J.M. DeMatteis Discusses "Mercy," Crafting Personal Work in Comics

It's difficult to summarize the work of writer J.M. DeMatteis because it covers so many different facets. He's written superhero tales ranging from "Captain America" to "The Defenders," and penned one of Spider-Man's greatest stories ever in "Kraven's Last Hunt." For more than a quarter century his collaborations with Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire have yielded projects that blend equal parts superheroics and humor. He's written numerous all-ages projects including "Abazad" and "The Adventures of Augusta Wind" and his most recent novel, "Imaginalis," as well as extensive film and television credits like the recent direct-to-video feature "Batman vs. Robin."

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Starting in the 1980's starting with "Moonshadow" and "Blood: A Tale," DeMatteis began crafting very different, intensely personal projects in close collaboration with his artists. Those two series were among the best work published by Marvel's legendary Epic imprint, and DeMatteis went on to write books like "Brooklyn Dreams" for Paradox Press, and "The Last One" and "Seekers: Into the Mystery" for Vertigo, continuing his efforts to push comics in a more mature and layered direction.

Another Vertigo project from this era was "Mercy," a 1993 collaboration with artist Paul Johnson, which has just been released in a new edition by Dover Books. DeMatteis took time out of his schedule to chat with CBR News about the new edition of "Mercy" and this rich vein of his body of work which is dark and complex, but also funny and spiritual.

CBR News: Where did the idea for "Mercy" come to you?

J.M. DeMatteis: As I recall (and, honestly, it's been a while), the idea was to do a story that explored what I call the Benevolent Conspiracy: the idea that -- despite what seems like evidence to the contrary -- the universe is always working to uplift and support us; to bring us to the light. I also wanted to do a story that was about the power of compassion. "That which is most needed," Buddha said, "is a loving heart." And that's the essence of "Mercy" boiled down to one phrase.

But, of course, you can't explore that without taking a journey into the darkness of the human heart first. I wanted to root the tale in real people, struggling, suffering, with their personal darkness -- and then lead them up into the light.

In this new volume, you talk about how you would write up a detailed outline and then Paul was left to break the pages down as he saw fit. Did you work like that a lot or only with certain artists on certain projects?

I sometimes work full script (which lays out everything in detail: "camera" angles, panel breakdowns, page flow, captions, dialogue) and sometimes plot-first -- writing a very detailed outline (almost as detailed as a full script) for the artist, who then draws the story, after which I add the final dialogue/captions. But, sometimes, when the project and the collaborator are right, you want to blow that up a little. With "Mercy" I wrote an outline that was, in its way, more like a novel: I didn't break things down panel by panel, I broke things into sequences and then wrote a narrative that detailed what went on in those sequences, both in terms of plot and the inner workings of the characters, their emotions and psychology, etc. As you can see in the excerpt in the new edition, all the information was there, but it was presented in a way that allowed Paul to bring his own visual vision to the project. To fully participate in the process. As I said, to do that it has to be the right project and you need the right collaborator: With "Mercy," I had both.

I ask because "Mercy" -- and many of your other books -- are incredible books with incredible artists, but it is different way to work and requires a lot of trust. Is some of it just choosing talented people to work with and letting them do what they do best?

It comes down to creative chemistry. And yes, tremendous trust. That said, the outline is a fairly detailed blueprint and, once the art is done, the story is shaped by the final script. When you write full-script, you're locked when you're done. Working this way, I can react to the art and develop, deepen, the story in unexpected ways. The best part is having the art in front of you: seeing a sequence that you imagined would be heavily narrated and then realizing that you don't have to say a word -- or suddenly understanding something you didn't know about your characters in the outline stage and having an opportunity to explore that. It's challenging and great fun.

And I can't say enough good things about Paul, both as a person and an artist. He was a total delight to work with from the start.

I know that it's been a while since you wrote "Mercy," but when Dover reached out about this new edition, how did you decide on what extras to include?

We just bounced around ideas. It was a no-brainer to include sections of my plot and some of the vast trove of development art that Paul still had. I think it was Paul who came up with the idea of the opening dialogue, where the two of us would discuss our memories of the project. That may be my favorite element of the extras.

I was one of those readers who really became a comics fan in the '90s with Vertigo, which was publishing or republishing a number of books written by you: "Moonshadow," "Blood," "Mercy," "The Last One" and "Seekers." Do you see something of your sensibility in the line and in other efforts to expand comics at that time to make more complicated work for adults?

"Moonshadow" and "Blood" were originally done for Marvel's Epic Comics line, started by the legendary Archie Goodwin some years before Vertigo, so I'd been plowing that field for a while. That said, Vertigo was the next step after Epic: a place to really chase your creative vision and tell original, deeply personal stories that didn't need to fit in any particular comic book universe or framework. All credit goes to Karen Berger, an extraordinary editor and good friend, who created the atmosphere that allowed us all to continue unfolding in that way. Without her guiding vision, there wouldn't have been a Vertigo and it wouldn't have lasted as long as it has.

