I’ve been reading Matthew Dow Smith’s comics for decades. As I joked to him, he worked on some of my favorite comics of the ’90s – which also happened to be some of his favorites, before he got the chance to draw them. But before he worked on Starman and The Shade and Sandman Mystery Theatre – and went on to draw Day of Judgement, Batman ’66 Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel, The Keep, Bad Luck Chuck and many more – he got his start at Caliber Comics. While there, he was writing and drawing his own work, and writing both short comics and series for others to draw. In the years since, he’s been busy with a wide range of projects, but slowly over the past few years, he got back into writing comics.
When the pandemic hit and the comics industry hit pause, Smith started writing and drawing again. He started by posting weekly installments of an autobiographical series My Life as Riley. Then he launched the serial Johnny Chaos, which wraps up this week, on social media and his Patreon. Next week he’s launching a brand new serial, Arch Nemesis, followed by another, Amelia Shadows: Daughter of Darkness, in August. He also has The October Girl, the first of a graphic novel series launching next year.
The final chapter of Johnny Chaos is out tomorrow, and I spoke with Smith recently about his career, how Doctor Who has influenced his writing and thinking about the future of comics.
To start, how did you come to comics?
I was really into comics as a kid. I grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s, back when comics were still in drugstores. I would go down with my 75 cents, which was enough to buy a comic, a slurpee and one piece of candy. I would sit staring at that rack for an hour trying to pick which one. I remember buying Fury of Firestorm #2. All the Keith Giffen-Paul Levitz Legion of Superheroes stuff. I learned to draw by copying Keith Giffen in Legion of Superheroes – which I have confessed to his face. I got out of comics but then when I was in college I got back in. I had a girlfriend who was into comics and she was really into Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis. I started reading comics again. Sandman was just starting, there was Arkham Asylum, Black Orchid. I had no idea that’s what comics could do. I wanted to do that. I got back into comics and originally I hadn’t intended on being an artist, I wanted to be a writer. I could kind of draw. I could draw just good enough to get away with it. [laughs] So I started sending work around.
I broke into comics when I was working at a records store in Birmingham, Alabama. This guy comes in and starts asking for somebody and I said, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” He was supposed to meet someone who worked at the store, but he had gone to the wrong store. So he used our phone to call the other store and while waiting for his friend, we were talking and he said he was a comic book inker. I said, “Really? I have some art in my bag.” His name was Jim Royal, and he passed away several years ago. He said, “This is great, you should come to our studio.” It was him and Andrew Robinson. Even back then looking at Andrew’s stuff it was like, “There’s no point, you’re just so good.”
I would go down to their studio, and Jim and Andrew got me in at Caliber Comics. That’s how you break into comics, you randomly meet a dude at the record store you’re working at. I went from Caliber Comics to DC Comics because I’d moved to LA and was working at Disney doing video games, and there was a big group signing for the CBLDF. I’m sitting there with Gil Kane, the Hernandez Brothers, Frank Miller. I’m there with my one Caliber Comic. [laughs] But Steve Seagle was there and I got to know Steve, and through Steve, I got to know James Robinson. An artist dropped out of drawing an issue of Starman and James asked – this is all within a couple of weeks of that signing, by the way – do you want to draw an issue of Starman? That was my favorite comic book. It was like, “Sure.” [laughs] And that’s more or less how I’ve been making my living ever since.
What was the work you were writing and drawing at Caliber?
I did a bunch of stuff. Caliber was great because they let you do what you wanted to do. It was the early ’90s and anything went, and as long as it sold reasonably well you could get a second issue. I didn’t do many second issues. [laughs] I wrote and drew a lot of short stories for Negative Burn. I did a book called Dominique: White Knuckle Drive with Charles Moore. I did some random short stories with Jim Pruett, who’s a great guy. It’s funny to look at the Caliber people I broke in with and see where they all ended up. Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack, Michael Gaydos – those were the guys. It was a really great training ground for creators. You had so much freedom. There were slightly older guys like Phil Hester and Guy Davis, so you were hanging around these guys who were incredibly talented. Now I’m sitting watching a Guillermo del Toro movie and go, “Oh, Guy designed that.” [laughs] I remember sitting at a bar in Chicago and counting the safety pins in his jacket. He was a punk back then. And he’s the nicest guy. All the Caliber guys were really nice guys. Not too many fevered egos among them.
Above: The first chapter of Johnny Chaos by Matthew Dow Smith.
I first came across your name and your work from that issue of Starman, because I loved that book, too.
It was the greatest book. I maintain that you could release that book now and it would hold up perfectly well. Those are the comics that when I came in, that’s what I wanted to do. I was never a big superhero guy. I like superheroes, but superheroes just aren’t my natural inclination as a creator. Then something like Starman comes along and yes, it’s a superhero book and plays with the history, but Starman put that into a more modern context and made it more contemporary and feel more modern. Instead of, “Here are people in tights punching each other,” it was, “Here are people in jeans punching each other.” I loved that book. It was such a good book.
You and James later did a series in Showcase with The Shade.
I always forget about that. I loved the Shade. He’s such a great character.
You drew that and not long after you drew an arc of Sandman Mystery Theatre. A lot of the books I was really into back then, you worked on.
There was a weird period at DC, where every single book for some reason had the Alan Scott Green Lantern in it. He was in both issues of Starman that I drew. He randomly showed up in the Sandman Mystery Theatre I drew. Then I did Day of Judgement with Geoff Johns, and Alan Scott showed up in that. All those JSA guys are fun to draw.
Were you writing comics all along?
No. I was writing early on. I was writing as much as I could. I wrote short stories. I did a series, My Life as Riley, that were autobiographical stories published in Negative Burn. Michael Gaydos drew one. Phil Hester drew one. My friend Brian Horton, who I worked at Disney with and he worked on the last Tomb Raider game, drew two pages for me. When I made that switch over to DC and was getting work as an artist, it became incredibly difficult to convince people I can write, too. This was the beginning of the end of the Image period. I think there was a hesitancy for a lot of people who felt, if you can draw, you can’t write. Yes, there were people like Frank Miller who were able to be writer-artists or could go back and forth, but it was difficult to do back then. And I needed work and had bills and it was a lot easier to go into the DC offices and say, “Here’s how I draw Batman” than it was to say, “I have this idea for a Batman story.”
It was driving me crazy because I kept almost getting to write stuff. As the industry became more and more writer-focused, and artists became more secondary in terms of selling a book, it became harder and harder to get over that hurdle. And you need hooks to sell books. Every single new editor I worked with I pitched. My friend Denton Tipton at IDW finally said, “Fine, if I let you write something, will you leave me alone?” [laughs]
So Denton let me write the first thing I wrote post-Caliber. I wrote a Doctor Who story. Then I wrote another one and he started asking me to write more Doctor Who stories. I got to write some specials for San Diego Comic-Con and for the 50th anniversary that went into this box set. You slowly build up getting to write more stuff. But I’m still primarily known as an artist – and I’m grateful that anybody knows who I am. I’m not complaining. But whenever I can, I try to browbeat my editors into letting me write something. My frequent editor at DC, Kristy Quinn, knew my writing and she needed something quick, so she asked, “Are you free and can you come up with a story by tomorrow morning?” So the first thing I got to write for DC was a Swamp Thing story. Which is insane. I got to fix something about the Parliament of Trees that has driven me crazy for decades. [laughs] I don’t think anyone noticed, but I fixed it.
You have the unusual accomplishment of getting work done during the past couple months. Or maybe not unusual, but it’s far from universal.
That is very true. It was strange. I had just finished an issue of House of Whispers. I had finished this Star Trek Mirror Universe project with J.M. DeMatteis. It’s still very strange to me that we’re friends and get to work together. It’s cool, but he wrote Moonshadow! [laughs] I had just put those projects to bed when Diamond announced that distribution was going to be halted.
You immediately knew the next five things that were going to happen. If Diamond is not going to distribute, then the stores will be in trouble. If we’re all under lockdown, the companies will have us stop working. You see the entire path stretched out before you and say, “Oh crap, what do I do?” My reaction was, “I have to do something.” The only way I was going to be able to do anything was distribute it digitally. Then it was a matter of, “What am I going to do?” There is a mercenary component of it, which is that when the industry goes through things like this, it’s often the mid-level creators who get left out in the cold. Not out of malice, but companies have big creators and they’re going to be the first ones sitting back down to draw stuff and then because the big creators can’t draw everything, mid-list creators like me get called. So there was a mercenary aspect that I should get stuff out there to remind people I exist. I do comics.
Comic book creators are a very fearful lot. Something bad happens, and we really get worried. Making comics is a very difficult way to make a living. There are a lot of ups and downs – and the downs are really bad. So when something comes along like this, basically everyone goes, “The industry is over! We’ll never get paid! We’ll never make comics again! How will we pay rent? What will we do?!” That’s just how we are. So I thought, “Okay, if the industry is ending, I’m going to go out doing some stuff that I feel strongly and passionately about.”
