In 1994, the comic book industry was in a slump, and Marvel Comics needed a big event to revitalize their lead franchise, Spider-Man. Dovetailing with this need was the opinion of many writers and editors that they needed to return Spider-Man to being a bachelor, and all the drama that that entails. What they came up with was meant to be a short storyline, lasting only a few months, which would reintroduce the long-forgotten clone of Peter Parker, as created by one of his greatest enemies. But internal company politics saw the story take a detour, and it wound up stretching out across 3 years, in the process becoming one of the most controversial comic book storylines of all time, to be known forever as the "Clone Saga."
There were, however, many fondly-remembered smaller stories within the overall storyline, produced by many talented creators. So much so, that a number of new Clone Saga stories have been announced in recent months. These include the "Spider-Man: The Clone Saga" 6-issue miniseries by Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, and Todd Nauck, debuting this month, which will retell the Clone Saga the way the creators originally intended, as well as October's "Who Was Ben Reilly?" arc in "Amazing Spider-Man" #608-610, by Marc Guggenheim, Marco Chechetto, and Luke Ross, which follows on from this year's "Amazing Spider-Man Annual," and may reveal disturbing secrets about Peter Parker's clone.
Another of the original Clone Saga creators is J.M. DeMatteis, whose work on "The Death of Aunt May" and "The Lost Years" stands among the high points of the Clone Saga for many readers. One of the main characters of the "Clone Saga" (and "The Lost Years" in particular) is Kaine, a damaged, warped version of Peter Parker, who served as a dark reflection of the road not taken. DeMatteis was acclaimed for his work with the character, and in October, he gets the chance to revisit Kaine, with the lead story in the new "Web of Spider-Man" series. CBR News spoke to DeMatteis about his affinity for the character, the return of the Clone Saga, and his own return to Marvel.
CBR: You've been doing more and more work for Marvel lately; what led to you getting back in the fold after being away for several years?
J.M. DEMATTEIS: I wrote so many Spider-Man stories for so many years that I really thought I'd pretty much run out of stories to tell. Then, a while back, I got this feeling that I'd like to write another—it was like the sudden urge to contact an old friend after you haven't seen each other for years—so I dropped Spidey editor Steve Wacker a line, he said, "sure" and we were off and running. It was really that simple.
Did you know Steve beforehand?
I know Steve from his DC days, when he was the assistant editor on both my "Spectre" run and "Formerly Known As The Justice League." He was a pleasure to work with then and he's a pleasure to work with now.
What's been new and/or interesting for you in returning to Spider-Man for this go round? What do you think of his new status quo?
I've been pretty much out of the loop, so Steve W sent me a stack of recent Spidey material and I was very impressed with the work: I think it's fresh and smart and fun. (I liked it all, but I was especially impressed with Dan Slott's work. I think he's terrific.)
A number of people have asked me what I thought of the whole Mephisto reboot, and my feeling is that the Mephisto story, whether it was brilliant or a total stinker, isn't what matters. What matters is what happens after the reboot. And I think the Spider-guys have done a great job with the books since then.
Does it feel different writing a single Peter Parker vs. a married Peter Parker?
There's certainly a different psychological space you have to get into, especially since the vast majority of Spider-Man stories I've written have been grounded in the Peter-MJ relationship. I think their marriage deepened the character and his world in so many ways. That said, I understand why the status quo was changed (we were trying to get to the same place with the Clone Saga) and, in the end, Peter Parker is Peter Parker. Married or single, the essence of the character remains the same.
One of the big changes post-One More Day is that Harry Osborn is alive again. You wrote the classic story where he died, and you also had the opportunity to write a story recently that had him and Peter dealing with his return. It strikes me that this is not the first time one of your best-received death stories has been undone; the death of Aunt May retconned to being just an actress comes to mind. How have you felt about all this?
