The sparse crowd at the J.M. DeMatteis spotlight panel on Sunday morning at WonderCon 2013 just added to the intimate feel. Without any new projects to promote or announcements to make, veteran writer DeMatteis took a casual look back at his career and answered a few questions. Even the panel’s moderator fit in with the laid-back vibe, as DeMatteis’ son Cody was the one to interview his dad about his decades in the comics business, the discussion starting off with a debate about the proper pronunciation of the family’s last name.
After that, Cody asked his father about his earliest non-comics influences. DeMatteis said he saw his first “Twilight Zone” episode at age six. “I think it changed my life, because I saw something on television that really reflected the way I see the world,” he said. “I read a lot. I remember being obsessed with the King Arthur stories.” He was also a Doc Savage fan, and as a teenager he discovered Ray Bradbury and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he named as his favorite authors.
DeMatteis also cited The Beatles as an important formative influence; he saw them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when he was in fifth grade. According to the writer, popular culture at that point was much less fragmented. “The Beatles could come along and literally transform popular music,” he said. “Just the way Lee and Kirby could change comics, bang, just like that. … [Today,] we create our own little bubbles to imbibe our popular culture. We can wall ourselves in and only allow in information that we want.”
Moving on to comics, DeMatteis said he didn’t remember a time when he wasn’t reading comics and recalled being mesmerized by the art. “I used to love to stare at the covers,” he said. “I didn’t even have to read the stories. You could look at that cover and imagine an entire story just by looking at it.”
When he discovered the names of the writers and artists who worked on his favorite comics, he thought, “Maybe if those real people do this, I can do this.” As for career ambitions, “I didn’t have a lot of avenues,” he said. “I was going to be a rock and roll star or an artist or a writer.”
“Drawing was my first passion,” DeMatteis said, noting that he was accepted to the prestigious School of Visual Arts, but “my parents’ response was, ‘We can’t afford that.’ I ended up going to community college instead, because that was $25 a semester.” To this day, “I’m still in awe of artists.”
Pursuing his path as a writer rather than an artist or a musician, DeMatteis started working as a music journalist, writing for small newspapers and contributing a few pieces to “Rolling Stone.” “I would get like five bucks a review, but you would get free albums,” he said. He recalled one particularly scathing review he wrote of a Grateful Dead album for “Rolling Stone,” which inspired reams of hate mail from the band’s fans. “As rabid as the most rabid comic book fans are, that’s how rabid the Grateful Dead fans are. Maybe more so,” he said. “It really made me step back and think about the impact of my words. I want to be the creator, not the guy dissecting the creative work.”
DeMatteis’ first published comics work was for Marvel’s “Mad Magazine” knock-off “Crazy,” work that he’s not particularly proud of now. “The coolest part was getting a check with Spider-Man’s face on it,” he said, “[but] that didn’t get me any inroads with Marvel Comics.”
Instead he pitched stories to DC editor Paul Levitz for the company’s anthology titles, including “House of Mystery,” “House of Secrets” and “Weird War Tales.” Levitz “tore my plots to shreds” and even insulted DeMatteis’ typing, but the fact that he got feedback at all inspired him to keep trying. Eventually, Levitz hired him to write an eight-page story, and he worked for six months before the “DC implosion” of the 1970s.
DeMatteis started working with editor Len Wein, who became his mentor. Wein gave DeMatteis the title “I, Vampire” and told him to go home and write something. That — along with “Creature Commandos” — were the first two properties he created. In 1980, Wein offered DeMatteis the chance to become his assistant, but DeMatteis took a freelance contract with Marvel instead so he could stay home and raise his son Cody (the same son now interviewing him).
After working for a while on Marvel properties, DeMatteis pitched a story called “Greenberg the Vampire” that ended up at Marvel’s Epic imprint. “That was my first story where people said, ‘That was a great story,'” he said. “I realized it was because I had stepped outside of the Marvel or DC universe. I was writing for the first time in comics as myself.”
“Greenberg” led to another original work, “Moonshadow,” with artist Jon J. Muth, which is still one of DeMatteis’ most well-known creations. “The thing that really did it for me was ‘Moonshadow,'” he said. He cited the ’80s as a particularly exciting time in comics history. “The creativity in the air in that era was incredible.”
DeMatteis said he originally pitched “Moonshadow” to editor Karen Berger at DC, and she offered him the chance to work on it with Dave Gibbons on art. She also offered him the writing job on “Swamp Thing” before Alan Moore took over. Ultimately, DeMatteis stayed at Marvel and worked on “Moonsahdow” with Muth. “It just came from the sheer, giddy creative freedom of being allowed to do a story that was all mine in my own way,” he said. Other than asking for the removal of a swear word in one of the early issues, Marvel gave him complete creative freedom.
Doing those non-superhero books helped DeMatteis expand his ideas for Marvel’s own characters, and in 1983 he pitched one of his most ambitious ideas ever. He planned to have a disillusioned Steve Rogers reject violence and look for another way to solve problems. He’d inspire the wrath of the rest of the Marvel universe and ultimately get assassinated by Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the 1950s, and replaced as Captain America by Black Crow, a Native American character DeMatteis created.
The story was rejected, and DeMatteis used it as an example of how stories evolve and return over time. “I think it would have been a really great story,” he said, and mentioned pitching it various times over the years with different characters. In 2009, DeMatteis corresponded with artist Mike Cavallaro, and the two pitched the story to IDW. After more than 25 years, it was approved in a single day and became the series “The Life and Times of Savior 28.”
“If you’re a creative person, you never know when that idea will come back,” he said. “There’s our timing and there’s the story’s timing.” He mentioned perhaps his most famous superhero story, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which began as an idea for a Wonder Man miniseries, pitting him against his brother the Grim Reaper. DeMatteis then pitched it as a story for Batman and the Joker, before getting the chance to write it for Spider-Man. “It turned out that Peter Parker was the perfect character for that,” DeMatteis said.
Even more serendipity came into play, as DeMatteis was set to use a new creation for the story’s villain, only to happen upon Kraven’s profile in “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.” “Had it been up to me, I would have written a Wonder Man miniseries that no one would have remembered five minutes later,” DeMatteis said.
The last project he mentioned was “Abadazad,” which started as a comic he could read with his daughter. “There’s probably no project in my career that I’m more emotionally connected to than ‘Abadazad,'” DeMatteis said. He’s currently in talks with Disney to finish up the series in some way. “I just want to finish the story,” he said. “Give me one book, prose with some illustration, and let me finish the story.”
There was little time for questions from the audience at the end, but DeMatteis did offer a fan his opinion on the recent death of his creation Dr. Ashley Kafka in the pages of “Amazing Spider-Man,” saying he hadn’t read the story but “this is comics, she’ll be back. Since I killed so many characters that belonged to other people, what’s to complain about?”
Asked about a hardbound edition of “Moonshadow,” DeMatteis said he’d love to see it, but the rights would have to be taken up by a different publisher. “I don’t see DC doing it right now,” he said. As casually as it began, then, the panel came to a close.