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