J. Michael Straczynski Interview

J. Michael Straczynski is the creator of Babylon 5, the writer of Rising Stars and Midnight Nation from Image, is currently writing Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man, Supreme Power, and the Fantastic Four, and has written numerous novels, short stories, and episodes of many TV shows. This month, he begins the Book of Lost Souls with artist Colleen Doran, a creator-owned project from Marvel's Icon imprint. Westfield's Roger Ash recently caught up with Joe to learn more about this book and what's on the way in Fantastic Four.

Westfield: What can you tell us about Book of Lost Souls?

J. Michael Straczynski: It's a new creator-owned monthly title for the Marvel Icon line, which tells the story of people on the razor's edge, who could go one way or another, toward life or death, purpose or destruction, and one person who can tilt the balance.

The solicitation material put together by Axel actually says it better than I could:

The destinies of most people are defined early on. Then there are the others - the lost. Those whose numbers aren't in yet, who could go toward the light or toward the darkness - indeed, who could be tipped one direction or another. And everything starts with the book. That's what Jonathan is about to discover. When he took a suicide plunge off the London Bridge more than a century ago, the last place he expected to land was on his feet, in the present, standing at the entrance to a tunnel into a world of mysteries beyond his wildest imagination. A world of powers and principalities and, above all, rules that he'd best learn quick. Or he'll have to deal with the Dark Man. And what the Dark Man can't turn, he devours.

So that's the basic premise of the book, which I'll elaborate on a bit more in a moment.

The feel of the book genre-wise is somewhere between magic realism, supernatural horror and fantasy... it has a contemporary setting but a vintage feel to it, both in the stories being told and in the artwork. Colleen Doran is bringing almost a classical high-fantasy look to a modern urban environment.

Westfield: Who are the main characters in the book?

Straczynski: First, there's Jonathan, his last name not given for now. In London at the close of the 19th century, Jonathan - spurned in love, disappointed by life, hurt and cast aside one time too many - decides to take his own life. Standing on a bridge at night, ready for the long leap into annihilation, he encounters another man who, rather than trying to stop him from taking the dive, permits it to happen...even provides something that will help to carry him to the bottom: a big, thick, heavy, leather-bound book. While the other fellow is holding the book, it's in finished form, every page filled with writing. But when Jonathan takes it, the pages turn blank, empty...waiting. He takes the plunge -

- and now it's the present day, at another bridge, here in the States, where Jonathan returns out of the shadows. Something has happened to him in the time in-between, something has changed in him...he has a purpose, he's been trained, he has something he didn't have in life before now: a purpose, to find those who, like himself, are on the razor's edge between life and death, and nudge them in what he hopes will be the direction...most times successfully, sometimes not.

And it may be that his own chance for redemption rests with those whose stories he encounters.

His companion in this time, in the strange place that has been set aside for him to live in, is a talking black-and-white cat name Mystery, who knows a lot more about this operation than Jonathan does, and who has previously served several other people in Jonathan's situation. He's both very funny and oddly insightful, while at other times seeming almost a sad character in his way.

There's the Dark Man, who may be god, may be the devil; may be an angel, may be a demon, it's all a matter of how you choose to read what he says and does. He may be an ally to Jonathan, and he may be an enemy, depending on the situation. All we know for certain about him is that he scares the hell out of Mystery.

Over the course of the book - which starts out with one-story-per-issue for the first three books and grows into an arc from there - there will be additional characters brought in as regulars, including a love interest for Jonathan, but those are the core three with which we start.

Westfield: In the solicitation for the first issue, it sounds like the Book of Lost Souls is not just the title of the series but also an actual item. Is this true, and if so, what is the book?

Straczynski: The book is never called that in the course of the... well, book... but that's pretty clearly what it is.

Westfield: What was the inspiration for this series?

Straczynski: The genesis of it came from hanging around the comic shops in Vancouver while I was shooting a TV series up there for Showtime. Vancouver has a large population of stray kids... the lost, the dispossessed and the disillusioned... those who have fallen through the cracks of the daylight world. Living on their own, in the streets, lost and searching. Very often, I would see them come into the comic store... sometimes, I think, because it has resonance to something they enjoyed in a more innocent time... scan the racks, looking for something that resonated with the world they lived in now, the condition of their lives right now... and not finding it, walk back out into the night.

What I saw in Vancouver was not idiosyncratic to Canada...walk into any big city - Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas - and you'll find much the same. So it started with a desire to write something for these people... but branched out wider in terms of the stories that began to come up. Because how many of us are trapped in worlds we never wanted to live in? How many of us have moments when we can tilt one way or the other, when we're on the edge between survival and something darker? Doesn't matter if you're a street kid or a Wall Street broker, the Hour of the Wolf comes to us all.

So the book is about struggle, and birth, and rebirth, and disappointment, and determination, and most of all, about the stubborn noble dignity of the human being singular, and the persistence of hope against all logic. The book is, by turns, lyrical, unforgiving, funny and heart-breaking. If I had to compare it to anything else in terms of tone, I think that Promethea and Neil Gaiman's Sandman are in the same thematic family as the Book of Lost Souls.

Westfield: How did Colleen Doran become involved with the book?

Straczynski: Colleen is someone I've known of for ages, enough to nod hello and chat with at SDCC, but never actually knew personally, only professionally. I was a fan of her work on A Distant Soil, and loved her work on Lord of the Rings material. She had that amazing aesthetic that can combine gritty street scenes with images that are just heart-wrenchingly beautiful. And that was the dynamic I wanted for this book.

So we arranged to meet over coffee while she was in LA for a LoTR convention, and talked over the book at some length. She had done some wonderful preliminary sketches, and we honed down the dramatic and character intent of the book into something that could be visualized...and that, as they say, was that.

Her work on the first two issues is spectacular. The first issue is great, I like it enormously, but the second issue is even more breathtaking, because it plays to her skills in fantasy. You look at the detail in the art, the faces, the backgrounds, and it's just an insane amount of work to pour into each panel, but it gives the book an amazing depth and richness.

It's going to be an absolutely gorgeous book.

Westfield: Your first story arc on Fantastic Four concludes this month. What can people look forward to in the FF in the coming months?

Straczynski: It's time now for Ben to explore the freedom that his new-found wealth has given him, and as with any such discovery, there's good and there's bad, and he will have to deal with both. He is still very much a team player, still central to the FF, but he naturally wants very much to be his own person, to have his own life, to make his own way... as we all do. He feels he has something to prove... and that will ultimately work against him.

We'll also play out the remainder of the story involving the New York City Child Welfare Division, and their interest in whether or not Franklin and Valeria are living in a safe place.

I also want to keep the cosmic element of the story going, in particular involving Johnny, who didn't get as much screen time in the current arc as Reed. So he's going to come to the forefront for a while.

Westfield: Are there any classic FF villains you're looking forward to writing?

Straczynski: Pretty much all of them. I'm holding off on Doom for a while until I find a really kickass story for him. To some extent, if you over-expose somebody and beat him all the time, he loses his menace. So I'm keeping him at arm's distance for just a bit, then I want him to come in on something really massive... and win.

Westfield: Any other projects you're working on you'd like to mention?

Straczynski: I'm developing a TV series for Marvel Productions, which we'll have to see how it goes in terms of the possibility of production, and taking on a couple of potential feature deals which I can't talk about until something becomes finalized.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Straczynski: Joe Quesada looks REALLY cute in a pair of Speedos.