I’m reading J. Michael Straczynski’s autobiography Becoming Superman. It’s a really entertaining book for many reasons that I won’t elaborate on too much so as not to spoil it, but I highly recommend reading it.
I came to this paragraph in the book where JMS reflects on his work on the comic book The Amazing Spider-Man.
The relaunched Amazing Spider-Man performed beyond Marvel’s expectations and helped set the stage for their recovery as a company. I would stay on to write seventy-four consecutive issues, one of the longest runs in the character’s history.
The conclusion he makes here that his Amazing Spider-Man helped set the stage for their recovery is objectively true, but it made me recall how I personally found out about his conversion to comic book writer. To make sense of that story though I need to go back a bit.
I was born in 1974 in Honolulu, HI. I grew up in Kaneohe, HI on the windward side of Oahu.
Despite the amazing scenery and fantastic weather growing up on Oahu had its drawbacks for a kid labeled as the haole and when those pressures became too much to deal with I often found myself turning to reading to pass the time on my own. My first choice was always comic books and my collection began with fits and starts in the late 70s, but then accelerated in the 1980s as I became a regular at one of the local comic book stores called Jelly’s.
The first time I visited Jelly’s the store was located on the corner of Kapiolani and Keeaumoku and I was overwhelmed. I had collected comics intermittently via spinner racks at local stores so there were many gaps in my collection where stories were incomplete and I had no idea how they ended. Comic books of the time were very thorough at summarizing events in previous issues so missing the beginning or the middle of a story was not usually a problem, but missing the end left you hung out to dry. When I realized I could find all of those endings in this store it was such a relief. I didn’t have to go all over the place looking for bits and pieces of treasure, I had fallen ass backwards into a room full of it.
The first back issue I bought was Legion of Super-Heroes 294, the conclusion of The Great Darkness Saga by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. While other missing endings I found were sometimes disappointing compared to the stories I had dreamed up in my head this was one of the ones that delivered the goods. When I discovered the Marvel Universe series that was essentially an encyclopedia of Marvel characters and their histories I was absolutely blown away that something like that existed and made it my mission to collect them all.
By the time I was in the 8th grade Jelly’s had moved to a different location at 404 Pi’ikoi St and I was taking the bus there from school on a weekly basis to pick up new comic issues. Jelly’s was not just a comic book store. They also had games, books and music and so it was a cornucopia of delights for a nerd like myself. I would wait there for my father to pick me up after he finished work.
Though I took it for granted at the time, Jelly’s took the unusual step of bagging all the new comics prior to putting them out on the shelves. I’ve been to few stores since that bagged new issues. Jelly’s also didn’t really go for pull lists and whatever was put out was first come first served and so every Friday (new comic book day in Hawaii) I would show up right after school and wait impatiently for the comics to be bagged and put out.
I was an intelligent, but obnoxious child and I often crossed the line from smart to smart ass when talking with the employees, but one fellow that I remember well dealt with my social inadequacies with great patience and kept me coming back. His name was Percy.
We became acquaintances if not friends and after I showed up regularly for a time he gave me a card that entitled me to a 10% discount on new comics purchased from the store. The card was good for a year and I could get another one after it expired. For a comic nerd like myself this was one of the most significant things I ever got from someone and I treasured this privilege like no other. Whenever Percy was around I tried to talk with him about comics, bothering him to no end. Among other things he recommended Lone Wolf and Cub to me back in those days when it was newly brought to the USA and I foolishly eschewed it as I was dedicated to super hero comics.
I spent many years going to Jelly’s for comics, but when college came around in 1992 I moved quite far away from Hawaii to attend the University of Connecticut at Storrs. I found a comic store within walking distance of campus and continued my collecting during this time, but as the 90s rolled on it became clear that comic books were in a bit of a slump. While the artwork evolved tremendously due to the influence of creator titles the market became flooded and the writing suffered. By the time graduation rolled around in 1996 I had become a bit disenchanted with comics and as I entered the working world and started dating I also found I had different priorities and so I stopped collecting.
Fast forward to the year 2000. I was living in Connecticut near my Aunt who I visited on a regular basis. She had divorced and was dating a man who had several sons, one of whom was a comic book fan much like myself and when he found out I was also a fan he encouraged me to get back into certain stories that I had missed. This fellow later published his own comic book series through Image and Dark Horse and he also became a comic book writer for DC and Marvel.
The first title he recommended was The Golden Age by James Robinson, a title that I overlooked during my collecting days. He had a good eye and after I picked up the trade paperback I realized I was missing out on some really great work.
By this time the graphic novel had become a much more prevalent sight in regular book stores. You could walk into any chain book store and pick up a variety of collected stories from Marvel and DC. I resolved only to buy these collected works rather than get back into the weekly grind of collecting.
That didn’t last.
By the time 2003 rolled around I was edging back into buying individual issues.
In December of 2003 I took a trip back to Hawaii to visit my parents. Despite some ups and downs Jelly’s still existed at the time having moved out to a location in Pearl City. While the building was different, the feel was the same. There was never anything fancy about Jelly’s. It was always setup in a barebones warehouse. The product was the decoration.
As I perused the shelves I came upon someone I recognized. He was a bit more gray, but it was definitely Percy. I approached him and said hi. I could tell he didn’t fully recognize me. I had come pretty far from that bespectacled little shit I once was. I was a much bigger bespectacled shit that was probably unrecognizable from a decade prior when I last saw him.
Despite the perceived lack of recognition he was unfailingly polite and helpful. I told him that I was getting back into comics and asked him if he had any recommendations.
“Yes! You have to read The Amazing Spider-Man!”
“Really?” I was somewhat skeptical as most mainstream titles were a bit tepid when I left the scene.
“Yes! It’s by this guy J. Michael Straczynski,” he tells me as he leads me over to the shelves and starts handing me books.
“J. Michael Straczynski? The creator of Babylon 5?” I asked somewhat incredulously and stupidly. Really, how many J. Michael Straczynskis can there be running around out there?
(Side Note: I am a huge B5 fan. When TNT started rerunning them I even taped all of the episodes on VHS to have them for posterity. This was right at that time when you still ran the risk of never seeing a show again after it was broadcast on television and I couldn’t take that risk for B5. I even taped them in SP for better quality so I had a lot of VHS tapes of B5 at one point.)
Percy didn’t really get the B5 connection, “I don’t know about that, but it’s the best comic out there right now.”
So, I bought the books and Percy was right. That J. Michael Stracynzki really does know how to write a comic.