To most comic readers, the writers of the books they love are faceless and formless. This is fine; the writer’s works should stand alone.
In the case of J. Michael Straczynski, it turns out that the challenge that is his life is the most riveting story of all. Becoming Superman is the frightening real story of a man who was constantly beaten and abused by his Nazi-collaborating father, a man more evil than any supervillain.
Straczynski was born in a whorehouse to a prostitute who was a negligent mother at best. Straczynski said his mother actually tried to kill him as a child. The extended family that ignored him included an abusive grandmother who molested him as a child.
His life was one of endless poverty and cruelty, including frequent beatings by his father and bullies. His only relief came in the fantasy world of comics, which he was given, found, or occasionally shoplifted. And of course, his father destroyed them out of sheer spite whenever he could.
As a result, Straczynski admits he bears deep psychological scars that make him uncomfortable when dealing with people. His personal demons make it easier for him to create new worlds and new people rather than deal with the real one.
This book is a testament to the will and intellect of a writer whose works would take pages to list. In the world of comic books, he has written some of my favorite characters: Spider-Man, Superman, and the heroes and anti-heroes of Rising Stars and The Twelve among dozens of others. I love his behind-the-scenes stories of the comic industry.
Writing Superman (Superman: Earth One) fulfilled his lifelong ambition. Reading Superman comics as a child helped him create a conscience and a credo that guided his entire life: What would Superman do?
Like Superman, Straczynski was a journalist at respected West Coast newspapers before he embarked on a series of careers in television and film. He did the impossible, going from one career to another after leaving jobs because his conscience would not allow him to do what his employers asked.
The best example is The Real Ghostbusters, the cartoon show modeled after the Bill Murray/Dan Ackroyd movie. His writing took a modest show to the top of the ratings after which (of course) the network opted to listen to outside consultants and change everything successful about it.
Straczynski quit in protest over instructions to make Slimer the main character, significantly changing main characters and introducing the Junior Ghostbusters. After his exit, someone else made the changes and the ratings tanked.
He eventually returned and undid the damage and the ratings soared once again. He quit after network executives unbelievably listened to the same consultants and demanded more ridiculous changes.
Before that he had similar success with other Saturday morning cartoon shows, such as He-Man and She-Ra.
After his walk-out on Ghostbusters, and against all odds, he lucked into a career writing television shows like Jake and the Fatman and Murder She Wrote while secretly hoping to get his own creation, Babylon 5, off the launch pad.
The backstory how his Babylon 5 plot was stolen and turned into Deep Space 9 is fascinating.
Despite his success on television, his next project, Crusade was doomed to failure by network executives that were determined to kill it. Jeremiah followed, but ended with Straczynski quitting over network interference. Sense8 fared much better, but by then Straczynski had already moved into a new field, writing Changeling for Clint Eastwood, the screenplay for World War Z and, in a wonderfully circular situation, writing the Thor movie.
With Becoming Superman he revisits his previous career of book writing. He ends the book saying he hopes to continue writing books and even plays. At least that will hold him until new forms of entertainment are created that he can break into.
Mike Sangiacomo, who interviewed Michael Straczynski several times and never had a clue what was behind that intelligent exterior, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.