Interviews J. M. DeMatteis

"The impossible isn't a limitation, it's an invitation."- JM DeMatteis

J.M. DeMatteis

A few years ago, we had the pleasure of an e-mail back-and-forth with one of Comicdom's most-known names: J. M. DeMatteis. While the interview was published, it didn't get the attention it deserved at the time and part of that was due to formatting issues. So, here is the exchange in a nicer format with more examples of DeMatteis' many works.

Stephen King once said horror and comedy are the hardest to write, because if you screw up, one becomes the other. (I'm paraphrasing of course.) J.M. DeMatteis has done both successfully, according to both critics and readers. He has pushed the boundaries of the medium and what people expect from comics with such works as Blood, Moonshadow, and Abadazad, as well as written some of the most memorable sagas in monthly, mainstream capes titles.
J.M. DeMatteis always brings something unique and refreshing to every work, regardless of genre, format, or audience expectation. He knows how to intimately sublimate his Name into the work, denying readers any expectation of what they are about to experience. And there is no denying that DeMatteis' every work is an experience to be had.

The Weirding: Do you have a plotted career or do you just go with the flow? Do you intentionally set-out to challenge expectations; do you just tell the story you want to tell, or do you consider audience, expectation, and other "meta" concepts when you set-out to write and create?

J.M. DeMatteis: In the end, it’s all about the story.  The longer I write, the more I understand that Stories - and they deserve the capital S - have lives and intentions of their own and I’m just the vehicle they use.  It's as if they choose me. plugging into my particular psychological and spiritual mindset as a way to express something that, in the end, is way beyond the limited “me.”  So the more I surrender to the Story, the more I allow it to just come through, the better, the truer, the work is.

That said, I have, very consciously, tried to work in a wide variety of genres and style, doing mainstream superheroes, deeply personal creator- owned work, humorous material, kid-friendly material, TV, novels, etc.  Because it keeps things fresh and keeps my creative life interesting.  If I only did one thing, only wrote one kind of story, I think I’d lose my mind!

I think nothing will kill a story more quickly than anticipating “audience expectations.”  Be true to yourself, be true to your tale, and the audience will come to you.  And, if they don’t... well, at least you will have written something that matters to you.

It comes back to the same thing:  the story.  I don’t generally set out to capture a specific audience, I set out to tell a specific story and tell it as best I can.  That said, I know that when I’m writing a kid-friendly book like Abadazad or Imaginalis that I’m not going to include the kind of graphic language or graphic images that might work naturally in a Vertigo book.  But I’m not in any way writing down [to the audience] or changing my essential writing style.  Abadazad and Moonshadow were both written with the same passion and intensity and desire to craft as literate, and as deep, a story as I possibly could.  I think the best children’s books are the ones that are written on a level that can approach any reader at any age.  The minute you think “I’m writing this for a kid,” you’ve wrecked the story. 

Be true to the story, be true to yourself and your vision for that story-and then tell it as best you can.  That’s what matters.

The Weirding: As for mediums, you have worked in film and moving pictures, sequential art, and have a background in music. Do you have a preference for any particular medium or genre?

J.M. DeMatteis: My preference, in the end, is for the stories that matter most to me on a personal level.  That usually means a story I’ve created from the ground up.  Worlds I’ve birthed from my own imagination: a Moonshadow, Abadazad, Brooklyn Dreams. But I’ve written many stories for mainstream superhero comics that came from just as deep a place - although it may not always be as obvious to the audience that, say, Peter Parker’s thoughts and feelings in a Spider-Man story are identical to my own deepest thoughts and feelings at the time I’m writing the story.

I know I keep repeating the same theme over and over, but once I’m engaged with the Story - or once it's engaged with me - it doesn’t matter whether the project is indie, mainstream, television, movie or novel, superhero, biography, or fantasy, I follow it where it leads.

Of course, an episode of "ThunderCats" doesn’t have the same personal resonance that my creator-owned work does, but that doesn’t mean I can’t engage with the work and enjoy it immensely on its own terms.

TW: Have you ever had to "force" a project into a medium or genre and, if so, how did you do this?

