J. Michael Straczynski, Reigning in Hell (16 Maps of Hell Leftover # 4)

“Literary criticism teaches the power of symbolic transformation, or processing experience into ideas, into meaning. . . . one must, above all, understand the archetypal power of the myth of the hero. That way you can transform, through words, Joe the Plumber or even a mass murderer, into a national hero. [The CIA] create the myths we believe.”

—Douglas Valentine, The CIA as Organized Crime

Another case of a successful Hollywood recruit would be J. Michael Straczynski, called by the Imaginative Conservative in 2015 “one of the most important storytellers of our modern era” and “one of America’s best myth-makers.”[1] In 2018, Straczynski wrote a memoir called Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes (from the writer of Babylon 5, Sense8, The Amazing Spiderman, and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling). Straczynski’s book, as the over-extended title suggests, is designed to affirm, against insurmountable odds, the neoliberal American Dream. Telling, then, that in the process it has been transformed from the dream of becoming a self-made man to the dream of becoming a self-made Superman.

Becoming Superman insists, of course, that this triumph of the will depends wholly on possessing “true grit,” or “the right stuff,” combined with a quasi-quantum-mechanistic faith in the possibility of achieving the impossible. Overtly, the book is about Straczynski’s overcoming terrible childhood hardship and rising above parental abuse to become a high-functioning, high-status member of the social elite, a happy, thankful advocate of the chosen creative class. Implicitly, it is about using trauma as a means to access superpowers and storm heaven. Straczynski (let’s call him Joe) is the second-generation child of incest. And not only that, his father was a Nazi collaborator.[2]

Joe discovered comic books at around the age of nine and Clark Kent/Superman was his first love. During this same period, Joe describes being sexually molested by his grandmother under the pretext of bathing. His father walks in on the act and yells at her that she is trying to do to Joe what she did to him. This clues Joe, once he figures it out, to the fact that his father was sexually molested by Sophia, his mother, while growing up. Joe also recounts his father’s violent abuse of both him and his mother, and probably his sister too, painting a picture more of a monster than a man: a queer-bashing, Jew-hating, wife-beating, cat-murdering, comic-book-burning, racist Nazi-sympathizer. His father is a comic book villain, about whom Joe writes: “if I was on the path to becoming Superman, then my father was very definitely Lex Luthor” (p. 104). Unlike Kal-El, however, Joe is subject to murderous rages of his own. At the age of eighteen, he visualizes in gory detail murdering his father with a meat cleaver, before finally deciding against it (p. 142). Though Joe enters into adulthood a twisted up knot of intolerable rage, he is determined not to become violently abusive like his father. To this end, he “funneled my rage into my work. . . . And rage I had in abundance” (p. 181).[3]

One of Joe’s first major breaks was a writing gig for an animated TV show called He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. A hugely successful show, Joe comments glibly how it also “attracted the ire of media watchdogs and parents’ groups. Church sermons decried the show as ‘pro-Satan’ and offered workshops to help parents protect their children from the evil that permeated every frame” (p. 244). Joe then went on to write for another animated hit, The Real Ghostbusters, which also incurred the suspicion of conservative parents. In the same ribald tone, Joe scoffs that it was accused of “advancing leftist politics and radical feminism on one side, and black magic and Satanism on the other”; he jests in parenthesis: “I had apparently been in the employ of Satan for nearly three years without knowing it, so there’s a considerable back-pay issue that needs to be resolved” (p. 263).

A few years later, Joe got a gig writing the kids’ cartoon Captain Power, a critically praised show from the stable of our previous case study, Gary Goddard. The show also drew criticism, this time for exposing “thousands of children to the myth that violence can solve our differences.” Joe offers his disclaimer in a footnote: “not a single incident of real-world violence was ever attributed to Captain Power” (p. 274). Miraculously unruffled by conservative Christian parental ire, Joe nonetheless quits writing cartoons for a chance at live action, and works on a run of successful and semi-successful TV shows: The Twilight Zone, Jake and the Fatman, Murder, She Wrote, Babylon5, Crusader, and Jeremiah. He then quits writing for television over “creative differences” and somehow lands on his feet again, writing The Amazing Spiderman for Marvel, and later, The Fantastic Four and Thor.

