REFLECTIONS: J. Michael Straczynski, Part II

Tue, July 1st, 2008 at 3:31pm PDT | Updated: October 30th, 2008 at 12:11pm

Comic Books
Robert Taylor, Staff Writer

Also by J. Michael Straczynski, "The Twelve," volume 1 hardcover on sale in September
If J.M. Straczynski waxing lyrical last week on “Thor,” “One More Day” and his many film projects wasn’t enough, the writer returns to REFLECTIONS for Part II of this in-depth interview.

This week, Straczynski talks about his Marvel Comics maxiseries “The Twelve,” which takes twelve overlooked superheroes from Marvel’s distant past as Timely Comics and throws them into the middle of a mystery involving murder, Nazis, and suspended animation.

Straczynski also discusses with us his decision to not renew his exclusive contract with Marvel and begin working for DC Comics with a run on “The Brave and the Bold” that launches in November. There’s also talk of Superman and his marriage to Lois Lane, and why Straczynski literally tackled a thief in front of a Superman cardboard stand-up.

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Tell us about the origins of “The Twelve” and your decision to center the miniseries on such a huge cast.

I knew that I wanted to have twelve characters and draw them equally from three different camps: traditional superheroes, supernatural characters and those who had no powers. I wanted to mix them all together, wrap them around a mystery and see what came out on the other side. Having established the murder in the first issue, the next issues set up the conditions that led to that and the backgrounds of the characters and who may have done it before finally taking it into the larger story that happens as a result of that.

"The Twelve" #1-2

I love playing with that period of time. Yes, there were a lot of positives about that time. We were one country that was united and optimistic, but it was also an age of prejudice, sexism and a lot of other problems endemic to our culture at the time.

I wanted to take a look at the present as well and show that it isn’t so hot either. We’ve got our iPhones, gadgets, gizmos and other cool things. But we have lost that sense of unity and being one nation. Prior to the Civil War, politicians always said “These United States.” After the Civil War it became “The United States.” We’ve kind of gone back to “These United States.” It’s conservatives verses liberals verses independents. We’ve been marginalized, factionalized and tribalized to within an inch of our lives, and the sense of being part of one nation has gone away. I’m trying to point to that as well to the past and using these characters as the fulcrum. Here’s what we’ve gained. Here’s what we’ve lost.

I don’t like doing stories about things blowing up. It has to have more to it, and a moral and ethical core that asks questions or points to something.

Let’s talk about your burgeoning working relationship with DC Comics and starting "The Brave and the Bold" in November.

I had been minimizing my work over at Marvel over the past year or so because I was thinking about not being exclusive anymore. I let my exclusive contract with Marvel expire and waited almost a year and a half before I announced I was no longer exclusive.

When the time was right to make the announcement I was available, a lot of people began to knock on the door. One of them was DC and I met with the folks over there; they are a really friendly bunch. I told them I wanted something that was not directly tied to continuity and could be done in one or two-issue stories. They said, “What about ‘The Brave and the Bold’?” It’s not one of their major titles, but I’m totally cool with that and prefer it because it gives me the flexibility and freedom to do what I want to do. I can do past, present future, in-continuity, out-of-continuity -- that is the coolest part of the whole thing.

"The Twelve" #3-4

How are you planning which characters will team up in a given issue? Darts at a dartboard?

I remember reading “Brave and the Bold” as a kid and always looking forward to seeing who they were going to pair up next. The oddness of the pairings intrigued me. “What’s HE doing with HIM (or HER?)” It’s hard to find pairings that have not been seen before, and I’m trying to find those pairings and explore the fun of that. In other ones, I’d like to take big-staple DC characters and put them in unique situations.

The first issue is Batman and The Spectre. In another one, we are doing The Joker and The Atom.

Ray Palmer or the current Atom?

Ray Palmer. Legion of Superheroes and The Doom Patrol. Superman and Sgt. Rock. Batman and The Haunted Tank. The Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Inferior Five. Two-Face and Hawk/Dove. It should be fun.

Are there any pairings you don’t think you will ever do?

I had wanted to do Lex Luthor and Swamp Thing but apparently they can’t pry Swamp Thing out of Vertigo. That would have been a hoot, though.

You’re working with Jesus Saiz on the book.

DC recommended several different artists, and he brought a lot of emotion to the work and characters. It’s a very clean style and I wanted that clean, classy kind of look to it. His style was reminiscent of Curt Swan to me in some ways, and I consider that Superman the definitive Superman. I have massive amounts of original Curt Swan artwork. My house looks like it was decorated by a 14-year-old with a Platinum American Express Card.

"The Twelve" #5-6

What was your first piece of Curt Swan artwork?

It was a two-page splash of showing Superman and Supergirl bringing back Kandor to full size. It cost a lot, more than I could afford back then.

I was at a comic con years ago in the dealer’s room. I’ve had plenty of weird adventures in dealer’s rooms. One time, at Chicago Comic Con, I heard someone shout “Stop him! Stop him!” and saw a guy running down the aisle in my direction. The crowd split like the red sea and I helped tackle him, holding him down for the cops. At one point the organizer came over to the shoplifter and told him the guy from “Babylon 5” just tackled him. Suffice to say his reply is unprintable. After they’d hauled the guy off, he asked me why I did it when I could have been hurt. I pointed to this huge cut-out of the Curt Swan Superman, which was where I had been standing, and I said, “How could I have been standing in front of that and done nothing?”

What appeals to you about the character of Superman?

