J. Michael Straczynski

52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.

J. Michael Stracyznski has essentially done it all in the world of writing, helping to create television shows, movies, and comics.  Straczynski has been writing comics since the late ’80’s, catching his big break when he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel Comics in 2001.  Following the completion of that contract, Straczynski moved over to DC Comics where he was given the creative reigns of the Superman title at the time, as well as an out-of-continuity Superman original graphic novel titled “Superman: Earth One”.  Working with Shane Davis, Straczynski gave a modern gloss to the Kryptonian hero, making him accessible for a whole new generation of readers.

Superman Earth One Vol 1

Superman Earth One cover Years ago, an alien ship crashed high in the mountains while the Kents were hiking, setting the forest around them ablaze.  Inside this ship was a small boy, whom the Kents took and raised as their own child.  As this young boy, given the name Clark, grew older he was revealed to have super human skills, gifted with abilities like super human strength, speed, flight, and laser vision amongst other things.  Following the death of his adoptive father, Clark Kent moves out to Metropolis to find a job that will help him comfortably provide for his mother.  Clark is a gifted athlete, has a brilliant scientific mind, and has numerous avenues to pursue employment in but Clark struggles with the choice to just lead an ordinary life, knowing that he is fully capable of so much more than just the mundane.  When a sudden alien invasion occurs all around the world, Clark is forced to choose whether to remain in silence or answer his true calling as the hero the Earth needs.  Short on time and answers, Clark must decide if he wants to save mankind by becoming the very thing he was meant to be his entire life; a hero.

J. Michael Straczynski (or JMS for short) introduces the world to a perfect jumping on point for the Man Of Steel with Superman: Earth One.  From the word go, JMS gives the reader a launch pad for learning all about this modern update on Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman, giving readers new and old a whole new set of reasons to fall in love with this character for the first time or all over again.  This is a modern take on the character, meant to resonate with the state of comics in today’s market, which it surely does, towing the line somewhere between realistic and over-the-top all at the same time.  It’s a whirlwind of a story from start to finish as once the story starts to gain its legs, it never pauses nor slows down until it has completed the desired tale that JMS set out to tell.

Superman Earth One interior 1From the top, JMS makes you care about this version of Clark Kent/Superman in ways that writers haven’t been able to for quite some time.  The Clark we’re shown is fairly young, suggested to have just completed high school but the way he looks and feels isn’t reminiscent of that of someone in their late teenage years but instead in their early twenties.  Nonetheless, the point is put across that Clark is entering that pivotal stage where he must decide what he wants to do with his life.  JMS reflects on just how “super” Clark Kent really is by demonstrating the characters incredible levels of physicality as well as how he is teeming with intelligence.  Shortly after arriving in Metropolis, Kent has a plethora of jobs to choose from, all of which would afford him opportunities most people would kill for in life.  These jobs that he has a choice at taking are more than enough to provide for himself as well as his mother, Martha, located back in his “home” town of Smallville.  JMS carries on his brilliant characterization by highlighting scenes where Clark shows his desire to be more than just a regular individual, regardless of how much the mundane beckons for him.  Even with avenues that are considered exceptional, avenues in which he could help people, Clark elects to be extraordinary by taking on a calling in which he can help the entire world as Superman.

Superman Earth One interior 2As far as the cast goes, JMS keeps it on the small side with only a handful of secondary characters and a single antagonist who leaves a lot to be desired.  You get a run down of your standard Superman supporting characters, seeing the likes of Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane all featured in some capacity.  These supporting members don’t do much in the way of paving new ground, as they feel surprisingly substandard in comparison to the fantastic portrayal of Clark/Superman.  It’s not just because they’re regular humans in comparison to Superman, it’s just that these characters feel as though they are re-treading already visited grounds instead of paving ways for dynamic, new, and exciting takes on these well-known characters. Perry White is your typical head honcho for one of the biggest news sources in Metropolis, Daily Bugle, and has the typical “print is dead” penchant.  Lois is strong and Jimmy is goofy, with both of these characters being brave when it comes to their respective roles as a journalist and photographer.  They aren’t afraid to get into the thick of the action, doing so without hesitation the second an alien invasion occurs.  With these simple character breakdowns, it’s easy to see how they fit into the roles that we’ve already come to expect of these characters which is disappointing because it can’t be hidden underneath the modern stylization of the story.

