J. Michael Straczynski, author of the mildly cultish mediocre sci fi series Babylon 5 writes comic books. Or at least he used to. (He also wrote some He-Man cartoons and a few bad movies like Changeling and Ninja Assassin.

But for the purposes of this blog, he’s a comic-book writer.

And, at times, at a damn good one. But at others and inconsistent one. And, at his worse, he’s an ass.

I say this because he’s a quitter. Either that, or he’s got an attention-span shorter than Mr. Mxyzlptlk.

Recently, he did two dramatic things to two of DC’s most important characters: He grounded Superman and put Wonder Woman in long pants. And then, just a few issues in, he dumped out of both. Now, you could say that this was DC’s fault because they contracted him to continue to write his phenomenally successful Superman original graphic novels. But this wasn’t the first time. JMS had an amazing–and I do mean amazing–run on Thor, but when Marvel told him that Thor would have to play a part in Siege, JMS quit rather than fold his story in. He tacked on an ending to the complex narrative he’d been weaving for the prior two years and moved along. When his brilliant Supreme Power series reached it’s apex–the Marvel JLA had finally formed and the heroes were ready to function as a team–he quit again, leaving us hanging. He dropped “The Twelve” at around issue #9, leaving Marvel to scramble with a bunch of one-shots to keep the concept alive while JMS pulled his thumb out of his ass and wrapped it up. And that recent exit from two of DC’s flagship titles? They represent his departure altogether from serialized comics–he has no intention to keep writing single-issue forms of the medium. I get the sense he’s hard to work with–I know lots of folks hated the idea of Spider-Man: Brand New Day, but I think it’s hard to argue now with the results. JMS quit the company, for good, based on what he says is Joe Quesada’s reaction to JMS’ critique of that storyline. Come on. We all know Joe Q has opinions, but if there’s ever been a corporate leader who was creator-friendly, it’s Joe.

And as for the Superman: Earth One novel?  Meh.  There’s lots of seeds of good JMS stuff that’s come before, particularly from his work on Supreme Power, and he weaves in a lot of the Smallville mythology (is that really where we want our “new” Supermythos to come from?), but there’s nothing really new there.

Still, there’s no denying JMS’ abilities when he’s focused and running on all fours with his subject matter. For those interested in reading some of the best superhero work comic books have to offer, here’s a list . . .


5. Silver Surfer: Requiem. This 4-issue mini is that rarest of creatures: A story about Silver Surfer that’s actually good.  It’s hard to write Surfer because he travels alone and he’s into all that cosmic stuff that usually is dull as dry paint.  But JMS gave heart to Norrin Radd.

4. Batman: The Brave and the Bold. No, not all of the issues in this D.C. team-up comic are genius, but when JMS got it right here, he got it very right. If you can only afford a couple books, pick up the two Legion of Super Heroes/Legion of Substitute Heroes books. This is what out-of-continuity one-offs are supposed to be: Quick, fun superstories about cool characters you don’t know as much about as the dudes with their own titles.  His work harkens back to the hay days of Marvel Team Up, DC Comics Presents, and Marvel Two-In-One.  Those books were uneven in the extreme, but again, when they popped, there was nothing out there that was more fun to read.

3. Supreme Power 1-12. In the first twelve issues of this series, JMS reimagined the Justice League (under the guise of rebooting the alt-Earth Squadron Supreme, last seen in a pretty good miniseries and before that in The Avengers) in the Marvel pseudo-realistic way. At times chilling and at others brilliant, we can see here the inspiration for books like Irredeemable, which reexamine the “hero” part of the superhero genre while folding in politics and philosophy. JMS continued with the series for another six issues, but the first twelve are pure genius. The rest kind of fades out–like he lost interest. (See above.)

2. The Amazing Spider-Man. The whole thing. No once before him, except maybe Roger Stern, ever got the mixture of pain, humor and responsibility that make Peter Parker a “whole person,” and no one since has been able to write Spidey’s supporting cast (particularly Aunt May) with such depth. And check out issue #500, which celebrates every major battle that Spidey’s ever fought in his 20+ year history as a character.  It’s as loving a tribute to superheroism as you’ll ever find.  Then there’s the September 11 issue, which could easily have been treacle, maudlin, or silly, but instead it worked.  And the Peter and Mary Jane reunion actually made me cry.  (Just a little, I’m no pussy!)  It’s hard to get that kind of an emotional connection to a comic book, but JMS made it work.  Plus, the run had John Romita, Jr., on the art chores.  I know there are folks who think he’s fallen off lately, and I have to admit that his work on Avengers is not his best stuff, but if you pick up this book you’ll understand how he earned his reputation as the best Spider-Man artist in the business.

I understood, when I finally read this, why people were so upset with Brand New Day: It was because this run had reinvented Spider-Man and the book was far from broken.  I still like One More Day, but after having recently gone and read this run back-to-back, I finally, finally get it.

Yes, there’s many reasons why this run is so celebrated.

1. Thor 1-12. JMS took a character that only a few people ever really were able to make interesting and made him extraordinary. And he did it by putting Asgard in Oklahoma. No. By putting it a few feet over Oklahoma, to avoid the whole State jurisdiction thing. And by turning focus on some of the colorful characters in Asgard, and exploring the relationship of a small town to a Heavenly city. JMS’ greatest talent is in side characters and little personal vignetttes, and this run is full of them. It recently got the (much deserved) omnibus treatment, and all of you should go buy it. Seriously. It’s one of my favorite Marvel runs ever. Even if it ended far too soon and far too abruptly.

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