DC Comics just released a hefty tome entitled DC Through The 80s: The End of Eras. Edited by the great Paul Levitz, it looks back at the early part of that transformative decade through reprinted stories and new essays, one of which was contributed by yours truly. As a teaser for this wonderful collection, here's my essay (in its original, unedited form). Enjoy!
Comic books were a passion that grabbed me at a very early age (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I don’t recall a time when I didn’t read comics) and never let go. Sure, I moved on to Dostoyevsky, Bradbury, Hesse and Vonnegut but I never abandoned Lee, Kirby, Broome, Kane and the other comic book masters who inspired and nurtured me growing up.
I was always creative, obsessed with drawing, playing guitar, writing stories and songs. In many ways, these things weren’t just my passions, they were what defined me. They were me. Which meant I didn't just want to read comics, I wanted to write them—as desperately as I wanted to be a rock and roll star.
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 working as a rock music journalist—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 a trio of superb professors. And the first of them was a young man named Paul Levitz.
I made several aborted attempts to enter the comic book business before my success with the legendary Mr. Levitz: Five years earlier, I’d written a script sample and sent it to Marvel Comics. I had no clue what a comic book script looked like and I’m sure that what I submitted was less-than brilliant. The assistant editor who read my sample thought so, too, and told me just that, in no uncertain terms. (I’ve learned, over the years, that it’s important to encourage new talent regardless of the face value of their work. Even if the samples you’re evaluating are abysmal, you have to find something encouraging to say. Humans—especially the sensitive, neurotic, artistic variety—desperately need encouragement. The smallest crumb of kindness becomes a mountain of hope. I suspect that nameless assistant editor was overwhelmed, having a rough day, and he simply couldn’t bear to plow through yet another wretched submission. But he could have made my day much brighter by simply saying, “You’re not there yet, kid, but keep at it. Don’t give up.”)
A year or two later, DC began a short-lived apprentice program: a rare opportunity for novices to be trained by seasoned pros in the craft of writing for comics. Aspiring writers were encouraged to submit their work and those with the best submissions would be chosen for the program. (David Michelinie—a wonderful writer who went on to script Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, Superman and many other titles—got his start as a DC apprentice). I decided to write a Justice League script, a fact I now find hilarious: Team books are difficult for even the most experienced writer—I don’t think I’ve ever mastered the form—but there I was, nineteen years old, and ready to give it my all.
I didn’t make it into the program—frankly, I didn’t deserve to—but I received some extremely helpful feedback from a woman on the DC staff named Val Eades. It was the first time I was encouraged by a professional and it meant the world to me. Understand: I was just some kid from Brooklyn who grew up in a lower middle class family. My father worked for the New York City Parks Department, raking leaves and shoveling snow in a local park. My mother was a switchboard operator. Growing up, I’d never encountered anyone even vaguely resembling a professional writer or artist. (My best friend’s older brother was a working musician, part of a Las Vegas lounge act: that was the closest I ever came to hobnobbing with the rich and famous.) Making it as a writer seemed about as easy as scaling the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001. Which is why that small encouragement from Val Eades was so important to me. (Ms. Eades, if you’re out there, God bless you!)
A few years later, a fellow student, and comic book fanatic, at Brooklyn College, Warren Reece, actually made it over the Monolith: he got a job at Marvel, working in the production department. Warren, very kindly, submitted some of my material to the folks at Marvel Editorial, but I never received a response (which, in some ways, was worse than being rejected). Warren then encouraged me to submit some samples to Crazy magazine (Marvel’s attempt at a Mad-style humor publication...although I don’t think Mad was worried). Truth is, I had no interest in writing for Crazy—I possessed zero skills in that arena—but, miraculously, editor Paul Laikin bought one of my pitches and, even more miraculously, I got a check in the mail with Spider-Man’s picture on it. (So blessings to Mr. Laikin and Mr. Reece both.) I’d hoped that selling something to Crazy would get me an “in” with the comic book side of Marvel, but it didn’t. Still, it allowed me to say that I was a (kinda/sorta/maybe/but not really) professional.
Not long after that, I sent another batch of samples to DC. (I still have them filed away in my office: a Superman script, a Plastic Man script, and an original piece called Stardust—which was a very raw prototype for what would, seven or eight years later, evolve into Moonshadow.) I got a letter back from Somebody's Assistant saying, "We're not going to buy Superman scripts from a writer we've never heard of, but Paul Levitz is looking for material for House of Mystery and Weird War Tales." These were two of the many anthology comics—they called them “mystery books” in those days, because the companies were still afraid to use the word “horror”—that DC was publishing then. Each title had multiple five to eight page tales, most of them supernatural stories with a Twilight Zone-ish twist ending. I’d never read the anthologies, hardly knew they existed, but you can bet I ran out and bought a stack of them, devoured them, and quickly (perhaps too quickly) developed some story ideas that I mailed off to Paul.
Given how raw my material was at the time, I wouldn’t have blamed Paul if he’d tossed my pitches into the trash, but, instead (and this speaks to the quality of the man), he took the time to analyze the stories and offer constructive, sometimes bluntly constructive, feedback. His reply, dated August 22, 1977 (yep, that's still in the files, too), very politely, succinctly—and accurately—tore my stories to shreds. The last line was a classic: "You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future, but I suggest you use a professional typing service or type more slowly. The physical presentation of your manuscripts leaves something to be desired.” He was right: This was the troglodytic era before computers and, in my hunger and enthusiasm, I had crossed things out, scrawled in the margins, written up and down the sides of the paper.
