Writer J. Michael Straczynski worked the room at his spotlight panel Sunday at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo. When loud music from the next room interrupted the panel, Straczynski sent a volunteer over, then dispatched the AV person from the panel and finally summoned the audience to pound on the wall in unison. When all that failed, he tried to get the audience to turn their chairs around, but the chairs were fastened together. Finally, after a bit, he found a wireless mike and conducted the rest of the panel like a talk-show host, striding around the audience, throwing out wisecracks and thrusting the mike at questioners.
Straczynski, a screenwriter and comics writer who created the television show “Babylon 5” and written acclaimed runs on “Thor” and “Amazing Spider-Man” as well as the “Superman: Earth One” graphic novel, started off the panel remembering his time at community college in Kankakee, Illinois, and particularly of a student who entered the cafeteria at 7:30 every morning, went straight to the jukebox, and blasted Janis Joplin songs. One freezing winter morning, Straczynski and his fellow students decided they had had enough. “We saw him going to the jukebox,” Straczynski said, ” and as with one mind, the entire cafeteria lost its fucking mind. We grabbed the motherfucker, stripped his clothes off, and threw him out in the snow. And left him there. For about ten minutes — we didn’t want to kill him, we wanted to warn him.”
He shifted to a more serious tone as he spoke of his other memory of Kankakee. “I was trying to break into being a writer at that time, trying to get some people to believe in me, and there weren’t many who would sign on to that dream at Kankakee Community College,” he said. His guidance counselor suggested he was qualified to be in the military — at the time, the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War. “Guys from my background didn’t have a lot of options,” Straczynski said. “I come from the streets of New Jersey, I come from nothin’, upper lower class or lower middle class. They said, ‘No, you are not going to be a writer, you are never going to be a writer’ — and some still think that. Or that I shouldn’t be a writer, is the other option. But why give people what they want, I say.
“So I am the luckiest guy in the planet, or at least one of several, because I get to get up every morning and do what I love for a living,” Straczynski continued. “It dawned on me just recently that everything that I loved as a kid I am making a living at today. Comic books. I shredded my comics when I was 12, everything I had. ‘You’ll never make a living at this.’ Wrong. Science fiction movies. I used to watch ‘Star Trek,’ which I recognized even back then was an engine for creating stories. I’d love to have my own show someday. Wouldn’t that be great? Never going to happen, but wouldn’t that be great? Well, guess what!
“What is important to me is what my passions were as a kid, and today we are taught to ignore our passions, not to listen to voice inside of us that says ‘I really like doing this.'”
Straczynski then ran through a quick update of his most recent projects, which include writing two tentpole science fiction movies for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and a movie about free diving that will be produced by James Cameron. He is currently working on two “Before Watchmen” comics — “Nite Owl” and “Dr. Manhattan” — and a second “Superman: Earth One” graphic novel due out in the fall.
For the past year, Straczynski has been taking a break from monthly comic books. “In a ten-year period I did over 300 comics, which is one every 11 days. The problem is, after a while you are like a man running for a bus. There isn’t the time to stop and consider your work and decide what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. So I figured I would take a break. I would do miniseries, I would do graphic novels, but not monthlies for at least two to three years.”
The writer spoke more about that later in the panel, explaining that he is using this period to scrutinize his work and see where he goes wrong. “I’m going through all the comics I have written and taking notes,” he said. “Where did I suck? Where did I screw up? Where did I not do good? I’m online reading all the bad reviews. Not the good ones, just the bad ones.
“There are some mean people out there. But I figured, you know, I need to hear that. I can’t get better as a writer if I only hear things that I want to hear,” Straczynski continued. “My goal is over the next year or two to hone my craft as writer, just focus on shorter stories, and I’ve got to do a better job, then I will go back to monthly comics. If I can’t, then I will stay out. My feeling is, comics cost a good load of change these days, and I can’t realistically say to people ‘Spend money on this stuff’ if I think it’s not where it needs to be. On a scale of one to ten, I think most of my work in comics is maybe about a seven. I would like to get it to an eight or a nine if I can. Otherwise I’m not going to do it.”
Straczynski then turned the panel over to questions from the fans. When loud music from the next room made it hard to hear, he seized a wireless mike and strode around the room, thrusting it at the questioners and, at one point, handing it to an audience member and kneeling so he could be knighted.
Speaking about his run on “Thor,” Straczynski said he took over the series because no one else wanted to touch it, and received complete freedom to do what he wanted. “Joe Quesada turned to Neil Gaiman, who had expressed some interest and Neil ran screaming into the night,” he said. Then he offered it to Mark Millar, who ran screaming into the night — but in Scottish so you really couldn’t tell what he was saying. Then [I said,] ‘I know what to do with this guy, let me do this.’ [Quesada said,] ‘Oh my god, just don’t get hit by a bus, do whatever you want to do.'”
