CBH writer and editor Sean Dillon recently had the opportunity to conduct a career-spanning interview with comics legend J.M. DeMatteis. Check it all out below!
On Magic and Spirituality:
Some of your fellow comics writers (like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison) openly practice magic. In particular, they note the inherently mystical nature of art. The act of creating something with meaning out of thin air. Do you agree with this approach to art or is there something else going on?
I do think creating art is magical…perhaps not in the same sense that Moore and Morrison mean it. We open the door to our unconscious, which in turn opens the door to something that exists beyond ourselves (In a way, creativity is a form of spiritual practice that aligns us with Something Bigger, the Self of selves).
I sometimes imagine that there’s a Dimension of Story out there, where all the stories ever told, and all the stories that will be told, exist. And we, as writers, become channels for those stories. But they have to flow through the filter of our individual psyches, our personalities, quirks, obsessions, etc. So the story merges with us and then emerges into the world.
I could talk about this for hours—this is just the tip of the iceberg—but maybe I’ll save that discussion for a book about the creative process!
In some of your works, you use neopronouns for G-d like hir/hir. Was there any specific reasoning for this?
Just that, in my mind, the Divine is ultimately beyond gender—even if that Divinity may sometimes incarnate within a specific gender. So I searched for a combination of “him” and “her” and came up with “hir.”
How would you describe your approach to writing the Divine in general?
I just write from my heart, from my own experiences, and try to be as honest as possible. I also try not to preach, just to present possibilities and say, “Look! Maybe there’s more to this world than what we take it to be. Maybe there’s more to all of us than what we take ourselves to be.”
In the graphic novel, Supergirl: Wings, you take an almost psychogeographic approach to a mystical world. Have you ever considered applying that approach again?
I honestly know nothing about psychogeography—this is the first I’ve heard of it—so it’s hard to answer that one. If you mean the idea of breaking down the spiritual world into specific components, then yes. I’d based that on reading I’d done on the angelic realms and it worked for that story.
Would I do that again? I think that approach is part of the landscape in my new Spellbound Comics series Layla in the Lands of After. Speaking of which…
On His New Projects:
Recently, you’ve launched and successfully funded a self-publishing company for a set of new series, under the name Spellbound Comics. Why did you go down this route as opposed to releasing the titles with Berger Books, as you did The Girl in the Bay?
The wonderful thing about crowdfunding is that it removes all the walls between creator and audience. I love the idea of going directly to the people who read, and enjoy, my work; taking these ideas I’d been developing for years and finally getting them out into the world. It was a lot of work—I couldn’t have done it without Spellbound’s David Baldy as a creative and business partner—but it was profoundly gratifying. The books are at the printer and should be in people’s hands by the end of April.
Why did you decide to keep the fifth book a secret instead of announcing the full slate all together?
The fifth book, The Edward Gloom Mysteries, wasn’t planned as part of the original launch, it was a separate project that Vassilis Gogtzilas and I were working on. The first issue was complete and we thought it would be fun to throw it in as a last-minute bonus, a special treat for everyone who was supporting us.
Are there plans to reprint some of your older, currently out of print works like Brooklyn Dreams or Greenberg the Vampire through Spellbound? Any plans to involve other creators to do works outside of the DeMultiverse?
Right now our goal with Spellbound is to move all our launch projects—Layla, Godsend, Wisdom, and Anyman—forward. No plans to bring in any of my other work. That said, that could change tomorrow and I could see eventually bringing back some of my older creator-owned work if the opportunity presents itself.
As for the two projects you asked about specifically: Greenberg is owned by Marvel and the collection that came out a few years back is still available through Comixology. (I hope it’s back in print soon, too.) Brooklyn Dreams will be coming out, either late this year or early next from— Well, I can’t officially announce that yet but it will be a beautiful edition.
If you were to recommend other works to read alongside the various DeMultiverse titles, what would they be?
Of my own? I think the two you’ve mentioned, along with Moonshadow, Seekers Into The Mystery, Abadazad, etc. But, really, these are, in some ways, related to my entire body of work—not just creator-owned work, but my projects for Marvel and DC, as well. The themes and ideas that run through these stories are themes and ideas that have obsessed me my entire life and run through all my stories.
And of works by other creators?
I’d recommend anything by my amazing collaborators—Tom Mandrake, Matthew Dow Smith, Shawn McManus, and David Baldeon.
On Peter Parker and Spider-Man:
One of my favorite underrated comics is Soul of the Hunter, wherein Spider-Man comforts the ghost of Kraven the Hunter after fighting his corpse. What made you and Mike decide to take that approach with a follow-up to Kraven’s Last Hunt?
