Mark Belkin received the honor of sitting down with one of his heroes at Albany Comic Con, and talking about JM’s influences, how spirituality colored his writing, ushering in the 'Booster Gold and Blue Beetle' era, and creating the comic book pre-cursor to a “show about nothing”.
|Straight Outta Brooklyn: JM Dematteis|
Mark: I grew up in Brooklyn as well. Did you grow up in Flatbush? How did that influence your writing?
JM: I was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn but, when I was four, we moved to the Midwood section (not far from Brooklyn College). Brooklyn was a huge influence in the sense where anyone grows up is a huge influence on them. Your environment, the kinds of people you’re surrounded with, either form your worldview or give you something to react to as you search for that worldview.
Mark: What makes a good adventure? In real life and in writing fiction?
JM: To me, the essence of a great adventure is one that encapsulates the search for self, for both personal and cosmic meaning, whether that search is psychological or spiritual.
Mark: How did spirituality play into your Doctor Fate work?
JM: The Doctor Fate v2 series [1988 - 1992] gave me a chance to — if I may lift a phrase from Douglas Adams — write about life, the universe and everything. It was a superhero story, a supernatural series, a comedy, a drama, and a tale of the spiritual search. It’s rare that you get a chance to put all those things together — and Doctor Fate really gave me an opportunity to express my entire worldview (or at least my worldview circa late 80’s/early 90’s) in one massive story. Even more amazing, as I look back, is the fact that Doctor Fate wasn’t a creator-owned series, it was a DC property; yet I was given the freedom to write exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted. (And having the brilliant Shawn McManus along for the ride certainly didn’t hurt.)
I was able to pour my own spiritual experiences into the book — reflected in my relationship with my spiritual master, Avatar Meher Baba — and yet have that all balanced by the psychology, the comedy, the superhero adventures. It all worked together beautifully.
|JM explores Life, the Universe and Everything in his 1988 Doctor Fate ongoing series|
I don’t think you could do that in a mainstream comic book today. The reins are too tight. The fact that I was working with editors Karen Berger and Art Young was also an incredible boon. Doctor Fate was essentially a pre-Vertigo Vertigo book.
Mark: I know India was important to you.
JM: India is a very important part of my life, spiritually. As I wrote about in Brooklyn Dreams, I had this experience when I was 17. A consciousness-altering experience, an experience of God or the Divine or whatever you choose to call it. It opened me up to a point-of-view that really led me to Meher Baba and India. What’s beautiful is that, in India, all these paths come together. It’s not like you must be this or you must be that, Hinduism embraces everything. As does Avatar Meher Baba, whose followers were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc. Because there’s a place, a state of being, where all these things are one, where all these religions are just a translation of an experience that we all share on this planet.
Meher Baba remains the central spiritual hub of my life to this day. I’ve traveled to India over 8 times in my life, but it’s been eleven years since my last trip and I’m very excited to go there in November for the convention. It’s amazing how the comic book culture has spread all over India and all over the world!
Mark: Supernatural comics seem to be important to you, like your work on Doctor Fate, Phantom Stranger [2013 - 2014] and the Spectre [2001 - 2003]. Were you ever able to translate these beliefs and energies in those comics?
JM: You absolutely see it in Phantom Stranger and the Spectre, in Moonshadow [1994 - 1995] and [Epic's 1988] Blood: A Tale, all my creator-owned work. It can’t help but creep in, even if not overtly. In Doctor Fate you see a character named the Guide who is basically Meher Baba. My interpretation... they’re not literally the same person.
I have to write about what I’m passionate about — and that’s our search for meaning, our search for identity, for Self. Whether that is psychological or spiritual, its about the search for God, which ultimately, in my own experience, is finding out that the God we have been searching for is within us. Psychology, spirituality, some bad jokes, and you have the perfect story!
Mark: Amazing. Moving on to what may be your best known work in the 80’s: Justice League. Justice League International was a huge hit coming out of the company-wide 1987 crossover Legends. It’s considered to this day to be one of the funniest comics ever written, and worked as a situation comedy in comic book form. What situation comedies helped you in structuring and influencing Justice League International?
JM: We didn’t go in as a situation comedy. It evolved by itself. Keith Giffen’s plots were infused with a sense of humor that played perfectly off the action beats. I picked up on that, but we never sat down thinking that JLI was going to be a funny book and it would play like a sitcom. We discovered that as we went along.