One reason I ask is because in my own reading of your work I've always found that it's dark but it's also very hopeful and positive in a way that a lot of comics and stories are not.

It goes back to what I said about the genesis of "Mercy": My worldview is a positive one. Yes, we all struggle with shadows and demons, but I believe there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and a benevolent, supportive universe ready to lift us up and guide us to our highest good.

Many comics of the '90s were pretty dark -- and I can certainly do dark -- but I don't want to leave my readers feeling that life is terrible, that it's a grim, merciless world with little or no hope. If that's your POV, fine, write stories that reflect that. Be true to yourself. But that's not me.

Art Young has a line in his afterword, "Marc is one of the few writers -- perhaps the only one -- who can be wacky and mystical at the same time." I'm curious where this sensibility comes from.

I think that's part of being human: We're serious, philosophical; we're idiots and jokesters. We all contain the entire spectrum -- and I think it's important to reflect that in my writing. The Big Questions, the metaphysical and psychological issues, have always obsessed me. But that doesn't mean I haven't been laughing (at the world and at myself) while I'm wandering along those roads. Just because we're delving into the Meaning of Life doesn't mean we can't be idiots, too. And I mean "idiot" in the best way possible. So, with rare exceptions, I've tried to inject humor into everything I do.  

And I'll say the same thing about Art Young that I did about Paul: As both a person and an editor, he was an absolute delight to work with. He knew his stuff, knew when to step in to offer guidance and when to leave us alone. And he was (and remains) just a great guy.

Graham Greene divided his books into "novels" and "entertainments" and I'm not suggesting you don't work hard on everything you do, but do you think of some works as more personal than others?

On the one hand, a good story is a good story, whether it's done for ongoing characters like Spider-Man or the Justice League or something more personal. I can't argue with the success of stories like "Kraven's Last Hunt" or my writing collaborations with the brilliant Keith Giffen (we've been working together for more than twenty-five years and we're having more fun than ever). That said, there are stories that mean more to me, that feel more like "novels" than "entertainments" -- and those are the more personal works like "Moonshadow," "Brooklyn Dreams," "Seekers into the Mystery," "Abadazad," "Mercy," "The Life and Times of Savior 28" and a number of other creator-owned projects. Those are the stories that are wholly original and came from the deeps of my heart and were expressed in a way that reflected my own vision very purely and directly. I hold those projects very dear and they mean the world to me.

But, again, a good story is a good story -- and I try to pour as much of myself into so-called "corporate characters" as I do into the more personal visions. For instance, my run on "Doctor Fate" was, at the time, as pure a reflection of my thoughts about life, the universe and everything as any project I've ever done -- just expressed within the context of a pre-existing DC Comics character.

Do you have a favorite project among those?

"Brooklyn Dreams," "Moonshadow" and "Abadazad" probably top the list.

I was heartbroken to learn that "Moonshadow" has fallen out of print recently, and a number of your other books have as well. Is there a chance we'll see some of these books back in print in the near future?

Yes. We're exploring new opportunities for both those projects. I want them back out there and available.

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You're writing comics right now but you're also working on many projects. What are you working on now?

My animated movie, "Batman vs. Robin," came out via Warner Home Video in March and I've got another animated movie from Warners coming later in the year. At DC, I'm doing "Justice League 3001" with my old friend Keith Giffen and "Justice League: Gods and Monsters" with Bruce Timm. Just getting started on a second series of my creator-owned, all-ages fantasy, "The Adventures of Augusta Wind," for IDW. I'm working on a live-action TV pilot for producer Dean Devlin. And other things!

Is there anything you want to say about the next "Augusta Wind" series? I ask because I really loved the first one, which was insane and beautiful.

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. "Augusta" -- which is an original, all-ages fantasy I co-created with a wonderful Greek artist named Vassilis Gogtzilas -- kind of flew under the radar when it came out a couple of years ago. I loved working on it. It was a rich, multi-layered fantasy: IDW gave us total freedom to create exactly the story we wanted to in exactly the way we wanted to and it was a fun, exhilarating process.

We've started work on a new "Augusta" series and we're moving slow with it. Vassilis is finishing up the art on the first issue now and I hope to see the series completed and out by the spring of 2016. Fall of 2016 at the latest. But we're not rushing it, we're taking our sweet time!

Is there a chance we'll see more novels from you in the years to come?

I'd love that. My last book, the children's fantasy "Imaginalis," came out in 2010 (still available on Amazon, he said, plugging away), so it's been a while. But I've got a number of ideas circling the airport and I'd love to write another novel-sooner than later, I hope!

"Mercy: Shake the World" is available now from Dover Books.

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