CCI: Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski

J. Michael Straczynski promised the crowd at his Comic-Con International in San Diego spotlight panel a sight they had never seen before, and the writer delivered in the form of floor-stomping, riverdancing zombies. The undead dancers were just a taste of Straczynski's eclectic lineup of upcoming projects to be released through Studio JMS -- his and partner Patricia Tallman's newly-announced media studio that will create comic books, web series, a television show and a movie Straczynski will direct himself.

Straczynski began telling the origin of his new studio by reflecting on his writing career, beginning with his high school graduation and a simple dream to sell a story to a newspaper.

"Coming out of Chula Vista High School at 17 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had never sold or published anything, but I had this aspiration, this dream, for years, of wanting to be a writer," he said. After he sold his first story to the newspaper, it led to successful journalism stints in San Diego and Los Angeles. Then he talked about leaving journalism to chase another dream.

"With no prior experience at all working with television or movies... [I thought,] wouldn't it be amazing if I sold one television script," he recalled. "Wouldn't that be a great dream to sell something to television? And this is what happened next," JMS said as the lights dimmed for a video presentation -- that had no audio.

After joking around with the volunteers working the equipment, and a few good-natured barbs from the audience, the video was restarted. A short video of Straczynski's work flashed across the screen, starting with covers of Straczynski-written comics before segueing to his various film and TV credits, from "He-Man," to "Babylon 5," "Thor," "The Changeling," "Ninja Assassin" and "Underworld: Awakening."

"The past is prologue," Straczynski concluded at the end of the video. He said the pebble that began the Studio JMS-landslide happened after talking to a FOX studio employee who complimented him on writing four produced movies in four years, noting that that's a good record for a studio to have -- not just a writer.

After that conversation, he started thinking it would be good to have a studio of his own that could create things he's interested in, from comics to movies to television to games, and be able to translate the stories from medium to medium.

"I'm somewhat known for being cranky, and I like getting my own way," Straczynski said. "Wouldn't it be amazing to have my own studio, where I could have a safe harbor to go off and do stuff for other people, of course, but to come back to that safe harbor and run my own creative operation.

"That's a really big dream. That's a massive freaking dream. But let me ask you a question: where is it written that our dreams should be small?"

The lights dimmed for another presentation that began with discussion of the first four comic book series to debut from the revived Joe's Comics line at Image Comics.

"Sidekick," featuring art by Jerry Ordway, was the first book discussed. "I've always liked the idea of a sidekick, like Robin the Boy Hostage," JMS said to laughs from the crowd. The lead in "Sidekick" will be a character named Flyboy, who's a sidekick to The Cowl. When The Cowl disappears, Flyboy has to make it on his own, despite being a laughing stock to good guys and villains alike.

"It's a really dark story about a guy's descent into madness, depression and death -- it's a comedy," the writer quipped, eliciting laghter from the crowd once again. "I'm Russian. We find these things very funny."

"Fallen Angel," with art by Dan Brereton, follows a character named Angel, an average young woman trying to get by in the world. Angel attempts to help a lady dying in alley, but the lady is really a villainess named Lady Night. There is transference between the two, and Angel becomes Lady Night. Angel uses her new powers and identity to try and do good and redeem Lady Night. The thread of who killed the first Lady Night will be a crucial mystery to this series.

"Ten Grand" is about a police investigator named Joe, who loses his only love and is transformed during an investigation of a cult.

"He feels pain," said Straczynski, but he can only die when pursuing a case that is just and right -- and when he "dies," it's only for one minute. In that single minute, however, he can be with the woman he loves. Because of that, Joe seeks out worthy cases -- charging ten grand a pop -- in hopes that he'll take on jobs virtuous and dangerous enough that he can die and be reunited with his love for one minute at a time.

The last book discussed was "Guardians" which takes place in a corporate-powered world. "They all work for Guardian Corporation," Straczynski explained. One day the protagonist investigator is brought to a crime scene where a Guardian has been murdered, and he gets involved in the expansive mystery. Straczynski described the book as a murder mystery about "seeing the world of superheroes from the ground up."

