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SYFY WIRE Behind the Panel

Imagine a world with millions of telepaths. J. Michael Straczynski did, and wrote a comic about it

By Mike Avila
The cover to the first issue of Telepaths from AWA Studios, out Sept. 1

There are prolific writers, and then there’s J. Michael Straczynski.

He’s always writing, be it novels (he has a new one coming out on July 6 called Together We Will Go), TV projects, film screenplays (he is working on at least one television series at the moment), and of course, comics. The variety in assignments is a big part of the appeal. “I do tend to work a lot of different areas at the same time,” Straczynski tells SYFY WIRE during an exclusive conversation. “I like trying to challenge myself to do different things.”

In comics, he’s trying his hand at different things for AWA Studios, the imprint launched by Marvel alums Axel Alonso and Bill Jemas. Straczynski heads AWA’s creative council, which is a six-pack of heavy hitters including Reginald Hudlin, Frank Cho, Margaret Stohl, Gregg Hurwitz, and Garth Ennis. AWA, which stands for Artists Writers Artisans, has already made waves with JMS’ first project, the timely and disturbing tale about a devastating plague called The Resistance, as well as books like Bryan Edward Hill’s glossy thrill ride Chariot and Ben Percy’s Year Zero. The books the company is putting out not only have strong creative pedigree, they also have perspective you can only find with creator-owned properties.

That’s especially true for Straczynski’s newest title, an ambitious series called Telepaths. The six-issue series debuts in comic book shops on Sept. 1, and SYFY WIRE has the exclusive first look at the series, which JMS is writing and superstar penciler Steve Epting is drawing. We have Epting’s cover for the first issue, the variant cover by Mike Deodato, Jr. as well as four interior pages to give you a taste of the story. Check it out below!

I’ve read the first three issues, and it’s a big-idea story told on a global scale, yet features the kinds of small, intimate moments that have been signatures of Straczynski’s comics work. The plot focuses on how a planetary-level event triggers telepathic abilities in millions of people. The consequences of this occurrence lead to a variety of events that will play out over the six issues.

“I've been fascinated by the concept of psionic abilities and telepathy since I was a kid. I always read books about it and not necessarily believing it's real, but looking at what the implications of it would be,” Straczynski tells me during a phone interview. “I did a lot of stuff on telepaths in Babylon 5 in the 'Psi Corps' arc, and the fans loved that. That was also what led to, in a way, Sense8, where you have eight characters who can get through each other's minds and personalities and memories and skills and share bodies.

“I’ve always been fascinated by questions of privacy and what defines the self,” he continues. “And the fact that so often we are defined by our secrets, by the things that we don't tell anyone and what happens when suddenly all of that is out in the open and there's nowhere to hide. That to me is the most interesting part. And I started thinking about this for a long, long time. I thought I have more things to say about this. I want to get it out in another story.”

This led to Telepaths, a book that is very much an ensemble that includes police officers, White House staff members, MIT professors, and even convicted murderers. Everyone has their secrets they are hiding, but once the incident happens, many of those secrets are no longer kept hidden. “That's a larger application of this story is, maybe you're having an affair and your partner has that power, so that person's going to know,” he explains. “There's no such thing as having a secret life or dreams or goals or ambitions. It's all going to be on display.”

That leads to other problems the story will address, such as how the government responds to millions of people suddenly being able to read the innermost thoughts of others. In Straczynski’s story, these mind readers are the newest weapons of mass destruction for which the government has no defense against. “How the hell do they stop this or control this? Do they have counter telepaths so that…if you have two businessmen meeting, will they each bring their own telepaths and one blocks the other? Will there be anti-telepaths like we have anti-missile systems?”

As many of his fans know, Straczynski loves to tap into his old journalism background to add interesting flourishes to his tale. He does it again in the first issue of Telepaths, with a reference to an electromagnetic occurrence called the Carrington Event that happened back in 1859 and apparently wrecked the telegraph system. (Google it, it’s fascinating.) He says he can’t help himself but fall down rabbit holes. “I love to browse. I love history. And I often just go off on a weird tangent and just look into things, and in this case, solar flares and electromagnetic frequencies.”

That also drew him to read more on human evolution and the importance of the FOXP2 gene, known as “the language gene.” That led him to think about a telepath gene and how it would play out in his story. “Is it latent and just required to be activated?” he asks. “ As empathy expands, human civilization expands. The more you know people and expand your empathy civilization expands and telepathy could very well be the next step in that process of sharing empathy and this growth of civilization. These are the things that keep me up at night.”

JMS credits AWA’s chief creative officer Axel Alonso for pairing him up with Epting on the project. The co-creator of the Winter Soldier is known as one of comics’ best storytellers, particularly in stories grounded in real-world aesthetics. “Steve is really, really good at communicating emotion and creating the characters in the drawing... You really needed to have some [distinctive] character and emotion in a drawing. And Steve was definitely able to do that.”

Despite all the ideas percolating in other platforms, comics always seem to draw JMS back, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He says the appeal of working with AWA had a lot to do with control, such as having the freedom to create an over-arching AWA universe with The Resistance. But for him, the appeal always lies at the heart of a story, not in its trappings. “My mandate going in [at AWA] was to make this more about story and characters and that's the approach I’m taking. It's amazing to build universes, but at the end of the day, it's got to be about story and character. And that's why it's so much fun to work there.

Telepaths from AWA Studios hits your LCS on Sept. 1.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal