Exclusive: J. Michael Straczynski Talks About...Well, Everything

Right now, for various reasons (which we’ll get to in a second), J. Michael Straczynski is one of the more controversial figures in comics. Whether it’s announcing he’s giving up monthlies for graphic novels, or not finishing high profile runs, Straczynski – whether he means to or not – pushes the hardcore fans buttons.

But at the same time, the man sells comics. And part of the reason people get so angry about him jumping ship is that, up until he does, both critics and readers justly laud his books with praise, from The Twelve, to Amazing Spider-Man, to his recent runs on Superman and Wonder Woman. Not only that, but Straczynski is busy, splitting his time between Hollywood, comics, and his own creative pursuits.

We had the opportunity to chat with him about all of the above, including where his runs on Superman would have gone, what he thinks of critics, and setting the record straight on why he’s all graphic novels, all the time. And naturally, we started things off with a very, very serious question.

MTV Geek: So now that you’re not writing Wonder Woman and Superman, what are you doing with all your free time?

J. Michael Straczynski: I’m actually putting in the same amount of time writing comics now as before I left the monthlies arena. The shift has simply allowed me to give the process a bit more time so I can really get it right and stay focused.

Geek: Speaking of which, you recently announced you would be giving up monthly comics to work solely in the graphic novel format. Why is that?

JMS: I’m going to answer this by taking you deep into the process that led to the decision, more than has been discussed anywhere else.

First, you have to look at the math. The next volume of Superman: Earth One is going to be about 110 pages, give or take. I started writing it in December, and it’s due by the end of February. 110 pages equals 5 monthly comics of 22 pages. So right off the top, you have to do what would normally be five months worth of work in three months. (By contrast, when I did volume one, I had about six months to write and was only doing Brave and the Bold.)

The second thing you have to understand has to do with money, in two ways. I don’t need to write comics for a living. I have movies and TV for that. I write comics for one reason and one reason only: I love comics. I love the form, the structure, the storytelling process, I love everything about it. So it’s really, really important to me to do the very best job that I can. Otherwise there’s simply no reason to do it.

The flip side of this is that comics cost a lot of money to buy for the average reader. Whether that’s $2.99 or $3.99, that’s a good chunk of change when you’re buying five or ten comics a week, especially in this economy. So when people buy my stuff, they need to know that they can expect a certain level of quality in the storytelling, that I’m never phoning it in or giving anything less than my very best. They deserve no less than that for their investment of time, effort and money.

If I feel that I’m not able to do my best work – whether that’s my own fault or as a result of an editorial situation – then I need to stop doing it. I would rather not do something than do it badly or ineffectively. It’s the only way I can live with myself and do right by the fans in the long haul.

This loops us back around to the issue of time. I can do two books per month, and do them at the level of quality I feel I have to hit to give the readers a good story that’s worthy of their hard-earned cash. Anything more than that and I can’t give the writing process the time it needs to really refine the storytelling, fine-tune the dialogue, and do all the rest. (When I was writing Thor, which required a certain Christopher Fry/Marlowe style of dialogue, I might take all day on one page, just to get the sound of it right. And that style of dialogue was one of the best things about the book, something that set it apart from most of what’s out there.)

So I did the math, and contacted DC to say that there was no way I could do the next volume of Superman: Earth One and the monthlies concurrently, and deliver the next volume in the required amount of time. To his eternal credit, Dan DiDio didn’t even blink. He said “no problem, we’ll move you off the monthlies, give your notes to other writers so the arcs are finished as you planned them, and let you concentrate entirely on S:EO.” It was a brave and menschy thing for him to do.

So now I was extricated from monthly books for the first time since the 90s. And here’s the thing: when you write a movie, there’s a clear beginning and end point, and when it’s done, you can look back and learn all the lessons that script had to teach you: what you did right, what you did wrong, how you can improve in the future, all of that. When you’re writing a story in bits and pieces, month in and month out, there really isn’t time or space for reflection, no room to learn what those scripts had to teach you.

It’s really important to me to keep growing as a writer, to look for new challenges and be harshly critical of my own work in order to learn and tell better stories. Of my own work in monthly comics, on a scale of 1-10, with Alan Moore being 10, I’ve hit 7 or 8 fairy often, have had the accidental 8-9 on rare occasions, with most being in the range of 6-7, at least in my view. That may seem a bit hard, but again, I need to be harder on my work than anybody else.

