My 2020 Reading Stacks #2: The Horror and Heroism of “Becoming Superman”

Becoming Superman!

A highly recommended read, from the introduction by onetime Babylon 5 writer Neil Gaiman to all those other pages not written by Gaiman.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year, each and every squarebound work of qualifying length that I’ve read gets a capsule review apiece. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it. As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will still pop up here and there, albeit in an outnumbered capacity…

And now, we rejoin reading time already in progress…though this time with a single memoir that hit me on numerous levels.

7. J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood. The sub-subtitle on the cover of the celebrated writer’s 2019 autobiography pulls no punches and tells no lies: With Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes. Those diverse, potentially lurid topics are by no means a complete list. He left more than a few surprises between the covers, where they await discovery as each is torn out of his family’s deep, dark closets and brought to light.

Before he created the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5 and became a household name to geeks my age, li’l Joe Straczynski endured an abusive childhood that would’ve destroyed the average psyche long before puberty. He grew up in the menacing shadow of an abusive father who kept his captive household constantly on the move from state to state and who never committed a sin he couldn’t blame on anyone else in the universe but himself. As a kid growing up in Germany during WWII, JMS’ dad was basically Jojo Rabbit minus the crisis of conscience and hope of redemption.

His mother bore much of Dad’s physical and emotional savagery over the course of decades, but she’d had her own mental health issues, occasionally presented a different form of danger to him, and ultimately offered no escape and no help. The first several chapters trace their sordid lineage from Eastern Europe through the Nazis’ glory days and onward to America, a land of opportunity where Dad’s moral lapses wastes his parents’ fresh start and takes his brood on direct shortcuts to squalor. The early years were painful and unforgiving, sometimes brutal in ways I’d rather never describe, and may be a bit intense for readers who are just here for backstage Hollywood lowdown.

It’s nothing short of a thermodynamic miracle that Straczynski, slowly and painstakingly and with no small number of setbacks and calamities strewn across his timeline like land mines, manages to eke out an education across multiple schools, parlay that into college, and discover the wild, wondrous world of writing — his superpower, his true love, his deliverance from evil. Though his early efforts at writing for science fiction magazines don’t pan out, he winds his way through an instructive but shortened stint as an intrepid journalist before taking a leap of faith into the world of TV. After dipping his toes into animation with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and The Real Ghostbusters (with an interlude along the way to co-create He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra), he transitions to live-action network drama, first inheriting the spooky mantle of The Twilight Zone and later helping give Murder, She Wrote a much-needed creative boost. Eventually came the five-year saga that was Babylon 5 and his place in SF history was assured, complete lack of profits notwithstanding.

Where allowed to be, Straczynski is as candid about his entertainment career as he is about his family history. His may be the only account we ever hear of the making of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, not that anyone asked. His tales of network censors kowtowing to hypersensitive parental groups are a must-read for anyone who remembers how bowdlerized our favorite cartoons used to be. His description of life on the production staff of Jake and the Fatman is a hoot. He also gives his side of one of fandom’s long-running debates: which show had the idea first, Babylon 5 or the strikingly similar yet deeper-pocketed Deep Space Nine. Straczynski proudly shows his receipts and the years that led to them.

The narrative mood lightens a tad as he frees himself of his father’s tentacled reach. Anecdotes grow sparser as we draw nearer to the present — either his working experiences improved dramatically, an odd sense of decorum overtook him, or legal reasons keep those doors shut for now. He devotes a few pages to describing the themes and morals underlying his Netflix series Sense8, but the experience itself amounts to “They were a pleasure to work with.” His breakthrough into the silver screen with Changeling is fascinating as a vicarious experience, but his other film credits are downplayed in comparison. His comics career, filled with plenty of successes, appears largely stress-free apart from the one time he wrote the famous Amazing Spider-Man 9/11 issue from his trailer on the set of his Showtime series Jeremiah. As a youngster I also appreciated a digression on his comics debut, an old issue of Teen Titans Spotlight that pitted Cyborg against Two-Face. I thought it was awesome at the time, and I’m glad it rated a mention.

More deeply woven into his life story are a variety of subplots that haunt him again and again. The full scope of his Nazi-fanboy dad’s lifetime of horrors casts a pall across the entire length of the book, reaching from a devastated Polish town to the musty heart of New Jersey itself, their secrets taking ages to unlock as relatives reluctantly dole out clues. Special guest Harlan Ellison is a recurring motif as Straczynski’s relationship to him takes root and grows, as he evolves from Ellison’s #1 fan to know-nothing wannabe to studious pupil to capable contemporary to dear friend to visitor at his deathbed. Among the saddest segments in his adult years are the recounts of tragic deaths of Babylon 5 costars one by one. It’s bizarrely comforting to hear of Andreas Katsulas’ ebullience in the face of cancer; it’s heartbreaking to hear details of what befell others.

Straczynski is more than willing to turn that same candor inwardly on himself as he examines how his often frightening upbringing left him a quiet loner who didn’t play well with others. Attachments are tough to form with anything — whether with friends, girls, pets, or comic collections — when faced with the constant fear of having them sent away or flat-out destroyed without warning. Beyond childhood he comports himself as a total solo act until experiences teach him it’s okay to trust others…and even then, what few relationships he forms, he struggles to understand while the people on the other end do most of the heavy lifting. He reaches one key epiphany when Ellison, backed into a corner, tries to point out a particular personality defect as delicately as possible, which was not Ellison’s specialty. I couldn’t help zeroing in on such parts, recognizing a few uncomfortable similarities, and mentally labeling them Food For Thought. That’s an essay for another time.

The journey is historically rooted and emotionally vulnerable, arduous and draining, funny and whimsical, illuminating and horrifying. Straczynski also hopes it’s ultimately inspirational. As of its writing he wasn’t 100% certain what was up next for his career, but he’s found contentment in what he’s done up to now. He’s no longer that novice still trying to prove to peers that he’s got what it takes. If a penniless, damaged kid like him can face insurmountable odds, relentless oppression, and endless naysayers to really, truly do exactly what they want to be doing with their life…then maybe some readers can take solace, find inspiration, and look for the means to leap those tall buildings and dodge those speeding bullets in their own lives.

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