When collecting comics I normally follow characters or specific titles, but there are certain creators whose work I find so consistently enjoyable that their name is enough for me to take a chance on an unknown commodity. One such creator is J.M. DeMatteis.
Whether it’s his era defining work on the JLI with Keith Giffen, his wonderful run on Spectacular Spider-man with Sal Buscema or his early Marvel work on properties such as the Defenders and Marvel Team up, stories by DeMatteis are frequently thought provoking, consistently imaginative and always entertaining. I’m anxiously awaiting the next volume of the Essential Captain America so that I can finally read his run, after which I plan to seek out The Life and Times of Savior 28, which I understand builds on many of the concepts from this run, taking events to a logical conclusion that Marvel balked at.
It was the DeMatteis link that inspired me to pick up the 1st and 2nd volumes of a children’s book series called ‘Abadazad’, after I came across them by chance. I’m not overstating it when I say that I’ve rarely been happier with an impulse buy.
From what I have since gleaned, Abadazad was created by DeMatteis and Mike Ploog, starting out as a series published by CrossGen comics before the company folded, shortly after publishing the third issue. The title was then resurrected by Harper Collins for their children’s line, planned as an 8 book series with the option of more books if the sales warranted it.
The series storyline follows Kate Jameson, a self proclaimed fourteen-year-old malcontent, who is still struggling to cope with the disappearance of her younger brother, Matt. Kate discovers that her brother is alive and has been kidnapped by a being known as the Lanky Man, who just so happens to be the villain from the Abadazad series of books, her brother’s favourite stories. Journeying to Abadazad, Kate soon discovers that what she had thought were mere stories are actually based on real people and events, and quickly realises that sometimes truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
Having not read the original comic series, I’m unsure how this affected the layout of the prose novels, but they are structured in a rather unusual way. In fact, calling them prose novels isn’t 100% accurate. Each novel is told in three distinct forms. The majority of each book is Kate’s diary, allowing the reader to get inside her head as she explores this strange new world. The clever conceit is that the diary has been enchanted, so occasionally shows events that happened when Kate wasn’t even there, many of which are told in comic format. I’m unsure if any of these sections are lifted from the original issues or whether they have been reshaped/expanded, but they offer a nice counterpoint to the prose description. The third format are excerpts from the original Abadazad novels, allowing the reader to observe how the fictional tales differ from the reality.
As readers of his work will know, DeMatteis has a gift for getting inside the heads of his characters, and this book was no different. By the end of book 2 I was fully immersed in the world of Abadazad, willing Kate on in the search for her brother. The myriad of characters that populated this world were intriguing, and I was left wanting to know more about each of them. This was greatly helped by the wonderfully expressive drawings of Mike Ploog. It’s clear that Abadazad was a labour of love for both creators and Ploog has a ball in bringing this fantastical world to life, from the regal Queen Ija to the ravenous Sour Flowers and the well-meaning Master Wix.
For those that may be put off by the books being marketed as part of a children’s line, don’t be. I’ve written before about my belief that comics aimed at kids aren’t something to be feared, and the sheer imagination, sense of adventure and joy of discovery that permeates these books are a delight. My boys are still a little young to read these books, but I look forward to a time when we can explore the world of Abadazad together.
Sadly, the projected run of eight books was never completed. The first two volumes were published world-wide, with a third volume - The Puppet, the Professor and the Prophet - only released in the UK. So Kate’s quest remains unfinished, Matt remains imprisoned and readers are left with only an initial impression of the wonders that make up the land of Abadazad. But when I eventually read these books to my boys, I have a plan.
In the second novel, Kate confronts one of the characters about the disservice that Franklin O. Davies did to Abadazad and its inhabitants when changing details for publication. The response she receives surprises her.
“Mr Davies may have changed the details, Kate… but he captured the SOUL of Abadazad. .. He simply added HIS formidable imagination to a world that was BORN of imagination. And that, my dear, isn’t a lie. That is a VERY DEEP TRUTH.”
I’ll read the books to my boys, and after we complete the third book we’ll go on and finish the journey together. It may not be in the way that DeMatteis and Ploog intended, but we’ll get there. After three books where we have fallen in love with the characters and invested ourselves in their hopes and dreams, how could we do any less?
If you are looking for a new adventure to take with your children, or whether you just value stories told with heart and conviction, I can’t recommend these books enough. If you have explored the world of Abadazad, either in comic or book form, please tell us about it in the comments below.
Superman: Speeding Bullets by JM DeMatteis & Eduardo Barreto.
As a kid, I remember seeing this cover and being really confused. At the time, I recognized the Superman #1 cover but didn’t understand why Batman was in the same pose yet it said Superman on the cover. This was my first introduction to the concept of Elseworlds.
one of the very first comics i ever owned, and fundamental to how i came to view superheroes, comedy, and applying comedy to the comic book medium (as well as a lot of importance to writing in general), was an issue of Justice League International, written by Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis with - and just as important as the writers to making everything work - Kevin Maguire on art.
comedy in comic books can be tough to pull off, because it’s a wholly different medium than TV or standup or video games or even just plain ol’ books. the tools you have available are different, and while you can do some things in comics that you just can’t in other mediums as effectively (for example,my favorite, the ‘info overload’, where, if you have the patience, you can cram a panel or page with far, far more things going on than you could in a TV show and let people actually find them without having to hit freeze on a DVD months later), it’s still difficult to figure out how to make comedy work to maximum effect. you have to change how you think of the basic structures of jokes that’d normally ill in other mediums.
justice league international isn’t just funny because Giffen and DeMatteis’ were really funny guys who had a knack for particularly character focused comedy, but also because artist Kevin Maguire could sell that comedy. immediately you can tell his skill in conveying emotions on characters, getting incredibly specific kinds of expressions and moods with characters faces but without going into cartoonish levels of exaggeration. how often are you going to see something as pitch perfect as guy’s cocky smugness in panel two, or scott free’s dead vacant exasperated stare?
not only is it in the expressions, but it’s in the pacing, the panel structure. you could cram a ton of dialog into one panel or page and basically do the same joke, but it’d fall apart because there’d be no movement, no change of expression or mood, no back and forth. using this simple 4 panel structure, we’re able to cycle through a whole moment effectively, letting both characters get their mood and moments right, and the 'beat’ to the bit traveling to us, the readers, effectively. it has timing, despite being nothing but pictures on a page. and by keeping the panels to a simple four block, it maintains that timing. more experimental, expressive paneling could work wonders for other kinds of jokes, but here, to maintain conversation flow and comedic potency, this classic structure is perfect.
and not only do you get a good comedic bit in an issue, you also learn so much about these two characters in such a short amount of time, informing us of their attitudes and personality just by this 4 panel back and forth. it’s a really well structured bit, and giffen, dematteis, and maguire do it all together!