That said, once we got rolling, and with Keith’s brilliant and hilarious plots provoking me, I was able to set my inner Silly Person free. All my comedy chops came out. JLI really gave me a venue for that side of myself and my writing — and it all came out of the characters. It wasn’t just jokes; it was character-based humor.
|Find this today and buy it if you haven't already. Right now, if possible.|
Mark: What were your comedy influences?
JM: What influenced me? Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Mel Brooks. All the classic comedies. Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H. Seinfeld is a favorite, but I didn’t become a fan until JLI was over. I always say we were doing Seinfeld before Seinfeld, we beat them by a couple of years. Stories — allegedly — about nothing. (And, if you look at any given Seinfeld episode, those things are jewels of plotting. They only seem to be about nothing.) Those are just a few.
I’m a huge fan of old radio shows from the 40s and 50s. The Jack Benny radio show, which I discovered at the time I was writing JLI in the 80s, thanks to my local NPR stations, is some of the best comedy ever done. All growing out of a memorable group of characters. If anyone was Seinfeld before Seinfeld, it was Jack Benny. Same thing as JLI: running gags, building from week to week.
Mark : Oreos and J’onn J’onzz.
JM: Right, exactly! Woody Allen is also one of my biggest comedy influences. Once we got the book going, all those influences came exploding out. To go back to when we talked about Brooklyn, the banter between our JLI characters was very reminiscent of my friends in Brooklyn, that sharp banter that goes back and forth in the streets. That all played into the Justice League stories.
Mark: Reading it in the 80s in Brooklyn, it felt like the world I was in. It had a reality that wasn't the "dark and grim" of the other "real" books. It felt like an evolution of comics. Playing on that, were there any characters that you wanted to use that you couldn't use?
JM: Honestly no. There was a lot of freedom. There were so many characters that showed up in those books over the years. Batman, Superman, Martian Manhunter. In Europe, Wally West, Wonder Woman. There was never a "If only we could write so and so". It never crossed my mind.
Mark: How was it writing Blue Beetle and Booster Gold?
JM: The great thing with those characters — and all characters, really — is when you're in 'the zone', you’re not writing them, they’re writing you. People say “What made you put Booster and Blue Beetle together?” We didn't! They did it! Blue and Gold were in some scenes together and something sparked. We followed them where they led us and this wonderful relationship developed that exists to this day.
|BFF's helping a co-worker move some things|
Mark: Are you excited by the Booster Gold and Blue Beetle movie?
JM: Don’t know if Blue Beetle will appear in the movie, but I hope he does. It’s being written by someone who has become a Twitter friend, Zack Stentz — who’s written for the recent Thor and X-Men movies, as well as the Flash TV show. So Booster’s in excellent hands.
Mark: Have you watched J'onn on [CBS's] Supergirl? I know he meant something to you during your run.
JM: Yes. I love his portrayal on that show. Wonderful actor, wonderful writing. He deserves his own spin-off.
Mark: You’ve done a lot of television work over the years. I LOVE the recent Brave and the Bold cartoon series. It’s such a great bridge between children’s stories and the Silver Age of DC. You wrote episodes about the Green Lantern Corps and Despero, the Son of Red Tornado, Doom Patrol and Justice League International
JM: Brave and the Bold was great because it’s one of those shows where so many people come up to me and say “I watch it with my 6 year old and we both love it.” Its really gratifying.
Mark: You got to do the Doom Patrol episode, The Last Patrol.
JM: Which if any 6 year old was watching, he would have been traumatized. (Laughter.) They gave me a few of them that were really dark. Like the Red Tornado one where he basically does a mercy killing and has to turn off his son. But, for the most part, there was a wonderful balance of light and dark, humor and serious character work. That perfect balance was thanks to producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic. Great guys. And it was a great experience writing for The Brave and the Bold.
|Tears, Trust me.|
Mark: They did 3 weeks in a row where someone dies. I wonder if Cartoon Network had that play into their decision making on the show.
JM: I doubt it. “Let’s do all the death episodes in a row and traumatize the kids!”
Mark: In the Justice League International episodes, did they want similar comedy in the show?
JM: Those were really, really fun to do. The comedy didn’t go as far as we did in the comics, but the show definitely had a light touch, and I had a wonderful time writing those JLI episodes. It was an interesting interpretation of our characters: it was them, but it wasn’t — which is what adapting material is all about.
There was talk that Brave and the Bold would segue into a Justice League International TV series, but it never happened, which is too bad. I would pay them to let me write that. Well, almost!
Mark: I could see JLI being perfect for Adult Swim. A little subversive and very funny.
