Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Becoming Superman is both a gruesome and mundane portrait of the creator of Babylon 5

Graphic: Natalie Peeples

You likely know the work, though you might not know the name: J. Michael Straczynski. A writer for hire in the truest sense, Straczynski, or Joe to his friends and JMS to his fans, can seemingly write anything. Maybe you grew up on his cartoons he scripted: He-Man, She-Ra, The Real Ghostbusters. Or the television shows he created: Babylon 5, all its spinoff sequels and movies, and, more recently, Sense8. Or the films: Changeling, Thor, World War Z, Ninja Assassin. And the comics—over 13 million issues sold—for Marvel (including his instantly legendary response to 9/11 in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man), DC (most notably the Superman: Earth One series), and his own Joe’s Comics line.

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With so many projects and publications floating out there in the multiverse—including novels, short fiction, and blog posts—it’s difficult to pinpoint a Straczynski style. In Becoming Superman, he adds another title to his rambling oeuvre: memoirist. Here, in the book’s second half, he details the ins and outs, pitch meetings, rejections, and successes of the writerly life, or, as the subtitle states, his Journey From Poverty To Hollywood. None of which makes for particularly interesting storytelling, unless you’ve been itching to know why he abandoned a co-producing gig on the formulaic crime drama Murder, She Wrote after two seasons.

But then there’s the first 200 or so pages, a gruesome portrait of this Average Joe artist as a young man. Here, Straczynski’s memoir more than lives up to the promises of its sub-subtitle: “With Stops Along The Way At Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, And War Crimes.” Even Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher couldn’t dream up a family saga this violent, this ghastly, a litany of traumas he endured: incest, rape, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.

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Most of this misery was doled out by his father, the ne plus ultra of bad dads. Charles Straczynski was a Nazi Youth who never spiritually left the party. A likely war criminal who took part in the massacre of the Jewish community at Vishnevo, Ukraine. And a man who forces his son to wear his old Nazi uniform, murders his pet cats, and shreds the comic book collection that provided little Joe with solace and, to paraphrase his favorite childhood superhero, a sense of truth, justice, and a better way out of the situation he was born into.

If there’s a Straczynski style it might be located here, in his idealization of that Kryptonian-turned-American torchbearer of light and hope and peace. Joe never saves the world à la Superman, but pulls through with a heart, spine, and soul of steel. If only that were enough to recommend Becoming Superman, a read suitable for Straczynski superfans only, wherever in this marvelous multiverse they may be.

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About the author

Rien Fertel

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Rien is the author of three books, most recently, Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera.