Sunday, September 10, 2017


Len Wein has passed away. He was my editor, my mentor and my friend. I am saddened beyond words.
A few years back I wrote the following tribute to Len as part of an introduction to a hardcover collection of his Spider-Man work. 
Heartfelt condolences to Len's wife Christine and to all his family and friends.

Love you, Len. Safe travels.


In the late 1970’s, when I was taking my first, very awkward, steps as a comic book writer—until then I’d been making my living, such as it was, playing in rock and roll bands and dabbling in music journalism—I had a very simple rule that served me well:  The editor is always right.  I was hungry to work and the men and women sitting behind the desks, handing out the assignments, held the keys to the kingdom I so desperately wanted to enter.  More important:  they had knowledge and experience that they were willing to share.

Over the years young writers have occasionally come to me for guidance and some of them, when offered advice, become instantly defensive, wasting their time and mine by explaining exactly why they don’t need to take that advice, why their stories are just fine, thank you, and shouldn’t be altered.  “Well, if it’s just fine,” I’ve often wondered, “what are you coming to me for?”  I never saw things that way.  I wanted to learn, I wanted to grow as a writer and soak in all that wisdom my editors had amassed.  If one of them said, “No more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than 5.5 panels per page,” well, then, I went home and counted every single word, averaged out my panels. If I was told that my dialogue was flat, I reworked it.  If the brilliant (in my own mind, at least) sequence I labored over all night didn’t work, I cut it.

The truth, of course, is that the editor isn’t always right—sometimes he’s spectacularly wrong—and it’s a writer’s responsibility to stand up for himself and his work and, when necessary, challenge his editors; but a neophyte writer still grappling with the fundamentals of his craft would do well to save his battles for a later date.  One thing I intuited in those early days was that no matter what the editor asked of me—shy of requesting something morally or artistically abhorrent, which, for the record, never happened—I could take it as a challenge and, more important, learn something from it.  Those early years at DC Comics were my Comic Book College:  I was an over-eager freshman and, happily, I had some superb Professors.

None better than Len Wein.

When I first began working with Len, he was—despite being just past thirty—already a legend in the industry.  This was the writer who, with the equally-legendary Bernie Wrightson, created the groundbreaking Swamp Thing  series.  Unless you were around when that book debuted, you can’t really grasp how truly revolutionary Swamp Thing was, how different from everything that had come before it.  I remember being floored by the emotional power of the art, the pulp-poetry of the language and the big beating heart at the story’s core.  You couldn’t read an issue of Swamp Thing without feeling something, without being moved.

If that series was all Len had done, his place in Comic Book Heaven would be secure, but he was also the guy who co-created Wolverine, one of the most successful, and popular, characters in the medium’s history... resurrected and revitalized the X-Men franchise...had memorable runs on everything from Justice League to HulkBatman to Spider-Man...and, oh, yes, was editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics along the way.  Len could do slam-bang superhero adventure with the best of them, but the hallmark of a Wein story wasn’t the action, it was that aforementioned beating heart.  All of Len’s best work was, and remains (for he’s as vital a writer now as he ever was), marked by a deep humanity and a profound compassion. 

Which is why, when I entered his office in the spring of 1979, I counted myself among the lucky ones:  I didn’t realize just how lucky until I got to know Len.  There are some writers whose work you admire, but then you meet them and it’s impossible to make the leap from the words on the page to the person across the table:  there seems to be some great cosmic disconnect—and, yes, a great disappointment, as well.  (It’s unfair to expect a writer or actor or musician to somehow be the embodiment his art—the work alone should be more than enough—but we hope for it nonetheless.)  With Len, though, the man and the work were one.  He was just like his stories:  charming, funny, eloquent and all heart.  He extended that heart to me.  There wasn’t a hint of self-importance to the man.  His editing style was warm and welcoming.  He taught through encouragement, enthusiasm.  Even if he didn’t like a particular story—and, believe me, some of my early scripts were massively flawed—he never eviscerated the work, never bullied:  just found a gentle way to guide me out of the morass of my own inexperience and onto solid creative ground.

In a very short time, Len became not just my editor, but my friend and first real mentor in the comic book business.  He saw a spark of something special in my stories and, through his patient guidance, helped fan that spark into a flame.  There I was, an insecure, working class kid from Brooklyn, uncertain of my own talent, wondering if I could carve a career for myself in this wonderful, and hugely peculiar, business—and there was The Legendary Len Wein providing the answer:  “If you want it, you absolutely can.”  

You can’t put a price on that.

©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis 

Monday, August 28, 2017


In honor of Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, here (with a couple of minor revisions) is an essay I first posted back in 2010.  Enjoy!

Like most people too in love with their own opinions, I’m fond of sweeping statements, and one of the sweeping statements I often toss out when the subject of comic books comes up is this:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two formidable talents who forged the Marvel Age of Comics—and, one might argue, all comics that followed—were the Lennon and McCartney of their medium.  Rock and roll and comic books were two of my greatest passions growing up and the link has always seemed obvious to me.  The Beatles, led by John and Paul, redefined popular music in the sixties, just as Marvel, led by Stan and Jack, redefined comics.  (Not that DC was sitting around doing nothing, mind you...any more than Dylan, the Stones and the Who were; but the Beatles and Marvel, at least in this writer’s opinion, were way ahead of the pack.)  But all that blew apart when the decade turned.

Those of you too young to have been comics fans in 1970—that tumultuous twelve months of Kent State, student strikes and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip—can’t begin to grasp the impact that three words—”Kirby Is Here!”—had when they appeared on the cover of, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  I was sixteen, a devoted Marvel follower, and still naive enough to believe that Lee and Kirby were as inseparable as, well, Lennon and McCartney.  Of course 1970 was also the year in which the Beatles publicly disintegrated, as well.  “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang—and it certainly was.  Across the board.  Across the country.  The idealism, the optimism, the inspired lunacy of the sixties—which had spread throughout our culture via music, film, novels, and, yes, comics—was beginning to turn sour.  Let’s face it:  if Stan and Jack, if John and Paul, couldn’t keep it together, what possible chance did the rest of us have?  (This sounds incredibly silly now, but, believe me, this was an unbelievably urgent question then.  At least to me.) 

But the energy and enthusiasm of those years was still pushing us forward and, in some ways, the creative energy of the early seventies surpassed the sixties.  Sure, the Beatles were a dead issue, but the music Lennon produced in the years after the split, most notably the brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, was some of the most powerful, important music rock and roll had ever heard.   (I told you I was fond of sweeping statements.)  And this music was produced as a direct result of Lennon’s boredom with the Beatles, of his pulling away from McCartney’s influence, from the security of success.  He danced out on a limb, the limb held, and the result was Art.

The same can be said of Kirby.  With Lee, he had taken mainstream comics and turned them inside out, upside down, and left his mark forever (just as he’d already done, in earlier times, with Joe Simon:  Kirby, it seemed, never met a revolution he didn’t like).  But, as his later Marvel work too clearly showed, he was bored.  How many times can the Thing turn against his partners?  How often can Loki tiptoe past Odin’s bed and usurp the throne of Asgard?  Pretty often—but too often for a restless limb-dancer like Jack Kirby.  As with Lennon, Kirby’s vision was unique, singular; and, if his collaboration with Lee (as important to Marvel’s success as McCartney was to the Beatles’; neither man should be underestimated) brought Kirby to new levels, those levels had now been attained, a plateau had been reached, and it was time to move on.  Without collaboration.  Artists, real artists, tend to burn.  When they’ve burned long enough, the smoke starts pouring through their lips and they’ve got to spit the fire out. 

In 1970, Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC and started spitting fire.  The fire was called The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Jimmy Olsen and Forever People.  Books as important to comics as Lennon’s POB album was to rock.  Books that opened new doors, set new standards, did things that comics had never dared to do before.  New Gods was clearly the most focused, perhaps the best of the bunch; Mister Miracle offered the most flat-out fun; Jimmy Olsen was as wonderfully bizarre, in its way, as those Silver Age stories that featured Jimmy turning into aliens, werewolves and giant turtles.  Forever People—which featured Kirby’s cosmic hippies, the embodiment of youth and naivete, idealism and dreams—was my personal favorite; encapsulating, as it did, Kirby’s (and my own) hope for the future.  True, the dialogue in these stories was sometimes awkward—but dialogue was never Kirby’s forte.  Story-telling was.  Spirit was.  Vision was.  And these stories had them all.  They ran, they rambled, they surprised, they exploded.  (The language often did the same thing:  the dialogue, as noted, may have been clunky, but Kirby’s prose was also so wildly passionate, so utterly idiosyncratic, that it achieved a kind of mad poetic grandeur.)  There seemed no definite beginning, middle, or end; there was just the constant search, the quest for an intangible something that could never be defined.  The characters themselves couldn’t be called three dimensional, in the conventional sense, but they existed in a dimension all their own.   Orion and Lightray, Scott and Barda, Big Bear, Serafin, Desaad and, perhaps the greatest villain in the history of comic books, Darkseid:  these were people that I, as a reader, cared passionately about.  I enjoyed their company—and looked forward to their evolution.  Unfortunately, for reasons that I’ve never heard adequately explained, that evolution was cut short.  With the exception of Mister Miracle (which staggered on for several more issues), all the “Fourth World” titles were axed.

But you can’t kill a dream—and these stories live on, resonating not just through the DC Universe but all of popular culture.  The word genius is one that’s often overused, and cheapened by that overuse, but if the comic book business has ever produced a genius, Jack Kirby was it:  a genius who taught me that keeping my eyes wide, focused both on the limitless heavens and the infinite universes within the human heart, is the surest way to creating stories that matter.

The “Fourth World” saga was unquestionably Kirby's magnum opus.  If you’ve read it before, I urge you to read it again.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to put aside your preconceptions, grab the first volume of the Fourth World Omnibus and surrender to one of the 20th Century’s master storytellers.

© copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis 

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Next week will see the release of the Hero Squared Omnibus:  a massive collection that gathers every Hero Squared and Planetary Brigade tale created by yours truly and some guy named Giffen and includes lots of juicy extras.  (We're in comics shops on the 30th, Amazon on September 5th.)  I've written an introduction for the new edition and you can read it below.  Enjoy!


Thirty years. That’s how long it’s been since Keith Giffen and I started writing together, partnering with the great Kevin Maguire on what’s become a somewhat legendary (or, if you prefer, infamous) run on DC’s Justice League International.

Back in the 80’s, when we worked on JLI, Keith and I didn’t talk much at all: things were incredibly spontaneous. Keith would write the plot (well, actually, he drew it out, creating a little mini-comic) and I wouldn't see it till it arrived at my door. Then I'd sit down to dialogue and pretty much write the first thing that came into my head. Sometimes what I wrote hewed closely to Keith's story and sometimes I created entirely new plot lines and character relationships that had nothing to do with what Keith had done. The real fun was watching Giffen take the twists and turns that I'd injected into the story and build on them in ways that always surprised me. Then he'd throw it all back in my face and I'd twist it again. It was an incredibly exhilarating way to work: no egos involved, we just kept trying to top each other. (It helped that we had one of the best editors to ever sit behind a desk, Andy Helfer, backstopping us every step of the way.)

Hero Squared—which launched in 2004, via Ross Richie’s pre-Boom! Studios imprint, Atomeka Press—was a little different.  The original idea was Keith’s but, once I’d enthusiastically signed on, we talked regularly, and in-depth, about the series, discussing the characters, the stories, where we wanted them to go; but, because our approach remained as anarchic as it was back in the Justice League days, our conversations didn’t necessarily reflect what ended up on the page. Once Keith started plotting (and, for most of H2’s run, he dispatched with the mini-comics and wrote what was, essentially, a guide draft:  check out the extras in the back of the book to see how the process worked), the final product might have nothing to do with what we'd talked about. Once I started scripting, I'd go off and follow the muse wherever it led me. I don't know if that kind of creative relationship would work for other people, but it certainly worked—and still works—for us, pushing us both to be better. 

A word about our Hero Squared collaborators: Joe Abraham was an unknown quantity to me when we started working together, but I soon became one of his biggest fans and boosters. Joe has the ability to bring life, heart and humor to both the quieter, more human moments—very few artists could draw an entire issue that takes place in a therapist’s office (perhaps my favorite Giffen-DeMatteis story ever) and sell it the way Joe did—and then break out the big guns for spectacular action sequences. He’s a massive talent and one of the nicest guys in the business.

When Joe was unable to work on our final mini-series—Hero Squared: Love and Death (and, yes, this is a story that actually comes to a definitive conclusion)—we were lucky enough to find Nate Watson, who stepped into Joe’s formidable shoes and did it with grace, mirroring Abraham’s style while leaving his own unique visual stamp on the pages:  not an easy feat.  (I also have to tip my hat to the array of talent that pitched in for our Planetary Brigade spin-offs—from old pros like Mark Badger and Eduardo Barreto to then-unknowns like Julia Bax and Fabio Moon.)

Then there’s our aforementioned publisher, the estimable Mr. Richie.  When we started work on Hero Squared, Ross was basically holding up the world alone, trying to build a brand-new comic book line from his living room. I have warm memories of the many long conversations we had back then, discussing everything from comics to spirituality.  There was a distinctive Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Let’s put on a show right here!” feeling to those early Boom! days and that only added to our creative energy.  Watching, over the years, as Ross turned that living room endeavor into the impressive, and very successful, Boom! Studios of today has filled me with no small measure of pride.

And in the end it all comes back to Giffen. It still amazes me that Keith and I have been working together this long. Well, maybe it’s not so amazing: Despite the fact that Keith desperately wants people to think that he’s surly and cynical, Earth’s Biggest Malcontent, he’s actually an incredibly nice guy: as gifted, and generous, a collaborator as I’ve ever had. When people ask me what it’s like to work with Giffen, one story inevitably comes to mind. I’ve told it before—apologies if you’ve heard it—but it really defines the man.

It’s the late 80’s. We’re standing in the halls of DC Comics on a Friday afternoon. Keith is telling me his idea for the origin of one of our most ridiculous characters, the brain-dead Green Lantern named G’nort. He spends five or ten minutes spinning the entire tale, in detail. You can see he’s excited. He likes this wonderfully goofy story and he wants to do it—just the way he’s envisioned it.

The problem is, I don’t like it. And I tell him that I don’t. Does Keith get angry? Does he tell me I’m a talentless jackass who has no right passing judgment on his incandescent genius? No. He just looks at me for a second, takes a breath, shrugs—and then launches into an entirely new origin of G’nort, which he’s creating on the spot. And it’s perfect. I can’t think of many people who could switch creative gears like that, but Keith has more raw creativity than just about anyone I’ve ever known: a tsunami of epic tales, memorable characters and odd, brilliant notions.

