When the Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis series "Hero Squared" was first announced last year, most readers thought the book would simply be their version of the Justice League, but with their own characters. True, the riff was similar, but readers quickly discovered the duo weren't just doing "Justice League" with a new name. Rather, readers found that Giffen & DeMatteis had built an entire new universe with it's own complex machinations worth exploring. It started as a one-shot, continued with a three-issue mini-series-- the final issue of which ships today-- and in March, 2006, Milo and Captain Valor and the rest will return in a new, ongoing series with artist Joe Abraham returning from Boom! Studios.
Before that happens, though, Giffen & DeMatteis will explore some of Captain Valor's past in the two-issue series "Planetary Bridade," which transports readers back to Captain Valor's now destroyed home world to show us what things were like for the fine Captain before getting stranded in our Universe.
Monday morning, CBR News rang up Giffen & DeMatteis to talk in depth about "Hero Squared," "Planetary Brigade" and anything else that came to mind. What follows is a transcript of a 25 minute interview that once we shut off the recorder, DeMatteis remarked, "That was 25 minutes?" Time flies by when you're enjoying yourself. Now, here's Keith and Marc.
Giffen: How you doing, Marc?
DeMatteis: I'm good, how are you?
Giffen: I'm good. I got up this morning, so I'm ahead of the game.
DeMatteis: Keith, let me ask you one question before we get started. Was that your episode that was on at 9:00, not 7:00?
DeMatteis: It just happened that I was channel surfing and I came across it and it sounded very Giffen-esque to me.
Giffen: Yeah, the one with the black out?
DeMatteis: Was that the one where they go in the sewer?
DeMatteis: OK, I figured it was you.
CBR News: What show are we talking about?
Giffen: "Ed, Ed & Eddie!" Yeah. Every so often they'll run that episode. It's fun.
CBR News: Gotcha. OK, so the "Hero Squared" mini-series comes to an end today when issue #3 hitts the stands. But that's not the end of things for Captain Valor as you've got a new, ongoing series beginning in March along with the release of a trade paperback that collects all the previously released "Hero Squared" books. So, why switch to an ongoing format versus say a series of mini-series?
Giffen: I have no idea how to answer that! I'll make up an answer…
CBR News: OK!
Giffen: We just had too many ideas!
DeMatteis: Really, that's true. When we first started working on "Hero Squared," Keith called me up with this idea and to be perfectly honest I only kind of half-listened because when Keith calls me up and says, "Hey, you want to work on something with me," I'll agree no matter what. It's not so much the project itself that matters. Then I'll pay attention to the idea later on down the line because my first instinct is just that I want to work with Keith. Y'know, the guy's a creative genius. I've been riding his coattails for eighteeen years and I'm not gonna stop now! "You wanna do 'Millie The Model'? Great!"
Giffen: It's like an Andy Rooney, let's put on a show, thing.
DeMatteis: (laughs) That's Mickey Rooney, not Andy Rooney.
Giffen: Wait, no, not Andy Rooney, Andy Hardy!
DeMatteis: I don't want to see Andy Rooney put on a show.
Giffen: That's right, he's the 60 Minutes guy. OK, but … oh, just go on!
DeMatteis: (laughs) Anyway. So, once we started working on this thing I saw that there was so much potential. So, we started with the one-shot, which barely scratched the surface. Half the story ideas were there as little asides between the characters. So, then we got into this mini-series and we got the chance to tell a bit more of a complete story, but again we realized there was so much farther we could go. So, by doing the ongoing we can just keep going until we run out of ideas, at which point we'll stop.
Giffen: Yeah, plus there's a little wish fulfillment here. It's kind of nice to have your own little universe, your own world where there isn't a company saying, "No, you can't have that character, you'll soil him/her/or it."
DeMatteis: This is the first time that Keith and I have done anything that's "creator owned"...that's just completely ours and we don't have to answer to anybody over what we want to do.
CBR News: It seems that most small publishers prefer to publish a series of mini-series instead of an ongoing for a variety of reasons: Issues with the number 1 on the cover tend to sell more issues, it's easier to keep the books on schedule, etc. … Do you know what it is that [Boom! Studios Publisher] Ross Richie saw in this series that convinced him it needed to be an ongoing?
