J. Michael Straczynski interview (April 2006)

April 28, 2006 | Interviews


J. Michael Straczynski plays a better game of cat and mouse than Tom and Jerry.
After establishing a great career as a TV writer/producer/director with his series Babylon 5 and other projects, Straczynski moved into comics and to become one of the No. 1 writers for Marvel.
Currently penning Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Squadron Supreme, he has been alternately been called a genius and a buffoon, depending on which comic fan you ask and who their favourite character is.
Straczynski, a guest at this weekend’s Paradise Comics Toronto Comicon (www.torontocomicon.com), also loves to drop hints about his grand machinations at Marvel and did just that over lunch with JPK, hinting at a shocking event for Spider-Man, the reasons behind the upcoming Civil War in the Marvel Universe, the contentious ‘clone saga’ in Amazing Spider-Man, what three new projects he’s got on the go and why Dave Sim is a true comics visionary.

JPK: You’ve had a colourful year with a fair bit of controversy.
Straczynski: Why whatever do you mean? (Laughs)

JPK: Let’s start with the new gold-and-red armoured costume for Spider-Man. Any reflections or regrets?
Straczynski: No regrets at all. Bare in mind, it’s not like we’re making a long-term change. We said from the beginning that the uniform has grown out of his relationship with Tony (Stark a.k.a. Iron Man). It’s not just an instrument by which he operates — it is also a metaphor. As Tony has put Peter under his wing, Peter is now wearing his colours and using his technology which really helps to reinforce that connection so that when it does crack, which inevitably it will, it makes the separation that much harder. It’ll be personal as well.

JPK: The much-anticipated first issue of Marvel’s Civil War ships on May 3. As writer of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, do you enjoy participating and having this kind of story crossover into the worlds you’re created for your characters?
Straczynski: Given the option of doing a crossover story or having my gums extracted, I go for the gum extraction because it’s less painful in the long run.
But this is a storyline worth doing. We have, in the U.S., great political division between those on one side of the war (in Iraq) and those on the other. It’s a very polarized society right now with the red and the blue states and conservative versus liberal. Someone once commented that if the nation were as divided geographically as it is politically, you’d be hearing gunfire in the distance.
There’s no reason we can’t take that and extend it into the super-hero community as a metaphor for what’s happening in the greater culture. It allows us to explore those issues in a safer environment.
So I think it’s a good story to tell. The details of the telling have been a major league pain in the ass, but at the end of the day it’ll be worth the doing.

JPK: Where do you see the characters you work with after the fallout of Civil War?
Straczynski: Certainly the world of all these characters is going to change significantly and to some degree we’re still evaluating where that’s going to go. We all so caught up in the heat of telling the story that the aftermath will have to shape itself to some extent. It will flow logically and organically out of what precedes it.
We do want this to have significant lasting changes and not to be something where the last book of Civil War comes out and we’re back to zero again.
Peter, in particular, will go through a huge change at the end of this story. It’s going to be probably the biggest thing to happen to Peter in 30 years. It’s huge.

JPK: OK, now you’ve peaked my curiosity.
Straczynski: Then my job is done and I can go now.

JPK: How hard is it to work on iconic characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four?
Straczynski: It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is an established iconic character and you have opportunity to reach a large audience and it really is a measure of trust from Marvel that they would give me these characters in hopes that I will not screw them up — which is more than I would necessarily assume.
But at the same time, they also come with certain limitations. There are walls around these characters that you really cannot go past. Then again, it’s not that different then what we deal with in television where you know damned well that Angela Lansbury isn’t going to turn into an axe murderer at the end of the average Murder, She Wrote episode.
So we’re used to dealing within those confines, which is why I think a lot of folks from television are making the transition to comics, because we’re used to dealing with established characters and finding new ways of looking at them.

JPK: Do you ever butt heads with your editors? Are you ever told ‘no you can’t do that?’
Straczynski: With Marvel and Spidey, only once. I wanted Gwen’s kids to be fathered by Peter, not by Norman Osborn. I thought it would be an interesting point of view to go with the character where he would assume responsibility for that and all the rest. They said ‘well it makes Peter feel too old. How about someone else? How about Norman Osborn? The fans will love it!’
I dutifully fell on my sword on that one for a long time and then finally I said ‘you know, it really wasn’t my idea to do it that way.’

JPK: What’s it been like working with a big company like Marvel?
Straczynski: They’re a great company to work for. They’ve been very supportive. They give me no problems and a lot of latitude.
Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley and the rest of them — I can’t speak enough positive words about them, they’ve been great.

