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SDCC 08: Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski
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NeverWanderer   |  

Geeks of Doom Invade SDCC 2008

“If you ever have an opportunity to see J.M. Straczynski speak live, do it.”

Seems like you can’t read a single article regarding the man’s work without having this piece of advice thrown your way. Indeed, the creator of hit sci-fi show Babylon 5 and prolific writer of such comic titles as Amazing Spider-Man, Supreme Power, and The Mighty Thor has built himself a reputation as not only a groundbreaking creative force, but an entertaining public speaker as well! “¨

This fact made my decision to attend his “Spotlight on”¦” panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con all the easier.

I’d sat through two panels before his (one of which — the Grant Morrison/Gerard Way affair — can be read about here), both of which had that sort of low-calorie rock concert feel to them. You know what I’m talking about”¦ a room the size of a school auditorium”¦ a small stage upon which sits a few long tables and a row of chairs”¦ the lights go dim and the deep-throated announcer welcomes you to the show and introduces the guest(s) of honor”¦ moderate applause fills the room as the speakers mount the stage, waving to the crowd”¦ and then sit down and sip from their plastic cups of water. It’s the Diet Coke of venues.

(right now, Empress Eve and Dave3 are cursing my name; they were both stuck in Hall H(ell) most of the weekend while I was kickin’ it in 6B. I knew it was a good idea to avoid those movie panels”¦)

This, however, was a little different. There was no dimming of lights, no buzz of anticipation. Amidst the pre-panel murmur, Straczynski entered the room to little fanfare and no introduction (though his coming could be felt through the light wave of applause guiding him to the stage). He simply stepped up, set his briefcase down, picked up his mic, smiled to the audience, and said, “Hi.”

This would be the atmosphere of the hour. Light and amiable; like having a conversation with old friends. He started off by explaining his method. “Typically, the way I do these things is, I’ll open the floor to questions, and sort of leave the flow of the conversation up to you guys.” No sooner had he said this than a line had formed around the single floor mic… and I was somewhat surprised to find myself standing on it.

Y’see, I was never really drawn to Babylon 5 when it was on, and I’d only read one, maybe two issues at most, of the man’s work on Spider-Man“¦ but the one story of his that I have read, and reread… and reread”¦ is a fantastic little book called Midnight Nation. This was a comic that drew me in with its opening movements of dark, supernatural detective fiction, and then, by the second issue, had completely dropped that facade for a completely new direction that I never expected. Sure, the writing had its flaws, but this was a case of the good so far outweighing the bad that I didn’t just forgive the flaws, I forgot about them altogether.

This was a story — one of the few! — that truly touched me and made me think.

(And, if you’ll allow me to put on my reviewer hat for a second, I think it is a story that everybody should check out. The path it takes you down may seem familiar, but it is handled in such an original way, and the plights of the characters so insightful and emotionally resonant, that I think it can win over even the most jaded critic, so long as they’re willing to give it a chance. Gets an A- from me.)

So, there I stood on line, only four or five people ahead of me, and I realized I had NO idea what to ask. I started wracking my brain for any questions the book may have left lingering in my mind”¦

Meanwhile, the folks in front of me asked theirs:

– First, the screenplay adaptation he had written based on the Max Brooks novel, World War Z, was brought up by one fan who had actually had an opportunity to read it online. “Wait, you read it?!” Straczynski gasped, before smiling conspiratorially and asking, “Did you like it?”

The fan laughed and nodded, saying he’d enjoyed it quite a bit. JMS went on to explain how much he’d enjoyed working on that script, and how important he felt it was to faithfully capture every heartwrenching detail of the story. He assured the audience that all the most important parts of the book would be preserved in the script, to which the fan nodded his agreement.

– Any chances of a Babylon 5 spin-off in the future?

Sadly, no. Straczynski explained that after his last direct-to-DVD B5 movie was ruined by a shoddy production values, he had refused offers from the studio to make another. He didn’t want to disrespect the fans of the show by churning out sub-par, low-budget movies, diluting the quality of what had already been created. As he is the sole owner of the rights to that universe, he flat-out stated that if the studio wanted him to make another movie, it would be a big-budget theatrical release or nothing.

(which was met with applause and whistles)

– Whatever became of the Babylon 5 video game?

Same story. Warner Bros was not willing to give Straczynski the money he needed to make a worthwhile game, so scrapped the project.

– The gentleman in front of me brought a question all the way from his college professor back home: Had Straczynski ever considered writing a book on producing?

After lightly ribbing the question-asker about his grade point average, Straczynski admitted that he had considered writing such a book, or perhaps teaching a course on the subject.

And, suddenly, I was at the mic. Luckily, while trying to commit as many of these questions to memory as I could, I also managed to come up with a couple of my own:

– First, was Midnight Nation always intended to be a finite series, or were there elements that had been set up but never explored for whatever reason?

The answer was no, it was always intended to be that story and only that story. He said that when he began the project, the final scene in the book was the only goal he ever had in mind.

– Second, citing something he’d said in the book’s afterword, was Midnight Nation still his most personal story, or had it since been surpassed?

In response, he explained that everyone had an “it” in their lives, with which they could define their lives before “it” and after “it”, and that it was during this time that he conceived the story. Midnight Nation represented for him a time of great change, and he admitted that there were still parts of the story that would make him cry when he read them. He ended by revealing that he had recently begun the process of adapting Midnight Nation into a feature film, and that, yes, it was still his most personal story.

At which point, all I could say was, “Thanks for writing it.” And I headed back to my seat.

…which was now occupied by someone else. Shooting the seat-stealer the evil eye, I made my way to the other side of the room, where there were still empty seats left, and listened to the rest of the questions:

– He spoke about his work as writer and story editor for The Real Ghostbusters animated series for DiC Entertainment (“DiC, which stood for, “˜Do it Cheap.'”) and he revealed that that job had proved to be one of the most fullfilling creative experiences of his life. He also surprised the squealing fan with the fact that the series was finally being released on DVD”¦ today… in the convention hall downstairs.

– He next spoke at length about his upcoming film project, The Changeling. Produced by Brian Grazer, starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Clint Eastwood from the first draft of a script Straczynski had written in 11 days (!), The Changeling, he explained, is the true story of a single mother’s search for her missing son, and how the rampant corruption of the 1920s LAPD led to a bizarre chain of events that would change her life forever.

– He next fielded a question about fellow writer and good friend Harlan Ellison, which prompted him to tell a story about his own evolution as a writer. In his youth, he had the ability to mimic other writers’ styles, but no matter how well he copied other people, the most difficult lesson to learn was that being a writer meant finding your own voice.

– Finally, someone asked him a question they’d worried might be too taboo (to which his response was, “With me, nothing is taboo.”) about the events surrounding his departure from The Amazing Spider-Man and his controversial final storyline “One More Day.” With grace and aplomb, Straczynski explained the conversations he’d had with Marvel Editor in Chief, Joe Quesada, in which Quesada pitched and all but dictated to him what the story was to be. Though Straczynski may have disagreed with the direction, it was Quesada’s job to preserve the well-being of the character, and Straczynski respected his role in that light.

And with the final question answered, and people starting to file into the room for the next panel, Straczynski smiled one more time to the audience, said “Thank you,” put down the mic, picked up his briefcase, and left the stage.

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