Additional info: Health & other important issues: depression, suicide attempts, child abuse, sexual abuse, family dysfunction, PTSD, trauma, alcoholism, mental health, superhero/supervillain tropes, rescuer syndrome, animal abuse, writing skills, memoir; if needed, mental health crisis line 988 (U.S. & Canada), 999 (U.K.); please look up local numbers if living elsewhere
By Kevin Wolf
Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops along the way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes by J Michael Straczynski, ISBN: 978-0062857842 – hardcover, 978-0062857866 – paperback; July 2019; Harper Voyager (imprint of HarperCollins); 480 pages.
Midnight Nation Vol 1 (no additional volumes created) by J Michael Straczynski, writer & creator; Gary Frank, penciled; Jonathan Sibal & Jason Gorder, inked; Matt Milla colored; Robin Spehar & Dennis Heisler, lettered; ISBN: 978-1582404608; December 2004; paperback; Top Cow Productions; 304 pages.
Rising Stars (Vol. 1: Born in Fire, 2: Power, 3: Fire and Ash by J Straczynski, writer; several pencilers/inkers/colorists/letterer; ISBN: 1: 978-1582401720, 2: 978-1582402260, 3: 978-1582404912, compendium: 978-1632152466; 1: January 2001, 2: June 2002, 3: October 2006, compendium: March 2015; paperback; Top Cow Productions & Joe’s Comics, except compendium published by Image Comics; pages 1: 192, 2: 192, 3: 208, compendium: 1008.
Superman Earth One (Vol. 1, 2 & 3) by J Michael Straczynski (writer), Shane Davis Vols 1-2 & Ardian Syaf Vol 3 (pencils), Sandra Hope (inks), Barbara Ciardo (colors), and Rob Leigh (lettered); ISBN: Vol 1: 978-1401224684, Vol 2: 978-1401231965, Vol 3: 978-1401241841; 1: November 2010, 2: November 2012, 3: February 2015; DC Comics; hardcover; pages 1: 136, 2: 136, 3: 128; Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster
William Horwood is one of my favorite authors. He doesn’t write graphic medicine works but he has written many allegories and one memoir. Most of his anthropomorphic allegories were led by blind moles (including, Duncton Wood (1980), Duncton Quest (1988), Duncton Found (1989), Duncton Tales (1991), Duncton Rising (1992), Duncton Stone (1993)). As I read his emotionally wrought Duncton series about the struggles of mole colonies, I was convinced that Horwood had a very troubled childhood; which was confirmed when his memoir, The Boy with No Shoes was published in 2004. These Duncton books, as well as his other novels (including Skallagrigg about cerebral palsy and the early days of computer games, Callanish and Stonor Eagles about animal rights, Wolves of Time about human destruction of natural habitat, and Hyddenworld series revolving about the seasons and other realms) are very worthwhile to read. Why do I bring up Horwood and his books? Because I recently had the reverse thought process occurring; rather than going from an author’s fictional stories, thinking about what might have occurred in a person’s life to generate such stories, and then reading their actual early life story; I first read a person’s memoir and was curious about how his story might spawn fictional works. Here’s where graphic medicine occurs. J (Joseph) Michael Straczynski’s Becoming Superman was published in 2021 when he was 67. I picked up this book because of its title (I tend to want to read anything that’s comics related) and the dust jacket indicated that he had written for Marvel and DC, though I hadn’t read any of his comics before. Becoming Superman has no illustrations (except a few photographs), but the more I read of his horribly traumatic childhood, the more I felt that that I wanted to review this book at www.graphicmedicine.org, but could I justify such a review without drawn imagery? Could the vividness of his writing be enough to justify a review at this website? Straczynski gave me the answer in Becoming Superman when he explained how some of the comics he had written—with others doing the illustrations—had autobiographical aspects from his troubled past. Just as William Horwood used some of his life experience allegorically in his novels, Straczynski used some of his life in the characters and situations found in his comics’ works. That gave me the graphic medicine connection; so herein I will be reviewing Becoming Superman and several (not all) of the comic books that he wrote and how they relate to the trauma in his actual life events.
