While his first published work for DC Comics was “The Blood Boat!”, which appeared in 1978’s “Weird War Tales” #70, the first story the publisher actually accepted from industry legend J.M. DeMatteis was “The Lady-Killer Craves Blood,” which appeared two years later in “House of Mystery” #282.
During his celebrated 36-year career, DeMatteis has written and illustrated hundreds of comics’ most famous figures (from both DC and Marvel), but his favorites remain where he got his start — in the dark, supernatural corners of the DCU.
Currently, writing “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” and “Justice League Dark” for DC Comics, DeMatteis recently kicked off “Crack in Creation,” a new arc in the former which finds The Stranger facing off against Sin Eater and his master, Non.
Featuring everyone from Superman and Spectre to Xanadu and Zauriel, DeMatteis is telling another massive story in the series starring a supernatural superhero who is undergoing a transformation not only in personality and drive but in how he does business.
CBR News connected with DeMatteis to discuss the past, present and future of The Stranger and the writer teased what’s to come in the months ahead for both “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” and “Justice League Dark.”
CBR News: In this first issue post-“Forever Evil: Blight,” The Stranger feels different. He even says, “My own welfare is far less important than the good work that I can do in the world.” Will we see a different direction or at least a different motivation for him moving forward?
J.M. DeMatteis: The Stranger has been steadily evolving through the whole series and, in the course of the “Blight” crossover, took some massive steps forward. His perspective, as you note, has changed dramatically. He’s not primarily focused on his own redemption any more. He’s seen the value in stepping outside himself, beyond himself, and serving the greater good. That said, you could argue that this change of perspective actually brings him closer to the redemption he’s been seeking except for the fact that he’s also come to the point where he doesn’t want to be dancing to the Voice’s tune any more. He wants to walk his own road. And we have yet to see how the Voice really feels about that.
After 60-some years of continuity, it has only been since the dawn of the New 52 that The Stranger’s secret origin has truly been explored. Will you continue to explore his past as his present and future unfold in “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger?”
The fact that the character has been around for thousands of years opens up so much untapped story potential so, yes, I’d love to dig deeper into that past and explore the many lives the Stranger has lived over the centuries.
I really enjoyed the opening salvo to your latest arc: “Crack in Creation.” I especially liked how you used Superman as an entry point to the story. The Stranger talks about Superman not being a supernatural and yet his ability to tap into the collective consciousness of the people of Metropolis — if not the entire world — does make him a living, breathing mystical hotspot. Do you have to prepare differently as a writer in terms of story and world-building when your protagonist is a magical hero versus a more traditional superhero?
Not in any major way. The material certainly has a different texture and mood. And the supernatural stories make it easier to waft off into philosophical/metaphysical realms, which is something that I love to do. But, in the end, it’s about being true to the characters and following them where they lead. Superman didn’t change when he stepped into the Stranger’s universe. It’s the contrast we get when we bring Superman into a more supernatural worldview that makes it interesting. He’s the Superman we’ve always known, but viewed through a very different perspective, which allows us to, I hope, see him with new eyes.
Before we leave Superman, I wanted to ask you about something else he says: “Every day I do my best to help this city… this world… but every day, despite my best efforts, people die.” To me, this is what truly brings darkness to Superman — this notion that he can’t save everyone, every time. Obviously these are fictional beings, but do panels and sequences like these that you love to explore as a creator? Do they allow you to get to the heart of what drives these bigger-than-life characters and grounds them to a level that the rest of us can comprehend?
Absolutely. For a story to really work, you’ve got to be rooted in the emotional/psychological lives of the characters. All the clever plotting in the world doesn’t help if we can’t relate to the characters, can’t feel with them. We have to have that emotional investment. That’s how I am as a reader and I’m certainly that way as a writer. I always want to know what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. What demons drive them, what fears, what hopes and aspiration? On one level, we’re limited in how far we can go with the big guns like Superman and Batman while a character like the Stranger is much more of a blank slate. But we can always go deeper, peel away layers and levels of their psyches. So, in that way, the story potential is infinite because there’s always something new to discover when you’re dealing with the human mind and heart.
