Author J. Michael Straczynski is nothing if not fortitude made manifest. Without proper parents and without any respect for normal cultural and religious authorities, JMS found his moral grounding in the fictional character, Superman/Clark Kent. When confronted with bullying or with a moral dilemma, JMS would consider the question: What would Superman Do? It almost always provided him, morally, with the right answer.
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, by J. Michael Straczynski (480 pages, Harper Voyager, 2019)
Yes, these are my thoughts, and I have thought these very same things innumerable times since the mid 1990s, when I first came across the works of J. Michael Straczynski. It doesn’t matter if I was reading one of Mr. Straczynski’s novels or one of his comics (Spiderman, Superman, Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, etc.), watching an episode of Babylon 5, Jeremiah, or Sense 8, or reading one of his short stories or novels, such as Demon Night or Tribulations, his words always hit me hard. For a million reasons, JMS—as his legion of fans know him—has always inspired me, always moved me, and always called me to be something better than I am.
I have done my very best to follow JMS’s career—along with that of one other contemporary writer, Kevin J. Anderson—for two and a half decades now. Each has been a role model to me, though I’ve not followed either in terms of writing fiction. Neither has made it hard to follow. Mr. Anderson, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, has become a close friend, and JMS has been interacting with his fans longer than anyone else on the internet with the exception of the progressive rock band, Marillion.[*] When I wrote an essay on JMS for The Imaginative Conservative back in 2015—”Ten Things Every TIC Reader Should Know about JMS”—he even sent me a nice note via Facebook. He was especially glad to be in the same company as T.S. Eliot. Needless to write, I was thrilled to know that he had not only read my essay, but also that he had approved!
I must also note, I’ve never met JMS, and, aside from the one note he sent me in 2015, I have absolutely no personal connection to him. Yet, he has—in some strange way—always been a part of my adult life, and, I’m sure, always will be.
When I heard that JMS was coming out with an autobiography, Becoming Superman, I pre-ordered it the very first day it was first announced on Amazon. Finally, I thought at the time of the book’s announcement, I can fill in some of the gaps stemming from JMS’s silences as well as from his rather pregnant hints, from time to time, on the internet. I was especially intrigued about his religious views and his side comments that he had once lived in a religious community, but I was most interested in finding out what and who motivates him, especially in his writing. After all, this is one of the few writers who can completely tangle me up inside. What makes him make me so . . . well, vulnerable?
From the opening chapter, “We Were Told,” of JMS’s autobiography, I was hooked, and I properly immersed myself in his story from page one to page 460. If anything, it was too short. However much JMS’s fiction has torn me up, few things in the world have torn me up as much as his autobiography. Do I laugh? Do I cry? Do I do both? I can write several things with absolute certainty after reading Becoming Superman. First, no matter how bad my own childhood (and, it was bad) was, it was nothing compared to JMS’s childhood. Some of the stories he tells of his upbringing are so horrific, that I can’t even re-tell them here in review. Second, rather than laugh or cry, I actually just wanted to give JMS a huge bear hug from time to time while reading Becoming Superman. Yes, he might think this a little weird, especially given that he’s not really a physical kind of guy! Though, frankly, I think we would’ve been friends and allies back in junior high and high school. Third, no matter how much I respected him before reading his autobiography, my respect for him now knows no bounds. The man is nothing if not fortitude made manifest.
Without trying in the least to be cocky, I can state with some certainty that I know something about biography and autobiography—having spent my career writing the former. JMS knows better than almost anyone how to tell a life story. He even throws in a good (and true) murder mystery in Becoming Superman. And, there are also cult leaders, Nazis, communists, conmen, muggers . . . the list of bad guys who have shown up in JMS’s life is nearly endless.
The danger in reviewing this book, of course, is that any review might not only give too much away, but it might also very well do so in a way as to diminish JMS’s own greatness as a writer. As an admirer of JMS (even more so now), I would hate to be responsible for either.
Let me, however, offer a few thoughts about the book, without, I pray, giving too much away. Understandably—especially given the horrors he experienced with his biological father, mother, and paternal grandmother—JMS has spent much of his life searching for grounding, for inspiration, and for, frankly, true parents. Yet, as brutally as life dealt with JMS, he has rarely lost hope, and he has always fought back. As I mentioned earlier, JMS is fortitude made manifest. JMS’s story is the stuff of ancient Greece! And, with every word on every page, JMS cries out for justice, not just for himself, but for the world.
I came to realize rather quickly in the book that JMS not only always gets back up, but that he also does so with a sort of mischievous magic, each horrible thing only building up his own mischievous side. Whereas most men and women would either give up or become hopelessly cynical and nihilistic given JMS’s various situations, JMS found what mattered most in life and also found who mattered most in life.
Without proper parents and without any respect for normal (cultural and religious) authorities, JMS found his moral grounding in the fictional character, Superman/Clark Kent. When confronted with bullying or with a moral dilemma, JMS would consider the question: What would Superman Do? It almost always provided him, morally, with the right answer.
Yet, no matter how little life gave JMS in terms of happiness or stability, it clearly gave him an abundance of brains and skills. He has wielded these gifts, repeatedly, with nothing short of excellence. Superman, indeed.
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* Birzer, Bradley. “Hypergraphia: The Beautiful Disorder of Kevin J. Anderson.” The Imaginative Conservative, March 2015.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from a photograph of J. Michael Straczynski, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.