From Straczynski’s (my shorthand for J Michael Straczynski) Wikipedia page, he has also written screenplays (e.g. Ninja Assassin), TV scripts (e.g., Babylon 5), and has won numerous awards along the way (1994 Inkpot Award, Hugo for Babylon 5 1996, Eisner Award 2002 Best Serialized Story for The Amazing Spider-Man: “Coming Home”, and 2021 Best Indie Book Award on Writing for Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer). I don’t review Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man series, because he didn’t indicate that it had any autobiographical aspects.
Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood with Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes covers his early traumatic life through his successful adult life. Though I highly recommend this memoir, there might be triggers connected with childhood trauma, sexual assault, suicidality, and alcoholism. From his upbringing, Straczynski gives his self-diagnosis as “inhibited version of reactive attachment disorder,” PTSD, and “dollop of Asperger’s syndrome, and the result was a lifelong inability to create stable attachments, express my feelings, or connect with people on the most basic, emotional level. [page 26].” There are also positive stories in Becoming Superman, especially Straczynski learning about his story-telling ability and having that outlet to help himself and others. Becoming Superman provides lots of writing lessons as Straczynski gains knowledge and picks up creative tools beginning in his teen years. He sold his first story at age 22. As his true role models, he gained confidence from Superman and journalistic skills from Clark Kent; with a metaphorical kick in the pants from the real sci-fi writer and social commentator Harlan Ellison.
Most of the early story in Becoming Superman are revelations of Straczynski’s tortuous childhood. I will discuss here only a few of those events. His mother, Evelyn, in order to survive, worked in a brothel in her early teen years; and married at age fifteen to Straczynski’s father, Charles. Charles was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Evelyn throughout their life together. At age sixteen, she successfully went to court to have the marriage annulled. Charles then kidnaped Evelyn; taking her across the country and never remarried her until much later in life. She’s pregnant (with Straczynski) soon after the kidnapping and Charles never trusted that Straczynski was truly his son. Evelyn had severe post-partum depression (17). She pinched Straczynski’s flat nose to try to make it more “white” because she feared his father was black (and not Charles). As a result, Straczynski had a lifetime of nasal problems. His mother attempted suicide several times; she was committed to an institution by Charles; and received electro-shock therapy. Sophia, Charles’ mother and Straczynski’s grandmother, took over Straczynski’s care. Sophia fed Straczynski spoiled food because that’s what she had when she was a child; the more spoiled the better; she felt it was part of impoverished survival. When Straczynski was six years old and Evelyn was pregnant again with Straczynski’s sister, Evelyn tried to kill Straczynski by dropping him off the roof of their apartment building. Straczynski got stuck in the utility wires and screamed a lot; and Evelyn feared she would get caught killing Straczynski so she pulled him back on the roof.
Straczynski recalled only two events of comfort or a decent adult role model in his childhood. The decent adult was Sophia’s lover, artist Pan Rafael, who also died unexpectedly so his support of Straczynski was very short-lived. Straczynski wrote about the second comforting event as “Once when [Evelyn] was petting the cat, her hand accidentally brushed mine. It was the only time I can remember her touching me with affection. ”
School wasn’t a respite for Straczynski. Charles was always in debt and often on the run from creditors, so they moved—typically across state lines—about every six months throughout Straczynski’s childhood; so, he changed schools often and was bullied and treated as the new kid wherever he went. Straczynski was mistreated by nuns at one of those schools. Charles killed at least two of Straczynski’s pet cats, seemingly so Charles didn’t have to bring them along during two of these moves. Sophia in Straczynski’s teen years tries to molest him, just as she had done to Charles. Charles felt his best days were during his Nazi youth in eastern Europe.
The only other support and strength that Straczynski found was in himself when he discovered the Superman TV series (1952 – 1958, starring George Reeves in the lead role) and comic books. Straczynski wrote (his emphasis), “If I was Superman, nobody would hurt me … and I could protect my mom and she wouldn’t get mad at me and try to throw me off the roof again. But even if she did, it wouldn’t matter because if I was Superman, I’d just keep on going, right into the sky. ” Straczynski tried to protect a girl from bullies at school, and redirected the bullies to beat Straczynski up instead. But he made one powerful hit by smashing his metal lunchbox in the biggest bully’s face and found that the bully was scared of Straczynski thereafter and he learned the lesson: “all bullies are cowards. 
