He’s done high fantasy with Mike Ploog (“Abadazad,” “The Stardust Kid”) and slapstick humor with Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire (“Justice League International”), but writer J.M DeMatteis is also a long-time resident of Spider-Man’s friendly neighborhood. His dark, complex thriller “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt” is considered by many to be the best Spider-Man story that doesn’t have the name “Stan Lee” in the writer’s credit, and he also boasts storied tenures on the Web-Slinger’s “Spectacular” and “Amazing” monthlies.
But while you’ve seen his name plenty if you’re a reader of ROBOT 6, writer Sean T. Collins is a newcomer to Spider-Man’s world. The CBR and “Comics Journal” contributor, who also writes the webcomic “Destructor,” makes his Marvel debut on Wednesday with his own tale of Spidey/Kraven strife in the all-ages “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” #19, with artist Pere Perez. And he’ll be sharing space between the covers with DeMatteis, who penned the lead feature, co-starring the Silver Surfer and illustrated by Clayton Henry.
What do an old master and a new arrival have in common when it comes to Spider-Man? What are their thoughts about great power, great responsibility, great action sequences and great wisecracks? CBR hooked the veteran writer and the newcomer up for a unique conversation about all things Wall-Crawler.
Sean T. Collins: I should first tell you that it was quite a surprise to see the solicit for “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man” #19 and discover that you were writing the lead feature — especially because my back-up story features Kraven the Hunter. I certainly wouldn’t have picked Kraven, and probably wouldn’t even have tried Spider-Man at all, if not for your “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt.” And now, here I am supporting the guy who wrote it. No pressure or anything! [Laughs] I’m not even sure this is a question, but I wanted to let you know how much I love that comic in general and how big an impact it had on me for this gig in particular.
J.M. DeMatteis: I’m constantly amazed by the lifespan that story has had. Nearly twenty-five years later, and people are still buying, reading and talking about, it. You can’t ask for more!
Does the lasting impact of that storyline affect your other work with the character? Is it an inspiration, or an albatross, or neither?
Neither. It is what it is. I’m very grateful for its long lifespan and the fact that it’s still appreciated — and a lot of that credit has to go to Mike Zeck; you can’t underestimate his contribution to the success of that story — but, at the same time, I don’t think it’s my best Spider-Man work. From my perspective, that would be my run on “Spectacular Spider-Man” with Sal Buscema. Especially “Spectacular Spider-Man” #200.
You’ve obviously been writing Spidey for some time. Putting aside my childhood experiences of watching him on “The Electric Company or “…and His Amazing Friends,” I’ve found him to be a tough character to get a handle on in terms of what kinds of stories really work with him. How long did it take you to feel confident with the character?
My first Spider-Man story was an “Amazing Spider-Man” dialogue job over a Denny O’Neil plot. It was a great way to get a feel for the character without getting in over my head. My first regular Spidey gig was writing “Marvel Team-Up,” with Herb Trimpe on the art, followed by Kerry Gammill. I did some truly horrendous stories at first, then found my feet and did some fun material. It was also my first experience working with then-editor Tom DeFalco, who’s gone on to become one of my best pals in the business.
Looking back with the eyes of experience, I can see that those stories were highly imperfect, but writing them gave me a chance to get to know Peter Parker and his world. Reading about a character and writing him are, as you know, two very different things. Writing Spider-Man, I connected to Pete in a way I never had as a reader and found a kindred spirit. It’s a connection I feel to this day.
I know exactly what you mean about not truly connecting with the character until you wrote him. I set my story in an empty office building simply to have a fun, easy-to-grasp environment for Spider-Man to fight Kraven in. But as I’m working on the breakdown, I get the image of Kraven being defeated amid all these empty cubicles and office supplies, and it hit me: Spider-Man is the Great Recession superhero. He’s smart and talented and gifted, sometimes funny and usually kind, but the world is structured so he can’t really catch a break. In his adult incarnation, he’s poor and underemployed and has lousy luck with women and friends. As a kid, he’s functional but still an outcast. The media asks the wrong questions about him, positing him as the problem and not the solution. He has a hard time affording health care for his loved ones. He loses as often as he wins. He gets beat up. He has to let villains escape to protect innocent bystanders. His arch-enemy is a CEO! He’s the everynerd, yes, but he’s also every scapegoated public sector union worker, every overworked underpaid creative professional, every middle- and working- and lower-class person who’s been unemployed for 99 weeks and is about to see their benefits expire because millionaire politicians and their billionaire puppetmasters have decided We All Must Tighten Our Belts.
And worst of all for him, he’s participated in this kind of venal behavior himself, once — and it led to Uncle Ben’s death. He’s seen what being a rotten person can do, and though he’s unable to teach that lesson to the world, he’s learned it himself, and his life is a daily struggle with the consequences of doing the right thing, which he always tries to do despite it all. In this light his powers aren’t wish-fulfillment, like superhero powers tend to be; they’re simply a one-to-one stand-in for anything struggling people do that rises above and beyond the gray muck of the struggle itself–his powers are your talents that you’re able to use sometimes, the hobbies and culture that give you pleasure, the time you’re able to spend with friends and family to draw happiness and strength in the face of a world full of horrible rapacious jerks.
Only in actually trying to write him did all that occur to me. Suddenly, even his symbolism as a spider — which I always struggled with since spiders are scary but he’s a fun and light-hearted hero — made sense to me. Like a spider, he’s a beneficial organism that we squash without thinking. If I hadn’t tried to write a Spidey story, and if Steve Wacker and Tom Brennan hadn’t taken a chance on me, I’d still have a hard time seeing past things like the fact that his costume isn’t colored like a spider is, you know?
I think you hit it on the head when you talk about Peter’s daily struggle to do the right thing. For good or ill, he’s compelled to do the right thing. Otherwise he’s tortured by guilt. (I did a story that sifted Peter’s psyche searching for the roots of that guilt, “The Child Within.”) That’s one of the things in the character I most relate to. It’s classic Jewish/Catholic guilt. Coming from both a Jewish and Catholic background, I totally relate!
Sometimes I feel guilty about not having enough Catholic guilt. [Laughs] When you’re writing a Spider-Man comic — or any comic, for that matter — with what do you typically start? Is it a villain you want to use, an image you want to capture, a plot you want to unravel, a tone you want to play with, an attempt to deliver what the Spidey audience likes? Or does it vary?
The inspiration varies — but the key to it for me is always the emotional and psychological arc of the story. I’m interested in getting inside the characters’ heads, understanding who they are, looking at them in new ways. “Okay, this Kraven guy wears leopard skin peddle-pushers and is chasing Spider-Man around New York. Why? What is there in his past, his family history, his psyche, that pushes him to do that?” It always comes down to the Big Why. That’s what fascinates me.
In that light, does the fact that so many superhero and supervillain characters are archetypes help you, or hinder you? They tend to be really sturdily constructed and easy to grasp at a glance, both visually and in terms of their basics as characters. Does that make it easier or harder to dig into them the way you like to do?
The iconic aspect gives you a big, bold template to draw from and explore, but, in the end, you have to find the human being, you have to find the psychology, the emotions, the spirit of the characters.
Humor is more important to Spider-Man than to maybe any other superhero, certainly superheroes of his stature. But at the same time, it’s easy to get corny or forced or simply unfunny when you’re pouring wisecracks into the mouth of a guy who’s busy punching people. You’ve obviously got a lot of experience writing funny superheroes, having helped develop the whole bwa-ha-ha school of superheroics. How do you bring the funny to Spidey? And how do you know when not to?
As you can see from my work with Keith Giffen, I love writing humor, especially humor that’s people-based, that illuminates — in its goofy way — the interactions of the characters. Spidey’s humor is an essential part of Peter’s personality — some people are just funny — but it’s also an escape valve for him when he’s under pressure. As long as the humor flows naturally from Peter, it’s going to work. If you’re going out of your way to be funny, to force the jokes into his mouth, it’s going to fall flat.
Do you think of Peter as funny, or just Spider-Man? I suppose that if I thought about it, I’d say that Spider-Man brings out Peter’s more ebullient side, but at this stage of his career, perhaps that has filtered back into his secret identity.
Well, Peter always showed his humor with his friends, too, and with Aunt May especially; he was always kidding her. So the humor is an essential part of him. That said, I think putting on the mask set him free to let that part of himself out. Of course you could also say that the humor, both in his personal life and as Spider-Man, is a defense against the utter seriousness and unexpected danger of his world. This was a guy who knew a lot of tragedy in his life and, as with many of us, the best defense is a good laugh.
All that said, the tone of a story ultimately dictates how much humor is a part of the telling. I think that, overall, you can inject humor into just about any kind of story, no matter how grim, if it’s done right. But with something like “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which needed to sustain a specific tone for those six chapters, a joking Spidey would have send the entire story crashing to the ground. “KLH” required a sustained mood, and humor just wouldn’t have worked.
But, just to play devil’s advocate with myself, who’s to say there wasn’t a way to make it work? Maybe there was and I just couldn’t see it at the time.
