This year's Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo was a big event for J. Michael Straczynski's new producing venture Studio JMS, with the launch of "Ten Grand," their first comic. On Saturday, Straczynski took to the stage to discuss one-on-one with fans what sets Studio JMS apart from other companies, his work in television, and his past and future projects.
The panel began with an introduction by Studio JMS C.E.O. Patricia Tallman. "I just want to say," she began, "that Joe saved my life. This is not unusual for Joe. This is what he does. You know this if you've read his books. All his heroes are aspects of himself. He doesn't see it that way – he sees them as aspects of what he wants to be…but he is truly wonderful."
Straczynski then took to the stage. "Now I have to counteract the seriousness of that," he said to laughter. He then launched into an anecdote about an incident in a shopping mall, where a busied mom asked him to watch after her stroller while she and her child shopped. Realizing he was left to his own device, Straczynski positioned himself between the stroller and a group of other shopping mothers. Then he pretended to violently chastise an imaginary child in the stroller, causing the women to freak out.
The panel began in earnest with an overview of Studio JMS. The outfit has fingers in television, film and comics, with projects at various stages in development. "Sense8," a 10-episode Netflix series co-created with the Wachowskis, has been officially picked up. "The Flickering Light," a film about a Nazi propagandist, will film later this year with a projected 2014 release date. The film is based on the true story of Leni Riefenstahl, who used concentration camp prisoners in her film; as shooting progressed, the film became their reality and the camps, their nightmare. Finally, Straczynski has partnered with Image to release several comic series. "Ten Grand," illustrated by Ben Templesmith, will be released on May 1. The first issue sold 67,218 copies in pre-orders, a considerable number for an independent debut.
Straczynski invited the fans up to ask questions. "Keep all silly, smart questions to yourself!" he joked, "This panel is great for me. The fun for me is that I still spend all my days in a locked room with a cat and a keyboard, and the cat has the keyboard most of the time, and I don't get to interact with people often. This panel is the next best thing!"
The first question had to do with "Midnight Nation," and whether the early 2000's comic series would ever make it to the screen.
"Every year or so someone is at my door asking to option it, but I never let properties be optioned," Straczynski said. "I want it done right." He added that certain studios have asked for the option but demanded massive changes. "One studio, MGM, came to me and asked if we could cut the journey across the country. That's the whole story!" He suggested that "Midnight Nation" may one day be a Studio JMS project.
The fan then asked if he was interested in Gary Frank again, to which Straczynski replied he would love to once Frank is out of his DC Comics contract.
Kickstarter was the next matter of discussion. Straczynski said he isn't as interested in using Kickstarter to finance his projects. He sees Kickstarter as a way for fans to finance up-and-comers, and that he doesn't think established creators should use Kickstarter as a way of removing risk from their future projects.
Next was a question about his autobiography. "I've gotten requests, I've written my autobiography – words that will drive terror into the hearts of many across the country…I'm about 800 pages in. It needs an edit, but it's basically done. I need to add a Studio JMS chapter, because that came afterwards." Straczynski went into detail about one aspect of his childhood to be covered in the autobiography, involving his family's nomadic lifestyle. "I moved, and everything changed but the libraries. I'd be on page 18 of a Ray Bradbury novel in one town, and resume it in the next town."
Discussion turned to "Babylon 5." One fan asked if there was a chance of the series returning in comic form. "At this juncture, no plans," Straczynski said. "The problem in terms of Warner Bros…is that they have the TV rights and we have the film rights. They can't make new shows until they have the film rights, and we can't do film without the TV rights."
Studio JMS is currently locked in negotiations with Warner Bros. to take back the property, perhaps by giving the corporation a portion of the profits. There isn't anything concrete at the moment, he said, but negotiations continue.
When asked if the negotiations extended to the B5 spin-off "Crusades," Straczynski said he didn't think there was as much interest. He said he's still reeling from the studio's treatment of the property.
