I said it before, I'll say it again: May the new year surprise and delight us all with magic, miracles, abundance, peace, health, joy—and love above all!
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Today is the 94th birthday of the amazing and inspiring Stan Lee. In his honor, here's a short essay I wrote a few years ago...
Contemporary comic book readers can’t possibly understand how different the 1960’s Marvel Comics were from everything else on the stands. DC’s comics—for all their imagination and artistic flair—were pristine and sculpted, All-American and squeaky clean to the point of being nearly antiseptic: no rough edges, no raw emotions, nothing messy at all. If you looked at the Marvel books, especially in the early days of the line, it was all mess. The covers said it all: lurid colors. Captions screaming for your attention. Oversized word balloons with thick, black borders around them. Artwork so primitive it was frightening. The Marvel Universe was everything an adolescent boy in love with super-heroes and science-fiction could ever ask for. It exploded my imagination—and I’ve been picking up the pieces ever since.
There’s been much debate, down through the decades, about the relative contributions of Stan Lee (who was Marvel’s editor, art director, and head writer in that formative era) and his collaborators. From my perspective, Stan’s contribution was incalculable. Even if, hypothetically, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (both of whom were absolutely essential to the company’s success, it couldn’t have happened without them) plotted every single one of those stories on their own, Stan created the vibe and the mythos of Marvel Comics. He did it with cocky cover copy and the warmth of the Bullpen Bulletins pages, the hilarious footnotes and scripts that managed to be absurdly pseudo-Shakespearean and yet utterly down to earth at the same time. Most important were the absolutely relatable (especially to a boy on the verge of adolescence) characters, constructed of equal parts angst and humor and, most important, heart. Stan put his passion into those pages. They clearly mattered to him, and so they mattered to us, as well.
If Marvel hadn't cast its magic spell over the comic book industry, changing the creative rules of the game, there's a very good chance I would have left comics behind in junior high school (for the record, the first Marvels that hooked me were F.F. #54 and Spider-Man #40, at the tail end of the seventh grade) and never even considered writing them. And I'm sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of comic book creators who would say something similar. You simply can't underestimate the impact that Stan had—and still has, all these years later.
Happy birthday, Stan! We're blessed to have you!
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 10:11 AM
Saturday, December 24, 2016
I'll be taking a holiday vacation from social media for a few days, so I just want to wish everyone out there a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and anything else you may be celebrating. May the new year surprise and delight us all with magic, miracles, abundance, peace. health, joy—and love above all!
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 9:32 AM
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Here at Creation Point we have a long-standing Yuletide tradition, a short Christmas tale of mine called The Truth About Santa Claus: offered annually as a kind of cyber Christmas present, my way of wishing all of you who visit this site the happiest of holidays and the most magical of Christmases. I offer it again this year, along with three wonderful illustrations by my friend and Augusta Wind collaborator Vassilis Gogtzilas. So grab a plate of Christmas cookies, pull a chair up close to the fireplace and enjoy.
THE TRUTH ABOUT
“THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!”
He’d been thinking about it for days—ever since he heard Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo announce it on the school bus—and he didn’t believe a word of it, not one word. (Well, maybe ONE.) But Cody had to be sure, absolutely, positively sure—
—and that’s why he was hiding behind the couch at midnight on Christmas Eve.
His mother was there, asleep in his dad’s old easy chair, the reds and blues of the Christmas tree lights making her look peaceful and happy and impossibly young.
The tree, by the way, had not ONE SINGLE PRESENT underneath it.
That didn’t make sense. If there WAS no Santa Claus, if his mother was the one who bought the presents, wrapped the presents, stacked them under the tree, then how come she hadn’t done it? How come she wasn’t awake RIGHT NOW arranging them all?
He got scared. Maybe there wasn’t going to BE a Christmas this year. Maybe Mom had lost her job and they didn’t have any money and so she COULDN’T buy him any presents and—
And then Cody glanced over at the windows and noticed that it was snowing.
Or was it?
If that was snow, it was the WHITEST snow he’d ever seen. It was snow as bright as moonbeams, as bright as sunlight, as bright as...
Quickly, but quietly (he didn’t want to wake his mother), he scurried to the window and looked out.
It was coming down and coming down and COMING DOWN all across town, whirling and whipping, spinning and gyrating, out of the night sky. Glowing so brightly that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it. And Cody saw that it certainly wasn’t snow, and it absolutely wasn’t rain, it wasn’t ANYTHING he’d ever seen before. But each drop, no...each flake, no... each BALL of glowing WHATEVER IT WAS, seemed to pulse and spin, soar and vibrate, as if it were alive.
And the stuff, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS (and he knew now that it was magic. He just KNEW), wasn’t collecting on the streets, wasn’t piling up on the rooftops. It was MELTING INTO (that’s the only way he could put it: MELTING INTO) every house (no matter how small) and apartment building (no matter how big).
EVERY house and apartment building.
He looked up.
And there it was: coming RIGHT THROUGH THE CEILING of Apartment 3F, HIS apartment, swirling, like a tornado of light, around the chandelier and then down, down, down—
—STRAIGHT FOR HIS MOTHER.
At first he almost yelled out a warning, “Mom! Wake up! MOM!” But something made him stop.
Instead of yelling he ducked back behind the couch and watched, eyes peering over the top.
Watched as the light-tornado wheeled around his mother, so fast, so bright, that he could hardly even SEE her. But he COULD see her. Most of her, anyway.
And what he SAW...
