Why J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI Is Leaving Comic Books, In His Own Words

J. Michael Straczynski & Joe's Comics logo
Credit: J. Michael Straczynski
Credit: J. Michael Straczynski

[Editor's Note: At Comic-Con International: San Diego, J. Michael Straczynski announced that he would no longer be writing comic books. Newsarama reached out to the author, who provided this letter to readers.]

I’ve had a very funny career. Multiple careers, actually.

I was a reporter in San Diego for many years, working for a host of local newspapers and magazines, including the San Diego Reader and San Diego Magazine, I became an on-air correspondent for KSDO News radio…gradually I became kind of a good-sized fish in a relatively small pond. Then, just as I was starting to get comfortable with that, a little voice in my head said "You’re done here, go somewhere else, go to a bigger pond where you’ll have to start over."

And I did. I moved up to Los Angeles where the magazines and newspapers were larger but there was also a lot more competition. Nobody knew me, and I had to start from scratch. But that was the fun of it, and after a while, I was writing for the (late lamented) Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, Video Review Magazine, and the Los Angeles Reader, among others before finally landing at TIME, Inc.

Then one day, that same voice, the voice that keeps challenging me and kicking over the apple cart and forcing me to start over, said "You’re done, move on, find something else to do, stretch yourself as a writer, take chances, risk failure."

Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

And on that day I stepped away from my career in journalism and never went back. There was no animosity, no hard or harsh breakup…there’s just this part of me that loves to step outside my comfort zone so that I keep challenging myself. In this case I wandered in the wilderness for nearly a year without any income. Friends urged me to go back to reporting, because at least I could make a living and there were no burned bridges to unburn, so why not? But I couldn’t. I had to find the next challenge.

So I went into writing animation, something I’d never done before. And I had a blast. I worked on He-Man and She-Ra and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, a run that culminated in The Real Ghostbusters, one of the things I’m proudest of doing during that time. The Real Ghostbusters was an unqualified ratings hit, got an Emmy nomination…I was right there, in the zone.

And that same voice whispered in my ear, "You’re done here, move on, do something else."

And on that day, I left animation and never went back. 

Credit: Warner Bros.

I went into live action television, doing shows like Captain Power and Twilight Zone and Murder, She Wrote, then Babylon 5 and Crusade and Jeremiah.

It was around the time of Crusade and Jeremiah that the little voice in the back of my head said "You’re going to need a break from television for a while…find something else to do to challenge yourself." (I would later go on to take a ten year hiatus from television, only recently returning for Sense8.)

So having previously only written three or four stand-alone issues, I created Rising Stars and Midnight Nation and went on to begin a six-year The Amazing Spider-Man run for Marvel.

Credit: Joe's Comics / Top Cow / Image Comics

And that’s when something began going seriously wrong.

As we finished shooting Jeremiah, I found myself increasingly tripping and falling, especially when dealing with stairs. When I took a tumble off a curb in Vancouver, hands extended to break my fall, I dislocated my right ring finger so badly that it was an inch shorter than it had been moments earlier. Within just a couple of years I had fallen so often and so badly that I had a perpetual limp. I couldn’t figure it out. Was I not paying attention to my surroundings? Was there some physical problem going on that I didn’t recognize? Physical examinations revealed nothing of concern. 

Around the same time I noticed that my eyes were getting tired faster and more easily than usual, cutting down the amount of time I could spend at the computer each day. I assumed it was simple over-work, and didn’t put the two together.

One afternoon, as I was walking along Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, I passed beneath a freeway underpass near the Sherman Oaks Galleria. The slope of the sidewalk was already partly obscured by debris, and I misjudged the curb. My foot missed the edge and I fell sideways into the street as a sixteen-wheeler entered the intersection. The driver hit the brakes, slowing down just enough for me to snare the side-mirror and avoid falling beneath the wheels. It ended okay but scared both of us out of our wits. 

A visit to an ophthalmologist finally revealed the problem. 

