Becoming Superman by J Michael Straczynski

(9.0/10)

If there is anything remarkable about my life, it is that I did not come out the other side a serial killer.

When I review a book, I’ll highlight passages I’ll want to refer to after I complete it. By the end of chapter two of J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography Becoming Superman I had already highlighted an obscene amount of passages and notes expressing a mix of shock, incredulity, and an unhealthy amount of swearing. Similar to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Tara Westover’s Educated, the first half of Joe’s life depicts a child raised by… let’s call it unconventional means.  But the similarities end there. Joe was raised by his parents and grandmother who were Polish immigrants and Nazi sympathizers. His father Charles is the pure embodiment of evil, a truly sick a vile man whose atrocities are too long to list, and he plays a central role in the story of Joe’s life. Charles is one of the most despicable humans I’ve had the displeasure of learning about, and he takes on the mantle of ‘head villain’ of Joe’s origin story. For Joe to overcome this villain and unearth his family’s various abhorrent secrets, he must rise above their absence of affection, their lack of morals, and their penchant for violence and abuse. Joe must become Superman.

The only thing more shocking than the early half of Joe’s life is what happens after. Joe’s story is one that needs to be told. How he didn’t end up dead, imprisoned, or worse is a testament to his strength of will and his determination to never compromise his values. “I swore to never settle for It’s better here, it’s safer here. I would take chances, even if that meant risking everything.” Joe’s life teetered between success and failure for decades, never being able to establish steady work more than a couple of years before it all blows up in his face. Although most of his early life was spent under constant threat of physical violence and emotional abuse, Joe never wavered from his principals, relying on the teachings of comic book heroes to guide his moral compass.

The horror stories from his childhood alone would be enough to sell plenty of books. But the fact that Joe became an iconic creator of She-Ra, an author of novels and dozens of short stories, the creator and show-runner of Babylon 5 and Sense 8, and screenwriter of Thor, Changeling, and other Hollywood films, is an incredible story on its own. It’s almost as if we’re getting two different life stories in one book. The writing is infused with humor and wisdom, with a sharp awareness that at times feels like Joe is an outside observer to his own experiences.

This book is explicitly detailed, and its many revelations are at times truly hard to believe. But the author addresses why these memoirs are so vividly recalled, especially during his early years:

There was no room for me to just be a kid, no place where I felt safe. My early memories are highly detailed because my environment was constantly changing. I became hypervigilant and self-reliant, meticulously logging everything around me and learning the rules that would allow me to adapt to wherever I was being dumped that week.

This book isn’t just Joe’s story, it’s a book about stories themselves: how they’re crafted and the process behind their creation, the massive failures, creative challenges, and the incremental successes that feel all too familiar. While I thankfully don’t share many early life experiences with Joe, there are many lessons learned that can easily be applied to any of our lives.

Becoming Superman is a valuable resource for those wishing to look behind the curtain to one of pop culture’s most cherished and esteemed writers. While at times painful and horrific, it also serves as a powerful inspiration for fighting through the very worst of situations to test your limits and realize your goals. It is an incredible story of familial abuse and its aftermath, of perseverance and fortitude, of endurance and determination. Highly recommended.  

It doesn’t matter if you’re seventeen, or fifty-seven--if you come from a poor background or a rich one, if you went to the best schools or the worst. It. Doesn’t. Matter. What matters is listening to the small voice at the back of your head that says this is what gives me joy.

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