In this dazzling memoir, the acclaimed writer behind Babylon 5, Sense8, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and Marvel’s Thor reveals how the power of creativity and imagination enabled him to overcome the horrors of his youth and a dysfunctional family haunted by madness, murder and a terrible secret.
For four decades, J. Michael Straczynski has been one of the most successful writers in Hollywood, one of the few to forge multiple careers in movies, television and comics. Yet there’s one story he’s never told before: his own.
Joe's early life nearly defies belief. Raised by damaged adults—a con-man grandfather and a manipulative grandmother, a violent, drunken father and a mother who was repeatedly institutionalized—Joe grew up in abject poverty, living in slums and projects when not on the road, crisscrossing the country in his father’s desperate attempts to escape the consequences of his past.
To survive his abusive environment Joe found refuge in his beloved comics and his dreams, immersing himself in imaginary worlds populated by superheroes whose amazing powers allowed them to overcome any adversity. The deeper he read, the more he came to realize that he, too, had a superpower: the ability to tell stories and make everything come out the way he wanted it. But even as he found success, he could not escape a dark and shocking secret that hung over his family’s past, a violent truth that he uncovered over the course of decades involving mass murder.
Straczynski’s personal history has always been shrouded in mystery. Becoming Superman lays bare the facts of his life: a story of creation and darkness, hope and success, a larger-than-life villain and a little boy who became the hero of his own life. It is also a compelling behind-the-scenes look at some of the most successful TV series and movies recognized around the world.
Joseph Michael Straczynski, known professionally as J. Michael Straczynski and informally as Joe Straczynski or JMS, is an American writer and television producer.
He works in films, television series, novels, short stories, comic books, and radio dramas. He is a playwright, a former journalist, and author of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. He was the creator and showrunner for the science fiction TV series Babylon 5 and, from 2001 to 2007, the writer for the long-running Marvel comic book series The Amazing Spider-Man.
My first 5 star read in 2021 - a rating I rarely give out. Also, I must note that all my GR friends who have read this book, have also rated this 5 stars, so take note of this one!
Now you may be wondering, prior to reading this book, was I a big fan of this author's work (he's a writer for movies/tv/comics and more)? No. In fact, I have never watched or read anything of his besides this book. So then why did I pick up this book? Honestly, I am not sure how I came across it at first but all those 5 star ratings from trusted GR friends had me adding it and I am so glad that I did!
So what is this book about? It's about the author's life story and LET ME TELL YOU, IT'S A DOOZY. There's so much dysfunction in his entire family that quite frankly I am surprised he came out a sane person, never mind someone who is successful in an industry that is hard to get into never mind stay in for several decades. His life story does of course veer into all of his work (which again, I have never read/watched), but even that was actually really interesting to me. He's not a name dropper for the sake of name dropping, but I will now not look very kindly towards Angela Lansbury (of "Murder She Wrote" fame) or George R. R. Martin (of "I will never finish Game of Thrones" fame), I'll tell you that much.
I don't want to spoil anything in this book. It's awesome. Please go read it. I also reccomend the audiobook, though the narrator is not Staczynski himself.
When Joe Straczynski talks publicly about his difficult upbringing, it's easy to insert a generic, TV-movie sort of rags-to-riches story. Only in this book does he reveal, after most of the participants have died, the depths of the awfulness of his childhood and family. It's almost certainly worse than you imagined.
The magic of "Becoming Superman," though, is that it's simultaneously horrifying and uplifting, and a great read. It helps that not only is Straczynski an accomplished writer, but that this is the story he's been training to tell for his entire life. It's funny, sad, infuriating, and inspiring--often all at once.
Beyond the horrific family secrets, there's also the story of how Straczynski built his career by ping-ponging from school plays to local newspapers to animation to live-action TV to comics to--in a surprisingly dramatic moment--feature films. By the time he collects a million-dollar check for a spec screenplay, you will be cheering--because you'll see how far he's come from his childhood in New Jersey.
The subject matter of "Becoming Superman" is difficult, but the book itself is engrossing and enjoyable. You don't need to be a fan of "Babylon 5" or "Sense8" or "The Real Ghostbusters" or "She-Ra" to enjoy this book. You just have to be an empathetic human being.
I first met Joe in 1984 when we both attended a talk by producer Dan Blatt about NBC's V series. We were both fairly terrified at his pronouncement that SF could be anything, without being grounded in, you know, science. We became friends and would run into one another at east and west coast conventions over the next few years before he blossomed into a prolific writer/producer in TV.
At one point, he expressed interest in comics which led me and/or Marv Wolfman offering him an issue of Teen Titans Spotlight, followed by my offer of an issue of Star Trek.
But I had no idea about his background so when NetGalley offered me a chance to read a galley of his autobiography I snatched it up. Somehow I missed the bits and pieces of his past he has been publically discussing since his father died in 2011 so this was all revelatory to me.
They say an author is the sum of his experiences and let me tell you, this man has endured much which goes to explain why he's such an interesting writer regardless of medium. He grew up on the move, relocating annually if not more frequently, unable to form friendships or even excel in school. His parents were dysfunctional, wth dad outright abusive to all around him. The extended family also harbored secrets, which he doles out throughout the narrative. The summation is horrifying and I pity Joe and his sisters for enduring all of this.
He goes on to explore how he became a writer despite the above and his experience as a journalist, animation and live-action television writer prior to moving into a production role. He doesn't shy away from the Baylon 5 vs. Deep Space Nine controversy or the demons that afflicted several of the B5 cast.
