Writer J. Michael Straczynski made his mark in comic books in the late 90s with the Top Cow series Rising Stars. He followed that up with an extended tenure at Marvel Comics penning several of their key titles, most notably Amazing Spider-Man and Thor. In recent years he’s found himself across the proverbial street at DC Comics, writing Brave & the Bold as well as other titles. Straczynski came to comics at a time where he was renowned in geek circles as the founder and “Great Maker” so to speak of the television series Babylon 5, and in recent years he’s returned to film as a screenwriter of such films as Changeling and Ninja Assassin. But far from a carpetbagger, Straczynski has made comics his home more than any other writer coming from the film world. And Newsarama has spoken to him on numerous occasions about his projects both in comics and film.
We began our conversation with J. Michael Straczynski yesterday talking about one of the biggest projects on the comics horizon: Superman: Earth One. In this second of a five-part series, we continue in the DC playground talking about his primary comic book series The Brave & the Bold and his broader thoughts on DC and his first comics work back in 1987 on Teen Titans. Straczynski, or “JMS” has he’s known by his fans, talks extensively about his projects at DC as well as his working relationship with DC Universe Executive Editor Dan DiDio.Newsarama: Moving on to your other ongoing comic series The Brave & the Bold, this for many people has been your de facto home title for several months now after regular stints on Amazing Spider-Man and Thor. How has it been to write this title?
J. Michael Straczynski: It's been just an awful lot of fun. I get to play anywhere I want in the DC Universe, with pretty much any character I want to utilize, at any point in time in or out of continuity...how is that not any fan's dream?
Nrama: Your recent Green Lantern/Dr. Fate issue was remarkable, and reminded me of some of the best standalone Babylon 5 episodes where you got to really play with politics and social situations without it turning into big fight scene. How’d this issue come about?
JMS: I approached the book looking for what characters had never (or rarely) been teamed up, and for characters that allowed me to examine thematic issues, between whom there were philosophical differences I could counterpoint in the story. So I was looking at Green Lantern, and thinking about how much will is important to that character and the operations of the ring. So what's the opposite of will? Or, put differently, free will? Well, if we go back to Philosophy 101, the opposite of free will is determinism, that we all have a destiny or a fate. Fate? Waitasec...isn't there a DC character who is all about fate? That gave me the characters, who I then put into a situation fundamental to any aspect of a discussion of free will vs. fate -- a life or death decision -- and then just sat back and let them take it from there.
Nrama: Coming up you’ve got a trio of women teaming up - Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Zatanna. People are really buzzing about it. What can you tell us about it?
JMS: Obviously the desire was there to tell a story about what characters like this do in their free time, to blow off steam. So that's the starting point. But there also needed to be more than that, something more to chew on...so that's there as well, but I can't say too much more without spoiling the issue.
Nrama: After this, you’re doing a two-part story arc featuring two sets of teams taking on something from different angles. What can you tell us about that?
JMS: I like experimenting. So in looking at team-ups, I thought, is there any way to play with the format? What if we told a story in one issue from one point of view, then chronicled the same events in the next issue from a totally different point of view, with different characters, so that it was actually a totally different story?
As a writer, it was a great exercise in showing how to take the same premise and unravel it in two different ways, one serious, one comic. So in the first issue, the Legion of Superheroes goes back in time to recruit another team -- it turns out to be the Doom Patrol -- to help them deal with a crisis in their time. Fine and dandy. The next issue shows the League of Substitute Heroes getting word of the same crisis, and deciding to show that they're just as capable as the Legion to handle it...and go back to recruit a team to help out...and end up with the Inferior Five. They then return to their time and everything they do is absolutely counter-productive to what the Legion is doing at the same time. So they're parallel stories occupying the same space and the same time from two totally different perspectives, with different tones and very different results.
Nrama: In an interview over at CBR, you said you promised DC Editorial that by 2011 you’d have Brave & the Bold squarely in the top 30. I’d doubt you, but you did it with Thor quite quickly. Can you tell us about that, and what you have planned to get Brave & the Bold there?