Straczynski sold his first story at age 22. His creative writing was connected to his dysfunctional family history. Some of Straczynski’s scripts were cathartic and therapeutic for himself and others. His early pieces were for television or movies. He wrote an episode for The (New) Twilight Zone “Act of Terror” about domestic violence and facing one’s anger; “… several battered women’s groups used the episode to help them face their rage. ” Straczynski for Babylon 5, his creation, wrote all 22 scripts for each of seasons three, four and five, while he only slept perhaps 1-2 hours per night, stressed out and thoroughly exhausted.
Straczynski had no direct contact or communication with his father from 1986 through Charles’ death in 2011, except Charles sent him a nasty don’t-air-our-family-dirty-laundry-to-strangers-or-I’ll-sue-you self-written cease and desist letter; to which Straczynski responded with his own screw-you-so-sue-me-over-the-truth letter. Straczynski wrote several screenplays, including Changeling—based on a real story that Straczynski had spent years researching—for Clint Eastwood. This psychodrama is about a mother who’s put on a psychiatric ward because she doesn’t believe the boy brought to her is her missing son. “I threw every bit of myself into that script: my background in psychology [college degree] … the memory of my mother’s institutionalization … and my experience of being chased by unknown parties through the streets of Paterson [New Jersey, 390].” The latter scene referred to a time in Straczynski’s childhood when an adult tried to kidnap—perhaps with the goal of molesting him—and Straczynski had the wherewithal to run away down random streets when his family had just moved (once again) and he hadn’t yet learned his way home. The Changeling (2008) script was nominated for several awards.
Straczynski bought a Superman costume, which he never wears, but it harkens back to the opposite reason of his dad holding on to his childhood Nazi uniform. Charles longed for his deadly anti-Semitic past, while Straczynski wished for a life of being protected by an invulnerable strength. I’m leaving out of this review lots of other traumatic events—you should read Becoming Superman for the rest—but this is enough to move on to the comics aspects of this review.
“… LAPD Lieutenant Detective David Grey [is] attacked by supernatural forces that literally steal his soul … [and] passes into a shadow version of our reality populated by thrown-aways and runaways, the homeless and the lost … he has to defeat the forces trying to stop him while fighting a more personal battle against the darkness … Midnight Nation is a horror story, a love story, a social polemic about hope and self-sacrifice, and one of the most personal books I’ve ever written.” Becoming Superman, pages 360-361
Midnight Nation is an allegorical tale of what happens to those on the margins, who seem to come alive after midnight, so to speak. This is the story of one man, homicide Detective Lieutenant David Grey, rescuing himself by getting his soul back. I interpret this “most personal” story as Straczynski—at risk to lose his humanity (physically, sexually, and mentally) because of his traumatic youth—saying don’t model one’s horrible family behavior. It’s an anti-hero’s journey to go through physical and mental torment to make themselves whole, if they can survive. In the Afterword, Straczynski wrote about leaving a cult after a wrecked relationship and starting anew with new people. “I’d lost everything I believed in, and didn’t have anything around to replace it, no friends with whom I could talk it through, and the less said about the rest of my family the better. I was utterly, completely alone …” pg. 271; the only pages with actual numbers in Midnight Nation. Straczynski would take long walks ending around midnight; then one night he was mugged by a street gang, hospitalized with a serious injury and feeling his mortality. He became furious, because he had stories to tell and didn’t want to die until they were told. After recovery he had no fear of death, and took walks again, especially after midnight. He saw the seedier, midnight people of San Diego/Chula Vista over his year of walks. Seeing the same spot at night vs. daytime led to Midnight Nation. This story of being mugged and hospitalized occurs on pages 175-178 of Becoming Superman. “I saw in my mind’s eye a country bifurcated by more than just the presence or absence of light, but by lives cast aside and lost and un-cared for; the walled-away and the thrown-away on one side, and on the other, those who pretended not to see them, because not seeing is easier … to learn that the greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others, that there but for the grace of whatever god you subscribe to goes any one of us. [pg. 273, Midnight Nation]” That was the end of Straczynski’s midnight walks; Midnight Nation came twenty years later. The author concludes, “The keys to the Midnight Nation are in your hands. What you do with them is up to you. [pg.273]” Detective Grey disappears from our reality to enter the after-midnight world, a place that’s with us if we only paid attention. He’s walking across the entire country and must find resolution before the end of his journey; or else he will become a soul-destroyer. Of all the comics included in this review, I recommend Midnight Nation the most.