This is an open and honest examination of the past, with some advice for writers sprinkled throughout. I felt compelled to keep turning the page, a sign of a well-told tale. If you like anything Joe has produced, this is a worthwhile read.
J. Michael Straczynski has been on my radar ever since Babylon 5 aired. Being a writer, myself, I liked to pay attention to stories and attach them to their creators no matter what the medium was, and Joe Straczynski had quickly become a superstar for me.
Honestly, I would have just read this book for all the cool projects he had been involved with, from a large handful of He-Man and She-Ra, to the first (good) season of The Real Ghostbusters, to Babylon 5, to his writing and short acting debut within Thor (being the first man to find the hammer), to his long comic runs of Spider-Man and Superman, to even Sense8. And all of this is included, and a lot more besides. I wanted to rage, cry, and whoop for joy with Joe. I STILL can't get over the fact that he's never seen a cent out of Babylon 5.
But this book, strangely enough, is NOT really about that or any of the other projects. There's a lot of detail, sure, and it was fascinating as hell, but the real story is Joe's life.
His LIFE is ONE HELL of a STORY.
I can't even really BEGIN to tell it. But suffice to say, he has gone through some major shit. His father was a real piece of work, and just let me mention this: I've read a LOT of books and this asshole ranks up there with fictional douchebags that are written AS sensationalized assholes.
I'm frankly amazed. By any normal standards, Joe should be a broken man taking the usual route of continuing the old tragedies, but he consciously used his parents as a model of what not to do and broke a completely new trail.
My words cannot do any of this justice. Joe writes one hell of a good story about his own life and backs it up with a lot of supporting research, but the spoilers are VERY hardcore. I can't just come out and SAY them because this was not just an autobiography -- it's a THRILLER.
Suffice to say, I think this book belongs on everyone's bookshelf. It not only demands respect in and of itself, but so does the man. He is a model of perseverance at all costs. He has NOT had very good luck, no matter how self-effacing he is in his prose. He's gracious, a good man, and not only is he an utter nightmare behind a typewriter, but he's also one of the most prolific writers out there. He wrote almost every episode of Babylon 5. But most importantly, he knew how to take a beating and NEVER BACK DOWN even when the big boys in the networks or the censorship brigades demanded that he change the basic story.
He never settles for less than the story he was made to write.
Of course, this strength had to come from somewhere. He went from having Superman in the comics save him as a kid to having saved Superman as an adult. I'm telling you, this man knows how to tell a FINE story. :)
If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer.
When I review a book, I’ll highlight passages I’ll want to refer to after I complete it. By the end of chapter two of J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography Becoming Superman I had already highlighted an obscene amount of passages and notes expressing a mix of shock, incredulity, and an unhealthy amount of swearing. Similar to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Tara Westover’s Educated, the first half of Joe’s life depicts a child raised by… let’s call it unconventional means. But the similarities end there. Joe was raised by his parents and grandmother who were Polish immigrants and Nazi sympathizers. His father Charles is the pure embodiment of evil, a truly sick a vile man whose atrocities are too long to list, and he plays a central role in the story of Joe’s life. Charles is one of the most despicable humans I’ve had the displeasure of learning about, and he takes on the mantle of ‘head villain’ of Joe’s origin story. For Joe to overcome this villain and unearth his family’s various abhorrent secrets, he must rise above their absence of affection, their lack of morals, and their penchant for violence and abuse. Joe must become Superman.
The only thing more shocking than the early half of Joe’s life is what happens after. Joe’s story is one that needs to be told. How he didn’t end up dead, imprisoned, or worse is a testament to his strength of will and his determination to never compromise his values. “I swore to never settle for It’s better here, it’s safer here. I would take chances, even if that meant risking everything.” Joe’s life teetered between success and failure for decades, never being able to establish steady work more than a couple of years before it all blows up in his face. Although most of his early life was spent under constant threat of physical violence and emotional abuse, Joe never wavered from his principals, relying on the teachings of comic book heroes to guide his moral compass.
The horror stories from his childhood alone would be enough to sell plenty of books. But the fact that Joe became an iconic creator of She-Ra, an author of novels and dozens of short stories, the creator and show-runner of Babylon 5 and Sense 8, and screenwriter of Thor, Changeling, and other Hollywood films, is an incredible story on its own. It’s almost as if we’re getting two different life stories in one book. The writing is infused with humor and wisdom, with a sharp awareness that at times feels like Joe is an outside observer to his own experiences.
This book is explicitly detailed, and its many revelations are at times truly hard to believe. But the author addresses why these memoirs are so vividly recalled, especially during his early years:
There was no room for me to just be a kid, no place where I felt safe. My early memories are highly detailed because my environment was constantly changing. I became hypervigilant and self-reliant, meticulously logging everything around me and learning the rules that would allow me to adapt to wherever I was being dumped that week.
This book isn’t just Joe’s story, it’s a book about stories themselves: how they’re crafted and the process behind their creation, the massive failures, creative challenges, and the incremental successes that feel all too familiar. While I thankfully don’t share many early life experiences with Joe, there are many lessons learned that can easily be applied to any of our lives.
Becoming Superman is a valuable resource for those wishing to look behind the curtain to one of pop culture’s most cherished and esteemed writers. While at times painful and horrific, it also serves as a powerful inspiration for fighting through the very worst of situations to test your limits and realize your goals. It is an incredible story of familial abuse and its aftermath, of perseverance and fortitude, of endurance and determination. Highly recommended.
