Saturday afternoon at New York Comic Con found J. Michael Straczynski hosting his Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski” panel, in an intimate setting that allowed room for only about 150 guests. Straczynski settled at the panelist table before a packed house, speaking candidly about his life, his path to writing and his current projects — even sticking around after to distribute advanced copies of his new series, “Protectors, Inc.,” available from Image Comics on Nov. 6.
Straczynski opened the panel by introducing a few of his upcoming projects, spanning from comics to television to movies. On the comic side of the spectrum, he announced the return of his “Ten Grand” series. Following the departure of initial artist Ben Templesmith, the book will pick up with C. P. Smith on pencils, and continue with him for the rest of the series. The fifth issue will hit stores on Oct. 23. The writer also revealed that studios and networks have been bidding on the rights to “Ten Grand” as a television show, but reassures fans that the comic “comes first and foremost,” and that he’s “in no rush” to push the comic onto the small screen.
Straczynski’s Studio JMS also has the rights to the Colleen Doran-illustrated “Book of Lost Souls.” Straczynski says he is trying to retool the book and “move it away from the Sandman feeling a bit.” Straczynski’s “Sidekick,” the studio’s third title, will continue with a story he promises is “going to get darker and darker and darker.”
In 2014, Straczynski plans the release of “The Adventures of Apocalypse Al,” a new book about a woman whose job it is to prevent the end of the world. He described the book as “Indiana Jones with comedy,” featuring a female protagonist, Alison Carter.
By February, he plans to release six books a month with Studio JMS. His goal with these books, he said, is “to do something that really hasn’t been done.” “I want to rethink the entire process of the way comics are done,” he said, asking, “Why does it have to be that way now?” Explaining that the form used to be dictated by space and scripts, he wants to examine the way comics are made to see what tools he can use. “We’re going to be unraveling how you do a comic book visually, and the story will support that.”
Additionally, DC Comics will publish the third volume of his “Superman: Earth One” next May. He also mentioned forthcoming projects with Valiant Entertainment (last fall, he was announced to be writing a film based on the publisher’s “Shadowman”).
Straczynski discussed scripts he’s been working on for both television and cinema as well. Offering no details, he revealed that he is currently working on the first draft of a Disney movie script. On the other hand, he was very willing to go into detail about his previously announced deal with Netflix to write a 10 episode television series, which he calls “a huge, huge endeavor” that will be “so unlike what you’ve seen before.”
Called “Sense8,” the show will star eight characters from around the world who become empathetically attached to one another. The diverse character set will call for locations like Mumbai, Berlin, London and Los Angeles. “Sense8” will start shooting on June 17, 2014, wrap in September, and air in November or December that year. He is currently working on the script for the third episode and will have all of them completed by the end of the year. “Netflix has been great,” he said, in that they allow him to make the show with little to no interference. Straczynski, who will work with the Wachowski siblings of “The Matrix” fame, joked that the show will run under “Unpronounceable Productions.”
After outlining his plans for the future, Straczynski delved into his own personal history. Born in Harrison, New Jersey, the writer grew up in Newark but moved a lot due to his father’s “unique economic philosophy,” which was essentially to avoid bills by moving from town to town. As such, he moved almost every six months to places in California, Texas and Illinois before eventually returning to Jersey.
Straczynski shared that he got beat up a lot at school on account of his being smart, so that he began to fail tests at school in order to “not be noticed.” In describing this dark time of his life, he said, “During this time, comics kind of saved my life. They taught me a measure of ethics, they taught me how to read… comics taught me how to be a person, to relate to people.”
With a growing comic book collection and dropping grades, Straczynski’s father took notice. His father, blaming Straczynski’s grade on comics, tore up Straczynski’s collection before his eyes — a collection that included sought-after issues like the debuts of “Uncanny X-Men” and “Journey into Mystery.” When all was said and done, all Straczynski had left was the box they had come in, labeled “Joe’s Comics.” He would later name his Studio JMS’s imprint after this moment.
