I'm Just Sayin'…#27

Hello everybody – before we get started, I want to reiterate a correction to last week’s announcement pertaining to my next standup performance.

I will be performing at COMIX NY comedy club on Tuesday, September 30 instead of October 28. It seems that TRIAL BY LAUGHTER will be having its final competition in roughy two weeks’ time, and while many a talent will be rescheduled for other shows that the club will be planning, I was asked to be a part of this final contest – which in itself is a very cool and very humbling thing, I am really looking forward to it and would love it if any and all New York readers who are also comedy fans come check out the show.

Once again, the club is located at 353 West 14th Street, just east of 9th Avenue. You can buy advance tickets by calling the club at (212) 524-2500. Normally tickets cost $15, but if you tell them you’re there to see Greg Manuel specifically, they’re only $10.

Now, I had to take a quick break from our usual menu of commentary, review and snark (don’t worry; I still think BRAND NEW DAY blows, and Ed Brubaker is king…) because I just have to share something that was brought to my attention by my esteemed writing colleague out of Broken Arrow OK, Ryan A. Brandt. Needless to say, we throw ideas back and forth a lot and are currently working on an Original Graphic Novel together called COMIX REDUX, which we will be promoting at as many comic book conventions we can afford to attend in 2009. More on that in coming months, but moving on for now.

So Ryan hits me with an email a coupla days ago, and all it says is, “Extremely informative and amazing how many things he talks about are things I know have happened to me and I bet have happened to you, too. And it’s interesting to see just how long one idea can take to make it to the printed page :)”

So I click the link, and I am blown away.

As a writer, I have felt what you are about to read, when I’ve attempted to write term papers in college, and even now when I write a story or a joke. It gave me goosebumps to see it articulated so perfectly. And so I had to share.

The following is from the Amazon.com weblog of none other than J.M. DeMatteis, one of the greatest comic book writers never to have been given his own entourage of a dozen impersonators – Grant, I’m looking in YOUR direction – and in this entry, he discusses just how arguably the one story that’s most intrinsically linked to his name – KRAVEN’S LAST HUNT – came to be.

I’m just gonna step aside now. Take’er away, Mr. DeMatteis!

THE STORY BEHIND THE HUNT

Confession:  I didn’t write Kraven’s Last Hunt.

Well, not in the way you think.

Writers like to to believe they’re in control of their material, but that’s just a comforting lie.  After more than twenty-five years of making my living as a storyteller, it’s become extremely—sometimes painfully—clear to me that I’m just a vehicle, a way for the story to get out into the world.  But it’s the story itself that does the telling.  If that sounds like I’m saying stories have lives of their own, well…that’s exactly right.

I’m convinced that stories are living creatures:  they move, they think, they breathe.  Maybe not in the way we flesh-and-blood humans do; but in some unfathomable fashion, in some unfathomable realm, these creatures we call Stories —I think the capital S is deserved—exist.  And so do the characters that populate them.  And the Stories—not the writers, artists, or editors—are very much in control.  Some of these Imaginal Worlds choose to emerge, fully formed, in a white heat of creation-energy.  Others—like the Kraven Saga—well, they like to take their time.

It was a long road from the first glimmer of inspiration, somewhere around 1984 or ‘85, to the final, published work.  If it had been up to me—and thank goodness it wasn’t—the original idea would have seen print as, of all things, a Wonder Man mini-series (Simon Williams—defeated in battle by his brother, the Grim Reaper—awakens in a coffin, claws his way out and discovers that he’s been buried alive for months).  But the Story knew better.  It knew that it needed time to brew in my unconscious and find the proper form.  Tom DeFalco—then Marvel’s Executive Editor—agreed.  When I pitched him my Wonder Man idea, he promptly rejected it.  But there was something in that “return from the grave” concept that wouldn’t let go.


