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Spider-Man Writer JM DeMatteis Talks Kraven’s Last Hunt, His Spider-Man Run, & Killing Aunt May (EXCLUSIVE)

Recently, I got the chance to ask famed writer JM DeMatteis (best known for Spectacular Spider-Man, Justice League International, and Moonshadow) about his run on Spectacular Spider-Man. The contents of the interview are contained below:
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You’ve revealed before that the story “Kraven’s Last Hunt” was not even originally a Spider-Man story, with it originally being a Wonder Man story, evolving into a Batman story, then finally ending up as a Spider-Man story. Could you tell me more about the original proposal as it was when it was for Wonder Man?

All I recall—keep in mind that it’s been a long time!—was that Grim Reaper “killed” his brother, much as Kraven “killed” Spider-Man and buried him alive, not for weeks, but for months.  The heart of the story was going to be the dysfunctional connection between these brothers:  two men who both loathed, and loved, each other.  That’s fertile ground for great stories.  In a way, it’s similar to what I explored in the Peter Parker-Harry Osborn stories I did for Spectacular Spider-Man in the 90s.

Once Tom DeFalco turned down this proposal, you put it away into storage for a few years, until when you were working for DC, when you reworked it into being a story about Batman and the Joker. How did you go from characters as obscure as Wonder Man and the Grim Reaper to Batman and the Joker, two of the most famous DC Comics characters?
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In the end, whether the characters are (so-called) iconic or obscure, it’s the emotional heart and soul you’re looking for.  As noted, the dynamic between Wonder Man and the Grim Reaper had tremendous emotional/psychological potential and, of course, Batman and the Joker, because their connection had been established over decades, had even more.  Blowing up that dynamic, taking it off in new directions, would have been a great challenge, in the best sense. 

I ultimately used the core Batman-Joker elements for one of my favorite stories, “Going Sane,” which ran in Legends of the Dark Knight. 
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What made you decide to rework it as a Batman story? For a story idea developed for a character at a different publisher, why did you decide to make it Batman of all characters instead of one with fewer restrictions on them? 
More often than not, the restrictions are in our heads.  If you bring a new take to a character, provide new insights into their psyches, you’ll find that there are far fewer limitations than you imagine.  The key is not to violate the essence of the character.  Respect that and you’ll find that there’s lots of room to experiment, no matter how well established the character.
When the story was turned down once again due to the similarities to Alan Moore’s upcoming graphic novel The Killing Joke, you decided to use Hugo Strange. Why him? Why not one of Batman’s other, more famous rogues?
I loved the classic Englehart-Rogers Batman run of the 1970s and they made brilliant use of Hugo Strange.  Those stories opened my eyes to the potential of the character. 
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After this was turned down again, you put it away for a few years again, this time submitting it again for Spider-Man. How did this come about?

Marvel asked me to take over the writing of Spectacular Spider-Man—with the great Mike Zeck on the art—and I quickly said yes.  And just as quickly realized that this might be my last chance to get my “back from the grave” story out into the world.  As it turned out, Peter Parker and Kraven were the perfect vehicle for this story. 

What I’ve learned over the years is that stories have lives, and timing, all their own.  You have to honor that, give them time to gestate and grow.  That’s what happened with KLH.  The story knew far better than I did what it had to do, what final form it was destined to take.  