JMS: When I took on Thor, my determination was to get that book into the top 10 and keep it there. Everybody thought I was nuts, especially when I decided to set Asgard in Oklahoma. A lot of what I do is counter-intuitive. I look at what I should be doing, then go in the exact opposite direction. (Some call it counter-intuitive, some call it perverse or just bull-headed.) It's very chancy, because if you're wrong, the fall from grace is HUGE. It seemed I was in for such a fall on Thor with those aspirations...but we got it into the top ten and kept it there through just about every issue I wrote. (I think there was one where we got bumped down to 11 or so.)In terms of Brave & the Bold, when I took it on it was in the 90s or 100s. Which is why nobody could figure out why I took it in the first place, rather than a major character in a major title. But first and foremost, again, was the freedom to play, to do anything with anyone, in or out of continuity. That's just so freeing, especially given past circumstances. Second was the fact that nobody ever really expects an anthology book to be a big seller, because common wisdom says you need ongoing characters and an ongoing story to draw the interest of readers. I took that as a challenge. So yes, if we follow the plan that I've worked out with Dan DiDio and Brave & the Bold editor Joey Cavalieri, and if that plan is successful, then at some point by the end of 2010 this book will be in the top 20 or 30. I don't know how long I can keep it there, but at least getting it there is my goal. Like I said, I like to risk falling on my face, because you never accomplish anything worthwhile unless you're willing to embrace the possibility of failure. So we'll see. But I think we have a reasonably good chance of making this work.
Nrama: Although people may not know this, your first comics work was back at DC in 1987 with a piece in Teen Titans Spotlight #13 What’s it like to return, and how has it changed?
JMS: It's kind of hard to judge because when I wrote that issue of Teen Titans Spotlight, I was working with Bob Greenberger and really didn't have any exposure to the higher editorial echelons. I don't really have enough information to arrive at an informed opinion.
Nrama: Fair enough. How would you describe your relationship with DC currently?
JMS: Couldn't be better or spiffier. When Dan came to me about Superman: Earth One and Brave & the Bold, he said basically, do whatever you want, our job is to support that vision, and they've been utterly terrific in keeping that promise. Dan zips out to the Left Coast every few months -- more recently of late -- and he makes the time to get together for dinner to discuss where we are, what I might want to do next, the ways they might be able to use me or back up any ideas I might have...seriously, he and they couldn't be more gracious.
When the editorial chairs changed at Marvel ten years ago, the hardest thing to communicate to writers and artists working in the field was that the place had changed, that it wasn't what it was or what you thought it was before. There was a lot of broken glass to sweep off the floor. What I'd say here to a lot of creators out there is that for as corporate a place as it was, DC has really grown into a place that welcomes a wide range of points of view and talents and approaches. And a lot of that has to do with Dan DiDio.
I'm known for not pulling my punches in terms of talking about working conditions or hassles or problems with editors or companies even while (especially while) I'm working for them. It's really easy to be brave once you're out the door, so if you're unhappy about something, be willing to put your job where your mouth is, or get out. I've never been shy about it, whether it costs me work or not, whether it's a publishing company or a studio or a network. I'm pretty much known for being a pain in the ass for executives of all stripes. So when I say to other creators out there, come on in, the water's fine...you know I'm not B.S.-ing you.
Nrama: You’re working on Superman, you’ve done the Red Circle, and you have practically your pick at anyone by writing Brave & the Bold. But is there any big fish you want to reel in for a story at some point?
JMS: Mr. D and I have been talking about some options, some of which involves other major characters at DC. It may materialize soon, so I don't want to say anything to get ahead of the train. We'll see where it goes. But I will tease out one thing: it looks like I'll be doing something that involves one of the top tier characters at DC that could be one of the big comics stories of the year, and which could attract a substantial amount of attention from the mainstream press. So we'll see. If we do this -- and we'll know in the next few weeks -- it'll be a real challenge for me. And I love challenges.
Nrama: You’re coming into working for DC pretty much exclusively in comics after years at Marvel. There at the “House of Ideas” you were deeply involved for years, writing several of their key titles. How would you compare and contrast your role their during its heyday and what you do now with DC?JMS: That's a really, really hard question to answer. In a way, working with DC now is a lot like what it was to work with Marvel for the first four or five years after I came over exclusively. There's great relations all around, I'm left to my own devices most of the time, but the most important thing is the work. After I'm dust, nobody's going to care whether or not I had a good time at one company or another, and rightly so. All that will matter is what's on the shelf, if it's good or if it sucks, if it was written with mittens on or in full flight. That's one of the other lessons I learned from theater: when the audience comes in for that day's show, they don't care and shouldn't care if you had a good day or a bad day, or if you just came off a big argument with the director or another cast member, they're there to see a performance, and your obligation is to deliver to the best of your ability. So what happens on a personal basis really shouldn’t matter. My job at Marvel was to write to the best of my ability. That's my task at DC. So on that basis, there's no difference in terms of the work itself.
Never fear… The Week of JMS rolls on tomorrow as we travel from DC to Marvel and look into the culmination of The Twelve and his relationship with Marvel and Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada.
Chris Arrant is a freelance writer that's written about comics for Newsarama, Publishers Weekly, CBR, TOKYOPOP and Marvel Comics. For more, visit his website at www.chrisarrant.com.