“Becoming Superman” by J. Michael Straczynski- A Review

“Then I stumbled upon Max and Dave Fleischer’s Superman cartoons… The scene that lit up my brain like a Christmas tree showed Superman using his cape to protect Lois Lane from a cascade of molten metal. Rather than being angry at her for getting in trouble, he was gentle and brave…” 

– Becoming Superman, pg.32 As I’ve said many times before, I’m a sucker for stories that really play up Superman-as-inspiration. I’ve grown to appreciate the character and what he respresents very much over the years, and when others do the same I just eat it up with a spoon.

In the case of Joseph Michael Straczynski- pen name J. Michael Straczynski, Joe to his friends and JMS to fans (whew!)- a writer I’ve long admired, I had read some time ago that he was a big Supes fan and was inspired by the character when he was young. Until his autobiography was released last year, however, I had no idea to what extent that was the case.

More on that in a minute.  In the past, Straczynski has talked about his adoration of the kid-friendly Superman stories of the Silver Age- Curt Swan, in particular, as the well as the “Adventures of Superman” on TV, and what the character has represented throughout his history. He often said it was a dream come true to finally write the character during a brief time at DC Comics, cranking out both the Superman: Earth One graphic novel series and the mixed “Grounded” storyline in the late 2000s. I enjoyed both stories very much (despite the fact that neither were completed by him due to his failing eyesight) and saw his love for the character shine through in his work. As far as Superman writers go, Straczynski won me over even with a small body of work. With my local library finally opening up again during COVID-19, I picked up Joe’s autobiography, “Becoming Superman,” and finished it in about a week. With a title like that, how could I resist!? Even though the vast majority of his work has been in TV and movies, I’ve enjoyed enough of his non-comics work during my lifetime- mainly “Babylon 5,” and as a kid, “The Real Ghostbusters” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”- to commit to a 500 page account of the man’s career. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as it clearly demonstrated his skill in prose as much as any other form, and so appreciated his continuous referencing back to Superman.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the absolutely harrowing account of his childhood. Joe’s father- and I say this as a optimist and as a priest- was one of the most evil men I have ever read about, a drunk, wife-beater, con artist and, to top it all off, member of the Nazi party during his youth in Poland. His mother had severe mental issues and depression that even made her try to kill him as a young child. His grandmother was also abusive… I could go on, but you really wouldn’t want me to. His family’s living conditions were extremely poor as well, and they had to move close to twenty times until he finished high school. To describe what the man went through as horrific would be an understatement.

To be sure, it is a well-written book, but reading it is not for the faint of heart, just to warn you.  Amidst all this, Straczynski’s only outlet, his only refuge from the pain and horror of his world was reading, which included comics. Indeed, Straczynski even goes as far as saying that with so many bad role models around him, superheroes were the one place where he as a child could learn what to do, and what he could aspire to be when he grew up:

“… my appreciation for all things Superman had extended to a love of comic books in general, less for the action and flashy costumes than their sense of morality. The books emphasized the importance of standing up for others, even if doing so meant putting yourself at risk…“… In the months that followed I traded comics with other kids and used whatever small change I could safely liberate from my father’s dresser to buy my own. Collecting comics became an act of rebellion against my father, and a means of defining who I was as a person. 

“Funnily enough, that’s still how I see them.”

A certain reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper also helped him in his decision to become a writer:

“Clark Kent could have been anything he wanted. He could’ve been the best athlete or the best scientist in history. But he joined the Daily Planet because he knew the ability to write, to tell stories that could touch people, was a way for him to change the world, not just save it. And if that was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.”  How does he describe his feeling of weightlessness when he saw one of his films being screened at the Cannes Film Festival, a first for him? Yup, you guessed it:

“I sometimes look up at the night sky in case I might catch a glimpse of a familiar blue-and-red silhouette passing by overhead, and take great joy in the thought that I’m still up there somewhere.”  To be sure, Superman is only mentioned in this book about 10-12 times. It’s not a book about Superman, per se, but it is very much about what impact Superman had on Straczynski’s life. The author turns Superman into a lens which shaped the way he saw his life, right down to the present day. The effect that this had on a kid growing up with bad parents makes for an amazing read. It’s a rags to riches story not just in a financial sense, but a moral sense, too. Reading about how hard work and determination made Straczynski an accomplished writer across all different kinds of mediums- journalism, animation, TV, novels, comic books and movies- is a great story in and of itself.

Oh, and his aforementioned father? There’s a bit of a mystery about his secret origin that unfolds as the book goes, as well. A final thought about Superman from Joe, this time on the famous shield:

“To some, sure, it may mean hope; but to others it means strength, honesty, freedom… it means what you need it to mean, allowing us to project onto a fictional character the better and nobler aspects of ourselves. We cherish Superman doing amazing things because they let us imagine that we are capable of doing such things ourselves, that they are possible “For me, Superman represented all those qualities plus persistence, the refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds. No matter how badly he got hurt or how many stood against him, you just knew that he would get up and keep fighting, that he would die before giving up. 

And if he could do it, then I could do it. And if I can do it, then anybody can do it.  We have no control over who beats us up or knocks us down, or the obstacles that stand between us and our dreams. But we have absolute control over how we choose to respond…

“… And with that choice, ridiculously beautiful and powerful things begin to happen.”

I know that’s a choice I feel, and I’m sure all of us feel as fans to some degree or another. I thought this book was great, and would recommend it if you’re interested in this sort of thing. Heavy at times and a little dense in others, but very entertaining.

Check it out!

Capeage Meter: 9 out of 10

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