I brought back My Life as Riley short stories and did some personal stories. I made the decision that it was going to take so long to figure out how to do it through comiXology or Webtoons, I decided to just post them on Facebook and Twitter and figure out how to monetize it later. I could just focus on working and making comics for people to read. So I started My Life as Riley and the response was really strong. Then I thought, “Why don’t I tell a serialized story? And why don’t I use the limitations of Twitter – where you can only put four images in a single post – so four page chapters and put the whole chapter in each post.” Then I had to figure out how to tell a story in four page chunks. That’s the other part of being a comic book creator, looking at a challenge and this weird part of your brain goes into high gear wondering, “How am I going to do this?” I had this concept that I created for Michael Gaydos to draw back in the Caliber days called Johnny Chaos and I thought, “I’m not doing anything else with the project.” I liked the idea, I just never had the time. I just said, “Screw it, I’m going to do the story now.” The first My Life as Riley story came out the week of the Diamond announcement, and I’ve done one short story or one chapter every week since then.
One of the things that struck me when I read it was that it’s such an interesting way to use the four image limit.
I love chapters. I grew up on Doctor Who, the old half hour episodes with a cliffhanger at the end of each. When I did the original version of The October Girl for Monkeybrain Comics, that was done in a similar way. They were all designed around that concept of the old Doctor Who episodes with a cliffhanger at the end of each. The storytelling of Johnny Chaos is different, but that’s in my head. I’m writing and drawing it myself, and I have no one to answer to so I can do whatever I want. I set myself a few challenges – because I’m a crazy person. I picked some things about ’90s comics that I didn’t like and intentionally incorporated them into this story. For example I don’t like anti-heroes, so I made Johnny a little gray, and explored how to make an audience care about a character who’s a jackass. I hate exposition scenes that are characters standing around talking, so I did that but tried to find a way to make that interesting. And I hate flashbacks – so there are tons of flashbacks. Stuff like that. It’s fun to try new things and hopefully get better as a creator and entertain people at the same time.
Do you have the whole story mapped out?
I write in such a weird way. I write and layout and letter at the same time. I know what the story is, I know what the ending is, but all the stuff from the beginning to the end is much more fluid. I know the beats I need to hit to get to that ending, but I try not to plot too tightly and make the story suffocate. When I sit down to draw, I know what those four pages have to do, and I usually know what the next chapter is. When I sit down to do the next chapter, I’ll know what the one after will be. I have a skeleton.
That also gives you the flexibility to play with the four pages.
I tell everybody that I think that plot is really easy. We’re all immersed in plot. Because of all the entertainment we ingest, we know the basic structure of a story. Maybe we can’t write a scholarly paper on it, but we understand when something is a satisfying story and isn’t. It’s pretty easy to come up with “this happens and this happen and this happens,” but making it mean something to the audience and making you care about the characters, that to me is hard. And fun. I have to hit a plot beat in each chapter, but if all you’re doing is hitting plot points, who cares? I’m surprised I made Johnny as dark of a character as he is, but he became that because I was playing around with it. You can’t plan for those moments, they just happen.
I know a lot of people have talked about how there just aren’t outlets for short comics for superheroes and adventure stories.
There’s no place to sell them. Anthologies are kind of a thing of the past. It’s a story form that just hasn’t caught on in comics. Certainly it’s not a major driver right now. Which is too bad because it’s such a good way to learn how to write stories. I think there are people who gravitate toward making short stories and people who gravitate toward longer things.
Look at Mike Mignola. He’s a great artist and one of the best people to have drawn comics ever, but he doesn’t get enough credit for what a good writer he is. Look at his short stories. His short Hellboy stories are some of the best crafted stories in comics. They’re also incredibly bad to look at because you do and then go, “I am never drawing again because I will never draw anything near as amazing as this is.” He has this amazing ability to make a four-page story that has a beginning middle and end, and you’ve been on this fun ride.
Even in indie comics there’s more anthologies and much more of a focus on short comics than superhero comics, but even they don’t sell incredibly well.
Right now I’m having conversations about the structural integrity of the comics industry. It’s a conversation we tend to have at the bar at conventions. We used to have conversations in the ’90s about, “What if comics was more than just superheroes?” You look around now, and we’ve broken out of that in a big way. I don’t think we’ve talked about that enough – or noticed enough in our DC/Marvel/superhero/adventure corner – just how many kids are reading comics. How many women are reading comics. How the audience is rapidly expanding. It’s interesting to have that conversation now because of the lockdown. The next couple years will be interesting. Can we go back to what we had before? Do we want to go back to what we had before?
Having said that, are you interested in assembling a collection of some of the short comics you’ve made over the years?
