From Bwa-hah-hah to Phantom Stranger – Colin talks with J.M. DeMatteis

JMDIn a recent interview with renowned comic book scribe J.M. DeMatteis, he and I had an opportunity to discuss his new role as co-writer of DC’s Phantom Stranger, as well as many burning questions I’ve had about his early career and his thoughts on the industry today.


Colin Hollister: Shortly after you started working on comic books for DC, your career was mainly focused on stories of horror and the supernatural in series like Weird War Tales and House of Mystery. In tradition with your early works, you’ve begun co-writing with Dan Didio on issue number four of DC’s The Phantom Stranger. Are the horror and super-natural genres still relevant for exploration in an industry that has become so widely dominated by traditional superhero stories?

J.M. DeMatteis: I’d think that would be all the more reason to explore them. I love the Marvel-DC superhero universes, but anything we can do to reduce the stranglehold that superheroes have on the marketplace, the better it will be for all of us.  Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to change things up—superheroes, autobiography, kid-friendly fantasy, mature readers titles—as a way to keep myself interested and to explore the wide opportunities that our medium presents us with.  The supernatural corners of the DC Universe (and the Marvel Universe, as well) are rich with story potential; they allow us to enter into the stories from unique angles and to explore the human condition in a different, and sometimes deeper, way.

CH: From my understanding of the creative process behind The Phantom Stranger, Dan DiDio provides you with the general plot of the series while you lend your aptness for engaging dialog. In your experience with the book thus far, have there been any instances where you’ve been able to suggest potential storylines for future issues?

JMD: Yes, Dan writes the plot—he’s done a great job establishing these wonderful characters and their fascinating world—it goes to the artist and then I dialogue from the art.  What I’ve learned over the years, especially working with Keith Giffen, is that there’s a great opportunity to deepen character, advance story, sometimes even layer in totally new plot elements, through the dialogue process.  If you’re working with the right collaborator, it allows you to make a major contribution to the story. I’ve only scripted two issues so far, but Dan seems very open to me bringing my own unique perspective to his stories.

phantomstranger4CH: How does it feel to be penning one of literature’s greatest “villains,” or, conversely, do you consider the Phantom Stranger to be a hero? What is Phantom Stranger’s role in the greater DCU?

JMD: That’s really what the series is about, isn’t it? Is he truly a villain? Is he what we think he is? Is he what he thinks he is? (A person is sometimes the worst judge of his own character.) And what is his role in the wider DCU? At this point, I don’t see him as either hero or villain:  I see him as a man who desperately wants to atone for his past misdeeds and who is seeking a new path, a new way to be. Whether he finds it, and what happens to him if he does, is at the heart of the story.

CH: Would you say the Phantom Stranger is even capable of atoning for his past or of finding the redemption he seeks?

JMD: Again, that’s the arc of the story, isn’t it? Dan is steering the ship, but, if it counts for anything, I’m a great believer in redemption—for all of us.

CH: Given recent interaction with John Constantine and The Justice League Dark, would you say it’s possible that The Phantom Stranger may soon find himself counted among their ranks? Would the Phantom Stranger work well as a member of Justice League Dark?

JMD: He wouldn’t work smoothly, he’d be fighting Constantine all the way, but he’d work well.  His powers, his point-of-view, would be incredibly valuable to them.  As a side note, I read a stack of JLDark issues in order to prepare for that story and I was incredibly impressed with the book.  I didn’t think a supernatural team would really work…and it’s working beautifully.  Highly recommended.

CH: I’d like to jump back in time a bit to your seminal run on Amazing Spider-Man where you gave the world Kraven’s Last Hunt. In the now classic story arc, Kraven the Hunter defeats Peter and dons his superhero persona in an attempt to prove that he could, in fact, be a superior Spider-Man. What is your opinion of Marvel’s “Amazing Spider-Man #700,” a Spider-Man tale that features a strikingly similar scenario?

