Earlier this month I had the opportunity to sit down with creator J. Michael Straczynski, widely known as JMS, to talk about his past, present, and future. JMS has had long tenures as the creator and head writer for Babylon 5, a long and well-received run on Thor and Spider-Man, time spent as a journalist, script writer, and much more. Straczynski was a willing participant as he fielded all manner of questions about him being a control freak, how he tried to hide from the crossover events that he clashed with in The Amazing Spider-Man by taking over Thor, and how he plans to utilize the Joe’s Comics imprint at Image Comics. Hit the jump for a full transcript of my interview.
Joe Michael Straczynski: To everyone’s amazement. [Both laugh]
You’ve worked on my side of the fence where you’re interviewing people. You’ve worked on the other side of the fence where you’re being interviewed. You’ve worked in television, film…
Straczynski: So the fence is obviously the problem.
I can imagine you’ve had a lot of projects where you were interested—and creative people talk about it all the time where they may have a project and it falls apart and it hurts—do you have any that have really stuck in your gut? Maybe even some you wish to get back to?
Straczynski: Well, certainly. In terms of things that started and fell apart, Crusade would be an example of that—a TV show I did. In terms of things that never got made, there’s a lot of things I’ve written over the years that I would have liked to have seen made. But to the readers, that wouldn’t have any context. If I said The Grays (perhaps the planned Wolfgang Peterson film?), you’d have no context for what that is. I try not to dwell on that stuff. I tend to look forward, never backward. As Don Quixote says, “In last year’s nests there are no birds this year.” So I always look forward.
You had this very famous run on Babylon 5 where you wrote over 90 of the 110 episodes. How would you characterize working with yourself? To outsiders, that would seem like you are a control freak. Would you say that that was just your baby?
Straczynski: Well, I am a control freak. I will admit that freely. It didn’t start out that way. It was going to be more of a freelance oriented show. But I did half the first year scripts, did half the second year scripts, and by the third year it go so interwoven that I couldn’t say to a writer, ‘Start it here, end it there.’ It all started to blend. So I told Warners [Bros.] I’d just write it myself. And they said, ‘Shit, we’re not sure about letting you do this, but take a shot at it.’ So I did it and Warners [Bros.] was very, very happy and said, ‘Can you do that again?’ Sure, so I did the fourth season on my own. I had been chasing Neil Gaiman for years to do a script for me. And just to make me shut the fuck up he finally said, ‘I’ll do one for you.’ I did all but one of the fifth [season], which was Neil’s script, and then I wrote the TV movies we produced. I like writing. It’s partly control freak, and partly I really like what I do for a living. I have the luckiest job in the world. I can get up every day and do what I love for a living.
Straczynski: I tried to call it ‘The Barely Adequate Spider-Man’, but that didn’t do so well. [Both laugh]
So you signed this exclusivity deal with Marvel where basically, that was your only writing output as far as comics is concerned.
Were you able to still pursue other avenues? Maybe not go ahead and write them, but maybe pursue them or was that a full-time gig?
Straczynski: That was a full-time gig. In terms of the comics, certainly. I was doing other things on television elsewhere. But as far as the comics, that was all of it. I did Jeremiah during that run for Showtime, and shot [Babylon 5: The Lost Tales], but for comic books, yeah. And I was able to do all sorts of stuff I wanted to do. The problem with my tenure at Marvel is the fact that they started to get more and more event oriented.
The crossovers and stuff like that?
Straczynski: Yea. I’m all for crossovers if they benefit the individual books. But it was feeling more and more like the individual characters were being bent towards the event in ways I didn’t think were appropriate. I mean to make Reed Richards a bad guy in Civil War… I just never bought into that. And that Captain America would surrender to a mob? I never bought into that. The more you have characters doing things that they wouldn’t do, because you want it for an event, I just had an increasingly hard time with that. And you can see why after a while, I pulled back from that. Which is why I hid in Thor. I said, ‘I’ll do this book but don’t touch me with the other events.’ It was a character that nobody wanted to write because nobody knew how do deal with him. They offered it to Mark Millar, who ran screaming into the night, they offered it to Neil Gaiman. I said, ‘I’ll write him.’ And my idea was, ‘leave me the fuck alone.’ Just write this character.
Straczynski: Yea. And every book we did was in the top 10 every single month. There wasn’t much action. It was just the character story. ‘Great, I can finally be left alone.’ And then, ‘We’re doing Siege of Asgard.’ ‘Fuck, really? No one wanted to touch this character two years ago, and now you want to make an event around him?’
Yea, you almost did what you didn’t want.
Straczynski: Yea, so I made him…
You made him into this guy.
Straczynski: Yes, I fucked myself.
Straczynski: I called [Marvel Publisher] Dan Buckley and said, ‘I heard what your plans are for this. Everything I’ve done, it’s going to be shot to hell.’ Similar to how Spider-Man was shot to hell with One More Day, which was Joe Quesada’s thing. And that’s when I said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’
As a reader of comics, one of the biggest frustrations especially for the main titles, is the bringing back of characters after they’ve been dead in a book. [Frank Miller] created Elektra, and killed her. Then they brought her back when he left Daredevil. That’s one of the biggest frustrations for a main Marvel fan. Because nobody’s going to die, or nobody’s going to stay dead, so where is the drama? Where are the lasting effects?
