Behind the Page - Matthew Sturges, 2

Behind the Page - Matthew Sturges, 2

Blue Beetle #36, the final issue

In Part 1 of our discussion with writer Matthew Sturges, we found out about how he became a writer and eventually wound up doing comic books.

We had just left off talking about the differences between writing Vertigo comics like Jack of Fables and House of Mystery and writing DC Universe comics like Blue Beetle. The writer had said his work on Blue Beetle was a labor of love.

In this half of our Behind the Page look at Matthew Sturges, we turn our attention toward the future and what's coming next for the writer, from his new series Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! to his fantasy novel, Midwinter to his upcoming run on Justice Society of America.

Newsarama: We talked a lot recently about your feelings on Blue Beetle getting canceled. But let's talk about the industry in general as it relates to Blue Beetle. While there's something to be said for a single hero getting a good, solid 36 issues, is it disappointing that a comic can't last very long if it isn't a big team book or big-name superhero? Do you think the comic industry is set up in such a way that things like Blue Beetle don't get a chance no matter how good they are?

Matt Sturges: Yes and no. I try to put it in a positive light. One of the great charms of mainstream comics is the continuity of it. That's something that people really enjoy. Some people might cringe at the comparison, but the DC Universe and Marvel Universe are something like a soap opera in the sense that there are a lot of characters who interact in complex ways. Each character has a storyline that goes through and it all has to be coordinated. That's part of what makes it so compelling is that you have these characters you've known for years, you care about them, and you want to see what happens to them next. In the hands of a very capable writer and artist, it's very fulfilling. You know, I've loved Superman since I was a kid, so to me, when I see a story that's got a big S on the front, that means a little more to me than if it's some guy I've never heard of. And that's just the way people are.

So when a reader comes to a comic book shop, and they're looking at the books they want to buy and only have so much money in their pocket, they're primarily going to pick the books that feed that craving. And if you're lucky, they'll give something like Blue Beetle a chance. They'll check out a new character, a legacy character, taking over for a guy, Ted Kord, that a lot of fans had a lot of love for. So it was kind of a tough sell from the get-go. And the chances of it becoming a hit book were probably not big to begin with, although I think the fact that it went 36 issues was pretty good. It lasted the longest of any of the One Year Later comics that were launched. Would I have liked it to become a really big hit and keep writing it forever? Well, sure! But at the same time, I don't take it so hard that I think I did something wrong and got it canceled. I think it was just what was going to happen, no matter what, after a certain point.

Blue Beetle #35

NRAMA: Looking back at the comics you've written, what's the biggest thing you've learned in the years that you've been writing?

MS: Oh, wow, that's a good question. I think probably the most important thing that I've learned is that in comics, as in many other media, story trumps everything. So you can be clever, and you can try and do a lot of interesting, stylistic things, but at the end of the day, you need to tell a really good, really compelling story. Especially in comics, it's taking that interesting character and showing them in a fresh light and giving them serious challenges to overcome.

And in comics, because comics are a very visual medium, those challenges work a lot better when they're very visual challenges. I think that's one of the reasons superhero comics are far and away the most successful genre in the medium of comics. The stories we tell in superhero comics are extremely visceral and visual, and those kind of stories lend themselves very well to the medium. So learning how to exploit that facet of it is the thing that I've spent a lot of time working on over the last couple of years.

NRAMA: What's your favorite story or issue that you've written in comics?

MS: There are two. One is issue #21 of Jack of Fables, which is the issue where Jack doesn't appear -- the only issue where Jack doesn't appear -- and it's about the residents, the inmates, of the Golden Boughs Retirement Village staging Hamlet. It's a story that I wanted to tell for a long time and finally got to. It's one of the few issues of Jack of Fables that I wrote completely on my own. And I had a great time doing it. So that was one of them.

The other is the last two issues of Blue Beetle, which came out exactly the way I wanted them to come out and sort of wrapped up the series very well. So hopefully, people will run out and buy them in large quantities upon having heard that.

NRAMA: Let's look forward at the stuff you have coming up. You're doing the Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! series, which focuses on things from the Human Flame's point of view. Run! seems a little different than what we've seen from you in the past. How would you describe it in comparison to Jack of Fables or Blue Beetle? Is it a lot darker?

Final Crisis Aftermath: Run!

MS: Well, Run! is a book that plays to all of my worst instincts. And by worst, I mean baaaaad. Like, I've placed all my vices as a person and all my most wicked aspects of my sense of humor. It's just me being bad for six issues.

If you've read Jack of Fables, you can kind of get a sense of the terrible things that Jack does and the glee that he clearly has doing that. That is a lot of what goes into run, that kind of sensibility.

At the same time, it's a DCU book, so it's more... how do I put it? It's definitely more of a superhero book. There's a heroic element to it. But the narrative of the book is siding against the heroic element, not for it. So that's the kind of book Run! is. We take a horrible, horrible person as a protagonist and hopefully make him such a fascinating train wreck of a person that the readers are compelled to, if not root for him, then at least tune in each month to see what happens next because they're fascinated by the train wreck that is this person.

NRAMA: That's got to be quite a switch from writing Blue Beetle.

MS: It is. Blue Beetle is everything that's best in my nature, and Run! is everything that's worst in it. But then, that's not a very wide spectrum. I'm not a particularly horrid person, so for me, being really bad is still PG-13. But yeah, they're two very different mindsets. I think when I'm writing Blue Beetle, it's a sort of happy, joyous kind of feeling. And when I'm writing Run! or Jack of Fables, it's more like rubbing my hands together and tackling with wicked glee.

NRAMA: And that's starting in May?