Hmmm. Maybe you could have played it as a black comedy. There is something kind of funny, after all, about the ageless Russian nobleman in leopard-print pants, chasing a guy in spider-pajamas around in order to test his mettle. Factoring in where this story was headed, you could have played it for some dark laughs. But I’m not sure that that would have jibed with what you were really trying to say about these violent, obsessive characters. Nor would it have had the distinct break with the prevailing, jocular Spider-Man tone. I sort of think you had to play it straight.
One of the things I liked to do when I was writing monthly Spider-Man books was switch things up — to do a story, like “The Child Within,” that was intensely dark, and then bring in the Fabulous Frog Man or Grizzly and the Kangaroo to relieve the intensity and just have some ridiculous fun. As long as Peter remained consistently Peter throughout, you could weave any kind of story around him. As noted, in the best of all possible worlds, you have it all.
I guess the key is making sure you know Peter well enough to ensure that consistency.
Shifting gears a bit, one of the best bits of guidance I received from our editors on the book, Steve Wacker and Tom Brennan, was that, since it’s part of Marvel’s all-ages line, it should be action-packed, since that’s what kids have told them they really want. To me, this was just a license to do what I already wanted to do. Action is to superheroes what singing is to opera, and it was really important to me to make sure the reader could really feel it — for it to be tailored to the physical environment in which it was taking place, for each beat to be easy to comprehend and to have immediate physical consequences for the fighters, for it to have forward momentum. What are your tricks for writing good action sequences and fight scenes?
I think it all comes back to what I’ve been talking about: character, character, character. If there’s some kind of battle going on, what does it mean to the antagonists? What’s at stake, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically? If it’s just about a couple of guys in costumes beating the crap out of each other then — however fun it may be — it’s ultimately worthless. If we learn something about the characters while they’re dropping buildings on each other’s heads, then you’ve got something.
That makes sense to me. Perhaps action in superhero comics is the stage upon which the character insights play out. You need to make sure the stage doesn’t collapse!
I think a great recent example of the balance between action and character was the recent “X-Men: First Class” movie. The third act, which is a huge action piece, is all about the characters, about them reaching their turning points, the climaxes of their emotional journeys. It was beautifully done.
As I just mentioned, this is for the Marvel Adventures line, which is tailor-made for young readers. But you’ve written for the main-line continuity Spidey titles for years — including one of its most famously, or even infamously, adult storylines. What’s the difference to you between the two? Do you have a preference?
I love writing all-ages material. I’ve been banging the drum for more all-ages material in comics since the 80s. “Abadazad,” which I did in several incarnations with Mike Ploog, is one of my absolute favorite projects out of everything I’ve ever done. Ditto for “Stardust Kid,” which I also did with Ploog. Last year, my kids fantasy novel, “Imagainalis,” came out from HarperCollins, and I’ve got several all-ages projects in the works right now.
I think the key to doing this kind of material is to not write down. Not to get it into your head that “I’m doing a children’s story.” The minute you do that, you’ve shot yourself in both feet. Writing an all-ages Spider-Man story and writing, for example, the death of Aunt May should be approached in exactly the same way, with the same craft, the same passion, the same depth of character, emotional stakes, love of language. Yes, you may dial back the intensity of the violence, there are some images you won’t show; but it has to be a story of value and depth, told with the same literary and artistic skills you’d bring to any project. I really think the mistake that’s often made is that people believe there’s a huge difference between writing for adults and writing for kids. There are differences, but they’re on the surface. The core of great storytelling remains the same.
I couldn’t agree more. In a way, I like the content limitations. It takes away a few variables that could be distracting, allowing you to concentrate more on what’s left, which is the visual and thematic and character core of whatever book you’re working on. Again, one of the things I liked about Steve and Tom’s approach is that they didn’t tell me to write the best Spider-Man-for-kids story I could, they told me to write the best Spider-Man story I could, period. That was hugely clarifying. Is that the sort of bar you set for yourself?
Absolutely. The minute you say “I’m writing a story for kids,” you’ve shot yourself, and your audience, in the foot. You can’t write down to kids, you have to write up. There’s no difference in the way I wrote “Abadazad” and “Moonshadow.” Both were written with all of my heart and soul and literary ability. Each was aimed differently in terms of audience, but both were equal in terms of the effort and thought, time and emotion that went into them. The same should hold true for “all ages” super hero stories. Of course, one could argue that they should all be “all ages” super hero stories and that we’ve lost something by primarily aiming at older readers. We should be able to hook them all with the same story.