JPK: You’ve taken your acclaimed series Supreme Power from Marvel’s adults-only MAX line to its Marvel Knights line and re-dubbed it the more classic Squadron Supreme. Why the move and is it a good one?
Straczynski: It’s a good one for a number of reasons. The book was getting uniformly great reviews from a lot of different places and was very well regarded, but there were a lot of stores that wouldn’t carry it because it was a MAX book.
I looked at the last few issues at one point and said ‘you know, you could take three pieces of masking tape and felt-tipped marker and with about eight changes make it into a regular book. So why are we confining ourselves to the MAX title? There were a few cases where we used that to its full limits, but most of the time we really didn’t — so why are we here.
I mentioned it to Joe Quesada and he said ‘Check with (artist) Gary (Frank)’ and I talked to Gary about it and he seemed fine with it so we did it.
The storytelling remains the same, the intensity stays the same and the sales from the first issue were great — No. 21 in the top 300.

JPK: Are you changing the approach at all?
Straczynski: No, not at all. Language-wise, sure, we can’t use the same words, but story-wise, no.
The only real difference is that we’re a team book now, there are more characters involved, but the style of storytelling will be as controversial as it was before. There’s some stuff coming up that should cause a lot of bar fights.

JPK: Within all of your creative areas — TV, comics, etc. — what are your dream gigs?
Straczynski: I have a series in development now with Touchstone television, which we’re bringing to the networks at the end of next month. It’s a non-genre thing — it’s very mainstream.
As a writer you live to write what you want to write and I’m at, or nearly at, the point where I only have to write what I want to write. Whether it’s a radio drama series (like the one he’s currently working on for the CBC), which will pay a buck and a half, or a big-budget feature film, I can sit back and say ‘I want to do that’ or ‘I don’t want to do that.’
I’d love someday to write Superman. I have the biggest Superman collection on the Western seaboard including original Curt Swan artwork, Alex Ross stuff everywhere — it’s just great. Someday I’ll have to do that.

JPK: Is that something you want to do in the next two years? Five years…?
Straczynski: I’m under contract to Marvel and very happy there. It’s one of those down the road kind of things.

JPK: Are there any or many characters you still want to play with within the Marvel Universe?
Straczynski: I’m becoming kind of a special projects guy at Marvel. Things that are off-beat or unusual; I end up being the one to tackle them now.
I did a five-issue miniseries called Bullet Points that’s coming out this summer that I’m very proud of — Tommy Lee Edwards is doing the art.
Bullet Points is designed to show the impact of one life. It starts with the story where Captain America gets his super-soldier serum and then the doctor gets shot and killed (and thus can’t make more). What we did in this story is move that bullet one day forward, so the doctor is assassinated before he gives the serum to Steve Rogers and the bullet that is fired also kills a young kid MP escorting the doctor named Ben Parker.
We track the ripple effects of that one bullet and how it changes everything.
Another book I’m doing is tentatively called The Twelve, which brings back a bunch of Marvel characters from the 1940s that no one’s seen in decades.
I’ll be taking on a new book, featuring an established Marvel character — one of the big ones — starting in December, but I can’t tell you which one yet. (Smiles cryptically)

JPK: Any plans to work further with Marvel’s creator-owned Icon line?
Straczynski: Yeah, I do want to try some more things that are kind of unusual. The Icon line is good for that sort of thing.

JPK: You’re going to be giving Cerebus creator Dave Sim his Hall of Fame introduction at the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards ceremony on Saturday night after the Comicon (www.shusterawards.com). What are your reflections on Sim and his work?
Straczynski: I came across Dave’s work in the ’80s and was blindsided by it — it was a amazing stuff.
I met Dave for the first time last year at the Shusters. I came back here to do another show in August and I met Dave for lunch and he did the full-court press on me on the Islam thing. We spent a lot of time talking about faith versus reason and it occurred to me that that dynamic is probably the most emblematic of Dave’s career.
When he first started out, the idea of telling one story of that magnitude and that duration, over a period of over 20 years, without a publisher behind you, is insane. But he believed he could do it. Even though reason said you can’t do it, his faith said ‘I can’. And, by gosh, he did.
The funny thing is, that’s how society changes. There’s those of us that just want to get along in the world and we try to blend in with and fit into the world around us. And there’re those who either believe in themselves a great deal or are insane who say ‘No, no, I will change the world to match me’. And those are the one’s who do change the world.
Dave Sim changed the world of comics because of what he did with Cerebus.

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