There is a personal connection to the character for me. Growing up, I identified with the character the most. One of my earliest memories is of seeing the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. I come from a hard-knocks beginning -- moving every six months, low income, an urban street rat. When I said I wanted to be a writer, my folks laughed because I was just this nobody from Jersey. But Superman could do anything he wanted to do, and he could fly away from where he was. For me, he became an icon that I clung to for many years, and now I have a huge collection of Superman stuff.

My sense of morality and ethics came from the Superman comic books. I maintain those ethics to this day. You treat people decently, big and small. And you come to the rescue when there’s a chance. Two or three years ago, there was a high school in Hawthorne, New Jersey that was losing their financing for their arts program. Kids were scavenging in dumpsters for wire and hangers to use for art and sculpture. I heard they were going to run a little, tiny convention at the high school to try to get the arts program back. I heard about them, went down there directly, made some calls including to Joe Quesada and next thing you knew Marvel was involved, DC got involved, there were big-name guests and auctions for heavy duty art. It became a huge thing.

"The Twelve" #7

It was the right thing to do. That’s what Superman taught me.

Over your career you’ve fielded a lot of questions about the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane. How do you feel about the marriage of Clark and Lois?

I’m cool with it. I can see the value of him being on his own and the value of him being married.

People tend to get really caught up in this whole thing, and I never saw a problem on either side. I was perfectly happy writing Peter and Mary Jane as a married couple. But in the end, it’s not my character. When you are handed someone like Superman, Spider-Man or Batman, you treat it like a sacred trust. Your obligation is not to break it. If the character is married, you have to respect that. When you are a writer on a television show, and two characters are married, you can’t write an episode as if they are single. You have to respect the characters. You can create cool stories to write in either venue.

There are ten thousand stories you can’t do with Peter Parker married. But there are ten thousand other stories you can’t do with Peter Parker single. Having said that, if you take those stories out, there are still an infinite number of stories. Infinity minus ten thousand is still infinity. It comes down to matters of personal taste.

Lightning round time. What was your first comic book?

It’s a stupid answer. As a tiny kid, I had seen comics, but had not had the money to buy or read them. At one point we were moving across country and stopped at a gas station in the middle of the Nevada desert. The guy who ran the gas station saw three bored, pissed off kids with nothing to do, felt sorry for us, and gave us some comics. My first comic out of the bag was an issue of “Jughead.”

I do apologize to anyone who is a fan.

"Thor" by J. Michael Straczynski, Vol. 1 trade paperback on sale July 30

What is your biggest strength as a writer?

Probably character. I have this belief that special effects and explosions and high tech stuff is all great, but in the end, it’s just chrome. We may not remember everything about whaling technology, but we remember Ishmael, we remember Ahab.

I try to drop anchor into my characters and ask questions that no one has really asked about them before. People complain about Superman’s invulnerability, how do you write for someone who can’t be hurt? Well, it’s true that you can’t pierce his skin but you can pierce his heart. That is why I think Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is the greatest Superman story ever told. He pierced Superman’s heart.

If I bring anything at all to the table as a writer, it’s that try to I ask new or at least interesting questions about the character and who he is.

What is your biggest weakness as a writer?

Everything else. [laughs] My plots tend to be very straightforward, and I need to work on more complicated plots. I need to work on bringing more action to the story. I have a horrible time breaking down action panel-to-panel, because the logistics of writing action panel-to-panel can become quite tedious:

PANEL ONE: A hits B. PANEL TWO: B hits A.

I don’t enjoy writing action, but I love writing characters. Still, I need to work on this.

If you were writing a yearlong weekly comic book series with three other writers, who would they be?

It wouldn’t matter because they would be dead. [laughs] I don’t tend to work well with other writers in partnership. I’m cranky and I like to do my own thing. But if I had to answer the question, my dream team to work with would Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. I don’t know what we’d write, but I can be reasonably sure that upon it being read, people would actually begin to levitate.

How are you liking “Final Crisis?”

Also by J. Michael Straczynski, "The Amazing Spider-Man: One More Day"

Crossovers tend to be a bit iffy, but I did enjoy it. Looking toward a more consolidated universe is a great objective that I think will be good in the long run.

If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?

“Superman.”

And who would be your artist?

Curt Swan or Dave Gibbons.

What is the best comic book movie ever made?

“Superman: The Movie.” Without question, for the purity of intent and the purity of purpose, to the fact that it really got the character. There are a few parts where it doesn’t age well and the campiness shows through, but putting that aside, it is the best one ever made.

If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

It wouldn’t be for a book, TV project, or film. It would be for trying.

At conventions and seminars and speeches, I hear from people who want to do something with their lives. They want to be an artist. And then they chicken out. They listen to the tyranny of reasonable voices, and those want only to help to protect them from failure, and therefore do not try, which is the worst possible kind of failure.

I’ve always been one to embrace the possibility of failure. I’ve succeeded tremendously and I have failed breathtakingly at times. But I’ve tried.

If there is any message implicit in this conversation to those reading, it is to try. You don’t want to be 90 and look back at your life as a catalogue of missed opportunities. If you try and fail, at least you took your shot. I’ve always felt all the way down to my socks that if you believe in something and you’re passion about it and at least try, the odds are that you are going to make a living at it. And it will work more than it doesn’t. Take a chance. Risk Something.

I follow my passions and my dreams, and I try. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I succeed. But either way, it’s a hell of a ride and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

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TAGS:  j.michael straczynski, reflections, the twelve, the brave and the bold, one more day

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