Definitely. Johnny Chaos is slated to be 13 chapters. I know the ending but it could be longer or shorter, depending. I’d love to collect it either printed or digitally. It is designed to be read on a mobile device. Everything about it was geared toward that as best I could. I’d love to be able to keep doing stories like My Life as Riley.
Your other big project is The October Girl, which I know comes out next year.
I’m working on that now. I had done a bunch of it previously for Monkeybrain Comics, and now I’m doing it for Insight as a full graphic novel and getting to finish the story. This has been with me since the Caliber days, and I’m thrilled to finally get to tell it. It will be the first of several books of this very long story. And I know the exact ending of this very long story – but I have no idea how I’m going to get there.
For The October Girl, how much have we seen? How big is this story?
There have been four chapters that came out digitally from Monkeybrain. The first book is 140-150 pages and it’s just scratching the surface. For very hardcore fans – all five of them – there are other things that I’ve done, short comics in Negative Burn and short prose stories that are connected. It’s a much larger narrative and finally getting to do the graphic novel series from Insight is letting me tell it properly. We have agreed to at least several books, and if they do well, several more books. The plan was always to do a fairly long run, six or seven books. Which is all planned out. I just sent Insight a huge document the other day about the whole shape of the story. It’s a weird thing to talk about because so little of it is out yet, but hopefully it’s the start of something large. I’ve been carrying this story around for 25 years. I’ve pitched it to everyone I worked with, and it came close a few times. With Monkeybrain they asked, “What do you want to do?” I didn’t even finish the first sentence before they said, “Go make it.”
So first book out next fall. And it’ll be in hardcover and in a larger size format?
It’s going to be a hardcover. We’re going to have bonus features in the back. I think it’s 8.5” by 11”. It’s been fun to go back through the story and figure out, “How can we use this space better?” There will be differences from the original version. There’s a character that didn’t even show up in the Monekybrain stuff that’ll be in the book.
So it’s not even a slightly expanded version, it’s a different experience.
It is. And it has to be. It’s a graphic novel, not a serialized comic. You need a different kind of reading experience to get through 140-150 pages. You need to be willing to throw pages out and make new pages. We are reusing a lot of the original art, but I added a new character and used it as an opportunity to expand what I’m doing. We were going to have to move things around to fit in the new dimensions, so why not?
Johnny Chaos is wrapping up this week, but you’re launching a whole new comic next week. What is Arch Nemesis?
Funny story, I’ve really been enjoying doing these stories on social media. Partly it’s just the freedom to do whatever I want, partly it’s finally getting to tell a story that’s been rolling around in my head for so long, but I’m also just really enjoying being able to put a story up and having people read it and comment on it as I’m working on it. I decided pretty early on that I’d try to figure out a way to keep doing things like that.
I’ve always wanted to do a story with the kind of supernatural superheroes that I loved as a kid – Doctor Fate, Doctor Strange, Zatanna – and I had an idea for a different take on that kind of character. So I worked up a character design, figured out when the last Johnny Chaos chapter would be, and announced it. It’s called Amelia Shadows: Daughter of Darkness, but the funny thing is, I was looking at the wrong month. I’d gotten the start date wrong. There were going to be six weeks between the end of Johnny and the start of Amelia, so I was trying to figure out what to do. Do I move the start of Amelia forward? Then I realized, “I can do whatever I want, so why not do a shorter thing in between the two larger projects?” So I came up with a quick, fun idea about a supervillain’s attempts to get revenge on the superhero he blames for everything that’s gone wrong with his life. I’m calling it Arch Nemesis and it launches July 22, the week after the final chapter of Johnny Chaos. So, yeah – a whole new story just because I’m bad at reading calendars.
But even as things start to ramp back up, you’re putting out a comic every week for the near future.
As things ramp back up I may have to draw a couple chapters each week. I can’t speak to the actual timing of it, but these companies now have so much in the bank, so to speak, so who knows when we’ll restart production. I mean, we could all be really, really ahead of our deadlines. [laughs] I’m lucky in that The October Girl isn’t on hold, but a lot of other projects are. It’ll be an interesting period as people figure out the way forward. I know a bunch of guys like Jeremy Haun who are doing the same thing I am. He’s been sending me short stories that are just amazing. He should do that all the time.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of this. I hope there will be some structural changes in how we do things, but we’ll see. Change is hard, but when things like this happen, you have to change. We’ll see how the industry shakes out. Hopefully it will have a place in it for me. I have rent to pay. [laughs] There’s the melancholic freelancer attitude of, “It’s the end of the world,” but at the same time, some really cool stuff could come out of this period. It’ll be interesting to see what’s on the other side.