I would like to be able to work consistently at the 8 range, maybe hitting 9 more often I have in the past. The only way to do that is to step away from the work and examine it in the harsh light of day. Where did I go right? Where did I screw up? Where can I improve? How can I tell better stories?

That process takes time. So ultimately, I decided to take a three-to-five-year sabbatical from monthly comics. Graphic novels, where there’s the time and space to get as detailed as I like in the writing, are more suited to the way I work. Yeah, in the long run, it means taking a huge pay cut, but again, it ain’t about the money. It’s about telling good stories.

In a few years, if I feel I’ve learned enough to improve my storytelling in monthly comics, I’ll give it another shot. If not, then the sabbatical may become permanent. So we’ll see.

Geek: Let’s talk about Superman: Earth One. Now that you’ve established his origin, where do you think Supes needs to go in further stories?

JMS: The next volume deepens his character and expands the mythos. If volume one was Clark asking, “Where do I fit in?” then volume two is Superman asking the same thing of the world around him. There’s going to be a new iteration of a classic Superman villain, and he’s going to have to face some difficult truths about himself, his past and the world. It needs to stay a very character-centric book.

Geek: Will it continue in graphic novel format? I know there was some confusion about this, at least as reported in the news – so this is just checking for clarification.

JMS: Yep. That’s the whole game plan and rationale behind doing this, to create a somewhat more mainstream presence in the bookstores via these novels.

Geek: Now for Superman proper… One surprising thing about the run, I think, is how you balanced real world issues with giant Sci-Fi stories – when many people expected Superman to just be dealing with real world issues. Was this a conscious effort to keep Superman “super,” or did it just naturally grow out of the stories you were telling?

JMS: It was an organic process. Superman exists in both worlds, and you can’t eliminate one or the other without betraying the character. I wanted to ground him a bit more than had been the case recently, but without walking away (so to speak) from who he ultimately is.

Geek: Did the story at all give you a hankering to just walk around America, like Superman does?

JMS: I’ve already done it, in a sense. Growing up as a kid, we moved all over the country on a fairly frequent basis, from New Jersey to Texas, California, Illinois...we moved 21 times in my first 17 years. So I was in a way drawing from that experience for this book.

Geek: Was there a city or town you were hoping to get to later in the run, but didn’t?

JMS: I really, really wanted to go down South, and kept trying to re-draw the map to let that happen. But to get him across the country from Philly, it didn’t make geographic sense to send him down south. So that one still smarts, but you learn and move on.

Geek: It seems like Chris Roberson is immediately taking things off in his own direction. Is that true? And if so, what are your thoughts on this?

JMS: He’s pretty much going where the book was going to go. If you go into my previous issues, you have Batman suggesting that there’s something potentially very wrong with Superman, and you have this woman affecting his perception, trying to control or influence him...it’s all being set up right there. But there are always some online critics who like to dump on a guy, and they automatically assume if it’s good, it must have come from somewhere else. They don’t understand that the earlier stuff was set-up, and that the set-up is ultimately about the pay-off, and the pay-off is the point of the story.

On the subject of online comics critics or reviewers...in my admittedly subjective opinion, about 80% of them are really helpful. (Readers in general follow a bell-curve: a small number at one end of the bell curve that love anything you do uncritically, an equal portion at the other end of the curve that hate anything you do uncritically, with most falling somewhere in-between. Critics are no different.) When a book of mine comes out, I instantly go hunting the net, not for praise, but for criticism, because that’s how you learn, from people who don’t have to be polite to you. (And I’m sorry, but “it sucked” isn’t a review, and it’s not helpful, you can’t learn from “it sucked.” I much prefer constructive criticism.)

When I was at a Marvel retreat one year, one of the editors passed me at the table during lunch break and saw I was on one of the more toxic websites, where they were just trashing my latest issue of Spider-Man. “You really ought to stay away from those things,” he said...but again, that’s how you learn. As I write this, I listened the other day to a half-hour podcast of guys just dumping all over S:EO, and while I didn’t agree with all their points, there were a number of areas where I thought, they’re right, I can do better in these areas, and by the end I was taking notes. Yeah, it got pretty brutal at times, but I’m a big boy. If you can’t handle the heat, stay away from the bitchin.