MS: Yes, it's starting in May. Freddie Williams III is doing all of the art himself. He's drawing everything, he's coloring it himself. So we have a long lead time so the book can come out on time.

NRAMA: Let's talk about Justice Society. You have a wide cast of characters in Jack of Fables and House of Mystery. But this is a group of superheroes. What kind of challenges does that present for you?

Willingham & Sturges Talk JSA
Willingham & Sturges Talk JSA
MS: Well, this is a superhero group that's been around for something like 60 years, or closer to 70, and when you're dealing with these characters, you're dealing with decades and decades of history. And often you're dealing with conflicting history because what happened in the 1940s in All-Star Comics is very different from what happened in the '90s when Geoff Johns was writing the book. They're almost two completely different things. And finding a through-line from the guys who were making the book in the '40s to the people who are making it now, and the way those characters have evolved over time, evolving through the sensibilities of the culture. It would be very difficult now to write a story where the story tries to convince a soldier to go fight in Iraq because the Iraqis are a "warlike people" at heart who must be stopped. That would be a very controversial story to write today, and a story you wouldn't write because it would be considered immoral. But that's exactly a story that was sold in the 1940s in World War II about the Germans.

So it's different now. So when you're writing the Justice Society, you want to take what's left from everything that's come before and infuse your own ideas. Everyone's got their own idea of who Jay Garrick is. The question is, is my take on that character something that is going to resonate with people? I hope so. I have a deep feeling for those characters. I've read just about every appearance of most of them. So I think I've got a pretty good handle on who they are.

NRAMA: Do you do a lot of research before you start on a project like this?

MS: Well, JSA, because it has the most history of any book I've worked on, I've done by far the most research. I've gone through great trouble and expense to get all the old All-Star comics and re-read all of Geoff Johns' run on the book. I had already read it, but now I've gone back and read it as someone who's going to be writing these characters. I've gone back and read Infinity Inc., which is a book I hadn't read before. Getting all caught up on that stuff was important to me. This is a team that has had characters who have appeared in a lot of different books. And in a lot of different ways over a lot of years. Roy Thomas' JSA is different from Paul Levitz's JSA is different from Geoff Johns' JSA. So trying to get an overview of how different people have written the characters and drawn the characters and told stories with the characters was really important to me.

When I come down to sit and write these people, I need to have fresh in my mind, a clear sense of who each character is. So yes, I did a lot of research.

NRAMA: Was it mostly about researching the characters, or was it knowing plots that had come before?

MS: It was both. And you know, with the JSA, to a greater extent than a lot of other books, there are a lot of menaces that they've been dealing with since the 1940s who are almost members of the JSA in their own right, in some ways. Degaton has been around forever, and each character in the JSA has kind of a relationship with that guy, with Vandal Savage, with Brainwave. You name a villain that the JSA has dealt with, and there's a relationship there. So understanding all those connections can only help you make a better book.

NRAMA: Let's switch to this novel you have coming out. Were you writing Midwinter while you were writing comics?

MS: No, I wrote that novel before I started writing comic books. And essentially, it sat in a drawer for a very long time. What happened was, when I started getting a little attention as a writer because of my comic book work, a very good friend took his copy of Midwinter that I'd given him and sent it to an editor without me even knowing. And so all of the sudden I got this call from an editor saying, "Hey, I just read your book and I'd like to buy it." And I was like, what book? [laughs] So I took that book and last year I rewrote and revised it. I had written it several years ago, and I'd sort of honed my skills as a writer while writing what seems like jilliions of comic books. And now it's going to be published and coming out in March.

NRAMA: What's the novel about?

MS: I always use the catchphrase, "It's the Dirty Dozen with elves." It's story about how every 100 years, there's a winter that comes to the land of Faery. It's the land of summer twilight, where the weather never changes. What makes winter come is a big part of what the story is. We have our main character, Mauritaine, who was a one-time captain of the queen's royal guard. He's been imprisoned as a traitor but now has a chance to clear his name. In order to do that, he's going on a mission where his survival is not a requirement -- only the success of his mission. He and the people he chooses from among the other prisoners to help fulfill his mission cross the country, and we get to see what this place is like and who inhabits it. While all this is happening, there's a war brewing. And all of this sort of comes to a head at the same time.

Jack of Fables #27
Jack of Fables #27
There's a lot of people hitting each other with swords. There's a lot of wizards on battlefields hurling magical things at each other. There's a romance. And some humor as well. Stylistically, you'll say, oh, OK, I can see how this is a book that Matt Sturges would have written, although it's definitely set in a different point of view.

NRAMA: Looking forward, do you want to keep writing comic books, or is this opening some doors for you as a novelist?

MS: I wouldn't mind doing both. They're two very different things. I've already sold a sequel to Midwinter, so I'm definitely going to be writing more books. Writing prose is very gratifying in the sense that, when you're writing a novel, it's all about your personal vision. You can write when you want, the length you want, and the only thing stopping you is once you finally turn the thing in, the editor saying, "well, this needs to be changed before we publish it." With comics, it's a much more structured medium. But in some ways, that's part of the fun of it. It can be kind of frustrating in the sense that there are certain story beats that you have to have in order to make a satisfying 22-page comic. Because of the realities of the comic book publishing industry, we're encouraged to write stories that can be easily collected in a trade paperback. So there are more restrictions in writing comics, which makes writing prose feel a bit freeing.

But at the same time, there's magic in writing comics. You write a script and then out of the ether comes beautiful pages, and later a comic book that's colored and lettered. And all these things happen while you weren't looking. So it really does feel like magic every time I go to the comic book shop and look at one of my books. It's like, "Wow! That was just words that I typed and all of the sudden it's this thing!" So that's a beautiful experience that never gets old and that I would never, ideally, lose.

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