J Michael Straczynski (previously) is known for many things: creating Babylon 5, spectacular runs on flagship comics from Spiderman to Superman, incredibly innovative and weird kids' TV shows like The Real Ghostbusters, and megahits like Sense8; in the industry he's known as a writing machine, the kind of guy who can write and produce 22 hours of TV in a single season, and he's also known as a mensch, whose online outreach to fans during the Babylon 5 years set the bar for how creators and audiences can work together to convince studios to take real chances. But in JMS's new memoir, Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, we get a look at a real-life history that is by turns horrific and terrifying, and a first-person account of superhuman perseverance and commitment to the right thing that, incredibly, leads to triumph
Straczynski's life story begins with a family story that's pure grifter American gothic. His grandfather, a Russian emigre and con artist, goes back to Europe to try to bilk his relatives out of whatever money they've snuck out of revolutionary Russia and into Germany. While there, he begins a sexual affair with his underage niece, luring her into bed by promising to send for her when he gets to America, which, of course, he never does, so she books her own passage and tracks him down.
Their predictably tumultuous relationship is marked by infidelity and dishonesty, but then things get weird when she takes their son and daughter to Poland, only to take up with a Nazi-sympathizing police officer who takes them in when the Nazis invade, and there they are stuck. Straczynski's grandmother takes up with various Nazis, while the boy who will someday become Straczynski's father becomes a kind of mascot for the local Nazi soldiers, in a miniature Nazi uniform they made just for him, going out with them on patrol to participate in vicious, antisemitic beatings, and, possibly, worse.
Straczynski's father grows up, takes up with a child trafficked into prostitution and incapable of consent, effectively kidnaps her, and marries her. She gives birth to several children with Straczynski's father, including Straczynski himself, and quite likely murders at least one of them, and attempts to murder Straczynski when he is young. She is wracked with terrible depression exacerbated by post-partum hormone swings, and the fact that Straczynski's father routinely beats her within an inch of her life (making a point of doing so in front of Straczynski and his sisters) isn't helping.
The story of Straczynski's childhood only gets worse from there: violent abuse, psychological abuse, his pets murdered, his precious, hoarded comics sadistically destroyed. He's starved and beaten and traumatized in ways that make Dickens look unimaginative and tame by comparison. He learns about his family's history of incestuous sexual abuse and narrowly avoids being trapped in it himself.
And through it all, despite the torment and the trauma, he perseveres. No matter what life throws at him, no matter how long the odds, Straczynski just keeps plugging away, writing, sneaking into more advanced writing classes, bullshitting his way into newspaper gigs and then crushing them so hard that he gets to keep them, just refusing to be cowed, working even when he's discouraged.
And so, drip by drip, crumb by crumb, inch by inch, Straczynski manages to become a writer, and it turns out that not only can he write to deadline, he's really good at it. Even projects that seem silly or trivial on their face, like writing for He-Man or The Real Ghostbusters, are treated with such intense seriousness that they just kill.
But this being Hollywood, where, famously, nobody knows anything, every success that Straczynski ekes out is eventually scuttled by venality, cowardice, grift, or all three, as greedy execs and bullshit-slinging consultants demand that he compromise on what he knows is right. And Straczynski being Straczynski — being the survivor of a campaign of terror visited upon him by a literal Nazi — refuses to back down, because despite the mountain of shit he's climbed to get where he is, the prospect of falling down to the bottom is incapable of scaring him beyond his threshold of tolerability.
And, remarkably, despite industry concentration and a thousand variations of "you'll never work in this town again," Straczynski continues to work. His story is a beautiful parable about how luck is made: the way it's told, it seems like Straczynski has a horseshoe up his ass, with opportunities dropping appearing over the horizon just a little faster than the burn-rate of the bridges he's torched behind him, but when you look a little closer, you realize that the most improbable thing here isn't the opportunities, but rather Straczynski's relentless, singleminded determination to seize them, writing (for example) entire seasons of his TV shows when the studios' dumb mistakes leave them shorthanded.
Equally vivid is Straczynski's imposter syndrome, depicted with a brutal and commendable honesty, woven into the trauma of his family life (which never ends, as Straczynski frets about the sisters who have remained in range of his father's abuse, and endures the letters his father forces his mother to write).
Taken together, this makes for a memoir like no other, a terrifying and exhilarating ride between trauma and triumph, with stops for dark family secrets and touching acts of friendship and loyalty, commitment to principle and a love of the writerly arts.
It's an incredible book.
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood [J. Michael Straczynski/Harpercollins]