JMD: I think a good story can adapt to any medium, it’s the mode of expression that changes; and, of course, there’s the intuitive voice leading you on, saying “No, that’s not a comic book, that’s a novel!” or “No, dummy, that’s not a novel, that’s a movie script!” Part of the fun is discovering the ideal form for the idea’s expression.  Perhaps discovering isn’t the right word; it’s more like the story reveals the way it would like be expressed. 

TW: Many in the industry are fighting piracy. I believe industry practices - underprinting issues to ensure multiple reprints, rising prices, collecting runs in TPB right after they've finished running monthly, et. al. - to be the real culprit here. Some even say piracy is helping the industry by promoting comics in general. I do not promote nor engage in piracy, but I do believe current industry practices encourage it. What are your thoughts on this controversial subject? Do you think the industry is better-off fighting this problem legally or could it be defeated by changing the practices that promote it?

JMD: I think, in the digital age, piracy is with us for the long haul.  That said, iTunes has proven that people will happily pay for the thing they were getting for free - if the price is right and the delivery system is attractive.  I think that, as the iPad and devices like it become more common, and as more and more work becomes available in attractive digital forms, we’ll see less piracy.

The truth is, though, that there’s always been some kind of piracy around entertainment.  When I was a teenager, I’d borrow albums from friends and tape-record them.  It was a way to get familiar with an artist and their work.  Inevitably, if I liked that artist, I’d go out and buy his or her music, so the “free sample” worked to the artist’s advantage in the end.  I think the same is true now.  A certain amount of free sampling is inevitable and, up to a point, valuable to building an audience.  It’s the people who think they never have to pay for anything that are the real problem.  And, sadly, they’ll always be with us, in some form or another.

TW: But that's good for the creator - the writer, the artist, et. al. - and not the publishers.

JMD: As for industry practices:  I really don’t know.  I do strongly feel that, in a few years, we’ll be seeing the monthly comic book we all know and love become a purely digital creature; with TPB collections still appearing in print.  But, with time, that, too, may go.  In the end, I don’t really care what form the work takes, as long as it’s good work and the people creating that work are fairly compensated for their efforts.

TW: Digital comics are finally making headway after years of struggling. I've discovered fantastic digital sequential art works made specifically for the medium, but I think digitizing traditional print comics is a big step backward. I also believe that if you can simply print a webcomic, it isn't maximizing its potential or utilizing the digital medium; they are definitely not the same medium, nor should they be treated the same way. Do you think the industry is moving toward webcomics, and should it?

J.M. DeMatteis: As noted above, I think that, down the line, they’ll all be web comics; and, as the form evolves, we’ll all be taking advantage of the delivery system, telling our stories in new ways for the new medium.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with presenting standard comics in digital form as long as it’s done intelligently and attractively.  The form has to be adapted so that the viewing/reading experience is unique to the delivery system.  The potential for digital is really limitless and I look forward to seeing it evolve.

The Weirding: Many are decrying the decline in comics sales, but I believe I've mentioned the reasons for it - the real reasons for it. The industry is doing all of the same wrong things it did back in the 1990s when Image launched: constant mega-crossovers, pointless variant covers, under-printing runs, devaluing back issues, et. al. Do you think the market is down because of these things? Do you think the public is just tired of superheroes after the glut of movies and TV shows? What do you think is the real problem(s), if any, or is this just the usual cycle?

JMD: I think that - in all forms of entertainment - the model is changing, the audience is fracturing, the sand is shifting beneath our feet.  It relates to our discussion of digital comics: the way in which we’re entertained is changing daily and it’s impossible for the old models to keep up. It’s too easy to blame mega-crossovers.  The truth is, the companies keep doing mega-crossovers, or massive relaunches, because that’s what the readers are buying.  The instant they stop buying them, the companies will stop doing them. On another front, I think that it’s very easy, in 2011, to be a huge superhero fan and never read a comic book.  You can watch the movies, the TV shows, play the video games and get all the superhero action you could ever want. That’s certainly contributed to the decline in sales.

As noted, it’s not just comics:  TV is fracturing, movies are fracturing, music is fracturing and many new models are evolving. It’s a terrifying time and yet it’s an exhilarating, creative time, as well.

TW: Abadazad tackles the creator's ultimate hurdle: Finalizing the medium and working within its confines. While it may technically be considered multimedium, Abadazad shows a willingness and desire to break from the traditional means of storytelling. Are you looking to bring that online in another project, or even with Abadazad? Are you interested in multimedia projects? Do you see the Internet as the delivery system or a medium unto itself? How do you want to exercise or exploit the Web and Internet?