Discussion then moved to the web series Straczynski has in development. The first one is titled "The Adventures of Apocalypse Al," and a very noir-looking image was shown. The series has been created in partnership with MTV, and was described as "sort of "The Maltese Falcon" meets "Monty Python."

The series takes place in a very mad world -- "there's not a sane person left in it" -- with the cast of characters including a mad prophet that lives under the bridge, a dead boyfriend and a zombie police officer.

Straczynski said he was stuck on how to introduce the second web series to the panel, eventually quoting a comment he made on his Facebook page: "I promised you something you've never seen before. I don't lie about these things."

The lights went down again, and a video of an old rdance troupe played to the confusion of the crowd. When the lights went up, a squad of zombie-clad dancers had appeared at the front of the room, and began riverdancing as the crowd ate it up.

Straczynski dove into explaining the inspiration and plot of his second web series, "Living Dead: The Musical," stating, "I wanted to do something that has fun with the zombie craze."

The web series is about three teens trying to find sanctuary in the post-apocalypse, including one named Babs -- a nod to Barbra from "Night of the Living Dead."

"Death makes you more of what you were in the first place," he said of the unique mythology of the zombies featured in the series. Therefore, if you were really obsessed with cooking, you'll still be cooking as a zombie, and if you liked shopping, you'll still be a zombie power-shopper.

"If you were a secret cross-dresser, you'll be walking around in that fashion. The whole point of this is to have fun with the notion of what it is, being a zombie in this environment."

The final video presentation of the panel was a somber look at Studio JMS' first movie, a historical drama titled "The Flickering Light." Straczynski told the crowd he's been waiting to get this film going for a while, and that he's planning on filming his motion picture directorial debut next year in Berlin.

A video synopsis for the film that will take place during the latter part of World War II, told the true story of the men, women and children locked in a gypsy concentration camp who were used in "Tiefland," a German-filmed movie that's supposed to take place in Spain in the 1800s. "During the day, they were on set, being fed, cleaned up, looked after, and at night, back in the camp again. And so for many of them, the movie became reality and the camp became the dream, or, the nightmare." The video's described the movie as being about hope and film as escape, both literal and metaphorical.

"Vlad Dracula," the series Straczynski is writing for Starz, was the final Studio JMS project discussed. The show will merge the history of the real Vlad Dracula with the mythology of Bram Stoker's character. "It really is a chance to slow down that story, to expand it to show you the humanity of the man behind the monster."

"So we have television, we have film, we have comics -- from Joe's Comics at Image -- web-series, I have a gardening show coming out on HGTV --

"That's what we're doing, and that's the dream. Every writer is a pain in the ass. We all want to have control of our own stuff. We hate people touching our stuff. And now, no one bad is going to be touching my stuff," Straczynski continued. "If there's going to be dumb studio notes, they'll be my dumb studio notes. I hope to be back here next year and show you stuff we've finished up."

Straczynski then opened things up for a lively conversation with fans. As he walked around the room with the microphone, he was asked about a quote from "Babylon 5" that was used in the first video of the presentation, where a character mentions going from having no power and all the choices to having all the power and no choices: "Now, with your own studio, do you fear that?"

"When an audience is smarter than you are --" said Straczynski to laughs. "We picked the wrong quote," he answered, not missing a beat.Straczynski then answered, saying he hopes to maintain power and choices with the Studio JMS, and that he can do nothing but hope for the best.

"This was all massage parlors, and strip clubs and bars -- those were the days It was a rough, rugged place to go through," Straczynski recalled when asked about his autobiographical afterword in "Midnight Nation" where he talks about walking through the streets of downtown San Diego in the 70s and finding the original inspiration for the comic series. "I was going through some personal stuff at the time. I was going for long walks, and I was standing out by Horton Plaza. I could see the dawn was coming up, and I could see the people of the night, receding into the shadows, and the people of the day coming out and thought, 'Wow, there's two different worlds here, overlapping each other.'"

"Well, it's a long story," Straczynski responded to the final question, one about the status of "World War Z." The questioner claimed Straczynski convinced him to buy the book years ago, and as Straczynski reached for his wallet and gave the fan a $20 bill to reimburse his purchase, the writer explained how he had written the first version of the screenplay, but other writers had since been hired and it was out of his hands.

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