From the Justice League to Spider-Man to the Silver Surfer, there’s scarcely a superhero in the game who hasn’t been written by J.M. DeMatteis at one point or another. But with his latest project, the longstanding scribe is hoping to accomplish the rare feet of delivering a superhero book like you’ve honestly never seen before. Announced at Comic-Con International in San Diego, “The Life and Times of Savior 28” is a six-issue miniseries from IDW Publishing that chronicles a superhero’s struggles with 70 years of American history and the blood on his hands through that time.
With art by Mike Cavallaro (Image’s “Parade (With Fireworks)”), the IDW series has aspirations at reaching beyond the average capes and tights adventure, and to hear him tell it, DeMatteis has been figuring out how to deliver on that promise for over two decades. The writer offered CBR his lengthy thoughts on what might make “Savior 28” a standout comic in 2009.
CBR: “The Life and Times of Savior 28” is a completely new project that isn’t tied to any of your past work. Tell us about the original impetus for the series and how you brought it to IDW?
DeMatteis: Actually, “S-28” has a direct line to my past work. The idea grew out of something I wanted to do 25 years ago when I was writing Captain America — a storyline the Powers That Be didn’t allow me to do. Believe it or not, I’ve been working on the idea ever since, developing it far beyond those original 1980’s notions.
The story, at its core, has to do with violence in superhero comics, in pop culture in general and, ultimately, in our world. Despite my deep love of the genre, I’ve always had a problem with the violent content in superhero comics; the mindset that, however much we struggle to disguise it, says “All problems are ultimately solved by dropping a building on a so-called bad guy’s head.” It’s a dangerous concept, especially in a world where too many of our political leaders seem to have the same black and white vision. “Hey, those guys over there are ‘evildoers’ so let’s bomb the hell out of them because we’re the ‘good guys’ fighting for truth and freedom.” “Savior 28” grew out of my desire to craft a story that would face this issue head-on. As I continued to develop the idea, it grew into a saga that spanned seventy years of American pop culture and politics.
At various times over the years I’ve talked to artist friends about illustrating “Savior 28.” For various reasons, the project never came together. I’ve known Mike Cavallaro for a couple of years now — I’m a huge fan of his work — and we’ve talked on and off about working together on something. A few months back he sent me some preview pages of his new online comic, “Loviathan” and the instant I saw the art, I knew Mike was the guy who was meant to draw “Savior 28.” I e-mailed him the outline and he immediately signed on.
I’d been talking to [IDW’s] Chris Ryall about another project and thought IDW, with its diverse slate, would be a good home for “S-28.” So right after Mike signed on, I sent Chris the proposal along with the “Loviathan” pages. IDW approved the project the same day they received it. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen, which just goes to show you that these stories have lives, and timetables, of their own. 25 years of development, one day for approval!
In terms of the story basics, this is going to twist the average superhero tale considerably and will be covering a very broad range of time. Who is the main character, what does he want out of his career heroing and when and how this series will synch up with actual history?
Savior 28 is a hero from the Golden Age, the same era that gave us the original versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. We follow his evolution through the decades– reaching the crisis point where a series of traumatic events conspire to push S-28 over the edge: He finally sees that the way he’s been doing things all these years isn’t just wrong…it’s insane. He realizes he has to find a New Way to live, to work for change in the world. Problem is after seven decades of solving problems with his fists he has no clue what that Way is. And when he finally does find The Way, he discovers that most of the world isn’t ready to go along with him.
As for synching up with history, S-28 has lived at the forefront of all of our country’s cultural and political changes since 1939, and those elements will be woven into the story. Although I have to stress that “The Life and Times of Savior 28” isn’t a political or pop cultural treatise: It’s first and foremost an adventure and a story of character.
What, in general, keeps bringing you back to the superhero archetype to spin stories out of, and in what ways does “Savior 28” work as a super hero comic or against that type of comic?
“Savior 28” is, in an odd way, both a tribute to the genre and a condemnation of it. As noted, I love superheroes. I couldn’t have spent so many years writing them if I didn’t. There are many positive things about the super hero archetype. In fact, I’m developing a project, with artist Omaha Perez, that explores the positive and deeply spiritual ideas I believe are at the core of the super hero concept. At the same time there are inherent limitations to the form and, as noted, I have some very deep reservations about the violent mindset that these comics and films are constantly feeding the audience. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always tried to work in other genres, doing everything from “Moonshadow” to “Brooklyn Dreams” to “Abadazad.” If I’d only been writing superheroes all these years, I think I would have lost my mind. It’s not just super heroes, of course: go to any action movie and you’ll see the same thing. Hell, turn on CNN and you’ll see the same thing.
Seventy years sure is a long stretch of time for a story to take place. Will you be skipping to certain moments in certain years or showing a lot of the passage of time?
Throughout the project’s development, I’ve pondered the right way to tell the story; but I didn’t crack it till I finally sat down to write the first issue. Linear storytelling didn’t seem to work at all, so I ended up with an almost “Citizen Kane”-ish structure, jumping back and forth to key moments in the main character’s life. I kept chopping up and rearranging the first issue script over and over, finding just the right structure. It also took me some time to find the correct narrative voice — for me, that’s one of the single most important elements in any story — but once I did, the narrator came alive and took the lead, carrying me off to places that I’d never expected. When a story surprises me while I’m writing it, I know I’m on to something good.
A name like Savior 28 is both loaded with metaphorical possibilities and mysterious. What kind of parallels biblical or otherwise are you hoping to draw out and/or subvert with the former part of the name, and in terms of the latter part, what’s the number 28 signify?
All of our superheroes are, in many ways, religious symbols, aren’t they? They’re the gods who descend from the sky and lift us up — both literally and metaphorically — which is why the name “Savior” seemed like a natural one. As for the “28,” you’ll have to read the story to find out where that came from. It has a very specific meaning. That said, the fun for me will be discovering other meanings as I write the story. At a certain point, “thinking” and “planning,” “symbolism” and “metaphors” have to go out the window. The story itself takes over and I often don’t really understand what I’m doing — what the real meaning is, what symbolism is at work — until long after I’m done.
Mike Cavallaro is certainly an artist with a lot of solid chops under his belt. He’s done all sorts of comics from literary art comics to wild scifi stuff. What’s his style going to look like on this series, and what was your reaction to it?
As I said earlier, Mike’s recent work just electrified me. It’s as if I’d been waiting all these years for him to come along. It reminded me of Mike Ploog coming on to the “Abadazad” project: I’d been developing it for years before Ploog signed on, but, once he did it was as if he’d always been there. I couldn’t conceive of “Abadazad” without him. I feel the same way about Mike C and “Savior 28.”
Anything else you can tease about the beginning of the story in terms of what we’ll be seeing in the first issue?
Not about the first issue in particular, but I’ll wrap things up by saying that “Savior 28” is a dream project — one I’ve wanted to do for decades. To finally bring it to life is both exhilarating and terrifying. Terrifying because I don’t want to screw it up! Somebody — I’m not sure where I read it or even if I’ve got it right — once said that you should take whatever project you’re working on and treat it as if it’s the only project you’ll ever do. Pour all your thoughts and feelings and ideas, your entire heart and soul, into it. Make it matter. Working on “The Life and Times of Savior 28” feels like that, and I hope everyone reading this comes along for the ride.
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