Monday, June 6, 2011

Inspiring Authors: J. Michael Straczynski

Every once in a while, I look over my writing style, and I look at what I've taken away from the authors I've been exposed to.

The first, and most important writing influence is someone named J. Michael Straczynski (JMS).

JMS, who I have mentioned once or twice, was an executive producer on Murder, She wrote, created Babylon 5, and writes almost anything else he can get his hands on. He's written comics, TV, novels, science fiction, battling demons....

Just look him up on amazon, buy everything except for “Rising Stars” and “Supreme Power.”

I'm not joking. Go now.

If you saw Thor -- and who didn't? You didn't? Go see it. I'll wait..... Back now? You liked it? Good. -- JMS had a cameo in the film as the first fellow to find Thor's hammer, and organized that big sequence with trying to drag out the hammer with a truck.

There is Tribulations, a book about demonic possession in modern LA. Surprisingly well put together and very religious ... And he's an atheist. So, he at least knows how to appreciate religion, even if it's only for use as fantasy fodder.

I first experienced the writing of JMS a very long time ago, before I even knew who the man was. Originally an author for television, he worked his way up from cartoons and into prime time. He penned the only episode of The Real Ghostbusters that I can remember.  Twenty years after the original airing of Murder, She Wrote, all of the episodes I knew off the top of my head happened to be written by him (if you remember an episode in the Psycho house, that would be Joe).

I first became aware of Joe Straczynski with his television show Babylon 5; at the time, it seemed to be a rip-off of a Star Trek program that had just come on called Deep Space 9. Then odd things started happening. To start with, the show had character. The characters on the show had personalities. They had backgrounds. They had character flaws. When there was fighting, there were actual military tactics, and the science fiction .... had science.

If you are not a follower of science fiction, you may not be aware of this, but to find military tactics in most science fiction filmed media is almost as rare as finding science in a Star Trek film. As mentioned during our week of Infinite Space, Infinite God II, most sci-fi will resort to technobabble before using actual science. Babylon 5 is the first science fiction television show that ever explained how their artificial gravity worked.

With military tactics -- how much in the way of tactics did anyone see in Star Wars or Star Trek that did not amount to "Watch two armies. See them ram into each other. See them ignore that space is three dimensional."

With Babylon 5, NASA has asked permission to use some of their designs, because they can't come up with better ideas.  If you ever hear about a NASA space construction craft called a "Star Fury," it's because JMS allowed them to use it on the condition that it shared the name it had on the tv show....

Constant readers of this blog will see the fingerprints of JMS all over it. The most popular blog post Disasters to Marvel At was made possible by Joe Straczynski. After Babylon 5, JMS went on to writing comic books; in particular, Amazing Spider Man (ASM). Being a fan of Straczynski's, I followed. It was the first time I had picked up a comic book in about five years. At least.

And it was a gloriously enjoyable run. If you ever saw an issue of ASM that involved Spider-Man dealing with the 9-11 attacks, that was JMS' doing. It was a throwaway issue in a grand story arc that had Peter Parker questioning his own origins, pondering whether or not he was part of a larger plan, and finding himself embroiled more and more with supernatural problems. The solutions became more cerebral and scientific than requiring an ability to pound someone into dust.

Also, in pure JMS fashion, he took the marriage of Peter Parker and made it work -- after all, Straczynski's strong suit is having two people interact with each other. And it's nothing like having a reconciliation in the middle of a super-powered smackdown at Denver airport.

And then there was the surprisingly epic ASM 500, where JMS managed to condense the entire 500 isues before into one, simple question.

Which is why I was somewhat enraged when editorial mandate came down from a clear blue sky and decreed that every Marvel comic would be dragooned into the Event of the Week. The story arc for Straczynski's Spider-Man run was stomped on by the far inferior Civil War. And, while I liked what JMS managed to do with it, despite editorial mandate (it was the only part of the Civil War I remotely enjoyed), and he managed to make the follow-up Back in Black, a fun read, at the end of the day, management came down and destroyed, literally, every achievement JMS wrote over the course of his six-year run.

When I saw JMS at New York Comic Con, he had a running phrase: "Joe, you suck." He even had the audience repeat it back to him.  However, between the links above, there's a reason why I think it should be "Joe (Quesada), you suck."

JMS would also take over duties on Thor, where he placed the Norse deity in the middle of New Mexico (Thor movie fans, sound familiar?)

After Marvel and he had a falling out, he went direct to DC. He did some spectacular Team-ups of the Brave and the Bold, tried to work on a new arc for Wonder Woman, and even a Superman arc called Grounded. Right now, he's heading the bestseller list with his graphic novel Superman: Earth One.  If Warner Brothers is smart, they'll reboot the Superman movie franchise with Earth one as a model.


