Influences - JM DeMatteis

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.

10

Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon the day before my tenth birthday.

News of Lennon’s death  interrupted evening TV viewing—we were likely watching Monday Night Football http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n73GFvAyIjs – and then shifted by degrees to live broadcasts in front of the Dakota Apartments, where he was gunned down, and in Central Park where throngs of the distressed gathered to mourn.

I remember standing beside the television (I can still feel our retched carpet beneath my toes) as the cameras panned along the ever-growing crowd. People now had signs—the most famous asking the single but essential question WHY?--and were weeping with naked despair.

I had never experienced anything like it.

And without knowing what I was doing, or why I was doing it, I vowed to continue doing Lennon’s work.

Yeah.

Anyway, I knew well who John Lennon was; he was the singer of my favorite rock band. I grew up with the ‘post-LSD’ Beatles harmonizing my ears, and ‘Abbey Road’ was the soundtrack of ages 0-5. (‘Abbey’ is still, because everything is all about me all of the time, my favorite Beatles album.) I favored studying the record covers of the earlier Beatles releases because of the moody, clean-cut images (Yes, I know that in the mid-60s those Beatles haircuts were considered shaggy but by the early 70s, those mop tops were practically flat-tops.)

I doubt I’m the only child born of hippies that found aesthetic solace in the sharp styles and clear lines of the 50s and early 60s. In the 70s there was just so much…hair.

Not unrelated: My parents were Southern California surfer hippies (this genus of hippie did in fact exist), and Lennon and Yoko Ono guided their lifestyles. All those tired clichés of the 60s—the peace activism (which in my parents' peer group was mostly draft dodging the war in Vietnam), the drugs, the sexual mores—this was where I grew up. Lennon and Ono together served as an oracle sending messages from on high. Such singular cultural influence is difficult to imagine now, but there was a reason that Lennon hid away in the mid-1970s – when everyone is hanging on your every whim and word, living with that responsibility is daunting if not crushing.

Back to that ten year old at the television. I felt loss. Not only for myself but for my parents. The silence in the room was telling. I knew I was in the midst of an important moment, and I responded in the way a child on the cusp of moving into double-digit age would: with a ridiculous pronouncement I couldn’t possibly live up to.

And yet, Lennon’s life and death still shadow my days. Especially my birthday. He was there for me as a teenager when I needed a roguish father figure to tell me that living an artistic life was possible. He was there for me when Christianity failed to provide me with a satisfying spiritual vocabulary. He was there to instruct me how to articulate my feelings about my conflicted relationship with my own mother, with my own distant father. When my own two sons were born, he was there with perhaps the best parenting advice I’ve received: be there. No matter how you’re feeling in the moment, just be there.

One of my all-time favorite comic book writers JM Dematteis has an amazing account of actually meeting Lennon http://www.jmdematteis.com/2010/04/meeting-lennon-part-one.html that speaks so well to the level of obsessive personal worship and shiny-eyed fandom each of us has for the man. It’s impossible not to feel like we knew him, that he was right here next to us up until the moment when Chapman stole him away.

It’s probably a cliché at this point to acknowledge that I’ve now lived longer than Lennon. And that in that time I’ve accomplished far, far less as an artist. But there it is. I can’t say that I became a writer because of that day in 1980, but then again, that damned ten year old probably knew what he was doing when he committed us to a creative path we couldn’t possibly complete and one that we can’t possibly deny.

Rest well, John.