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RISING STARS: J. Michael Straczynski

The acclaimed writer discusses Rising Stars, his new Top Cow imprint, Joe's Comics, and the lack of Babylon 5 comics

By James Busbee     July 19, 2000

Having superpowers isn't all it's cracked up to be. When last we saw the superpowered main characters of Rising Stars, a cadre of suddenly high-powered Specials prepared to wreak havoc on the world that had ruined their quiet lives. The words of the power-mad Critical Maas hung in the air as the Specials sought vengeance: 'Now we get to teach the whole world what fear is.'

Since then, it's gotten much, much worse.

The resulting civil war amongst the superpowered 'Specials' has made epic superhero battles like those that appeared in DC's Kingdom Come and Marvel's Onslaught crossover look like playground scuffles. The battle has decimated the United States, both physically and spiritually, and the newest arc in J. Michael Straczynski's landmark series will show how the surviving Specials pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Confused? Then you haven't been reading Top Cow's Rising Stars. And with the beginning of a new story arc in July's issue #9, now's an excellent time to jump on board. Created and written by Straczynski, the creator/writer/executive producer of television's acclaimed sci-fi series Babylon 5, Rising Stars tells the story of a world much like our own, where a few superpowered individuals have turned everything upside down. But Rising Stars isn't just another ready-made universe of superpowered good guys and bad guys engaged in meaningless fights. In Rising Stars, the good guys don't really want the job, and the bad guys look an awful lot like your next-door neighbor.

History Lesson

Was the world of Rising Stars always this chaotic? No--it used to be just like the one outside your window. That is, until a giant comet crashed in the town of Pedersen, Ill. years ago. What was significant about the event wasn't the crash itself, but the fact that every single one of the 113 children in utero at the time inexplicably received special powers, everything from flight to fire control to the ability to raise the dead. In a world that had never seen superpowered being before, authority figures reacted predictably, herding the 'Specials' into a camp for investigation and setting an undertone of government conspiracy that's quickly become a series hallmark.

The series' initial arc, featured in issues #1-#8, focused on the Specials in both their childhood and adult years. While the young Specials learned about the scope of their powers, their adult counterparts found themselves enmeshed in a murder mystery, as several of the lowest-powered Specials abruptly met with untimely ends. The killer, as it turned out, was not only a fellow Special, but the most famous of them all--the corporate icon known as Patriot.

Patriot had discovered a deadly secret--that when one Special dies, all others receive a fraction of his power, boosting their own abilities. So Patriot, under the auspices of the U.S. government, began knocking off his one-time friends left and right. The remaining dozens, their powers jacked up beyond belief, launched the devastating counterattack that closed issue #8 and the initial arc of the series' projected 25-issue run.

Rising Stars represents Straczynski's first major comics work--he previously had written only a handful of issues in such titles as Teen Titans Spotlight, Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Babylon 5--and he's grateful to have survived the experience. 'I'm happiest first of all with getting the first arc done!' he exclaims. 'I had to imply the existence of 113 characters. You don't have to show them all, but you have to imply their existence, which is tricky to do in the confines of a comic book. I also had to set the 'rules of the game,' and keep a murder story going while I was establishing the characters. Since it was the first arc, I had to offer all background exposition, which can be very dull if not handled correctly.'

One of the many notable aspects of Rising Stars is how realistically it treats the idea of burgeoning superpowers. In your average comic book, Joe Hero generally knows his exact abilities and their limits. How'd he find out? For instance, how in the hell did Superman discover he had heat vision? Throughout the opening arc, many Specials had no idea what their powers might actually be, since they'd never had the chance to test them. Many others found that their 'wonderful' powers carried a heavy price.

'What I wanted to do was take the tropes of the superhero form and turn them upside down,' says Straczynski. 'We've all heard of guys who are invulnerable. But in my case, that means this guy can't feel any sensation at all, except while eating. He's this fat, unlovable guy who can't even feel the touch of someone's hand on his skin. What good is that in the real world? How does that get you a job? 'I can't feel sensations.' 'Yeah, I've got problems, too. Next?''