Where Harry's concerned, I'm not really bothered. The "Death of Harry" story—which remains my favorite of all the Spider-Man stories I've written—was something like fifteen years ago. I think the fact that no one brought him back till now is quite a triumph. I also think that the way in which Harry was brought back actually works very well in the context of the current continuity. Which is why I was happy to write that recent story about Peter's first encounter with Harry after his "return from the grave."
As for the Aunt May story (which is another of my all-time favorites as a Spider-writer): I assumed May would be brought back eventually—hey, it's comics, that's the way the game is played and it's fine with me—but I didn't think she'd be brought back so soon. And, unlike the Harry story, I thought the way she was brought back didn't really work. That said, May is a wonderful character, and returning her to the books gave the Spider-writers that followed me a chance to use her in new and interesting ways.
The most important point, though, is that it doesn't really matter. The Harry and Aunt May stories are still there for anyone to read and enjoy.
You mentioned that you're enjoying a lot of the newer writers' stuff. Do you think you've had an easier time adapting to the newer styles than most veteran writers, and has that made it easier to get work with the newer editors? It seems, at least to me, that you've made the transition seamlessly.
For better or worse, I've always pretty much followed my own muse. I remember way back when "Moonshadow" came out, there were people scratching their heads saying, "It's good, but it's not a comic book," because the storytelling approach was so different. The fusion of prose and sequential art, the slower pace that allowed us to explore the characters and their world in a deeper way, Jon J Muth's incredible painted artwork, all these things seemed very strange to some people. At the time, I wasn't trying to do something different, I was just trying to tell the story in the best way possible—and along the way I really found my voice as a writer. I've continued to do the same thing since then: tell the story in the best way possible and try to grow as a writer. I've also tried not to lock myself in to any one genre. I've done mainstream super heroes, offbeat personal projects, humor, children's fantasy, autobiography...whatever has excited me. Certainly, whatever was in the comic book zeitgeist at the moment influenced me, but I've pretty much stayed in my own idiosyncratic universe.
I think that's helped me in some ways, hurt me in others. (Believe me, there've been points in my career where work was hard to find. It wasn't always so "seamless.") But the one thing that's allowed me to keep going more than any other is that it's vitally important to me to have major projects that I'm passionate about. Projects I can pour my heart and soul into. Projects that I refuse to give up on. "The Life and Times of Savior 28" is a story I worked on and pitched—in various forms—for more than twenty years. I kept at it till I got the project set up. Same thing with projects like "Abadazad" and "The Stardust Kid." They took years and years between conception and realization. But those projects meant the world to me and I had no choice but to see them through.
So, really, it all comes down to the old Joseph Campbell cliche of following your bliss. You've got to care, to the bottom of your soul, about the work and just keep banging your head against the wall till you break through.
Ok, now how were you approached about doing this Kaine story?
I suggested it to Steve. The Clone Saga is understandably controversial, but some wonderful things came out of it, most notably Ben Reilly—a fantastic character—and then Kaine, one of my all-time favorite Spidey antagonists (I wouldn't use the word "villain" where he's concerned). I always loved writing him. I think that "Spider-Man: The Lost Years" is one of the best Spidey stories I ever wrote, and a good part of that was because I was given the opportunity to really explore the character, dig deep into his psyche. (I also wrote another Kaine/Ben-centric mini called "Spider-Man: Redemption" that allowed me to spend quite a bit of time in Kaine's head and heart.)
Steve and I were discussing what story I would do next for him, and I threw Kaine out there, thinking "Nah, he's not going for this" but, to my surprise, he really liked the idea.
Artist Val Semeiks joins you for this story. What's it been like working with him?
This is the fourth Spidey story in a row that we've done for Steve and it's been an absolute pleasure working with him. I've seen the first batch of pencils for the Kaine story, and they're Val's best yet. We've also lined up the great Dan Green to ink, so, no matter what people may think of the story, I think I can safely say that the art is going to be spectacular.
How do you see Kaine as a character?