Detective Grey’s commanding officer wants him working on the deaths of two white victims, while Grey wants to work on the murder of an alleged crack seller, Toby, who’s black. But we quickly find dark forces that rips off the arm of another officer and sends Grey to the hospital from a heart attack, which is when the anti-hero’s journey really begins. Grey is now sexualized with big muscles, blond, and ruggedly handsome … He leaves his hospital bed complaining of HMOs. Grey is “in the place in between” with Laurel as his guide “… until they find you. Until they kill you. … Or until you turn, which is when I’ll kill you.” They’re out on the street and he barely sees people in his prior “real” reality … soon those people are gone to him and those others can no longer see Grey. A black van patrols by with Laurel pushing Grey into an alley. Grey questions if he’s dead. Laurel says “almost.”
On his journey, Grey meets squatters who are “The lost. The turned-away. The hopeless. The homeless. The dispossessed, the ignored, the scared, the twisted, the cast-aside. They roll into this place with all the other junk nobody wants anymore. Here. The place in-between” where they’re invisible to the rest of us. Grey arrived here because his soul—that which made him human—was taken. He remains human on his search but is slowly losing his humanity. Once he loses it, Laurel will have to kill him otherwise he will become a devilish soul-taker. If this allegory is too much, you could view it as a very traumatized person who’s trying to overcome those early traumas through therapy and finding their pre-traumatized self or letting go of the affect that the trauma has had on them.
At one point, people are gathered around various campfires explaining how they found themselves lost and invisible. That night it’s Cathi’s turn to tell her story. She had been caring for her sick mother; who had been overly protective of Cathi when Cathi was a child. Her mom wouldn’t let her go outside to be among other kids for fear of catching the flu. Cathi’s two brothers ran away when they got old enough. If we read the story only, we’d think that Cathi’s mother was kind and didn’t mistreat Cathi, but the imagery shows an angry, psychologically abusive woman who became bed bound after a fall. Cathi “fed her, helped her in and out of bed, walk her to the bathroom … washed, cleaned, took care of the house …” Cathi only went out to get food, dry cleaning, library books for her mom. She didn’t date, go to college … She became invisible to others … then her mother died and Cathi didn’t know what to do. And eventually made her way to that campfire … lost. Each campfire person in turn talks about their regretful life and how they missed out. There are small groups around campfires throughout the forest each feeling they can’t move beyond their small territory! We’re left with believing that all these campfires have lost people with heartbreaking stories.
After his long journey, Grey has a choice; he can have his own soul back or give it to Laurel for her to become human and end her infinite journey with escorting others. Grey gives Laurel his soul … which, we find was the “right answer” because it puts him back in an ambulance; it’s Sarah, his ex-wife, who’s there when he awakens at the hospital. He’d been unconscious for a year.
There’s an epilogue that shows in the future his elder self confronting his younger self on the journey he just survived; and if the reader looks back, about halfway through the journey you’ll see this meeting, but it’s now slightly different because the right/left pages are switched and the narration changed. And we now learn Laurel is no longer part of Midnight Nation.
“The characters were damaged, idealistic, cynical, lost, angry, hopeful, and doomed …” Becoming Superman, page 359.
