Behind the Page - Matthew Sturges, Part 1

Behind the Page - Matthew Sturges, p1

House of Mystery #12
House of Mystery #12
Jack of Fables #33

The first time I sat down with Matthew Sturges for an interview, I had to remind myself who he was.

Not because I wasn't familiar with the writer's work – from Jack of Fables to Shadowpact to Blue Beetle to House of Mystery, Sturges had produced a surprisingly large amount of work in a fairly short time since breaking into comics in 2006.

It was more about his surprisingly serious tone when speaking about his work, his in-depth and thought-provoking answers, his refined mannerisms. As he talked about his comics, Sturges was downright self-analytical and somewhat reserved – something that didn't match the writer's comic book stories, like the upbeat and fun style he incorporated so often into Blue Beetle, or those crazy moments in House of Mystery that elicit a reader response of, "Oh no, he DIDN'T!"

Yet this was Matthew Sturges. And talking to him again sometime later, together with his frequent collaborator Bill Willingham, Sturges played the role of straight man to his co-writer, often adding an insightful, honest response to temper Willingham's sarcastic quips.

But don't let the exterior fool you too much. When Sturges relaxes, the clever, easy humor his readers have come to expect from the writer fills his conversation. Plus, in the second part of this interview, Sturges admits his tendency toward slightly twisted stories and even dark humor, something he's hoping to get a chance to show in his upcoming DC comic series Run.

Perhaps it's that combination that has brought him success. Maybe the balance of approaching the work in a serious way while creatively having fun with the story has impressed DC Comics enough to give the writer an exclusive contract and a growing list of new projects. From his ongoing House of Mystery and Jack of Fables series, to his upcoming work on Run, to his co-writing gig on Justice Society of America, Sturges has rocketed past the "up-and-coming" label to quickly approach "up-and-there."

Along with all this pending published work in the comics industry, the writer is also releasing a new fantasy book, Midwinter, a novel he wrote before breaking into comics. Set to hit bookstores in March, Midwinter is set in a universe of elves, kingdoms and flying cities, a type of magical world his Jack of Fables fans should find familiar.

As Sturges begins what looks to be a big year for the writer, we sit down with him again, this time to talk about the road he took to get here and more about who Matt Sturges is Behind the Page.

Newsarama: Let's start with your background, Matt. Where are you from originally?

Matthew Sturges: I'm a Navy brat, so I'm not really "from" anyplace, although I've lived lots of places. A good deal of my childhood was spent going from one place to the next. One of the first skills I learned as a kid was how to fit in at a new place. And you could kind of see that every bunch of kids in a new town have a different set of expectations, and as a kid, what you really want is to fit in. The first characters that I created were characters that I played myself, as a way of fitting in and avoiding too much attention and not standing out. Those were my primary goals as a kid.

NRAMA: Were you a kid who liked to write down stories?

MS: I always did. I started out writing imitations of whatever I was reading at the time. So when I was really into Douglas Adams in the fifth and sixth grade, I would write what were essentially Douglas Adams rip-offs. He would have sued for plagiarism had I tried to publish them. But that was where it started for me.

So yeah, I always did that. Even in seventh grade, I would write plays and try to coerce my friends into performing them... for nobody, you know? Just in the back yard. And it wasn't always a good sell. But yeah, I've always had that itch to make up stories and con people into reading them.

NRAMA: Were you always interested in stories from the fantasy and supernatural realm? Or was it all kinds of stories?

MS: It was always the genre stuff for me. Like a lot of people my age – I'm in my late 30s now and was seven when Star Wars came out – and like a lot of kids back then, Star Wars set the tone for my entertainment tastes for years and years to come. It wasn't until I saw my first episode of Doctor Who when I was 11 years old that I just got hooked. I immersed myself in things like Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons – all those things that would lead me to become the complete geek I am now.

NRAMA: I think you'd mentioned in a former interview that you started getting into comics through Vertigo, didn't you?

