Before there was Battlestar, before there was LOST, before there were other narrative-heavy sci-fi shows on TV, there was Babylon 5, the painstaking, trailblazing work of writer J. Michael Straczynski. JMS's B5 changed television, and we're the better for it. Since B5 turned off the lights in 1998, JMS has kept busy writing comics including Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Superman: Earth One, and Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl, as well as major motion pictures from Changeling to Ninja Assassin (which he wrote in a weekend) in Hollywoodland. And, in just a few weeks, he'll be joining us at this year's Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo.
In the lead up to C2E2, JMS spoke to us about what it's like behind the curtain, being a creator at a con:
C2E2: You travel quite a bit for conventions, and we have to imagine you've got packing your suitcase down to a science. With packing for C2E2 looming on the horizon, what's the first item you pack or the one item you can't leave home without?
JMS: That's an easy one. As with most people in this crazy, hopped-up digital world, the first and most indispensable item I pack is my laptop. There are times I get more writing done per hour when I'm away than I do at home, where the phone is constantly ringing or I'm being pulled into meetings. In one hour in a hotel room I can sometimes accomplish what I'd normally get done in three hours at home. The same applies to airplane travel. Once the plane leaves the ground, I put on the headphones, fire up the laptop, and just write. On the ten-hour flight back from London a few weeks ago, I started writing and didn't look up again until we were nearly ready to land, to discover that I'd written 48 pages, averaging out to about 4-5 pages per hour. That was a very good day indeed.
C2E2: What are the best and worst things about traveling for a convention?
JMS: I'm very much a homebody. I spent a lot of years getting my house to exactly the point where I needed it to be: a shelter, a refuge, a safe place for me to write and hang out. I like staying at home. I don't go to clubs, don't actually like traveling. So that's the worst, or at least the hardest part. The best part is actually arriving at the convention. There's an energy, an electricity that's created from the presence of people doing what they love that persists from the moment that you first walk in the door until you leave. For fans, and I count myself among them before I consider myself a pro, a comics convention isn't a trade show for business (like a funeral director's conference, which once went parallel to a con I was attending at the same hotel), it's not something you have to do for work, it's something you do for the sheer joy of it, where you can let go of routine and, for those few days, do and be and say and play at all the things that you enjoy most. That's the best, no question.
C2E2: Fans rush about C2E2 and Chicago as if it's nerd Mardi Gras, but what's a convention like as a guest?
JMS: When I go to a con, I serve at the pleasure of the concom, so that's my first obligation: where they need me is where I go. I try to go to panels featuring people I know or admire and spend a lot of time -- make that a LOT of time -- in the dealer's room because I'm an unrepentant collector. What I don't do is hide up in my room, which is what some folks from the TV/film side tend to do. I walk the aisles, talk to the dealers, get pulled into brief chats and impromptu photo ops with fans... that's the fun of it, that's giving back a little, that's being accessible, which is the whole point of going in the first place. Then in the evening, when everything's closed, I go back to my room, order up room service, and start writing. I write through the night until 3-4 AM, which is why I generally don't do morning panels.
C2E2: While you're probably most known for Babylon 5, what other projects of yours do you encourage fans to check out?
JMS: Gun to my head (and I hate it when that happens), the one thing out of all my work that I'm proudest of would probably be Midnight Nation, as it's the most personal story I've told in the comics form.
C2E2: What are your upcoming projects? Will you be talking about any at C2E2?
JMS: The biggest project is the return of Joe's Comics, through which I first published both Midnight Nation and Rising Stars. We're debuting the first title, Ten Grand, at C2E2 via our deal with Image Comics with a convention specific variant cover. We'll also be doing a panel to talk about what else is coming up from Joe's Comics. It's very exciting for all of us, as the imprint will allow me to tell the sorts of stories that I enjoy telling without any kind of editorial tom-foolery. I get to go as far as I can as a writer, work with some of the best artists in the business, and just have fun telling stories that I think fans will really enjoy reading. That's just amazingly cool.
C2E2: Approaching a guest of your caliber can be a daunting thing. Any recommendations or words of advice for a sheepish fan nervous about seeing you at C2E2?
JMS: Don't be. It's just me. See, what's hard sometimes for people to understand is that for all the work I do, and all the panels or talks where I appear, I'm actually quite shy on a personal level. I actually don't know how to walk up to someone I don't know and just say "hi", I always worry that I'm somehow intruding. This sometimes gets perceived as aloofness or distance. It ain't, I'm just kinda reserved and shy. So, if you see me and say "hi", just bear that in mind. If anything, it's great for me when people come up to me and engage me in conversation because it's something I'd never do on my own, and once the ice is broken, it's fun. So you're doing me a favor. I enjoy working with humans, and I have every confidence in our mission.
C2E2: What's the most rewarding thing for you about interacting with fans at a con?
JMS: Knowing that I can provide some small measure of encouragement or inspiration to the next bunch of dreamers who will go out and create books and TV shows and movies for a new generation. Cons are about giving back, about saying "it's possible". When you see that light come into their eyes as they get renewed or excited or encouraged, that makes everything else worthwhile.
C2E2: What's the best professional advice you ever received?
JMS: "Cut every third adjective, and never let them stop you from telling the story you want to tell." Rod Serling to me, age 17.
A big thanks to JMS for taking the time to chat with us. If you'd like to learn more about him, follow the gent at @straczynski on Twitter and the Fans of J. Michael Straczynski page on Facebook. And, be sure to say "hi", when JMS stops by at C2E2 this April!
About The Author:
Peter Tatara is the International Director of Content and Marketing for ReedPOP. During his time at Reed, he's planned on-air contests with Cartoon Network, hosted Twitter scavenger hunts around New York City, and bought Joss Whedon a sandwich. In his spare time, he runs a calendar of geeky New York City events called Nerd York City. Follow him at @petertatara and @nerdyorkcity.