Do you know a writer? Give them this book. Are you now, or have you ever been, a writer? Get this book.
J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman takes us into his grandparents’ and parents lives, through his own impoverished, deeply messed-up childhood, through his early life as a writer, and finally into the ups and downs he’s faced making a career in Hollywood. Along the way he meets Rod Serling, becomes friends with Harlan Ellison, joins the Jesus Movement (briefly), writes for everything from The Twilight Zone to The Real Ghostbusters, completely revolutionizes the way stories are told on television with Babylon 5, and creates one of the best-ever Netflix originals with Sense8. All while trying to solve a real-life murder mystery in his family’s past, and giving us a detailed look at the pathology of abuse.
And he dispenses solid writing advice throughout the book.
Maybe most important, though, he’s given us a book whose animating principle is a consideration of choice. How does a person raised without a sense of morality make decent choices? Can they change, and if so, how? How does a desperately poor, abused kid learn how to make moral and artistic choices he can be proud of?
JMS’ family, in brief: his father was alcoholic, physically and emotionally abusive—the type who turns maudlin and wants you to pity them after they punch you; his mother was in and out of mental institutions; his sisters were terrified; his grandmother tried to abuse him sexually; the family moved 21 times in 19 years, usually to duck creditors.
JMS, in brief: went to San Diego State because his dad wanted to brag that his son had a degree; took writing classes on the sly; almost joined the Jesus Movement; almost got beaten to death in what was probably a gang’s hazing ritual; wrote for a variety of papers; wrote screenplays; wrote short stories; wrote kids’ television; wrote adult television; wrote plays; wrote comics; created art that spoke to the possibilities of empathy and moral strength to change lives.
I don’t use the phrase unputdownable, because it’s a terrible ear-battering Frankenstein’s creature of a word. But it was awfully difficult to put JMS’ memoir down. Part of it was just that it’s compellingly written. Part is that I was hoping like crazy he’d be OK. I mean obviously we start the book knowing he lived, but his childhood is so operatically tragic that I kept waiting for him to get killed anyway.
Actually scratch that, tragic isn’t the right word. It’s infuriating. Because his life didn’t have to be that bad—it’s just that he was trapped in a family of bullies. His grandparents were two different flavors of terrible. His father was raised in a way that practically guaranteed he’d be terrible, but he also had a streak of genuine sadism running through him. His mother might have had Munchausen’s Syndrome. And trapped in between the elders of the family and his vulnerable little sisters is Joe, a nascent nerd who absorbs as much of the brutality as he can, because that’s what Superman would do.
This is not an easy book to read. I’ve vacillated between thinking it should be recommended to people who have survived abuse and trauma, because JMS is a kindred spirit, but also worrying about abuse survivors’ reactions when they read—since JMS is a damn good writer, his vivid descriptions of abuse might be triggering as hell. But as I mentioned, it’s hard to put down even at the bleakest moments because JMS is such a compelling writer.
There is also the fact that as he grows up, and is able to escape his family, his tales of life in Hollywood become jarring and surreal compared to the harsh realities of his life before. I’m choosing to focus on JMS’ path as a writer here, because talking about his family history would involve revealing discoveries that are best found by reading the book itself.
He writes that on the last day of filming for Babylon 5: “…the crew presented me with a Typist of the Millennium Award in recognition for writing 92 out of 110 hour-long episodes and five TV movies, a record still unmatched by any other member of the Writers Guild of America.” JMS writes tirelessly, but he also makes himself sick and finds it nearly impossible to maintain personal relationships because he’s always working. An incomplete list of his credits includes: He-Man, She-Ra, The Real Ghostbusters, The Twilight Zone, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, Jake and The Fatman, Murder, She Wrote, Babylon 5, Crusade, Amazing Spider-Man, Jeremiah, Changeling, Thor (the comic) World War Z, Thor (the movie), Sense8 and, yes, Superman, with Superman: Earth One. And you don’t build up a list of credits like that without a ridiculous dedication to work.
Any good Writer Biography talks about discovering a love of books, and JMS’ reading life sums up the balance of humor and horror that marks his whole childhood. While living in a rough part of Newark, JMS discovered the magical paperback spinner-racks that saved many a young reader’s life. The problem being that between being truly destitute, and having a father who didn’t want books in the house, he couldn’t afford even cheap pulp books. So, as he puts it, he “turned to a life of crime.”
The only problem was my conscience. I could reconcile myself to taking the books since that was the only way to read them, but the idea of keeping them was more than I could bear. Certainly Superman wouldn’t go around stealing paperbacks. Unless of course Red Kryptonite was involved, but then he’d put them back as soon as he recovered.
