A couple of weeks ago I talked to Jai Nitz about his Spanish issue of Blue Beetle. Now the nice folks at DC have been cool enough to let me announce right here, for the very first time, the new, regular writer of Blue Beetle: Matt Sturges. Matt kindly took the time to talk to me about his writing style, his wardrobe, and of course his upcoming run on Blue Beetle, including the controversial subject matter of the first arc.
I’m a big fan of Matt’s very funny work on Jack of Fables, so I knew I’d enjoy our conversation. I was right.
Michael May: How did you get the Blue Beetle gig?
Matt Sturges: Well, I’d just recently finished up a couple of projects: Salvation Run, Shadowpact, and Countdown to Mystery all wrapped up on my end about the same time, and I was letting editors know that I was looking. Rachel Gluckstern, who’s the new editor on Blue Beetle, had read my work on Jack of Fables and liked it, and that’s how we started talking.
MM: How long is your run scheduled for?
MS: For as long as they’ll let me write it, if I have my way. There’s no set number of issues that I know of.
MM: Keith Giffen and John Rogers have left you quite a legacy to live up to. What kind of pressure does that put on you as the next guy in line? Are you feeling pretty confident or nervous as hell?
MS: I feel confident in the sense that I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do on the book, and I think I’m up to the task. But Giffen, Rogers, and Albuquerque really went out of their way to make my job harder – the book just keeps setting the bar higher and higher with every issue, to the point where the last few issues in their run together are honestly some of the best superhero comics I’ve read in years. And I’m reading the thing thinking, “Come on, guys – couldn’t you just suck a little? Give me some breathing room here?” But no, they flat refused to suck on my account.
So yes, it’s a bit nerve-wracking in that regard, but when it comes to actually writing the book, what I do is I reread their entire run and then sit down and say, “Okay, so then what happens?” and go from there.
MM: What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the series? What do you want your legacy to be?
MS: For me as a writer, it’s an opportunity to take everything I’ve learned about writing superhero comics over the past few years and funnel that into making the most awesome book I can possibly write. It’s already a great book – there’s nothing to “fix” in terms of shuffling characters around or redefining them or fixing dumb plot elements. So my main goal is just to take all of the things that I love about comics – the sense of fun, and wonder, and excitement – and try to write good, solid stories that communicate those things. You can always tell when the people who are making the comics are having a great time doing it. That’s what I want.
One thing that’s really important to me is that I want Blue Beetle to continue to be a book that’s as fun for my twelve-year-old nephew as it is for me and my friends. I think you do that by being smart but not oblique, and clear but not condescending. Kids don’t want dumbed-down versions of grown-up comics; they want smart comics about things that matter to everybody, and without the adult content that would send them either to therapy or detention.
With respect to what I want my legacy to be, I think that can only be figured out in hindsight. All I’m worried about right now is making a comic with the absolute highest concentration of awesome that I possibly can.
MM: You mentioned a couple of things there that you want to keep away from in terms of staying kid-friendly. Is there anything else you want to avoid during your time on the series?
MS: One thing I definitely don’t want to do is mess with the dynamic of the characters very much – Giffen and Rogers have done a great job of establishing these guys, and I basically just want to run with them and see where they go.
I’ll probably also avoid mentioning Superboy, like I did in my first issue of Shadowpact…
MM: Give me a brief, spoiler-free overview of what you’ve got planned so far.
MS: Story-wise, we’re going to see some new threats moving in to take up Jaime’s time: new problems, new villains; new worries. In our first story, now that Blue Beetle has established himself as “El Paso’s Superhero,” he finds himself in the middle of a metahuman-fueled immigration controversy, and in the sights of a new villain who’s taken up an old villain’s mantle, just as Jaime’s taken up Ted Kord’s. It’s going to force Jaime to make some decisions about who he is that he’s not quite ready for yet.
After that, we’ve got a nemesis for Jaime lined up, and this guy is someone who’s going to test Blue Beetle to his absolute limits; he’s someone you definitely do not want to mess with. So it’s going to be a tough year for Jaime overall. Through it all, however, I guarantee that Jaime won’t lose his sense of humor. And that Peacemaker won’t give anyone a hug.
As far as our heroes’ lives go, the overriding theme is going to be “taking the next step.” Jaime’s faced down his first big threat and now he’s got to deal with what’s next. He’s going from apprentice superhero to journeyman superhero and he’s going to have to make some big decisions about what kind of hero he’s going to be, and what his future’s going to look like. He’s also going to have to worry about graduating from high school at some point, and where he’s going with Traci 13. Likewise, Paco and Brenda are taking a huge risk by taking the next step in their relationship. So it’s all about making significant choices and seeing the consequences of those choices, for good or for ill.
We’ll also be seeing more of La Dama, the Posse, and the Titans in the near future. And if I have any say in the matter, Batman will find his way back into Jaime’s life – because those two are great together.
MM: You mentioned the immigration controversy. That’s something that some folks accused Jai Nitz of when they first heard about his fill-in, but he wasn’t really telling that story. You’re actually going there?
MS: Immigration is definitely the backdrop of the first storyline – we wanted to do something that would highlight the issue, but there’s no preachiness involved. We’re showing some of the realities of what goes on, though obviously projected into a world with superheroes and people beating off aliens with sticks.
The intent is definitely NOT to turn the book into a comics version of an after-school special.
MM: So you’re not necessarily picking a side and making a political point with the story?
MS: No, I think a good story doesn’t pick sides – you show what happens as best you can and let readers decide for themselves. Nobody wants to be preached at.
MM: You also mentioned a new villain picking up the mantle of an old villain. Can you tell us which old villain?
MS: Nooo. But it is someone we’ve already seen around. So he’s not brand spanking new. He’s near-mint.
