploog right here and you can read the intro, in its entirety, below.  Enjoy!  And Long Live Ploog!

Long before I ever met Mike Ploog in person, I knew him though his work.  As a hardcore comic book fan, coming of age in the 1970’s, I was floored by Mike’s work at Marvel Comics—most notably on Ghost Rider, Kull the Destroyer, Weirdworld and one of my all-time favorite series, the groundbreaking Man-Thing, where he was paired with the innovative and iconoclastic Steve Gerber.  Mike was right at home in Man-Thing’s mystical swamp, because the Ploog Universe literally dripped with mood, mystery and wellsprings of emotion.  His monsters were touched with humanity and his humans were often a hairsbreadth away from becoming monsters themselves.  More important, Mike was, and remains, a master storyteller, who can deliver the big gut-punching moments, but also understands the importance of letting the eye flow, subtly and easily, from panel to panel:  leading the reader on with a gesture here, a facial expression there, each panel an integral part of a larger tapestry. 

Looking back, it’s amazing that Mike was even working at Marvel, because he didn’t fit any company molds:  Ploog is unique.  A one-off.  A very singular beast.  Yes, you can see the influence of the brilliant Will Eisner (Mike apprenticed with Eisner, after all), but Mike absorbed that influence and created his own unmistakable visual stamp.  He moved on from Marvel, into the movies—bringing his incredible design and story sense to the world of film—but the Ploog Imprint remains, not just on Marvel but on the entire comics industry, all these years later.  

Mike, of course, fit perfectly in the larger than life world of Hollywood, because he, himself, is larger than life.  In fact, when I first encountered him in person—after collaborating for several years, via phone and internet, on the children’s fantasy, Abadazad—I fully expected a giant to come striding through the New York City streets:  Paul Bunyan with a pencil instead of an axe.  I was, I must admit, disappointed to discover that he wasn’t as tall as the Empire State Building; but the truth is Mike Ploog is a giant.  With a white beard and booming laugh that would make Santa Claus jealous (one of the things Mike and I bonded over in those early days was the fact that both of us—two grown men—still believed in Santa.  Draw your own conclusions from that piece of information) and the ability to tell stories that both mesmerize and delight.  I don’t know very many people who can match Mike as a raconteur—on or off the page.  I remember sitting in a bar in Helsinki—we were in Finland promoting ‘Zad—with Mike and my son, Cody, for hours as the amazing Mr. Ploog spun unforgettable tales of his life and art.  Whether it was a story of his days in the Marine Rodeo Corps (yes, there is such a thing), a mad encounter with a famous film director or just something unusual that happened to him that morning, Mike kept us hanging on every word.  

Working with Mike on Abadazad and, later, The Stardust Kid, remains one of the highlights of my professional life.  Our collaboration was magic from the start:  we understood each other, shared a creative vision of what those stories should be, almost instantly.  I’d been carrying Abadazad around in my head for at least a decade before Mike came on board, but, once he did, it was impossible to imagine that universe without him.  As soon as the first pencil line hit the page, the story stopped being mine and became ours.  To have the opportunity to collaborate with an artist I so admired when I was just a wide-eyed fan was truly a gift from the comic book gods.  That Mike turned out to be such a splendid, and infinitely entertaining, human being was the icing on the cake.  

I conclude with a statement that seems hyperbolic, but I present it to you as incontrovertible fact:  There may be a handful of fantasy artists on the planet as good as Mike Ploog, but there’s nobody better.  Let me repeat that:  there’s nobody better.   If you’re not convinced, just turn the page.  This book contains all the proof you’ll need. 

©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


It's William Shatner’s eighty-fifth birthday (how is that possible?  The man has more energy than I do!).  If you want to know why I love the guy, read this.  For today, in celebration of an actor whose performances have brought so much joy into my life, I thought I’d do a run down of my ten favorite Shatner performances.  (And, as Captain Kirk did with the Kobayashi Maru test, I cheated:  There are more than ten.)

