I’ve been fortunate in life in so many ways – so far, as one must always qualify. While I’m well aware that good health is always at risk of vanishing without notice, mine to date has been generally robust despite a family history that stacks the odds against it. (I am the last of my immediate family still standing, as I have been for nearly two decades.) Whatever health issues have arisen have been my own fault, e.g. caps for teeth (floss more!) or, just last week for the first time ever, a touch of gout in the right foot (eat better!) that cleared up in a few days. Another piece of pure luck (I obviously had nothing to do with it) is having grown up in a caring and supportive family. There were no psychically destructive childhood horrors to overcome later in life beyond the inescapable ones faced even by the Beaver and his brother Wally. I managed to take some very wrong turns as an adult anyway (the consequences of my choices have not been as charmed as those of French Stewart in the 3rd Rock clip below), but like the health issues they have been entirely my fault – and temporary.
There is a curious downside to a wholesome upbringing and minimal trauma beyond the inescapable ones. (We all lose people along the way.) Creativity thrives on bad experiences. To be sure, a Beaver-esque soul can self-motivate to create anyway and to seek out experiences. Hemingway had nice parents and a comfortable upper-middleclass childhood yet did pretty well as a writer for example. (For all his towering reputation, Hemingway wrote plenty of absolute garbage by the way, but when he was good he was excellent.) Yet trauma when it doesn’t crush completely (as it too often does) can drive people to create and produce in a way that prosperity struggles to match. I remember a decade ago in the cinema watching the movie The Runaways based on Cherie Currie’s autobiography Neon Angel. Despite (or because of) a dreadful home life, Currie became the band’s lead singer at age 15. A friend with whom I was watching the film commented, “You know, our families were just way too functional.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It ruined our careers,”
We were joking, of course, but not entirely. In truth, my most productive period for fiction including my one full-length novel was in the few years following the worst years of my life. (Years, once again, for which I blame only my own choices.) Words flowed more easily onto pages than they had before or have since.
These somewhat rambling thoughts came to mind after reading Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops along the Way at Murder, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes, an autobiography by J. Michael Straczynski. Outside of scifi fan circles Straczynski is not a household name, but the work of this prolific novelist, journalist, comic book writer (for both Marvel and DC), TV animation scriptwriter, live-action TV scriptwriter (Babylon 5 was his personal creation), and screenwriter (Changeling, Thor, World War Z, et al) is almost impossible to avoid. By “becoming Superman,” Straczynski does not mean attaining “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” He means the adoption of a moral code and personal outlook attainable by anyone.
To call Straczynski’s childhood impoverished and hellish would be to make it sound far too pleasant. Straczynski describes his father as a hard-drinking literal Nazi (he kept the WW2-vintage uniform in the closet) con man who kidnapped his mother from a brothel in Seattle and then beat her and their children mercilessly over the course of their lives together. The physical abuse was matched by shockingly mean-spirited and manipulative verbal kinds. His mother, he tells us, had mental issues and tried to kill him as a boy at least twice: once by smothering him and once by pushing him off a roof. He was caught by wires when falling from the roof, preventing him from splatting on the concrete. They were not June and Ward Cleaver. Straczynski retreated into comic books, identifying especially with Superman’s quest to fit into a world in which he didn’t really belong. It would have been easy enough to be crushed by a family background like this but Straczynski saw his path out his mess when, yet a young teen, he realized he didn’t have to be like his father. He could choose to be different: “The most important aspect to negate was my family’s sense of victimization… They believed that since they had been mistreated, they were entitled to do the same to others without being questioned or criticized.” Refusing to be defined by his abusive family “would allow me to decide what I wanted to do with my life” and the kind of person he wanted to be. Straczynski doesn’t make light of the physical, social, and psychological obstacles to be overcome with this kind of starting point, but in existentialist fashion stresses the ultimate power of choice.
Writing became Straczynski’s therapy, as it is for so many authors. In one of those odd twists that sometimes happen in life, Straczynski was tagged by DC back in 2010 to write three Superman graphic novels. The character still resonates with him: “Being kind, making hard decisions, standing up for what’s right, pointing toward hope and truth, and embracing the power of persistence…” He tells us we all can do that if we choose. “We just have to be willing to choose. That’s it. That’s the secret.”
Straczynski’s awful life experiences are an endless resource that gives depth and breadth to his stories. Nonetheless, as much as I admire good writers, I wouldn’t trade my far more comfy upbringing for any Hugo Award. If that ranks ease and peace of mind over art, so be it.
French Stewart’s rendition of Randy Newman’s Life Has Been Good to Me