The life (and death) of the invulnerable fellow, a chubby guy named Peter Dawson, served notice that Straczynski's view of superheroes was decidedly different from most of his contemporaries. Dawson was one of the first to die, but how do you kill someone who's invulnerable? Well, he's got to breathe, of course, and if he can't feel the dry-cleaning bag as it's slipped over his head, so much the easier...

New Wave

Despite his previous excursions, adjusting fully to a new medium, particularly when twisting some of its traditional conventions on their ear, suggests possible growing pains for any writer. Straczynski's regrets about the opening arc, however, are few. 'Theoretically, I would have liked to move forward faster,' says Straczynski of the first arc's pacing. 'But I needed to firmly establish the characters--who they were, what they could do and what they didn't want to do. The reason for this is that even though it takes awhile for the story to get cranking, when the shit comes down, you really care about these characters. They're not just caricatures getting mowed down.'

Indeed, few of the heroes in Rising Stars wear costumes of any sort. Most are devoted family men and women, trying to live out quiet lives and forget about what makes them 'Special.' Patriot and the U.S. government, with the help of several other Specials, deny them that chance, conducting a house-to-house roust. As a result, the choice becomes clear, notes the Special named Poet: 'If we stayed, we lost. If we ran, we lost. If we fought, we lost. Any way you looked at it, we were going to lose. So we may as well fight.'

After all hell breaks loose at the end of issue #8, Rising Stars jumps forward almost a decade. As July's issue #9 opens, much of the nation is in ruins. Chicago, under the domain of the Special named Critical Maas, is off-limits. Atlanta has been torched once again. And some Specials have gone overseas, while some have gone into hiding in Los Angeles and other places.

'These people were leading normal lives,' says Straczynski. 'They didn't want these special powers--they just wanted to lead their normal lives, and they're massively pissed that they were attacked.'

But the government wants the nation cleaned up, and has embarked on what will surely be a devil's bargain for the Specials: Any Special who aids in the rebuilding effort will be granted immunity from prosecution. They have a chance to clear their names--but judging from previous issues, it won't be nearly that easy for the Specials to survive.

Beyond that, Straczynski remains characteristically coy about the next two arcs of the series, except to say that it's an all-out civil war amongst the Specials--one which absolutely no one will walk away from. However, in the series very first issue, Poet's journal indicates he's the last of the Specials still alive. How he survives--and what else is lost in the massacre--will take the series through its final issues.

Ah, but fear not, Rising Stars fans. While the comic will end eventually, the series' reach continues to grow. Straczynski, who's of course no stranger to Hollywood, expects to sign a Rising Stars movie deal as early as this week. With his Hollywood experience and reputation for keeping total control over his characters, we can reasonably expect a high-quality Rising Stars flick to reach the screens in the next few years.

Other Constellations

While the movie deal would return him to familiar territory, Straczynski's comics work has only increased--and shows no sign of letting up any time soon. The prolific writer, who wrote an unprecedented 91 episodes of Babylon 5's 110-episode run, recently signed a deal with Top Cow to create 'Joe's Comics,' a line of comics written exclusively by him. The new imprint will allow Straczynski, as he puts it, 'to do whatever I want to do and explore themes I've thought about for awhile.' The first Joe's Comics offering, a 12-issue series called Midnight Nation that debuts in September, will focus on a police detective named David Grey, who's trying to solve a murder while seeking to recover his lost soul.

'Midnight Nation gives me the opportunity to do stories that explore where we [America] as a people have gone wrong,' says Straczynski. 'Using an authority figure is a good way to investigate it, and having him 'search for his soul' is a pretty obvious metaphor, but one which works. He's going to learn a lot about the version of America we don't see, one which is dark and just below the surface.'

Although he hasn't unveiled any other books in the Joe's Comics line yet, Straczynski reveals that they'll be 'a combination of mini- and maxi-series. I'll have a three- to four-issue hard science fiction series, a three-issue horror story and possibly a painted one-shot, with text on one side of the page and pictures on the other.'