Straczynski creates Rising Stars—a three-volume graphic novel series—as a story about saving the world as a counterweight since no one, except himself, saved him from his families’ abuse. As written earlier, Straczynski had only one person (artist Pan Rafael) modeling good behavior. Rising Stars has a world (ours) that needs saving from risks including nuclear war, street gangs, terrorists, drug cartels, and even the intractable middle east Israeli/Palestinian conflict. These global/national problems are stopped or reduced by Specials—113 children, who become adult superheroes, each with a special power. Volume One (Born in Fire) introduces the Specials from exposure to high energy with many of them finding their power under the watch of governmental authorities, education and training. Volume Two (Power) moves them into adulthood with some exploitation by commercial businesses and doing battle with each other. Finally, in Volume Three (Fire and Ash) they gain and use their independence to “save the world;” concluding with a satisfying—but too short—story about the source of their powers. The Specials are flawed people, who happen to get superpowers. Global medical topics are handled simplistically—Specials solve/reduce many problems—including childhood sexual abuse, environmental damage, illicit drug trade, war trauma, public health, starvation, gangs, and nuclear weapons. Though there are Specials with specific health issues; including, Stephanie Maas—Special name Critical Maas—with dissociative identity disorder (DID, from childhood sexual trauma); and radiation poisoning for Jason Miller—Special name Patriot—after gathering most of the world supply of nuclear weapons. But the real overarching lesson from Rising Stars is that most of the global problems are human caused, and hopefully have human solutions with Specials providing a shock to the system and their fixes are only temporary, while all of the rest of us will be responsible for trying to maintain the solutions. This series would have been so much better, if more time had been spent on the one near-utopian day climaxing the series in Volume Three. As a metaphorical link to Straczynski’s biography, Becoming Superman, Rising Stars allows him to create Specials—I’m sure he would’ve loved being called and treated as special as a child—and to save (himself) the world from exploitation and destruction by (heroes in his life) Specials.
Some of the connections to Straczynski’s life occur, but are only recognized after reading his Becoming Superman. David Mueller has an alcoholic mother, like Straczynski’s dad. David has the Special ability to merge his thoughts with nearby people’s thoughts and he uses that power sometimes to manipulate people sexually. In Volume One, David gets in his mom’s head but is unsuccessful to prevent her from committing suicide. Being in her head when she dies causes David to become catatonic and remains hospitalized for most of the series until Volume 3.
There are some of the children whose special power goes unrecognized or doesn’t manifest itself until adulthood or possibly never recognized. For example, the reader learns about Cathy Jean’s power to resurrect the dead before she herself finds out. In Born in Fire, the reader witnesses a cat dying after being hit by a car. Cathy lays her hands on the cat, saying “Poor little kitty … good night ….” We watch her walk away and the cat comes back to life behind her. Perhaps this scene is for Straczynski’s two pet cats that his father had killed and that Straczynski couldn’t prevent or save. But I wouldn’t have made this leap, if I hadn’t already read Becoming Superman. John Simon, another Special and main protagonist, had a talent for words just as Straczynski has that talent; he’s the narrator “…to tell the truth of what happened and why ….”
Rising Stars has tropes for the typical superhero comic audience (i.e., teenage boys), including unrealistically muscled men and scantily clad women. For example, Elizabeth Chandra—not given a Special identity name, and mostly known as Chandra in Rising Stars—has the Special power of being “the most beautiful woman in the world,” except by John Simon who sees her “as she is,” whatever that means, because the reader sees no alternative image. Chandra gets some depth from being annoyed with her special power, because she doesn’t feel beautiful and doesn’t feel like she’s saving the world, unlike some other Specials, mostly men. Her help comes by fundraising from rich benefactors for Specials’ exploits. Another female Special, Stephanie Maas (Special name Critical Maas), has the power to get into and manipulate the minds of other Specials; and is that only a stereotype of allegedly one-dimensional conniving, controlling females? In Power, Critical Maas—her dissociative identity disorder from her father sexually abusing her—with her control over many Specials, kills several Specials and uses Chicago as her base of operations. In order to stop Critical Maas and her Special minions, the remaining not-under-her-control Specials have to bring forward her pre-traumatized identity, Stephanie Maas, and convince Stephanie to let go of Critical Maas. The scene of Stephanie coming forward plays out like an intervention. Stephanie plays no role in Fire and Ash, the final volume of Rising Stars.
I do have a pet peeve that occurs in Rising Stars. I don’t like books that have table of contents that have page numbers when the book itself is unpaginated. I especially dislike when the chapter titles are given in the table of contents, but not given in the body of the book. Both of these occur in Fire and Ash of Rising Stars.