I have always been terribly near-sighted, blind as the proverbial bat, but now there were several new issues. The first was early-onset cataracts, experienced by many in my family, some as early as their fifties. By themselves, the cataracts could have been dealt with easily. But the diagnosis confirmed that I was also suffering from Fuchs Corneal Dystrophy, a rare genetic disorder in which the cells that wick away moisture in the outer, epithelial rim of the cornea begin to die off prematurely, turning the surface of the eye into something that looks like a pool that hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. The eye begins to look like the photo below (not my eye, but a good representation of what was happening to me.)

Credit: J. Michael Straczynski

Trapped in the outer cornea, the dead cells then refract light in the same way that bright sunlight splashes the front windshield of a car that hasn’t been washed in a while. And the longer Fuchs goes undiagnosed, the more pressure builds in the cornea, causing blisters that repeatedly rupture, scarring and tearing the cornea. The thick scar tissue, known as stroma (shown below) turns the surface of the eye from soft and clear to a texture closer to that of a leather wallet.

Credit: J. Michael Straczynski

I hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten because the process is slow and incremental; without any way to compare it to normal vision, I just accepted what I saw as normal, ascribing any problems to fatigue or eye-strain.

In normal situations, treating cataracts simply requires implanting a lens in each eye, but the addition of Fuchs made that untenable, since at the time of the diagnosis Fuchs could only be treated by a full corneal transplant. Such procedures often resulted in severe complications, infections, flawed vision and a substantial risk of rejection. Implanting the lenses to fix the cataracts first would weaken the surrounding tissue to the point that a subsequent corneal transplant would be dangerous or un-doable. If we did the corneal transplants first, putting in the cataract lens later could potentially damage the new cornea. The more times you open up the eye, the greater the odds of something going very wrong, and the technology to do both procedures at the same time wasn’t yet where it needed to be.

Choosing one or the other meant losing a good chunk of my vision to the remaining disorder. My only other option was to wait for new modalities that were being developed to show merit. Unfortunately, they were still years off, and during that time all three conditions would only get worse, making the surgeries even more problematic and further damaging my eyes, possibly permanently.

Given the huge complications involved in a full corneal transplant, I opted to wait. And for roughly eight years, this was how the world looked to me.

Credit: J. Michael Straczynski

The more my vision deteriorated, the less material I was able to produce. Previously, staying at the keyboard for 12 hours produced 12 hours’ worth of material. Then 12 hours of work produced six hours of material. Then four. Where I had once been able to turn out three or four comics per month in addition to whatever else I was writing, now I struggled to write even one comic per month, and sometimes failed to get even that much done. Every time I thought I could manage it, I’d get a ways in then just couldn’t keep up. Some who followed my work assumed that the slowdown was due to a sloppy work ethic, or getting bored and waddling off. But the truth was that I simply couldn’t see the computer screen. As it was, the only way I could read what I was writing was to use huge white type on a black screen. My monitor, shown below at the resolution I used for the last ten years, allowed me to work but I literally could only work with about a dozen words on screen at a time, rather than a hundred or more per screen.

Credit: J. Michael Straczynski
Credit: J. Scott Campbell (Marvel Comics)

I confided the truth to a few friends, my agent Martin Spencer, Marvel's then-Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada, and later, DC's then-Editor-In-Chief Dan DiDio, but otherwise kept the information secret from the rest of the world. There’s nothing like hearing you say "I’m sorta kinda losing my vision" to scare studios away from hiring you. When I broke the news to Quesada - I guess it must’ve been somewhere around 2005 or 2006 - I’m ashamed to admit that I broke down in tears over the phone. I was openly afraid. "I can’t see," I told him, "I can’t see." Though Quesada and I grew apart due to creative issues, it is to his credit that as far as I know he never told anyone about my situation then or afterward. Now, of course, he is free to confirm that conversation.

I was able to keep up with the film projects because the deadlines were long-term, I usually had several months to write a single script, but my monthly work in comics fell almost to zero. After a while I began to worry that I’d made the wrong choice in deciding to wait.

Then a new, experimental procedure came along: DMEK, short for Descemet's stripping automated endothelial keratoplasty. A DMEK corneal transplant only replaced the two-cell-thick layer affected by the Fuchs, and though there were risks, it was possible to do both that procedure and the cataract lens replacement at the same time. DMEK was so new that anyone who received the procedure was automatically part of a study group to determine long-term results.

