Thursday, August 8, 2019

Book Review: Becoming Superman by J. Michael Straczynski

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Powerful, challenging true story
Cons: Not easy to read at times
The Bottom Line:
A writer’s story
Filled with pain, triumph, and hope
Hard at times; worth it

Leaving Behind a Past of Kryptonite

When I’m asked what my favorite TV show of all time is, without hesitation I answer Babylon 5.  This 1990’s science fiction show has a very loyal following, and thanks to some friends I am part of it.  It has complex characters, and was doing story arcs before they were the thing to do on TV.  But this isn’t a review of the show.  Instead, it explains why I picked up Becoming Superman, the autobiography of J. Michael Stracyznski, the creator of the show.

In this book, Mr. Stracyznski (JMS to his fans) tells his story, but also tells the story of his family.  He actually starts with the marriage of his grandparents, hints at some events with his father to be fully explored later, and then talks about how his parents met before he even comes on the scene.  Then he tells his story.

And it is not a pleasant story.  Instead, it is a story about abuse from a father who wanted everyone outside the family to think he was the perfect husband and father despite his physical, emotion, and psychological abuse.  It is a story about a mother who didn’t seem capable of love.  It is a story about a family always on the move, one step ahead of the creditors.

It is also the story of a boy looking for any way to escape from his circumstances, who finds that in TV shows, then comic books, and finally in science fiction.  It is a story of a boy who decides to become a writer to move people the way the written word moves him and sets out to learn everything he can about the craft so he can fulfill his dream.

Spoiler alert: He does.  That’s really no surprise since I’ve already talked about coming to the book because of my love of one of JMS’s works.

However, the journey there is painful.  I hesitate to say I enjoyed this book because the story is so raw.  While I’m sure there are more stories JMS could tell to make his point, I’m glad he didn’t.  What is here is horrid enough.  Having come from a loving family, I can’t imagine people treating each other the way his family treated each other.

Ultimately, this book is a story of triumph, however, as JMS sets out to overcome his family history and carves a successful career for himself in Hollywood and comic books.  While I know him best for Babylon 5, he has had quite a varied career, including time spent on He-Man and the Master of the Universe; She-Ra: Princess of Power; The Twilight Zone reboot; The Real Ghostbusters; Murder, She Wrote (yes, this is something else of his I am familiar with, obviously); Jeremiah; Sense8 all on TV.  His comic book stories have covered everything from Spider-Man and Thor to Superman.  And he’s written some big movies, including Changeling, starring Angelia Jolie and directed by Clint Eastwood, the original Thor movie, and World War Z.  So odds are you are familiar with something he has done.  I found some of the stories about his work in Hollywood fun to read from his perspective since I remember the controversies he is talking about from the other side of the screen.

The book isn’t all about his family since he spends plenty of time talking about his years writing in Hollywood.  Personally, I would have enjoyed more stories about Babylon 5, although I doubt there is much new to learn at this point.  (I’m a bit Babylon 5 obsessed.)  Heck, I would have read a book this long about nothing but behind the scenes stories on the show even if I already knew them.

He sets up several mysteries about his family that he then teases bits and pieces of information about throughout the book.  We are fairly certain of the outcome by the time the secrets are revealed, but that’s okay because that isn’t the point of the book.

The point, really, is one of encouragement.  JMS is saying, “If I can do it, you can, too.”  He talks a couple of times about the importance of making your own choices and leaving your past behind you.  And I can’t think of anyone else who can better speak to the ability of a person to turn their back on their past and choose to be a better person.  It’s a powerful story and message in this day and age where so many people are willing to be victims.  If anyone could have spent his life wallowing in victimhood, it’s JMS.  And yet, he made himself into a very successful man instead.

No, he hasn’t overcome all of the damage of his upbringing.  I’m not saying anything he wouldn’t say himself, I’m sure, as he is quite clear on things he still struggles with.  But recognizing your flaws and working to overcome them is a huge step in moving forward with your life.  And, as humans, we are always growing.  We will never arrive at perfection in this life.

I have watched Babylon 5 quite a few times over the years (told you I’m obsessed), and I’m due for another rewatch.  I found some of the stories from the entire book interesting as various episodes and moments flashed into my mind.  I am sure, knowing JMS’s full story now, I will find other moments that mean something different to me.  The fact that someone with his past can write a story filled with as much hope as the series has amazing to me.  It shows the triumph of the human spirit.

And the title?  It is a perfect metaphor for just what JMS is trying to say and how he has led his life.

Becoming Superman is not light reading.  But it is powerful reading and worth the time spent in the book.

1 comment:

  1. This book must be read, no matter how horrific and painful it is. A man went through a hellish childhood yet made the decision to rise above it and follow his dreams of becoming a writer of science fiction and fantasy. He did not let his past pain control and dominate him and that is such an important lesson to be learned, And, Yes, now that I know his story, I do see it all over Babylon 5!


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