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.

Doing It Wrong All of My Life - Mindfulness and the Creative Life

 

“I’ve Been Doing It Wrong All of My Life” – North and South of the River, U2

“Make use of the things around you” – Sunday Night, Raymond Carver

 

I was well into my thirties before I recognized that I had been living my life wrong.

It went something like this.

First off, writers must pay attention to our senses, to the world around us, and writers must disappear inside ourselves to mine our memories, our pains, our regrets. (We writers have a lot of regrets.)

Writers must be present, in the moment, right here with the people surrounding us, and writers must hide ourselves away physically, mentally, and unplug from friends and family so that we can bleed off the welled-up waters.

If these actions and states seem contradictory, they of course are.

A writer lives in at least two worlds – the imagination carnival touring its 24/7 rave inside our skulls, and the world at the tip of our noses, the one where the rest of humanity lives that is as close as a breath and yet as far away as drowned Atlantis.

 Navigating the separation between these two worlds is essential to our survival. Bridging the two even better.

I turned to practicing mindfulness after my first son proved to me how unprepared for fatherhood I was.  When it became clear how disconnected I was from the world. Sure, I was taking in details, feelings, snatches of dialogue – all writers have their senses attuned, their vulture-like ravaging of the present, active at all times for later use. But I wasn’t living in those moments. I wasn’t living at all.

And what is living? I believe it’s as simple as being present with whatever is happening to you right now (however pleasurable or painful).

If nothing else, an infant is going to grind your protesting face into the present no matter how much you fight it. The infant will win.

It’s a simple request – that a father should be present with his son. That my child should need me with him in the messy, loud, exhausted moment. But for someone who was used to paying half-attention to reality, someone who could spin in the thrall of his own imagination for days, my son may as well have been asking for me to pluck a star out of the sky and hang that raging ball of gas and heat on his ceiling. The toll was immediate, both on my relationship with my son and with my wife, and as with most things, it took reaching to a critical juncture—the marriage dismantling kind—before I acknowledged that I needed to change, get with the program, engage.

I turned to mindfulness.

I’m terrible at it. Really fucking awful. Even now, years into this ‘practice’ I have maybe a few minutes of every day where I am present in the, well, present. Being both artist and anxiety-sufferer, the RPM of my thoughts is always in the red. The effort to let those thoughts flow past without spinning down into a quagmire of memory-riddled emotion is herculean, and I often fail at it. But I am more aware of when I get snared by past or future thinking. I recognize better when I’m caught. That may not sound like much, but it is in fact huge.

There’s more.

Practicing mindfulness has made me a better artist. Being in the present moment has helped my ability to observe using all of my senses. I can better take in stimuli without judging or naming it. And when it’s writing time, when I’ve more constructively disengaged from my family, mindfulness practice helps me focus on making art. Less spinning, more producing.

Mindfulness also helps with the anxiety. When the discomfort—the shortness of breath, the drum-soloing heart—comes for me, embracing the fear rather than fleeing it relaxes me. Quite a bit, actually. To the point where I almost want my quivering fear beside me so that I can name it, know it, acknowledge it and then let it go on its way. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for anxiety, but it’s a worthy tool to have in your toolbox.

So if you’re interested, I offer this: The artist Jon J Muth has a wonderful children’s book called ‘The Three Questions’ which is a Zen-Inspired translation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story. (Yes, I think a children’s book is the perfect vehicle for a lesson in mindfulness.) When you find your thoughts racing, when the intoxicating song of your imagination calls you away from the present moment, ask yourself the three questions:

When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important?

What is the right thing to do?

I’ll let you discover the answers on your own. But often just asking the questions is enough.