So I traveled to the Devers Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon to meet with one of the foremost ophthalmological surgeons in the country, who was among those who had perfected the DMEK technique. He was concerned about the massive scarring in both eyes caused by the delay in receiving treatment, but agreed to perform the dual surgeries, first in the right eye, then the left. The cool thing about the procedure is that when they do the transplant, they fold in the new tissue like a taco, then use gas to inflate it so it presses into the front of the eye and holds. Which means you have to lay on your back, nose pointed to the ceiling, almost nonstop for five days. As shown in the photos below (and yes, this is my eye) when lying down, the bubble flattens; when standing, the bubble moves to the top of the eye like a carpenter’s level. I thought it was cool, actually.

Credit: J. Michael Straczynski

Seven days after the first surgery, I was seeing 20/25. The next surgery had similar results, with no side-effects or complications. As I write these words, I’m seeing better than I’ve seen in my entire life: 20/25 in both eyes. I can read license plates, see the leaves on trees…ever day I’m astonished by the new-found beauty of the world. 

Credit: Gary Frank (Image / Top Cow)

Best of all, I was up to full speed behind the keyboard for the first time, writing more and better and faster than I had in almost ten years. Eager to start planning out my workload for the rest of the year, I began to lay out the spec screenplays I wanted to write, and the new television series that I wanted to develop. 

Best of all, I was now in a position to pick up the slack in my comics work. Years earlier, I’d been able to write three to four issues per month, and now that I was seeing clearly, I could easily begin producing as much as before, maybe more. I’d already decided that in the coming year I would finally allow Rising Stars and Midnight Nation to be optioned, and those moves would be a huge boost to the Joe’s Comics imprint. I started thinking about the new titles I wanted to create, and prior titles that I could bring back. Now that I was running at 110% there was nothing to stop me.

Except that small voice in the back of my head, the familiar, intimate voice that had been whispering stories in my ear every year since I was seventeen. It was the voice of every character in every story I’d ever written; the voice I heard when I knew it was time to leave San Diego for Los Angeles; the voice I heard the day I walked away from journalism and never went back; the same voice that told me I was done with animation and never went back. For years, that voice representing some part of my psyche eager for new challenges, would force me to walk away from what I knew I could do and start over with something less certain. 

And this was no exception.

"You’ve been writing comics long enough that you’ve become comfortable. You’re done. Move on. Let’s find a new challenge, something where we can start all over at the bottom. "

The weight of that decision felt like a fist closing around my heart. It wasn’t that I thought I was hot shit in comics, or that I’d figured it out - I think the day you decide you know all there is to know about any field of writing you’re pretty much finished - it was that need to reinvent, to start over, to step outside my comfort zone to see what was on the other side.

But I don’t want to move on, I thought back. This isn’t fair. I love comics.

Tough. Try something else, where there’s a good chance you’ll fail, something that will force you to take chances. 

Like what?

Credit: Image Comics / Joe's Comics

Novels and plays. You played with those a bit thirty years ago, but never really established yourself. Maybe you’ll succeed, and maybe you won’t. But it’s time to try.

That was the moment I knew that the comics phase of my work was over. As was the case when I left journalism, there is no animosity here, no stomping-my-little-foot, no I’ll show you! It just was, that’s all. I could try to fight it, but I knew from experience that such attempts never end well. So over the following months I turned down new assignments, finished several outstanding assignments, and began wrapping up the Joe’s Comics titles (Sidekick was next-to-last to be finished, and the scripts of the last two issues of Dream Police are done with #11 coming out this month).

Finally, July 22nd, 2016, I announced at San Diego Comic Con that I was getting out of the comics business. It’s been a hell of a run. 

And now it’s done.

From here on out the time I would normally spend writing comics for companies eager to publish them will be spent writing novels that publishers may never buy, and plays that may never get produced. I will be starting over from scratch, from absolute zero. 

It’s terrifying. 

It’s exhilarating. 

It’s life, you know?

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