JM: I have an animation writer friend who’s been pitching a Super Buddies/JLI show for Cartoon Network. With the second tier characters in a store front, the way it was in our Formerly Known as the Justice League mini-series. It could be a great show.
Mark: I know writing comics for kids is something that is important to you. Were you allowed to write comic books for kids in the 80s?
JM: In the 80’s, after I wrapped up Moonshadow and Blood at Epic Comics, I pitched and sold a comic to DC called the Stardust Kid. And what I realized, after I’d written a few issues, was that the marketplace at the time couldn’t support a series like that. It just wasn’t there. So I actually bought it back. I had been paid a lot, but I bought it back, because I didn’t want it going out there dying.
Doing smart, literate children’s comics became a crusade for me. This led me eventually doing Abadazad with Mike Ploog and then resurrecting the Stardust Kid with Ploog and our Abadazad colorist Nick Bell. Right now I’m doing an all-ages series for IDW called the Adventures of Augusta Wind: The Last Story — out in August — which is a sequel to a series we did a couple of years ago. I wrote a kids novel called Imaginalis. So this kind of material is still very high on my list, that’s something that’s kid friendly, something a parent and child can sit down together and read and enjoy together.
Mark: Going back to Justice League, did Giffen ever want to bring Ambush Bug in Justice League or a character who would break the 4th wall?
JM: That never came up, but if you look at Justice League 3000 you will find, in certain issues, Ambush Bug hovering in the background. One of Keith’s wonderfully crazy plans, which we never got around to, is if the book was canceled Ambush Bug was going to show up and shut the whole thing down.
Mark: Is Justice League 3000/3001 over now?
JM: Yes, Keith, Howard Porter and I have moved on to Scooby Apocalypse.
Mark: Could you work Ambush Bug into the Scooby series?
JM: Is Ambush Bug allowed in the Hannah Barbara Universe?
Mark: Ambush Bug should be allowed to do what he wants to do. When the JLI and Justice League Europe took off in the 80s and you traveled to cons, did you get to go anywhere you had always wanted to go or excited to go?
JM: At that time no, but now international conventions have really started sprouting up and they seem to have money to bring lots of creators over. Last fall I went to both Spain and Greece. I’ve got cons coming up in India, Mexico and Germany. What’s really interesting is people come up with stacks of JLI books, and my Spider-man run, my creator-owned work. Its incredibly gratifying to see my work isn’t just appreciated here but it’s traveled around the world. Its amazing to me and profoundly gratifying.
Mark: Changing the subject a bit, how did you being a big fan of the Twilight Zone affect your stories?
JM: I grew up with the Twilight Zone and I’ve often wondered if its worldview shaped mine — or if watching that show touched something in me that I already knew to be true. In any case, I love it, it remains my favorite television show. And the essence of it — that the universe is alive and interactive, that life is far more magical and strange than we allow ourselves to believe — is very much a reflection of what I believe.
Mark: Did you ever want to write for Twilight Zone?
JM: I got to write for an episodes of the 80s Twilight Zone revival. It was great because it was my first TV sale and it was for the Twilight Zone. It wasn’t Rod Serling, but it was still amazing.
Mark: Finally, Guy Gardner and Maxwell Lord represent a certain type of macho, insensitive, type of leadership.
JM: Maxwell Lord was more multi-faceted than that. Guy Gardner was intentionally one-dimensional, but even he had his love affair with Ice to add another dimension.
Mark: How do you see that leadership emerging in today’s world? Anyone in today’s political world exhibit these traits?
Keith: (Laughs) Never thought of it until now. I can see Guy Gardner and Donald Trump sharing some traits. Even their funny haircuts. I would love to do Guy Gardner right now and give him a Trump haircut. It would be sensational.
|Making the Green Lantern Corps great again.|
Mark: Could you tell us about Imagination 101, your writing workshop that you will be running July 15th to the 17th in Kingston, NY?
JM: It’s a three-day workshop, talking about writing for comics and animation — and really the entire creative process, which really applies to all writing — from both the practical and metaphysical angles. It’s small, intimate and a lot of fun.
If anyone’s interested in coming to the next class, or any future classes, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the “workshops” section of my website: jmdematteis.com.
Mark: Thanks so much for speaking to DC in the 80s blog.
JM: A pleasure, Mark. Thanks!
©All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics. Except for the image of the cover of The Stardust Kid - we're assuming that would be from Image comics.
Mark Belkin is a freelance writer and one helluva guy. Look for more articles from Mark in the future!