Superman isn’t the only one making tough decisions in this issue as The Stranger nearly gives the Man of Steel a mystical lobotomy to cure him of what ails him. Going back to one of my earlier questions, might The Stranger have made a different choice back in the Silver Age, the days of The Lords of Order and Chaos, or even Neil Gaiman’s “The Books of Magic?”
He was a very different character then, so yes, he might have approached the situation differently. That’s the fun of this book. The Stranger is, in many ways, brand new now, which means our preconceptions go flying out the window. Creatively, that gives me lots of room to play and move off into unexpected areas.
Thanks in part to the Crime Syndicate breaking through to Prime Earth from their own dimension, The Stranger must now become the Hero of Haarlem, sticking his finger in these cracks in creation and stopping Sin Eater and Non from bursting the proverbial dam of Prime Earth. That would be bad, right?
Yes. If the cracks are allowed to get large enough, the walls that separate Heaven, Earth and Hell will collapse. There will be absolute chaos and Sin Eater, Non and their army of souls intend to step into that chaos and mold a new Earth and a new world order.
I’m really enjoying the supporting cast in this series, from Doctor Thirteen to Zauriel, but I wanted to ask you about Cassandra Craft as she looks primed to be featured as a love interest for The Stranger. I know the solicitation for the next issue teases her death, but is that something you plan to explore in the coming months?
Yes. Cassandra’s relationship with the Stranger is very important to the book. She’s a door into his future and his past. And I can’t say more than that. [Laughs] And Zauriel and Doctor Thirteen will remain very important to the book too. Our summer story will focus on Zauriel and his relationship with The Stranger which, we’ll learn, is much deeper, and far more complex, than we’ve assumed.
The tease at the end of issue also reveals that Madame Xanadu is set to make an appearance too. What can you tell us about her role in this arc?
Xanadu has become aware of the cracks in creation and she and The Stranger both arrive in San Francisco hoping to seal the new crack growing there. Problem is, the two of them have a history and it hasn’t always been a good one. It’s not that they’re enemies, but they’re not exactly fond of each other, which makes for some nice character interplay.
I should point out that “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” #19, the Xanadu issue, was dialogued by my old friend, the legendary Len Wein. I plotted the story but got caught in a deadline bind and Len stepped in to help out. He did a wonderful job, too.
As if this arc couldn’t get any bigger, The Spectre is set to appear in “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” #20. Traditionally, he and The Stranger don’t play nice. Is this time going to be any different?
No. The Spectre loathes the Stranger, and for good reason — under the Voice’s orders, The Stranger led Jim Corrigan to his death — and that loathing will be boiling throughout the story. At the same time, the two of them have to work together to stop Sin Eater and Non and repair the cracks. The question is, will they be able to put aside their differences or will there be betrayal along the way? There’s a wonderful dynamic between these two characters and it is always great fun when they go up against each other.
Before I let you go, your other Dark title, “Justice League Dark,” is now heading into a different direction as well with Zatanna as the new team leader coming out of “Forever Evil: Blight.” What can you tell us about what’s coming in that series in the months ahead?
As you mention, Zatanna, who was off-stage during most of the “Blight” story, is back and she’s firmly in charge of the team. Along with that, John Constantine has been tossed out on his ass — although being Constantine, he’ll be finding ways to weasel his way back in — several characters are leaving the book and Zee is tasked with putting together a new team, which includes Swamp Thing, one of my absolute favorite characters.
In the immediate aftermath of “Forever Evil,” we’ll be focusing on Zee’s efforts to step into her new role and we’ll kind of [Laughs] get an origin story for Nightmare Nurse. The summer brings a two-part Deadman-centric story that explores his ties to Nanda Parbat and introduces a new villain, Pantheon.
In the fall, we’ve got a “Justice League Dark” annual that brings Frankenstein, Black Orchid and Andrew Bennett into the mix and involves both the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets in ways that you’ve never seen them before. After that we’ve got plans for a massive arc that but [Laughs] I can’t talk about that yet.
I love the supernatural corners of the DCU and between “Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” and “Justice League Dark” I’ve had the chance to play with almost every character that inhabits those corners. It’s been a great ride so far.
“Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger” #19 is on sale now.