That creative tsunami is on full display in the book you’re about to read. There are many projects I’ve done with Keith that I’m proud of, but Hero Squared is the nearest, and dearest, to my heart.  Maybe it’s because Ross gave us the freedom to create our own universe our own way—we never had to worry about an editor telling us that the Purring Pussycat wouldn’t act that way—or maybe it’s because the characters themselves felt so real to me. (They may have been exaggerations, but Milo and Eustace, with their massive neuroses and big hearts, their capacity for both moronic missteps and noble self-sacrifice, were, I think, the ultimate Giffen-DeMatteis characters:  mirrors of our own flaws and aspirations.) 

Or maybe it’s just because we had so much fun creating the stories collected in this mammoth volume.

©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis

Monday, August 21, 2017


This month marks thirty years since my first trip to India, so I thought I'd share this story—first posted here back in 2010—about that amazing journey.  Enjoy!


When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.  Well, actually, it was an awful year—filled with angst, agony and a desperate search for Cosmic Answers—but it did lead me to an experience of the Divine—detailed, in slightly-fictionalized form, in Brooklyn Dreams—that profoundly altered my consciousness and forever changed my perception of myself, the universe and...well, everything.  That small taste of the the infinite plunged me into an even deeper exploration of All Things Spiritual, and, two years later,  that exploration led me to an Indian spiritual master named Avatar Meher Baba.  The story of my discovery of Meher Baba, and the soul-exploding impact he had on my life, will have to wait for another time.  What you need to know right now is that, for me, Meher Baba’s path isn't about rites and rituals, meditations and mantras, wearing special clothes, paying dues or attending regular meetings:  it’s about embracing the divinity at the core of all paths.  Most of all, it’s about a deeply personal inner connection to God.  (Which is a good thing, since I’m not very fond of groups.  Even today, when I have cherished Baba-companions all over the world, I generally steer clear of anything vaguely resembling formal meetings.  As Groucho Marx observed:  “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”)  From the night in 1973 when he first made his presence known to me, MB became the embodiment of the answers I’d been seeking:  spiritual guide, best friend, Self of all selves.  It didn’t matter that he’d passed away—or “dropped his body” as the Indians like to say—in 1969.  He was very much a living presence in my life and, more important, in my heart, nudging me along the path and, when nudging didn’t work, aiming an occasional boot at my ass.  

Now let’s jump ahead from 1973 to l985.  That was the year my twelve-issue graphic novel, Moonshadow, was published under Marvel’s Epic imprint.  Done in collaboration with a brilliant artist named Jon J Muth, Moon was, up to that point, the finest piece of creative work I’d ever been involved with.  It was my attempt to tell, with humor and, I hope, a bit of wisdom, the tale of a teenage boy’s spiritual awakening, the first giant step in his soul’s journey.  (You could say it was Brooklyn Dreams recast as intergalactic fantasy—although BD wouldn’t be published for another ten years.)  When a project turns out the way Moonshadow did, when it transcends my own self-imposed belief in what I can (or can’t) accomplish, it becomes clear that “I” have precious little to do with the work.  And that’s one of the reasons I dedicated the first issue of Moonshadow to Meher Baba (and to my father, who’d died six months before its publication):  the first time I’d ever done that. 

A year later Marvel published my graphic novel, Doctor Strange:  Into Shamballa (co-plotted and beautifully illustrated by my old friend Dan Green).  As many of you know, Doctor Strange is a long-standing Marvel character, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:  a spell-weaving mystic whose departed master was called the Ancient One.  (Strangely, Meher Baba sometimes referred to himself as the Ancient One.  I’ve often wondered if either Lee or Ditko knew something about MB and if my master somehow provided the name for Doc’s.)  Into Shamballa begins with Stephen Strange returning to the Ancient One’s Himalayan ashram on the anniversary of the master's death, where he discovers...well, here’s how the story's narrator put it:  “A gift from the Master, left by him—for you!—years before his passing, with instructions for its presentation on this day alone.”  The opening of that gift, the unlocking of its mysteries, transforms Stephen Strange’s life and, by the end of the story, the entire world.  It seemed fitting that I dedicate a story of cosmic adventure and spiritual transformation to Meher Baba...and so I did. 

Now jump ahead to 1987.  It was another very wretched year.  I was in the process of a divorce that pretty much shredded my soul to pieces and, in the process, opened the gates of my unconscious, unleashing some fairly ferocious childhood demons that I’d spent most of my life avoiding.  (If my projects from this period—Kraven’s Last Hunt springs immediately to mind—seem especially dark, now you know why.)  But through it all, a part of me—the deepest part—held tight to Meher Baba:  to light and hope and the knowledge that there was much more to this dream than what it appeared to be.  In fact, after fourteen years with Baba, I was on my way—for the first time—to visit his Tomb-Shrine, on a hilltop in India.  Amazingly, I’d never been out of the country (aside from an afternoon in Tijuana in 1976) and so the upcoming solo journey—from my home in upstate New York to New York City,  NYC to Paris, Frankfurt to Mumbai (it was still called Bombay then), Mumbai to Pune (which was then called Poona), Pune to Meherabad, 
Meher Baba’s ashram, just outside a small city called Ahmednagar—was both an exciting and unnerving one.

I hadn’t slept much the night before I left—I was too excited—and by the time our New York flight landed in Frankfurt, I was deep-fried and crispy.  Changing planes for the Frankfurt-Bombay leg, I noticed that most of my fellow passengers were Indian.  (This may not sound surprising to you, or to me looking back, but, for some reason, this fact surprised and astounded me at the time.)  There were just a few Westerners on board—I took special notice of one couple, drawn, for some reason, by the woman’s big, floppy hat—but, lost in my own amazed, bewildered and desperately exhausted brain, I didn’t make any contact with them. 

We got into Bombay around two in the morning and I had a connecting flight to Poona six or seven hours later.  Instead of killing time at a recommended hotel, the Centaur (where, I later learned, some of those same Westerners, including the lady with the floppy hat and her husband, were waiting for their morning flight), I took a shuttle through the nearby slums and passed another sleepless night in the sweltering domestic airport, feeling like an insecure and ugly American.  The next morning, I found myself sitting on a small, propeller-driven plane next to Mrs. Floppy Hat’s husband.  Despite the fact that we were, again, among the few Westerners on an otherwise all-Indian Bombay-Poona flight, we didn’t say a single word to each other.  Not even a nod or a muttered hello.  

I noticed that Mr. Floppy Hat was busy taking pictures of the rain storm outside.  “Hmmm,” I decided, “anyone who takes pictures of the rain must be a professional photographer.”  (That’s a huge leap in logic, I know, but the combination of sleep-deprivation, moving through multiple time-zones and, possibly, divine intervention made it seem hugely plausible to me.)  After hearing him mention a previous trip to India to his wife, I assumed that Mr. Photographer was there on assignment—perhaps taking pictures for some travel magazine—and sank back into my state of neurotic, sleepless lunacy.