10.  Live Shatner
Shatner got his start on the stage, doing Shakespeare in Canada, performing on Broadway—and the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing that aspect of his career is through some of the surviving performances from the golden age of live television.  Two of my favorites are Rod Serling’s 1958 Playhouse 90 drama “A Town Has Turned to Dust” and Reginald Rose’s 1957 two-part Studio One production of “The Defender.”  This drama—in which Shatner plays a young attorney whose methods alienate his law partner, and father, played by Ralph Bellamy—served as the unofficial pilot for one of the most prestigious dramas of the early 1960’s, The Defenders (Shatner was offered the lead and turned it down)—and also became the basis for a classic episode of Boston Legal.

9.   The Intruder
Someone—don’t ask me who, I don’t remember—wrote that if The Intruder had been a mainstream Hollywood production, Shatner would have certainly received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as racist agitator Adam Cramer.  He’s charming, repulsive, manipulative, charismatic and, by the end, he’s a broken, pitiable wreck of a human being.  The 1962 film, written by Twilight Zone’s Charles Beaumont and directed by Roger Corman, was ahead of its time in its raw portrayal of racial issues in 60’s America.  Because of its incendiary nature, the movie was barely seen at the time—and it’s still a hidden gem.  Lucky for you the whole thing is on YouTube.

8.  The Big Giant Head (Third Rock From The Sun)
When Shatner received his first Emmy nomination, in 1996, it wasn’t for a dramatic part, but for his wonderfully silly performance as the Big Giant Head in the wonderfully silly science-fiction sitcom, Third Rock From The Sun.  Shatner was always a gifted comic actor—Captain Kirk’s down-to-earth humor balanced his penchant for Shakespearean speechifying—but Third Rock allowed WS to unleash his inner comedian and let him run wild.  (If you enjoy over-the-top, silly Shatner, I’d also recommend his performance in Airplane II:  he steals the movie.)

7.  Free Enterprise
Robert Meyer Burnett’s 1998 movie about two bewildered young men being tutored (badly!) in life and love by their idol, William Shatner, has become a geek classic—and Shatner’s performance manages to be both hilarious and genuinely moving.  This ability to shift, effortlessly, from comedy to drama would serve Shatner well a few years later when he took on his greatest role, as Denny Crane in Boston Legal. 

6.  Rookie Blue
Chances are you’ve never heard of this Canadian cop drama, which aired in the U.S. for several summers on CBS; but Shatner’s 2012 guest-shot, as a grandfather driven to drink and despair because he feels responsible for the kidnapping of his granddaughter, is as stripped-down, raw and Emmy-worthy a performance as he’s ever given.  

5.  The Andersonville Trial
Not long after the cancellation of Star Trek, Shatner played one of the three leads in this extraordinary 1970 PBS drama (a kind of Civil War Judgement at Nuremberg), directed by George C. Scott and done live-on-tape:  a throwback to the TV golden age of the 1950’s.  Watching Shatner, as the fiery prosecutor, joust with Jack Cassidy, as the defense attorney, and Richard Basehart, as the defendant, is like studying a master class in acting:  all three men give powerful, and memorable, performances.  Even Harlan Ellison, one of Shatner’s most vocal critics, called WS’s performance “staggeringly brilliant.”  And rightly so.

4.  Has Been
Shatner has been mercilessly ridiculed—some of it justified, some of it not—for his 1968 spoken word-with-music album The Transformed Man, but that album intrigued and inspired a young musician named Ben Folds and, years later, Folds and Shatner came together to co-create the remarkable (and I don’t mean that ironically) 2004 album Has Been:  a painfully honest and (intentionally) funny autobiographical journey through life and death, love and loss, failure and success.  Shatner has tried to recapture the magic of Has Been in several subsequent albums, but hasn’t quite hit the mark.  I think a reunion with Folds is in order.