The writer moved Asgard to rural Oklahoma and put Thor together with ordinary people. “Thor next to Sub-Mariner, there isn’t that much of a contrast, strength-wise,” he said. “They are both pretty frickin’ powerful. Thor next to a grill chef in a diner — there is a contrast there. It makes him more godlike in one way and obviously, interacting with everyday folks makes him more human in his attitudes. My favorite scene in the whole book was having the town hall meeting where they brought the Asgardians in to discuss things like indoor plumbing. So on this side you have all the townsfolk, all dressed in suits and shirts, and on this side all the Asgardians, with the helmets and the horns, big fur things, all the rest of it, and all trying to fit in. The mayor is talking: ‘Don’t you have indoor plumbing in Asgard?’ ‘No, we throw it over the walls. The goats love it. The frost giants, not so much.’ That was the fun of doing it.”
The title remained in the top ten in sales the entire time he was working on it, Straczynski said, but the downside of that was the interest it created in the character with other creators. He balked at writing the “Siege” of Asgard event, which would have undone much of his writing, and told Dan Buckley he would wrap it up and leave the series.
“I see too many times now where the crossover event sacrifices the main characters or the main titles for that event,” he said. “Before I came onto ‘Before Watchmen’ I said, ‘Tell me this is not going to be something where you compromise the characters for one big story, and you weaken the characters.’ [They said] ‘No, no this is all going to be individual stories, they may or may not touch, and we are not going to weaken the characters we are going to strengthen them.’ In that case I’ll do it, otherwise I won’t go near it.”
Straczynski discussed about finding the small, telling moments that help define a character’s personality as in “Amazing Spider-Man,” when Peter Parker takes a break from obsessing about his problems with Mary Jane to interrogate a stranger about the popcorn he is eating. “‘Is that boxed popcorn or fresh popcorn?’ ‘Fresh popcorn.’ ‘Real butter or the fake butter? ‘Popcorn salt or the other kind?’ ‘Popcorn salt.’ The next thing you see him walking down the street with popcorn in his hand still thinking about Mary Jane.”
And then there was the tailor who mended costumes, serving superheroes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and villains on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “So Monday, Wednesday, and Friday it was the good guys, you put out Time Magazine, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and on Tuesday and Thursday for the bad guys they would put out Modern Guns, you know, and Shooting Things Magazine,” Straczynski said. “Spider-Man needs a fix-up and [the tailor] says ‘Yeah, when Thor comes in here he reads Modern Bride. I don’t understand it, I think his hammer hangs a little to the left.’ They put that in the book! It was amazing!”
Straczynski was emphatic on the subject of Spider-Man and Mary Jane: “I liked them married,” he said. “The first thing I did when I came on to ‘Spider-Man’ was I got them back together again. I thought they made a really good team, and I liked the fact that Aunt May knew who Peter was. For years, as a Spider-Man fan, I came up seeing that she was so fragile and so weak, that if they ever told her the truth, she would just die. And I wanted to say that those who love us are strong enough to bear our secrets, that there is nothing so terrible you can tell those who love you that they cannot get through it and accept it. That was point one, point two being that I always felt he got his powers from the spider but his strength from Aunt May. She raised him on her own. That takes some power. That takes some fricking character, and she wasn’t going to fall over and just croak because he said ‘I am Spider-Man.’ So I would have kept those two things going and played more with that and been creative. I loved when she went to the Daily Bugle and complained about the coverage and canceled her subscription. And JJ says, ‘What do you mean you are canceling your subscription? 25 years!’ — That is what I would have done in general.”
Throughout the hour-long panel, Straczynski returned repeatedly to two themes — the importance of believing in yourself and the importance of honesty in writing. “Mark Twain said that we all share the same flaws. We all have lusts and loves and anger and frustrations and jealousies and pettinesses that we all share,” Straczynski said. “What is true for you, if you write it honestly enough, will always be true for someone else — the moment you get false, and you try to get characters to do something they wouldn’t naturally do, that you want them to do and the writing lies, that’s when you fall afoul.”
Toward the end of the panel, an audience member stepped forward and presented Straczynski with the Shel Dorf award for “Superman: Earth One.” “Speech! Speech!” the audience called.
“Fourscore and seven years ago…” Straczynski began.
“Better speech!” someone called out.
“Oh sure,” he responded, “shoot me!”
The panel wound up, appropriately, with a question about what Straczynski is most proud of.
“Doing it,” he said. “Growing up, there was no one in the world that thought that I could pull this off. Guys in my neighborhood, Newark and Paterson and those areas, they all became either garage mechanics or ended up in prison. The tyranny of reasonable voices that comes to us all said ‘Don’t hurt yourself, don’t embarrass yourself. You’re never going to be a writer. Only ivory tower guys become writers.’ And I wouldn’t let go. It was important enough to me to fight and not stop liking what I wanted. I got mugged once and almost died in the process. What got me through and helped me stay alive was I had stories to tell. The reality of the writing profession is that becoming a writer is easy, staying a writer is hard, and that I am still here now is to me the best thing of all, to enjoy the work, to share the work, to hear your responses — This, to me, is endless fun.”