MM: [Laughs] Tell me more about this new nemesis you’ve created for Jaime. What makes him so nasty?
MS: Well, we probably won’t see him for a while – he’s not going to be introduced right off the bat. But he has some rather unique mental advantages and nothing in the way of scruples; he’ll definitely give Jaime a run for his money.
MM: You mention Jaime’s graduating high school. Is there any danger in telling stories like that in a superhero universe where other characters aren’t aging for the most part? Or is that someone else’s problem?
MS: I didn’t say he was graduating any time soon – I said he was WORRYING about graduating, which buys time. Comic book history is indeed a slippery business, but we can’t leave the kid in high school forever. We can only be so cruel to him.
I don’t know — how long has Tim Drake been in high school?
MM: [Laughs] Exactly. What’s your greatest artistic strength?
MS: Humor, probably. I can usually find a way to get a laugh out of just about anything – in print, anyway. I have no facility for being funny off-the-cuff. I’m pretty thoughtful about comedy; Bill Willingham and I have had conversations about which is the funnier item to poke someone with: a spatula or a slotted spoon. You’d probably think spatula, which would be the right answer in prose, because spatula is a funny word; but visually, a slotted spoon is actually slightly funnier. Because it’s rounded.
MM: What’s your biggest artistic weakness?
MS: I worry a lot. I’m a worrier by nature. When you’re writing, one thing you really can’t be is worried because a worried person’s writing is safe and insular and unoriginal. So I have to constantly find ways to let go and not worry so much about everything. Then I send it off to the editor and the worrying can begin in earnest.
MM: What do you do to procrastinate?
MS: I never procrastinate. I “let things simmer.” See, when you’re a writer, it’s often good to put something aside for a bit and let it simmer in your head, get the juices flowing, that sort of thing. A project that seems really difficult or unpalatable can be left to simmer until mere hours before it’s due if necessary.
MM: Random: What’s your favorite item of clothing?
MS: I have this green t-shirt that I bought from the CBLDF one year at the San Diego Con. It’s got James Kochalka’s Fancy Froglin on it and he’s saying “I am wearing little pants to hide my genitals. It is the law!” I always get a second look when I’m wearing that thing, which is funny, although one time I forgot and wore it to pick my seven-year-old daughter up at school, which was less funny.
MM: I don’t know, that visual is making me laugh. What’s your favorite place in your home?
MS: My office – there I am almost completely surrounded by books and comics and nothing else. It’s a perfect writing spot.
MM: What talent do you covet?
MS: That’s easy – drawing. I’ll be at a signing sitting next to an artist, and some kid’ll come up and ask for a Batman sketch. And the artist just pops the pen down and starts scribbling and suddenly, poof! Batman! How do they do that?
MM: What’s your best memento from your work?
MS: When Jack of Fables #1 came out, my wife took one and had it framed. But the guy who worked at the framing place was a comics fan and he couldn’t bear to cut the cover off to mount it, so the thing is held in place with these clips to maintain its integrity. The guy was really insistent about it and didn’t charge her extra.
MM: What household chore do you absolutely hate to do?
MS: Laundry – I keep waiting for the future where everyone wears disposable silver jumpsuits. When is this going to be a reality? We have the technology today.
MM: What’s your retreat?
MS: I actually just got back from the annual writer’s retreat that I go on with Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson, Mark Finn, and Bill Williams. Last year we went and stayed at Rudyard Kipling’s house in Vermont, which you can, in fact, rent out. This year we did it at a ranch here in Texas. We claim that we’re going there to write – and we do, some – but a big part of it is just sitting around talking about writing and books and movies that we like, that kind of thing. I wrote the final issue of Salvation Run there.
MM: Do you collect anything?
MS: No. To be honest, I don’t really even collect comics. I’m a real minimalist when it comes to stuff in general. With comics, as soon as I can get my hands on a collection, the individual issues usually go away, unless there’s some really compelling reason to keep them. All of my remaining comics fit on just a few shelves in my office. Everything else is all hardcovers and trade paperbacks now. I’ve still got my copy of Sandman #8 someplace (first appearance of Death, natch), but I’m not sure where it is.
MM: Do you have any hobbies?
MS: Music has become a hobby, since I stopped trying to do it as a career years ago, which is nice because I enjoy it a lot more now. My goal in my twenties was to become a successful singer/songwriter, but it kind of fizzled out when I saw from friends how grueling the life of an actual touring musician is. So now I just do it for fun.
MM: What movie have you seen more than any other?
MS: As much as it pains me to admit it, the answer is undoubtedly National Lampoon’s Vacation. While it is by no means great cinema, it’s still one of the funniest films ever made. That or Star Trek II. I keep threatening to my friends that I’m going to stage a one-man show of Star Trek II, where I play all the parts; mainly just so I can stand in front of people and shout “KHAAAAN!” at the top of my lungs.
MM: What book have you read more than any other?
MS: That would probably be a tie between Dune (actually all of the Dune books because I sit down and reread all of them every few years) and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. I’ve started The Canterbury Tales at least ten times, but I’ve never made it past the prologue.
MM: What are you always asked at parties?
MS: Most of the parties I go to are birthday parties for my kids’ friends, so I get a lot of “What do you do for a living?” followed by blank stares and confusion when I tell them that I write comic books. “You mean like Garfield?” they say? Or, “Really? That’s a job?” Sadly, nobody has ever asked me who’d win in a fight between The Joker and Lex Luthor; because that’s one I know the answer to.
MM: Okay, I have to ask. Who would win in a fight between The Joker and Lex Luthor?
MS: To discover the answer to that question, I’ll direct you to the next issue of Salvation Run!