Fire and Ash shows Specials working on global—and especially U.S. based—problems. The Specials act as vigilantes, out in the open by announcing their plans before, during and after their save-the-world exploits. For example, nuclear weapons are mostly made inaccessible by Jason Miller (Patriot) who can sense fissionable materials and removes almost all nuclear weapons. He leaves only one nuclear weapon for each country that manufactures such weapons, so that those countries won’t feel they are at the mercy of any other country; and if they decided to start manufacturing more such weapons, Jason would just remove them again. His carrying those weapons away results in Jason sickening and eventually dying from radiation poisoning. Another example has Jerry Montrose (Pyre) using his ability to become fire to burn all drug fields in South America. He’s killed in Bolivia—shades of Che Guevara’s demise—by secret American powers-that-be that want to maintain the drug trade status quo and also wanted to test a way to kill Specials with electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). Randy Fisk (Ravenshadow) with simplistic bravado removes/jails gangs block-by-block, city-by-city until people come out onto their front stoops again and talk to and get to know their neighbors and through that provide their own safe streets—problem solved. To “fix” the middle east, Laurel Darkhaven uses her telekinetic powers and brings nutrient-rich fertile soil to the surface from beneath the deserts of the middle east. This soil almost spontaneously provides a food supply for Israelis and Palestinians alike … problem solved because there’s now enough fertile land and food for everyone. The process of raising such huge amounts of soil drains Laurel of her power and she dies, though explained as being sacrificial in making this resource available … a modern bible-like tale of sacrifice to bring peace. And one Special (Randy Fisk) is even elected president of the United States (see illustration of Fisk’s campaign speech).
If this all sounds simplistic, paternalistic, perhaps authoritarian, and vigilantism, that’s exactly the role that superhero mythology plays … as their creator’s—in this case Straczynski’s—way to solve huge problems or beat supervillains. But does this really solve anything or is it an allegorical tale of Straczynski’s trying to fix his real personal traumas; and might the superhero trope make the rest of us complacent because we only need to wait for the hero to save-the-day or is this only providing cheap entertainment? I’d like to think that the saving grace of Rising Stars is its open-ended conclusion, which puts the future in our human hands after we’re shown that we can get along with each other for a day (can we keep it up?).
Superman: Earth One
“Being kind, making hard decisions, helping those in need, standing up for what’s right, pointing toward hope and truth, and embracing the power of persistence … those were the qualities of Superman that mattered to me … because all of us can do those other things, can be those other things; we can be Superman whenever we choose. … It only took me a lifetime to figure that out.” Becoming Superman, Page 412.
I probably wouldn’t have reviewed Superman in Earth One if it hadn’t been a dream fulfilled for Straczynski; or at best I would’ve included it as a Medical Mention (e.g., other Medical Mentions: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII) for several medical incidents that occur over its three volumes. Earth One is an otherwise fairly typical superhero story with a slightly new origin story of the Kryptonian Kal-El (aka, Clark Kent/Superman). Superman makes mistakes and is unable to save everyone connected to him. There are typical superhero tropes with supervillains, saving the world and some individuals, being vulnerable to injury at times, humble heroics, lots of physical fights, overly muscled males, and sexualized females to continue the appeal to teenage males. The medical topics that arise include Superman’s temporary blindness from energy given off from part of his spaceship and losing strength at different points, a neighbor dying from a heroin overdose, another neighbor (Lisa LaSalle[i]) physically abused by her ex-boyfriend and hospitalized after a vehicular accident, an inuendo driven discussion of what might happen if Clark has sexual relations with a mere mortal, and rescuing another cat, which becomes Clark’s childhood pet, Fuzzball. There’s some campy language in Earth One. In this review, I’m assuming the reader knows at least the basics about Superman[ii], perhaps from reading comics or watching a movie or TV series. In Earth One, Superman’s vigilantism becomes a concern of world leaders who fear he might usurp their power, especially after he supports the overthrow of a very brutal dictator from the fictional Island of Borada. My review here will briefly discuss these three volumes with emphasis on the medical issues.
In the dedication to Volume One, Straczynski writes, “For as far back as I can remember, I would get a thrill of excitement every time I saw this symbol. … if you understand what that symbol means—that all things are possible—then this book is dedicated to you.” (unpaginated) An example of camp language occurs over Jonathon Kent’s grave before Clark heads to Metropolis, where Superman says, “…There’s still a lot I can do to help people. I can find cures … expose corruption … give the average guy a leg up when the world wants to crush him. … I won’t disappoint you, Dad, I swear it.” Another campy moment occurs when Jimmy Olsen, while cars are being literally thrown nearby, says he doesn’t run because, “I’m a news photographer … we stay and we die for the truth. Because that’s the only thing worth dying for.”
