Detectives Joe Thursday and Frank Stafford are Dream Police, dedicated to protecting and defending the Dreamscape, the place where our subconscious minds go when we sleep. They have always been there, keeping watch over the makers of our dreams, reining in the troublemakers and generally working the dream-beat. Everything is status quo, until Frank goes missing. In his place is Thursday's partner, Katie Black -- except, somehow, she's always been his partner, too. Now, Joe must unravel what he knows to be real from the reality presented to him and discover what his actual role in his world is. Inspired by shows like "Dragnet" and "Adam 12," "Dream Police" puts a psychedelic spin on cop noir with the characteristically deep storytelling J. Michael Stracyznski is known for.
With issue #1 premiering last week from Image Comics, Straczynski spoke with CBR News about re-launching the title under his Joe's Comics imprint nearly ten years removed from its original Marvel-published one-shot, and what artist Sid Kotian brings to the story. We also spend some time discussing the current state of his Netflix original series, "Sense8," which he refers to as "the single biggest project" of his career.
CBR News: In 2005, you released the "Dream Police" one-shot with Mike Deodato, and now the title has returned -- is this restarting the series, or starting fresh with the same characters?
J. Michael Straczynski: The thing about the new push is that it's independent of, but complementary to, the Icon issue, which as you say was primarily a one-shot, proof of concept thing. If you read the Icon issue, it's a terrific little piece of added value; if you didn't, not to worry, you won't have any problem folding into the new run.
What made you want to return to the Dreamscape? And what was the process like, moving it to Joe's Comics from Marvel?
I always wanted to do more with it. The trouble I had with the Icon infrastructure was a pronounced lack of marketing support; at the time it always felt more like a half-hearted sop thrown to its upper-tiered writers than a genuine effort to form a creator-owned enterprise. So it just wasn't worth pursuing, although to their credit, they do seem to have done a better job and gotten more sincere about it later, and the Icon line is producing some great books. I think a lot of that has to go to Axel Alonso's credit, as he has always been a strong advocate for the writers he works with.
As to the process of moving it from Icon to Image, it was fairly straightforward. I just had to go to Axel's house and wash his car every day for about two weeks (okay, ten days) and we were good to go. More seriously: as noted above, Axel and Tom [Brevoort] and Dan [Buckley] and the current brass at Marvel are great guys, and they were more than gracious in how this and "Book of Lost Souls" were transferred back to me. Yes, it was contractually set up that way in the beginning, with a reversion clause, but you know how big companies can be. Not so here. They're gentlemen of their word.
Has the story changed much from what you were planning back in 2005?
It's changed insofar as I'm not the same writer I was in 2005. A writer refracts the world and the stories he or she tells through the prism of who that writer is at any given moment. Hand a writer the same premise at age 20, age 40 or age 60 and you'll get three profoundly different stories. I still like the individual investigative stories that were and still are at the core of "Dream Police," but there's an overarching story that gets into questions of identity, mysticism, fate and other themes that I might not have attempted or been as much drawn to then as I am now.
"Dream Police" began life as a pretty straight-up parody of shows like "Dragnet" and "Adam 12" and other hard-boiled cop shows of the '60s and '70s, and didn't go a lot deeper than that; but in the interim, it's grown into something far more interesting and substantial.
In the first issue, we meet (or re-meet) Joe Thursday and Frank Stafford. What kind of men are they? What is the state of the Dream Police force?
Those questions are at the core of the first twelve-issue arc. Who the hell are these guys and where did they come from? Dreamers, that's us, check. Changelings, echoes and ethers grow from nascent dream forms called Wisps, okay, another check. Even the architects came to the Dreamscape from somewhere else (they were originally involved in designing Creation, and got dumped here when the job was done). So again, check. But from what everyone's told, the Dream Police have always been the Dream Police. Is that true? Can it even be true? If it's not true, then what's the secret? What don't even the Dream Police know about their origins?
By making Frank Stafford -- who has always been Joe's partner -- disappear at the end of issue one, to be replaced by Katie Black, who as far as Joe knows is and has always been his only partner, we start pulling a thread that threatens to unravel the very structure of the Dream Police and maybe something even more profound beyond that. I like the idea of these humorous foreground stories placed against the contrast of a fairly dark and serious story going on in the background.
Who are some of the other main characters we'll meet?
There's the aforementioned Architects, who build and maintain and switch out the Dreamscape for our benefit as we go in. Echoes who appear as ourselves, so when we see ourselves in a dream it's really one of them reflecting us. Changelings, who take on the role of those we know in our dreams (and play an especially important role in recurring dreams). Supervisors, who are further up the mystic line between the Dream Police and the Elders, who are as old as the universe -- it's a fun world to play in.
How does the dreamscape interact with our reality? And will the series explore both places?
For most of the first arc, I'm trying to steer clear of the waking world as much as possible. We're creating a pretty cool place, and you don't want to get that going then abandon it to go back to the waking world. (Both places are equally real, in their way, just different realities.) At one point toward the latter part of this first arc, we'll have to see a little of it, but I can't explain more than that right now without giving too much away.