JMD: It’s a great question and I don’t quite know the answer yet.  All I know is that I want to tell stories that matter to me, tell them well, and find the best vehicles to get those stories into people’s hands.

Abadazad jumped from comics to books by accident; it would, of course make a great film or animated TV show, and I’d love to see that happen.  But, really, right now my main goal is just to get Zad back in some form and finish the damn story.  It broke my heart when Hyperion pulled the plug on the series.  (The good news is that the result of my heartbreak was my novel, Imaginalis:  creativity, as I like to say, is the best revenge.)

As for breaking from traditional storytelling:  Whenever I’ve done that, it’s been, for the most part, unconscious.  I’ve just followed the story where it lead me and expressed it in the way that I thought (or it thought!) best suited the tale.  It’s only later that I’ve realized that I did something new or different.

TW: Film is very much sequential and you've worked in both television and movies. There are a lot of people getting into comics as a stepping-stone to film work. Aside from misguided industry practices, I believe this is another reason comics sales are suffering: Comic book readers plunk down their hard-earned cash to read a comic book, not a screenplay or someone's retooled mss. What are the major differences between the mediums of TV, movies, and film and sequential art? What advice can you offer creators for working in either field?

JMD: They’re totally different.  The scripts for, say, an animated half hour show like "Batman:  The Brave and the Bold" and a 20 page monthly Batman comic book don’t resemble each other at all.  They’re unique animals,  with challenges that are unique to the form and medium.  The creative process itself is also different-television is far more collaborative and, no matter what the onscreen credits say, it’s always a group effort.  There are basics of story structure that apply across the board to film, comics, TV, novels - but the way those basics apply differ with the form of expression.  Anyone who thinks you can do a comic book mini-series and just change a few words to turn it into a film is in for a rude awakening.  Lots of folks have come from film and been shocked by how much work goes into writing a comic book script; and lots of comic book folks have tried their hand at screenwriting and slammed into brick walls.

I’ve never been one of those people who says that comics are “movies on paper.”  For me, the fun of comics is that they’re not movies, they’re not prose, they’re a unique hybrid that can bring elements of literature and film - and poetry and music (because there’s a real musical component to the flow and tone and beat of a comic book story) - together to make something wholly new. 

That said, I’ll return to my mantra: story, story, story.  In the end it’s all about the story and, once you have a handle on that and once you understand the medium you’re working in, it’s all about following - and let’s capitalize it again - the Story where it wants to go.  It takes time to get used to a new form, but I believe that, if you’re a storyteller at heart, you can always find a way to express your story no matter the form.

The Weirding: I hear you have something coming with your old partner, Keith Giffen. What other projects do you have in-store for fans and when can we expect to see them?

J.M. DeMatteis: Keith, Kevin Maguire, and I would love to do something new - it’s such a joy, such a creative rush, when we work together; the collaboration just gets better the more time passes - and we’ve discussed a number of things.  Because Keith is DC exclusive, it has to be a DC project, which means the decision, in the end, isn’t ours; it’s theirs.  If the DC Powers That Be want to see the three of us together on a new project, then we’ll be doing it.  If they’re not interested, then, sadly, nothing I say or do will change their minds.

As for other projects:  I’ve spent the past few months developing a number of new things that I’m very excited about - book ideas, television ideas, comic book ideas - and now it’s time to take them to market.  We’ll see where that leads!
Justice League of America, 1987

In the spring, I did a couple of Masterclasses - one at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, another at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art - and enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve put together a weekend writing workshop called Imagination 101: Writing for Comics, Graphic Novels, and Animation.  I’m doing the first one in upstate New York - about two hours north of New York City - and it’s an opportunity for creative people interested in these forms to immerse themselves in the art, craft, and metaphysics of Story for an entire weekend.  I’d like to encourage anyone who’s interested - no matter where you may live (we’ve got students coming from different states and we’ve worked out a great deal with a local hotel) - to find out more about the class by going to:

I’m already talking to some folks about taking Imagination 101 on the road in the spring, so we’ll see where this leads.  It’s something new and exciting that I’ve never done before and I think it will be as valuable an experience for me as for the students.

© The Weirding, 2011, 2015

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