It doesn’t matter if you’re seventeen, or fifty-seven--if you come from a poor background or a rich one, if you went to the best schools or the worst. It. Doesn’t. Matter. What matters is listening to the small voice at the back of your head that says this is what gives me joy.
9.0 / 10
HarperCollins provided an ARC for review. Becoming Superman is on sale July 23, 2019.
For a journalism course in college, we were assigned an in-depth piece on a business issue. Being a fan of sci-fi pop culture, I decided to marry my love of two new series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon Five in my assignment. Both shows were in their early days (B5 was about six to seven episodes into season one) and I decided to look at the business aspects of what kept a syndicated genre series on the airwaves.
At the time, B5 creator J. Michael Stracysnki had an open dialogue with the Internet, taking us behind the scenes at the creation of his space opera. (Think DVD extras before there were DVDs). JMS (as he was called online) posted his email address in the B5 forums (ask you parents, kids) and I crafted an email to him, outlining my project and what I hoped to achieve.
I received back a reply from JMS, stating that he understood what I was doing and that he was extremely busy running his show. But he didn't want to dismiss the request of a college student and as long as the article wasn't published for anytime of gain beyond a grade and I came up with three good questions (no more), he would be happy to do what he could.
I then got to work, getting my background and drafting the article. When I got to a point that I felt like I could and should approach JMS again, I sent him three questions along with a draft of my story. A day later, he responded. But it wasn't just a few curt answers to my questions. What JMS gave me was several good, quotable paragraphs for my story (reading this autobiography and seeing that he worked for a time as a journalist makes it clear why he did this). I used the quotes, put the polishing touches on my article and turned it in.
I got an "A" on the story and I made sure to send a thank you message to JMS, letting him know that his comments had helped as had his encouragement.
I'm a writer junkie -- I tend to find and follow writers. I'm one of the few people who will read the crawl on the opening of a TV show to see who wrote a particular episode (I blame Doctor Who because the writer of a story is hugely important there). And when JMS took the time to work with me, it cemented my fandom and I've followed his career with interest ever since. I can't say I've seen or read everything he's written (I've still got to find time for Sense 8), but I've seen and read a lot.
Which is why I was eager to pick up his autobiography.
As I've come to expect from several decades of JMS' written output, Becoming Superman is compelling, page-turning and compulsively readable. And reading it, my profound respect for the man and writer JMS has become grew in leaps and bounds. The sheer amount of things he had to overcome, from his abusive, manipulative father to his family full of secrets, only enhances the respect I have for him. It also makes me understand a bit more about his generous nature and spirit (again, see the story above about my article) and his encouragement of other writers. JMS knows what it's like to serve the writing muse and that passion to the creative side comes across here.
This isn't an easy read. As JMS uncovers and relates stories about his family, there are some hard truths and struggles chronicled. But you can see a bit of the catharsis taking place as JMS tells these stories. He also points out that he tells aspiring writers that if he can do it, anyone can but then realized he hadn't provided the backstory for them to understand why.
He has now. And I thank him for a great, moving and powerful read.
The first 16 pages are unnerving; the next 12 pages will curdle your blood. And it doesn't stop. Chapter after chapter, the evil, the depravity, of the author's family (mainly his father) beggars belief.
For plenty of people, this is all they need for a five-star memoir. My Horrific Childhood could be the title of any number of popular books.
This one is different. Yes, the author wants to lay bare the details of his family history, but it is only because he wants to speak the truth. He tells his story in the most matter-of-fact way, sometimes with dry humor, completely lacking self-pity or even pathos. (It doesn't need pathos because it is awash in horror - but even the horror is not the point.)
No, the point of this book is to tell us how and why Joe Straczynski became a successful writer. Of course, part of his becoming a writer involved surviving his childhood. And then surviving Hollywood. The remarkable thing, of course, is that he survives with his integrity intact, hence the title: Becoming Superman (a title with many layers of significance in this many-layered book).
I especially appreciate Straczynski's style. So many memoirs read like fiction, a quality I despise. I distrust plot arcs in nonfiction; I find it alienating. Now, Straczynski does have a sense of dramatic tension, and to keep the story from flagging does dole out some facts more slowly than others, but the overarching quality of his writing is that of utmost honesty. His effort to be accurate as possible to historical facts and his own internal experiences lift this memoir above the rest, along with his clear goal of making meaning and creating value in his life.
This is an amazing, almost incredible tale with the strongest possible moral core. A recurring point of reflection is how bullies use victimhood narratives to justify their abuse of others, and that, moreover, the only way the real victims can survive and succeed is by casting off victimhood itself.
There's so much more to it, too. The focus on personal agency and choice in the face of unbelievable odds is certainly my favorite part, but there are also themes of emotional connection/alienation, rage, responsibility, loyalty, self-expression, and courage. And then there's all the crazy stuff, not just his horrible childhood but oh, you know, the cult, the censors, the shady dealings, the "murder, madness and mayhem" of the title. All glued together by a focus on what writing is for, the writer's craft, what Harlan Ellison called a "holy chore." And an abiding love for comic books, super heroes, and science fiction.
Wow. Just wow. Normally, a book in Goodreads with an average rating higher than 4.5 is suspicious to me. Not this one. It deserves it.