Giffen: I just think it was selling well enough that he figured why not do it regularly and try to generate some income for Boom! Anytime you go from a mini-series to a monthly book it's an economic move above all else, but at the same time Ross has loved this idea from day one and has just been incredibly supportive across the board. I mean, he's even letting us put out "Planetary Brigade" which is about the team of super-heroes from Captain Valor's world. So, we're world- building and that's kind of fun. But when it comes down to a monthly book, it's economics. If this series isn't selling well, we'll be mini-series back-to-back again.
DeMatteis: If we're lucky!
CBR News: Before I called you guys this morning I went around and checked some of the reviews of "Hero Squared." The only complaint I really read-- and this is a little odd-- is that not a lot happens. Then, in the next breath, they say that they love the dialogue and love the information they're getting out of these characters. Where do you think this impression that things aren't moving along at a quick enough pace is coming from?
Giffen: See, a lot is happening, but they're not punching one another to make it happen.
DeMatteis: It comes down to people's idea of what an event is. That's where I think that perception is coming from. They used to say that about our old "Justice League" stories. My one liner has been we were "Seinfeld" before "Seinfeld," you know? We had all these stories where allegedly nothing happened, but if you look at the mechanics of the story there's actually a lot going on, it just happens to be character stuff. It's not about necessarily jumping or punching or hitting.
Giffen: Think about the story "Moving Day." That's sort of the canonical "Justice League" story. But when you think about "Hero Squared," we've had one special and a mini-series. During the course of that we've completely destroyed an entire universe, exiled a super hero to earth, had the super villain come after him, we've built a complete personal dynamic, had no less than three attacks, had Milo kidnapped… what do you mean nothing happened?
DeMatteis: Going back to the "Seinfeld" analogy, if you look at those "Seinfeld" episodes they are extraordinarily constructed. There's incredible plot-work going on there and it's this illusion that nothings happened. So, it's just a question of different kinds of story telling. Plus, we've had this thing in recent years with this whole decompressed story telling idea where really nothing happens. I think we have a lot happening in these stories, it's just not happening in a way people necessarily expect it to happen.
CBR News: Marc, your "Seinfeld" analogy seems to be a very apt one and maybe it's just hold-over feelings from readers who read another series right before where nothing was happening.
Giffen: Let's consider the double-sized issue of "Hero Squared" as two issues. So, we've had five issues of "Hero Squared" that we've done so far and we've given readers a lot more than you get in two years of most regular comic books, except that every so often somebody has a little action sequence. I think people sometimes really mistake that little bit of frenetic action for something happening.
Marc and I have always been much more interested in the moments where characters are just sitting around gassing. That's when you find out more about the characters. That's what really drives the story, the interpersonal relationships.
My favorite "Justice League" stories were always the ones like "Moving Day" or "The French Lesson." Nothing seemed to happen, but if you really deconstructed it, there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of intricate personal stuff going on.
DeMatteis: Right now I'm working on the spin-off, "Planetary Brigade," and just in the first few pages-- just in the conversations between two or three characters-- I am discovering so much about them and this world, which I didn't know until I sat down to write. That's how I tend to work with Keith. I don't want to think about it too much. I sit down and let the characters lead me through the story.
"Planetary Brigade," which is going to be two-issues, grew out of the dialogue in "Hero Squared." In the course of the back and forth between Milo and Valor there were repeated references to all these characters in this world Valor left behind. One day we woke up and realized we should do a story about those guys. After all those years on "Justice League" we figured it was time for us to create our own Justice League and have some fun.
CBR News: Fill our readers in a bit as to who the Planetary Brigade are.
DeMatteis: Well, Captain Valor came to our world from a parallel universe where all these superheroes existed until their universe was destroyed. So, "Planetary Brigade" simply goes back to that world pre-destrution and it's one of Captain Valor's adventures with these other heroes.
Giffen: Yeah. You know Captain Valor from "Hero Squared," but "Planteary Brigade" is like finding an old comic book that came out way before "Hero Squared." It's a little background and it's fun.
CBR News: And this series serves to satiate your fans between the ending of the mini-series today and the start of the next series to come in March.
CBR News: Let's get back to the "Hero Squared' ongoing a bit. Now that you're an ongoing, will you be exploring longer story arcs? How does the ongoing format affect your story plans?
Giffen: I think the biggest change is I just have to do it more often!
Giffen: Really, an ongoing series allows you to do the kind of issues we love the most. When you have a mini-series, you have three issues to tell a story that has a beginning; a middle and a sort of end and you've got to move it along. Whereas with an ongoing series it allows us to every so often do an issue-- well, for example there's an issue coming up that's going to be one of my favorites, I just know it. It's simply Milo and Captain Valor at their therapist.