Straczynski also shared his first experience with art. His grandmother commissioned a painted landscape when he was eight years old, and Straczynski decided that the painting “needed something” when the painter had run upstairs for a moment — and took one of the painter’s brushes and drew a cat over the painter’s work. While this stunt caused his grandmother to “say things in Russian and Polish I’d never heard before,” the painter took a different approach and said, “I understand why he did it. It needed a cat. This one is mine.” Straczynski followed the story by saying, “The spirit of the guy just really reached out to me in ways that to this day that cut right through me and taught me how to be a person.”
Straczynski chased his childhood stories with some anecdotes about his college experience. He went to college seeking to become a writer professionally, and it was there he “learned the importance of failure.” He emphatically stressed how significant of a lesson this was, reiterating that “every writer has to get past that fear of failure” and must “embrace the idea of failure.” He added, “I failed a lot in college,” so much so that he got kicked out of his master’s degree program — not that that deterred him for long. He proceeded to recount how he broke into the registrar’s office, put his name on the graduation rolls in the computer, and did all of the paperwork to walk at graduation so that he didn’t have to tell his family. He concluded, “You have to do what you have to do sometimes!”
In addition to learning the importance of failure, Straczynski met one of his mentors in college: Norman Corwin. Corwin, a prominent writer, screenwriter, and radio dramatist, taught in the telecommunications department at Straczynski’s alma mater. Upon finding out that Corwin was teaching a class there, Straczynski realized “I had to do this.” Accordingly, he did what he had to do and broke into the department’s office at night to surreptitiously register himself for the class. Corwin would later become the one who “saw the potential in me to be a writer for the first time.”
Straczynski’s ruse didn’t last long; on the very first day of class, Corwin called him into the hall: “You’re not supposed to be here, are you?” Corwin informed him that the school wanted him out of the class and, if possible, the school — but Corwin had other plans. “I think you’re really good,” Corwin told him, having read his writing samples. Although he couldn’t stay in the class as a student, Corwin invited him to stay as a teaching assistant. Corwin would have an outstanding impact on Straczynski: “I learned more about being a writer from that man over the course of the year that followed than I could possibly begin to describe to you,” he shared, “It was really his aid and guidance that got me into being a writer.”
That isn’t to say Straczynski didn’t receive his fair share of discouragement. He remembered one professor in particular who “had a problem with women, especially women who had the gumption to speak up to him.” After this professor had one student in tears, Straczynski got fed up, calling from the back of the class, “Leave her the fuck alone!” The professor, who would have none of that, tried unsuccessfully to have Straczynski expelled. When that failed, he told Straczynski, “You’ll never be a writer. You don’t have the temperament for it.” Of course, Straczynski would be the one to get the last laugh: “So for the next seven years, whenever I had a book come out, I’d send him a copy.”
Having discussed his upcoming projects and some of his personal history, Straczynski turned the panel over to the fans. Briefly answering how involved he was in picking the artists of his comics, the writer replied, “I pick all the artists for all the books that we do.”
Other questions included gifts, like one fan from the Netherlands who offered Straczynski cookies in addition to asking what it was like to work in so many forms of media. “It’s all about adding tools to your toolbox,” Straczynski mused, adding that he didn’t really have a preference for one type of media. “It keeps you fresh,” he said as he discussed how much more enjoyable he found it to be versatile. To the aspiring writers in the audience, he advised, “Keep fresh and keep doing different things.”
Straczynski offered a fan a concise timeline for his work schedule. “I sleep during the day,” he explained, so that he can write from approximately 8 PM to 3 AM. He writes and revises “quite a bit” about ten to twelve hours a day, “except my birthday, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Day.” In addition to writing, he spends his time taking phone calls and answering emails.