Despite his phenomenally improbable string of successes, by 2006, in a repeating pattern in the narrative, Joe is on the brink of bankruptcy when he writes a script called Changeling, about child abduction and sexual abuse. His agent loves it, sends it to Ron Howard, who loves it and wants to make it but doesn’t have time, sends it to Clint Eastwood, who loves it so much the script is greenlit without a single change being required! The film is announced as a Ron Howard production to be directed by Eastwood, starring Angelina Jolie, and within hours, Joe is an A-list Hollywood screenwriter, fending off offers on every side. In the following six years (he marvels on page 408), he “wrote five produced movies that collectively earned $1.5 billion at the box office. Changeling, Ninja Assassin, Underworld: Awakening, World War Z, and Thor.” In this last, Joe gets cast by the director, Sir Kenneth Branagh, in a small part playing a guy who finds Thor’s hammer. Young Joe is all the way through the looking glass and into the real twilight zone: “I hearkened back to the days spent reading Thor comics in my aunt’s house. Now here I was, years later, acting in a Thor movie based on my own material. I had disappeared into my own narrative” (p. 409). Or up his own worm-hole.

Becoming Superman purports to be about the overcoming of trauma, but in the end, the proof of Joe’s psychological health is his worldly success, his high upward mobility. Admittedly, the context he creates is that of terrible trauma and nightmarish parenting, but all Joe’s dreams are related to financial success via the creation of fantasy media, and the proof he presents for having healed his trauma and transcended the past is wholly worldly. At the end of the book, for example, Joe calculates the odds of realizing so many impossible dreams and lists seven of his most unlikely worldly achievements, juxtaposed with his childhood interests and fantasies (as in the above example, with Thor): “the odds of any one person doing all of these million-to-one things are a tredecillion to 1 against. Which is another way of saying 1 to the 42nd power. That’s a 1 followed by 42 zeroes” (p. 452). Joe’s explanation for this miracle is as simple as a New Age affirmation:

I learned that to win I only had to say yes, I will, one more time than somebody else could say no, you won’t. . . . I never surrendered my dreams. . . . The ones that succeed are those who can see past the horizon and imagine themselves doing it, and slowly, through struggle and self-programming, convince themselves that the impossible is possible” (p. 453, 455).

In tandem with this inspirational piece of neoliberal affirmation, Joe describes his book as a silver bullet to kill his father, the wolfman. Becoming Superman is the story of how a guy named Joe became his own Superman by overcoming his personal Lex Luthor. It combines Joe’s detailed denunciation of his monster-father with a checklist of all of his creative and financial successes as a self-made writer of fantasy media, implying this is his double revenge against his dad, and that his success is both the result and the proof of his not succumbing to his father’s influence.

To be a victim is to be forever frozen in amber by that person’s actions at that moment. Victimization only looks backward, never forward, which is why my family was incapable of moving on or redefining themselves. If I allowed myself to be defined by what my father did to me, it would put him at the center of my identity. He would have control over me for the rest of my life, even once he was gone. . . . In a way, I was lucky that my father was as awful as he was. He has no good qualities to negate. Had he been a better human being, I would have become a worse one (p. 110).

Straczynski believes that if he’d had a good father, he would not have had to become such a good person himself. He believes that his destiny is only manifested via the total negation of the father. It is all very Luciferian, and yet of course, Joe is the direct extension of his father, and no amount of self-invention or enforced distance can ever change that fact, because one can no more disown one’s ancestry than one can grow wings and fly. The only way for Joe to believe he is no longer made of the same stuff as his father is by creating an identity that’s the very opposite of him, a negative identity. He casts his father into the phantom zone, but then is forced to join him there, like two Captain Kirks wrestling for all eternity. Joe’s father is at the center of his life still, as the book demonstrates, because Joe’s entire life story is about proving that he is not like his father.

*

“This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—‘No, YOU move.’” ―J. Michael Straczynski, Civil War: The Amazing Spider-Man

While I was reading Becoming Superman—no easy task—it occurred to me how ironic it is that two Jews (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman’s creators) came up with the original übermensch. As author and TV personality Bruce Feiler (America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story) observed: “Americans may or may not have noticed Superman’s Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. In 1940, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew.”[4] Danny Fingeroth, former editorial director of the Spider-Man comic, agrees:

You had a bunch of young men [Stan Lee was also Jewish, and revitalized the genre with The Fantastic Four] whose parents were immigrants, writing stories about a very idealized world, where force is wielded wisely and people are judged by their individual character, not by who they are or who their parents were. For the guys who made the comics, it was a way to transcend who you were and become locked into and involved with the American mainstream, to blend in.[5]

