In Becoming Superman, J. Michael Straczynski offers a testament to the power of storytelling
In his work across film, TV, and comics, J. Michael Straczynski has amassed many fans over the years. But few knew the shocking truths of his life story.
In his harrowing and triumphant new memoir Becoming Superman, the Babylon 5 and Sense8 creator revisits a deeply traumatizing childhood and the power of his comics idol, Superman, in guiding him into a brighter new chapter of life. Straczynski writes in crisp, matter-of-fact prose, but the events and behavior he describes are truly disturbing: abused in every sense of the word by his alcoholic father, left reeling from the deep depression his mother spiraled in, and having been moved 21 times in 19 years. The conditions he grew up in were often dangerously bleak; the thought of him becoming a mega-successful screenwriter and author, seemingly impossible.
Which is where the book’s radically different, and yet tonally appropriate, second half comes in: Straczynski charts with gritty honesty how he made it in Hollywood and beyond, giving readers intimate access into his career choices, struggles, and breakthroughs. There are also plenty of behind-the-scenes goodies on everything from his biggest hits like Babylon to cult faves like She-Ra, Princess of Power (on which he faced serious executive resistance). It reads like a love letter to his fans, which, Straczynski tells EW, is exactly as he intended it.
EW caught up with the author in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the difficulties of mining such painful experiences, writing an actually helpful book about Hollywood, and reconciling having two very different stories within one book. Read on below. Becoming Superman is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To start, can you tell us about your road to getting this book published?
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI: For a long time, I thought this was a story that needed to be told, but it’s weird: There’s a part of your brain, even though you’re an adult, that’s still 9 or 10 years old — that voice that says, “Don’t talk about things that happened inside the house or you’ll get in trouble. Dad will be very upset.” You just start to insulate yourself in that possibility. I just got that more and more urgent feeling, to me, and one of these days I decided, “I’m running from shadows that shouldn’t be scaring me anymore. I need to address this: Not just for myself, but others growing up in similar circumstances might need to know that they don’t need to be stuck in this situation. They can break the cycle of violence and abuse, and choose different lives.”
I began the process of putting it all together. You’d think writing one’s own story would be fairly straightforward and simple; this was not the case because my family was all based on lies and cover-ups. I ended up having to interview people who I knew from years before and get their perspective on it. As my parents and aunts and others passed away, I was finally [able] to get documents, photographs I’d never seen before. It became a detective story into my own life. I pieced together all the bits and pieces. I heard there was a confidential marriage, but I didn’t have any proof of it until I got the paperwork from my father’s estate. It became combining my recollections with the research, double-checking, verifying, and then making sure the manuscript passed everyone who is still everyone to say, “Did I get this right, from your perspective? And if I didn’t, let me know.”
In terms of that detective-story writing element, I imagine it was quite a painful process for you. Did you have second thoughts along the way? Did you feel like this was something you couldn’t put to paper?
Yes and no. It was painful, it was hard. Guys, in particular — we’re really good at putting bad stuff into boxes in our heads. The number-one rule is the boxes cannot touch each other. I kept a lot of things sequestered in different parts of my brain and was now having for the first time to open those boxes up and let them touch each other — synthesizing all that into a narrative. There were times when it just got really, really hard. But what I wanted to do in the writing was not to lean into the “Oh, poor me” narrative. Rather than saying, “This terrible thing happened, oh my God I cried all day,” I wanted to do it more reportorial. Give the basic facts of what happened, don’t delve too much into the victimization of it, the emotion of it. Keep it at arm’s length: The actions stand on their own. If I tried to put more emotion into what I felt about it, I’m kind of, I think, gilding the lily. Just documenting what happened made it somewhat easier for me to write it, easier to read is the consequence. I didn’t want to do a weepy book. I wanted to say, “This is what happened, this is how I dealt with it, this is what happened afterwards.”
It’s right there in the title, but this does lead into the power of storytelling and comics to get us through really terrible times. It’s very clear reading it, but I’m wondering: Were you as conscious of that power in your life and how it emboldened you and gave you solace at the time? Or was it more as you dug into it and started writing about it?
There are two stages of consciousness: One is when you’re doing it, and then there’s the higher brain that is aware of you doing it, that looks down and sees you doing these things. There’s the doing, and then there’s the perception of it. The doing of it, I was aware at the time; everything from my house is covered in Superman and so on. But it was after I started the book that I took the superior position of looking down at my own brain and saying: “Yes, these are all of the times when you held onto that — held onto to the notion that you can do better. That really sustained you.” You begin to take incident and ascribe meaning to it when you’re writing in a much larger context. As a kid, I identified with and idolized Superman because he always said the right thing. Nobody hit him first. He always kept his promises. He was a surrogate father to me in that respect. But he also became a role model to aspire to. No, I haven’t mastered the “flying around the room on my own power” thing, but I am still working on it. [Laughs] Comic books are mythology. What mythology is there for is to give us people to look up to, people who we can aspire to be. I’m not sure I would be here today if they weren’t there.
