DeMatteis & Cavallaro Talk "Savior 28"

On sale this week from IDW Publishing, the first issue of J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro's "The Life and Times of Savior 28" sees the title superhero gunned down by a sniper during a press conference. If Savior 28's untimely death reminds you of that of Captain America, it should: the seeds of "Savior 28" were sown during Matteis' early '80s run on Marvel's "Captain America." CBR News caught up with DeMatteis and artist Mike Cavallaro to talk about "Savior 28," which DeMatteis calls his final word on superhero comics.

Celebrated for his work with DC's Justice League, among other iconic characters and titles, DeMatteis has always loved the superhero genre. But the writer has had reservations about the genre's adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct of the job of being a costumed hero. "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,'" DeMatteis told CBR. "It's a dangerous concept, especially in a world where many of our political leaders seem to possess 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.'"

As such, "The Life and Times of Savior 28" is a statement about violence. "It has to do with violence in superhero comics, in pop culture in general and, ultimately, in the world around us," DeMatteis explained.  "As I continued to develop the idea, it grew into a saga that spanned almost seventy years of American pop culture and politics."

In the first issue of "Savior 28," the title character takes a decidedly pacifist turn, a story point DeMatteis originally came up with during his run on "Captain America" in the 1980s. "I'd reached the climax of a year long Cap-Red Skull storyline and it led me to what I thought was a pretty interesting idea: What if this icon, this ultimate superhero, came to a point in his life where he just couldn't do it anymore?" DeMatteis recalled.  "What if Cap said, 'I've spent decades solving problems with my fists, but all it's brought me is death and sorrow. Now I have to find another way.'" 

DeMatteis said Cap's newfound pacifism would not have been received well, and would have ultimately resulted in the hero's assassination. "Guess I was ahead of the curve on that one!"

The "Captain America" editor at the time, Mark Gruenwald, was excited by the prospect of seeing this Cap story through to fruition, but former Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter had understandable reservations. "If you have one of your major icons deciding that jumping around in tights punching people is, at its core, an idiotic idea, don't you invalidate your entire line of characters?" DeMatteis mused.

But while DeMatteis' aborted Captain America saga ended with the hero's assassination, in "The Life and Times of Savior 28," the title character's death is just the beginning. "I've been working on the idea ever since, developing it far beyond those original 1980s notions, creating a new universe of characters to play out this drama," the writer said.  "The world has shifted so much in the intervening decades that the story plays out with far more resonance now than it would have during the Reagan era."

Much of "Savior 28's" present-day narrative takes place in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. In point of fact, Savior 28 blames himself for the hundreds of deaths in New York on that fateful day, because while suicide bombers were flying passenger planes into the World Trade Center, the hero was recovering from a weeklong bender.

Artist Mike Cavallaro assured CBR News that he and DeMatteis both took great care in deciding how to depict the 9/11 tragedy in the pages of the first issue. The transfixed horror with which a hungover Savior 28 watches a newscast recounting the attacks mirrors Cavallaro's own state of mind at the time. "I was living on Manhattan's lower east side, and stepped out of my apartment to a full-on view of both towers in flames," Cavallaro explained. "I became glued to the television replay, and sat there in shock for I don't know how long. It wasn't until a newscast said that a triage was being set up on the Chelsea piers, that something finally clicked, and I got on my BMX and rode there to volunteer."

In "Savior 28," we see the title character looking on dumbfounded as the TV news replays footage of the second plane strike. "I chose to depict a scene where disaster had already struck, and was about to strike again, because a lot of my own memories of the day seem to hang there in this strangely eternal moment of time," Cavallaro said. "9/11 was a turning point in our culture, and had an indelible impact on our collective definitions of both heroism and villainy. And that, essentially, is what our story's about."

The thousands of senseless deaths of that day led Savior 28 to turn over a new leaf and become a peace activist. "After 9/11, it seemed as if all our news was filtered through the White House and anyone who spoke out against the brewing war in Iraq was branded as anti-American," DeMatteis said. "News coverage of anti-war rallies, no matter how huge, was minimal, or non-existent.  Dissenting voices were herded into 'free speech zones.'" 

Savior 28's newfound pacifism was not a popular point of view in the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history, and it was on account of this dissenting opinion that the once-great hero wound up on the receiving end of a sniper's bullet.

While "Savior 28" clearly has some political content, DeMatteis stresses that at its core, the book is about the title character's internal struggle. "It's about a man trying to figure out how to live his life, how to make a genuine difference in the world," DeMatteis explained.  "I'd say that ultimately it's far more of a spiritual story than a political one.  But placing 28's journey against the backdrop of our recent, tumultuous political life certainly makes for an interesting ride."

