Sunday at New York Comic Con, J. Michael Straczynski treated his die-hard fans to one of the most lively and candid panels of the convention. The panel started with Straczynski walking up on stage by himself, grabbing a chair from behind the panel’s table and swinging it around in front so he was fully exposed to his fans. He popped one of the mics off a stand, began pacing across the stage and announced, “This shit’s far too formal!” which set the tone for the entire.
Straczynski launched into a story about staying in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, telling his tale in the form of a poem. “The maids who work at the plaza are very hard to shock. They wait until you’re naked, then they enter, then they knock,” he quipped.
Without missing a beat he shifted gears to talk about the “Lord of the Rings” musical, currently touring the United States. “It’s the most wretched thing I’ve ever seen!” he said. He said he was forced to sit though the musical in Toronto and the experience seemed to drag on forever. After the show ended, the cast re-sang every single song in the musical, much to his dismay.
The discussion turned to the “Thor” movie, on which Straczynski announced he would be receiving a story by credit and that he had filmed a cameo for it. He was initially just going to do a walk-on role, similar to writers and artists in almost every Marvel movie, but when he showed up director Kenneth Brannagh “decided I could act. Despite all evidence to the contrary!”
His role, which was expanded, is of a man driving down the road. He see Thor’s hammer land and goes to check it, trying to pull it from the earth. When he can’t lift it, he calls his buddies and gets them all to come help him try to wench it out, similar to what happened at the start of Straczynski’s “Thor” run. “I’ve vanished into my own narrative!” he said.
“It’s all bullshit,” said Straczynski of his time in front of the camera. “That’s the key to acting. It’s all bullshit!”
Keeping on the subject of films, Straczynski told the audience he finished the script for “Underworld 4” which will begin shooting in March for a Winter release. He’s also finished the script for “World War Z” which he says is now in pre-production.
Straczynski has also written a sceenplay for the film version of the video game “Shattered Union,” and that the producers liked it so much they’ve hired him to write another movie, but he was unable to announce it at the panel. He did say that he had begun working on a movie for Dreamworks Animation.
“Forbidden Planet!” shouted an excited fan, referencing Straczynski ‘s long in development movie. Straczynski said that particular project was still trying to find a director. At one point James Cameron was attached, but he left the project to focus on “Avatar 2.”
On the subject of his comic projects, Straczynski said he is excited about “Superman: Earth One” and “Superman: Grounded,” and that his “Wonder Woman” run continues to move forward.
“When I was first assigned ‘Wonder Woman,'” said Straczynski, “one of the first things Geoff Johns said to me was, ‘Don’t go on the Internet. It’s gonna be bad.’ It’s been interesting to watch the reaction.”
“I grew up in the Silver Age and you were always doing weird shit to your main characters,” said Straczynski. “You didn’t have to make the excuse of putting it in an Elseworlds book. Jimmy Olsen became Turtle Man. Big green eyes and a shell, you didn’t say it happened in an Elseworlds story. No, it happened in that comic. Superman got an ant head! I didn’t say, ‘that’s not my Superman because he has an ant head,’ I thought it was kind of cool. I wanted an ant head.”
Riffing on this idea, he said people need to remain patient with his “Wonder Woman” run, and that there are clues littered throughout the story about what is really going on. “Play along with the ant head for a while. Play along with the mystery and try to figure it out,” said Straczynski.
“Always the best part for me is interacting with you guys, proving that therapy doesn’t work,” was how Straczynski moved in to the Q+A portion of his spotlight. Before opening up the floor to questions, however, he told a story of how painters Gauguin and Van Gogh first met. Van Gogh covered his home with his own paintings, then invited Gauguin over to see him. Once inside, Gauguin realized that Van Gogh just wanted him to see his paintings so he quickly looked them over. “You paint too fast,” he told Van Gogh, to which Van Gogh replied, “No, no, no. You look too fast.”
“I’ve used that story a lot of times over the years, it’s yours now,” Straczynski said. He then lead the crowd in a chant of, “Joe, it sucks!” The idea was to nail home his point about taking all praise in perspective and that he is open to, and welcomes, criticism.
The first fan up to the mic asked Straczynski if he enjoyed writing the 140-page “Superman: Earth One” graphic novel compared to a standard 22-page comic. The writer replied that he liked writing in the longer format, jokingly calling it “a novel experience.”
Then Straczynski dropped a bombshell.
“I said to Warner Bros. a while back, ‘When you’re ready to do something real with ‘Babylon 5,’ either a big-budget film or a TV show, if you want to do one of those two things, call me, otherwise don’t bother me.’ About a month ago the phone rang. I don’t know where this is gonna go yet, but when they call you, there’s something going on. I can’t tell you what it is yet and it may not go anywhere, but there is movement in the tall grass.” When asked later, Straczynski said no new “Babylon 5” comics were in the works.
A fan asked then about Wonder Woman’s continuity inconsistencies next, to which Straczynski said that she should “just keep reading, it’s all planned.” When pushed further, Straczynski told her that fans that nitpick too much need to drink more decaf coffee.
Next a fan told Straczynski how much his writing has affected him personally, and that he has cried reading Straczynski’s work. He specifically told a story where he started crying on a plane while reading the 9/11 issue of “Amazing Spider-Man.”
“I try to convey… that there’s hope, there’s possibility, things can work out, you can achieve and you can fight City Hall and win,” said Straczynski. “Those that say you cannot do something are wrong. You must not surrender to the tyranny of reasonable voices who say ‘Don’t put yourself out there, don’t try, don’t embarrass yourself, don’t pursue your dreams. Just be good, be quiet, be a machine, work in your cubicle for a faceless master on a distant mountaintop.’ Those voices are wrong that say you can’t do something.”
“I was born in Jersey,” he said to loud applause. “Who the hell would applaud for Jersey, what is wrong with you people?” He told how growing up in a poor town in New Jersey, people told him he could never be a writer, but he kept working hard and refused to let people tell him what he couldn’t do.
“It’s never too late to become what you were supposed to be in the first place,” he told one fan.
An elementary school teacher asked if Straczynski watched “Battlestar: Galactica.” “”I don’t really have an informed opinion, my opinion is full of shit,” he said. The writer revealed that he had watched the very last episode. Straczynski said that only watching the last episode left him confused as to what was going on, but that he plans to one day view the series in its entirety.
Asked about what was going on with “The Brave and the Bold,” Straczynski said chronic bronchitis caused him to fall behind on the title, but that he plans on returning to it very soon. Team-ups he announced included Lois Lane and Adam Strange as well as Supergirl and the Phantom Stranger.
A fan asked about the process of adapting “World War Z” into a screenplay, considering the original novel lacked a formal narrative. Straczynski replied that the novel features a series of interviews performed years after the zombie outbreak, so he decided to make the person conducting the interviews the main character. The action of the screenplay takes place during flashbacks.
Asked why he moved from TV to comics, Straczynski said, “I like to fail upward… I go where the fun is, I go where the story is. I worked in television non-stop for twenty years.”
“I’ve always liked the notion of doing that which scares you, doing what you haven’t done before and taking risks, said Straczynski. “You have to challenge yourself, you have to take chances, you have to do things you haven’t done before and risk failure. As the military points out, the only way you know where the wall is is to go beyond. Failure, according to the military, is an important part of the process. If you don’t fail once in a while, you’re doing it wrong. So I thought, ‘What haven’t I failed at?'”
He used his experiences writing the movie “Changeling” to illustrate this point. He had never written a script for a full-length movie before, so he tried it, and it proved wildly successful. “I think it’s really important to try things,” Straczynski said.
He related a story of a friend who, at 50, was upset with her life. Straczynski asked her what she really wanted to do, and she said she likes pets and taking photos, but could never do either professionally. Straczynski said “Why not?” and his friend took the initiative. Now she works photographing people’s pets for a living, after a lifetime of trying to find what she really wanted to do.
“It’s never too late to become what you were meant to be in the first place!” he said again.
A fan asked what Straczynski thought of “Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors,” an animated series designed to promote Mattel‘s toys of the same name. The writer comically brushed off the question, asking who would want to know about that show. The fan replied his friend, who had actually missed NYCC to go to a court date for throwing chairs at his sister, really wanted to know. “A gentlemen and a scholar,” Straczynski joked. “I fucking love New York! The best part of the ‘Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors’ was leaving it!”
One questioner brought up Andreas Katsulas, the late “Babylon 5” cast member. Straczynski recollected the way he died, that Katsulas didn’t discover he had cancer until it was at stage five, meaning when it was discovered it was too late to reverse anything. Straczynski called Katsulas and the actor was “laughing and carrying on.”
Before he died it was important to Katsulas to have dinner with Straczynski and some other friends from Babylon 5. He asked Straczynski to spill the dirt on all the backstage drama from the show. “Who am I gonna tell” he asked Straczynski.
“He laughed and roared and carried on and was just amazing,” said Straczynski. “At the end of the dinner, he walks us to the door and gives us a hug and just looks at us, and I know this is the last time I’m ever gonna see him. Then I heard a couple weeks later that he had passed. He had checked out early.”
“Andreas showed me how to die. If I have any control over it, that’s the way to do it,” said Straczynski, clearly moved by the memory of his friend.
Switching moods, Straczynski responded to a question about first comics work, which Straczynski remembered as a “Teen Titans Spotlight” issue focusing on Cyborg and Two-Face.
A young writer asked Straczynski why he writes. Straczynski responded, “Stephen King once said if you write for the money, you’re a monkey. If you write for the fame, you’re monkey. If you write because you love writing, you’re still a monkey. You write because to not write is suicide.”
“I started writing at age 17, ten pages a day non-stop and I’ve done that ever since, every day of my life. I go nuts when I’m not writing.”
Asked what he would change about his career, Straczynski said he would have not waited until his late 20s or early 30s to move to Los Angeles, and that he wishes he was a better writer. He cited Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” scripts as something he reads every time he gets full of himself, to remind him that his writing is not as good as he thinks.
“No” was the terse, one word reply Straczynski gave when asked what he would have done if “Crusade” had continued.
When a fan asked about the “One More Day” storyline from “Amazing Spider-Man,” Straczynski said to bring it up with Quesada, while seemingly nodding and smiling in agreement with the fan’s complaint that it undid his entire run on the book. “I had very little to do with that.”
Straczynski closed the panel with an inspirational speech. “Things are possible,” he said. “You didn’t come out of high school thinking you were going to be doing what you are right now. Believe in yourself, believe in your talent, believe in your skills, believe in your dreams. Don’t surrender.”
“Things do happen, things do work out. Good luck to you,” said Straczynski before leaving the stage.