My next stop, some months later, was DC Comics, where I pitched what I thought was an incredible idea to editor Len Wein (who was then overseeing the Batman line):  the Joker kills Batman—at least he believes he does—and, with the primary reason for his existence eliminated, the villain’s mind snaps.  Of course the Joker is already insane, so when he snaps…he goes sane.  Batman, meanwhile, is buried and when, weeks later, he claws his way up from the grave—the Joker’s fragile new existence is tragically upended.  Len had another Batman-Joker story on his desk—something called The Killing Joke by a new British writer named Alan Moore (what ever happened to him, anyway?)—and thought that the Joker elements in my story overlapped certain elements in Alan’s.

Rejection.  Again.  (I managed to revive the “Going Sane” idea nearly a decade later—and it’s gone on to become one of my all-time favorites.)

I was disappointed—but I suspect the Story was quite pleased with these events.  It knew the timing wasn’t right.  Knew what elements it needed for its emergence.  And so it waited patiently while I—

Well, I rewrote it again.  As a Spider-Man story?  No.  As yet another Batman story.  I dumped the Joker and replaced him with Hugo Strange.  I recalled a classic Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers story where Strange—for all of two pages, I think—was wearing Batman’s costume.  And I thought:  Wouldn’t it be interesting if Hugo Strange is the one who apparently kills Batman and, in his arrogance and ego, decides to become Batman, putting on the costume, taking over the role, in order to prove his superiority?  I was convinced I now had a story no editor could turn down.

By this time, Len Wein had gone freelance and Denny O’Neil had replaced him as Batman editor.  Guess what?

Denny bounced it.

So now I’ve had this idea rejected three times, by three of the best editors in the business.  Maybe, I thought, I’m delusional.  Maybe I should just give up and move on.

But the Story wouldn’t let me.

I was frustrated, to say the least, by all the doors slamming in my face, but this seed of an idea—well, by this time it had pushed up through the soil and was sprouting branches and leaves—just kept growing, unfolding at its own pace, in its own time.  It knew, even if I clearly didn’t, that it would soon find the form, and, most important, the characters, it had been seeking all along.

Autumn, 1986.  I was visiting the Marvel office one day when Jim Owsley, editor of the Spider-Man line, and Tom DeFalco (what?  Him again?) invited me out to lunch.  They wanted me to pick up the writing duties on Spectacular Spider-Man but I was reluctant to commit to another monthly book.  Owsley and DeFalco were insistent.  I weakened.  They pushed harder.  I agreed.

And, by the time I got home, I realized what a stroke of good fortune this was:  I now had another chance, probably my last chance, to take a crack at this “back from the grave” idea.  More important:  I discovered, as I worked away on the proposal, that Spider-Man—recently married to Mary Jane—was a far better choice than either Wonder Man or Batman.  Peter Parker is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any super-hero universe.  Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read—and write—about him:  the quintessential Everyman.  And that Everyman’s love for his new wife, for the new life they were building together, was the emotional fuel that ignited the story.  It was Mary Jane’s presence, her heart and soul, that reached down into the deeps of Peter’s heart and soul, forcing him up out of that coffin, out of the grave, into the light.

And that’s how Kraven’s Last Hunt was born.

Well, not really.  You see, Kraven wasn’t in the picture yet.  Genius that I am, I thought:  Okay, so I can’t use Hugo Strange.  Why not create my own villain—a new villain—to play that role in the story?  And that’s what I did.  (Don’t ask me the name of this brilliant new creation…or anything else about him…because, honestly, I don’t recall a thing!)  Off the outline went to Owsley.  He loved it.  “Let’s do it,” he said.  I was ecstatic.  The journey was finally done.

Well, it might have been done for me—but not for the Story.  There were a few final elements it needed to complete itself.

I was sitting in my office one afternoon, doing what all writers do best:  avoiding work, wasting time.  This was before the internet—the single greatest time-wasting tool in the history of humanity—so I was browsing through some comics that had piled up on the floor.  I picked up a Marvel Universe Handbook.  Stopped, for no particular reason, at the entry for Kraven the Hunter.

Please understand that I had no interest whatsoever in Kraven.  In fact, I always thought he was one of the most generic, uninteresting villains in the Spider-Man gallery.  Couldn’t hold a candle to Doc Ock or the Green Goblin.

