J. Michael Straczynski returns to Southwestern College

J. Michael Straczynski during his Q&A-style talk “A Conversation with Joe,” on Oct. 14.
J. Michael Straczynski during his Q&A-style talk “A Conversation with Joe,” on Oct. 14.

J. Michael Straczynski walked into the Southwestern College Sun newsroom on Thursday afternoon, looked around at the young journalists and writers and told them how much the world needed them. The world, he said, needed their unique perspective, their stories and their voices.

He pointed to News Editor Cristofer Garcia and said, “no one can write a Cristofer Garcia story like you can.”

“That’s all you have as a writer,” Straczynski said, “your point of view and your courage.”

That kicked off his 90-minute, transformative conversation about writing, creativity, success and failure that left the members of The Sun stunned with inspiration. That talk was a precursor to an equally influential Q&A session with the campus community on Friday, “A Conversation with Joe,” hosted by the Southwestern College Foundation.

Straczynski is one of Southwestern College’s most inspirational and successful alumni. He’s regarded as one of the greatest and most respected science fiction and fantasy writers of all time and has had tremendous success in TV, animation, films and comic books.

He has written for “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Twilight Zone.” He created and wrote almost every episode of the cult classic “Babylon 5,” which is considered one of the best science fiction programs ever produced. He’s published more than 400 comic books for Marvel, DC and Image, including a seven-year influential run on “The Amazing Spider-Man.” His film credits include “Changeling,” “Thor” and “World War Z.” He recently teamed up with the Wachowskis (creators of “The Matrix”) on the Netflix series “Sense8.”

“What we learned from Mr. Straczynski today were lessons about faith in ourselves, courage of conviction, persistence, integrity and our place in the future,” said The Sun Adviser Max Branscomb after Straczynski’s visit to the newspaper. “He was brilliant, funny, provocative, honest and relatable.  It was a terrific presentation and a transformative experience for our students.”

About six years ago, Straczynski inspired a different generation of Sun journalists. When the newspaper was battling a previous administration that blocked it from printing an issue that was critical of the administration, Straczynski stepped in and wired $5,000 to The Sun’s printer. The newspaper immediately went to press.

Straczynski graduated in 1977 with an associate’s degree from Southwestern College and in 2013, he received Southwestern College’s highest recognition, an honorary degree.

Before his talk on campus, I chatted with the acclaimed writer via email about coming back to Southwestern College, working in so many different mediums, life as a writer and creator and where he’s heading next.

You’re coming back to Southwestern College for a Q&A-style talk, a chat with The Sun and walk down memory lane. Why come back to Southwestern College?

Kevin Spacey said recently that if you achieve any measure of success in your life, you have a moral and ethical obligation to send the elevator back down for the next person. I’ve lived my whole life by that tenet. For this reason, four years ago I reached out to two of my former teachers at my old high school, Chula Vista High, to help me establish a scholarship for the best writer graduating CVHS that year. I’ve also contributed extensively to the school’s Foundation.

Southwestern, in turn, was essential to my development as a writer, particularly in the area of scriptwriting. Through the theater department, run then by Bill Virchis, I saw my first, fledgling and to be honest, rather awful plays performed in front of an audience. It was a profoundly educational and bracing experience, as an audience owes you no loyalty. If the line works, they respond; if it doesn’t, they can be merciless in letting you know. Which is absolutely wonderful and exactly the kind of feedback a writer needs to learn what does and doesn’t parse. There’s what works on the page and what works on the stage, and sometimes they are the same thing and sometimes they are not. SWC was also the very first place to pay me to write something when Bill hired me to write a new (and again, rather awful in retrospect) take on Snow White, which ran in summer stock that summer at SWC. It was also the first play I ever saw published, and to my chagrin it not only remains in print from Baker’s Plays, it continues to be produced. I expect that fact to be entered into prosecutorial evidence should I ever be tried for crimes against humanity.

I attended three community colleges, and SWC remains my favorite. I’ve wanted to come back to speak for some time, but the work had me going through life like a man running for a bus, and traveling the world chasing stories and production. The work is still crazy — I’m busier this year than I’ve ever been in my life — but that just makes it even more essential to make time for worthy actions, and there can be little more worthy than letting the people who sit in the same classes I sat in years ago that amazing things are possible. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether you go to Harvard or SDSU (where I graduated); what matters is following the trajectory set out by your heart, your passions and your skills, especially in the arts.

In an environment where those who choose to follow their dreams are too often told they are being unrealistic, I think it’s important for someone to push back against that tyranny of reasonable voices to say that with hard work and even a modicum of talent, it is possible to achieve those things. And it’s equally important to hear that early, while people are still young enough to take that message to heart.

Straczynski with his former mentor and Southwestern College professor William Virchis.
Straczynski with his former mentor and Southwestern College professor William Virchis.

Your trajectory as a writer is an interesting one. How does one go from theater and journalism and end up creating the cult classic “Babylon 5,” writing influential runs of Spider-Man for Marvel Comics (plus, creator-owned series) and teaming up with the Wachowski sisters on “Sense8” all based on a foundation of writing?

I think it comes down to two things, one financial, the other artistic.

See, becoming a writer is easy. Staying a writer, that’s hard. So I’m a big believer in the three-legged stool theory of writing, meaning that to survive as an artist — whether in this field, acting or writing or any other branch of the arts — you should always endeavor to have three sources of income, so that if one of them goes away, you can lean back on the other two until you can find a replacement. Or as Dorothy Parker once said, “never put all your eggs in one bastard.” So at various parts of my career the three stools have been articles, plays and radio; other times, it was articles, animation, short stories; until recently it was TV, comics and movies. Now I’m kicking out the comics leg, even though I’ve been making a very good living at it for a very long time, and hoping I can screw on a leg based on writing novels. Otherwise it won’t be the stool that’s getting screwed.

The other reason is strictly artistic. The more you play in different venues, the more you learn that can be applied to other disciplines. Writing an article gives you tools you can use in writing a short story; writing a short story teaches you dialogue that you can use to write a TV script; writing a TV script gives you the confidence to write a movie script; writing a movie script teaches you how to structure a story on a larger canvas that you can use to write a novel. Everything feeds into everything else.

Writers, really artists of any stripe, have to be willing to try new things, which means walking away from the old things you’ve become comfortable with, which is hard for a lot of people. I’m a big advocate of experimentation and reinvention. Every so often you have to take stock of where you are, and if you’re happy there, great; if not, do something else.

Straczynski speaking to the Southwestern College Sun.
Straczynski speaking to the Southwestern College Sun.

It feels like your writing has taken you all over the world and given you projects young writers only dream of. Many begin their college careers as journalists and writers and get the, “Does that pay the bills?” question quite often.

This is what I referred to earlier as the Tyranny of Reasonable Voices: those friends and family members who genuinely want the best for you, and don’t want to see you fail. They four-wall you with concern and doubts and “maybe it’s better to play it safe” and “will you be able to make any money on that?” and “what if it doesn’t work out?” But as we’ve seen in this economy, with jobs being moved offshore and resources cut, there are no guarantees that anything will work out in the long run, so why not do what you enjoy?

There’s also the aspect of familiarity. There’s a line in the Bible, “A prophet is without honor only in his own village among his own people.” Meaning that those who know you have no reason to believe that you’re special because special people are not like the rest of us, and you’re just like the rest of us, so where do you get off thinking you’re going to change the world? Every artist or businessperson who succeeded beyond what anyone thought possible began by hearing “this is never going to work out.” Some keep going anyway, and change the world. Others fall by the wayside. Also, if you follow your dreams and succeed, it calls into question the decision by those around you who didn’t follow their own dreams, and that can be hard for people.

Finally, there’s the fact that whatever you start out doing — art, music, writing, directing, anything even tangentially related to the arts — you’re going to suck at it. That’s simply a given. Learning an art form is like drilling for oil: you have to pump out the mud and the yuck and the dinosaur bones before you get to anything worthwhile. The first day you walk into woodshop, are you going to make the Sistine Chapel? Or are you going to make a napkin holder (if you’re lucky and don’t cut off your thumb)? Why should the arts be any different? You have to learn your craft and that takes time. During that time, you are going to suck and no, you’re not going to make much of a living at it. But if you know that going in, then you can more easily bear the lean years — and trust me, they will be years — before you finally start to produce anything that anyone else is going to perceive as valuable enough to buy. Then you start to make a little money here, a little there, start to get a credit here, a credit there…and before you know it, you have a career. Careers accrete like lint on a sweater: you’re barely aware of it, then one day you brush your hand down the sweater and oh: there’s a career there.

Success in the arts is all about patience and the willingness to stick your hand in a bucket of bees and keep it there longer than anyone else thinks you can do it.

In May 2014, Straczynski received Southwestern College's highest recognition, an honorary degree.
In May 2014, Straczynski received Southwestern College’s highest recognition, an honorary degree.

As a creator, you’ve stayed relatively within geek culture, which has now become more mainstream. When I was growing up, it was almost shameful to have your comics out. How has that changed your experiences as a creator who’s never really strayed too far from those genres? Are you able to take more risks like with “Sense8”?