He's a multi-layered—and incredibly tragic—character. He was the first Peter Parker clone created by Miles Warren. Loved and nurtured by his "father," and then heartlessly discarded when Warren discovered that Kaine was suffering from cellular degeneration. Like the biblical Cain, he was then cast out to wander the world, seeking some sense of meaning and purpose. On the one hand, he's a monster, capable of doing terrible things; on the other, well, he's still Peter Parker—or at least there's an aspect of Peter buried deep inside him. That tug of war, between the monster and the decent man, is what makes the character fascinating to me. It's not a Jekyll and Hyde situation where he's either one thing or the other. Both aspects of Kaine exist side by side, woven together inside the man. And his relationship with Ben Reilly really underscored the contradictions in Kaine. It was Ben who ultimately convinced Kaine to surrender to the authorities and take the first step toward some kind of redemption.
The story in "Web of Spider-Man" takes place in prison, where Kaine is forced to re-evaluate himself and his life. It's a story that people familiar with the character will enjoy but (I hope!) it's presented in a way that will allow readers new to Kaine to understand, and connect with, the character.
Kaine was shown escaping from the Vault in "Thunderbolts Annual '97," to hunt down Norman Osborn for the murder of Ben Reilly (and as readers of Spider-Girl know, eventually rescue Baby May from his clutches). Is this story set during his time in the Vault, or has Kaine been reincarcerated since?
The story is set very soon after "Spider-Man: Redemption" (although clearly after Ben Reilly's death). Kaine's in a super-max prison that may or may not be the Vault. We don't really know how many different prisons he's been in along the way. And it really isn't important to the story.
Were there any reservations about returning to elements of the Clone Saga?
Not these elements. If someone wanted a story spinning out of "Maximum Clonage," then I'd have some reservations! But Kaine and his mythos? Not in the least.
What were some of the best moments/aspects of the Clone Saga from your standpoint? Are there any other elements you'd be interested in revisiting? Maybe Traveller and Scrier?
The best moments for me were the two previously-mentioned mini-series—The Lost Years and Redemption—as well as the "Death of Aunt May" story in "Amazing Spider-Man" #400. Those were stories that were great fun to write and that I think hold up very well.
The other highlight of that era for me was what the readers didn't see: the regular meetings the writers would have, especially in the early days before the whole Saga (and Marvel itself, as a company) got a little out of hand. Danny Fingeroth was editor and ringmaster and we'd all get together every few weeks to plot out the stories, eat Chinese food, yell at each other and laugh our heads off. It was a great group of guys and we all had tremendous respect for each other. No egos in the room, no showboating. Just a bunch of crazed freelancers having a great time. I can't begin to tell you how much fun we had.
As for Traveler and Scrier, I liked both characters quite a bit—even if they were a little out of place in a Spider-Man story. Traveler, especially, is a multi-layered character with tremendous potential.
You alluded to the turbulence in the Marvel of that era; is that what led you to leave the books at the time? Was it hard to do?
It's been a long time but my memory is that a) the behind-the-scenes stuff was just getting out of hand and, perhaps because of that, b) I was getting a little burned out on Spider-Man. Was it hard to do? I don't think it was. I was ready to parachute out of there. That said, I ended up returning to Spidey, post-Clone Saga, for another run on "Spectacular Spider-Man" because I really missed the character.
Now, in addition to this Kaine story, Tom DeFalco and Howard Mackie are doing a miniseries retelling the Clone Saga, and there's an upcoming arc called "Who is Ben Reilly?" in ASM. Why do you think this is all happening now?
I think it's as simple as "what goes around comes around." Despite all the controversy, or maybe because of it, there were lots of people who read and enjoyed the Clone Saga and enough time has passed that I think a certain nostalgia/re-appreciation has set in. Whatever the story's flaws—and there were certainly many—there were some terrific elements in there. I'm happy to see the resurgence of interest.
You've mentioned "redemption" a couple of times regarding Kaine, so I have to ask, do you think the Clone Saga itself can be redeemed? There were so many good stories within those 3 years; do you think Marvel can gradually work them back into active Spider-Man continuity, separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak? If they wanted to collect the Clone Saga in trade paperbacks today, they could probably do selective collections of just the important story arcs, and even if they skipped a lot of the stuff in-between, new readers would still be able to follow the story pretty easily, I would think.