The fact they did so by popularizing the übermensch is something Fingeroth, or Straczynski, might see as a kind of beautiful irony, as poetic justice—or poetic revenge—for the Jews’ oppression under the National Socialist regime. Whatever Hitler might have thought, Clark Kent/Superman far more closely approximates the figure of the Aryan goyim than that of the Jew, while Lex Luthor, with his prodigious intellect and endless bid for world domination, seems like a caricature of the scheming Jew. Since it was, in part, the philosophy of the Superman that delegated the Jews to the funeral pyre as the ultimate threat to the realization of the Nazis’ goal, Straczynski might say that, by creating their own Superman (a gentile, no less), they turned the tables on their oppressors and had the last laugh—just as Straczynski thinks he is doing with his father. What seems more likely, after reading Straczynski’s weirdly lifeless celebration of triumph over adversity, is that two Jews inventing Superman was more a case of the victims unconsciously identifying with their oppressors as a way to alleviate the intolerable feeling of powerlessness.

The secret of Straczynski’s success may likewise be much simpler, and less miraculous, than he tries to make: he aligned with the power.[6] Perhaps his inability to see this accounts for his offering up a mix of New Age scientism with American Dreaming to fill the cognitive vacuum at the core of his story? The truth is that Straczynski’s inspirational tale serves the structures of power he has been empowered by, thereby validating the myth that these power structures have generated to perpetuate themselves. As a tragic result of his own traumatic conditioning, having been seduced by superhero escape fantasies as a child, now, as an adult, he has become a paid advocate of the same myth of progress and success, of transformation, not despite but through the appliance of unbearable trauma. Working for Satan and waiting on his back-pay, he has perpetuated the ancestral wound. In a deeply creepy irony, he has become exactly what his father raised him to be: an advocate of the übermensch.

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[1] “Ten Things Every Reader Should Know about JMS,” by Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative, January 29th, 2015: https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/01/ten-things-every-reader-tic-know-jms.html

[2] His paternal grandfather was born of a wealthy family in Vilnius, once a province of Russia, now the capital of Lithuania, and married his niece, Sophia (the name means wisdom). Together they immigrated to the US and had a child, Charles, Joe’s father, born of unholy wedlock. When Charles was still a boy, Sophia traveled with him and his sister to Eastern Europe, just before the outbreak of World War Two. Sophia embarked on an affair there with a Polish national police officer who was sympathetic to the Third Reich, and this kept her safe in Poland when the war broke out and they were unable to return to the US. It was during this period that Joe’s father, Charles, became a Nazi collaborator—a family secret Joe uncovers, slowly and painfully, via the telling of his own story.

[3] His first successful writing gig was an article about (CIA’s “Stargate” psychic asset) Uri Geller, who gave a talk at San Diego State University while Joe was a student. By Joe’s own account, he lied that he worked at a weekly paper and managed to wrangle an interview from the famous psychic. This is the first in a seemingly endless string of unlikely encounters, or miracle breaks, that the universe has in store for Joe at crucial points along his path, making his autobiography an inspirational tale of improbable fortune. Or, in the light of all that’s previously been mapped in this present work, a naïve account of what looks suspiciously like a covertly facilitated ascent. If so, it was probably unbeknownst to Joe, since ignorance is by far the best cover for the “lifetime actor.”

[4] “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Moses!” by Bruce Feiler, The Daily Beast, July 14, 2017: https://www.thedailybeast.com/its-a-bird-its-a-plane-its-moses

[5] “Bird, Plane or SuperMensch? Jews and Superheroes Share a Rich History,” by Randy Dotinga, Wired, July 27, 2007: https://www.wired.com/2007/07/jews-comics-qa/

[6] It should be noted that neither Jerry Siegel nor Joe Shuster got rich by inventing Superman: they were robbed of the rights to the character by DC Comics, and spent most of their lives in relative poverty.

15 thoughts on “J. Michael Straczynski, Reigning in Hell (16 Maps of Hell Leftover # 4)”

  1. The proverbial 2 dinars adjusted for inflation worth:

    USA is a relatively recent political venture so a cohesive myth, or a series of myths, which would serve as a binding factor in developing a sense of common identity was needed. The colonisation of the frontier had nothing to do with its’ portrayal on the silver screen as the ‘Wild West’, just as WWI & WWII as historical events bear no resemblance to their Hollywood interpretations. Initially, Hollywood represented the European colonists almost exclusively. These peoples were of disparate backgrounds, coming from regions whose histories potentially saw them as mortal enemies. This reality had to be adjusted to serve daily political needs. These people suddenly became neighbours and fellow Americans. While the initial impetus for Hollywood myth making seems obvious from a nation-building perspective (and far from exclusive to USA), its’ evolution to the current state is of an entirely different level of programming and intended for audiences worldwide, or everyone within Hollywood’s reach.

