Many geeks will tell you (and many non-geeks should learn) that the 1980s were a vibrant era for the comic book form.
Lucky for me (and the world, too, I reckon), I was an impressionable teenager building the foundation of my writerly self at the time.
And I happened to collect comics.
In the 1980s, both mainstream and independent comic book publishers were pushing the medium to tell complex stories, sometimes with superheroes and sometimes not, typically pairing innovative story-telling with stunning, genre-busting art work. (The first painted comics—as opposed to the historical pencil/ink creations—began appearing in the mid-1980s.)
There was a wondrous, ground-breaking series hitting shelves every week. Maybe it’s nostalgia speaking, but to someone who favored comic books to almost any other art form, the 1980s were a comic book renaissance.
One writer, though, was the writer I needed during that tumultuous time of my life. While my peers were discovering punk rock and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ I was discovering the writing of JM DeMatteis.
What sets DeMatteis apart from the likes of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman is the raw, personal and spiritual bent DeMatteis brings to his scripts. Reading into comments I’ve absorbed from DeMatteis, as well as the works themselves, he takes on each creative project with ideas in mind but without knowing where precisely the project will take him. That’s a risky artistic stance in a deadline-driven medium like comic books, and I have to guess DeMatteis has endured his share of sleepless nights while serving his muse.
Put simply: this honest, vulnerable, authentic approach to his artistic process is as risky as it is inspiring.
DeMatteis wrote several influential works in the 1980s, but the ones that made the deepest impression were Blood: A Tale, Moonshadow, his runs on Forever People and Doctor Fate, and his Martian Manhunter miniseries. Blood for its depiction of the spiritual searcher in a world where fallible humans write the scriptures, Forever People for its emphasis on the importance of owning the family you find, Doctor Fate for its contemplation of past lives and the soul-connections we have with our fellow wanderers, and Martian Manhunter for its gravitas and lyricism.
Each of the above works, as disparate as they may be, asks a spiritually-rooted question, almost like a koan. One of my favorite sequences in Blood: A Tale is when the protagonist vampire is transported to modern day New York and embodies the life of a wayward, disenfranchised artist-type who never executes his dreams. I read and re-read this sequence with all the solemnity a seventeen year old can muster. (And I must say that as a forty-plus-year-old, the sequence is frightening for how it accurately captures parts of my current existence.)
Moonshadow, though, was my ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ I read the collected graphic novel the summer of 1989 when I was waiting to finally jettison for college. The confluence between DeMatteis’ words and Jon J Muth’s art is one of the exceptional collaborations in comics. And Muth’s image of the seeker treading the tight-rope is one of those indelible images of the creative and spiritual life that I will carry with me forever.
It’s that perfect.
DeMatteis’ great strength as a writer is that he knows how to pose a fraught, complicated and lovely question, even in the supposedly base medium of comic books. He doesn’t expect to find the answers (art should never presume to know the answers, anyway), but instinctively, he and the visual artists with whom he has worked know that if the question is posed in just the right way, the answer is inherent in the spiritual and artistic journey itself, not in the end of a comic’s run or in the meeting of a deadline.
These many years later, with a literature degree or two shoved into my back pocket, I can appreciate the contradiction in finding the beautiful and the profound in the 'trashy' 'pop-culture' world of comic books. I love capital L Literature as much as the next English major. But we expect to find big ideas in dusty texts. We don't expect them in a medium supposedly aimed at children and adolescents. That element of surprise, of catching you sideways, is what I still love about reading comic books.
Grace in the low places. Profundity in the seemingly mundane. DeMatteis' work embodies this aesthetic better than any other comic book writer working today.