Midnight Nation will be drawn by Kin artist Gary Frank, and the success of their collaboration might open the doors for Straczynski--a long time comics fan--to work with some of his favorite artists. And who would he pick to work with next? 'Well, [painter] Alex Ross is at the top of everyone's list,' he says. 'I'd also love to do a project with Dave Gibbons. He did one cover for Rising Stars, and I loved the work he did on Watchmen.'

It's funny that Straczynski should mention Watchmen, as references to the seminal 1980s series--which offered a similar, 'real world' approach to superheroes--are cropping up more and more in reference to Rising Stars. Both stories tell complete tales. Both sets of creators take their characters very seriously as humans first, superheroes second. And both warn of the danger of placing too much power in the hands of too few. The comparison is one Straczynski appreciates, but doesn't entirely subscribe to.

'[Watchmen writer] Alan Moore is God, and at his side stand [Sandman writer] Neil Gaiman and [Dark Knight Returns and Sin City writer/artist] Frank Miller. Way down the line, you'll find me,' he says. 'I'm grateful for the comparison, but we'll see where I stand when I'm done with Rising Stars.'

Modesty aside, however, Straczynski wonders if the comparisons to Watchmen might be because almost nobody seems to be trying hard enough to match up. 'With many superhero comics, it's just the same things over and over,' says Straczynski. 'They're as shallow as the paper they're printed on. People want more out of their comics than that. There's no reason why comics can't have the depth of the best television or film, and yet we're stuck with these two-dimensional cutouts. Moore in Watchmen told a character-driven story. There isn't enough of that done--all of these stories are who has the ultimate galactic glove to win the cosmic boxing match, or whatever.'

Straczynski's quick to point out that it doesn't have to be this way, as there are plenty of fine writers already working in comics. 'There are a number of excellent writers--Peter David, Moore, Gaiman, Miller--who I think get taken for granted because they have spent most of their careers in comics,' he says. 'Maybe people paid a little more attention to me because I came over from television, but readers need to realize that they've got these amazing writers right here, and we need more writer-driven books by guys like them.'

Stationary Movement

Ironically, in the midst of his new-found comics success, the very property for which Straczynski remains best known, Babylon 5, remains in comic book limbo. DC Comics attempted a series a few years back, with little success--a result Straczynski doesn't find surprising. 'The problem was that DC simply didn't do the books right,' he says. 'They considered Babylon 5 comics a media throwaway, and not valuable enough to put any real effort into. And [DC parent] Time Warner's take is, if someone's going to do a Babylon 5 comic, it should be DC and nobody else. It's a stupid way of thinking. It's like the monkey with his hand in a jar holding a peanut--he can't pull that nut out, but he won't let go of it either. They ought to just let someone else do it, but Time Warner doesn't see it that way.'

Other B5 outlets haven't had such a tough road. A successful line of Babylon 5 books bears Straczynski's imprint--and his blessing. For each book, he sketches out a 15- to 25-page outline, from which noted writers like Peter David construct their stories. The novel series is currently in the middle of three three-book arcs--the first was the 'Psi Corp' trilogy by J. Gregory Keyes, the second and current trilogy is David's 'The Legions of Fire' Centuari arc--and Straczynski is very pleased. 'The books aren't just throwaways,' he says. 'I think they demonstrate to the people in charge that you can have strong, solid storylines [from properties like Babylon 5] if you take the property seriously and involve the best people. It's a lesson that shouldn't be so hard to learn, but apparently is.'

In the meantime, while most writers hope to make the leap from comics to TV and film, not the reverse, Straczynski is content to remain in comics for the time being. In particular, he hopes that Rising Stars will encourage more comics fans to read comics, not just look at them.

'Over the last few years, we've seen a lot of artist-driven books,' says Straczynski. 'I know I'm not exactly breaking new ground by saying that. However, what many people don't seem to get is that while good art will bring you to a book, a good story is needed to keep you there. I'd like to think the popularity of Rising Stars is something of a strong clarion call for writer-driven comics. [Author] William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself, and that applies to comics as much as any other literary form.'

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