I came blind when starting this book. Oh okay, some memoir by a geeky screenwriter, I thought. Little did I know that JMS created The Real Ghostbuster (which I adored as a kid), Babylon 5, Sense8, wrote the first Thor movie, helped to lift up Marvel comics by writing Amazing Spiderman, and then finally DC with Superman, and many other geeky stuff out there. He worked with Clint Eastwood who directed Changeling which he wrote, collaborating with Harlan Ellison and many others.
But his origin story is as dark as any comics could be. Incest, murder, sexual and physical abuse, even war crime are just some of the many unsavory tales he finally decided to tell in this book. He said, I wonder with all these, I did not become a serial killer. I wondered too.
As expected from a screenwriter, he writes brilliantly. No sentences are wasted. Emotions are evoked. A clear, sober picture was painted, almost Dickensian in nature, from childhood, to a life as a struggling writer. His determination against all odds inspired me.
I just read a book about TV shows a while ago, and was pleasantly surprised to see more on the production side. I have a newfound admiration for show runners. And writers who had to fight for their stories. When you're complaining about a favorite show of yours that's suddenly changed for the worst when the writers remain the same, you're likely to have the TV execs and their consultants to thank.
The book kept me awake for nights, that's how engaging it is. Definitely my favorite to win the Hugo Award for best related work.
In this book, author J. Michael Stracyznski (JMS to his fans) tells the story of his family and his life. Starting with his grandparents, he gives us some background before telling us about his childhood under an abusive father and a distant mother. In between moving every few months to stay ahead of creditors, JMS discovered ways to escape via TV shows, comic books, and science fiction. As he discovered the power of words, he vowed to become a writer. That desire eventually lead him to a career in comic books and in Hollywood on such things as He-Man; She-Ra; The Real Ghostbusters; Babylon 5; Murder, She Wrote; Sense8; and the movies Changeling, Thor, and World War Z.
I picked up this book because I am an obsessive Babylon 5 fan. Those picking it up for lots of Hollywood behind the scenes stories will be disappoint, although we do get some in the second half. Instead, it is more a story of his family, their secrets, and how they impacted his life. At times, it is a hard read. JMS’s life for his first 20 plus years was not easy or fun. But, ultimately, this is a story of triumph as he works to overcome his baggage. It is a powerful story that proves where you start doesn’t have to be where you finish if you are willing to take responsibility for yourself, your actions, and your choices, something we need more of in our society today. I think this book will change my view of Babylon 5 the next time I watch it, something I need to do soon as I think knowing the man behind the story will make some things mean more and be even more powerful. This is not light reading, but it is powerful reading and worth the time spent in the book.
Many of the family's dirty laundry details would have been better left to the imagination. I wonder if the ex-wife Kathryn should not have been a co-author with the pages she wrote in the book. I would have liked more details about writing and the Babylon 5 show. Very disappointing that the actor and director Stephen Furst who played Vir Cotto on Babylon 5 who died in 2017 was not mentioned in this book while other actors who died were written about in this autobiography. Surprising that the author did not mention why a Babylon 5 major motion picture like I heard rumored a few years ago was not made.
If I could give J. Michael Straczynski’s Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood a million stars, I would. I’m pretty hard on the books I read so when I gush, the book has to be phenomenal. That is this book. Straczynski (hereafter JMS) has written an autobiography that exposes his dirty family secrets (even framing the biggest one as a mystery), his own fears and anxieties, his personal and career battles and does it all with humor, compassion, intelligence and is even (and I hate this word) inspiring. You do not have to be a JMS fan to love this book. But if you like a good story (even better because it’s true) with complex characters, humor, and an uplifting ending, you will like this book.
Becoming Superman proceeds in chronological order, beginning with what he was told about his family’s history and the disturbing truths he uncovers as an adult. Straczynski’s family life is horrifying. There really is no other way to describe it. Despite that, JMS presents his childhood as a series of battles to survive—and he ultimately wins the war against his early family dysfunction. This book reminds me a lot of Angela’s Ashes—really bad things happen, but the author is able to find the humor in them, rather than a “woe is me” attitude. JMS’s father moved the family around a lot to keep ahead of debts and to find new jobs, which meant he had to change schools often. When he was 10 or so, his father moved the family to Paterson, NJ and JMS attended St. Stephen’s, “home to the angriest, most dysfunctional nuns I’d ever encountered…When they weren’t teaching Catechism and Introduction to Blunt Force Trauma, the nuns at St. Stephen’s worked tirelessly to extract money from the families of their students” (53). This sets up what JMS calls the “Pagan Baby Incident.” The action of the nuns (in particular, a nun JMS refers to variously as “Sister Mary Fisticuffs,” “Sister Mary Cthulhu,” and “Sister Mary Thrombosis”—ah, fond memories of Catholic schooling) amounts to child abuse, child endangerment and probably a few other things (downright cruelty), but how JMS relates the incident is screamingly funny. Just the whole discussion (and, let’s face it, well-deserved mockery of the charity) of the Pagan Babies is hilarious.
Prior to reading this memoir, my appreciation of JMS was limited to the tv shows Babylon 5, Crusade and the movie The Changeling that starred Angelina Jolie. I had no idea of his extensive and varied career in journalism, animation, (other) live television, comics and even one horror novel. I was a huge fan of B5 when it was on the air and remain to this day still amazed by the complex characters and complicated storylines. Are a few of the episodes stinkers? Oh sure. The one ep about the man searching for the Holy Grail comes to mind. It’s terrible. And there was another one with a character thinking he was King Arthur—or maybe that’s the same (terrible) episode. But JMS (who wrote nearly every episode) managed to weave complex storylines dealing with politics and religion into the overall mythology of the show and I still consider it one of the best science fiction shows I’ve ever seen (the rebooted Battlestar Galactica is another).
