Wednesday, December 14, 2016

THE CLUELESS KID MAKES GOOD



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

2 comments:

  1. Happy birthday to the clueless kid from Brooklyn! Coincidentally, it's also the day my favorite comics author was born.

    --David

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, David! Deeply appreciated!

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