Tom DeFalco, who was Marvel’s editor-in-chief then (and one of the nicest, smartest, most talented guys in the business) had received a letter from a suicide prevention group disturbed about Kraven’s Last Hunt, interpreting the story as a glorification of suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Kraven is mentally ill, he’s inherited his mother’s troubled psyche. (Which is why his last words before pulling the trigger are: “They say my mother was insane…”)
Still, it genuinely bothered me that anyone would interpret our story that way, and I certainly didn’t want that to happen again in the future, so I mulled it over and came up with Soul of the Hunter as a way to clarify the Kraven issue and also deal with Peter’s inevitable PTSD. (You don’t get buried alive for weeks and just walk away from it.) I think it makes a nice coda to KLH.
Recently, you’ve done a pair of mini-series exploring unseen aspects the Clone Saga of Spider-Man. Why is that? What drew you to follow up on a rather controversial era of your career?
Plain and simple: I love those characters. Getting to reunite with Ben Reilly on Ben Reilly: Spider-Man was like getting together with an old and dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. We picked up right where we left off. Same with Peter and Mary Jane in Spider-Man: The Lost Hunt. I know these characters—in some ways I know them better than some of my own close friends—and it was a joy to tell stories about them again.
But these weren’t just nostalgia trips. I wouldn’t have done either series if I didn’t believe I could bring something fresh to the table, illuminating these characters in new ways.
On that note, what were your plans for Judas Traveler? Several interviews with other members of the Spider-Man writing team seem to indicate you had a plan for him.
I’m sure I did—he was a character I found fascinating—but, honestly, I’ve forgotten!
You mentioned on your blog that for you, Spider-Man remains a married man. Was there any pushback from editorial when writing The Lost Hunt to make Peter and MJ not-married? What is it about their marriage that appeals to you?
I just always loved the Peter/MJ dynamic. Two people deeply in love, supportive of each other, facing all their struggles and triumphs together. They don’t just love each other, they respect each other, they enjoy each other’s company. They’re lovers, yes, but they’re also the very best of friends. And that, to me, is what makes a great marriage.
And, no, there was no pushback about portraying the marriage. I think it would have been harder portraying them in that period—with Mary Jane so very pregnant—as not married!
Are there any other eras of Spider-Man you would be interested in revisiting, be it your own or someone else’s?
If it’s the right story, I’d pop into any Spidey era…including the current one. It’s less about when the story is set and more about what it has to say.
In the afterword for Maximum Carnage, you describe Peter Parker as embodying “the belief in the ascendency of the human heart, the essential nobility of the common man.” Equally, throughout your runs on Spectacular and Amazing, you emphasize the anger piercing the heart of the character. What drew you to this dichotomy?
Duality is the core of human nature, right? Peter is a truly good and decent man, but that doesn’t mean he—like all of us—doesn’t have demons that he’s wrestling with. What sets Peter apart from some people is the fact that, even though he’s wrestling with the darkness, he will always side with the light. It’s his basic nature. The shadow may creep in, but it will never blot out the light.
Peter Parker is essentially kind and compassionate—but far from perfect. And from the earliest Lee-Ditko stories, it’s that combination of inherent decency and relatable human flaws that has made him such a memorable character.
On Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, and Spectre:
In 2001, you worked with Seth Fisher on the brilliant Green Lantern: Willworld. What was it like working with Fisher?
As noted, Seth was massively talented and possessed of a massive imagination. I’d write a wild sequence and he’d add so many incredible visual elements, enriching everything I gave him. It was a magical collaboration. He was also very curious, filled with questions about the story, what I meant, what I intended, what the philosophy was beyond it. So gifted in so many ways. Can you imagine what he’d be doing today, how much he would have grown? What a loss.
Between Willworld and Spectre, you’ve done a tremendous amount of work with Hal Jordan. You were, arguably, before Geoff, the definitive modern Hal Jordan writer, writing him and defining him in the ongoing capacity. Could you talk about your feelings on Hal? Where do you stand with that character? How do you see him? What do you think defines Hal for you, and makes him special? What grabs you about him?
For me, it’s a childhood connection. When I was a kid, I adored Green Lantern. I still think the basic premise of the character—will + imagination = manifestation—isn’t just a perfect recipe for great stories, it’s a perfect recipe for life. So I’ve always had great affection for Hal, both the original 60s version and the slightly altered version Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams put forth in their Green Lantern/Green Arrow series.