It would be impossible for me to highlight everything about the book I like because, without exception, I loved everything. It’s amazing that Straczynski survived his childhood (literally—he came close to death a few times) and became a responsible citizen, much less the creative, determined and decent person he is. One coping mechanism was Superman; as a child, JMS decided to emulate the bravery and kindness of Superman and when he found himself in dangerous situations (far too often), he would say to himself: “What would Superman do?” He carried this idea to another level when he used this same sort of attitude as a shield to protect himself from his father—he would “negate” his father. Whatever that man did, JMS would do the opposite. Lie, cheat, beat his wife and kids? JMS would be the opposite. Blame everyone for your problems? JMS would own up and take responsibility for his actions. It was a defense against his father’s awfulness and it made JMS a very determined and goal-oriented person. He decided at a young age that he would be a writer and he never let anyone (he mentions the “tyranny of responsible voices”) or anything stop him. I admire this determination and also admire how he held onto his strong sense of what was right. He bowed out of many jobs over the years because he didn’t like being told to dumb down stories or cave to idiotic and hypocritical network censors. I applaud his stubbornness and sympathize with it because I suspect, had I been in his shoes, I probably would have done the same thing and damned the consequences. Crusade ended abruptly because TNT was screwing over the show and the writers and rather than write awful, sexist, and stupid plots, JMS ended the show. The right decision for the right reasons. TNT wanted some kind of cowboy-in-space type of shit and JMS told them to go to hell.
One story he mentions in the book I enjoyed particularly is his mission to save a kitten stuck in a landscaping drainage pipe by his house. JMS went to great lengths to get this kitten out (even uprooting a tree and digging up part of his lawn) and he succeeded. I love this story because it shows his compassion and also because I had heard it from him personally. At some point after the Crusade debacle, I had become a frequent visitor on a B5 fan site or chat room. I don’t remember. What I do remember is I found myself exchanging messages with JMS about the demise of Crusade and the kitten rescue. He was happy about the kitten, but slightly grumpy about how much money he had spent to save it. I was thrilled because hello, JMS was chatting with me and he saved a kitten. My last brush with (pseudo) celebrity was chatting with a special effects guy who worked on The X-Files.
Scattered throughout this memoir is advice to writers about writing. It’s not formal, as in “I will now teach you about writing,” but more like this is what he’s discovered and he’s passing it along to anyone interested in writing. His comments are more about attitude than technical advice, and anyone who writes seriously will definitely appreciate learning via his experiences. Hell, anyone experiencing setbacks and needing a pep talk will love this book. It relates a horrifying childhood, yes, but Straczynski writes with humor and style and compassion and brutal honesty and (I will repeat) as much as I hate this word, this book is inspiring.
I loved Becoming Superman. I would read it all over again right now if I could. Not only is it funny and all the other compliments I heaped on it, but it’s a page-turner. I burned through this book. I will probably read it again this year to savor it more (and laugh again over his Pagan Baby story and his own criticisms of his early writing). I highly recommend this book to fans of JMS especially, but anyone in general who enjoys good writing.
Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. And I’m also a big fan of Straczynski’s work. I was first exposed to it in an issue of Teen Titans Spotlight, but I didn't really start to take notice of it until my wife and I started watching Babylon 5 around about season 3 or so. Anyway, yes, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion I was going to like this. You have been warned.
So. This is an autobiography of J. Michael Straczynski, who’s written for movies, television, radio, comics, newspapers, and pretty much anything that will hold still long enough to be written on. Unless you're very young or incredibly isolated, you’ve almost certainly experienced something he’s done. Heard of it at the very least.
He’s certainly led an interesting life. He survived childhood abuse and crushing poverty. Honestly, there are many aspects of his childhood that made me cringe in horror. While the events of his life shaped him into the person he is today--a fine human being and a talented writer as far as I can discern from his work--I still wouldn't wish some of them on my worst enemy. It's incredible that he survived and didn't grow up to be a serial killer or an alcoholic or something (Note: I am certainly not trying to liken the two in any way except in that they are both forms of destruction; one is just inwardly focused.)
Fortunately, you get to experience the high points of his life as well as the lows. This book was compelling to the point where I almost literally couldn't put it down. It's a good thing I didn't have to work today, because I don't think I could have borne having to read only on my breaks.
“My father was a monster.” As a fan who’s seen J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) at a number of appearances, I’d heard those words and imagined the worst father I’d ever known or heard of. I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d been picturing Mr. Rogers.
Year by year, step by step, JMS describes every conscious decision he made, even while extremely young, that would form him into the man he wanted to be, not what seemed destined by family and society. Leavened with snark and humor, the book is gripping and avoids the unrelenting grimness that it might otherwise have had.
While the family secrets and the odds against JMS’ success are a major thread, never think that that’s what the book is about. The real story is about the man, his decisions, his determination and willingness to face fears and do the right thing. Whether you’re a fan of his work or never heard of him before, this is a book well worth your time.
The most meaningful autobiography I've ever read is hands down David Zindell's Splendor. Zindell's Requiem for Homo Sapiens has made me who I am more than any other book (save for The Neverending Story). Reading about the life that made David who he is was merely an extension. (Also, Splendor culminates with an epiphany. How many nonfiction books have a climax? ;))
Becoming Superman shot straight to the same stratospheric height with its first pages. Here's why:
I don't even know what to say about this. This is one of the most disturbing pieces of non-fiction I have ever read. It's also one of the most uplifting. The fact that it's true is scary. It seems unbelievable that all of it could be. Yet, enough of it is easily backed up that I'm sure it is.
Take a kid born dirt poor in Patterson, New Jersey. Take him to live in the slums of Newark. Give him an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother with mental health issues who once tried to throw him off the roof of an apartment building. Have them move him back and forth across the country so often that he's in his teens before he develops any connections outside of the family. Beat him. Tell him he's worthless and will never succeed at what he wants to do. Put him in situations where he's constantly set up to fail, where he's bullied, where he's randomly beaten nearly to death by strangers. This kid's life is a mess, right? He probably dies before he's twenty? Wrong.
Give him a fighter's will to get back up over and over. Give him a great brain. Give him a love of science fiction and superheroes, especially Superman. Give him the idea that things can be better. Put him in San Diego for High School. Give him some teachers who care about his burgeoning desire to write and create. Give him drive. Give him opportunities. Throw in a completely random opportunity to meet Rod Serling (who he recognizes but can't quite place until he's gone). Have Serling read a few of his stories and say, "Cut every third adjective, kid, and never let anyone stop you from telling the story you want to tell." Show him an article where Harlan Ellison gave his home phone number and have him cold call the famous curmudgeon. Let him challenge the kid.
When everything around him is falling down, give him a job writing for newspapers. Let him surprise people by how quickly he can deliver ANYTHING you give him to write. When that job falls apart, have him start trying to break into animation writing. Give him a taste of success. Then have him try television writing, movie scripting, comic books.
This kid who grew up in the most abusive background I've ever heard of, being taught nothing but hate, turned everything around. He wrote for "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe". With another friend, he developed "She-Ra". He went on to be the driving force behind "The Real Ghostbusters" animated show. He wrote, and then story edited for a relaunch of "The Twilight Zone", eventually finishing the script for a story idea written by the late Rod Serling. He wrote for "Jake and the Fat Man" and "Murder, She Wrote" in the 80s. He developed an idea for a science fiction show that redefined the way TV thought about science fiction, "Babylon 5," eventually writing 91 of 110 scripts, a record that no one will ever touch. He then wrote a story he'd been given while a reporter about a woman whose son was kidnapped and the cops returned her another woman's child and tried to tell her it was her son. When she reported it, they had her institutionalized. Ron Howard bought the script. Clint Eastwood directed it. Angelina Jolie starred in it. He won a BAFTA for original screenplay for it. The movie is "Changeling". Along the way, he's written for both DC and Marvel, including both Superman and Spider-Man. He relaunched "Thor" as a property that could sell for Marvel and later wrote the script for the first Thor movie. He's published novels. It goes on. He's been ridiculously successful in almost everything he did.
There's a lot of good advice in this book, mostly without him attempting to advise anyone. I love one of his last statements. Paraphrased he says that success is saying 'Yes, I can' one more time than everyone else can tell you 'No, you can't' and then capitalizing on your opportunities.
I'm so impressed by his story...it forces me to wonder what I've done with my own life...which I'm pretty happy with. This isn't an easy read...but it's one I'm not going to forget.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of autobiographies I've read. I've always viewed the form skeptically -- for reasons you can probably guess.
But this book. This book floored me. Humbled me. Made me bristle with anger. Took me to the brink of tears.
The Babylon 5 universe almost completely contains my familiarity with JMS. And I loved and still love B5. Even today, it stands at or near the top of the mountain of sci-fi series ever made in my opinion.
I know now that I read comics he wrote, watched other series he scripted, I didn't pay attention to writers. The only non-B5 thing he did I knew he wrote was Sense8, but only after I started watching. So, it was shocking to hear just how much of his work I'd enjoyed, from He-Man to Murder, She Wrote to the film adaptation of World War Z.
I was a little embarrassed to be honest. Embarrassed because I really loved B5, and so why hadn't I looked around to see what else he had done, was doing?
His success as a writer in every field he applied himself (journalism, cartoons, TV series, comics, novels, movies, and now, of course, autobiography) grows all the more shocking when you learn about his childhood. By all rights, and by his own admission, he should've ended up as the world's biggest asshole. His father was a raging alcoholic, control freak, wife-beater, child abuser, inveterate liar, cheat, racist, and a war criminal.
That JMS survived that to become not just successful, but as kind, honest, and willing to stand by his principles as anyone, speaks volumes about our ability to rise above our circumstances, be personally and professionally courageous, and pursue our passions even when circumstances stand at their most precarious -- and that sometimes life may shit on us for doing so, but sometimes it rewards us too.
I listened to the audio version of this, read by Peter Jurasik. Fans of B5 will likely recognize the name as that of the actor who played Londo Mollari, and did a damn fine job of it. He does a damn fine job reading this too. Five stars to you as well, Mr. Mollari.
Some of us might know Joseph Michael Straczynski through his work on Babylon 5. Some of us came to know him through his time on the Spider-Man and Superman comic book lines. Some might have found Joe by browsing on Netflix and finding Sense8. Some of us might even know him primarily through his always amusing and often insightful Twitter feed.
Well, unless you've read this book, you don't know Joe.