Because otherwise it just turns into a Scooby-Doo episode where everything’s back to normal. So is that a highlight of being able to create your own IPs (intellectual property)? Being able to kill people?
Straczynski: Yea, and I think for any writer, creating and controlling your own property is the ultimate dream. Where you’re not getting dumb studio notes. At least now they will be my dumb studio notes, not somebody else’s. I hope to be really good at that some day. I created this out of self-defense, really. Which is how my whole career has been run, for the most part. When I came on in television, I would write a script and someone would rewrite it. Well, ‘Who rewrote me?’ ‘The story editor.’ ‘Well, I want his job.’ And then I became a story editor, and someone rewrote my stuff. ‘Well, who did that?’ ‘The producer.’ ‘I want his job.’ It wasn’t about the money or about the title, it was I just didn’t want my stuff messed with by somebody else. Not that I’m better or worse than somebody else, but it’s my own voice. So now with our own studio, we can do what we want to do. I can shape it the way I want to shape it. And if we can sell it, great. If not, I got to do this my way.
Straczynski: For me, the Joe’s Comics imprint always stood for one thing, which was quality. We did Rising Stars, we did Midnight Nation, which remains to this day to be really strong critically reviewed books. When I signed the Marvel exclusivity agreement, I sat that aside. A lot of people have been saying, ‘When are you going to be doing more creator-owned stuff?’ I really hadn’t had the opportunity to revisit that. But now that we’re launching [Studio JMS], let’s bring back the comics. Part one of the operation. Bring back Joe’s Comics. We’re going to launch four comics next spring, and they’re all going to be eccentric, unusual, and strange books. But these are things I want to write.
Coming from the fan perspective, one of the biggest issues for me is backcatalog things. For a lot of comics, there may have been very popular runs on comics but they’re not re-issued in trade paperbacks or collected editions where it’s easier to find. Versus seeking out the singles or things like that. How do you think that plays out and you have Studio JMS where you’re collecting all of your works. Film, books, things like that. Do you get that kind of control? Where you can say, ‘No, I want to do a trade paperback.’
Straczynski: Yea. We can do whatever we want. That’s the cool thing about the deal with Image. They said, ‘Look, this is yours. You know what you’re doing. You have a reputation. Do what you want. If you want to do a graphic novel, whatever it is, just go ahead and do it.’ And our plan is, four titles, and we’ll launch them in stages. So title one comes out by itself for about six months. Then title two comes out and the two will be running side-by-side. Then either four or six months later the third one comes out. First one is done. And then we’ll take a break on each one of these. Like the British serials. They’ll shoot like five or six episodes, then stop, reassess, then do the next batch. I want to have time. When you’re doing a monthly book, you’re like a man racing after a bus. You’re breathless and red-faced. I want to build in quality control. We’ll do 12 issues, stop, put them into a graphic novel. While you’re doing that, evaluate what you did right and what you did wrong, course correct. Take advantage of that gap. Then do the next 12. So it’s a monthly but not a monthly. It’s a series of 12 and 12 and 12 and 12. And if we want to do one or two fill-in issues, we can do that.
Straczynski: The first twelve of each one I will write. For the next twelve either I will write them or I will co-write them with somebody else. Then down the road we’ll look into the possibility of I’ll do the story and then break it up and hand it to somebody else. I think if it’s called Studio JMS, you kind of want to know that I’m doing it. But at the same time I think it’s important to at least open up the door for possible collaborations with writers I’d love to work with. There’s a lot of comics writers out there whose work I appreciate and who are nice guys. I really want to work with guys I really respect and enjoy. I’m not saying Neil would ever do it, but if I said, ‘Neil, I’m going to do up to year two of this book, and then why don’t you and I come play a while on year three? We’ll write it together and just have some fun.’ That would be great.
I’d love to see you and Neil work together. That’d be great. So you’re going to be exploring a lot of different avenues with Studio JMS. So what do you have lined up?
Straczynski: We’ve got two series that are in development right now. One with Starz called Vlad Dracula, which is that far from being picked up. We have Epidemic, with Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, which is also about to be picked up. And we have a movie that I want to shoot in Berlin next year (the tentatively titled The Flickering Light), which is partially financed already. Once we get the cast together and the rest of the money in place. We’re doing web series. We made a contract with MTV to do The Adventures Of Apocalypse Al, which is now in the process of being made. We’re doing another web series called Living Dead: The Musical. The whole genesis of this is to create side deals with companies, whether it’s Image or MTV, that will allow us to have a self-sufficient company that pays for itself. So we can avoid having to make a deal with the studio to survive. So we’re all over the map. These are things that are actually going ahead. A lot of people start companies and want to get into these areas, and we’re already there. One thing that I bring to the table is… there are a lot of folks that have a bigger footprint than me in movies, or in TV, or in comics, but not all three. I own that.
As a wrap-up, your run on Babylon 5 took a lot of time. It doesn’t seem like you’ve jumped into anything, besides The Amazing Spider-Man, that is going to suck up all your time lately. Is that something you’re trying to avoid or something that just hasn’t come around yet?
Straczynski: It has to come in the same sense, but now that we’re doing this series, if either one of these goes ahead, that’s going to be a self-absorbing process. So I’ve been dining a la carte, but now I’m ready to go to the buffet and I’m ready to have a lot of fun.