A not uncommon experience. To read comics was to be labeled a geek at a time when that was far from cool. For a while, comics were being blamed for everything from juvenile delinquency to drug addiction to crime. I had to sit and watch my father tear up my comic book collection when I was a kid, a run of comics that included just about every major silver age comic of the time, and which would now collectively be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s superficially true but not intrinsically true. I’ve also worked on mainstream TV shows like “Jake and the Fatman” (for which I’m still apologizing), “Murder, She Wrote” and “Walker Texas Ranger”; “Changeling,” arguably one of my more successful efforts, was a historical drama. So creatively I’m a bit of a mutt, which is a good thing because, as mentioned earlier, just as you grow as a writer by working in a variety of forms (short story, article, movie), you benefit by engaging in a wide range of genres (horror, mainstream, historical, SF and fantasy). Being grounded in mainstream writing helps make a fantasy or SF movie feel more real.

In terms of “Sense8,” while the unifying element (shared minds) is SF in nature, the individual stories are quite mainstream: Kala deciding if she wants to marry someone, Wolfgang dealing with gang warfare and his father’s legacy of cruelty, Capheus earning money to help take care of his mother…those are all universal, grounded, non-SF stories. We wanted to ensure that those individual stories were as compelling as the larger tale. As for the period: we could never have made “Sense8” in the 90s or, really, any time prior to the appearance of Netflix. It would never have lasted as a network series, and the content is a bit too challenging to have made it past the censors even five or 10 years ago.

How would “Babylon 5” do in a culture like today? A culture of streaming, more advanced technology and bigger audiences. Many people say it was ahead of its time. Do you wish you could’ve made this show today or was it the right fit for the 90s?

I think “Babylon 5” would do very well today because the themes are as relevant now as before, and may even be more relevant than previously. We discussed how the media shapes politics and political opinions; the rise of demagogues by using the threat of the Other, the one who is not like you; we had two characters going in as a married gay couple long before anyone else ever did it; and we were the first show anywhere with a five-year arc. We — if I am to be immodest, I — invented the damned thing. Prior to then, TV shows hit the reset button at the end of every episode. Soaps had (and have) arcs, but they’re freeform and meant to go on indefinitely. Once we did it, “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” and other shows picked up the structure and ran with it, so now it’s common. But we were the first.

The show was right for its period; if we were to make it now, it would be a different show because the culture is different and I’m a different (and one hopes slightly better) writer than I was 20 years ago. “Sense8” is more indicative of who I am now as a writer.

In terms of Big Two properties, is it inhibiting to write some of the most popular characters of all time like Superman and Spider-Man?

It’s both exciting and inhibiting. Exciting because you get to write a character known around the world. Superman is one of the three most recognizable characters in every country on the planet. Growing up, I based a lot of my own values and ethics on Superman; he was very much an icon for me. Spider-Man was also a huge influence, but not quite to the same degree as Superman. And inhibiting because you kind of have to write with mittens on. You can’t do anything that would break the character in a serious or permanent way. With your own characters, you can do whatever you want; with a franchise character, there are limitations because you’re just a steward on that book, it’s not yours. You have to return the character in more or less the same condition as it was when you got it.

What are you working on now? What’s on the horizon? I know “Sense8” season 2 has wrapped production, but they’re all sorts of cancellation rumors floating around online.

The “Sense8” “cancellation rumors” are just clickbait by a handful of interconnected sites that use that sort of thing to drive traffic to their sites. (It’s not just us, they do this with a variety of shows.) When you get there you always find out that no, there’s no evidence of this or even any indication, they’re just looking for clicks. They were saying season 2 was canceled while we were right in the middle of shooting season two. They’re idiots and should be treated as such.

So we’re now in the process of post-production on season two, and Netflix will air a Christmas special this Winter followed by the rest of the season in the spring.  I’m currently writing a movie for MGM based on my “Rising Stars” comics, adapting my “Midnight Nation” graphic novel as a series for Universal, I’ve signed to do two more TV projects that I can’t talk about until they’re officially announced, I’m finishing my autobiography which we will take to auction in November (preferred) or January, if we can’t get the pieces in place in time before the Christmas break, and working on my first novel in 30 years.  It’s an insane schedule but great.  Each year for the last five years has been the busiest year of my career, and that’s a good place to be at this point in life.

I read about you leaving comics, the huge transition in your life and moving on to novels and plays. It’s funny that you’re playing in a sandbox (plays and theater) you were playing in very early in your career and you’re coming back to one of the places that first produced them, Southwestern College.

Things have a habit of turning full-circle. I’ve been seeing that a lot in my life lately.  What goes around, comes around. Which again points to my desire to come back and kind of inspire the next bunch of folks the way I found inspiration and the confidence to pursue my dreams while attending Southwestern. Nobody can guarantee success if you follow your dreams — any more than they can guarantee success if you just do the Common Sense Job — but that’s not the point of the conversation. The point is that success is possible. I’m not the most personable guy on the planet or the best looking, I’m a pain in the ass and I have the social skills of a tumbleweed, but if I can do it, then frankly anybody can do it.