Tuesday, August 27, 2013

JOCUND JM DEMATTEIS

J.M. DeMatteis, writer of the classic 1980s JUSTICE LEAGUE run, the current issues of THE PHANTOM STRANGER, the upcoming JUSTICE LEAGUE 3000 and a wide variety of other comics, stopped by the Recondite Pictures lot to give us a peek into the mind of the thoughtful superhero scribe!

Here's what he had to say:

ME:  Please walk us through how you co-write books like JUSTICE LEAGUE with Giffen.

JM:  Working with Keith Giffen is unique.  Usually when you’re dialoguing from someone else’s plot—and Keith’s the guy who starts with the blank page and builds the plot—it’s your job to get the plotter’s story across as they intended it, certainly bringing your own voice to it via dialogue and captions, but keeping their vision very much at the forefront.  It’s not about changing the story or adding to it in a significant way.  With Keith, it’s not like that.  When we work together, Keith and I are both free to create from the ground up.  If I want to add new elements, new plot threads, new jokes and character bits to something Keith’s plotted, I’m free to do it.  I’m encouraged to do it.  Then I bounce my version back to him and he takes what I’ve done and spins it around into something new and surprising, bounces it back to me and we keep on from there.  It’s a relationship based on mutual trust, mutual respect and, perhaps, mutual insanity.

Keith is  brilliant:  one of the single most creative humans I’ve ever met.  He’s also (and don’t tell anybody because Keith doesn’t want this to get out) an incredibly nice guy and one of the most generous collaborators it’s ever been my pleasure to work with.  Bottom line is, we each bring out something in the other that isn’t there when we work alone...and, most important, our collaboration is fun.  Last I heard, comics are supposed to be fun, right?

ME:  How long does it take you to write a 22-page comic? Please walk us through the regular process.

JM:  A tough question to answer.  In terms of the mechanics of writing it down, the average full script probably takes me four or five days.  If I’m working plot-first—that is, I write a detailed plot which goes to the artist, he draws it and then I dialogue from the finished pencils—then it’s usually two or so days for the plot, two or so days for the dialogue.  But that’s just the mechanical aspect.  It may take weeks, months, for the story to coalesce in my head before I actually sit down to write.  Or it may all just come to me in a burst.  So there’s really no way to codify it.

ME:  How do you create compelling characters?

JM:  You’ve got to have people who have interesting psychological and emotional layers, who think, who feel, who wrestle with issues.  People who are in search of answers, inside themselves and in the wider world. The best way to do that is to dig inside yourself, to ransack your own thoughts, ideas, dark secrets, deepest emotions.  A writer has to be shameless, has to be unafraid to bring things out into the light that most people would prefer to hide.  But the more you infuse your characters with those kinds of truths, the more authentic they’ll be.

In the end what you want are characters that will root inside the reader’s head and make him feel. That emotional response is, to me, the single most important element of the story.  Without it, you’re dead in the water.

ME:  What makes a good comic book story?

JM:  A good story is a good story, whether it’s a comic book, novel, movie, TV episode.  The essential elements are the same.

There’s a wonderful quote from the science-fiction writer David Gerrold that I return to again and again (and I’m quoting from memory, so if I’ve screwed it up, I apologize):  “A good story is about the journey from pain to hope.  Most important, it’s about what we learn in the transition.  The essential quality is hope.”  That’s certainly not the only definition of a good story, but it’s one of the best I’ve ever come across.

The hope element is very important to me.  I don’t want to write stories that feed a negative world view, that leave the reader feeling that the world is a charnel house, the human race is demented, and life is nothing but struggle.  I don’t believe that.  My view of life and humanity is a very positive one and I want to communicate that.  I want stories that look the darkness in the world square in the eye but leave people feeling uplifted, hopeful.  I want to offer a glimpse of a reality that transcends the nonsense that CNN and Company are ramming down our throats day after day after day.

I’d add to all that by echoing what we talked about earlier:  a good story has to make the reader feel, has to touch her in the deeps of her soul, make her think, make her eyes close in fear and open in wonder.  It has to matter in some way.  If you trot out some brilliant plot, but I’m not moved by your story in some way, then I’m just not going to care.

ME:  How do you write comedy?

JM:  I noted before how important it is for a writer to be shameless.  I think that’s vitally important when you’re writing comedy.  You have to be unafraid to put down the stupidest, silliest, most outrageous things that come into your head.  I remember, years ago, our Justice League editor Andy Helfer saying to me, “Y’know, anyone could do what you do on Justice League.  But you’re the only one who has the guts to put it on the page.”  He was half-joking, but it was a valid point.

That said, “funny” is something that’s really beyond definition, so I don’t know how you can ever teach someone to write comedy.  It requires a certain mindset, a certain twist in the brain, that’s either there or not.  And, of course, what I find funny—Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers or Monty Python—might leave you flat.  It’s a mystery.

ME:  Who are some of your favorite comics writers past or present?

JM:  Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar...to name just a few.

ME:  What are some of the best places to get ideas?

JM:  I don’t generally search stories out, they usually just arrive and, for me, they often arrive in the form of mind-movies.  I’ll wake up in the morning, or be standing in the shower, and I’ll suddenly see a film playing in my head.  I watch the movie and then run to the computer to get the details down.  Of course, after that, there’s lots of work to do and the final idea may end up being vastly different from that initial burst of sound and image.  But when that movie starts playing I know I’m on to something good.

ME:  What makes a successful pitch?

JM:  A story that has a solid and original plot but, far more important (to me, anyway), engages the reader emotionally and psychologically.  You don’t have to have all the details down, but you need to hook the reader (or listener, if it’s a verbal pitch) in the gut. The story, as I said earlier, has to matter.

The trick is boiling it all down to the essence.  When you’re pitching you’ve got to get the hook in fast and keep the audience on the line.  It’s almost like transforming your story into a poem or song lyric.  You have to be concise.  And that’s not always easy.

ME:  What story do new readers need to search out in the back issue bins to try out your work?

JM:  If they’re looking for my more personal, idiosyncratic work, I’d recommend either Moonshadow or Brooklyn Dreams (probably my two favorite projects, with BD coming out ahead by a hair).  If they’re into superheroes, I’d suggest The Life and Times of Savior 28, which merges the personal work with the capes and tights genre.  If it’s Marvel/DC icons they prefer, I’d recommend my Batman arc, “Going Sane” (which DC collected a few years back) or my Spectacular Spider-Man run with Sal Buscema.  And, finally, if they’re looking for a good laugh, I’d recommend Hero Squared, my favorite collaboration with the brilliant Mr. Giffen.


Scott Amundson writes comics for Bluewater Productions, Heroes Fallen Studios and Recondite Pictures.

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