A Closed Door Opens Another for J.M. DEMATTEIS & IMAGINALIS
J.M. DeMatteis Talks IMAGINALIS
What happens when your favorite series get canceled? One little girl is about to find out.
J.M. DeMatteis has amassed one of the most diverse resumes in comics writing, going from all types of superhero stories to some of the earliest “Mature Readers” books at Marvel and DC to works for all ages. His stories, from the hijinx of Justice League International with Keith Giffen to the psychological drama of “Kraven’s Last Hunt” in the Spider-Man books are still influencing superhero stories today, and works such as Moonshadow helped pave the way for Vertigo.
Now, DeMatteis is making a splash in the world of children’s literature with his new novel, Imaginalis, which goes on sale June 29. Mehera Beatrice Crosby loves the Imaginalis series of books – but when the final book in the series is canceled, she discovers her friends from the story are trapped in a limbo called “Nolandia.” Unless she can help, the fictional world and all who dwell in it will be destroyed. You can read the first six chapters of the book here (link: http: //browseinside.harpercollinschildrens.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061732867&pg=1).
DeMatteis got on the phone with us to explain how Imaginalis has its roots in his previous children’s graphic novel/book series, Abadazad, moving from comics to prose, how the magic of everyday life is like pudding, and the potential for future stories in both this world and in Abadazad.
Newsarama: Congratulations on Imaginalis. You must be very excited about this.
J.M. DeMatteis: I am! Unlike comics, where sometimes it feels like you finish a story and it comes out the next day – which is only a slight exaggeration – this is something I’ve been working on quite a while.
With a novel, you finish it, and then you go through a lengthy editing process, and then months pass and you kind of forget about it, and then one day this thing shows up in the mail and you go, “Oh my God! It’s a book! It’s a book! And there are no pictures in it! It’s just a book!” [laughs]
Nrama: How long have you been working on this one?
DeMatteis:: It’s funny when people ask how long you’ve been working on a story because there’s the physical working on it and the mental working on it, you know?
The original idea came probably in 2006, right around the time I got the word the Abadazad series Mike Ploog and I were doing for Disney/Hyperion was going to be canceled. We were going to do eight books, two books had come out, and there was a management change at the publisher.
Long story short, it came down they were only going to put out the third book in England – not even in the US – and our eight-book series was dead. I had written the fourth book, but it wasn’t coming out.
That series really, really meant the world to me. I was deeply invested in it. I believed in that world. I believed in those characters. I really felt like I was channeling transmissions from Abadazad – they were telling me the story, and it was my job to just take down what they told me.
So, while it was upsetting to know my livelihood for the next year, which I was expecting to use to provide for my family, was out the window, that wasn’t the thing that got to me. What got to me, what was really so upsetting, was losing those friends, losing those characters, losing that world.
I was honestly so depressed that I just got into bed and laid there, in a very melodramatic, Lord Byron swoon, for the day. And I thought, “I miss Kate and Matt and all those characters so much. They’re trapped in Limbo and I can’t get to them…”
…and then I thought, “Wow, characters trapped in Limbo! What a great idea for a story!”
And that forced me out of bed, and I ran to my office, and I spent the next day outlining a story about a girl whose favorite book series is canceled, and the characters are trapped in Limbo. And that was the seed of Imaginalis.
Brenda Bowen, who was the editor at Disney/Hyperion who had put the Abadazad deal together, had left the company and started her own imprint over at Harper Collins. A few months after that, I had the chance to pitch Brenda some ideas, and one was Imaginalis, and she loved it, and from there, things took off.
Subsequently, Brenda left Harper Collins and became a literary agent – she’s my book agent now, actually – and it was rolled over into the Katherine Tegan imprint. But that’s where Imaginalis came from: out of the ashes of Abadazad, from that moment of despair, came this wonderful idea that grew into the book that’s now sitting on my desk.
Nrama: Did writing this prove to be a cathartic experience?
DeMatteis:: Absolutely. And really, even more cathartic than writing the whole book was the idea itself. The best moments as a writer, for me, are the ones when ideas suddenly manifest, seemingly out of thin air. Because first there’s nothing in your head, then there’s this story that’s alive, screaming at you to be written. Those are the moments when the whole universe sort of turns over.
And then comes the grunt work, turning the initial idea, that burst of inspiration, into something bigger. Sometimes that’s a delightful bit of channeling, and sometimes it’s a miserable round of chiseling a massive rock. This time, it was a little it of both, but while it was demanding, it was also incredibly gratifying. But the most important moment was when that idea descended out of the blue and said: “Write me!”