Coming back round to that antagonist I mentioned earlier, JMS falters in the execution of creating a villain that, as a reader, we can be compelled towards.  If there’s one thing surprising about the lead villain, who is so forgettable that I can’t even remember his name as I write out this article, it’s the level of indifference you’ll feel towards the characters inclusion into the story.  There is nothing to make you love to hate the character, nor is there anything making you feel like you hate to love him either.  You’re just left with this hollow feeling of “oh, that’s it?”, instead of feeling terrorized or sympathetic or any form of emotion that helps to hammer home what creates a multi-layered villain.  As far as this villain goes, he too treads familiar ground as his soul purpose is the annihilation of the last surviving member of the planet Krypton i.e. Superman.  It’s a believable motivation afterJMS explains to the reader why he is so hellbent on wiping out Superman but it’s a facet to a character who feels largely unnecessary and uninteresting.

A lot of the best parts of this story bubble down to the plot JMS has designed, cleanly executing an introduction to the character as well as giving him purpose.  I’ll say it again in that this is recommended reading for anyone who has ever hated the character of Superman for whatever plethora of reasons you can muster up.  It’s a great modernized take on the character that gives you just about everything you’d want for a good Superman story.  The page count to the story is really one of the biggest struggles JMS faces as he has so much story but limited space to tell it.  With a compelling introduction and a satisfying conclusion, everything in the middle just feels rushed.  You hardly see Clark getting his feet wet in a new city before being thrust into the greatest challenge he has ever faced.  You feel like the story almost loses its entire second act in favour of giving the readers a first and third act, introducing you to a premise and wrapping it all up rather quickly without much rising tension.  It becomes an issue in pacing but the opening of the book is so much fun that you can largely forgive its uneven nature at times.  You have to take Superman: Earth One for what it really is: a modern launching pad for new readers who want to get their first good taste of Superman.  In that regard, Superman: Earth One is a rousing success as it gives a reader everything it needs to enjoy a fun Superman story.

Superman Earth One interior 3

Collects: Superman: Earth One Volume 1.

Best Character: Clark Kent.


Best Scene/Moment: Clark Kent tries out for every position on the football team.

Best Issue: Well, what is it with Superman and Original Graphic Novels?  In nearly as many posts as I’ve done on Superman, we end up with another comic story that technically is told all across one issue.  With that in mind, I’ll say that your first 30-40 pages are definitely the most entertaining part of the book.  Clark Kent never even dons the usual red cape for this section of the book, with JMS instead taking some time to build up the character in awesome and hilarious ways.  We get a clean introduction to Clark and come to truly grasp what it is that makes him tick.  These first 30 odd some pages are a must read for anyone who ever has said things like “Superman is boring.  He sucks!” because these pages are sure to change their mind.

Why You Should Read It: Superman: Earth One is exactly what I’ve said time and time again throughout this post – an excellent jumping on point for anyone even remotely interested (or even those who couldn’t be less interested) in Superman.  JMS gives a definitive modern take on the alien who finds home amongst humans and it’s a delightful comic to watch unfold.  JMS’ Clark Kent isn’t the usual oafish man we’ve seen him portrayed as before.  This is an excellent Superman story that will have you saying “wow!” instead of groaning over another “boring” Superman story where he is “too powerful” and “unexciting”.  Trust me, you’ll read this and be pleasantly surprised by what you take away from this story.

The Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection Vol 1

The Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection Vol 1 coverIn 2001, J. Michael Straczynski received a major break in the comic book world when he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel Comics.  His first, and most well-known assignment, was taking over the Amazing Spider-Man which resulted in a six year run spanning from 2001-2007.  Teaming with the son of the legendary Amazing Spider-Man artist, John Romita Sr., J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. helped to redefine the title by shaking up the very core of the book; how Peter Parker got his powers.  The pair would craft an important and critically acclaimed issue, Amazing Spider-Man #36, in response to the tragic events of 9/11, in which the team showcased superheroes and villains working side-by-side with the true heroes and civil servants that helped save lives on that day.