Paul’s criticism didn’t bother me. The only thing that mattered was that wondrous phrase, “You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future.” Which is what I immediately did: submitted again (and again) until, finally—this must have been November of that year—I made an appointment to go up to DC (a thrill in itself) and meet with Paul. I walked into the office to find a skinny kid who, despite being only twenty at the time—I was an ancient twenty-three—had been working at DC since high school. With the attempted mustache clinging to his lip and his extremely serious demeanor, he seemed like the world’s oldest young person. (Or perhaps the world’s youngest old person?)
I remember sitting across the desk from Paul, nervous and intimidated, pitching ideas. When he actually liked one of my stories and asked me to work up a draft, I had a moment of dizzying, euphoric confusion: Wait a minute...WAIT a minute! Is he saying he actually wants me to WRITE THIS?!
The story in question—which eventually saw print in House of Mystery—was called (brace yourselves) "The Lady Killer Craves Blood." (I warned you.) Illustrated by Gerry Talaoc, the story was based on the Son of Sam killings that had traumatized New York the previous summer. In my version, the Sam-like maniac murders a woman, not knowing that her husband is a (what a brilliant twist!) vampire. The vampire then hunts down the serial killer and, still mourning his lost love, submits himself to the obliterating rays of the morning sun. All in eight pages!
The short story was the perfect way to learn the comics form. You had five to eight pages to develop a complete plot, a full character arc, sharp dialogue and moody narration. (Many of those shorts were so packed with plot that they could easily have been expanded to full-length stories.) The anthologies weren’t high profile—I still think of them as the vaudeville of comics, the place you went to learn your craft till you were ready for Comic Book Broadway—and you got to master your craft, or at least wrestle with it, without the whole world watching and judging your every move.
A week or so after that first meeting, back to DC I went, my first-draft script in hand, ready for Paul's dissection of my work. "No more than five panels per page," he wrote, on a piece of yellow lined paper (I've got that in the files, too), "no more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than two sentences per caption, clear transitional captions, don't forget your splash panel." I raced home, wrote another draft, incorporating Paul’s suggestions (well, I took them as orders: Believe me, I counted every damn word in each panel) and then, to my astonishment and delight, the next time we met, he bought it. What came next remains one of the greatest, most magical moments of my professional life: Paul Levitz shook my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, "Welcome to the business." I didn't need the D-train: I could have floated back to Brooklyn.
I continued writing stories for Paul well into 1978, and, thanks to him, had the honor and privilege of working with artists far more skilled at their craft than I was at mine. Those anthologies were home to veterans—masters!—like Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Gil Kane, Dan Spiegel, Don Newton, as well as newer, but no less talented, artists like Marshall Rogers and Tom Sutton. (I had a similar experience at Marvel a little later, when some of my earliest work there was illustrated by giants like Kane, John Buscema and Gene Colan.)
After six months of studying at Paul’s feet, two wonderful things happened: 1) I was assigned my first full-length story—what the cover copy eventually called “a bonus-length, 22 page thriller!”—for Weird War Tales and 2) my rate was raised from $13.00 a page to what seemed an exorbitant $15.00 a page. There’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon where Daffy Duck, having found a pile of gold, shouts, “I'm rich! I’m wealthy! I’m independent! I’m socially secure!” Well, that’s how I felt. But somewhere between the day I turned in the script and the day the check arrived that security evaporated…
…and DC imploded.
In June of 1978, the company—which had gone through an expansion the previous year, the so-called “DC Explosion”—laid off staff and cancelled something like 40% of its line. Marginal creators like myself found themselves cut off—I remember sitting in the DC waiting room with Paul as he gently explained the situation to me—and my march to comic book glory abruptly ended. (My band broke up right around the same time, so you can imagine my gloomy state of mind.) When my Weird War check arrived, I somehow managed to live off that $330.00 for the entire summer. It helped that I had four roommates and the rent was cheap.
I continued on with music journalism, eventually getting a foot in the door at Rolling Stone, but never gave up on comics. When, early in 1979, I got a call from editor Jack Harris (no doubt on Paul’s recommendation) about contributing to a new DC science fiction anthology, Time Warp, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Jack was a genuinely warm, welcoming guy who taught newbies like me through enthusiasm and encouragement. He’d sometimes sit in the office and edit the scripts with me sitting across from him, telling me what he’d changed and why. And always with a smile and a positive spin. Time Warp was the crowbar that reopened the DC door for me. I was soon working both with both Jack and Paul and feeling very much a part of the DC family. (Around that time I sent my dear friend Karen Berger up to the office to meet Paul. He was looking for an assistant and Karen, who’d just graduated from Brooklyn College with a journalism degree, was looking for a job. They hit it off—and the rest is, quite literally, comic book history.)
That family expanded when the late, great Len Wein joined to the DC staff. Despite being just past thirty, Len was 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 Hulk, Batman to Spider-Man...and, oh, yes, was editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics along the way.
Which is why, when I entered his office in the spring of ’79, 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.
In a very short time, Len became not just my editor, but my friend and mentor. 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.
The same can be said of the entire time I spent as a student at DC University. I look back with great warmth, and great gratitude, on those days crafting short, spooky tales for the classic anthologies, hanging onto every word that Professors Levitz, Harris and Wein uttered. Those three gifted gentlemen gave so much of themselves, so freely, and because of their generosity and wisdom I’ve had a long career traversing the worlds of comics, television, film and novels. I will never stop being grateful to them—and to those oddball “mystery books” that were my entry into the unique and magical world of comic books.
©copyright 2020 J.M. DeMatteis