"Becoming Superman" by J. Michael Straczynski; HarperCollins (480 pages, $28.99)
Every superhero needs a supervillain.
J. Michael Straczynski built a career on that rule. For more than 30 years, he's been turning out comic books, TV shows and blockbuster movies about unbreakable characters triumphing over loathsome monsters.
Well, as they say, write what you know.
Because a lot of the bad guys Straczynski wrote into "Babylon 5," "The Changeling," "Thor" and a shelf full of comics sprang from memories of the cruel, misogynistic, Nazi-worshiping tormentor of his childhood, his father.
"Becoming Superman" is Straczynski's memoir of surviving his evil father. For the author, the title has a double meaning.
It's about getting the chance, after years of dreaming up sci-fi and fantasy stories, to finally write for his favorite comic book series. But it's also about beating a real-life villain and surviving to become the hero of his own story.
Eventually, Straczynski's long struggle took him to Hollywood, his TV series, million-dollar checks and somebody-pinch-me collaborations with Angelina Jolie, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, and Brad Pitt. He's been to Cannes and worked around the world.
But the real story started in the 1920s, in a crummy apartment in Paterson, N.J.
That's where Straczynski's grandfather, Kazimier, settled after fleeing Vilnius, in what's now Lithuania. The trip was sudden. After getting caught sleeping with his niece, Sophia, and forced into marrying her, Kazimier thought leaving in a hurry, alone, was a good idea.
Much to his disappointment, his abandoned wife followed him to America and eventually tracked him down to Jersey.
As expected, this was not a happy union. Finally, after two children, Sophia raided their savings, grabbed the kids and, in 1939, returned to Eastern Europe to see her family. When the Germans marched into Poland, she stayed, by choice. She had fallen in love again - with a fascist cop.
Sophia moved on to a series of affairs with German officers. Eventually, she and the children ended up in Belarus, where she took a job working for the Nazis. The SS doted on her son, Charles, giving the tween daggers, swastika armbands, and a child-sized uniform.
For the rest of his life, these remained his most treasured possessions.
After the war, Sophia and her children fled to a Red Cross shelter. They lied about their pro-Nazi past and secured safe passage to Paterson. Later, Charles enlisted in the Air Force, spending his free time at brothels.
He soon got a 14-year-old prostitute pregnant. When her mother threatened to tell his commanding officer, Charles agreed to marry her. They returned to Paterson and started a family. He began beating and raping his wife regularly.
Sometimes she tried to kill herself. Other times she tried to kill their children.
Eventually, after a poverty-pocked decade, Charles got into the plastics business. The family's fortunes improved. Their lives remained the same. Both parents drank, and Charles continued to abuse whomever was nearest.
He took a belt to his wife. He threw out his children's toys. He even murdered their pets.
How could his son go on to write such great villains? How could he not?
Straczynski started writing seriously while at San Diego State University. While he was a student, the spoon-bending Uri Geller gave a talk. Straczynski lied and said he worked for the local weekly to get an interview. He sold it and began freelancing.
But it was drama that called.
Straczynski's first break was selling a script to a kids' cartoon series, "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe." A few more sales and he was brought on as a staff writer, for $600 a week. Years after his father had destroyed his beloved comic books, he was being paid to create new adventures.
The scars of his childhood began to fade, slowly.
Quickly, though, he realized there were other bad guys around. Their attacks were almost laughable compared to his father's assaults, but the people were persistent, and they were annoying. They were called censors.
The "He-Man" show drew protests from pressure groups which protested it was too violent and promoted Satanism. When the producers had Straczynski oversee a spin-off, "She-Ra, Princess of Power" the backlash grew, and took on a sexist slant.
She-Ra had to be more maternal, the studio told him. She shouldn't challenge the male characters. She couldn't carry a weapon.
Straczynski quit on principle, and landed a job at another kiddie cartoon, "The Real Ghostbusters." Based on the blockbuster film, it became the most popular animated series on TV. It also became another target of network busybodies.
They didn't want ghosts; those might scare children. They wanted the show's one black character demoted from scientist to chauffeur. And they hated the show's kick-butt heroine. Once again, they wanted her to be "warmer and more nurturing."
Once again, Straczynski walked.
His agent warned him he was getting a reputation for being difficult. But Straczynski kept selling scripts and landing story-editor gigs. He worked on the 1986 reboot of "The Twilight Zone." He joined "Murder, She Wrote" in 1993 when ratings were fading and turned it around.
His most significant, more personal victory was getting "Babylon 5" on TV, a sci-fi series set on a space station. It ran for five years and developed a passionate fan base. Oddly, a competing network launched "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" at the same time, also a sci-fi series set on a space station. Could it just be a weird coincidence?
Not likely, Straczynski writes - considering he had pitched "Babylon 5" to the rival network first before it announced the similar project. Straczynski shrugs, he still had the opportunity to make his show. It was easier to move on.
And that's what he did with his parents, he wrote them out of his life.
His last contact with his father came after Straczynski, doing publicity for "Babylon 5," mentioned his horrible childhood. His father emailed, threatening to sue. Straczynski told him to go ahead. He looked forward to testifying in court about what his father was really like.
The old man backed away, permanently.
But after he died, even uglier, darker secrets came tumbling out.
Rather than leave any money to his ailing wife, Charles Straczynski's will awarded almost all his assets to a school of veterinary science. One of his favorite insults, when someone asked him for a loan, was, "I'd rather give my money to the dogs," he said. Now he had.
But clearing out his father's home, Straczynski came across that collection of Nazi memorabilia again. And, in a shocking conversation with an aging aunt, he finally learned the whole truth about his father. Charles hadn't just admired those SS men. He had violently, enthusiastically, helped them murder Jews.
His wasn't just a collaborator; he was a war criminal.
Straczynski has gone on to write great stories, populated with dark characters. There is the serial child killer at the heart of "Changeling." The million mindless zombies tromping through the "World War Z" movie. He created various costumed nemeses brought to comics like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Superman: Earth One."
But Straczynski sleeps just fine. He suffered through real horrifying childhood nightmares. And survived, becoming his own Superman.
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