What attracted me to Spectre was the chance to tell a redemption tale. Here was this character I loved as a kid and he’d been turned into some kind of mass killer and then, after death, was given this impossible task, to live on as the Spectre. It was a crazy turn of events, I don’t even know if it was a good idea, but I latched onto it, especially the concept of bringing Hal back from that and using the Spectre to explore ideas about redemption, God, the Afterlife. So many worlds open up when you walk through that door.
As for Willworld, it goes back to that formula: will + imagination = manifestation. That story allowed us—and I give credit to the absolutely brilliant Seth Fisher and our editor Joey Cavalieri, both of whom helped hatch the basic idea—to really dive in and explore that concept, to look at Creation itself as an act of pure imagination. I love that graphic novel, more for Seth’s extraordinary art (talk about imagination!) than anything else. That he died so young was a genuine tragedy.
What are your thoughts on John Broome as a writer? You grew up reading his Green Lantern with Gil Kane, so could you talk about what made him distinct/standout as a writer for you? Particularly in his era. And what do you think defined his Green Lantern with Gil?
Broome was one of those writers I was reading when I was very young and his vast imagination certainly fueled mine. The DC comics of the era weren’t necessarily strong on characterization, but they were bursting with amazing concepts—other worlds and dimensions around every corner— that exploded my imagination and showed me the broad scope stories can achieve. I’m sure I carry the imprint of Broome’s stories to this day.
And Gil Kane? Even in the days before credits were common in comics, I somehow knew who Gil Kane was. He remains a god in my comic book pantheon. So dynamic, so fluid, so graceful, so visceral. Truly one of the great storytellers of the era.
In Willworld, you open with Hal Jordan as a cowboy hero. A literal man with no name. Going back to the Paul Newman aspect of the character, it occurs to me that Newman is one of the great cowboys of the 20th century. What is it about the western hero that fits so well with Hal Jordan?
I didn’t do that consciously. I tend to write intuitively, so I don’t have every detail mapped out. Willworld has a lot to do with childhood innocence and imagination, and I suspect my unconscious naturally took me back to my own childhood, when the Western was everywhere. (There was a time, when I was six or seven, when something like three quarters of the TV shows on the air were Westerns!) My young consciousness was imprinted with endless visions of the Old West—or at least 1960s TV writers’ versions of it—and those visions just flowed out into Willworld and, I think, served the story well.
In you Spectre run, you had Hal Jordan don the role of G-d’s spirit of vengeance, who would evolve into one of redemption. In the original Broome/Kane comics, the Green Lanterns as a whole are presented as cosmic angels. Was there any deliberate intention towards portraying Hal in such a light?
My main focus, as noted earlier, was Hal’s journey to redemption, a journey we’re all on in one form or another. I wasn’t really thinking about the GLs as cosmic angels. At the same time, Abin Sur was there with Hal acting as a kind of guardian angel, so maybe I was doing just that, albeit unconsciously!
On Batman and JLI:
How do you feel about the modern usages of the JLI characters from the villainous turn of Maxwell Lord to the recent The Human Target?
I’ve heard fantastic things about Human Target, but I haven’t read it. Keith and I have both said that our JLI exists in its own universe—the Giffen-DeMatteis Universe—and that any other versions that have come along, good or bad, have nothing to do with ours. One of the fun things about working on Justice League 3000/3001, which came out around ten years ago, was picking up the threads of our continuity and solidifying our own, very specific, continuity.
In many of your stories, you portray Batman as a somewhat negative force in the universe. From Superman: Speeding Bullets portraying the identity as a toxic cage from which Bruce Wayne must escape in order to become Superman to Supergirl: Wings having the closest thing it has to a devil portrayed with a Batman silhouette. To say nothing about Batman: Absolution, where the caped crusader is literally spat on by G-d hirself. Was there an intentionality to this?
I don’t recall Batman being spat on by God, so I can’t answer that.
More broadly: I think Batman is open to many interpretations—that’s the beauty of the character—and, in all of them, there’s something fundamental that remains consistent. And, no, I don’t think he’s necessarily a negative force. The Batman in my Legends of the Dark Knight arc, “Going Sane”—which is one of my all-time favorite projects—is very much a force for good, for light. He’s the son of a doctor, a healer, and he’s a kind of doctor himself. His patient is Gotham City. I prefer that version of Batman. I also wrote eight or so episodes of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series, and that was a very bright, but very valid, interpretation of the character.
The whole point of Absolution was that Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne, he’s a mask, but sometimes the man gets lost in the bat-persona and it’s vital that he pulls himself back before Batman consumes him.
How do you feel about the modern age of superheroes? How have things changed in the wake of your career?