I learned how to write people. Taking a cue from Rod Serling, JMS knew how to make a conversation be dramatic with just two people in a room, no ticking bomb required. He knew how to work dynamics with different characters for different results. He even went so far to lock two people in a room together, he literally trapped two characters in an elevator.

If you wondered why my short story One Way to Stay out of Jail consisted mostly of two people in a room just talking to each other, you can probably guess. It's the joy of having characters (some of whom are deeply flawed) interacting with each other.

Another thing I got from JMS -- how to take cliche's and turn them inside out.

For example...
Situation: Two people who hate each other are trapped in an elevator; fires are burning outside. If they don't work together, they will die.
Hollywood standard procedure: The trapped duo will overcome their grievances in order to stay alive.
JMS: One character says to another "I'm not going to help. This way, I can watch you die and I won't be prosecuted."
It's fun.

In A Pius Man, there is a reason that the book has plenty of deep, in-depth conversations between people who have some obvious flaws .... although a lot of it revolves around Sean Ryan, who is, himself, really weird.

Further Reading.
Other works by JMS include.

Demon Night (I haven't read it yet, but it should be fun)

OthersydeOthersyde: Another book I loved. High school, meet demonology 101.

Two high school nerds, "losers," tormented and tortured on a routine basis, buy curiosities -- two telegraph signal senders.

And then, the devices start tapping out Morse code on their own.

It was elegantly written, and even made the angst of high school tolerable. And, no, there is no Twilight level, whiny-angsty BS. I would take a power drill to my head before I even read anything remotely like it, to heck with recommending it.

Book of Lost Souls: A late, lamented comic book series JMS wrote while at Marvel. While there were only five issues of this run, I think it has a good, solid story arc. that reads well even though Marvel pulled the plug on it early on.

Straczynski Unplugged
Straczynski Unplugged: A collection of short stories, mostly novelized versions of screenplays JMS did for The New Twilight Zone back in the 80s. I can only assume these few were all he did, otherwise the show would have done much, much better.

These were all awesome.  I suggest clicking on the link and buying the book, rather than trying to find the episodes on youtube.

Trust me on this. 

Silver Surfer: RequiemUnder the heading of both "touching" and "I never saw this coming," was Silver Surfer: Requiem. The premise: the Silver Surfer originally made a devil's bargain to save his home planet, becoming the Surfer, herald to a planet-eating being called Galactus. Years later, the Silver Surfer's own body is turning against him. Everything that makes him the Surfer is breaking down. The story arc is broken down into four parts. Benedictus, Sanctus, Kyrie, and Agnus Dei. All parts of the funeral mass.

Let's put it this way: I never liked Silver Surfer, and this brought me to tears ... yes, I'm a nerd.

Bullet PointsBullet Points: Another Marvel project. A simple "What if?"

What if the assassin who killed Captain America's creator completed his task 24 hours earlier, and, at the same time, killing one of the bodyguards, a Ben Parker, what would the world look like?

The only thing that I've read that compares to it in comics is the ASM 9-11 issue ... also by JMS.

J. Michael Straczynski's Midnight Nation, Vol. 1
-- Okay, this was pure, unadulterated awesome. An LA cop finds himself caught in the crossfire between Heaven and Hell, and loses his soul, becoming one of the lost people of the Midnight Nation.

In order to get his soul back, he has to cross all of America to New York City to face the Devil himself.Midnight Nation

Squadron Supreme and Rising Stars -- the only works I can honestly not endorse. Even JMS has complaints about Squadron Supreme.

Update: Sorry, I'm from New York, the Midwest, unfortunately, does look alike to me -- New Mexico or Oklahoma. Especially since the artwork in the JMS Thor comic and the images in the Thor movie looked the same to me. I suspect Kenneth Branaugh looked at the comic and said "This doesn't match Oklahoma, where does it match? Nex Mexico? We're there."


  1. 1. I liked Rising Stars. I may be in the minority, but for a hardcore superhero nerd, it had its moments. (It also had its stupidities, though.)

    2. As I recall, JMS sent Thor to Oklahoma, not New Mexico. Certainly that's where Asgard ended up, at least for a while. I think Thor took a little detour to New Mexico for one issue, but otherwise--yep, Oklahoma. And then Latveria. Wacky.

    Otherwise ... yeah, go JMS.

  2. Rising Stars was good, too. It was just screwed up by Top Cow/Image being stupid. It was also light years before Top Cow was handed over to Ron Marz and others to reboot the whole thing, and make it....readable (rather than boobable).

    And JMS is probably the most underrated writer in Hollywood today. There's no question. And I wonder what he's doing with DC these days? Not a question of loyalty or contract, but I just want to see his next work already.


Please, by all means, leave a message below. I welcome any and all comments. However, language that could not make it to network television will result in your comment being deleted. I don';t like saying it, but prior events have shown me that I need to. Thanks.