Becoming Superman is a surprisingly intimate, honest, and at times raw look back on Straczynski's life, especially his youth. Reading this book, I felt like I was afforded a peak inside the mind of a brilliant writer sometimes haunted by demons from his past. Straczynski's life story is in parts both depressing and inspiring, sometimes all at the same time. And being a master storyteller, Straczynski knows exactly how to tell his life's story to keep readers engaged.
I'm reluctant to talk too much about Straczynski's life in this review because there are details that I think need to come directly from him. That said, readers should be warned that Becoming Superman is an intense read. Straczynski did not have a stable and supporting family (to say the least!), and Becoming Superman contains detailed accounts of physical and psychological abuse.
It's become a truism to claim that life is stranger than fiction, but Straczynski's Becoming Superman certainly ranks amongst the most interesting stories he's ever told. I feel as if reading this book I've vicariously experienced both the best and worst that life has to offer. The fact that it's true only increases my admiration for the man. I'd long admired Joe Straczynski as a writer, but now I admire his perseverance and accomplishments in the face of such adversity.
Becoming Superman easily ranks as one of the most meaningful books I've read in years. Highly recommended for readers interested in any of Straczynski's work, as well as anyone interested in compelling life stories.
Becoming Superman goes on sale on July 23, 2019. I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I remember very well watching and loving Babylon 5. Apart from that I did not know much about Joe Straczynski but I was drawn to this biography simply because of his last name. Unfortunately it turned out that his father and grandfather aren't anything to be proud of. It's a kind of miracle that Straczynski survived his horrific early life. If you want an example and a motivational story of how to never give up, he is your man. All the readers concentrated on this part of his story rightly so but while I like him and admire him for his obvious tenacity, I also love his brilliance and a great sense of humour, his ability to write about the events of his life with irony and to poke fun at people and happenings. Thanks to his description of his experience with the tv networks and their bosses I now understand why I never like watching tv and was generally put off by majority of the programming save for an occasional exception. He confirmed for me that the networks have been run by the unintelligent but cunning and conniving kind of people for the equally unintelligent audiences. Every single idea of his was detrimentally interfered with to the point that he had to make a stand repeatedly walking away from toxic environments. And yet he managed to bring to life so many great programs and write great comics and graphic books to the delight of his appreciative audiences. The part about sending an article dealing with the network censors to the Penthouse magazine was very funny indeed. The book is a real page turner, I could not put it down and I am now happily recommending it to everybody. We live in the times that need Joe Straczynskis, as a movie director Agnieszka Holland mentioned in a recent conference somewhere in Poland, the most evil characters stepping out of the tv screens into reality took us all by surprise and "without utopias we have no chance". Please keep imagining those better worlds for us Joe.
This is an astonishing book. Words I have not used lightly. Important to understand what this is though, although JMS has been involved in some big things, journalism, radio, Babylon 5, The Real Ghostbusters, Spiderman and Superman comics and Hollywood blockbusters, this is more about his individual journey. Yes it does obviously give interesting information about those things, don’t buy this as a fan, but this to read an extraordinary glimpse of the man. I will struggle to do justice to this book, but this is an auto-biography of JMS, from the immigrant family he was born into, his abusive father and how his life events shaped him into the person he is today, warts and all. Although I don’t think he has warts. Anyway. Dark family secrets and a pretty abysmal youth are unravelled, and there were a few chapters I ended up thinking “hang on, did I read that right?”. Jaw dropping moments indeed. Eventually he gets into journalism and from that into TV writing and show running, all the time letting his core values and a desire to be the opposite of his father driving many of his (brave) career choices. And the quality and range of his work is astonishing. I remember when he was doing Babylon 5 (writing and running the show) he was still regularly interacting with the fans on-line to discuss the show, drop hints and teasers and making the fans truly feel part of something. I met him a few times at conventions (yeah, I know) and he was always inclusive of the fan base into his work, he understood what a crucial part of what he was doing was integrity and inclusiveness. He is a talented writer and you can see how he uses his skills to make this book stand out. Utterly captivating read.
It's rare and wonderful to read a book that makes you want to grab everyone you know by the lapels and say, "You have to read this."
JMS is always a good writer, but his honesty and openness, his choices of what he says and how, are perfect here. His story in itself would be an engrossing read, but I also loved getting snippets of what had gone into the various twists and turns in his career writing so many shows, movies, and comics I've enjoyed at different periods in my life, from The Real Ghostbusters to Murder, She Wrote to Babylon 5 to Spiderman to Sense8, to name just a few.
More than that, as someone who writes for the love of it but struggles to get that work out into the world, it was incredibly heartening to see JMS's evolution as a working writer and how he navigated obstacles that have stalled so many in their tracks.
And finally, as someone who tries to surround myself with good people who work hard to make the world better, it was moving for me to read about his refusal to be defined by his history or circumstances, his insistence that it's our choices that ultimately make us who we are, and his determination to be a good man.
Look, Babylon 5 is my favorite show of all time, so I didn’t exactly go into J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography unbiased. But this book really isn’t about the shows and movies and comics, and I got a lot less of that than I thought I wanted. Instead what I got was what the cover promised: the story of a man who triumphed over what seem like impossible odds, just by doing many of the things I did as a kid - reading comics, looking for Hugo-awarded novels to read, dreaming of being a superhero - in the midst of a lot of things I never had to deal with - violence and horror and bigotry and a severe lack of love.