I know I'd love to see the short background stories I did about Ben Reilly's early days (some were illustrated by Liam Sharp, others by John Romita, Jr) collected together with the "Lost Years" mini-series and "Redemption." I think they'd make a fantastic collection that would help new readers understand what was so wonderful about the characters of Reilly and Kaine. They're strong stories that stand on their own.
And the idea of hitting the high points of the Clone Saga in either a series of tpbs or one massive collection is a great one. I'd love to see that.
Clearly, Marvel's not ignoring the Clone Saga any more. I think they can see that there were some wonderful stories during that era. If they ignore the confusing crap and concentrate on the strong characters and concepts at the heart of the CS, they can easily fuse that era with the current continuity. (I, for one, would love to see Ben Reilly back. I'd jump at the chance to write a current-day Ben story. Or even return to those lost years.)
Are there any other characters you're itching to get your hands on?
There are a few characters I might be interested in having another crack at—Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer come to mind—and I always thought the Fantastic Four would be a perfect fit for the Giffen-DeMatteis approach, but, overall, I'm much more interested in doing originals these days. Not that I don't still love those characters, just that I've been lucky enough to have written most of the major Marvel and DC icons and it's much more challenging, and fulfilling, creating new worlds with projects like "Abadazad," "Hero Squared" and "Savior 28." Working on my novel has been a wonderful challenge and a real creative stretch. No pictures!
That said, these Spider-Man stories have been great fun, Giffen and I are having a blast writing "Metal Men" (it's perfectlly suited to what we do together), and if the right project came along I'm sure my passion could be reignited.
Let's turn to your creator-owned series "The Life and Times of Savior 28" for a moment; now that it's finished, how do you feel about how it's turned out?
I'm still pretty close to it, so anything vaguely resembling real objectivity hasn't set in yet. That said, I'm incredibly proud of this series. It's one of the best things I've ever done in comics, thanks in no small part to my collaboration with Mike Cavallaro. "The Life and Times of Savior 28" is a story I waited more than twenty years to tell and—for me, at least—it was worth the wait.
What other projects do you currently have in the works?
I just turned in the final revisions for my novel, "Imaginalis"—a young adult fantasy that will be out next year from HarperCollins. My frequent co-conspirator Keith Giffen and I are writing "Metal Men" for DC—illustrated by by the amazing Kevin Maguire. It's been great fun having the whole team back together. (Keith and I also have a Top Secret Project in the works that I'm incredibly excited about...but I'm not allowed to talk about it yet.) I've got a mini-series in the works for Ardden Entertainment called "The Merlin Prophecies." It's a modern spin on the Merlin legend, co-written with my old friend Derek Webster, and it should be out early in 2010. I'm continuing my duties as Ardden's editor-in-chief (we just announced our new Casper series, "Casper and the Spectrals," and we're getting ready to launch a second "Flash Gordon" mini-series, as well). Recently finished my fifth episode of "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" for Cartoon Network and I've got more animation work in the pipeline. Steve Wacker and I have discussed another Spidey story for the near future. And that's just some of it. It's a very busy time for me right now and, considering the state of the economy, I'm not complaining!
How has it been for you on the other side of the editorial table, as EiC of Ardden?
I've done a lot of work with new and developing writers over the years and I've always found that process fun and extremely gratifying, so the EIC job feels like a natural outgrowth of that. Brendan Deneen and Rich Emms (Ardden's co-publishers) are great guys and we've had a blast working together, building this very young company. The best part is that I get to work with writers and artists in a new way, bringing thirty years of comic book experience into the mix.
But I remain, first and foremost, a freelancer, out there on the front lines developing and writing my own projects. The editing is a new challenge—and a wonderful one—but, for me, it always comes down to sitting alone in my office with my imaginary friends, creating new stories.
Web of Spider-Man #1 with art by Val Semeiks and Dan Green goes on sale October 14.