J. Michael Straczynski has his fingers in all of Comic-Con’s pies

J. Michael Straczynski meets with Rochelle Terry, his former English teacher. 'I know it sounds like b.s., but it's not,' he told her. 'It's all true — the right teacher at the right place can make all the difference.'
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

While hardly a household name, Joe Straczynski is the 6-foot-4 embodiment of Comic-Con’s multi-media mission. A writer, he’s created comics, movies, TV shows and cartoons (his first big break came when he was hired to write episodes of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”).


J. Michael Straczynski sat on a sofa in an alcove off the Hotel Del Coronado’s lobby. People streamed by at a steady rate, but no one stopped to ask for an autograph or selfie.

“Here, ask anybody if they know who I am and the answer will be ‘no,’” said Straczynski, 64. “But at comic conventions, I’m a rock star.”

As Comic-Con begins its 50th run tonight, the former Chula Vista resident is among its honored guests. While hardly a household name, Joe Straczynski is the 6-foot-4 embodiment of the show’s multi-media mission. A writer, he’s created comics (DC’s “Superman,” Marvel’s “Spider-Man” and “Thor”), movies (from the Oscar-nominated script for Clint Eastwood’s period drama, “Changeling,” to the Brad Pitt zombie epic, “World War Z”), TV shows (“Babylon 5,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Sense8”) and cartoons (his first big break came when he was hired to write episodes of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”).

There’s more, much more, in the pipeline. DreamWorks bought his screenplay about Harry Houdini’s friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle for $1 million; he’s writing sci-fi comics for a new publisher, Artists, Writers & Artisans, Inc.; a pilot for a fantasy series on USA Network; and a literary novel he sold last month to Simon & Schuster.

His new memoir, “Becoming Superman” (Harper Voyager), is accompanying him to Comic-Con, where he’ll be met by adoring fans and befuddled peers.

“How,” wondered DC co-publisher Jim Lee, “does a kid from Chula Vista go and get nominated for an Academy Award?”

The short answer: despite a Dickensian boyhood dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father and a depressed, checked-out mother, Straczynski found salvation in stories and validation at school.

In a Chula Vista High writing class, the teen turned in his first assignment and awaited the teacher’s judgment.

“Joe,” Rochelle Terry finally said, “who taught you to write?”

Terry has since retired, but she still has a complete collection of Joe Straczynski papers. Most are unmarked, except for the grade she invariably awarded: A.

“It was a gazillion times better than what everybody else wrote,” she said.

‘Last Taboo’

Born in Paterson, N.J., Joe moved 21 times by the age of 17. Chula Vista gave him his first hint of stability — after a brief stay here, the family bounced to Illinois, then Texas, and finally caromed back to back to the South Bay.

He made lifelong friends here, including Tim Pagaard, the son of a local Baptist pastor who started a coffee house for teens, the House of Abba. This was a sanctuary from Joe’s chaotic home, where his father was often drunk and his mother, the victim of physical and emotional abuse, seemed lost in a mental fog.

The teen escaped through comics and paperbacks — a collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy stories, “The Colour Out of Space,” rocked his young world — and he lost himself in the works of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. He wrote volumes of short stories, imitating his idols. His father mocked his efforts, destroyed his collection of comics and beat the boy.

Straczynski’s twisted childhood is nakedly exposed in “Superman,” much to the shock of early readers.

Exposing this violent father-son conflict, which he called “the last taboo,” was not cathartic — at least not for the author. “I don’t carry around a lot of trauma about that stuff,” Straczynski said. “To me, it’s just stuff that happened. The public disclosure, though, there’s a chance other people in similar situations might be helped by that.”

For the teen, help came in the guise of several dedicated teachers. Last month, he returned to Chula Vista High for a quick reunion. Here, he read “1984,” “Brave New World,” “Animal Farm” and other classics. He wrote his first play, earning his first laughs from an audience. He soaked up the encouragement of Terry and another English treacher, Jo Ann Massie.

“I know it sounds like b.s., but it’s not,” Straczynski told Terry two weeks ago. “It’s all true — the right teacher at the right place can make all the difference.”

Lifelines were tossed his way at other times, from unexpected directions. During a chance encounter at Southwestern College, a stranger read some of Straczynski’s work and pronounced him a “substantial talent.” After the man left, Straczynski learned his identity: Rod Serling, the creator of “Twilight Zone.”

While Serling died in 1975, Straczynski helped keep alive that writer’s legacy. Between 1986 and ‘89, he wrote 10 episodes of the re-booted “Twilight Zone.”

Repaying the gift

Straczynski has lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 35 years, but part of him still regards San Diego County as his home.

He returns here several times a year, usually dropping in for a day or two at Comic-Con, often revisiting friends in Chula Vista. Not all of his memories here are pleasant — besides the abuse he took from his father, the 19-year-old Straczynski was badly beaten by gang members one night while walking home from a movie at the Fiesta Theater.

Still, he remembers the writing lessons he absorbed at Chula Vista High and Southwestern College, San Diego State’s Daily Aztec, The Reader and the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times. As a part-time journalist, he learned one of the great perks of being a critic: free admission comes with the job.

Off the job, too, at times. The Old Globe’s late founding director, Craig Noel, once asked Straczynski why he didn’t attend more plays in the Balboa Park theater complex.

Straczynski sheepishly acknowledged the reason: he was broke.

Noel urged the young writer to call whenever he wanted a free ticket.

That generous gift has been repaid by hundreds of scripts, including 2008’s “Changeling.” Using court records and newspaper accounts of a notorious 1920s child abduction, Straczynski fashioned a screenplay that earned nominations for an Academy Award and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award.

On a soft summer evening, Straczynski returned to Balboa Park.

“I cut my teeth as a writer here,” he said, walking towards the Old Globe. All those hours spent with Pinter, Chekov and Shakespeare, he explained, instilled priceless lessons in pacing and dialogue: “Once in the open air theater, I saw ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ For the first time, I understood what that play was about.”

The lessons continue. On this night, Straczynski would take in the Globe’s production of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” And this time, he had paid for the tickets.