3.  The Twilight Zone
Just about everyone knows, and just about everyone loves, Shatner’s performance in the classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, it features Shatner as a fragile airplane passenger, recovering from a nervous breakdown, who is literally fighting for his sanity.  Just as good is an earlier TZ episode, also written by Matheson:  1960’s “Nick of Time” is a subtle episode (more a psychological drama than a supernatural one) and it requires subtle acting—which Shatner and Patricia Breslin, as his wife, both deliver.  "Nightmare" and "Nick of Time" are both available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu. 

2.  Captain Kirk (Star Trek)
What can be said about the commander of the Starship Enterprise that hasn’t been said before?   Only this:  Kirk encapsulated everything about Shatner’s acting—from the towering heights to the melodramatic depths (and that’s part of Shatner’s charm:  he always dances, fearlessly, out on the limb.  Sometimes it holds, sometimes it breaks and he takes a spectacular fall).  Warts and all, it’s a performance, and a character, for the ages.  Our lives would be far less rich without Star Trek and, with all due respect to the great Leonard Nimoy and the equally-talented DeForest Kelley, Kirk was the heart and soul of the series. 

My favorite Shatner/Kirk performances are the 1967 TOS episode “City on the Edge of Forever”—in which we get a Kirk far more human and vulnerable than anywhere else in the series—and the even more vulnerable and human Kirk of 1981’s Wrath of Khan, still the best big-screen Trek of them all.  That said, if I was going to single out one particular scene as defining both James T. Kirk and Star Trek it would be the one below.  Not surprising that the insipring words Shatner speaks—with such passion and power—came from series creator Gene Roddenberry. 

1.  Denny Crane (Boston Legal)

Shatner was at another crossroads, becoming (at least to my eyes) less of a serious actor and more of a beloved celebrity, when writer/producer David E. Kelley handed him the greatest role of his career.  Boston Legal’s Denny Crane was a modern Falstaff:  both a buffoon and a wise man, absurdly comic and heart-breakingly real; as three-dimensional and fully-realized a character as Shatner has ever played.  The fact that he was surrounded by a cast of astonishingly-gifted actors—most notably James Spader, whose chemistry with Shatner led to (sorry, Spock) one of the most memorable bromances in television history—only pushed WS to greater heights.  He received his first Emmy win for Denny Crane’s debut on The Practice and then went on to five more consecutive, well-deserved nominations (and another win) for each season of Boston Legal.  

Captain Kirk may be the role that the public will always identify Shatner with but, to me (and my wife and daughter, who love BL as much as I do), he’ll always be Denny Crane. 

Happy birthday, William Shatner:  may you live even longer and continue to prosper.    

©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Terence Dollard, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, is the host of an excellent video podcast called Comic Culture and I recently had a conversation with him that covered my collaborations with Keith Giffen, my work on Spider-Man, my writing workshops and other things. The video is embedded below for your listening and dancing pleasure. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Words can’t express how sad I am to hear that legendary music producer Sir George Martin has died.  Without his ability to translate and augment the Beatles' musical visions, the band might never have reached the heights they did.  Martin was like a wise and loving parent—knowing just when to get out of the way and let his “chidren’s” natural gifts blossom unencumbered and when to step in and gently pull them back when they were racing down creative blind alleys.

The Beatles challenged Martin constantly, forcing him to grow, to push beyond his comfort zones.  Time and again he rose to those challenges, embracing, and expanding, the band's wildest ideas; creating musical soundscapes that none of them could have achieved alone.  Together they forged a musical legacy that has lasted more than fifty years—and will no doubt last for many, many years to come.

Perhaps no song better epitomizes the Beatles-George Martin collaboration than John Lennon’s classic “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  The song began as a soft, dreamy meditation, exploded into a psychedelic free-for-all and then, when the composer decided he wanted two different versions (in two different tempos and keys!) fused together, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick managed to meet Lennon’s seemingly-impossible demand, creating one of the great masterpieces of modern music.  And this without benefit of the digital technology we take for granted today.   

Sir George Martin was a great talent and, by all accounts, a good and gentle man. He will be missed.