MS: That's true. We ended up living in this small town in West Virginia from the time I was 12 to when I was 15, which are usually the years when kids get into comics, and the only place you could buy comics was at this corner drug store where they had one spinner rack of comics. And it was a reprint of Incredible Hulk #1, and maybe a Spider-Man or an Archie Comic. And as far as I know, they never replaced those comics for as long as I lived there. So I read this one Hulk comic and knew his origin with the gamma radiation, but I had no idea what happened next. And the TV show came along, so I was like, is this Bruce Banner or David Banner? I don't know. So I just kind of let it drop.

Cover to Fables #83
Cover to Fables #83
Jack of Fables #33

It wasn't until I was in college, when my friend Chris Roberson, who is now a novelist and is also the guy who's writing the new Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love mini-series this year, was the person who introduced me to comics. And the things he liked at the time were Legion of Super-Heroes and all the stuff that would become Vertigo. And because the Legion of Super-Heroes, at the time, made no sense to me, I sort of went for the Vertigo stuff.

Not that I didn't learn to love superheroes, but for a beginner, the Vertigo type stories were more self-contained. This was the late '80s, so this was when a lot of great stuff was happening in comics. One of the first things I read was Watchmen, followed by Sandman, then everything Grant Morrison was writing at the time. So those were the books that really formed my sensibilities about what comics could be and should be, and the potential of what you could do in a comic.

NRAMA: Did you always want to be a writer? And did you think you could write comics even back then?

MS: I had toyed with becoming a writer. In college, I was an English major. I thought I would end up getting a PhD and teaching somewhere, maybe wearing a suede jacket with patches. That never happened. But I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy stuff. I never dreamed of writing comics. To me, it was kind of like being an astronaut. It wasn't something real people did. It was something that someone else did, and that someone was made of gold and they lived in a castle in Scotland. Real people didn't do that. But I thought I could maybe get some short stories published, or write a novel.

NRAMA: At some point, you became part of Clockwork Storybook, a group of friends getting together to write together, right? And one of those friends was Bill Willingham?

MS: It started as friends getting together to write together, but then it sort of spiraled out of control. It was me and Chris Roberson and Bill Willingham and another guy named Mark Finn. And it started out as just writing things and reading them to each other one night a week.

We got together every Wednesday for years. And it turned out the things we wrote were fairly similar in tone. So we got the idea to create a shared world, and we could create all these stories within that same world, and we could put it on the internet. This was 1998-1999, and the internet was going to save the world. We figured if we put it on the internet, everyone would come and... I don't know; just give us money or something. We weren't real clear on the details.

But it sounded like a good idea.

So we did all these stories, and they were illustrated. And we got the bright idea to start publishing the stories and selling them on the website. And it became a company, a small press publisher, and we did this for several years until eventually the whole thing just kind of fell apart. But yes, that's how Bill Willingham and I made our acquaintance.

NRAMA: How were you making a living at that time?

MS: After I graduated from college, I was living in Austin, Texas, and it was 1992. So I didn't want to have a career because what I really wanted to do was write. So I was playing bass in a band for awhile, and I worked temp jobs for many years. Finally, I decided to have some kind of real job, so I lied and told some people in interviews that I knew how to do web pages. It seemed cool and the people I knew who were doing websites were cool and had funky glasses, so I thought, hmm... I could hang out with these people. One of the hallmarks of my life is getting to do things that I lie and say I can do, then in a mad rush, I figure out how to do them before anyone is the wiser. It worked in comics, that's for sure!

NRAMA: Let's fast forward to when you ended up breaking into comics. Was that soon after Clockwork Storybook disbanded?

MS: It was several years later when that happened. I had a few years where I was working and had a baby, and then the dot-com bubble burst, so I was struggling in a lot of ways and had almost decided to give up writing. I had only sold a few short stories, and I had written a novel that I'd written but nobody wanted to give a chance. I was about to say screw it and do something else when I got the call from Vertigo to do Jack of Fables. I decided to give writing one more serious try before going off to become a farmer or something.

NRAMA: Were you familiar with Fables?