DeMatteis: For an entire issue.
Giffen: Exactly. We couldn't do that in a mini-series because in a mini the story has to roll along, you can't just stop and have a single issue like this. But, if you set it in the middle of a much larger storyline, you can get away with it. And with the ongoing, I think people expect us to do this. I don't think we're really surprising anybody.
DeMatteis: I've been lobbying for this therapist story since day one. I can't wait!
CBR News: (laughs) It sounds like this may be a bit of therapy for you, too, Marc?
DeMatteis: It always is!
Giffen: Yeah and everything I suggest always gets shot down!
CBR News: Allright, so what's your plan for the first story arc? What have you cooked up for Milo and Captain Valor?
Giffen: Well, without giving away too much, there's a major event that transpires in the first issue that they'll be dealing with for a while. Other than that, personally I'd like to see some kind of a finish to the opening chapter of the Captain Valor/Milo/Caliginous saga.
DeMatteis: So that we can finally bring that to some sort of close.
Giffen: Right, a close in the way that Doctor Doom has always been a sort of close. Caliginous will always be this impending doom out there. I'd also like to start exploring a lot of other things like the geopolitical ramifications of Superman showing up in the real world.
DeMatteis: See, that's the real fun of this series. Keith & I have worked in this business between us for about 5000 years. (laughs) We've worked in the Marvel and DC Universes and we've played with the conventions of the form, but the fun of this is that the minute you drop one of these characters into the "alleged" real world, you can start to question all these things. Like how come every time he walks out the front door there's major property damage? All these things that would happen if these guys really existed. We've seen this sort of psuedo reality of the DC & Marvel Universes, but you can't question it too much because those universes would completely collapse. Here we don't have to worry about it collapsing because we've destroyed the universe already. And we can really explore that and look at the absurdity and the ramifications of it. That's the fun of it, for me.
CBR News: It's funny that you say you'll explore a more realistic side of these characters and their world, where I don't know that most people would really expect that "realistic" exploration.
DeMatteis: I'm sure Keith would agree with me, but I've always felt that our characters-- whether the "Justice League" or whatever we're working on-- are far more real than the so-called realistic characters out there.
Giffen: This is going to sound really weird, but I never really saw us as doing a humor book, per se. I always felt these heroes, whether it be "Justice League" or "Defenders" or "Hero Squared," these are the kind of guys I'd like to hang out with and have a beer with.
DeMatteis: I've always maintained that it's the humor that makes them more realistic. They're far more relatable to me than most of the melodramatic, breast beating, angst ridden characters that we're used to. And I should know, 'cause I've written my share of melodramatic, breast beating, angst-ridden characters! I never thought of "Justice League" as a parody. I thought we were doing a book that had a sense of humor, certainly, but it was always character driven humor.
Giffen: A lot of people like to claim that we go in and make fun of the characters. I don't see it as making fun of the characters or holding them up for ridicule anymore than if Marc and I were to start sniping at one another on the phone. Are we making fun of one-another, or are we just engaging in some good natured banter? Look, cops have the weirdest sense of humor of all. They're in this high-pressure situation. So, you've got to figure that after combating a cosmic vampire, when you take off the mask it's going to get a little weird. So, I've always really liked the characters and thought these were the super heroes that I want to be out there.
DeMatteis: When we did our original run on "Justice League," we were on there for five years with "Justice League," "Justice League Europe," "Justice League International," "Justice League Quarterly," mini-series, etc.. If we didn't like those characters, it wouldn't have lasted more than eight months. We really loved those characters.
Giffen: And "Defenders" has been the same way. When we started "Defenders" I had no use for Sub-Mariner. I had no use for him, had no interest in him, didn't care for him as a character, I had no idea how I was going to deal with having him in the book. Now that we're crawling out the tail end of it, I love the character and he's one of the guys that I would demand to have back. So, really, it comes down to finding your level of comfort with the character.
CBR News: Keith, when you described the story for the first issue you used two words that have almost become a cliché in today's comic industry, major event.
Giffen: Well, this is a major event as Marc and I describe a major event. To me, in the kind of books we're doing, constipation is a major event!
Giffen: And I can riff off of that for issue after issue, as Marc well knows. So, when I say "major event," it's something that I've been building up to, unless Marc just re-wrote the whole thing.
CBR News: Well Marc?
DeMatteis: Not yet. The way Keith and I worked on "Justice League" and now on "Defenders" is I didn't want to know what we were going to do. Keith sends me the plot and then I just start riffing on that and write whatever comes into my head. I keep lots of things, of course...