Nrama: Do you envision a series from Imaginalis? This volume is very self-contained…
DeMatteis:: I very much wanted it to be self-contained. Given the experience I had with Abadazad, where I had this epic all planned out that was going to go on for at least eight books, and we were hoping to do 10, and it could have gone on for another eight books beyond that, and beyond that, and beyond that…
With this one, I said, “I want to do a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and some sense of closure. If the opportunity arises to tell more stories about these characters and this world, fine, and if it doesn’t, at least I’ll know I got to tell the story I wanted to tell, and I won’t be left in Limbo again.” So I made very sure to keep it self-contained.
Nrama: The land of Imaginalis draws quite a bit from Indian mythology. What fascination does that hold for you?
DeMatteis:: It’s been part of my life for a long time. I’ve been to India eight or nine times over the years, and my spiritual point of view on the universe is based in more of an Eastern than Western tradition.
I love that world, I love that country, I love those myths – but more importantly, I love the doorway they provide to something very deep and very magical that applies to my life in a very broad way that’s both cosmic and absolutely practical. So I couldn’t help but let that leak into my work over the years.
Anyone who’s read my work over time knows there’s something spiritual I try to put into everything, whether it’s Spider-Man or something deeply personal, and with Imaginalis, I was able to explore the Indian aspect of it a little more overtly. It’s not bludgeoning the reader over the head with it; it’s just taking some aspects that are universal in mythology and using them as a jumping off point for the fantasy.
Nrama: How did you develop the character of Mehera?
DeMatteis:: You know, she just developed herself, really. There are certain aspects of the character and her relationship with her father that came from my own daughter, from our relationship, because you just can’t help but imprint your own life on these things.
But it’s certainly not a direct correlation – it’s just that certain elements made their way in there. But in the end, Mehera is very much her own person. She certainly made herself known to me – it was one of those things where you have an idea, and then you start to write, and you go, “Oh, so that’s who she is!”
You can think a character will be one thing, and she turns out to be another. She’s very different from Kate in Abadazad, who was very angry, and damaged, and had some major psychological issues. Mehera isn’t angry – she has her issues, as we all do, but in her own slightly neurotic way, she’s much more well-adjusted to the world, and her relationship with her father is such that no matter what problems get in the way, the love they have for each other always seems to resurface to save them.
Nrama: When you’re developing a fantasy world like this, how deeply do you sketch it out? Do you design a history, and how do you create, for lack of a better term, the rules for this fantasy environment?
DeMatteis:: For me, as the years go by, I create more and more from a place of spontaneity. I’m not the sort of writer who’s going to sit down and write a 20-page bible about the history of this world, and who this is and who that is and how that thing works.
My goal as a writer is to just open myself up and allow the story to come through me, and to discover the story the same way a reader would. The discovery of Imaginalis for me was like getting in a boat and sailing there, and writing down what I saw on the trip along the way.
I didn’t sit down beforehand and write a set of rules; I discovered them in the writing. And there are still many, many things I don’t know about Imaginalis itself, because we spend a great deal of the story over here in our world, not in Imaginalis. When we find the characters, they’re trapped in Limbo, and we only get the tiniest glimpses of what Imaginalis is.
So honestly, I’ve only had the tiniest glimpse of what Imaginalis is. I only know the characters who’ve traveled here from that world. I don’t know the place 100 percent, and if we have an opportunity to do more stories set in that universe, I look forward to having the chance to explore Imaginalis a bit and discover more about it.
That sense of discovery, of surprise, is what it’s all about for me. The best moments as a writer are the ones where you’re working away and something descends and cracks your head wide open and you go, “I didn’t know that!” You’re genuinely surprised and amazed. If you feel that way, then you hope your readers will feel that way, as well. Those are the times when the creative process is really cooking. You’re an open channel and your job is to just get out of the way.
Nrama: One of the major thematic elements I’ve seen in your work, dating back to Moonshadow, has been the conflict between the world of the imagination and the harsh truths of reality. What brings you back to that theme again and again?
DeMatteis:: In Imaginalis, I talk about it – Mehera uses this term she got from her father, which is “the CNN reality,” the reality that gets fed to us by the media, telling us just how bleak and miserable and awful everything is, and why don’t we just stick a pillow over our faces and put a gun to our heads.
And then there’s the inner world, and whether you call it spiritual life, a connection to the divine, or just the world of imagination makes no difference to me, because in my mind there’s no difference. They’re doorways to the same place.
And then there’s this apparent disconnect between the two, the inner world and the outer. And all the stories you talk about deal with jumping over that disconnect to the place where you go so deep into that inner world, into the world of imagination and miracles inside your head, that you find that’s what the alleged real world is, as well. The inner is the outer. The mind creates the universe. It’s all the same energy.
