“I was planning on doing an introduction, but he’s already on stage, so he’s ruined that!” DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio joked as J. Michael Straczynski sat down next to him for the television and comic book writer’s WonderCon spotlight panel.
“I’m used to working single, so this could go catastrophically, amazingly wrong!” Straczynski added as the audience laughed.
Telling listeners he wanted to “run this like ‘Inside The Actors Studio,'” DiDio began their spotlight at the very beginning, asking about Straczynski’s childhood. Explaining that as a kid, his family moved about every six months, totaling twenty-one moves in the first seveneten years of his life, Straczynski told DiDio and listeners that his entire childhood was spent poor and on the road.
“My father had a unique economic philosophy: roll into town, rack up a lot of bills and split,” Straczynski said. “I went to a bunch of different grade schools, four different high schools, four different colleges. That’s what got me into writing, because even though every six months the neighborhood was different and the curriculum was different, the books in the library were always the same. So I get to page nineteen in Jersey and then we’d move to California and there was the same book, same cover.”
In college, Straczynski began working as a theater critic and writing radio dramas, getting hired to write for radio shows such as “Alien Worlds” and working as an on-air personality. From there, he began working as a journalist, writing for everything from “The Los-Angeles Herald-Examiner” to “People Magazine.”
“If there’s a tenth circle of Hell, it’s ‘People Magazine,'” Straczynski said, explaining that he quit the job after a meeting where one of the editors green-lit a story on a rape hotline by saying, “Rape’s been very good to us.”
“I went to my desk, got my stuff and never came back,” Straczynski said, adding, “Yeah, I’ve had many careers, and I blow them up consistently.”
The writer then confessed he still had a framed copy of the check from the very first story he ever sold, at age 17, a twenty-five dollar article for the “San Diego Mirror,” right next to a framed copy of his check from a screenplay sale for one million dollars.
DiDio took this opportunity to segue to Straczynski’s work in television animation, jokingly referring to JMS’ work on “He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe,” “She-Ra: Princess Of Power” and “Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors” as a “luminary” point in his career.
“Would you quit it on ‘Jayce The Wheeled Warrior?'” Straczynski joked as the audience laughed. “You know, they only crucified Christ once!”
Joking aside, Straczynski told the audience that after selling freelance scripts to “He-Man,” he was hired as a staff writer on the show. Moving to DIC Animation, Straczynski worked on “The Real Ghostbusters” until, in his own words, he left over creative differences and, “blew up that career!”
“Why I haven’t blown it up in comics yet, I have no idea — I’ll have to work harder,” Straczynski joked.
Taking a turn into his live-action career, DiDio mentioned Straczynski’s work on Shelley Duval’s “Nightmare Classics” where his “Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” adaptation resulted in the writer being nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award.
“Doing the Jekyll and Hyde script open up a lot of doors, suddenly, because it was something mainstream, it was very literary,” Straczynski said.
The script challenged JMS because the story had been adapted so many times over the years. For inspiration for his version, Straczynski went to a museum exhibition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original books and convinced the curators to allow him to read the original manuscript.
“I’m going through it very carefully, and I see, just in the corner, [Stevenson] had written the words ‘Hyde does not want.’ What does that mean, Hyde does not want? Then I realized that in all the stories done before it was poor Dr. Jekyll put upon by Hyde to do terrible things. But Hyde had no desires of his own; he was acting out Jekyll innermost needs. Slowly, I realized Hyde was the one being put upon by Jekyll, and suddenly that cracked the story,” Straczynski said.
Bringing up his work on the 80s “Twilight Zone” revival series, Straczynski told listeners he was initially unhappy with the show as his work kept being changed and thrown out by the studio heads. Eventually, they settled on a tone and he was brought on as a story editor after the 1988 Writer’s Guild Of America Strike. The show also helped the writer become friends with science fiction Harlan Ellison, who also wrote for the series.
“It’s a dangerous thing, to be friends with Harlan Ellison!” Straczynski laughed. Telling the story of how he and Ellison decided to buy a fax machine, Straczynski said the two writers went to a store and tried to badger the salesperson into selling them a fax at a discount, throwing in a box of free paper to boot. After spending a couple of days trying to bring down the price, Ellison called Straczynski and asked him to bring a check written to the exact amount the two had been trying to talk the salesperson down to, along with Straczynski’s wife.
