Casting A Light
Moonshadow was one of the most acclaimed comic series of the 1980s when it first came out from Epic. A sequel, Farewell Moonshadow, followed from Vertigo in 1997. Now many years later, Dark Horse has just published a lavish hardcover which reprints the original series, its follow-up and includes a section of extra material. Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows spoke to its writer and creator JM DeMatteis about the genesis of the series and the shadow it continues to cast on his career many years after it was first published…
TRIPWIRE: What was the genesis of Moonshadow?
JMDEMATTEIS: It’s an idea that had been rattling around in my head for some years—before I’d ever broken into comics—and it kept evolving, growing, over time. Around 1983 or so I looked around and saw things changing in comics…Marvel had the Epic line, DC was doing exciting new projects like Ronin and Camelot 3000…and I knew that it was time to step outside the superhero mindset and do something that was uniquely mine. Moonshadow seemed the obvious choice for me.
I almost did the project at DC with Karen Berger as editor—my Marvel contract was up and I was considering jumping ship—but I decided to stay at Marvel when Jim Shooter approved Moonshadow and tossed it over to Archie Goodwin at Epic.
TW: Archie Goodwin was one of the greatest editors in comics. How closely did you work for him?
JMD: Laurie Sutton and Margaret Clark were our editors on Moonshadow, and they were fantastic, but Archie was always there watching over things. He set the tone and the attitude for Epic and made sure we were given the room to tell our story in exactly the way we wanted to. Epic, under Archie—who, aside from being a superb editor was just a wonderful person—was a creator’s dream. We were always supported and encouraged to be our best, strike out in new directions, follow the muse wherever it led.
TW: How much of the series is autobiographical or at least semi autobiographical?
JMD: I realised a long time ago that everything I write is autobiographical. Not literally—but all my stories reflect my obsessions and experiences, my passions and fears, traumas and hopes, often in deeply personal ways. I’ve looked at Spider-Man stories years later and realized that they were direct lines into my psyche.
Moonshadow, though, was a clear attempt to take a specific period of my life and transform it into a science-fiction fairy tale. To use that fantastic form to get at the truth of my experiences. (And of course our narrator, Old Moonshadow, was doing the same thing: telling the story of his life but reflecting it through a mirror of the fantastic.)
No, my mother wasn’t a burnt-out hippie, my father wasn’t an enigmatic ball of light, and I wasn’t raised in an intergalactic zoo—but Moon was as autobiographical a work as I’d ever written, up to that point. So much of the story was the reality of what I’d lived transformed into metaphor and fantasy.
TW: How did Jon J Muth come on board as artist?
JMD: I met Jon through our mutual friend, Dan Green. Dan gave Jon my original outline for the series, Jon responded to it very enthusiastically and, from the moment I saw his first development sketches, which captured the Dickensian heart of the story with grace and style, I knew he was the right artist for the project. And of course Moon was the first fully-painted comic book series done in the U.S. That helped put us on the map.
Comics are about a fusion between story and art and you have to have both elements in perfect balance for a story to really work. Jon and I found that fusion almost instantly. Without his massive contribution, I don’t know if we’d even be talking about the project today. I’m lucky to have found such a gifted collaborator—and valued friend.
TW: Prior to this, you were best known as a superhero writer. Was there much trepidation switching to a more personal project?
JMD: Not trepidation, just a wonderful sense of freedom. I was able to step outside the Marvel-DC mindset (and, in retrospect, much of that mindset was self-imposed), stop “writing comic books” and just write. Moonshadow allowed me to find my own voice as a writer for the first time. To see who I was when I wasn’t filtering myself through those superhero universes. And that allowed me to return to those universes with my voice intact and bring new perspectives to those characters.
TW: When Moonshadow began, there was no Vertigo and no Image. Epic was the place to explore more sophisticated work. Was it difficult creating a project like this when there wasn’t a market for series like this out there?
JMD: I didn’t give the market a second thought. I was just grateful to be a part of this new explosion of creator-owned content, to be working with Jon and Archie, Margaret and Laurie. The eighties were a wonderful time in comics, we were given so much freedom—not just on creator-owned books, but on the mainstream titles, too—and that freedom was intoxicating, in the very best ways.
TW: The series has a very literary feel to it. What challenges did this throw up trying to pack so much into a comic series with all of the limitations of the comic story format?
JMD: The only challenge I recall is that I had so much more to say. I approached Moonshadow like a novel and I always wrote more than I could put on the comic book page; so I’d sit there slicing and dicing, cutting out material. Old Moonshadow was whispering in my ear, telling me his story—which, of course, was my story filtered through him!—and the man had a lot to say. My job was to figure out what to include and what to leave out.
TW: Even though it has many fantastical elements, Moonshadow feels like a Jewish New York tale. How tricky was it for you as a writer to incorporate this into the more outlandish facets to the story?
JMD: Not difficult at all. Moonshadow was a story that just flowed out of me and all the pieces fell into place with relative ease. Not that there weren’t times when the writing wasn’t difficult—you’re always going to hit those walls when you’re working on a project—but, overall, it was a story that just exploded out of me. My job was to follow the characters wherever they led me, whether it was to Brooklyn or the other side of the universe.
TW: You returned to the character with Farewell Moonshadow, also reprinted here. Presumably you felt there was unfinished business with the character?
JMD: I had the idea for the sequel when we were working on Moonshadow, but it gestated for a decade before Jon and I got back together and did the sequel for Vertigo. The original series is a cosmic coming of age tale, a boy stepping into young adulthood, a youthful seeker finding enlightenment. But I was curious about what happened to that boy when he became a man, with all the burdens that entails. And what happens to the seeker in the days after his enlightenment.
TW: And unlike the first series, this was prose accompanied by illustrations. What made you decide to utilise this format rather than comic format?
JMD: I knew—and Jon wholeheartedly agreed—that I didn’t want to go back and do the story in the same way. This was a different kind of tale and it required a different approach. And I think we both wanted to challenge ourselves to grow, to expand beyond the boundaries of the first series. Looking back, I think the writing in Farewell, Moonshadow is some of the best of my career. And I think Jon’s art transcends what he did in the first series. It’s some of the finest illustration he’s ever done—and considering Jon’s brilliant body of work, that’s saying a lot.
TW: Prose is much more unforgiving than comic work so presumably you felt more confident as a writer with Farewell Moonshadow?
JMD: I don’t know if I was more confident, but I was determined to make Farewell something special. I think the fact that I was writing a prose piece really pushed me, challenged me, forced me to grow.
TW: Looking at this series all these years later, how do you feel about Moonshadow?
JMD: There are a handful of projects I hold closer to my heart than any others, and Moonshadow is one of them. It transformed me as a writer and helped transform my career, as well. Add to that the joy of my collaboration with Jon and it’s a story that’s very special to me. Which is why I’m so happy to see this new Dark Horse edition out in the world.
TW: How did the hardcover collection end up at Dark Horse?
JMD: I’d worked with Dark Horse editor Philip Simon before. He’s a huge Moonshadow fan and I knew that he would give the book the love and attention it deserved. Philip really poured heart and soul into this new edition and we’re profoundly grateful.
TW: It still casts a huge shadow over the rest of your work since. Is this a boon or a curse for you as a writer?
JMD: A curse? Never! It’s a story that’s lived on, that’s still being appreciated by old readers and discovered by new ones, thirty years later. That’s what every writer dreams of. I don’t feel as if Moonshadow casts a shadow over the rest of my work, I think it casts a light.
Moonshadow Deluxe Edition is out now from Dark Horse Comics