J.M. Dematteis on writing comics, Batman Day

J.M. Dematteis has enjoyed his career writing Batman comics. Photo courtesy of www.comicvine.com

On Sept. 26, local comic book stores will participate in DC Comics’ Batman Day. Stores will offer free special reprints of Batman’s greatest stories. J.M. Dematteis, who has written more Batman comics than most people can read in one lifetime, talked to The Orion about his career and his thoughts on Batman Day.

How did you start in comics?

The very first thing I sold (thanks to a college friend who worked at Marvel) was a piece for Marvel’s “Mad Magazine” knock-off, “Crazy“—but that never led to any work on the comic side of things. My first actual comic book script was sold (after months of pitching) to Paul Levitz for “House of Mystery.” I then wrote a host of stories for DC’s anthology books— a great way to learn the rules of the game.

When was the first time you ever worked on Batman?

The first Batman story I wrote was very early on— a Batman coloring book with a story called “Mystery of the Million Dollar Joke!” The first actual comic book story with Batman in it, also my first published superhero story, was a short for Detective Comics #489 called “Creatures of the Night,” illustrated by Irv Novick. Batman also figured in my first full-length superhero story, a Batman-Hawkman team-up called “Mystery of the Mobile Museum” with art by Garcia-Lopez. All of these were edited by Paul Levitz.

What’s it like to write Batman?

When you grow up with a character, especially one as iconic and rooted in our collective consciousness as Batman, it’s always a thrill to write him. Over the years I’ve written Batman in comics, for animated television and, this year, with Batman vs. Robin for animated DTV movies. It never gets old. There’s always a 12-year-old inside me going, “Wow, it’s Batman!”

Is there anything in particular that draws you to the caped crusader?

Batman is like a shadow, rising from our collective unconscious, seeking the justice we all cry out for. But I don’t buy into Batman as the psychotic vigilante. I see him as a healer, like his father. Only in Batman’s case, the patient is Gotham City.

You wrote a story in Legends of the Dark Knight, “Going Sane,” where the Joker becomes sane after believing he killed Batman. Where did the idea for that come from and why do you think people would enjoy this story?

I’m always looking for new ways into a character’s psyche. Joker was pretty much locked in his Lunatic Mode and I thought it would be fascinating if we stripped him of that layer of identity and found the vulnerable man, hungry for love, beneath. “Going Sane” remains my favorite superhero story out of all that I’ve written for DC or Marvel.

You also wrote Batman in “Justice League International.” The book would eventually became a pseudo-workplace comedy. How did you and your writing collaborator, Keith Griffen, decide to make Batman the straight man of the series?

It was just a natural evolution. Given the nature of the other characters, and Batman’s own nature, it made sense for him to fall into that role. But we knew that beneath the humorless demeanor, he was having a good time and really enjoying Beetle, Booster and the rest, which is why every once in a while,we’d let him slip in a very understated joke.

Currently, you and Griffen write a future version of Batman in “Justice League 3001.” How different is this Dark Knight, and what is it like writing for him?

The JL 3001 Batman has no memory of his parents’ deaths, so that trauma hasn’t impacted him. This makes him a somewhat mellower Batman and a man more uncomfortable beneath the cowl. He’s not as obsessessed, not as driven. But the essential decency and desire to do good in the world is there. He’s a very grounded, likable guy, despite the fact that Superman drives him nuts.

Speaking of Justice League, how does Batman’s character change when writing in him a solo adventure versus being apart of a team?

Solo stories give me more room to crack open Bruce’s psyche and dig around in his soul— To push him to new places emotionally. You can certainly do that in a team book, but not as deeply.

DC is putting on a Batman Day at local comic book stores on Sept. 26. What are your thoughts on that, and are there any books you would recommend people pick up?

I love that Batman is celebrated. He certainly deserves it. As for books to try, I’d recommend the collected edition of “Going Sane.” If folks want to pick up a copy of “Batman vs. Robin,” too, well that’s OK with me. I’m also a huge fan of the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams era of Batman, the Englehart/Rogers stories and so many more. The current creative teams are doing great work, as well.

Finally what has writing the character of Batman meant to you?

To be a part of this tradition, to add in whatever small ways to Batman’s ongoing mythology, is a genuine honor. He was here before most of us arrived on the planet, and he’ll be here after most of us are gone. Knowing I’ve been a part of the character’s history makes me very happy.

George Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or @gjohnston786 on Twitter.