    I have sincerely struggled to understand how any adult can be drawn to these films. The obsession with super-hero movies is especially interesting as, unlike traditional myths, they’re not grounded in or claiming to relate to some long forgotten historical time and event. Entirely fictional characters and universes are offered as a substitute to reality not as a filter through which to relate to the world, family, community, and one’s own ancestry, which is how myths almost exclusively functioned. This entire genre seems to centre around the character’s foundation myth, which is almost always a traumatic event, and everything that is all too human is depicted as a weakness, to be shunned or be embarrassed of. The stories are so plastic, thin, superficial and lacking in substance that I struggle to comprehend what the deep rooted appeal is.

    An uprooted fantasy with no intentions of it bearing any relationship to reality.

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  2. To paraphrase Alan Moore, superhero stories were told to entertain 12 year old boys. Although the movie version has some more “adult” themes, basically they are just dressed up comic books designed to entertain 12 year old boys. That they are so popular says something about American society. I’m sure Jason has it figured out but I haven’t had the chance to read his new book yet. I’m now at the state where I enjoy watching film not because I identify with the characters, but because I see how I used to identify with them. I must confess I do slip back into identity from time to time, if a series or movie is particularly well done. I’m not a practicing Christian, but did spend half my childhood as Catholic, so I want to wish everybody a Merry Christmas. Going to enjoy the last few weeks of this strange year.

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  3. To what degree do you think Neoplatonism influences social engineering? What little digging on the subject I’ve done myself, Theosophy and Neoplatonism seem to be quite popular among social engineering types.

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  4. Excellent piece Jasun. Does anything define America more than extreme arrested development. Like making a movie about pro wrestling or comic books the war between the J’s and the Nazi’s has taken on an other wordly meta’ness that ultimately seems to be about extreme arrested development.

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  5. “Covertly facilitated ascent” is a great phrase. Is there anything more painful for a downtrodden artist to witness, than these facilitated ascents, cloaked in “miracle breaks”? Official biographies and autobiographies of successful people can often be so misleading for readers hoping to glean authentic “ascent” advice, as so many authors are hesitant to share the truth of covert facilitations. No one likes to say “it was all handed to me because I know the right people”. Safer to say it was all about the admirable qualities of tenacity, hustle and drive.

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  6. “Forward by Neil Gaiman” Ok, now they’re just gloating and kicking me while I’m down. Even a rudimentary web search on Gaiman shows his father was the head of Scientology in the UK, which just maybe helped to put him in orbit with the “stars”. But in reviews we aren’t ever told that nugget , just that he’s a special “visionary” with observational and creative acumen that simply surpasses the rest of us.

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  7. Your central thesis it seems we can not escape from the sins of the father. Hopelessly addicted to some pairing of a genetic code.

    If that were actually true then I fail to see how societies can progress since the individual can not ever surpass the parent.

    I suppose the claim can be made the is no such thing as progress interns of value fulfillment (not material)

    There lies the divide

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    • We can’t escape them, but we can absolve them by letting them burn us from within rather than fuel our power-drives

      based on the evidence, societies do not progress, unless a rotting corpse is a form of progression? (they complexify)

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        • Two points I’d make, what’s them?..but a ghost in the machine , a memory .
          Are we really talking about a piece of granite forever set.
          If not so well etched forever a torment.

          can I truly say how things used to be hundreds and thousands years ago in terms of the evolution of personality, the person , whatever ego is. I think not.
          I evolve so therefore I extrapolate
          Put a call out ;have you actually devolved?
          If so lets fold up the tent,
          End of the circus ,
          free the Elephants to roam England once again

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  8. Did anyone get they’re signed hardback copy of 16 Maps to Hell yet?
    I don’t read every single article or listen to every single podcast Jasun puts out. I may have missed another update, but the last thing I was told was it would be before Christmas. That is exactly one more day. Does anyone have any information?

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    • Hi Jill; it is literally out of my hands & in those of Canada & US Post; hardbacks were sent out as much as 10 days ago, and as recently as the start of this week; I’d also be curious to know if anyone got one yet (I know a paperback sent last week arrived but that was within Canada)

      Reply

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