So again: 80% of the critics are useful and enlightening. As for the other 20%... Remember those guys in high school who were absolutely convinced that they were right and everybody else was wrong, that they were smarter than everybody else, and went about with the loudest voices to try and show that they were smarter by showing how stupid everyone else was? The guys who never had a conversation with you, they just talked at you? Loudly and abrasively? About some really, really arcane piece of information that they knew and you didn’t and that proves you’re an idiot? A lot of those guys ended up critics in the 20% figure. So I do with them what I did in high school: just freaking ignore them. Even the ones who like my work. Especially those guys.

Geek: Let’s talk about Wonder Woman: why did her origin need to change? What wasn’t working about Diana that needed to be “fixed?” Or is it not as simple as that?

JMS: That sales of her book had dropped to the bottom of the top 100 was a pretty clear indication that something needed to be fixed. The way to do that is to shake things up in a big way. Small, incremental changes hadn’t worked, despite a number of really good writers working on it. The book had become inaccessible to new readers and was losing a lot of old readers as it became more insular and self-referential and almost kind of stodgy. There are situations where you can come in with just the barest of changes and make a difference...and some situations where you have to roll in a grenade and come in firing. This was the latter.

Geek: I’ve heard people talk about a continuity headache with this story – because, for example, Wonder Woman never “existed” but Wonder Girl is running around, as is Donna Troy. Will this ever be addressed? Or does it not, you know… Matter that much?

JMS: The story was taking place on parallel tracks: the world of the original Diana was still there, on an alternate timeline. The modified version was existing in kind of a self-contained bubble on the other time-track. By the end of the arc, this would have been resolved. But in the interim, it only affected Diana within the span of that bubble.

Geek: There seemed to be a conscious effort to drop us in the middle of her story. She isn’t first discovering the Amazons, she isn’t a regular girl with extraordinary powers – she’s already deep into the culture and mythology. Was the idea to just skip the “calling” part of the hero myth?

JMS: The technical term is starting a story in media res, in the middle of action. And the action needed to be as simple as possible to draw in new readers and get them to stick around and discover the Amazon mythology as Diana was discovering it. And nothing’s more visceral or direct than a fight for survival. I figured it would be best to get the audience invested in her as a person, then let them see her world through her eyes as it revealed itself.

And the calling only works if Diana is still on Paradise Island. She wasn’t. It wouldn’t work in the revised timeline, because Paradise Island was gone to all intents and purposes.

Geek: How important, in general, is the Joseph Campbell hero myth structure to superhero comics? Is it overdone at this point?

JMS: The next sound you hear is me dragging out my degrees in psychology, sociology, and nearly enough credits in philosophy for a third...clear evidence of a life gone terribly wrong, not as any kind of validation for my opinions but as some small indication that I have the wherewithal to at least sneak up on an informed opinion.

I am a big fan of Campbell’s work. I own all of his books, as well as the Bill Moyers PBS series on his work and other DVDs. It’s important, vital, necessary work. Transformational work. Having said that: it’s a tool for the analytic discussion of the hero myth in literature after it has already been formed and/or written down. It’s a journey through the subconscious, to those elements of myth and the eternal hero that recur in story after story, civilization after civilization, created out of their core beliefs and cultural mores and history...it’s not a menu or a mandate.

An art critic can look at a painting and tell you the symbolic elements in the work, the probable influences of other artists, the subtext and the approach to the art...this is what Campbell’s work does for heroic literature. Now imagine an artist reversing the process, and going from what the critic sees to what he thinks he should paint in order to meet that critic’s perspective on what the work should be. It absolutely destroys the creative impetus that leads to original work, the very same creative impetus that Campbell is celebrating. It’s a tool for analysis, not design.

And like any tool, it can be misused or overused. If all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. If you set out to simply follow the structure Campbell describes, the work instantly becomes formulaic. Because you’re not writing from within. Write what moves you to write, and let the academics of the future analyze it, don’t reverse the process.

George Miller did two amazing movies, Mad Max and the Road Warrior. I’ve seen both films more times than I want to admit. They’re all time favorites. He wrote them from what he saw and felt inside, what mattered to him to write. Later – so the story goes – he was flying on a plane with someone who handed him a couple of Campbell’s books, and he decided that this was the way to go, took this as the template for his next installment... And we got Thunderdome.

I rest my case.

Geek: In general, one of the hallmarks of your work is change, taking some fundamental idea about a character, and adding a new piece of their origin, or changing the main way they operate. Why is that?

JMS: It’s a way of freshening the character without fundamentally changing who they are. I don’t want to try to permanently change a character beyond recognition unless it’s one I’ve created, where you have that freedom. When a company trusts you with a franchise character, the goal is to do what you can to make him or her more compelling without permanently upending the apple cart. So I find one corner of the character that perhaps no one has explored, or which might be turned upside-down, and play with it, knowing that in the end, it can always be set back again.