Giffen: Yeah. Like my name in the credits!
DeMatteis: ...and then I bounce it back to Keith and, in his plot for the next issue, he always does something surprising and unexpected with it and it just goes on like that. With "Hero Squared" there's a lot more discussion about what we're going to do. So, Keith and I tend to have fairly lengthy talks about where the stories are going to go. Then he writes the plot, changes everything and ignores everything we talked about!
DeMatteis: Then he sends it to me and I change the script and ignore everything that he talked about. That's why this collaboration is so good! Although I always have to give Keith the lion's share of the credit 'cause-- even if we've talked about a story at length-- he's the guy who has to sit down and face the blank page and start the ball rolling. Even when I'm ignoring what he does...I'm still reacting to it.
Giffen: There are a lot of things that I would never think to put into the story that Marc will write in there. He introduced the concept of the therapist as a throwaway line. Half the characters that appear in "Planetary Brigade" were throwaway characters Marc created because no one would use the ones I created.
Giffen: Nobody wanted Pubic Justice!
CBR News: (laughs) Nobody wants Public Justice, you're right!
DeMatteis: One of my jobs is to be the filter between Keith's fetid, unconscious mind and the public.
Giffen: Marc's not so much the censor, but more he sands things down for human consumption.
CBR News: So, if Marc's the one who allows the rest of the world to remain sane, how do you survive through that, Marc?
DeMatteis: Oh, it's fun! (laughs) I forget whether I originally said this or Keith, but Keith is the kind of guy who'll run to the edge of the world and leap off, which isn't really something I would do. My job is to grab a hold of Keith and stop him from leaping off, but in doing so we've now skidded to the edge of the world. So, he's dragged me farther than I might necessarily go in a story and I've held him back a little bit. It brings us both to a place where we wouldn't have been individually.
Giffen: And I tend to skew dark, while Marc tends to believe the best in people for just a little bit longer than I think is good for him (laughs). Look, I have no idea how this thing works and I really think that whatever it is, it's a very delicate, gossamer thing and if I handle it too much I just know I'm going to break it. All I know is for some odd reason we've connected in an odd way and were too stupid to appreciate it way back when, but now we appreciate it and we're going to run this horse into the ground.
DeMatteis: Yeah, we didn't really appreciate it all that much back then. We had fun, but it was a gig and we were cogs in the Justice League machine that Andy Helfer put together. Then, coming back together after about a ten-year gap we kind of went, "Oh! Oh, this is interesting!" Now I think we're having more fun than we've ever had.
CBR News: And it certainly seems that way reading "Defenders" and "Hero Squared." It sounds like you guys are having a great laugh and throwing back some drinks while you're writing this stuff.
Giffen: And those are the kind of heroes we like! The kind of heroes who after they're done beating the crap out of Dr. Doom, they have some laughs and throw back a couple of beers.
DeMatteis: Although, if I threw back a couple of beers I couldn't write a word!
Giffen: Wow, that's weird, because if I didn't throw back a couple of beers I couldn't write a word!
CBR News: (laughs) You guys very much are the yin-yang of the comic book industry.
DeMatteis: People come with the assumption, "When you guys hang out together do you…" Hang out together? As if we go bar-hopping and hit a lot of parties together
Giffen: And, what, I've seen you once in the past 18 years?
DeMatteis: Something like that. We saw each other a couple of months back at Marvel and it was the first time since we stopped working on "Justice League," which was in the early '90s. So, no, it's not like we exactly hang out.
Giffen: Kevin [Maguire] I keep bumping up against. He's like a bad penny.
DeMatteis: He keeps following you!
Giffen: Yeah, I know. It's kind of sad. (laughs) You'd think he couldn't pay attention long enough!
CBR News: I should just let you guys talk amongst yourselves from here on out.
Giffen: Nah, I'd wind up saying something libelous and Marc would hang up.
DeMatteis: See, I even rewrite our interviews sometimes.
Giffen: That's always funny when I realize that not only is he editing our story, but he's also editing me! (laughs)
DeMatteis: Yeah, we've done a bunch of online interviews where they send us both questions and I'll take Keith's answers and I'll just start to rewrite it the way I do one of our stories. (laughs)
Giffen: One thing I'd like to mention is that out of all the books out there, "Hero Squared" is our labor of love (now that "Battle Royale" is done!).
CBR News: So, how far ahead are you guys on this thing? Do you guys have a one-year plan or something like that?