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When you initially conceived the idea for it to be Spider-Man, you had the idea to have it be a completely new villain. How did that affect the story proposal, especially since previous ones were done in the context of heroes fighting people with an emotional connection to them?
That’s the challenge in any story, right?  To find those emotional connections and use them to the fullest.  I don’t remember what the plan was—I don’t remember much of anything about that character!—but I’m sure establishing an emotional connection would have been fundamental to the story.
You’ve said before that you chose Kraven the Hunter of all characters to do the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story because you saw his Marvel Universe Handbook entry. Could you tell me what in it drew you to him as a character?
It was the fact that he was Russian; something that was mentioned in the MU Handbook.  (I don’t know if it was ever actually established in a story.)  I adore Dostoyevsky, he’s one of the most brilliant, insightful, emotionally powerful novelists I’ve ever read, and I love his portrayal of the Russian soul:  the push-pull of duality.  Our lowest impulses at war with our highest ideals.  As soon as I read that Kraven was Russian, I understood him in a way I never had before.  And that was it:  I had to have him in the story!
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You’ve previously said that this change made it so Peter and MJ’s relationship became the focus of the story. What was the story about initially, before their marriage happened? 
That’s a misinterpretation.  Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane was always the emotional focus of the story.  She was a part of KLH from the first pitch.  What changed was that they were married, which gave that emotional journey even more heft.  But, other than that, what you see in the story, the way the plot and emotional arcs played out, is what I planned from the beginning.
Before you did “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, you did some more adult superhero projects in a limited issue format (such as Prince Namor and Into Shamballa). How much of the work you did on those projects affected how you went about creating “Kraven’s Last Hunt”? 
It was working on Moonshadow—which was my first major creator-owned series—that really broke me out of my (primarily self-imposed) cage, the concept of how a comic book “should” be written, and allowed me to really find my own unique voice as a writer.  Writing Moonshadow liberated me and I brought that liberation directly to KLH.
How did it feel to submit this project four times before it was accepted, and, especially, how do you feel about it now that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” has gone down in history as one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time? 

Rejection is part of the game when you’re a freelancer.  And a good story never dies.  I’ve had stories that I’ve had to pitch and re-pitch over five, ten, twenty years before they found their way out into the world.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  You need a thick skin and tremendous patience in this game!

As for how I feel about KLH’s long life:  incredibly grateful.  

After writing “Kraven’s Last Hunt” in 1987, you didn’t return to writing Spider-Man until 1991, where you wrote “The Child Within”, which was the story that reintroduced Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin. What made you decide to bring back Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin for a story?
I love the dynamic between the two characters.  They’re best friends, they love each other, but they’re mortal enemies.  There’s so much emotional and psychological material to play with there, the stories practically wrote themselves.  I think the Harry Osborn Goblin is far more interesting, a far more nuanced and layered three-dimensional character, than Norman. 
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At the end of the story, Harry dies. How soon did that come to you as the logical conclusion of his story?

Very often these things don’t come to me, they come from the characters, from the energy of the story itself.  I didn’t start out with a plan to kill Harry.  It just happened as the story evolved.  The characters themselves led me to that conclusion.
Did Marvel have any problems with you killing off Harry Osborn, considering the fact that he was such a major character in Spider-Man comics for decades?

Not a bit.  They didn’t have a problem with me killing Kraven off, either!
When writing Amazing Spider-Man in the 1990s, you mostly had to just write stories for events that crossed over into the book. One of the only stand-alone issues you did though, Amazing Spider-Man #400, featured the death of Peter’s Aunt May. What events happened to cause you to kill Aunt May? Was it hard convincing Marvel to allow you to kill her, or did the fact that it was an anniversary issue help ease their qualms about it?

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Not so much that it was an anniversary issue, but the fact that the Spidey editorial team really wanted to shake up the books.  At the time, the plan was for Ben Reilly to take over the role of Spider-Man—with Peter and MJ going off to Portland to have their baby and live happily ever after.  We were going to reboot all the Spidey titles, introduce new villains, new supporting cast, and the death of Aunt May was a signal to the readers that the Spider-Man universe was going to change, big time.  As I recall, Danny Fingeroth, the head Spidey editor at the time, had to get Stan Lee’s approval, Stan gave us the nod, and we were off.

Of course none of those plans came to fruition (for a lot of behind-the-scenes reasons), but the Aunt May story was, for me, one of the high points of the Clone Saga and a story I remain very proud of.   

What was your favorite Spider-Man story you have ever written (story arc and/or single issue)?
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If I was going to pick a single issue?  Spectacular Spider-Man #200, brought to brilliant life by Sal Buscema.  An arc?  “The Child Within,” the first arc of the Spec Spidey run I did with Sal.  I’m also very fond of the Ben Reilly Lost Years mini I did with John Romita, Jr.—and of course KLH, with Zeck and McLeod.

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Written by Donovan Reed