Clark’s Metropolis apartment neighbor is Lisa Lasalle, a beautiful redhead who’s attracted to Clark. Even after a restraining order, she’s physically abused by her jealous ex-boyfriend. Superman abandons the ex-boyfriend in an Alaska wilderness. Lisa is smitten by Clark. There’s a flashback of Jonathon Kent explaining to Clark the physical risks of sexual relations “… that you can’t really control and … man of steel [meaning Clark with] … woman of tissue paper [meaning humans are prone to injury if Clark/Superman has sex with a woman] …,”so no sex if Clark can’t control himself. Clark says, he’ll need “… years of therapy … to get over this conversation.”
Like in Rising Stars, a cat is rescued. This time it’s a six-week-old kitten rescued by superkid, Clark. The kitten, named Fuzzball, was blinded after one eye was scratched out from coyotes who killed Fuzzball’s mother and litter mates before Clark arrived. We see over two panels (see illustration) Fuzzball and Clark growing up together. Since Fuzzball “loved the moon,” upon Fuzzball’s death, Clark “… took her someplace [the moon] I knew she’d be happy … where she could always see me, and I could always see her.”
While Superman is busy saving Metropolis from a super-villainous psychopath, upon his return to his apartment, Clark learns a lesson that Superman can’t save everyone. [iii] Eddie Monroe, Clark’s neighbor, dies of a heroin overdose. Straczynski (or Clark) seems to forget Eddie’s name when in an article with Clark Kent’s byline at the back of Volume Two, that treats Eddie as not just another statistic, calls him Eddie Johannson. And that same article includes actual history with the words, “In fact, for over twenty years, ending in 1910, heroin was marketed by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Corporation as a cough suppressant. Heroin was the name they trademarked to make it easier to say, like aspirin.”[iv] In Volume Three another bit of history is provided when Lois probed into Clark’s background because he beat her to an interview of Superman before Clark was even employed as a journalist and she was concerned that Clark might’ve made up the interview, just like Janet Cooke scandalously won the Pulitzer Prize for a Washington Post fabricated story[v] about an 8-year-old heroin addict. Lois also admits researching Clark out of jealousy for landing that interview. Of course, given that Clark is Superman his article wasn’t an interview, but more like presenting his own thoughts.
The final supervillain (Volume Three) is Zod-El, Kal-El’s uncle who tries to undermine Superman at the UN Security Council. We learn Zod destroyed Krypton. The Security Council believes Zod’s story, that Superman is untrustworthy and possibly a terrorist and decide to not provide Superman any assistance when Zod says he’ll defeat Superman on behalf of the Council. To me Zod’s words are misdirecting or projecting his own lack of worthiness onto others when he’s hiding his own insecurities, lies, dictatorial and destructive plans. To reinforce the negative image of Zod, he always appears with his face in shadow covered by his hood. Also, if Zod was to put a Z as his insignia on his uniform—shown in the Sketch Book at the back of Volume Three—it would look almost like a backward S (i.e., metaphorically the mirror opposite of Superman in plans and actions).
Though it required reading Being Superman to really understand the traumas underlying much of J Michael Straczynski’s comic oeuvre, that memoir allowed me to bring these comics to the attention of graphic medicine’s audience.
[i] Superman comics are filled with loads of people with the initials LL. The most well-known are probably Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Lex Luthor. You can find lots listed (forty names) at Superman.fandom.com.
[ii] In brief, Kal-el, as an infant, came from Krypton which was destroyed; orphaned, he gets his superpowers from the Earth’s sun; he’s almost invulnerable, can fly, has heat vision, grew up among humans in Smallville, adopted by Martha and Jonathon Kent who found his spaceship, leaves the farm after Jonathan Kent’s death for Metropolis; becomes a reporter for The Daily Planet with boss Perry White with peer reporter Lois Lane, and photojournalist Jimmy Olsen. No one—except the reader—knows Clark Kent, reporter, is Superman; though many suspect something odd about Clark, and perhaps some plotlines revolve around others learning who Clark secretly is.
[iii] Not to be too cynical, if such a superhero actually existed; like any hero, that superhero would be a very selective rescuer or burnout in the attempts because worldwide about two people die every second according to World Population Review.