Which is how Young JMS began stealing books, reading them without cracking the spine, and then returning them, all the while hoping not to get caught at either end. But it paid off, as he read Ballard, Aldiss, Dick, Spinrad, and Zelazny this way, learned to respect books with the word “Hugo” printed on the front, and discovered Harlan Ellison, who would become a friend and mentor a decade later.
Let’s pause to highlight an example of Harlan Ellison’s advice, as recorded by JMS after he worked up the courage to speak to him:
“Your stuff’s not selling?” he said.
“And you want my advice, is that it?”
“Okay, then here’s my advice: stop writing shit.”
“Because if it wasn’t shit, sooner or later somebody would but it, right?”
“So if you’re stuff isn’t selling, then it’s shit. Consequently: stop writing shit.”
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when high school junior JMS figures out the difference between “style” and “voice”—while trudging through the colorful vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft.
He was so over the top that suddenly I got it: style was the pacing and flow of one word to another to create a melody that would carry the images, characters, and narrative straight to the brain, a specific, practiced rhythm that could be slowed or quickened depending on the mood or purpose of the story. Voice was who the writer actually was beneath it all: their attitude, point of view, and personality. A writer might move between a variety of styles—hard-boiled noir, gothic, baroque—but the same intelligence informed the story at every step. Literary styles can pass in and out of favor, or be shared by different writers (as Lovecraft borrowed stylistic tools from Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen), but a writer’s voice is distinctly his or her own; it’s a one-off.
Style was the clothes; voice was the body.
JMS’ life is an excellent example for anyone who wants to be, or who is currently is, trying to live life as a writer. He meets with some surprising success and support, but he also knows how to make his own luck—for instance, circumventing some school rules to get into a college course with radio drama legend Norman Corwin. But he also just writes his ass off, as when he dives in and takes every freelance gig he can with his local San Diego papers. He learns that if he turns his work in on time and does his edits quickly, he can quickly rise to the top of a staff through sheer reliability. For a time, he proves himself to be easy to work with.
I say for a time, because once he gets into TV his reputation for being “difficult” starts, as he walks off shows repeatedly—not from any diva-like tendencies, but to protest the networks’ willingness to give into censors and executive notes at the cost of respect for the audience.
Becoming Superman is also a great way to see the roller coaster of the life. There are no golden parachutes for writers, you don’t get to fail up the way white male execs do—you’re as good as your work. If you’re broke and stressed it’s a lot harder to be creative—but if you’re being paid to be creative on a deadline, you have to be creative. This is the ouroboros that swallows the working writer—which is a different world snake from the writer who has a day gig and writes on the side. Having lived both lives, I honestly don’t know which one is better for the work. What’s great for the reader of Becoming Superman (if not for JMS) is how many times he strikes out. Even after a long career of writing bestselling comics and hit TV episodes, he still hits financial valleys. There is no plateau of success, just as if you’re good, there is no artistic peak.
After a lifetime of scrabbling from writing gig to writing gig, he wrote a script for The Changeling, which attracted enough A-List industry attention that things got a little easier for him. But then they took a turn for a surreal when his next script caught Dreamworks’ eye.
When Dreamworks heard about it, they bought the script for a million dollars. As a rule, screenplay fees are broken into separate payments for start-up, outline, and first and second drafts. Since this was a finished script, I asked Dreamworks if I could get the full amount in one lump sum because I’d never seen a check for a million dollars before. It was a silly request on every conceivable level, but somewhere deep inside me the impoverished kid who lived in the projects of Newark, who had gone dumpster diving for Coke bottles to redeem to buy comics and lived in unheated houses in the dead of winter, that kid wanted to see that check, goddamnit.
But this isn’t some simple rags-to-riches tale. JMS’ life as a writer is always a rollercoaster, and doesn’t support a simplistic narrative of him triumphing over adversity. That would also imply a much more materialistic story than what he’s giving us. Among all the stories about holding to deadlines and hustling jobs, JMS makes a point of digging into why he wants to write. It isn’t just a form of therapy for him, or a way to pay the bills—it also becomes a way to prove to himself, each day, that his father’s point of view is not the only one. By writing through his pain, and processing the years of abuse, he’s able to think on the page, and find new ways to approach life, and new ways to be human, and he’s able to put those points of view out into the world for other people. This comes through most strongly when he begins work on what is probably his best-known project, Babylon 5.
And then there was the matter of our five-year arc […] In our series, I wanted the characters to evolve in ways that would also change the world around them, demonstrating that regardless of our circumstances or how late in the day we can still change that which seems most inevitable about us. As much as B5 was about exploration, wars, and the rise and fall of empires, at the center of it all were the issues of personal choice, the consequences that result from those choices, and our willingness to accept responsibility for those consequences. Would our characters behave ethically when confronted by difficulty, or lean into what was more convenient? How do their seemingly small decisions result in massive events that ripple through the rest of our story?