Peter Parker is the Amazing Spider-Man, struggling to balance the power and responsibility of being New York’s premier street level superhero.  Life for Peter has been all about perspective as of late, re-assessing everything he thought he knew following an encounter with a mysterious and enigmatic older man named Ezekiel.  While swinging through the city one night, Peter is surprised to have Ezekiel sneak up and cling to the wall next to him before going off and exhibiting many of the small unique powers Peter thought only he had.  Ezekiel shocks Peter when he suggests that maybe the radioactive spider that bit Peter actually already had mystical powers inside of it instead of being given the powers from the radioactive ray it was blasted by.  It’s a concept that Peter never even gave the time of day to, but following Ezekiel’s suggestion, Peter can’t help but feel that it could potentially be the truth.  To complicate matters further, a strange new foe in the form of a man named Morlun appears on the scene, seeking to steal Peter’s very life force, drawn to him because of the spider powers he has.  Peter discovers that Morlun is a rare monster of a man who absorbs the powers of animals, taking them from totemistic hosts like himself who embody the powers of animals.  Morlun quickly proves himself to be one of the strongest adversaries that Peter has ever had to face, uncorking punches that feel stronger than even the Hulk.  Fighting a powerful new foe, balancing a new job as a teacher at his former high school, dealing with a broken marriage with the love of his life, and many more conflicts ensure that Peter Parker has a busy life, whether it be in or out of his favourite costume.

The Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection Vol 1 interior 1J. Michael Straczynski aptly displays the firm understanding he has of the character of Peter Parker through this first collected edition of his lengthy Amazing Spider-Man tenure.  With ease Straczynski displays an utter knack for not only the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man but all the components that come with the storytelling you’d expect to see from the character, ranging from his deep and always expanding supporting cast to the all too familiar setting of Manhattan, New York.  Top to bottom, JMS’ time with Spider-Man is definitely worth it for any fans of the well-loved wall crawler, even if it takes the character’s origin in a dramatically different direction than what we’ve seen before.

The first part you have to address when talking about JMS’ lovely Spidey run is how perfectly he balances out Peter Parker with Spider-Man along with how well he writes both sides of the character.  For long time fans of Spidey, you’re certain to immediately recognize the multiple captions where Peter, as he swings around the city, talks to himself in the most distinctly Peter Parker way possible.  JMS plays up how almost frantic of a mind Peter has, constantly juggling multiple problems at the same time whilst also causing himself to go off on random tangents in the midst of his train of thought.  Peter will be dissecting a serious problem in his life, only to then get sidetracked by an unintentional pun he made to then circle back to the problem at hand.  It essentially leaves a stamp of “certified crazy” right across Peter’s forehead to be that way but it is so ridiculously funny and true to the character that every time it happens you can’t help but feel more immersed in the character.  It all harkens back to the core conflict of the character in that he’s a normal guy with extraordinary powers that result in the struggle to balance out both sides of his life.  JMS gets that part of Peter down pat, as multiple times throughout the story we watch as he needs to make tough decisions like risking his life in favour of multiple lives (something that he does on the daily anyways), saving civilians or saving his broken marriage, doing what’s right for his job versus what’s right as a hero, and so much more.  It’s the tragic flaw of the character that, for as happy as Peter Parker can be, he can never be truly happy and have all his affairs in order because he’s a human and as such can never have it all.  It’s the relatable nature of this regular guy who is an amazing superhero that makes Peter Parker such a captivating character, elevating him to arguably be one of the greatest fictional characters AND superheroes of all time.

The Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection Vol 1 interior 2When it comes to the plot, there is plenty here that will either captivate you or alienate you, with JMS’ time with Spidey being the style of comic book that you need to come into with an open mind.  The new spin on Spider-Man’s origin is something that fans could see as ridiculous and stupid after being fed the same song and dance for decades, which is why (to me) the update to the origin has always been refreshing.  As I’ve said before during these examinations of stories, some of your best superhero stories are ones that take established history and add new wrinkles in between the lines while still keeping the original work largely unchanged.  JMS brings a question to the table, one that doesn’t immediately change how Peter got his powers but instead raises questions of intent.  He essential asks Peter, and in a larger scope the reader, if the accident that granted Peter his powers was really an accident?  What if Peter was chosen to have these powers for some reason and what if the spider that bite him already had the powers inside of it, instead of being filled with these powers following a blast from radiation?  It’s a great hypothetical question, one that largely goes unanswered throughout this first volume of JMS’ Spidey work but a question you should keep in mind while you read it as it changes everything, right down to even the villains Spidey has always faced off against.

