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JMS on JMS: J. Michael Straczynski’s MTV Interview in the Context of Structure and Editorial Input

J. Michael Straczynski recently gave an interview over at MTV Geek.  It’s surprisingly candid and reveals that JMS is very self-aware of how he wants to improve as a comics writer and where he’s run into some difficulties.  I haven’t read _every_ JMS comic, but I’ve probably read 75% of them.  To my mind, his high points are Midnight Nation and Thor.  His low point, by far, was Dream Police.   There’s quite a bit in between those points.

I’d basically agree with JMS and his self assessment, and break his discussion into two parts: appropriate structure and bad editorial direction.

JMS and Structure

JMS sites the reason for the switch to graphic novels as “where there’s the time and space to get as detailed as I like in the writing, are more suited to the way I work.”

I’d actually take that back a step and talk a little bit about structure.  The most common complaint I hear about JMS is that his monthly comics move too slow (at least for a portion of the audience).  If you go back to Bablyon 5, which brought JMS to prominence in the overlapping circles of science fiction and comics, you very quickly notice that the man is very much into foreshadowing.  Much of the first season was spent setting up the universe leading into an episode called “Signs and Portents.”  Prophecies figure into his arcs.  And he does like to do a little world building and set you up for a twist.

There’s nothing wrong with this in a novel or in a weekly television series, but when you’re talking one month between installments of a comic book (assuming no delays), not everyone has the attention span to wait 3-4 months for a plot thread to move from the background to the surface.

Point in case, JMS says “If you go into my previous issues, you have Batman suggesting that there’s something potentially very wrong with Superman, and you have this woman affecting his perception, trying to control or influence him…it’s all being set up right there. But there are always some online critics who like to dump on a guy, and they automatically assume if it’s good, it must have come from somewhere else. They don’t understand that the earlier stuff was set-up, and that the set-up is ultimately about the pay-off, and the pay-off is the point of the story.”

That’s all well and good if this is a graphic novel and this pay-off is hitting around page 60 or 80, but this wasn’t a graphic novel.  It was a monthly comic.  I was bored enough after three issues, I wouldn’t even bother with a borrowed copy, so I opted out of the story long before the alleged pay-off..  Plus, his Superman run hasn’t been shipping on schedule to exacerbate the time lag between set up and pay-off.  This is the difference between writing a monthly narrative and writing the graphic novel (or the more derisive popular phrase, “writing for the tpb”).

Now, I don’t think anyone is counting his Superman’s walk across America as one of the high points of his career.  Wonder Woman, also the object of current scorn, also suffers from a slow reveal.  In this run, JMS drops you into the middle of the action and you don’t know why Wonder Woman is so young or where her traditional costume went.  As we go on, it becomes more and more apparent someone’s been tampering with history (oh, no… another comic with a plot that sounds like Flashpoint), but you’re a few issues in before this starts to come to the forefront.

In The Twelve, one of his better received series, you have a spread of issues with the re-awakened WWII heroes exploring modern day life and the conflict is simmering in the background, almost out of site.

All these things are examples of a plot structure that’s better suited to being read in one volume, than serialized over several months, unless the reader has a long attention span.

So, yes, given his current writing style, I completely agree that writing graphic novels is a better fit for JMS.  His logic makes a lot of sense to me.

JMS and Questionable Editorial Decisions

Back at MTV, JMS says of his work on Thor: “ loved working on the book. Loved everything about it. We made that book a consistent top-ten book…which attracted the Event Demons, and it became evident that everything I’d been built up in the book was going to be up-ended.”

Events and questionable editorial decisions have plagued JMS.  This is not to say he’s the only writer who’s suffered from a heavy editorial hand, I think editorial direction is one of the bigger problems in comics today, but he’s been hung out to dry in some very public ways.

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