MS: Oh, it was one of my favorite books – not just because I was friends with Bill, but because I was enjoying it. And Bill and I did, and still do, talk quite a bit. I remember saying things like, "Who's the Adversary? What's Boy Blue going to do?" And he would never tell me, but would instead laugh this evil laugh and say, "Well, what do you THINK is going to happen?" And I'd share my thoughts to have him merely laugh – "HA. HA. HA." – and reply, "Interesting theory."

The Literals #1
The Literals #1
The Literals #1

So yes, I knew the characters. And before starting the book, we had long conversations about what we wanted Jack of Fables to be like. And I actually had a lot of input, which surprised me because I figured this is Bill's thing, and he owns it, and he was just going to come and say, "here's how it's going to be, and I'll let you type it." That honestly would have been perfectly fine with me, because I respected Fables so much and hey – I was getting my name on the cover. But he was very gracious and let me make up some of the characters and give it my own personal stamp.

NRAMA: And that series was Eisner nominated soon after, wasn't it?

MS: It's an Eisner-losing series, yes! But it was nominated, and Bill used to joke that not everything you write is going to be nominated for an Eisner, so don't get used to this. That was definitely true.

NRAMA: Soon after, you broke into superhero work. What was your first work in the DCU?

MS: It was Shadowpact, and that was a huge change of pace. When you're writing in Vertigo, you just kind of do what you're going to do with the story. And they're fairly hands-off as far as the content of the story. But going over to the DCU and writing within this shared world was elating, but also terrifying and confusing at first, because you don't know how you're supposed to fit into this overwhelming universe where so many things are happening. It takes awhile to sort of find your feet – at least it did me. It took me several issues to get a feel for what I was doing.

NRAMA: You kind of got thrown into the fire around that time, didn't you? You were doing a few things in the DCU.

MS: I was. I was offered this Countdown to Mystery book, with the Spectre and Eclipso. That was a huge, crazy thing because it was this Countdown tie-in, and as Countdown was going on, things would change, so I'd get crazy notes and things that didn't make any sense. So I was really pulling my hair out when I was writing it and trying to make sense of it all. But it was a great learning experience, to understand the ecosystem of superhero comics and how it all gets put together. So now I'm a lot more comfortable in that world, having gone through that trial by fire.

NRAMA: You were also offered the chance to write House of Mystery around the same time as Blue Beetle. You don't co-write House of Mystery, right? You're the writer?

MS: Yes, I do the ongoing story, and I write most of the imbedded stories, but the imbedded stories are all drawn by different people.

NRAMA:: Well, we've talked to you pretty extensively about House of Mystery and Blue Beetle themselves, so let's just talk about which of those is more enjoyable for you as a writer, and what the different challenges of each are as a writer. House of Mystery is all new characters in your own little sandbox, while Blue Beetle is one of those shared universe stories with fairly established characters.

MS: Writing comics, to me, is a labor of love because I really put a lot of effort into everything I write. And of course, I love my job and wouldn't dream of doing anything else now.

House of Mystery #12
House of Mystery #12
House of Mystery #12

But there are some books that are more love and some books that are more labor. House of Mystery is one that takes a lot of effort to create. It's a challenge to create an ongoing story when you've only got two-thirds of the 22-page comic book to tell the story and enhance it in a way that will keep the reader interested. And also, coming up with a new story every month is kind of like you're starting from scratch every month, in some ways. So creatively, it's a lot more demanding as you try to keep things fresh and not repeat yourself, doing something different each time.

On the other hand, when you're writing a six-issue arc of Blue Beetle, you've outlined it and paced it and created all the beats in one fell swoop. So when you're writing the third issue of the story arc, you're able to have fun writing the characters and all the jokes and big moments. So that, to me, was almost nothing but pure pleasure, writing Blue Beetle. It was a labor of love.

Monday, we'll run Part 2 of our Behind the Page interview with Matt Sturges, finding out his thoughts on why a comic like Blue Beetle struggles in today's comic environment, as well as talking about his upcoming plans for Run and Justice Society of America.

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