I call it peeling away the skin of the world. You know, you’ll get a bowl of pudding, and you have that thick skin on top, and you peel it away, and there’s all this rich, delicious pudding beneath. To me, that whole CNN reality is the skin. And once we peel it away, there’s a universe of miracles and magic, of grace and wonder, waiting for us to feast upon.
Imaginalis starts off seeming to be about the disconnect between those two worlds, but it winds up being about the connection -- that they’re not two worlds, they’re each extensions of the same world, and both are as miraculous as anything we can imagine. That’s the journey for me not just as a writer, but as a human being on our planet: connecting up the inner and the outer.
Nrama: How has working in prose, without that sort of safety net of an illustrator, forced you to adapt as a writer?
DeMatteis:: It’s interesting. It’s not so much the safety net of the illustrator as the safety net of a particular form that one knows backwards and forwards. I’ve also written in TV and film, and those are forms that I know very, very well, and I’m very, very comfortable with, and I can play in those fields easily.
It’s funny – you look at my work like Moonshadow or Farewell, Moonshadow or Brooklyn Dreams or even Abadazad, which was developed into a series that was part graphic novel, part prose, my work has always been very prose-heavy. I’ve always been up for knocking down that invisible wall between comic books and prose. I don’t like barriers. I believe in comics, we should be able to write in any direction we can.
All that said, when you get to the point where it’s all prose…the problem for me wasn’t in the writing but in the mindset. I’m someone who grew up loving, revering, prose books. And suddenly I realized this was a Book, capital “B,” you know? “It’s a Book! It’s a Book!” [laughs]
And I actually psyched myself out quite a bit at the beginning, because I got myself into this headset of “This is a Book! How can I write a Book?!” And it froze me up. I intimidated myself into thinking this was something bigger than it needed to be.
But in the end, it’s just another story, and I’ve been a professional storyteller for 30 years. Once you hook in to the story, off you go, and nothing’s going to stop you. But my reverence for books is what kept me from moving forward, and it took a while before I could really find the rhythm and the mode of expression and get it in the pocket.
Now, if I had gotten to the fifth page and there was a place where there would have been an illustration, where I would have shifted into the realm of visual description that I know so well, that would have given my mind some time to breathe. But that didn’t happen, so I was outside my comfort zone, still in that place of awe.
But, in the end, it’s not about the form. It’s not about whether it’s a graphic novel or a TV script or a screenplay or a book or a song, for that matter. It’s about the story. It’s about engaging with the story. And once you engage the story – it’s the story’s business to tell itself, and your job is to follow where it leads.
So once I got over my self-created intimidation and embraced the story, things shifted.
Nrama: Are you doing any more prose books?
DeMatteis:: I would love to. I’m working on a proposal with a friend right now, but I don’t want to say what it’s about. It’s in the fantasy realm, but it’s not for kids, and we’ve already got some interest. And I’m waiting to see how Imaginalis does – I would love to continue the journey with those characters.
As I said, when I wrote the book, I didn’t have a sequel in mind. But now that it’s done, I have all these ideas for the characters – “We could go here! We could do this!” I would love to return to that world and those characters and really crack it open. This book is just an hors d’oeuvre. And there’s a whole meal yet to be had.
So yes, my plan is to do more books, and I would love to continue to work in that arena. One of the things I’ve always tried to do with my career is not be stuck in any one place. Even in comics, it’s always been my intention to do a variety of stuff – sure, there’s superhero books, but there’s also Moonshadow and Brooklyn Dreams and Seekers: Into the Mystery.
I do kids’ projects like Abadazad and The Stardust Kid. I do off-the-wall humor stuff with Keith Giffen. And I like to turn around and do film and TV projects and book projects. As creative beings, we can’t stay in any one place for too long. We have to jump through different forms, and genres, and challenges. For me, in many ways right now, the book world is a new challenge, and I can’t wait to see where this leads.
Nrama: As for Abadazad – is there any chance we could see the story concluded in some form?
DeMatteis:: You know, my feeling – and this is based on nothing but my intuition – I don’t think of Abadazad as done. I think there are enough people out there with an interest in this that some day – it might be tomorrow, it might be a month from now, it might be in another five years – the door will spring open and there will be an opportunity for that story to be told, and concluded.
Again, this is not based on anything but my own intuition, and, of course, my own hopes and dreams, as well. But that’s how I feel, and I feel this very strongly. Disney holds the rights to it, and I’ve had interest from movie producers who’ve wanted to do it, and who’ve talked to Disney about doing the film there, and of course if the film gets made they’ll say “Let’s get the books back out!”
Something completely unexpected could happen. So in the CNN reality, Abadazad is completely dead. In my internal reality, that door will spring open again. In fact, it’s never closed. So come back a year or two from now, and we’ll see if I’m completely delusional or telling the truth! [laughs] Probably both.
Take a trip to Imaginalison June 29.
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.