Styles change, approaches to visual storytelling change, but the essence of a good story remains the same. So things change and don’t change at all at the same time.
What work of yours do you wish more people talk about?
The average comic book fan knows me from my superhero work—especially Spider-Man and Justice League—so I guess I’d like more people to be aware of my creator-owned work.
With Seekers into the Mystery getting canceled before its time, what plans did you have for the remainder of the series?
I had three years of stories mapped out, but we were cancelled after a year and a half, so, that all went up in cosmic smoke. There was one arc in particular—it would have been the next one in the series and it dealt with reincarnation—that I’ve never let go of. And I may write it yet, just not as a Seekers story.
I’ve noticed that reincarnation tends to pop up a lot in your fiction. Aside from the Seekers story idea, you had an extremely lovely speech about it in your Spectre run about how Hal and Carol will recur in new forms, The Girl in the Bay explores two different incarnations of the same woman (one who got to grow up and one who didn’t), and Supergirl: Wings had its titular character fuse with her charge into something completely different. What draws you to this idea?
I’m fascinated by the soul’s continuity, by the concept that we return, again and again, in different forms, with different faces, to continue our adventures on this Earth.
On His Time In Hollywood:
What was the original version of The Girl I Married like? Have you considered adapting it into prose or comics?
As happens with many TV scripts, The Girl.. was rewritten—and, since I was brand new to the TV arena, it probably needed it!—but the essence of my characters and my story was retained. The one thing I objected to was the dismissive attitude the main characters had toward their younger selves. In my version, they respected and honored who they’d been and realized that they’d always carry those people with them, always be grateful to them.
That said, writing for TZ was a great way to break into the business (And I am forever grateful to the great Alan Brennert for opening that door). I have warm memories of being on set, watching them film. It was magical.
And , no, I can’t adapt it because I don’t own it!
What was it like being in the writers room for Superboy?
The Superboy experience was short—I was only down at Universal Studios in Orlando for six weeks, helping them put together the final season—but wonderful. The best part of it, aside from the creative work itself, was getting to know the producer, Stan Berkowitz (who remains a friend; Stan was the guy who brought me on to Justice League Unlimited and launched my animation career), and the other staff writer, Paul Stubenrauch. Paul, too, became a good friend, and it was heartbreaking when he passed away a few years after Superboy ended.
Not many people even know that show existed, but I’m very proud of the work I did—especially “Know Thine Enemy,” a two-parter that explored Lex Luthor’s tragic childhood.
In many regards, Moonshadow is your most ambitious work, an attempt at creating a new form of storytelling within the comics landscape with water color paintings for panels (as delivered by the brilliant Jon Muth) to the storybook stylings of the narrative. In some regards, it’s almost an illustrated novel. What made you decide to go down this path?
I don’t know if I decided to go down that path or if the path just opened up to me. In that period, the mid-1980s, comics were creatively exploding, barriers were breaking down, we had new formats, new genres, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Moonshadow was an idea I’d had, in a variety of forms, for years (long before I got into comics) but it didn’t really come alive till I actually began writing it. In stepping out of the Marvel/DC Universes, in creating something of my own from the ground up, I dropped all my conceptions of what a comic book should be and just wrote, from the deepest parts of myself. Again, the path opened up and I followed it. Along with way, I found my own distinct voice as a writer.
And, of course, without Jon J Muth we probably wouldn’t be talking about Moonshadow today. He remains one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He cracked that story open, creating a visual world unlike anything seen in comics till then. When you’re working with someone that gifted, you have to up your game. I think Jon challenged me to be better, reach farther, and I think (hope!) I did the same for him.
A fantastic collaboration.
I like to joke with some of my fellow comics critics that you aren’t a real comics company until you publish an edition of Moonshadow. How did that series finally get a definitive home as opposed to bumping around from publisher to publisher?
I wouldn’t say it bumped around. Epic changed their mission statement over the years, so Carl Potts, who was running the imprint at the time, generously gave it back to us and Vertigo, which was really the spiritual successor to the early Epic line, welcomed us with open arms. It stayed with DC/Vertigo for many years, but, again, things change, and we got the book back again and finally landed at Dark Horse, where they did a gorgeous new edition back in 2019 that was nominated for an Eisner. So that’s three publishers in thirty-plus years. No so bad!
Moon will be back in print from Dark Horse, in some surprising new editions, either later this year or early next.
In Moonshadow, one of the central characters is Ira — a beer chugging, cigar chomping, bastard who does unspeakable things and is valorized at the end. This is in stark contrast to a lot of your other “heroic” figures who are largely more sympathetic characters. What drew you to write Ira in such a way?