“We show up and he says, ‘Give me the check and walk around the block three times!’ So we walk around the block three times, and when we come back, we have the fax machine and the box of free paper.”
Noticing that the salesperson was giving him a strange looks as they left, Straczynski asked Ellison, how he got the fax machine. Ellison admitted he told the salesperson that Straczynski’s wife was making his life a living hell over the price of the fax machine and they had to sell it to them cheap to save him.
“I said, ‘Harlan, this is a block from my house! I can’t go back here again!’ He said, ‘You don’t have to — you have a fax machine!'”
Moving onto his other work, Straczynski claimed partial credit for moving the main character of “Murder She Wrote” to New York while he was writing for the show, adding that Angela Lansbury enjoyed the fact that he wrote Jessica Fletcher as a working writer. Straczynski also spoke briefly about working on the live-action show “Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future,” another job he “blew up” after creative differences with Mattel.
Of course, the next show DiDio touched upon was Straczynski’s famous science fiction classic “Babylon 5,” and both DiDio and Straczynski had to pause to let the cheering die down before they could continue.
“Now I need you to connect the dots from ‘Captain Power’ to ‘Babylon 5,'” DiDio said as the audience laughed.
Explaining that he met many of the people who would work for him on “Babylon 5” while at “Captain Power,” Straczynski said the real drive behind the show was his desire to do a television program that reduced the amount of time, money and manpower wasted as compared to the previous shows he worked on.
“Thirty percent of the budget of a television show is wasted by preparation, and I thought there has to be a smarter way of doing this, there has to be a way to do a show responsibly,” Straczynski said. “My theory being, if you can do a show for cost and bring it in under budget every year, they’d leave you alone.”
Boasting that they came in under budget on every season of “Babylon 5,” and often were able to send the crew home each day by six or seven at night, a rarity in the television world, Straczynski said that from a producing standpoint, it was a great experience.
“From a writing standpoint, it was off the hook,” Straczynski said. “Warner stopped giving us notes after year two, so I got to do everything I wanted to. To create your own universe is something that only comes into your life once or twice if you’re lucky.”
“Babylon 5’s” two Hugo Award wins were a dream come true for the writer, especially since as a kid he would spend his afternoons stealing science fiction books from the local store. “I would look for ‘Hugo Winner’ on the cover to see which ones to borrow,” Straczynski said, explaining that once he was finished he would sneak the book back into the store he stole it from. “To win two Hugo Awards, it’s any science fiction fan’s wet dream.”
When asked about his next show, “Jeremiah,” however, Straczynski sighed.
“I was caught between MGM and Showtime…Showtime wanted a really hard-edged, dark, mean foul-mouthed post-apocalyptic show and MGM wanted a cute, fuzzy warm-hearted bunny rabbit post-apocalyptic show. Those two don’t dine at the same table.”
The nightmare-aspects continued Straczynski had to deal with studio interference, actor egos and a producer who brought in actresses simply so he could sleep with them, among other catastrophes. “I had worked in television non-stop from 1980 to 2002…I said I need a break after working with these people.”
“Which takes us to one of what I think is one of your high points, ‘Changeling,'” DiDio said, naming the 2008 Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie feature film.
Straczynski had been working on the film’s script for years, “After being out of television for almost 5 years…I finally had the tools and the practice to make it work.”
Director Ron Howard bought it immediately, setting “speed records” according to Straczynski, for turning a script into a film — and turning JMS into an A-List Hollywood writer overnight.
“I’d get these calls from studios saying, ‘Who are you, where’d you come from and how did you learn to write like this?'”
“And then you moved onto the most prestigious of all mediums — comic books,” DiDio said, gesturing to the audience as the crowd cheered.
“I love comics; as a kid they taught me how to write a story — what I know about ethics and morality I learned from Superman,” Straczynski said.
Reminiscing about the piles of Golden Age comics he used to own, Straczynski sadly revealed that around the age of thirteen his father, blaming the future writer’s failing grades on his comics, destroyed his entire collection in front of him, “And I’m still pissed off about it!”
