Thursday, February 21, 2013
Interview with J.M. DeMatteis
You might have already seen Jef's posts on the 1981 Defenders. We thought it would be fun to post up Jef's full interview with J.M. DeMatteis.
Jef: How and when were you approached and persuaded to take over the Defenders? What was the team’s appeal for you at the time?
JMD: I’d always been a big fan of the series—especially the Steve Gerber era—because of it’s barrier-crashing, “anything goes” sensibility. That said, I certainly didn’t lobby for the gig—Ed Hannigan was writing the book at the time and doing a fine job of it—so I was very surprised when I walked into Jim Shooter’s office one day and he told me I was taking over Defenders: “Because,” he said, “I know you like Doctor Strange.” Which is true: I love Doctor Strange!
Jef: A propos your writing style at the time: was the Six Fingered Hand arc all planned out in advance or did the editor allow a certain amount of improvisation as you went along?
JMD: Even when you’ve got plans and plans and more plans, there’s always improvisation involved; and, back then, being a newbie still finding his way in the business, there was plenty of improvisation going on. I had a general sense of the story and where I wanted it to go, but it was no carefully planned out epic. I still love to write that way: You have your destination in mind, your general themes and character arcs, but you remain open to happy accidents and spontaneous creativity. The best stories write themselves and, in order for that to happen, you’ve got to get yourself—and your carefully-laid plans—out of the way. My editor, Al Milgrom, was a great guy who allowed me to follow my story yet was always there to backstop me if I was going off the rails,
Jef: Don Perlin was the artist during your entire run. Could you briefly describe your working relationship? Did you provide full scripts or was it the brief plot summary aka ‘classic Marvel style’? And: did he offer any suggestions or input on the stories?
JMD: By the 80’s the Marvel plot-first style wan’t a “brief plot summary”: plots were, for the most part, lengthy and detailed. There was still room for the artist to pace and play with the story but the writer was in firm control of the material.
Don Perlin was one of the nicest people, and hardest working artists, I’ve ever worked with. He was passionate about the book and about my stories and put everything he had into it. More than that, he was willing to experiment, leave his comfort zone and grow as an artist—which he really did throughout our run. I loved working with him.
As I recall, we spoke on the phone regularly and discussed the stories; but, for the most part, he left the plotting to me and concentrated on the visual interpretations. I’m sure he had suggestions along the way (and I think there were a few issues he co-plotted, too) and I was always open to them.
Jef: What were some of your initial feelings about the team (Strange, Hulk, Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Clea and Hellcat) at the time? Who did you feel most comfortable with?
JMD: My motto was: the more obscure the characters, the better. That gave me room to really push characterization and make them my own. That’s one of the reasons you saw characters like Devil Slayer and Son of Satan come into the book. You didn’t have to worry about anyone else complaining about their evolution; you could do what you wanted.
That said, I liked the group I was handed at the start—especially Doc Strange. The only one I wasn’t all that comfortable with, as I recall, was the Hulk. He was phased out along the way. I liked the character, but he didn’t seem to fit with my Defenders.
Jef: Why paralyzed Nighthawk? It seemed to come out of left field at the time, despite its tying into established early Defenders continuity. And, considering you’d have him sacrifice his life in # 106, is it unfair to say you had it in for poor ol’ Kyle Richmond?
JMD: I think I was playing to his name: Nighthawk. Thus he only functioned at night. During the day he was paralyzed and when the sun went down he came alive. I thought it was a fun idea. I still do. Whether I executed it well is another story! As for “having it in for him”—no, I thought Kyle Richmond was an interesting character and I was just following where he, and the stories, led me.
Jef: How did you come up with the concept of the Six Fingered Hand, and how did you flesh out the six demons? With names like Avarrish (avarice), Hyppokri (hypocrisy) and Unnthinkk (ignorance), can it be considered an homage to DC’s Captain Marvel and his Seven Deadly Sins?
JMD: No Captain Marvel connection whatsovever. As for where the concept came from—to be honest, I don’t recall; beyond the idea that I wanted to take the book in a supernatural direction and a six-fingered hand was a creepy concept.
Jef: What prompted Hellcat's reveal as Satan's daughter? It was played up as a big deal during the Six Fingered arc, while a year and a half down the road you have Patsy learn Satan lied about it after all. While that is not uncommon for the lord of lies, from a story perspective it does feel like a bit of a cheat. What's the real story behind this bait 'n switch?
