Friday, July 10, 2020

Review - Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski

Short review: The story of how the author grew up in an abusive household with a literal Nazi war criminal in the family and still became a successful writer in Hollywood.

Dreams of Superman
A childhood of misery
Becomes Superman

Full review: I love Babylon 5. I consider it to be the best science fiction television series to ever reach the small screen. I also love Sense8, and I have a real appreciation for shows like The Real Ghostbusters and Jeremiah. I even liked what little we got of Crusade. Straczynski's work, to a large extent, speaks for itself through its consistent, high-quality storytelling, but Straczynski's works aren't the focus of this book, and they didn't need to be. For fans hungry for information about the development and creation of those works, there are a plethora of sources, not least of which are numerous publications focused on them produced by Straczynski himself - I have, for example, the five volume set titled Asked & Answered: J. Michael Straczynski Answers 5,296 Fan Questions about Babylon 5 & Beyond as well as the fifteen volumes of script books he had published. His work has been, to put it bluntly, discussed to death. Fans who are looking for discussions about that sort of thing can probably skip this book and go find those other sources. Those who want a story that they haven't seen before, a story about a life that was at turns awful, at times sublime, and always interesting, will do well to read Becoming Superman.

J. Michael Straczynski could have played it safe. He's been the creator, showrunner, or producer for several successful live action television shows, as well as a couple of animated series - all of which performed better when he was associated with them than when he was not. He's had successful runs as a novelist, comic book writer, and screenwriter. Before any of that, he was a successful journalist. When he sat down to write his autobiography, he could have focused entirely on his professional life, detailing his time writing for She-Ra, The Real Ghostbusters, regaling readers with his experiences showrunning Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. He could have spent chapter after chapter talking about bringing Babylon 5, Jeremiah, and Sense8 to the screen. No one would have complained at all had he spent the pages of the book discussing how he wrote Spider-Man, Thor, and Superman, or any of the other projects he worked on. Those things are all in this book, although not as much as one might think, because Straczynski had another story to tell, a story that involved absolutely not playing it safe.

In Avengers: Infinity War, Dr. Strange says that he looked at fourteen million possible futures to find the one where the Avengers are able to prevent Thanos from eradicating half the population of the Universe and defeat the mad titan. After reading Becoming Superman, I feel like there are fourteen million alternate universes in which J. Michael Straczynski never broke free of his past and was never able to produce the wonderful body of work that we have been able to enjoy for the last couple of decades. There are universes where Straczynski didn't survive infancy, killed by his depressed and unstable mother. There are universes where he died of sickness and neglect, or where he was abducted and killed on the streets of New Jersey. There are universes in which his abusive father went too far and left the boy version of Straczynski too shattered to continue. Or where the constant stream of violence and neglect was compounded by the institutional indifference of the schools that were supposed to educate him, resulting in Straczynski's life being derailed into crime, addiction, or simple despair.

The book opens with a recounting of the stories that Straczynski was told about his family's past, and over the next several hundred pages, he takes apart and examines this carefully constructed lie. From a certain perspective, it seems almost inevitable that Straczynski would become a storyteller, because pretty much every member of his family put forward a carefully crafted fiction about their past, weaving together a web of falsehoods with just enough threads made of truth to make the whole at least somewhat plausible. At times, it seems as if some of the members of Straczynski's family had come to believe the fictional version of their past that they had conjured up, but time and again, reality peeks around the edges, throwing everyone's life into disarray as they desperately try to cover their tracks yet again - efforts that often seem to drive many of the callous and violent actions described in the book. This is not to say that keeping the made-up story of their past is the sole cause of the harrowing home life Straczynski describes in the book, but it does help to explain elements such as the constant moves from place to place, the hushed conversations between adults, the isolation from outsiders, and even the violent outbursts from his father. When added to the constant need to evade creditors, the copious consumption of alcohol, the brutality, the outright sadism, and the hinted at mental illnesses that seem to have plagued the family, the need to cover up secrets was just folded into the toxic mixture and gave what might have been run-of-the-mill dysfunction and misfortune an added edge of viciousness.

In the biography of someone who has had as successful a career as Straczynski, it may seem odd to dwell so extensively upon his childhood home life, teenage angst, and college experiences but the reality is that his years in journalism seem to have inculcated in Straczynski the ability to cut to the real meat of a story, and the real meat of his life story isn't in writing episodes of The Real Ghostbusters or showrunning Murder She Wrote or any of his other professional credits. The meat of his story is in the almost ludicrously horrific childhood, his somewhat desperate dalliance with a moderately lunatic cult, and the revelations about what his grandmother and father were up to during their sojourn in Europe during World War II. That said, while the meat of the story is the terrifying life he led before he managed to essentially cut off all connections with his entire completely fucked up family, the heart of the story is the connection he made with the people he picked up along the way: With Harlan Ellison, who became an almost unwilling mentor, with Larry DiTillio, with whom he worked on a couple of shows, with Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs, Jerry Doyle and the other cast members of Babylon 5, many of whom died far too soon, and on and on. These personal recollections, told in often vivid detail, about both the awful family he was born into, and the creative and loving replacement family that he picked up during his adulthood, elevate this autobiography far above a simple recollection of the hows and whys of television and movie productions.

The title of the book is a metaphor, derived from Straczynski's childhood love for Superman, who, along with a collection of other comic book figures, seem to have filled in as surrogate parents for a boy who was comprehensively failed by everyone around him. The subtitle is My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes, and every single one of those elements is part of the story that led Straczynski from living in barely heated tenements and eating food that had all but spoiled to being a successful writer with careers in journalism, screenwriting, novel-writing, and comic book writing As he states late in the book, the life story told in the book is so improbable that if you wrote it as fiction, it would never get published. The end result is story that is as unbelievable as it is true, and well-worth reading.

2020 Hugo Award Finalists

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