The light poured in through the top of her head, through her eyes, through her chest, through her toes. It lifted her up—still sleeping!—and carried her out of her chair and across the room. And as she floated—
—she started to change:
Her hair became white, her nose became red, her belly ballooned like the most pregnant woman in the history of the world. Her feet grew boots, her head grew a hat, her nightgown grew fur. An overstuffed sack sprouted, like a lumpy angel’s wing, from her shoulder. And then—
AndthenandthenandTHEN, it wasn’t his mother there at all, it was him, it was SANTA CLAUS! STANDING RIGHT THERE IN CODY’S LIVING ROOM! Santa Claus who, with a laugh (exactly like the laugh Cody always knew he had, only better) and a twinkle in his eyes (exactly like the twinkle he’d always imagined, ONLY BETTER) reached into his sack and pulled out package after package, present after present, and placed them, carefully, like some Great Artist contemplating his masterpiece, under the tree.
When he was done, Santa Claus stood there, grinning and shaking his head, as if he couldn’t BELIEVE what a beautiful tree this was, how wonderful the presents looked beneath it. As if this moment was the greatest moment in the history of Christmas, as if this apartment was the only place in all the universes that such a Christmas could ever POSSIBLY happen.
And then the MOST amazing thing happened:
Santa Claus turned.
He turned slowly. So slowly Cody couldn’t even tell at first that he was moving at all. And—slowly, SLOWLY—those twinkling eyes, that Smile of smiles, fixed itself on the two boy-eyes peering, in wonder, over the top of the couch.
And what Cody felt then he could never really say: only that it was better than any present anyone could ever get. Only that it made his heart so warm it melted like magical WHATEVER IT WAS, trickling down through his whole body. Only that it made him want to reach out his arms and hug Santa Claus, hug his mother, hug his father (and FORGIVE him too, for running out on them) and his aunts and uncles and cousins (even his Cousin Erskine who was SUCH a pain) and Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo (who really wasn’t so bad most of the time) and all his friends and teachers and the kid in his karate class who always smelled SO BAD and, embarrassing as it sounds, it made him want to hug everyone and everything in the whole world including rabbits and snakes and trees and lizards and grass and lions and mountains and, yes, the EARTH HERSELF.
Cody wanted to hold that gaze, to keep his eyes locked on Santa’s, forever. (Or longer, if he could.) Wanted to swim in that incredible feeling, drown in it, till GOD HIMSELF came down to say: “Enough!”
Except that he blinked. Just once. But in that wink of an eye, Santa was gone. Cody’s mother was asleep in the chair again and, for one terrible moment, the boy thought that the whole thing must have been a dream.
Except, under the tree: THERE WERE THE PRESENTS.
Except, out the window: THERE WAS THE SNOW, the rain, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS, shooting up, like a blizzard in reverse, from every house, every apartment building. Shooting up into the heavens, gathering together like a fireball, like a white-hot comet—
—and fading away into the night: going, going...
Without so much as a tinkling sleigh-bell or a “Ho-ho-ho.”
Not that it mattered.
Cody looked at his mom.
Cody kissed her.
“I love you,” he said. And he was crying. Happy tears. Christmas tears. Like moonbeams, like sunlight. Like stardust.
Mom stirred in the chair, smiled the softest sweetest smile Cody had ever seen. “I love you, too,” she said.
And then she drifted back to sleep.
Cody sat at her feet, warming himself, warming his SOUL, by the lights of the tree.
And soon, he, too, was drifting off to sleep. And as he drifted, a wonderful thought rose up, like a balloon, inside him. Rose, then POPPED—spreading the thought to every corner of his mind. Giving him great comfort. Great delight:
“One day,” the thought whispered, “when you’re all grown-up, when you have children of your own. ONE DAY,” the thought went on...
“It will be YOUR TURN.”
Story ©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Art ©copyright 2016 Vassilis Gogtzilas
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 3:21 PM
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Thirty-nine years ago this month—and, yes, it astonishes me to write those words—I sold my first comic book script to a ridiculously young, and ridiculously gifted, DC Comics editor named Paul Levitz. Here's an edited, and slightly updated, version of the story (last shared here back in 2011) of how that happened.
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.
It took a few more years of struggle, elation, depression and head-banging to get regular work that I could actually depend on (for one thing, I had to survive the infamous DC Implosion that rocked the comics world six months after that first sale), but "The Lady Killer Craves Blood" was the Big Breakthrough and I have Paul to thank for it. He was a busy guy, he didn't have to take the time to guide an overeager newcomer, possessed of raw talent but very little skill, through the comic book maze. That he did take the time speaks volumes about the man. Please picture me bowing, elegantly, in sincere gratitude.
So here I sit, almost forty 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 to Augusta Wind). 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 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 12:53 PM
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Monday, December 5, 2016
Back in the early 80s, I wrote a story, in Captain America #292, where Cap (embodiment of the modern spirit of America) faced off against Black Crow (the embodiment of Native America). The battle reached its climax when Cap realized that violence would never end their conflict, which had roots going back hundreds of years; so he laid down his shield and bowed before Black Crow as a way for the New America to seek forgiveness for its sins against the First America. The pair then embraced and (in comic books, at least) a new day dawned for our country. (My plan was to eventually have Black Crow become Captain America, but that, sadly, never came to pass.)
What happened Sunday at Standing Rock, when a group of veterans, led by Wesley Clark, Jr, knelt before the native elders to ask their forgiveness for our nation's treatment of their people, reminded me of that old story—but, of course, so much more powerful and soul-shaking, and so vibrant with hope, because it's real. (You can see video of this incredible moment here.)
Captain America and Black Crow would be pleased.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 7:50 PM