It wasn’t a cheat for me. It was a way to take Patsy down an intense, character-revealing road; a way to dig deeper into her character, to turn her relationship with Hellstrom on its head, and a perfect piece of manipulation of Satan’s part. Again, you can fault the execution—I was a young writer, still learning my craft—but I don’t see it as a cheat at all.
Jef: Certainly during the early 80s, the character of Isaac Christiaans the Gargoyle was more than a little unusual. What inspired the notion of an elderly gentleman/ mystic/worrywart locked in the form of an immortal demon?
JMD: It was just one of those ideas that popped into my head. This horrific, demonic figure that’s really this sweet, gentle old man. Don P came up with a great design for the character and, as the storyline progressed, Gargoyle became more and more important to the team. I loved that character; in fact the Gargoyle mini-series I did with Mark Badger remains one of my favorite projects out of all the stories I’ve done for mainstream Marvel.
Jef: In retrospect, isn’t the character of the Gargoyle a prime example of quintessential DeMatteis characterization? Isaac Christiaans starts out as a basically noble, well meaning character that falls prey to his own human fallibilities, in the end becoming, however cruelly that what he loathes the most? One might see shades of Vermin, Kraven the Hunter and Harry Osborn during the 1990s ‘Child Within’ arc?
JMD: Yes, up to a point. But Isaac, after giving in to temptation, almost instantly regrets his fall and, from then on, remains the same decent and compassionate man he was before. The tension between the horrific outer shell and the sweet person beneath it is what I love about the character. I don’t think he’s as dark as Kraven or Vermin.
Jef: What urged you to bring in the relatively unknown character Devil Slayer? Certainly at the time, a former Vietnam vet turned hired killer/demon vanquisher couldn’t possibly have been Comics Code Approved? Did his inclusion go off without a hitch, or did you have to argue to get him in?
JMD: No arguments at all. Milgrom, as noted, let me follow my muses where they led. Devil-Slayer had been used in Defenders before and, being another obscure character with a fascinating back-story (war vet, hit-man, demon-hunter), I thought he was ripe for exploration. The story in Defenders #110, “Hunger,” is one of my favorites of my run.
Jef: Speaking of the Code… The Six-Fingered Hand empowered David Kessler to become the healing guru known as 'the messiah'… An obvious Jesus Christ analogy if ever there was one. Back in the 70s, Tony Isabella caught considerable flack when he introduced Ghost Rider to ‘The Friend’ who for all intents and purposes was Christ as well. Did you receive any comments on this new ‘son of God’?
JMD: I didn’t see David Kessler as a Jesus stand-in. He was a cult leader, a spiritual figure, but he was essentially a flawed human like the rest of us,
Jef: In issue # 100, Hellcat shortly returns to her demonic form from # 94. Was it always your intention to revert Patsy back to normal, or did you consider exploring the notion of having a true ‘hell cat' on the team?
JMD: I don’t remember! I’m sure I played with every outcome in my mind.
Jef: Defenders #101 feels like a coda, with the Defenders in need of spiritual renewing. Val, Patsy and Isaac’s visiting Dolly in a hospital’s cancer ward was particularly striking. Jim Starlin’s 1982 graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel is generally considered to be the first Marvel publication dealing with the disease head on, yet Defenders # 101 came out a year earlier and was even more graphic in its depiction of the illness. Was there any in house trepidation about featuring a young, bald cancer patient?
JMD: Again, no trepidation at all. One of the best things about Defenders is that it wasn’t a high-profile book. We were off in a corner and I could get as weird and personal as I wanted to without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes. And, yes, that story was very much intended as a kind of spiritual cleansing after the literal hell the team went through in the Six-Fingered hand story.
Jef: With the Six Fingered Hand arc over 30 years old, how do you look back on it? Were you satisfied with it then and has it stood up to the test of time?
JMD: I have no idea if it’s stood the test of time. I’m the last person who’d know! Looking back I see my younger self: a writer, with a lot to learn, who poured his heart and soul, every bit of passion he had, into that series. Defenders was my training ground, a way to explore telling more personal stories in the commercial context of the Marvel Universe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but writing Defenders got me ready for Moonshadow and the other creator-owned, personal projects I’ve done over the years.
Having come a long way as a writer, when I read these stories I see all the warts, all the stumbles, all the errors DeMatteis the Younger made; but I also see how much I cared about that book. And what a good time I had working with Don Perlin. So I look back on my Defenders days with great fondness.