Becoming Superman

Style was the clothes; voice was the body.
The instant I hit that realization I felt a circuit close inside me, switching on an engine in my brain. Suddenly all the little unrelated things I knew about writing (or brashly thought I knew) arranged themselves into a pattern so clear and precise that it knocked the breath out of me.”
J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman

Becoming Superman is an autobiography of a science fiction and comics writer, J. Michael Straczynski. It is also a page turner, a powerful story that amazingly enough, is real. As Neil Gaiman concluded in his introduction: “We follow him through several careers, and in each career he learns how to do it, how to set out and make something happen that ought, by any stretch of imagination, to have been impossible. It’s his willingness to learn, his quiet persistence, and his willingness to do the work that are his superpowers. He has become a diamond.”

Reading the book during a weekend, I found there another “superpower”: hate. Hatred for a father he describes as a monster formed the author’s worldview, sustained him physically at times he might otherwise crumble, and shaped his character when the closest he had to a “role-model” were comic book heroes like Superman. This is not, however, a hateful book. The author’s hate does not drip from every page. It is used like lampposts placed to illuminate bends on a road, so a passerby would see what he had experienced as a boy and while growing up, what he overcame, and what he still has to cope with.

A master storyteller, JMS uses his father’s dark secrets from WWII to show how destructive hate and self-pity could be, but Becoming Superman is NOT a simplistic, feel-good story about the American Dream and redemption. The author shows that hate and anger don’t always lead to the Dark Side; that a strong and determined mind can denounce evil and discipline these destructive powers. On one level, the book follows the advertised “Journey From Poverty to Hollywood” – the same page shows a photo of the author’s first check ($15) and his first check for one million dollars. But the book is more than a “rags to riches” tale. It offers a gripping view on how JMS harnessed and funneled his hate, using it to withstand his violent and abusive family, disciplining it to become an engine and fuel to his creativity.

During a long career, JMS faced many forks on the road, encountering temptations to take the less controversial course, to compromise and let go. He did not choose what most people would do. His energies and frustrations were directed into worldbuilding, screenwriting, directing, and writing comics. Not being a Superman, his achievements came with a price – a marriage that dissolved, never raising children, being estranged even from those family members he did not despise.

I’m not a fan of comic books and Sci-fi TV, but I could not put down this autobiography until I reached the last page at 2am. A writer who invented and reshaped worlds, contributed to “Murder She Wrote” and gave a new flavor to old superheroes, had an interesting story to tell. He spent years crafting it, entwining his family’s dark history with personal experiences, many of which no child should have had. He prevailed and succeeded, crafting a life with much more to it than simmering hate. From an emotionally stunted boy, whose compassion is mostly bestowed on stray cats, he became a creator of stories that touched and shaped kids’ imagination. His account how that happened is a fascinating, thought provoking, occasionally dark and disturbing, and sometimes inspiring read.

More about JMS work can be found on TVtropes.

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