The majority of the plot finds this question as the backbone for what it builds, with Peter’s first major adversary following this revelation being tightly tied to the entire idea (but more on that big bad in a second).  We get to see a plethora of different stories across the fifteen issues in this collected edition, with Peter taking on conflicts of the spiritual and supernatural nature as well as the standard street level stuff he typically deals with.  One of the most dramatic gut punches of storytelling actually comes from a one-and-done tale though, that chronicles the fallout of the terrorist attacks associated with 9/11.  Told almost entirely through captions, JMS crafts a story that shows heroes and villains working side-by-side in wake of the historic tragedy, putting aside their differences for the betterment of mankind.  It’s a dark, harrowing tale that does so much with so little and is sure to leave you deeply moved following your completion of it.  The events that unfold in the comic are real life moments that happened to people on that day which make the reading of the comic all the more chilling.  It’s easily one of my all-time favourite issues of the Amazing Spider-Man simply for its message and what it means for American culture.  Even if you don’t read this collected edition, at least read that one issue.

In the way of villains, which are typically some of the best parts of any great Spider-Man story, JMS introduces a new big bad for Spidey and the Marvel Universe in the way of Morlun, an ancient being who consumes the essence of “animal totems”, the spiritual presence of an animal.  Ezekiel, a newly introduced supporting character whose powers are similar to those of Peter’s, explains to Peter that he is a “Spider Totem”, carrying the essence of the spider through him because of the spider bite that gave him his powers.  This sets him in Morlun’s crosshairs when he arrives in town looking to consume Peter and take his essence.  Not much is learned about Morlun beyond the incredible level of strength he has but based off the way JMS writes him, he definitely comes off as a mildly charismatic character who feels somewhat bad for having to try to kill Peter but still knows that it’s necessary for his own survival.  JMS does an excellent job of drawing the reader in around this grandiose villain, who has this foreboding and daunting nature to him.  He’s a true threat to Peter’s life and sends him through the ringer time and time again, leaving you to wonder if Peter actually has a chance of surviving this one.  Beyond Morlun, JMS almost casts some other entertaining villains for Peter to battle like a newbie called The Shade and the old classic Spidey villain, Doctor Octopus.  Even though the villains are all rich, it’s the character drama that propels these stories forward.  There is so much that changes in Peter’s life through these fifteen issues that it would be unfair of me to spoil it all for you if you haven’t read it already. Trust me when I say, JMS’ Spider-Man stories are worth your time.

The Amazing Spider-Man By JMS Ultimate Collection Vol 1 interior 3

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #30-45.

Best Character: Peter Parker.

Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: ” ‘course if I had pockets, stuff would fall out of them every time I did this.  Okay, so maybe I could have pockets with zippers, maybe velcro.  Yeah, that’d work…I’d be creeping up behind somebody, and have to get something out…zzzzzzzzzzzip!” – Peter Parker.

Best Scene/Moment: Peter and May reveal the truth to each other – Amazing Spider-Man #38.

Best Issue: Issue #36.  I already dedicated a paragraph to the issue but it deserves as many words as I can muster.  Even then that might not do it justice.  It’s powerful, heartfelt, meaningful, and so many other words to describe how beautiful as well as tragic the issue truly is.  If you find it as a back issue I’d snag it immediately just so you can see the message JMS and JRJr instilled into a comic book.

Why You Should Read It: Through fifteen issues, you’ll be hard sought to find another character who goes through as many changes as Peter does here in this volume.  His life is changed in major, exciting ways for new or longtime readers and JMS just gets the voice of Peter/Spidey down easily.  It’s a rich, exciting read with some slightly different spins that you typically wouldn’t see in an average superhero comic.  To me, these early parts of JMS’ Spider-Man run, and most of the run for that matter, are a must read for any Spider-Man fan or anyone even mildly interested in the character.  You’ll come for the comedy but stay for the surprising amount of heart.

Dylan Routledge
Dylan Routledge

Dylan is the Assistant Manager for Big B Comics Hamilton. In his spare time he loves to talk, read, and write about all things comic book related.

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