Attacking Violence: J.M. DeMatteis on Savior 28

J.M. DeMatteis on Savior 28

The Life and Times of Savior 28 #3, in stores this week

For J.M. DeMatteis, the concept behind The Life and Times of Savior 28 is one he finds dead serious: The violence that permeates our society and its myths.

Particularly the mythical world of superheroes.

And now that the comic book series is about to ship its third issue this week, Savior 28 has people talking about the violent nature of the superhero genre, as well as winning DeMatteis and artist Mike Cavallaro a lot of critical praise.

"As much as I love superheroes, as much as I appreciate and understand the metaphoric power of the concept, I've always been uncomfortable with the violent content in superhero comics," DeMatteis told Newsarama about the genesis of the series. "Beneath all the big sci-fi ideas and character interplay and philosophical layering, these stories often, if not always, come down to two guys in costumes beating the living crap out of each other. I talk about this in terms of comics, but, really, it's what pop culture storytelling is all about: hero fights villain. Villain blows up. Audience cheers."

With the Savior 28 mini-series series from IDW, DeMatteis introduces readers to a hero named James Smith, a flying superhero of the 1940s who made his way into the hearts of America by protecting them from evil while standing for all the values they held dear. As the story fast forwards to more recent years, readers find out that the hero outlives his love, Samantha, and stays young while his sidekick, the Daring Disciple, grows old.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 #3, cover B

It all sounds like the standard superhero story. But along the way, particularly after killing his nemesis, Savior 28 begins to question the violence he supports by his very nature. When he takes that challenge public, things get ugly.

"This idea goes all the way back to the 1980's when I was writing Captain America," DeMatteis said. "I proposed a story that had Cap renounce violence and become a global peace activist. As a result, both the government and his fellow super heroes turned against him. The story ended with Cap being assassinated by Jack Monroe, the Bucky of the '50s, also known as Nomad. That particular idea was shot down (no pun intended), but I could never let go of it."

The writer’s been playing with the idea for the last 20 years, eventually creating his own set of characters with his own specific universe for them to play in.

"The story has grown and evolved and become something far more than my original conception," DeMatteis said of Savior 28. "After years of false starts and almosts, I finally got the proposal where I wanted it, sold it to the good folks at IDW and brought my friend, the brilliant Mike Cavallaro, along for the ride. Mike's had to bring a variety of periods of American and comic book history to life—going from documentary realism to Kirbyesque exaggeration—and he's also had to design an entire super hero universe from scratch. And he's done an amazing job of it."

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Although the story focuses on the violence in superhero stories, DeMatteis said it's really aimed at all the myths of our society, which are based in a large part on violence -- a mindset that spills onto battlefields around the world.

"As sophisticated as our society can be, a part of us seems to crave this black and white vision of the world, where 'bad-guys' get their comeuppance from 'good guys,'" the writer said. "And of course this isn't a new phenomenon, this goes all the way back to the ancient epics. Time and again violence is presented as a viable solution. In comics we've been doing it month after month, year after year, for seventy years. And as comic book culture spreads out into the broader culture, we're now selling that mindset on a mass scale, in movies, on television.

"It's always amazed me that, over the years, I've received letters berating me for the spiritual content in some of my stories, accusing me of 'preaching' spirituality," he said. "But for all the super hero slugfests I've written, I've never once received a letter berating me for preaching violence. Weird, isn't it? And of course we see this mind-set play out on battlefields across the world every day. We're addicted, in fiction and in life, to telling this same brutal myth over and over again. That's actually one of the themes of The Life and Times of Savior 28: the search for new stories for a new age."

Although it was originally conceived as a story for the 1980s, DeMatteis said he's been surprised that over time, his questions about violence in our society have only become more appropriate to the times.

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"The story works far better set against our recent history than it would have had I done it back in the 80's, in the Age of Reagan and the Evil Empire," he said. "The bulk of the story takes place during the Bush years — primarily 2001-2004 — and that provides the perfect backdrop to explore these issues. Remember, we had a president who actually called people 'evil-doers,' just like an old-fashioned comic book hero. Depending on your political point of view, that's either very cool or terrifying. That said, the story does move beyond those years and, by issue #5, will take us right up to the current day. Or close enough to it."

But DeMatteis said that although politics plays a significant part in the story, he doesn't see The Life and Times of Savior 28 as a political story aimed at a specific political audience.

"It's first and foremost a human story, with psychological and spiritual dimensions," he said. "The story of a flawed man whose very belief system is challenged, shattered. Seeing where that shattering leads Savior 28 is the crux of the story. And as much as the book is something of an anti-super hero diatribe, it's also a loving tribute to the genre. I couldn't have written as many super hero stories as I have without genuinely loving the genre and, even in a story that attempts to expose some of the ugliness and stupidity that underlies the super hero concept, that love, I think, manages to shine through.

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"Savior 28 begins as the classic 1940's hero," he said. "Mike Cavallaro wisely said that 28's not based on any one particular hero, he's based on all of them. That said, the man behind the mask is far more complex, and confused, than the gaudy costume would indicate. He's a fascinating character and it's been a great experience learning about him and traveling with him on this journey to self-awareness. James Smith is a very brave, very naive, very stupid and very wise man. In other words, he's a mass of contradictions, just like the rest of us."

Along with the Savior 28 character, the story also explores his sidekick, Dennis McNulty, also known as the Daring Disciple.

"He's the narrator, and in some ways, Dennis is an even more complex character than James Smith," DeMatteis said. "His perspective, which is skewed by his personal feelings about S-28, adds another interesting layer to the story. One of the things we learn about Savior 28 is that he has a somewhat tenuous grasp on the truth. He prefers a good story to the facts. You could call him a great storyteller or a great liar. The two aren't exclusive. In a way, the same is true of McNulty: We're getting the story from his perspective, which isn't necessarily the story as it played out. It's up to the readers to decide what's true and what's not."

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While delving into the nature of superhero stories and questioning their violence may seem like something that would be difficult for a writer of those types of stories to do, DeMatteis said it's actually been a good experience because it's been a long time coming. "This thing has been bubbling up in me for more than two decades and it's been a real catharsis getting it out," he said.

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After the second issue featured a visual sequence that took a very realistic look at some of the horrors of the Second World War, what comes next for the characters in Savior 28 will begin evolving with this week's issue #3.

"The great thing about writing The Life and Times of Savior 28 is that it's one of those stories that has really come alive on the page. After so many years of development, I thought I had the story down pat," he said, "and yet it constantly surprises me — which the best stories, and the best characters, usually do. And if a story surprises me, then I think (or at least hope) the readers will be surprised too."

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