There are lessons on “How to be a writer” everywhere in this book.
JMS is called in to pitch for the show Jake and The Fatman—a show he’s not really that excited about. He goes in with a few perfunctory scripts and a couple of half-thought-out pitches, figuring he’ll go in and get shot down, and then he’ll be able to tell his agent he tried, at least, before he moves on to something he’s excited about. The problem comes when he meets the showrunners, Jeri Taylor and David Moessinger, who turn out to be (a) lovely, and (b) huge fans of his work. He goes through his pitches, they’re openly unhappy at having to reject his ideas, and he’s upset because now he likes them and doesn’t want to disappoint them.
Luckily he had one ridiculous idea in his mental back pocket. JMS had done enough research on the show to guess that William Conrad, the actor who played “The Fatman”, didn’t enjoy action scenes.
“Well, I thought there might be a story about William Conrad’s character being kidnapped by someone he’d arrested years earlier. He’s taken hostage and tied to a chair for the entire episode.”
David’s eyes lit up like a Las Vegas slot machine. “That’s great!” he said. “That’s terrific! Bill hates to walk! He’ll love it!”
Never assume you’re above the material. If someone is kind enough to take your work seriously, show them the respect of taking their work seriously, even if it isn’t your kind of thing. Never half-ass a writing project. Always always always keep extra ideas in your back pocket. Never assume an idea is too ridiculous to work. Always do your research. As silly as it sounds, JMS watched the show, noted that William Conrad openly disliked action scenes, and came up with a scenario where he could create tension without action. He took the character’s backstory and the actor’s needs into account, and that got him a gig that turned into a long working relationship with the showrunners—he and Moessinger revitalized Murder, She Wrote a few years later, and thanks to his work with Taylor, he found out about the potential B5/DS9 clash when she went on to work in the Star Trek universe.
Of course it also has some great stories about sticking to your guns, and enjoying the sweet taste of vengeance. JMS walked off of The Real Ghostbusters for a bunch of reasons, but the main ones were that the network censors teamed up with a bunch of child development experts who, ignoring the fact that JMS had multiple psychology degrees, insisted that the cartoon was harmful to young minds. This was also in the waning days of the 1980s’ “Satanic Panic,” so when people wrote in claiming that the show was actually occult propaganda, the studio took it seriously. Their solutions ranged from the absurd (make Slimer the audience proxy) to the asinine (cut the Ray Stanz character cause he isn’t distinctive enough) to the misogynist (make Janine “warmer” and “more nurturing”, and give her dresses and softer hairstyles, so kids see her as the guys’ mom instead of a coworker) to the racist (demote Winston to being the driver). After the changes were implemented and the show’s rating plummeted, they asked JMS to come back and fix it. And he did—after they agreed to all of his creative demands. And then he wrote a Very Special Episode:
“The Halloween Door” told the story of Dr. Crowley, a madman with a machine that would destroy all the scary supernatural books in the world because kids shouldn’t be exposed to such things. I even put some of the BS&P’s [Broadcast Standards & Practices] comments in the mouth of the censorship-driven madman to illustrate the idea that however well-intended, censors can be as destructive as any demonic entity by curtailing independence of thought.
The kicker? After being falsely accused for years of trying to slip in references to Satan, I named the antagonist after Aleister Crowley, a famous practitioner of the dark arts, often referred to as the most evil man in the world, and not one of the censors caught it.
And that’s not even getting into the chapters about the Babylon 5/DS9 controversy, or all the executive drama behind Crusade. I don’t want to spoil the story, but trust me, there’s a lot there. The book hinges on the dichotomy between the Strazcynski family drama and the ups and downs of Hollywood. It makes for a fascinating reading experience to be in a studio with JMS arguing with TK about his alcohol issues, only to be yanked back to New Jersey in aphone call with JMS’ aunt Theresa, where she’s trying to open up about what happened to the family during World War II, only to be backstage at the Oscars when Angelina Jolie is nominated for Best Actress for Changeling.
JMS could have used his memoir to (justifiably) wallow in the traumas of his past, or to (justifiably) talk shit about shortsighted networks. Instead he takes entire chapters to give other writers pep talks. Not just in an “If I can make it anyone can!” way, but in a much more basic, “Here’s how to keep writing” way—with the occasional reminder of of Ellison’s dictum that “Writing is a holy chore.”
Are you exhausted? Do you want to give up?
Well, JMS believes in you.
Get back to the typewriter.
Becoming Superman is available from Harper Voyager.