But buried in this Marvel Universe entry was one intriguing fact:  Kraven—was Russian.  (To this day I don’t know if this was something that had been established in continuity or if the writer of that particular entry tossed it in on a whim.)

Russian?  Russian!

Why should that excite me so?  One word:  Dostoyevsky.  When I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov in high school, they seeped in through my brain, wormed their way down into my nervous system…and ripped me to shreds.  No other novelist has ever explored the staggering duality of existence, illuminated the mystical heights and the despicable depths of the human heart, with the brilliance of Dostoyevsky.  The Russian soul, as exposed in his novels, was really the Universal Soul.  It was my soul.

And Kraven was Russian.

In an instant, I understood Sergei Kravinov.  In an instant, the entire story changed focus.  In an instant, I called Owsley, told him to forget The New Villain.  This was a Kraven the Hunter story.

Jim wasn’t thrilled with the idea.  He liked the new villain.  But, God bless him, he let me have my way.

And now the story was complete, right?

Almost.  You see, Owsley had cajoled Mike Zeck into drawing Spectacular Spider-Man.  Mike and I had worked together, for several years, on Captain America.  I can think of a handful of super-hero artists as good as Zeck, but I can’t think of a single one who’s better.  Mike’s drawing is fluid, energetic, deeply emotional…and he tells a story with such apparent effortlessness that scripting from his pages feels equally effortless.  Mike left the Cap series (to draw the original Secret Wars) just as we were hitting our collaborative stride—and I was thrilled by the chance to pick up where we’d left off.

I’ve been been playing this game long enough to know that writer/artist chemistry can’t be created or forced:  it’s either there or it’s not.  With Mike, it was there…and then some.  If any other artist had drawn this story—even if every single plot point, every single word, had been exactly the same—it wouldn’t have touched people in the same way or garnered the enthusiastic response that it’s still getting, more than twenty years after its creation.   It wouldn’t have been Kraven’s Last Hunt.  (Not my title, by the way.  I called it Fearful Symmetry—in honor of another of my literary heroes, William Blake.  Jim Salicrup, who took over the editing chores when Jim Owsley left staff, was the one who came up with KLH.  Salicrup was also the guy who had a genius idea that people have been copying ever since:  run the six-part story through all three Spider-books, over the course of two months.  We’re accustomed to seeing that today.  In 1987 it was revolutionary.)

Because Zeck was on board, I decided to toss a Captain America villain we created together—the man-rat called Vermin—into the mix.  A casual decision (well, it seemed casual to me; but I suspect the Story knew otherwise) that proved extremely important:  Vermin turned out to be the pivotal element, providing the contrast between Peter Parker’s vision of Spider-Man and Kraven’s distorted mirror image.

Now here’s the strangest part:  In the years that had passed from the time I pitched the original Wonder Man idea, my personal life had gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket.  I’ll spare you the sordid details:  Let’s just say I was in a period of my life where each day was a Herculean struggle.  I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker; as much a dweller in the depths as Vermin; as lost, as desperate, as shattered as Sergei Kravinov.

In short, it was a miserable time to be me—but the perfect time to write the story.  Had I created a version of Last Hunt a few years before, or a few years after (when my life had healed itself in miraculous ways), it wouldn’t have been the same.  My own personal struggles, mirrored in the struggles of our three main characters, were, I think, what gave the writing such urgency and emotional honesty.  (I don’t know what inspired Zeck’s brilliant work, but I hope it wasn’t anything as harrowing.)

So tell me:  Who, exactly, is in charge here?  Who really wrote that story?  I thought it was me—but, all along, there was something growing, evolving, emerging in its own time, when the creative conditions were absolutely perfect.
Oh, I’ll cash the checks.  I’ll even accept the praise.  But, in my heart, I know there’s Something Bigger out there, working its magic through me…and through all of us who call ourselves writers.

Stories have lives of their own.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

© copyright 2008 J.M. DeMatteis

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