I don’t know if he was “valorized.” I’d say he was humanized. I always saw Ira as a kind of Dostoyevskian character, tormented, driven by some of the humanity’s worst impulses. The embodiment of our shadow selves. And that, I think, was one reason why Moon loved him, he was drawn to everything he himself wasn’t. In some ways, Ira was acting out all the behaviors Moon would never dare do (Plus Moon was desperate for a father figure and projected that need onto Ira).
But, as with all of us—even the worst of us—there was a vulnerability, a humanity, at Ira’s core that we glimpsed toward the end of the story. I think Moon always knew it was there.
As with any work, some elements of Moonshadow don’t hold up to a more modern lens. In many regards, it’s a consequence to the moral philosophy presented in Seekers into the Mystery, where an attempt to draw out further and further questions leads past answers wanting. How do you approach these elements going forward?
I don’t think that way. As noted, I write intuitively. I just follow the stories and characters where they lead. Trust the story and it will lead you to the right place, regardless of any lens.
With Farewell, Moonshadow, you took a character you already took through the wringer — dealing with various wars, religious competitions, and greedy capitalists — and essentially gave him the Job treatment. Looking back, do you feel like you were being a bit harsh?
No. I’d had that story in mind since the 80s, right after we finished the original run. It was another way to look at Moon, at his spiritual journey, at life itself, from a more mature perspective. And, again, even though he endured terrible suffering, Moonshadow found his light at the end of the tunnel, his truth and meaning, in the end.
Given he worked with you on both Moonshadow and Seekers into the Mystery, have you been in touch with Jon? Any plans on collaborating again?
Jon is a good friend, we talk regularly. I’d work with him again any time. Nothing planned at the moment, but I’m always open to it.
On Music and Melodies:
Given you literally called one of your magnum opuses Moonshadow, it’s clear that Yusuf / Cat Stevens is a major influence on your work. And then there’s the extremely charming album you produced in the 90s, How Many Lifetimes. Are there any other musicians who have influenced you so?
The Beatles more than any others, John Lennon especially. He remains my one true rock and roll hero.
I don’t think Yusuf/Stevens was a major influence, but I did love his work back in the day—and still do.
The title for the series came about because I wanted a name evocative of that era. I literally sat down with my albums and flipped through them looking for something that would resonate. When I came across the song “Moonshadow,” it just clicked. Plus, Yusuf/Stevens’ work was very much about the kind of spiritual search Moon was on, so it fit perfectly.
-On that note, how do you feel about How Many Lifetimes with a few decades of remove?
I’m incredibly proud of it. Working on that album remains one of the great creative joys of my life.
Do you have a favorite track from How Many Lifetimes?
Probably the title track, “How Many Lifetimes?” And I’m also very fond of “Diane,” which I wrote for my wife when we were on our honeymoon in India. But, really, I poured heart and soul into all those songs.
Before the album, you were attempting to have a career as a musician, joining numerous bands. You even wrote a review of a Grateful Dead album for Rolling Stone. How did writing for comics compare to writing music? How did you infuse the work of one mode into the other?
That’s true. I’d been playing guitar, writing songs, playing in bands, for years. Music is an essential part of who I am and it definitely spills over into my fiction, especially comics.
I talk in my workshops about the musicality of writing comics: the drum beat, the melodies, the counter melodies. I do tend to see my writing in musical terms but, again, it’s more of an intuitive flow than a conscious decision. Once a musician always a musician, I guess.
I did music journalism for a few years before I made the jump into comics with both feet. It was a way to scratch my music itch and my writing itch at the same time. But I decided that I’d much rather be the guy creating the work and being criticized than the guy sitting in judgement on other people’s creative work. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
What music are you listening to now?
I still listen to a lot of Beatles—together and solo. It’s my absolute favorite music and their work has only deepened with the years.
As for others: I have pretty eclectic tastes. Looking at my Spotify playlists, I see everything from Sinatra (another god in my musical pantheon) to Indian music, ambient to Kasey Musgraves, Bob Dylan to Florence +the Machine to movie soundtracks. I have playlists for just about every decade since the 20s, so I can travel to any era from the past to the present, depending on my mood.
My favorite thing about streaming music is that I can read about something new and instantly check it out. That’s the way I discover new artists these days.
-Have you considered doing another album?
I think about it all the time. I’ve got a backlog of so many songs that I’d have to start with a double album and then go from there. I’m a great believer in the universe’s perfect timing, so I hope that, before too long, I find the right group of musicians, head back into the studio, and then get these songs out into the world.