Biographies are not part of my usual “reading menu”, but in this very special case I decided to make an exception: J. Michael Strackzynski (JMS for brevity) is the creator – among an amazing number of other works in several mediums – of the SF show Babylon 5, which I consider the peak of televised storytelling, and not just where science fiction is concerned. It was Babylon 5 which brought me to this book, because I’m in the middle of the complete rewatch of the series I’ve been promising myself for a while: since I’ve been aware of JMS’ autobiography for some time, I decided to read it in the hope of gleaning a few more details about the creation of my favorite show.
What I found was a completely unexpected account of a dreadful childhood, a harrowing youth and a constant, never-ending struggle to keep faith with the uncompromising moral compass that was born as a reaction to those early horrors. I am not going to dwell on those details from JMS’ past, suffice it to say that his childhood and youth can be labeled as a nightmare whose main players were an abusive, alcoholic and control-freak father, a psychically troubled mother incapable of defending herself or her children, and a grandmother about whom the less said, the better. Add to that a constant status of extreme poverty and endless moves across the country that prevented JMS from forming any lasting friendships, and you have the “perfect” recipe for disaster: he himself, at some point, writes that “If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer”.
What prevented him from turning to a life of crime or from becoming, in turn, an abuser or worse? Comic books – and more precisely the character of Superman, who gave the young JMS a role model to draw inspiration and guidance from, and a set of stories whose heroes made choices based on a set of moral guidelines that were sorely lacking from his home life. There is a passage in the book in which the author describes the moment in which he realized he had a choice in front of him, that of following in his father’s footsteps or to negate this “heritage” and walk in the opposite direction: in that passage he tells how he drew a list of his father’s most frequent behaviors, and a list of all their antitheses that would guide his life from then on, and to which he would adhere without fail. And now that I’ve read this book, and this particular section, one of my favorite quotes from Babylon 5 comes to mind, and takes a deeper shade of meaning:
There is always choice. We say that there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with a decision we have already made.
Harsh as childhood and youth were for JMS, his adult life turned out to be one of struggle still, not only with financial issues but with his career as a writer: having discovered the power of narrative, he chose to become a crafter of stories in many different mediums, from animation to comic books to television and movies, but always keeping his unwillingness to compromise front and center, which did not help in dealing with censors or studio executives or all those “powers that be” convinced they knew better than anyone what the public wanted – or deserved. What others might have labeled as a difficult personality, is instead a steadfast faithfulness to one’s own principles, even at the cost of losing everything: we can find this kind of attitude in many of his characters, which are heroes not because they perform great deeds, but because they are average people who find the courage to do the right thing in the most challenging circumstances, without ever giving up on the basic principles of decency and humanity. It’s indeed not surprising that in the course of Babylon 5’s arc the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses are often quoted as a message in that direction:
[…] to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Given what I’ve learned from this autobiography, what so far was mere admiration for JMS’s writing skills in the creation of memorable characters delivering even more memorable lines (many of which I know by heart), turned into admiration for the person behind those stories, for the individual who had the moral fortitude to escape from the injuries of a terrible past and turn into a powerful, talented and inspirational storyteller. Becoming Superman is a hard book to read at times, and yet it’s also a compelling one because of the underlying hope it manages to convey even in the bleakest moments, just as one of his characters says:
[…] hope that there can always be new beginnings – even for people like us.
I can only highly recommend this book: if you are aware of JMS’ work, it will open a new, enlightening window into his creative process; and if you are not, maybe it will drive you on a journey of discovery. In the end, you will find out that it was quite worth it.