JMD: There are certainly similarities, but you can find other stories before Kraven’s Last Hunt with similar thematic echoes. We’re all tripping over each other’s ideas all the time. I don’t know how many times I’ve come up with something I think is blazingly original and then discover that ten other people have already done it, in some form. In the end what matters is bringing your own unique POV, your own voice, to the idea—building out from there and making it your own. I’d bet good money that Kraven’s Last Hunt wasn’t even in Dan Slott’s mind when he was writing Amazing #700.  And, even if it was, his story was very much his own and had only surface similarities. I think Dan is a first-rate writer and that the Spider-Man office is lucky to have him.

CH: Focusing again on your earlier works, in your classic run on Justice League International you invoked a lighthearted tone while mostly refraining from the dark-and-gritty style that the majority of late 1980s comics were implementing. Why was that the theme your team needed for that time?

JLI1JMD: The truth is, we didn’t really do it consciously. Keith Giffen and our amazing editor, Andy Helfer, certainly wanted to bring a little lightness to the superhero adventure—but not the kind of “bwah-ha-ha” that it evolved into.  When I came on the project, some sort of chemical lightning struck and it all just sort of…happened.  We weren’t trying to do “funny superheroes.”  The characters started yakking at each other—they were very real and very funny—Keith and I reacted to them (and to each other) and the tone and feel of our series evolved, in a very natural way.
For the record:  I can’t say enough good things about Keith Giffen.  One of the single most creative human beings I’ve ever known and a terrific person, too.

CH: Years later you brought the JLI back together for Formerly Known as the Justice League, a mini-series that won you the Eisner for Best Humor Publication. How has winning the Eisner affected your approach to writing since then?

JMD: Not in the least!  It was a wonderful surprise to win that, and I’m very grateful, but it certainly didn’t impact my writing in any way.

CH: Having worked with characters like DC’s Wonder Woman and Power Girl in the past, you have first-hand experience writing strong female roles. Do you feel the comic book industry is currently doing enough to attract and sustain a strong female audience?

JMD: I think the female audience has come in more through alternative titles, independents.  The mainstream superheroes still feel very much like a male-centric world.  That said, the role of women in these stories has never been stronger.  We’ve come a long way since the stereotypes of the 60’s, when female characters were always sighing and wondering why the hero didn’t love her.

CH: While exploring your website recently, I came across an entry where you had deemed Dickens’ A Christmas Carol “perhaps the most perfect story ever written.” Being the writer of what I consider some of the most perfect comic book stories ever written, I’d be interested to hear what makes that story so special for you.

JMD: It has everything: wonderful characters, a deep—and true—look at human psychology, a vibrant spiritual dimension, and a main character who (to bring us back to Phantom Stranger) seems beyond redemption and yet finds his way back to the light.

And it’s all told pitch-perfectly. It touches us, entertains us, enlightens us. Perfection!

CH: When you’re not busy creating comics you run a number of writers’ workshops and give story consultation to aspiring writers. Tell me about those programs. What common missteps do you most often see new writers taking?

JMD: I prefer not to focus on missteps; I prefer to focus on the passion, the fire, burning in the writer’s heart. My job is to fan that flame—and then share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from thirty-plus years as a professional writer. There are so many talented people out there who want to write and what many of them need, first and foremost, is encouragement—and, of course, to learn the technical side of writing, how to take those ideas that are burning inside and express them in the established form. I also spend a lot of time discussing the creative process itself, shining on light on the more metaphysical side of storytelling. The bottom line for me is that we all have fun together in the class. I want people to walk out feeling lighter, more hopeful, and, most important, more equipped to tell their stories.

CH: Mr. DeMatteis, I would like to thank you very sincerely for taking the time to do this interview with me. You are without a doubt a living legend in the comic book community, and it was a privilege speaking with you!

JMD: Your kind words are profoundly appreciated. Thanks!

For more on J.M. DeMatteis you can visit his website at

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