Actually, I take back what I said above. This IS about the works JMS created, but instead of the behind-the-scenes drama I thought I wanted, I got a deep explanation of the thing that attracted me to his best works: a deep sense of conviction and kindness and deep thought and moral strength that has never stopped trying to make the world a better place. I never knew why he wrote that way, and I never knew I wanted an explanation. Becoming Superman gave me the best explanation I could ever imagine.
This book is really good, an autobiography about someone whose work I knew, but not his personal history.
Straczynski digs deep into both, discussing everything from his work on some of my favorite TV shows, Real Ghostbusters, He-Man, and his creation, Babylon 5.
He details his comic book work, including writing the issue of Spider-Man where the Marvel heroes (and villains) reacted to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
JMS gets to all that, but first, he discusses how he rose from poverty and survived a rotten childhood, and how he dealt with horrible family secrets that he didn't find out about until he was an adult.
His recollections of frankly awful things are stark and bleak, and his rise beyond them is pretty inspiring.
The book is equal parts personal stuff and professional stuff. I came away with a desire to binge-watch Real Ghostbusters, which is an admirable goal for anyone.
Its like I have to say one bad thing - one criticism. But but. I just met a reason on not only why I started writing but why I should keep writing. This is just a quick review but I have so many things to explain and put my into words.
Its not his struggle to be this amazing writer that won my heart but the way he talks about writing. Grand and extravagant love affair.
If you wrote once upon a time and decided to stop writing for one reason or another, yes, you’ve got the idea—read Becoming Superman.
It’s the story of a guy who went from utter poverty in New Jersey—and from a positively horrendous, abusive family upbringing—to a guy who wrote the pioneering sci-fi series Babylon 5, movies directed by Clint Eastwood, comic books, plays, graphic novels, novels, short fiction ... and who also produced and directed television shows for the small screen and major motion pictures for the big one.
“The Changeling.” “World War Z.” “Sense8.” “The Amazing Spider Man” for Marvel Comics. “Superman” for DC Comics. (To name a few.) Bram Stoker Award. Huge Award. BAFTA Award. That guy.
The subtitle of Becoming Superman 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 that subtitle just begins to cover the many stops and interwoven threads of Straczynski’s inspiring story. The writing bug started when he had access to the Scholastic TAB series supplied through the Catholic Church. Swiping change from his father’s dresser, Straczynski bought the cheap books and discovered “something magical” about the reading process.
“I was stunned to realize it was possible to make up things that had never happened but which felt as if they’d happened. The church had tried to convince me that there was only truth and falsehood and nothing in between, but the nuns and priests were wrong; the story in front of me was false, but in the reading of it my heart accepted it as true. I turned over the book to reveal the writer’s name. I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the names on book covers, but by god somebody sat down and wrote that story.”
And thus begins a long, long journey of learning. Of trying. Of practicing. Even the opportunity to learn how to type—in high school—fit with the plan of becoming a writer. Straczynski took the course. Seriously. The number of stops, weigh stations, tests, knockdowns (literal and figurative) are too many to count. Breaks are few. The world’s message to Straczynski was simple—give up now—even as his deeply troubled family bounced around the country.
Think he might be overstating anything? Poke around a bit online for other reviews of the book from those who knew Joe in his youth; if anything, apparently, Joe understated the brutality of his upbringing. It’s harrowing and occasionally quite violent stuff. Straczynski’s father was a booze-fueled drunk who was prone to beating young Joe. His grandfather was a con man. His mother was institutionalized more than once. On and on.
Interwoven throughout Becoming Superman is the story of Straczynski sorting truth from fiction in his family’s past, including a monster secret involving Nazis. The conclusion of this story thread is as gripping as anything else in the book. Straczynski’s research into his family’s history—and his father’s “twisted pathology”—could have been a riveting memoir all on its own. Raised by a guy who took responsibility for none of his own actions, it’s remarkable that Straczynski grew up to a be a guy who held himself accountable over and over for his own failures—and overcame them each time and continued to move up the ladder of success.
Becoming Superman, appropriately titled for a host of reasons, takes a warts-and-all approach. Straczynski takes a hard look in the mirror. He knew he developed a reputation for being difficult guy to work with, yet it’s hard not to begrudge him his standards and it’s impossible not admire his ability to hop from project to project, genre to genre, and medium to medium.
It’s determination. “I believe that if we love something and have even an inch of aptitude, we can become successful at it because our love for the work will sustain us through the hard times required to get good enough at it to earn a living. It may not be the best possible living, you may not be able to afford a yacht, and from time to time you may find yourself teetering at the edge of the abyss, but wouldn’t you rather make a thin living doing what you love than a slightly better living doing something you hate?”
Think you have a hard time finding a half-hour to work on your novel? Think you’re not in the mood? The lighting isn’t quite right? You’re not feeling it? You need the perfect condition and X number of free hours to even think about writing?
Not always an easy read -- there is a lot of dark and terrible things in Straczynski's life -- but an absolutely compelling read. I did not want to put this down. (These original reading dates say it took me almost a month; in reality, it was more like two or three days, just separated by several weeks of classwork.)
I personally became aware of Straczynski because of Babylon 5, which is obviously discussed, but not particularly in-depth. I suspect this is because he covered it all quite thoroughly in his 15-volume scripts collection. So if you're looking to find out all the nuances of making that show, you won't find that in Becoming Superman. What you will find is the source of that show's belief in the power of individuals to change themselves and the world around them and the sense of hope in the future.