Giffen: Oh, God no. I can't think like that. I'm not one of those guys who can go, "OK, for the next six-months here's where it's going to go." I have a very loose idea. I know what kind of story I want to tell, but it's really pure seat of the pants.
DeMatteis: Yeah, we talk about themes and where we want the characters to go in a broad sense. When I'm working by myself, I like to map things out a bit more, but even then I like to leave lots of room for spontaneity because I want to be surprised. And as I said earlier, and I wasn't really joking, when Keith and I are working together we'll talk a story through and then he'll go off and he'll write a plot and change whatever he wants. So how attached can we be to that? Then he'll toss it to me and I'll do the same thing. That's really the fun of it when we work together. We don't want to be locked into anything. So, we have these wonderful discussions where we toss these ideas around, but it's really in the spontaneous flip of the story that it really comes together.
Giffen: I'm always astonished when I read an issue of "Defenders" or "Hero Squared" and discover that something I wrote actually got through! (laughs) For instance, in the second issue I was surprised that the "And Umar" joke kept coming up. I won't read the issues until they come out! I can read them new like a reader.
DeMatteis: One of the things we do so well is that Keith will have some brilliant idea he'll use once and I feel like my job is to take that one good joke and beat it into the ground for the next six months. Then he forgets he even said it in the first place and thinks it was my genius that came up with the joke.
Giffen: I do! It's like I really go through this stuff so fast. It's real seat of the pants. I don't outline the page count, I just start writing page one. And when I hit page 22 I just write, "To Be Continued…" It's as purely organic as you can get. I can't do that overview.
CBR News: Looking at your collaborative work over the past 20 years or so, it's as though you guys have developed a particular brand of comedy. Should there be a name for it to protect it in some way?
DeMatteis: I like to call it neo-vaudeville.
Giffen: I've said it before and I'll say it again: what Marc and I do is completely unique. Nobody else in the business is doing it and nobody else can come close to doing it the way we do it. In the little playground that we've constructed, I'll go up against anybody in this business with Marc and we'll blow their doors off. When Marc left "Justice League Europe," because he was going quietly insane with too many Justice League books...
DeMatteis: It wasn't that quiet.
Giffen: ...we went through hell trying to find somebody who could slide in and do even a moderately good job.
CBR News: So, no need to brand it or name it. It is what it is.
Giffen: It's a Giffen-DeMatteis book. When people say our names together it conjures up a specific feel for a comic book, so you shouldn't be surprised at what you get.
DeMatteis: Yet people still are! (laughs) We're pretty much a genre unto our selves. We are what we are and the reason why no one else can do it as good as we can do it is because this is what we do.
Giffen: We're not trying to be Neil Gaiman and we're not trying to be Alan Moore. I love it when people attribute way too much to our writing. You'll find someone who "discovers" all these references and hidden meanings and they compare it to Ayn Rand's philosophies and I say, "What are you talking about? It was a seltzer bottle and a red nose!"
DeMatteis: It's Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for a new generation.
Giffen: And I'm Deano.
DeMatteis: I thought I was Deano.
Giffen: But I'm drinking a martini right now!
DeMatteis: But I sing better than you do!
CBR News: Uh...so are you guys saying that if people find any depth in your work it's in their heads?
Giffen: Look, I'm an incredibly shallow person!
DeMatteis: What he's actually saying is that any depth you find in the writing comes from me!
Giffen: Yes, that's true! Or any heart in the writing! We do tend to reinforce one another. But no, I don't go, "Oh, here's a commentary on Bush's Iraq policies." No, but if it stumbles out like that …
DeMatteis: But we may make fun of George Bush, though!
Giffen: Right, but if it stumbles out like that it's not conscious. I don't do allegory or metaphor. I sit down and think, "Hrmm, that sounds cool."
DeMatteis: Which is Keith's genius.
Giffen: I'm a genius?
DeMatteis: He doesn't have to think about it. It just flows out and it's brilliant.
Giffen: It is, isn't it?
DeMatteis: Maybe genius is the wrong word.
CBR News: What's the right word?
DeMatteis: Idiot savant?
Giffen: That's two words.
DeMatteis: But again, the spontaneous nature of our writing doesn't mean that the characters don't have depth or reality, it just means that they're being created in a very natural way as opposed to in a self-conscious way.
CBR News: Gotcha.
DeMatteis: You can tell I'm the smarter one of the two, right?
Giffen: I'm not going to argue with that!