After we landed, off I went, into the colorful madness that is Poona—it was my first view of India in the daylight and I might as well have landed on Mars—where I found that another recommended hotel, the Blue Diamond, was filled up for a month.  I took this as an indication that I should plunge on, so I hopped a rickshaw to the nearest cab stand and hired a taxi to take me on to Ahmednagar.   (The photographer and his wife, I later learned, spent the night at—where else?—the Hotel Blue Diamond.  They obviously had the sense to make a reservation.)  When, some hours later, I reached the Meher Baba Trust office in ‘Nagar—my consciousness roughly the consistency of broken glass—I found that, since I’d arrived a day earlier than expected, there was no room for me at the nearby Meher Pilgrim Center (where visitors to Meher Baba’s Tomb-Shrine often stay).  I was packed off to a place called Viloo’s Villa, run by an old disciple of Baba’s, where I was well-fed and sent off to bed:  I slept like death.

The next day I threw my bag in a rickshaw and rattled out to Meherabad, where I checked in at the Pilgrim Center.  After walking up the hill to pay my respects at Meher Baba’s Tomb (in my experience, one of the most spiritually powerful—and profoundly magical—places on the planet), I returned to my room to settle in.  (It was a double, which was a relief; some of the rooms slept six and I don’t do well with crowds, especially at bed time.)  A little while later, my roommate walked in the door.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:  it was Mr. Photographer—whose name, I learned, was Bill Gibson.  Talk about bizarre coincidences:  all that traveling time without talking to each other and it turned out we were headed for the same destination.  Not only that, we ended up in the same room.  (I later learned that, on the plane from Bombay, Bill assumed I was going off to an ashram in Poona—one that had a somewhat controversial reputation—and decided it would be best not to talk to me.  He even noticed a small Meher Baba button on my bag, but, for some reason, assumed I was a devotee of the Poona guru...disguised as a follower of Meher Baba.  Sounds absurd—and it is—but Meher Baba, who has a well-developed sense of humor, clearly didn’t want us talking to each other...yet.)

We had a laugh about our situation as Bill began to unpack.  Out came his shirts, socks, pants and underwear—followed by all twelve issues of Moonshadow and a copy of Doctor Strange:  Into Shamballa.  I saw it, but it simply didn’t register—in fact, it felt as if my brain had imploded, then exploded, then imploded again.  I wouldn’t have been more stunned if Bill had pulled out a framed photo of my mother.  I looked one more time, just to make sure this wasn’t an acid flashback or a hallucination created by my time-warped senses, and then, with all the calm at my command, shrieked like a banshee:  “What are you doing with that?!  Where did you get that?!”  Bill—perhaps thinking he was sharing his room with an escaped maniac (which, in a way, he was)—looked at me blankly.  “I wrote those books!” I wailed.

And that’s when I learned that a friend of Bill and Denise’s (Denise was Bill’s wife, the woman with the arresting hat) back home in Denver had come across Moonshadow and Shamballa and, noting the dedications, wrote to Eruch Jessawalla—one of Meher Baba’s closest disciples—to tell him about it.  Eruch, intrigued, asked the friend if he could collect the comics together and send them off to the Trust office in India.  (No one at Meherazad, where MB’s surviving disciples lived, knew anything about me or my literary career.  I’d been involved with Meher Baba’s path for well over a decade, but I’d kept pretty much to myself.  Despite retreat time spent at the Meher Spiritual Center in South Carolina, I wasn’t plugged-in to the global Meher Baba community.)  So Bill’s friend did as he was asked but, rather than mail the comics, he gave them to Bill, who just “happened” to be traveling to Meherabad at the same time as the author of those comics; just “happened” to be traveling on the same planes with said author; just “happened” to end up in the same room.

Call it cosmic synchronicity or, as I prefer, God’s grace—but it was an astonishing event.  A day or so later, when a group of us staying at the Pilgrim Center took a bus to Meherazad to visit with Eruch and several other of MB’s close companions, the guy who didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member found himself very publicly presenting the comics to Eruch, posing beside him while Bill, of course, stood nearby taking pictures.  Given my somewhat reclusive nature, given the kind of wretched year I was having, I would have spent the next few weeks hanging out on the fringes of Meherabad life.  This “coincidence” brought me right into the middle of things and, for the first time, into the loving embrace of my Baba family.  I was welcomed home in a way that I could never have imagined.  It was as if Meher Baba, with loving attention, had orchestrated every detail.

That would have been enough to sustain me for the rest of my visit, but there was one more comic book miracle to come.  While staying at the Pilgrim Center, I met the lawyer for the Avatar Meher Baba Trust, a guy named Jack Small, and we quickly became buddies.  (It didn’t hurt that Jack was a fellow comic book geek.  He was delighted when, a year or so later, he ended up in the pages of DC’s Doctor Fate as a beleaguered supporting character.)  One day Jack showed up in my room with a treasure:  a small package of prasad (prasad is a gift, often a piece of fruit, given directly by the master to his disciples; said to carry the seed of his love.  Eating prasad is literally eating grace), in the form of crushed orange candies.  But this was very special prasad; put aside, I learned—reading the typewritten sheet that was presented to me—by Meher Baba himself, years before, for his lovers of the future, knowing the precise moment when each heart would need, and receive, it.  Sound familiar?  It was exactly like the mysterious gift that the Ancient One left for Doctor Strange.  “A gift from the master...left by him—for you!—years before his passing, with instructions for its presentation on this day alone.”  (And, before you ask, no—I’d never heard anything about this secret stash of MB’s prasad.  It was news to me.)  

There I was, living out my own version of Strange’s journey, receiving my own predestined gift, walking inside my own story.  I didn’t understand it, but I accepted that gift with incredible gratitude.  

The two weeks that followed—and the seven trips back to India that I’ve taken over the years—were filled with that kind of soul-opening enchantment.  I could write a book about those journeys, and maybe one day I will; but the reason I’m writing about this now isn’t to convince anybody to become a follower of Meher Baba.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you call the God-We-All-Are Meher Baba, Jesus, Divine Mother, Krishna, Fred, Ethel or if you believe in God at all.  I’m writing this to remind you, to remind me, that whether you’re on a hill in India or sitting in your own living room, the line between Storyteller and story, between so-called fantasy and so-called reality, is an illusion.  The borders that separate the possible from the impossible are nothing but a dream.  This life we’re all living is magic:  rich with synchronicities, miracles and, most important of all, love beyond imagining.

©copyright 2017  J.M. DeMatteis

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Yes, it's another podcast interview.  This time it's a wide-ranging talk with the COMICS MANIFEST podcast. We talk about Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Eisner and Kirby, Abadazad, Moonshadow and lots more.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


The Kraven's Last Hunt anniversary celebration continues as I talk to those fine folks at the Saturday Detention Podcast.  Enjoy!

Friday, July 21, 2017


I had a fun conversation with A Podcast Named Scooby-Doo, talking about...well, Scooby-Doo.  You can listen to it right here.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 10, 2017


Here's some Silence Day music from my album "How Many Lifetimes?" The first song was inspired by one of Avatar Meher Baba's favorite quotes—from the great Persian poet Hafiz—the second by a prayer written by Baba.


"When I break My Silence, the impact of My Love will be universal and all life in creation will know, feel and receive of it. It will help every individual to break himself free from his own bondage in his own way. I am the Divine Beloved who loves you more than you can ever love yourself. The breaking of My Silence will help you to help yourself in knowing your real Self."—Avatar Meher Baba

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


The great Rod Serling passed away forty-two years ago today.  In his honor, I'm re-posting this essay that first appeared here back in 2009.  Enjoy! 