You write about it in the book, but how did that encounter with a character like that inform your career as a writer, and your ethos as a writer?
I haven’t really thought about that before! It does support the writing career because Superman has certain standards that he will not budge from. He doesn’t lie, he will not back away from what he believes is the correct thing to do. On the writing side of things, I’ve had so many people in my life — from producers to meeting Rod Serling to others who all said, “Never back down from your vision.” It still applies. There’s a line in the movie Secondhand Lions: “The longer you hang out with lions, the less improbable becomes the idea of roaring.” With Superman, the idea of roaring becomes less improbable the more you model yourself on that character. In the writing business and the TV profession, the more you associate with good producers and good studios and other writers, and carry with you the legacy of what Superman stands for, the idea of roaring — standing up for the work — becomes less improbable.
In terms of the overall structure of the book, the first half and second half are very different tonally and in terms of the story lines. Of course, it’s your life, as a single book, how do you think of them together?
I think you’re absolutely correct, they are two very different stories. When I first put it together, it was quite a bit longer than it is now. My agent said, “Why don’t you just do the first half as its own story?” My thought was, “I could, but people would just want to kill themselves!” [Laughs] It’s just so dark and depressing. For me, the demarcation is coming to Los Angeles. Everything before coming to L.A. was just the worst; everything after coming to L.A. became incrementally better as it went along. It’s like Act 1 and Act 2 of a play. While they are the same story, they’re two very different parts — the first being the personal memoir, the second being the professional memoir. We see echoed the ramifications of the decisions made in the first half to what happens later on. We are all the byproduct of our decisions. It’s cause and effect: First half of the book is cause, second half effect. Thank you for that! [Laughs] Didn’t have that until this very moment.
I think it fits beautifully! You mentioned it being much longer at first: What other kinds of editorial considerations were made as you brought this toward a finished product?
Trying not to be self-indulgent. There were stories that were great stories on their own terms, but did they add to the point of their narrative? Did they reinforce the idea that people should be able to choose different paths for themselves, or were they just really funny stories? Or did they make me look good? Those have to go. The only things that should be in there are those, like any novel, that adapt the narrative from a point of view and makes the story comprehensible to the reader. A lot of the more fun or indulgent stories got knocked out. Beyond that, the book is what it always was, it’s just leaner.
The second half charts your journey to becoming a writer in the entertainment industry, and it’s a very tough and honest portrayal of breaking in. How did you want it to come off to the reader?
As exactly that. It is a very tough business to break into, but it is possible to break into it. Whenever I do conventions and appearances around the country and elsewhere, I always run at least one writing workshop when I’m there, to let people know that it is possible. It’s heinously difficult. There are going to be ups and downs and feasts and famine — or, accurately, famine, famine, feast, famine, feast, famine, famine, famine, feast [Laughs] — but it can be done. To [not] say that is ultimately false. Any writer reading that would know it’s false. It just doesn’t work that way. For me, as a budding writer, the biggest thing you need is accurate information. There’s so much bad information and mythology about how you become a writer that often people spend many years chasing down the wrong path. As much as I wanted this book to be about me and making choices, I also wanted it to be a roadmap for other writers — to say, “Look, it is possible to get here. These are the problems you’re going to have. What is voice? What is style? How do you tell a story? How do you complicate your story? How do you sell your story?” Those that want to be writers themselves need some sense of what the process actually is, rather than what they’ve heard it being. That, for me, was a very important part of the whole process.
To that point: A lot of what you’ve worked on, of course, has developed significant fandoms of their own. Did you feel that you were writing directly to those fans sometimes? Were there insights you wanted to provide to people, specifically, who’ve loved those shows?
Absolutely. In a way it’s a love letter to fans — of the genre and those shows. I have comic book fans who don’t know I’ve done television. I have television fans who don’t know I’ve done movies. Movie fans who don’t know I have comic books. So like, you guys just get organized and get back to me. [Laughs] I wanted to go through and bring those different groups together and speak to them. The question is, “Who are you writing your book for?” I wanted to write almost a letter to fans like myself who came up out of fandom and wanted to hear these stories, to others like me who are going through something very difficult in life. It’s a love letter to fandom.