Straczynski also talked about his involvement in the recent “Man of Steel” movie — or, at least, the lack thereof: “I’m not directly involved in the Superman movies,” he said, informing the audience that he didn’t even know about the movie’s “Earth One” influence until after the movie came out, and confirmed that he “wasn’t involved in the second one at all.” Speaking of “Man of Steel,” he shared his opinion that it contained “one fight more than it should have had.” His chief concern was DC’s character work. “I don’t care how good your effects are, your battles, or your CGI. If you don’t care about your character, then… you’ve got nowhere to go.”
In fact, Straczynski expressed more interest in the extension of the DC movie universe than “Man of Steel” sequels. “They tend to think they’ve got a very narrow bench: Superman, Batman… and then no one else,” he said, adding that he would like to see the Flash on the big screen next. But “do him proper,” he warned, as “a scientist who is in pursuit of knowledge.” Straczynski also mentioned the fan-made Wonder Woman trailer he’d seen recently and lauded the amateur filmmakers on their creation. “Treat it like ‘Thor,'” he said.
“‘The Haunted Tank’ could be a really good movie” if the story was updated, Straczynski continued. He concluded, “We’re trying to get [DC] to understand… to treat them properly.”
On the topic of adapting other DC characters to the screen, a fan approached and asked what Straczynski would write for the CW’s “Arrow” TV series. “If I were to write for the Green Arrow series, what would it be?” he affirmed, before answering, “Really good.” He thought for a moment before admitting, “I don’t have a good answer to your question” but that “it would probably not involve kittens” — unless Oliver was using them for target practice.
Straczynski described his approach to character work in answer to another fan question, saying, “I tend to look inside a lot” and that the characters in his head never “shut the hell up.” “All the characters in ‘Babylon 5’ are parts of myself,” he explained, even the ones with less-than-savory traits. When asked whether or not the idea of the Jungian “Hero with a Thousand Faces” archetype affected his character writing, he responded, “I try and be aware of it… but not to become beholden to that.” He appreciated analysis after the writing is complete but insists that the archetype shouldn’t be used “as a template,” citing it as one of the problems with Hollywood.
With his creative work so thoroughly covered, Straczynski took on some questions about the real world. When asked how he kept his writing positive when the world could be so terrible sometimes, he said, “Give it time” and that “I think we’re going through a bad patch right now.” However, he could see more than the bad: “I think we are at our best when we are in communities,” he said, “We are stronger when we are melded together than we are apart.”
Prompted by a question, he also dove candidly into his personal experience with “Babylon 5” actor Michael O’Hare, who passed away last year: “He was my friend and it wasn’t fair.” Giving the audience what he deemed “the short version,” he detailed O’Hare’s psychotic break, its effect on the show, and the actor’s dedication. O’Hare, who developed paranoid illusions during the filming of the show, insisted that he get through an entire season lest the cast and crew lose their jobs. He made it to the end of the season before he reached the point where he couldn’t come back.
Straczynski and the crew helped where they could, getting O’Hare doctors and working with him to fix issues, but rumor persisted that he was on drugs due to his tired appearance. However, Straczynski insists that the fans sustained O’Hare until the end, in addition to going on medication and getting help. Towards the end of his life, he went off the meds and his life spiraled, ultimately leading to his death, which Straczynski called a “bad end to good guy.”
in reference to the convention and his line of work in general, Straczynski said, “You all are to blame for this doing well.” In sharing his personal history, his goal was so show that there was “not that much of a gulf” between himself and the audience; he was inspired to do so by a fan who once told him, “If you can do it, anybody could do it!” after she heard where he had come from. “That, to me, is what conventions are for,” he asserted, addressing the audience personally, “Eventually you can get to where this is;” it’s “down to you and your passion” to get there.
In his final words of wisdom, Straczynski advised, “Don’t listen to your parents,” because “the world wants you to forget your dreams.” Instead, attend conventions “to have those dreams reawakened in you and to embrace your own passions… your dreams are not so wild as they seem.”