"Savior 28" may have begun its life as a Captain America story, but Savior 28 is much more than a thinly-veiled update of the iconic Marvel character. "The story itself is, in a manner of speaking, a sort of retelling of the history of Comics themselves," Cavallaro explained. "Because Savior 28 is our catch-all for superheroes in general, he's not based on any one particular character -- he's based on all of them."

The story is told not from the point of view of Savior 28 himself, but from the perspective of the hero's one-time sidekick Dennis McNulty, also known as the Daring Disciple. "McNulty was there from the '40s, when Savior 28 was born and he was there in 2003 when 28 was murdered," DeMatteis explained.  "The narrative is McNulty's attempt, looking back on all his years with a man who was both his hero and his nemesis, to sort through all the events and make some kind of sense of them."

Orson Welles is one of J.M. DeMatteis' favorite filmmakers, and his affection for the auteur led him to not only include Welles as a character in "Savior 28," but also to structure the story in a way that is reminiscent of one of Welles' best-known films. "'Savior 28' has a 'Citizen Kane'-like structure, in that it constantly jumps back and forth through time, through different periods of Savior 28's life," DeMatteis revealed. "So the fact that our main character dies in the first issue doesn't mean he won't be our main character. We'll go from Pearl Harbor to the attack on the World Trade Center, from the rock-jawed hero of the '50s to the peace activist of 2003, from his origin to his assassination, with dozens of stops in between.  There's a constant cutting from era to era and, by the end, we'll come full circle to the present day."

The uncompromising Savior 28 of the 1950s even wore his signature mask during dinners with his girlfriend Sam. "Savior 28 has, I think, a tendency to be a little preachy at times," Cavallaro explained. "Something about having the mask on during what should have been a romantic evening with Sam helped delineate the rigidity of Savior 28's frame of mind at that point in his career."

Savior 28's costume underwent a number of subtle changes over his 70-year career as a superhero. "You'll notice that in some WWII-era shots, he's sporting the traditional long-johns and cape, while in the '60s, the cape disappears for a period of time, giving Savior 28 a more streamlined appeal. In modern times, the cape actually came back, while other costume details evolved as well."

And as far as Cavallaro was concerned, the fact that Savior 28 was not in full uniform on the day of his death was very telling. "I left off the cape and the gloves to show the fact that he's in an extreme state of emotional distress, the same way you might forget to put your tie on, or you might leave the house without your pants on (sure, like I'm the only one)."

Mike Cavallaro has been a fan of J.M. DeMatteis since his high school days. "I was immediately drawn to and influenced by the promise hinted at by series like 'Moonshadow,'" the artist said. "Namely, that you could tell any type of story in comics format." Years later, a mutual friend introduced Cavallaro to DeMatteis, and a brief collaboration on the latter's "Planetary Brigade" set the stage for "Savior 28."

"A few months back Mike sent me some preview pages of his online comic, 'Loviathan,'" DeMatteis recalled. "The instant I saw the art, I knew Mike was the guy who was meant to draw 'Savior 28.' It's been a blast creating a cast of new characters to populate 28's world.  I have the fun of dreaming them up, but poor Mike has to design them all. One minute this is a superhero piece, the next it's a documentary, the next it's a psychological study or a spiritual journey. We get big action pieces, quiet character moments, historical events.  It's all over the map.  And Mike has been meeting every challenge and then transcending it.  His art is just extraordinary.  The extra bonus is that Mike's also a terrific guy to work with: a total professional and an incredibly nice person.  You can't ask for more than that in a collaborator."

For his part, Cavallaro is equal parts excited and daunted by the prospect of working on a project with as much scope as "Savior 28." "I keep telling myself that challenges like this make one grow as an artist," he said. "It's been a pleasure and an honor to work with someone who has such a unique voice as a writer, and is just one of the nicest and most encouraging guys I've ever met. Hopefully, I'm doing his masterful script justice."

At lot happens in the first issue of "Savior 28," but issue #1 is only the tip of the iceberg. "Among other things, the second issue deals with both 28's inner journey -- what really happened to push him over the edge, to change him so drastically -- and also explores the effect his transformation has on the rest of the superheroes in the Savior 28 universe," DeMatteis said, adding that it's a safe bet that Savior 28's change of heart will not go over any better with his super-powered brothers-in-arms than it did with the general public.

Working on "Savior 28" has been nothing if not a challenge for J.M. DeMatteis. "The story, and what it has to say, means so much to me that it's sometimes intimidating to sit down and write," he said.  "Each issue has forced me to stretch and grow as a writer, pushing the boundaries of both my craft and my art.  I've waited twenty-five years to do this (that fact amazes me: where did the time go?) and I'm delighted with the result.  And especially delighted that Mike Cavallaro is on this creative journey with me."

"Savior 28" #1 hits stands this week from IDW Publishing.

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