Geek: Fans often get critical, saying that you don’t finish series you started, like Supreme Power, The Twelve, and recently Wonder Woman and Superman. I’d love to hear your reaction to this.

JMS: This perception has kind of taken on a life of its own, and it doesn’t seem to matter what the actual facts are. It’s become like those who don’t believe in climate change, you can point to contrary evidence all you want, they won’t budge. In addition to finishing Rising Stars and Midnight Nation, I did eight or nine years on Spider-Man, did such miniseries as Bullet Points, Strange, Silver Surfer Requiem...I’ve written hundreds of published comics. And the lion’s share of it came out on time.

Where were the problems? Let’s take them on straight-up. Supreme Power: SP got finished. It was only after it got moved out of the Max line and became Squadron Supreme that the book began to falter, and I’ll take the rap for that one. Without the freedom of the Max line I wasn’t able to do the kind of things that had made the book work, and I started to flounder around, it didn’t feel like the book anymore. I told Marvel I was having a hard time. They said keep at it. I said no, seriously, this isn’t working, you should find somebody else. They said keep at it. When I finally said I can’t do this anymore, I’m starting to suck and fall below the standard of quality I think I owe the readers, they said well, we’ll keep it open if you want to come back... and it just sort of stopped rather than being assigned to a different writer.

The Twelve: this was a mutual situation. I hit a busy period on movies, then got caught up and turned in pages but now Chris was off doing movie stuff (Book of Eli and others), then he’d get free and I would be off the grid. I couldn’t get too far ahead of the art because I would always learn something from the visuals and want to incorporate it into the next issue. We’ve been going back and forth for ages on this. I turned in a batch of pages to him over a month ago, and haven’t seen any new art since. So this one is a fifty/fifty. The good news is that it is being finished.

Thor: I loved working on the book. Loved everything about it. We made that book a consistent top-ten book...which attracted the Event Demons, and it became evident that everything I’d been built up in the book was going to be up-ended. I couldn’t go through this again, having had other books derailed by “events.” Again: I won’t let the quality of a book I’m writing drop below the level I think is right for the readers. I owe them no less than my absolute best. So I told them I had to go. Dan Buckley was very gracious in handling the situation, but the downside is that they slowed down the publishing schedule to allow time for other writers and artists to come on board, and I got gigged for the delays.

Superman and Wonder Woman you know.

My feeling is that the only way for me to really do the level of work I need to do is to concentrate on the graphic novels, and on miniseries where – as with Bullet Points and Silver Surfer Requiem – the scripts are all written and most of the art is done before we announce it. That way the books are guaranteed to come out on time, and to be finished.

Geek: Status updates on a few projects:

Superman: Earth One #2

JMS: I’m about 50 pages into it, and the script will be finished by the deadline of the end of February. Shane Davis is busy penciling his heart out, and it looks great. I haven’t been told this directly, but I suspect this will be a summer book.

The Twelve

JMS: It’s really just about done. I think Marvel wants to put this out as a GN rather than pick up the monthly schedule. So I’d anticipate this to also come out sometime in the summer.

Supreme Power

JMS: Supreme Power’s finished, dude. Squadron Supreme is Marvel and I’m kind of off the Marvel grid for a while.

Geek: …And on the Hollywood side of things:

Babylon 5

JMS: Ask me after April.

Geek: World War Z

JMS: I heard they’re going to be going to camera in June. But that’s not been made official.

Geek: Shattered Union

JMS: I’m doing one more draft for Bruckheimer. With luck, this will get made as a big summer tent pole movie.

Geek: And of course, will we ever see more Jake and the Fatman?

JMS: Bugger off.

Geek: Question from a fan: Are you ever going to do a follow up to The Complete Book of Screenwriting? Or would you say it’s already, you know, complete?

JMS: Done, over, complete.

Geek: Last but not least – what else should be looking for from you? What’s coming out soon in comics, or otherwise, that people shouldn’t miss?

JMS: I’m going to be writing Samaritan X for DC as a GN as soon as I’m done with Superman V2, I’m writing another film for Bruckheimer called Vanishing Point, I have two other film assignments on the table, I just finished adapting Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” as a screenplay and we’re taking it out to producers and directors, and I’m hoping to direct a film I wrote in Berlin next year. Other than that, it’s pretty quiet.

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