Our psyches are so tender, so innocently open, when we’re children that stories enchant us in primal ways they rarely can again.  As a kid, I was a story addict—devouring everything from comic books (didn’t matter if it was Richie Rich, Archie, Superman or Spider-Man.  I adored them all) to the legends of King Arthur (I was fixated on a knight named Sir Tristram, who, I decided, was so much cooler than that overrated bum, Sir Lancelot); John R. Tunis baseball novels (interesting, considering I was in no way a sports enthusiast) to history (I was obsessed with Remember the Alamo! by Robert Penn Warren.  What boy in the 60’s, raised on TV Westerns, could resist Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie fighting, and dying, side by side?).  And then there was the singular genius of Dr. Seuss:  I have a clear memory of clutching my parents hands as we walked to Brooklyn’s Avenue J Library; then sitting, transfixed, in the children’s section, discovering Theodor Geisel’s absurd, illuminating universe for the first time.

All of those wonderful books impacted and influenced me (and, in the case of comic books, launched me on my career path), but some of the stories that left the deepest echoes in my young soul were stories that, for the most part, I first encountered on television:

There was The Wizard of Oz, played once a year, every year.  (Can a child today, able to watch the film ad infinitum on DVD, possibly imagine the thrill of pulling a chair up close to the TV and waiting, with almost desperate anticipation, for that MGM lion to roar?)  A Christmas Carol, which, every Christmas Eve in New York, would be played at least three times (on The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, and The Late, Late, Late Show.  Two runs for the absolutely perfect 1951 version with Alistair Sim, with the 1938 Reginald Owen interpretation sandwiched in between.  My mother would eventually shuffle off to sleep, but my father and sister always stayed up with me to watch them all).  I adore Disney’s Peter Pan (the scene of Peter and the children flying over London is one of the most thrilling in screen history), but it was the Mary Martin version—which appeared on television with less frequency than Oz and so, in some ways, was even more of a special event—that first captured me.  Especially the ending:  The eternally-young Peter returns to London, not realizing that decades have passed, and is horrified to find Wendy ”ever so much more than twenty.”  I was horrified, too—and deeply moved, in ways my young mind couldn’t really fathom, by the strange, sad tricks of Time.

Then of course there was the King of the Modern Imagination—a man who remains one of my heroes—Walt Disney:  feeding me his dreams through the movie houses, certainly (the first movie I remember seeing was a re-release of Disney’s Cinderella, when I was two or three:  sitting on my mother’s lap, watching those birds and mice caper across a mind-bogglingly huge screen), but far more intimately through weekly doses of Walt Disney Presents—which later became The Wonderful World of Color (made no difference to me, since we had a black and white television).  The Disney story that impacted me more than any other was Pinocchio.  I’m pretty sure I saw the movie—the Citizen Kane of animated films—when I was a kid, but what I remember most was a record I owned (yes, a record.  Those large, disc-shaped objects that existed before CDs) which featured Jiminy Cricket himself narrating Pinoke’s story, with music and dialogue from the film.  I would listen to that recording again and again and again; lost, in terror and amazement, in the belly of the great whale, Monstro.

When I finally got around to actually reading those childhood classics, my respect for the tales deepened even more.  Okay, so I never actually finished Collodi’s Pinocchio—the Disney version is so perfect that it pretty much ruined me for any other interpretation—but Barrie, Dickens and Baum quickly became friends; Dickens and Baum two of the greatest friends I’ve ever had.  I could write essays about all of these extraordinary tales—and, with time and luck, I will—but there’s another television-borne story I’d like to focus on here; actually a series of stories that permeated the deeps of my child-mind in wonderful—and wonderfully chilling—ways:

The Twilight Zone.

Unquestionably my favorite television show ever (the original Star Trek is a close second; but, sorry Captain Kirk, not close enough).  I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing a new story and then suddenly realized that, in some way, it was done before, and better, on The Twilight Zone.  Go to the movies, turn on your television, and you’ll see Rod Serling’s fingerprints everywhere.  (And let’s give credit to Serling’s brilliant collaborators, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson—as well as to the man who influenced all of them, the literary god who looms so large on my altar, Ray Bradbury.)

I have a clear and powerful memory of the first Zone episode I ever saw (I was five years old, staying up late at my Aunt’s house on a Friday night):  it was called “Time Enough At Last” and if you’re a TZ aficionado you probably know that it’s the episode featuring Burgess Meredith as a bespectacled bookworm who inadvertently survives a nuclear attack and becomes the last man on Earth (or at least in New York).  Meredith’s character, Mr. Henry Bemis, is miserable, lonely, despairing.  On the verge of suicide he stumbles through the ruins, looks up—and sees a library:  a massive, glorious library that wouldn’t look out of place in Emerald City.  In the next scene, Bemis has got books, miles of books, spread out across the library steps. He’s happier than he’s ever been.  “Time enough at last,” he says, ready to begin the feast.  And then his glasses slip from his sweaty face, fall—and shatter.  An absolutely heartbreaking ending (so much so that my daughter, who, thanks to her cultured father, has received an in-depth TZ education, refuses to watch it.  Oh, she knows what the ending is, she made me tell her.  But just hearing about it made her cry).

Despite the tragic ending, despite the haunting—and, at the time of broadcast, frighteningly relevant—images of post-nuclear devastation (the episode never addresses the fact that Bemis will undoubtedly die of radiation poisoning; or perhaps the broken glasses themselves are the metaphor), the image that mesmerized me was the library.  Equally significant was Mr. Bemis’s extraordinary solitude.  I’ve always been someone who enjoyed the universes inside his own head as much as—sometimes more than—the alleged Real World, so, even at that young age, the idea of one man absolutely alone with all the books he could ever want was tantalizing.  Magical.

In a strange way I grew up to become a kind of Mr. Bemis, spending decades alone in a room with stories as my only companions.  Okay, so I’m writing them, and Bemis was reading them; but, in both cases, it’s about immersing your consciousness in alternate worlds; in preferring those worlds to the bogus reality being fed to us daily by the maya-weavers at CNN.  And I have to wonder:  Did my impressionable young mind respond so powerfully to that episode because it was in my nature to?  Or did “Time Enough At Last” somehow dictate what that nature would be?  Who I would become as I grew older?

Even more significant, I think, is the world view that those collective TZ episodes created.  Serling, Matheson and the rest birthed a vision of a universe that moved and had purpose.  A universe that was alive:  conscious and interactive.  Looking back, the vision could be cynical on occasion, cruel and unfair (the fate of poor Mr. Bemis being a prime example)—but, at its best (“Walking Distance,” “A Stop At Willoughby,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The After Hours” come immediately to mind), the Zone universe was one that responded to our deepest wishes and our soul’s needs.  It offered up opportunities for redemption (often to people society viewed as beyond saving) or, when necessary, a swift, cosmic kick in the pants.  Years of spiritual search have convinced me that Serling and his collaborators were right:  the universe is very much alive and interactive; is in fact a reflection of our own minds and hearts and truest, deepest Selves.  Every day of our lives is a journey through “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”

And again I wonder:  Did the Zone somehow prepare me for the spiritual search that gripped my soul at a young age, perhaps even inspire it in some way?  Or did I respond to those stories because, in my heart, I understood that The Twilight Zone reflected the truth of our lives far better than stories that claimed to be, excuse the expression, “realistic”?  I tend to think the latter is true:  When our souls are set aflame by an idea, a philosophy, a story, it’s because we’re responding to eternal truths that we already know and believe—even if they might seem (to our conscious minds) blazingly, brilliantly, new.  Our deepest wisdom, our deepest joy, is already there, like a long-buried memory, inside us, just waiting to be reawakened.   