One fan asked about the character of Lorien in "Babylon 5," and if his quote "impertinent questions lead to pertinent answers" was something Straczynski personally believed.
"I forgot that was in there. That's what I believe. People need to be unafraid of impertinent questions or acting in impertinent ways," Straczynski said.
He then launched into an anecdote about a studio meeting we has once involved in, with a vice president and his "yes men." Straczynski listened as the VP rattled off a list of high-level studio positions he had held. When the VP was done, Straczynski asked, "So what you're telling me is, you can't hold a job?" The VP laughed while his yes men turned bone white.
Straczynski's tenure on Spider-Man came into the spotlight, with a fan asking about his approach to Captain America during the "Civil War" tie-ins.
"When the world tells you to move, you say, 'No, you move.' At the time I wrote it, Cap was going to surrender to the mob and let them tell him he was wrong. I said, 'No, this guy has lived with his believes since '42. He wouldn't turn his back on his beliefs.' So I put it in my book, and in the end they changed their minds and had him get shot. But I wanted it to record that he'd never give up to a bunch of people in a mob," Straczynski said.
Another fan asked about his experience writing the controversial "One More Day" story arc. Straczynski pointed out that he had no personal problems with anyone at Marvel, but was forced to write a story he didn't believe in due to editorial mandates. "That was hard for me, because it undid my entire run," Straczynski said.
Moving on to his acclaimed run on "Thor," Straczynski discussed how it was a property no one wanted to touch, including Neil Gaiman. When he took on the book, he chose to focus on character.
"I enjoyed the hell out of writing 'Thor'…when I did it, it was top 10 every month. It was all character stuff, less action than emotion….then they did 'Siege of Asgard' and undid my entire run!" Straczynski said with a sigh. "I called up [Marvel Publisher Dan] Buckley at Marvel and said I couldn't do it anymore. I'd finished up but couldn't go through with 'Siege.' I love Marvel and the people over there, but the editorial mandate made me batshit."
Turning back to 'Babylon 5,' a fan asked if he'd gotten to say everything he wanted to say. "If I said everything I wanted to say about the future of humanity in that series, I'd still be writing it. You put things on the shelf: this is who I am, and how I see the world now. If I was writing B5 now, I'd have a different set of statements to make…I'm in no way finished, I have more things to say, probably equally inaccurate as B5 was."
Several fans asked Straczynski for suggestions on how to break into the entertainment industry. He related his personal experience, which he described more as sneaking in than breaking in. He had been a reporter for many years, before moral concerns caused him to leave that industry. After six months of small work, he decided to try his hand at writing animation and landed a job on the "He-Man, Masters of the Universe" cartoon. He remained on the staff of one show or another until 2002.
In a nutshell, he followed what he liked. But he made sure to note that the current industry is much more competitive than it was when he broke in, and that "throw your work out there" may not cut it in this day and age. He suggested schooling on writing prose.
One fan came to the front to thank him for his work on "Superman: Earth One," and to ask when the third volume was going to be released. Straczynski said it is in the works and that he's aiming for a Spring 2014 release date, which lines up to unannounced DC publishing plans.
The next fan came to the front with an old issue of "Star Trek" written by Straczynski, and asked if he would ever return to that universe. "I would love to," Straczynski replied, "I would absolutely love to."
"Rising Stars," a series from the mid-2000's that experienced artistic difficulties, is "done," said Straczynski. He would rather do all-new stuff and break new ground, rather than fertilizing old material.
The last question skewed political, as a fan asked Straczynski if he sees themes in "Babylon 5" becoming reality. "I'm sad to see a lot of what we did in B5 becoming more prophecy than fiction," Straczynski said. "With guns in particular, you don't need guns to protect you from the government, you need laws. Laws are there to say, 'Before jail, we have to show that you violated the law and that we have evidence that you violated that law…you take those things out, the rest of it goes away.' So I'm concerned about that process. I wish I wasn't as right as I was going to be. So yeah. I feel bad about it."