DiDio then asked him about his work on “Superman: Earth One,” specifically, how Straczynski approached the character since he knew him so well and Superman had been around so long. Straczynski told the audience that he felt there was a lot of himself in the way he wrote Clark Kent.
“As a kid, I got beat up all the time because I was always the new kid. There was a time, while living in Jersey, I got beat up literally every day for a school year,” Straczynski said. “I learned after a while to not stand out. I learned to blend into the background and work hard to always get a C — so I bring that to Superman. He keeps a steady C-average; we see it at a party where he can’t get past the wall between he and other people.”
DiDio shifted the talk to “Before Watchmen,” asking Straczynski how he’s approaching writing his portion of the prequels with so much controversy surrounding the project.
“I think you have to push the noise out of your head,” Straczynski said, adding, “These are terrific characters…and to let them sit fallow for so long was a matter of patience. For twenty-five years you said out of respect, ‘We won’t go there again.'”
Saying he was intrigued by the differences between Dr. Manhattan and the physically weaker, non-super powered Nite Owl, Straczynski said the appeal of his parts of the project lay in getting a chance to explore those characters more fully.
“Dr. Manhattan sees the past, present and future all as one moment, so all the choices he could make he’s already made. Despite his power, there’s a certain helplessness; he can see everything, which means he can’t do anything. Whereas Nite Owl can only see what is in front of him, his own dreams and ambitions, so he can [do anything]. That seesaw, to me, was really interesting.”
Straczynski also reassured fans that every creator was tackling their part of the “Watchmen” prequels with love and respect. “I wish I could convey the respect in that [first ‘Watchman’ creative] meeting. Everyone in that room is bringing their A-game, because we know if we do this wrong, there will be torches and pitchforks!”
Opening the floor to audience questions, the first fan to raise her hand asked if Straczynski could tell everyone a fairy tale. Laughing, Straczynski instead recalled a recent home renovation where he requested a mural of the ocean to be painted on one of his walls. Asked by the painter if he wanted anything on the beach besides the ocean, Straczynski joked that he wanted a zombie walking out of the water. When the mural was finished, Straczynski noted that the zombie was painted in the corner. The very next day, he realized the zombie had moved a couple of inches, and the next day after that, it had moved again.
“What I had found out was that she was coming in the dead of night, erasing the other one, and re-painting it!” Straczynski laughed. “And just to add insult to injury, it looks like me!”
The next fan praised Straczynski ‘s work on Marvel’s “Thor” and asked about the inspiration for the interactions between the Asgardians and the normal folk of Oklahoma during his run.
“It’s the contrast between mortals and gods that, on one hand, makes a god more of a god but also at the same time makes it more human,” Straczynski replied. “You want to take something and turn it upside down; that’s the fun of it.”
Another fan, who identified himself as having a writing disability, told Straczynski that his panels and workshops on writing helped the him to overcome his own inhibitions and problems writing. He then wanted to know if Straczynski was aware of how many people he had personally touched.
“I am, and it’s intensely gratifying. Part of the reason you go into the arts is to connect with other people and touch them,” Straczynski said, thanking the fan.
DiDio then ended the panel a la “Inside The Actor’s Studio” by asking Straczynski a series of ten questions “Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton asks his guests at the end of the show, beginning with what Straczynski’s favorite word is.
“Will,” replied Straczynski.
“No,” said the writer as the audience laughed. Flicking down the list, Straczynski told DiDio and the audience “taking chances” turned him on spiritually and creatively while “being shoved in a box,” turned him off. Straczynski and the audience laughed again as DiDio asked the writer his favorite swear word.
“Fuck! It’s short, it’s to the point, it’s useful. I love it!”
“What is a sound you love?”
“Silence; seriously, I love quiet,” Straczynski replied, answering next that his least favorite sound was leaf blowers. The writer also told the panel audience that if he could not be a writer, he would love to be a film editor while the job he would least like to have would be clerk typist.
Finally, a grinning DiDio asked Straczynski, if there were a heaven, what would Straczynski want to hear God say upon entering the pearly gates?
“Get the fuck out!” Straczynski exclaimed as the audience burst into applause.