At five years old, up past my bedtime, bathing in the television’s blue glow, Rod Serling’s universe wasn’t alien to me:  I recognized it.  I was home.  So you could say I was born a citizen of The Twilight Zone.  For that matter, I was born a citizen of Oz and Neverland, Dickens’s London and The Magic Kingdom.  All these stories continue to echo through my consciousness and influence my work, and my life, in strange, miraculous ways I still don’t completely understand.

©copyright 2017  J.M. DeMatteis

Saturday, June 10, 2017


This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Kraven's Last Hunt, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post this essay from a few years back that details the creation of the story.  Enjoy!  (Update:  Just found out the first chapter came out in July, not June, but let's pretend it's June for the sake of this post!)

Confession:  I didn’t write Kraven's Last Hunt.

Well, not in the way you think.

Writers like to to believe they’re in control of their material, but that’s just a comforting lie.  After more than twenty-five years of making my living as a storyteller, it’s become extremely—sometimes painfully—clear to me that I’m just a vehicle, a way for the story to get out into the world.  But it’s the story itself that does the telling.  If that sounds like I’m saying stories have lives of their own, well...that’s exactly right.  I’m convinced that stories are living creatures:  they move, they think, they breathe.  Maybe not in the way we flesh-and-blood humans do; but in some unfathomable fashion, in some unfathomable realm, these creatures we call Stories —I think the capital S is deserved—exist.  And so do the characters that populate them.  And the Stories—not the writers, artists, or editors—are very much in control.  Some of these Imaginal Worlds choose to emerge, fully formed, in a white heat of creation-energy.  Others—like the Kraven Saga—well, they like to take their time.
It was a long road from the first glimmer of inspiration, somewhere around 1984 or ‘85, to the final, published work.  If it had been up to me—and thank goodness it wasn’t—the original idea would have seen print as, of all things, a Wonder Man mini-series (Simon Williams—defeated in battle by his brother, the Grim Reaper—awakens in a coffin, claws his way out and discovers that he’s been buried alive for months).  But the Story knew better.  It knew that it needed time to brew in my unconscious and find the proper form.  Tom DeFalco—then Marvel’s Executive Editor—agreed.  When I pitched him my Wonder Man idea, he promptly rejected it.  But there was something in that “return from the grave” concept that wouldn’t let go.
My next stop, some months later, was DC Comics, where I pitched what I thought was an incredible idea to editor Len Wein (who was then overseeing the Batman line):  the Joker kills Batman—at least he believes he does—and, with the primary reason for his existence eliminated, the villain’s mind snaps.  Of course the Joker is already insane, so when he snaps...he goes sane.  Batman, meanwhile, is buried and when, weeks later, he claws his way up from the grave—the Joker’s fragile new existence is tragically upended.  Len had another Batman-Joker story on his desk—something called The Killing Joke by a new British writer named Alan Moore (what ever happened to him, anyway?)—and thought that the Joker elements in my story overlapped certain elements in Alan’s.

Rejection.  Again.  (I managed to revive the "Going Sane" idea nearly a decade later—and it's gone on to become one of my all-time favorites.)
I was disappointed—but I suspect the Story was quite pleased with these events.  It knew the timing wasn’t right.  Knew what elements it needed for its emergence.  And so it waited patiently while I—
Well, I rewrote it again.  As a Spider-Man story?  No.  As yet another Batman story.  I dumped the Joker and replaced him with Hugo Strange.  I recalled a classic Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers story where Strange—for all of two pages, I think—was wearing Batman’s costume.  And I thought:  Wouldn’t it be interesting if Hugo Strange is the one who apparently kills Batman and, in his arrogance and ego, decides to become Batman, putting on the costume, taking over the role, in order to prove his superiority?  I was convinced I now had a story no editor could turn down.
By this time, Len Wein had gone freelance and Denny O’Neil had replaced him as Batman editor.  Guess what?
Denny bounced it.
So now I’ve had this idea rejected three times, by three of the best editors in the business.  Maybe, I thought, I’m delusional.  Maybe I should just give up and move on.
But the Story wouldn’t let me.
I was frustrated, to say the least, by all the doors slamming in my face, but this seed of an idea—well, by this time it had pushed up through the soil and was sprouting branches and leaves—just kept growing, unfolding at its own pace, in its own time.  It knew, even if I clearly didn’t, that it would soon find the form, and, most important, the characters, it had been seeking all along.
Autumn, 1986.  I was visiting the Marvel office one day when Jim Owsley, editor of the Spider-Man line, and Tom DeFalco (what?  Him again?) invited me out to lunch.  They wanted me to pick up the writing duties on Spectacular Spider-Man but I was reluctant to commit to another monthly book.  Owsley and DeFalco were insistent.  I weakened.  They pushed harder.  I agreed.
And, by the time I got home, I realized what a stroke of good fortune this was:  I now had another chance, probably my last chance, to take a crack at this “back from the grave” idea.  More important:  I discovered, as I worked away on the proposal, that Spider-Man—recently married to Mary Jane—was a far better choice than either Wonder Man or Batman.  Peter Parker is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any super-hero universe.  Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read—and write—about him:  the quintessential Everyman.  And that Everyman’s love for his new wife, for the new life they were building together, was the emotional fuel that ignited the story.  It was Mary Jane’s presence, her heart and soul, that reached down into the deeps of Peter’s heart and soul, forcing him up out of that coffin, out of the grave, into the light.
And that’s how Kraven’s Last Hunt was born.
Well, not really.  You see, Kraven wasn’t in the picture yet.  Genius that I am, I thought:  Okay, so I can’t use Hugo Strange.  Why not create my own villain—a new villain—to play that role in the story?  And that’s what I did.  (Don’t ask me the name of this brilliant new creation...or anything else about him...because, honestly, I don’t recall a thing!)  Off the outline went to Owsley.  He loved it.  “Let’s do it,” he said.  I was ecstatic.  The journey was finally done.
Well, it might have been done for me—but not for the Story.  There were a few final elements it needed to complete itself.
I was sitting in my office one afternoon, doing what all writers do best:  avoiding work, wasting time.  This was before the internet—the single greatest time-wasting tool in the history of humanity—so I was browsing through some comics that had piled up on the floor.  I picked up a Marvel Universe Handbook.  Stopped, for no particular reason, at the entry for Kraven the Hunter.
Please understand that I had no interest whatsoever in Kraven.  In fact, I always thought he was one of the most generic, uninteresting villains in the Spider-Man gallery.  Couldn’t hold a candle to Doc Ock or the Green Goblin.
But buried in this Marvel Universe entry was one intriguing fact:  Kraven—was Russian.  (To this day I don’t know if this was something that had been established in continuity or if the writer of that particular entry tossed it in on a whim.)
Russian?  Russian!
Why should that excite me so?  One word:  Dostoyevsky.  When I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in high school, they seeped in through my brain, wormed their way down into my nervous system...and ripped me to shreds.  No other novelist has ever explored the staggering duality of existence, illuminated the mystical heights and the despicable depths of the human heart, with the brilliance of Dostoyevsky.  The Russian soul, as exposed in his novels, was really the Universal Soul.  It was my soul.
And Kraven was Russian.
In an instant, I understood Sergei Kravinov.  In an instant, the entire story changed focus.  In an instant, I called Owsley, told him to forget The New Villain.  This was a Kraven the Hunter story.
Jim wasn’t thrilled with the idea.  He liked the new villain.  But, God bless him, he let me have my way.
And now the story was complete, right?
Almost.  You see, Owsley had cajoled Mike Zeck into drawing Spectacular Spider-Man.  Mike and I had worked together, for several years, on Captain America.  I can think of a handful of super-hero artists as good as Zeck, but I can’t think of a single one who’s better.  Mike’s drawing is fluid, energetic, deeply emotional...and he tells a story with such apparent effortlessness that scripting from his pages feels equally effortless.  Mike left the Cap series (to draw the original Secret Wars) just as we were hitting our collaborative stride—and I was thrilled by the chance to pick up where we’d left off.      
I’ve been been playing this game long enough to know that writer/artist chemistry can’t be created or forced:  it’s either there or it’s not.  With Mike, it was there...and then some.  If any other artist had drawn this story—even if every single plot point, every single word, had been exactly the same—it wouldn’t have touched people in the same way or garnered the enthusiastic response that it’s still getting, more than twenty years after its creation.   It wouldn’t have been Kraven’s Last Hunt.  (Not my title, by the way.  I called it Fearful Symmetry—in honor of another of my literary heroes, William Blake.  Jim Salicrup, who took over the editing chores when Jim Owsley left staff, was the one who came up with KLH.  Salicrup was also the guy who had a genius idea that people have been copying ever since:  run the six-part story through all three Spider-books, over the course of two months.  We’re accustomed to seeing that today.  In 1987 it was revolutionary.)     
Because Zeck was on board, I decided to toss a Captain America villain we created together—the man-rat called Vermin—into the mix.  A casual decision (well, it seemed casual to me; but I suspect the Story knew otherwise) that proved extremely important:  Vermin turned out to be the pivotal element, providing the contrast between Peter Parker’s vision of Spider-Man and Kraven’s distorted mirror image.   
Now here’s the strangest part:  In the years that had passed from the time I pitched the original Wonder Man idea, my personal life had gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket.  I’ll spare you the sordid details:  Let’s just say I was in a period of my life where each day was a Herculean struggle.  I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker; as much a dweller in the depths as Vermin; as lost, as desperate, as shattered as Sergei Kravinov.
In short, it was a miserable time to be me—but the perfect time to write the story.  Had I created a version of Last Hunt a few years before, or a few years after (when my life had healed itself in miraculous ways), it wouldn’t have been the same.  My own personal struggles, mirrored in the struggles of our three main characters, were, I think, what gave the writing such urgency and emotional honesty.  (I don’t know what inspired Zeck’s brilliant work, but I hope it wasn’t anything as harrowing.)
So tell me:  Who, exactly, is in charge here?  Who really wrote that story?  I thought it was me—but, all along, there was something growing, evolving, emerging in its own time, when the creative conditions were absolutely perfect.  Oh, I’ll cash the checks.  I’ll even accept the praise.  But, in my heart, I know there’s Something Bigger out there, working its magic through me...and through all of us who call ourselves writers.
Stories have lives of their own.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

© copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis

Thursday, June 1, 2017


Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—an album many consider the Beatles’ greatest.  I don’t know if anyone is really capable of judging what the “greatest” anything is—I certainly can’t—but I can certainly offer up my list of favorite Beatles albums, starting with my top pick and moving on down the list. 

1.  The Beatles aka The White Album (1968)
For years if you asked me what my favorite Beatles album was I’d say, “It’s either The White Album or Abbey Road.”  But then came the 2009 remastering of the Beatles catalogue and The White Album—its sound refreshed, restored, revitalized—beat Abbey Road to the finish line.  This, for me, is the greatest—and most diverse—collection of Beatles material:  John is in absolute peak form, delivering everything from the haunting acoustic longing of “Julia” to the soul-ravaged desperation of “Yer Blues,” from the sunshine-euphoria of “Dear Prudence” to the twisted genius of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” one of the single greatest, and most under-appreciated, gems in the Beatles canon.  (And yes, I think “Revolution #9” is brilliant.  And, no, I don’t listen to it very often.)  Paul’s not far behind, trying his hand at vaudeville (“Honey Pie”), shrieking rock (“Helter Skelter”),  pseudo-Beach Boys (“Back in the USSR”) and delivering one of his true masterpieces, “Blackbird.”  George serves up three of his best (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies” and “Long, Long, Long” and a fun throwaway, “Savoy Truffle”) and even Ringo gets in on the action, contributing his first solo composition, warbling an off-kilter country tune.

In the end, The White Album is an almost-overwhelming explosion of ideas, styles and genres:  there’s musical shrapnel flying in every direction.  Some people—George Martin among them—thought the album would have been better had the Beatles winnowed it down to a single LP, that the whole thing was a little too messy, too chaotic.  I respectfully, and wholeheartedly, disagree.

2.  Abbey Road (1969)
Side one of the band’s final album (Let It Be was released later, but this was the last the four created together) gives us two certifiable Lennon classics (“Come Together”—driven by the hypnotic combination of Paul's bass and Ringo's drums—and the primal scream precursor “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”), George’s most celebrated song (“Something”) and a charming Ringo ditty (“Octopus’s Garden”).  If Paul doesn’t quite keep up—“Oh, Darling” offers an astounding McCartney vocal, but “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is one of my least favorite Beatles songs—he more than makes up for the lack on side two.

Technically, the famous medley doesn’t start till a few songs in, but I’ve always considered the entire side to be all of a piece, starting with George’s masterpiece, “Here Comes The Sun”—the greatest Lennon-McCartney song that John and Paul never wrote—leading into John’s gorgeous “Because” (featuring Paul, John and George harmonizing like it’s still 1960) and on through a dizzying array of brilliant music that climaxes with McCartney, at the very top of his game, leading his bandmates through a grand finale that writes an ending not just to this album but to the Beatles’ extraordinary career.  The production, by the impeccable George Martin, feels fresh—utterly contemporary—nearly fifty years later.  The miracle of Abbey Road is that the Beatles, in the process of dissolving, never sounded better.  Talk about going out on top.

3.  Rubber Soul (1965)
Recorded in a white heat while the band was still on a constant touring treadmill, Rubber Soul, more than any other Beatles album, buried the band’s mop-top image and announced to the world that these four young men were artists with a capital A.  The Lennon-McCartney songs are mature, insightful, weary, cynical, nostalgic, hopeful (a far cry from “She Loves You” recorded only two years before): “In My Life,” “Nowhere Man” “Girl” and “Norwegian Wood” are among the best they ever composed.  George Harrison takes a giant leap forward as a songwriter with “Think For Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone.”   And it’s all wrapped in George Martin production that’s warm, inviting and intimate.  The audiences were still screaming but, if you were really listening, you could hear, beneath the din, the sound of four young musicians smashing through their limitations—and ours, too.

4.  A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Do you want to know what Beatlemania was all about?  Put on this album and feel the energy, the optimism, the sense of something new and wonderful rising like a wave across the world.  (There are shadows of the darker music to come, as well, lurking on the second, non-soundtrack side.) A Hard Day’s Night, the movie, revolutionized rock and roll cinema, but this album was the soundtrack of our hearts and souls, capturing the moment as expertly as Pepper captured the Summer of Love three years later.  Lennon is at another peak here, the title track alone secures him a place in the songwriter’s hall of fame, but Paul’s not exactly slacking with “And I Love Her” and “Things We Said Today.”  And both sing as if their lives depended on it, which maybe they did.  Much has been made of the fact that two such talented songwriters could end up together in the same band, but it’s equally astonishing that Lennon and McCartney, singularly and together, were two of the greatest singers in the history of popular music.

