During a 40-year career, J. Michael “Joe” Straczynski has been a playwright, journalist, novelist, radio host, TV showrunner, comic book writer and screenwriter. But to read “Becoming Superman,” his grandly titled but harrowing memoir, is to marvel that he didn’t wind up a serial killer instead.
The book leavens the episodic structure of most autobiographies by threading a family mystery through Straczynski’s account of his horrific upbringing and his escape into superheroes and science fiction, which saved his life before they became his living. The heroes of “Silver Age” (mid-1950s to early-1970s) comics were a refuge from the fear and squalor of his household, and they strengthened his resolve to be a stronger, more empathetic person than his abusive parents and grandmother were. The Last Son of Krypton was the one Joe found most relatable: “Superman was real, and unlike my father he was kind and honest and fair, and he never hit anybody who didn’t hit him first.”
If this “What Would Kal-El Do?” philosophy occasionally makes our narrator come off as self-righteous, let us just be glad that he chose to emulate a virtuous (if imaginary) outsider instead of the violent and cruel adults who populated his most impressionable years. Not until adulthood would he become the beneficiary of mentorship from heavy hitters Norman Corwin and Harlan Ellison, though he’d gotten hooked on Ellison’s mind-bending fiction as a kid.
Straczynski revisits his eclectic resume in breezy, conversational prose. After freelancing for various San Diego newspapers, he broke into television, writing scripts for 1980s animated series like “He-Man” and “The Real Ghostbusters.” He graduated to prime-time writing jobs on the rebooted “Twilight Zone” and “Murder, She Wrote,” then created the sci-fi series “Babylon 5.” (He proudly notes that he scripted nearly all of “Babylon 5’s” 110 hour-long episodes himself, one of his many notable feats of workaholism.) Straczynski then shifted to comics, writing the monthly adventures of Spider-Man for six years in the early aughts and “Superman: Earth One,” a trio of graphic novels reexamining the Ur-superhero from a more contemporary perspective.
In 2008, director Clint Eastwood turned Straczynski’s screenplay “Changeling” - a dramatization of a 1920s true-crime tragedy that had obsessed Straczynski since his journalist days - into a film that scored three Oscar nominations and brought Straczynski high-profile assignments on films like “Thor” and “World War Z.” His most recent project to garner substantial attention was the globe-trotting Netflix series “Sense8,” a collaboration with the Wachowskis.
Straczynski dishes more freely about his TV years than his film career. His accounts of quitting staff jobs when his bosses demanded changes that offended his sense of integrity make for juicy reading. He’s candid, where he can be, about the hazards - (BEGIN ITAL)other(END ITAL) than executive interference - that can mar a creative endeavor: He says “Babylon 5” was affected by the severe mental illness of one cast member and the substance abuse problems of another, and he laments that he is legally barred from describing why his tenure on the post-apocalyptic teen drama “Jeremiah” was “the most horrific, heinous, soul-killing experience of my career.” He also suggests Paramount took the “Babylon 5” material he gave them during the years he spent shopping the show around and poured it into a rival show with a similar premise, the Star Trek spinoff “Deep Space Nine.”
As Straczynski spins one tale after another of his many triumphs over the fools and the naysayers, it’s not hard to imagine that, for all his painstakingly developed talent, he might not be such a fun person to be around. He confesses to this emotional remove outright: “I’ve always felt less like an actual person than a Lego set in human form.”
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That could be due to his loveless upbringing. As with so many superhero stories, the origin is the most compelling part of the tale. Straczynski’s comes with a long-buried family secret that the author finally uncovers in his 60s. The book turns out to be an act of posthumous revenge against the author’s father, Charles Straczynski - a villain uglier than any that Stan Lee or Charles Dickens ever dreamed up. A violent alcoholic, the elder Straczynski habitually beat Joe as well as his mother, and even killed the stray cats Joe would unofficially adopt each time they set down in a new neighborhood.
Charles also destroyed his son’s comic books in a drunken rage, a turning point as profound as Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder in a Gotham alley or Peter Parker’s spider bite. His collection, including “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15 (featuring Spider-Man’s first appearance) and original runs of “Fantastic Four” and “The Uncanny X-Men,” would have been enviable had it survived. Charles didn’t blame his son’s poor academic performance on the fact Joe needed eyeglasses his old man wouldn’t pay for, or Charles’ habit of pummeling the boy at the slightest provocation - no, it was those filthy comic books rotting his mind. In 1984, a 30-year-old Joe finally cut off all contact with his father, refusing to see Charles or speak to him again before his death in 2011.
That break is what made the author’s later achievements possible. Part Hollywood how-to, part Frank McCourt-style reflection on emotional neglect and poverty, “Becoming Superman” is an enveloping look back at a unique career.