Sometimes the waking world can impact the Dreamscape in unexpected ways. In issue two, a dreamer comes in hopped up on psychedelics, and wreaks havoc with the additional abilities this gives him. A wisp gets killed, dreamers get disrupted, it's bad for everybody. But it's not an anti-drug story. Nor is it a pro-drug story. As Joe points out, drug laws are rightly the province of the waking world. Dreamers and gurus and prophets and the occasional shaman have been coming to the Dreamscape in enhanced form since the dawn of time. There's a whole category of enhanced dreamers that are designated Castenedas, as a sign of respect. As he puts it, "So no, I don't have a problem with drugs. I have a problem with amateurs."
You worked with Sid on "Apocalypse Al," and now he's doing "Dream Police." Besides his obvious and incredible talent, what made him the right collaborator for this project?
Sid's amazing. He can go light and funny one moment, then very dark and serious and scary the next. And there's a lightness to his art that is just fun to look at. Both "Dream Police" and "Al" required the ability to go seamlessly from light to dark, and he can do that. So yeah, we locked him down immediately for "Dream Police" after he finished working on "Al."
What is the scope of the series?
It's a 12-issue run, telling one large story against a bunch of smaller, individual, done-in-one stories. As with the other Joe's Comics titles, once we hit the end, we'll stop, regroup, see if we want to tell another story in there, and if so, do so. If not, not.
So, what else are you working on?
As I type these words, we are five weeks from camera on "Sense8," which is crazy scary. I'm also at the approximate halfway points on "Sidekick," "Terminator Salvation: The Final Battle," and "Twilight Zone." I'm hip-deep in revisions on the "Shadowman" screenplay for Valiant. There are also several other TV and film projects in active development, which I can't talk about at this time. But expect announcements later in the summer.
All the scripts [for "Sens8"] are in and being revised for production; the story is about eight characters around the world who one day find themselves empathically or telepathically connected -- and that there's a multinational organization trying to kill them. We start shooting around the second week of June, and will be going straight through to early November, filming around the world in the US, Mexico City, London, Iceland, Berlin, Nairobi, Seoul and Mumbai.
In the last two months, I've logged in almost 30,000 miles of travel, in one three week period, going from LA to New York, to London, to Rekjavik, back to London again, to Mumbai, and back to LA again.
This is, without exaggeration, the single biggest project I've ever been involved with since I started writing at age 17. The scale is ridiculous. I'll also be helming the London and Iceland sequences as director, which is fun and scary and exciting.
Seeing that you have both writing and directing roles with the series, can you talk about what those experiences have been like?
The writing is great fun. We're doing a very grounded series, a very realistic story despite the fantastical elements, and working very hard to be true to the cultures in which we are setting our action. The countries we're shooting in aren't just backdrops to our story, they're a part of that story in a deeper and more profound way than has really ever been done for American TV. Circling back at this from working in movies, none of us who are involved in this wanted to do a TV show just for the sake of doing a TV show. If we couldn't do something that nobody had done before, we didn't want to do it. And that's exactly what we've created here.
Between my basically creating or perfecting the idea of the 5 year arc on "Babylon 5," long before "Lost" or anyone else began doing them, and the Wachowskis coming at this from the backdrop of having created the "Matrix" trilogy and that huge saga, we have a pretty cool tool set for telling a massive, involved story. And that's exactly what we have in these scripts.
As for the directing -- I'll let you know after it's done. I'm prepping now, and will be shooting over the summer.
It seems like the Netflix approach to series is very similar to aspects of comics -- finite stories with dedicated teams, direct-released to an audience. Is there something about the level of closeness to the audience that is appealing?
I don't know if it's that, or the fact that Netflix really does have a hands-off policy when it comes to its creators. They've always told us, "Just go off and tell the story you want to tell." Which is great, because there's no way in god's green earth that we could tell this story with a heavy-handed bureaucracy back seat driving the whole time. Nor is this a finite story per se; the first season is ten episodes, and if they do as well as we hope they will, there's season two -- of a planned five-year arc.
How are you balancing your comics work with "Sense8?" It sounds like it's filming in some pretty incredible locations, so you'll be traveling.
I write on planes, in hotel rooms, anywhere I can set up a laptop. On Easter Sunday, I spent the entire day -- from 10AM to 4AM Monday -- sitting at the desk in the hotel room. Never left. Never moved. Ate at the desk. I do that a lot these days, there's just too much that needs to get done. I find I actually enjoy writing on planes, especially on intercontinental flights; when everyone else sacks out, I fire up the laptop, plug in the headphones and just go. There are no distractions. The last flights to and from the UK, I wrote 50 pages, each way.
So yeah, between writing the movies and other TV projects in development, co-writing/producing/directing/show-running "Sense8," and writing seven comics per month among other stuff, I'm busier than I've ever been in my life. I always figured that at some point it would slow down, never anticipated it would go this nutty -- but it's all that and more, and it's just amazing to experience it all. It's massively rewarding from a creative and personal standpoint. And to work with the caliber of people I'm working with -- there are no words. I'm a happy guy. Stressed, yeah, but still ridiculously happy.