You know in movies when they display “5 years later?”
It’s only a few seconds for the audience however in real life (if that was real life) that time has passed. It isn’t a quick blink of an eye. In that same manner, Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood is not a rags-to-riches inspirational story. Rather, this is a tale about a sci-fi nerd who clung to the only thing that was good in his awful upbringing.
I wish there was a Troy McClure font to write the following: you know J. Michael Straczynski from Babylon 5. But he also wrote for Twilight Zone 85, Murder She Wrote, The Real Ghostbusters, She-Ra: Princess of Power and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. That’s just his television credits! In comics, you may have read his Thor, Superman or Amazing Spider-Man (which is incredible and amazing and spectacular! I highly recommend them!). That’s the good stuff; the stuff I knew (and like) about J. Michael Straczynski and indeed that good stuff is openly detailed in his memoir. Still, before we get to the good stuff, what precedes the good stuff is horrific.
The first hundred fifty pages of Becoming Superman calmly describe an unnerving depravity; as a reader, it is hard to get through. Rampant poverty, child abuse, alcoholism, domestic abuse and (I cannot believe there is an and) a slow confirmation his father was an active member of the Nazi party. During World War II, in Germany. Yes, that Nazi party! WHAT?!
I don’t know how you can emotionally or spiritually process growing up like that. The memoir provides glimpses from Straczynski’s current state. His past and his family are, understandably, experiences he must constantly re-contextualize while seeking deep healing.
We will sometimes ask a kid with divorced parents if he wished he could have grown up in a happy two-parent household (as if anybody has a choice at birth where they end up). The reality is that hypothetical kid has always lived with divorced parents so he doesn’t know any other reality; he has nothing to compare it too.
J. Michael Straczynski’s childhood reality was awful—moving every few months to avoid aggressive creditors, an abusive alcoholic Nazi father and a distant mother. It’s not surprising he retreated to science fiction, to television, to books, to anything that allowed him a temporary escape.
This is kinda like a real-life Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins, fully grasping the grim hopelessness of his current circumstances, refuses to be broken. He actively attempts to inject hope or opera…anything to push back against the despair. In that movie, the greatest crime those criminals could perpetrate was becoming institutionalized; to accept that this god-forsaken prison was a permanent unyielding fate. Compelled to escape, Tim Robbins patiently worked to break away. For J. Michael Straczynski, that escape slowly began when he graduated high school and went to college in San Diego.
By then Straczynski understood he gifted at writing; he simply needed to put in time at the typewriter to get better. His rationale is so refreshing: he realized that if what he wrote at first (be it short stories or tv scripts or journalism) wasn’t good, he should write as often as he could to basically evict the crap from his work. Your 30th short story should be better than your first short story, right? So he successfully engineered another escape, this one from his initial awful writing.
That second half of the book mirrors the Superman from the book’s title. Superman’s peaceful Kryptonian life was destroyed in an instant. He grew up in Smallville grappling with his identity and combating traditional notions of “normal.” Clark eventually left Smallville and went to Metropolis a.k.a. The Big City. (In Straczynski’s case, the big city was Hollywood, a.k.a. La La Land.) As an adult, Clark had to figure out his Superman identity, his Clark Kent identity and most importantly (at least for this analogy to work!) how to become a good writer and a skilled storyteller.
The second half of Becoming Superman is thrilling: tv show after tv show from the past, behind the scenes details, set stories! It is an enchanting, electrifying Hollywood ride.
All the classics are there. The lack of credit and money for his She-Ra contributions. Did Star Trek: DS9 really rip him off? Getting Babylon 5 on the air after consistently being rejected by a legion of producers and production companies. Writing all of Babylon 5!! The studio telling him that Real Ghostbusters was too smart “for a cartoon” and needed to be dumbed down. Eventually, he had to contend with a ghastly professional blacklisting and was subsequently ostracized.
He also name checks a who’s who from the entertainment world: Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison, Angela Lansbury, Captain Power! Good Gravy, the list goes on. But in all the success and setbacks, the spectre of his family and their past sins loom. He always carries that dreadful baggage with him.
J. Michael Straczynski’s career is wonderfully astonishing and compelling. Like Superman, his career has gone through stages, fits and starts, and distinct evolutions. Straczynski had to figure out journalism; he had to figure out the world of animation; he had to figure how to run his own tv show. In every professional iteration, he had to figure it out.
His persistence, determination, unrelenting work ethic, and infectious imagination have basically become his brand. This isn’t a rags to riches, made in Hollywood cliche. The title is Becoming Superman. That’s present tense (though thankfully not as tense as his past). He isn’t done yet. I’m certain this memoir allowed him to take stock of his accomplishments the way a significant birthday milestone prompts reflection.
If you sling creativity for a living, this biography is a must-read. If you’re trying to break into a tough business like television production or comic writing, this one’s for you. It’ll provide much-needed encouragement to keep going, to push through, and to be strong like Superman.
Let me use one more movie analogy? This book is Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. It’s there to give you the right (or is it write?) advice.
This memoir is also a recognition of the power of science-fiction. The dreams and images conjured up and expressed by a broad range of creators make our lives better. For J. Michael Straczynski, they allowed him to hang on and survive a detrimental upbringing. I’m grateful for his stories. He’s counted among the powerful creators. His contributions to science fiction and cartoons and comics made our lives better.
Like Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption crawling through the poop tunnel, if you get through the first half of this book there is hope and redemption and joy. Like the best sci-fi, this is an epic journey worth taking.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!