Joseph Michael Straczynski (b. 1954), better known to his fans, affectionately, as “Joe” or “JMS,” is one of the most important storytellers of our modern era, though far too few know who he is. Those who know him, know him well. Sadly though, there is no middle ground when it comes to awareness of one of America’s best myth-makers. One either follows Joseph Straczynski closely or one does not know who he is. And yet, what he has accomplished is nothing short of astounding, especially when one takes into account just how difficult it is to break into and sustain a career in the television and writing industries of this country.
First, his many achievements: best known for creating, writing, and producing the cult science-fiction show, Babylon 5 (B5), Mr. Straczynski has also published several horror novels (Demon Night, Tribulation, and Othersyde), collections of short stories, and graphic novels (major and independent). He wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling, and he also produced the Showtime apocalyptic thriller, Jeremiah, as well as the script for the Marvel movie, Thor. And the list could go on and on. As I write this, he is readying a brand-new television series, Sense8, created with the brothers who made the Matrix movies.
Second, Babylon 5 is arguably the greatest fiction story ever brought to the screen. Having conceived of the idea in the shower, Mr. Straczynski wrote the series as a five-year story, following the pattern of a traditional novel. And it does every thing imaginable. It is operatic, filled with the most interesting of characters, riveting, contemplative, and addicting. Some live, some die, all struggle. It possesses equal elements of mystery, political philosophy, theology, and myth. Star Trek might be better known, and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica might have better special effects, but nothing can match Babylon 5 for depth and character development. The offshoot stories—such as Crusade, Legends of the Ranger, and Lost Tales—only add to the majesty of Mr. Straczynski’s noble universe.
Third, Joseph Straczynski possesses a work ethic that can only be matched by a few others in modern America. The Canadian progressive rock drummer and man of letters, Neil Peart, has recently teased another great soul in the science-fiction world, Kevin J. Anderson, for suffering from writer’s disease, “hypergraphia,” the obsession with words and writing. The same could easily be said of Mr. Straczynski. He writes 363 days out of the year, and he continues to produce nothing but excellence.
Fourth, Mr. Straczynksi has made his own views—especially regarding the significance of the work ethic—quite public.
I have a problem with wife-beaters, with a society that puts no value on its citizenry as anything other than consumers or providers of merchandise, with fundamentalist intolerance, censorship, institutionalized hypocrisy, loneliness, cowardice, parking-space wars, little-league manslaughters, unnecessary rudeness and the cancer-like spread of a sense of entitlement, that we deserve what everybody else has, whether or not we’ve earned it, simply because we want it, and ought to have it, and if we can’t have it, then by God neither should anybody else. [Source: –J. Michael Straczynski, Straczynski Unplugged (2004), p. ix]
Fifth, a deep and abiding compassion tempers such expectations:
See, I believe that we are our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper, that we have an obligation to be better than we think we can, that kindness is the greatest human art form, that John Donne was right when he said “every man’s death diminishes me,” that ambition must be tempered with mercy, that cruelty will inevitably be brought to account, that the role of government should be to elevate and ennoble, that service should be rewarded with loyalty and that despite what everyone tells you, you really can fight city hall, and you can win. [Source: –J. Michael Straczynski, Straczynski Unplugged (2004), p. ix]
Sixth, he understands—at the most fundamental and important level—what love means.
When a woman loves you, really loves you, despite everything you know about yourself: all the dark and terrible things. When she loves you as you are…you stand a little straighter. You feel a little taller in your shoes, like you can do anything. Because she loves you. Because she believes in you. She always told me I could be more than I was. —[Source: JMS, “Dark and Terrible Things,” Ten Grand #3 (July 2013)]
Seven and not surprisingly, Mr. Straczynski wields entrepreneurship rather expertly. While he has pursued his dreams with a tenacity almost without compare in the modern world, he has also made and defined his situations where possible, that is, to borrow a worn out cliché, “to put his money where his mouth is.” He did this when securing funding for the original Babylon 5, and he continues to do this through his own business, StudioJMS. Interestingly enough, the very talented Patricia Tallman (actress, stuntwoman, and philanthropist) serves as the CEO of StudioJMS. At his website, Joseph Straczynski explains why his company is the way it is in ways only Mr. Straczynski can: “Because we want to spend our lives being good tired. As, by the way, should you. Here endeth the lesson, and here beginneth the adventure….” So utterly, terribly, wonderfully Straczynski.
Eighth, he is his own man. While Joseph Straczynski has done nearly everything to pursue his dreams, he has done so only on his own terms and by his own ethical standards. When money has compromised his art or threatened to do so, he has walked away, pursuing integrity rather than profit. Most famously, he left his own beloved B5 universe when the network TNT attempted to manipulate and dumb-it-down.
Nine, Mr. Straczynski has revolutionized the comic and graphic-novel industry not only through his own company, Joe’s Comics (his own imprint, officially under StudioJMS), but also through the stories he tells. Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Joseph Straczynski understands that there exists no disconnect between the word and the image. Imbued with humanity as well as deep mythology, his stories (Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, Protectors INC, Adventures of Apocalypse Al, Dream Police Sidekick, and, especially, Ten Grand) exist essentially as animated stained glass.
Ten, few can match Joseph Straczynski in terms of his writing style and ability. Though I could write a book just on the beauty of Mr. Straczynski’s style, I offer just one example: his afterword to his rather stunning graphic novel, Midnight Nation. In it, he explains why he decided to write the novel. After leaving a religious cult, disillusioned with his own life and with the world, a young Joseph Straczynski began to walk late at night through the rank places of pre-urban renewal San Diego. During daylight, he noted, businessmen dominated the urbanscape. After five in the afternoon and before sunrise those exact same places became home to the abandoned of society. “Two totally different worlds, sharing nothing but longitude and latitude. I began to put it in a larger context, because there were streets like this in every city, every state. There was the nation in day, and the nation at night, existing side by side but each fleeing the other. A daylight nation. And a midnight nation. I saw in my mind’s eye a country bifurcated by more than just the presence or absence of light, but by lives cast aside and lost and uncared for.” As he continues, he had to learn “that there is a difference between walked away and thrown-away. To learn that the greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others, that there but for the grace of whatever god you subscribe to goes any one of us.”
I have been following the career of J. Michael Straczynksi for two decades now. I admire him profoundly, not just for his work ethic, but for his actual achievement of excellence and beauty. Would Joseph Michael Straczynski consider himself an imaginative conservative? Almost certainly not. But, he is also not ideologically committed to the left (or, any aspect of the so-called political spectrum). He is a man of integrity, intelligence, and penetration. Aside from some flirtations with Gnosticism and Gnostic mythology in his stories, Mr. Straczynski embodies humanity at its best in his search for beauty, truth, and goodness. Long may his art and his virtues survive in this postmodern whirligig of chaos and troubles.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.