5.  Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Pepper gets all the love, but when I want to listen to psychedelic-era Beatles, this is the album I turn to.  (Yes, I know it’s not technically a real album—it’s Capital Records cross-breeding a British EP with a group of uncollected singles—  but MMT transcends its cash-grab roots.)  Pepper captured the spirit of ’67, to be sure, but the songs here are so much stronger, from “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” (yanked off the Sgt. Pepper album for a two-headed monster of a single) to the ultimate flower power anthem “All You Need Is Love”; from Paul’s gorgeous and insightful “Fool on the Hill” to John’s surreal masterpiece “I Am The Walrus.”  This is the Beatles experimenting—in the studio and in their own heads—and creating musical landscapes that had never been heard before.

6.  Revolver (1966)
Many critics rate Revolver as the Beatles’ greatest album—and I understand why.  This is where the studio experimentation began in earnest (there had never been a pop song like Lennon’s Tibetan-acid mantra “Tomorrow Never Knows” before; even to call it a pop song seems wrong, somehow).  John is moving deeper into his own head, with songs like the aforementioned “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and what, for me, is the album’s best song, “She Said She Said.”  Paul’s melodic and lyrical genius comes into full flower with “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One”; and, for the first time, George gets three tracks—all of them solid—onto a Beatles album, creating one of the first true East-West musical hybrids with “Love You To.” 

So why isn’t Revolver higher on my list?  That’s something I’ve asked myself a number of times.  It could be because I came to the album a few years late—don’t ask me how, but it’s one of the few Beatles albums I didn’t purchase in real time, when it was released—but I think it has more to do with the production.  Unlike Rubber Soul before it, and Pepper afterwards, both of which were warm, welcoming and expansive, there’s something cold about Revolver’s production that creates a distance between the listener (well, this listener) and the music.  Which doesn’t make it any less brilliant or groundbreaking.  Distance or not, Revolver is a towering achievement.  

7.  Help! (1965)
This is another album that came alive for me in new ways with the 2009 remasters.  It’s always been a favorite, but the new version made it clear that Help! is Rubber Soul, Part One:  the two could be paired together as a double album and the union would be seamless.  (In fact, two of these tracks did appear on the American version of Rubber Soul and fit like a glove.)

There are weaknesses here:  George’s two contributions are just okay, his real breakthrough as a songwriter would come on Rubber Soul—and “Act Naturally” is a pleasant, but disposable, diversion for Ringo.  But the title track, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “Ticket to Ride” are three all-time Lennon greats (I’m also fond of the much-maligned “It’s Only Love”:  most of the maligning done by Lennon himself).  McCartney delivers up the heartfelt, exhilarating “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the underappreciated “Tell Me What You See” and a little ditty—perhaps you’ve heard of it?—called “Yesterday.”  And it’s all capped off with a look back at the band’s rock and roll roots, as Lennon screams his way through Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.”  If there’s an underrated album in the Beatles catalogue, this is it.

8.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Is Pepper the best album the Beatles ever recorded?  I don’t think so.  Is it the most influential pop album of all time?  Possibly.  Does it capture a time, a spirit, a sense of inward seeking and creative expansion, in a way few other albums do?  Absolutely.  I love Pepper’s freedom and playfulness, it’s open-armed embrace of the audience; and if “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” had been included as originally planned, I suspect it would be higher on my list.   But the bottom line is that, for the most part, the songs on Sgt. Pepper aren’t half as strong as the creativity brought to bear on those songs.

That said, John and Paul’s astonishing “A Day in the Life” is where the Pepper myth and reality collide:  the song deserves every accolade it’s ever received and more.  Lennon’s vocal alone—so cold it’s hot, so alienated it’s intimate—is enough to lodge the track in your heart and head forever.  And the climax feels like the end of one universe and the birth of another.  Which I suppose it was—although not in the way everyone expected at the time. 

9.  Let It Be (1970)
Yes, the sessions were, by all accounts, a nightmare.  Yes, Phil Spector’s production capsized “Long and Winding Road” and several other tracks.  But there’s so much good music on Let It Be—“I’ve Got A Feeling,” "One After 909," “Dig A Pony,” “Two of Us,” “Get Back,” all of it perfectly calibrated by Spector—that it almost (almost!) doesn’t matter.  Let It Be Naked, released decades later, was a good attempt at re-creating the band’s original vision, but while some of it (especially the stripped-down versions of “Long and Winding Road” and “Across The Universe” and the much-needed inclusion of “Don’t Let Me Down”) was wonderful, much of it seemed redundant.  For completists—and aren’t we all?—there are also the endlessly-bootlegged Glynn Johns-produced versions of the album that the band famously rejected.  Twice. 

I’m not necessarily a huge fan of endless reissues, but if any Beatles album deserves a new, deluxe treatment it’s this one. I’d love to see a triple album, bringing all these previously-released versions together.  No, make that a quadruple set, because there was so much recorded during these sessions that you’d need a fourth album to do this strange chapter in the Beatles story justice.  Yes, Let It Be was a sprawling mess, but there’s priceless treasure in that mess.

10.  Beatles For Sale (1964)
The myth says they were tired, burned out by Beatlemania, that they didn’t have enough material to make an album that met their considerable standards—and maybe that’s true.  But any album that includes “No Reply,” “I’m A Loser,” “I’ll Follow The Sun,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” “What You’re Doing” and “Eight Days A Week” can’t be written off.  If Beatles For Sale showcases the Beatles at their most uninspired, then the album is proof of their genius.  (And, oh yes, there’s also John kicking ass on Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and Paul doing the same with “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!”)

11.  With The Beatles (1963)
The band’s second album kicks off with Lennon, both desperate and exhilarated, singing “It Won’t Be Long” and ends with John almost (but not quite) topping “Twist and Shout” with a primal screaming interpretation of “Money.”  Paul’s “All My Loving” is an instant classic, imbued with all of his warmth and charm, George makes his songwriting debut with “Don’t Bother Me” and the rest of the album, though not always offering first-tier Beatles, still captures the raw energy, charisma and inventiveness of the band’s euphoric early days of global fame. 

12.  Please Please Me (1962)
A debut for the ages—and it begins and ends with all-time classics:  Paul’s exuberant “I Saw Her Standing There” and John’s throat-shredding interpretation of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”  In between we get the band’s first two hits—“Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”—and an always-engaging array of covers and originals, including the surprisingly introspective “There’s A Place,” one of the best of the early Lennon-McCartney collaborations. 

13.  Yellow Submarine (1968)
Mostly a combination of previously-released Beatles songs used in the animated movie and George Martin’s score for the film (which, as film music goes, is very good; it’s just not what we signed up for).  In many ways, this is a non-album.  The only lasting value is found in the four new tracks:  two underrated gems—John’s rocking “Hey Bulldog” and George’s cosmic epic “It’s All Too Much”—a cheerful McCartney throwaway, “All Together Now,” and one of George's lesser offerings, "It's Only A Northern Song."  If Yellow Submarine had been released in the digital age, people would have been downloading those four tracks and ignoring the rest of the album.   

Although they’re not “official” albums, I have to mention two more favorites—Past Masters Volumes One & Two—that collect various singles and EP tracks that never made it onto the original British albums.  You get everything from early hits like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to turning point songs like “We Can Work It Out” and “Rain” to later era classics  like “Hey Jude” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”  Hell, you even get the Beatles singing in German.  

©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis