Friday, June 15, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/15: Starman

Superhero stories (at least those published by DC and Marvel) are designed to be open ended. Sure an issue or an arc might end with Batman putting the Joker away, but you know Joker is going to break out of jail again. You know Kang the Conqueror will always find his way back from the future to menace the Avengers. You know Silver Age Lois Lane will always be trying to figure out who Superman really is. Beyond that, characters are mostly static; character growth can happen, but in very small increments. Batman is Batman is Batman, pretty much no matter when you read him, even if the trappings change.

So James Robinson's Starman is a wonderful aberration: a superhero comic published by DC Comics with a beginning, middle, and end. A superhero story where the protagonist is a completely different man at the end of the 80+ issue run than he was at the beginning. It's a well crafted story arc, where you clearly see everything that happens to him, and how they affect his life.

Starman follows Jack Knight, the son of the original Starman, Ted Knight, a golden age scientist/adventurer. Jack starts the series as the model for the reluctant hero. He would prefer to run his  nostalgia and collectibles shop than go out and fight villains. But when his brother, David, the current Starman, is assassinated (two pages into the first issue!), Jack is forced to take up the Cosmic Staff, the device his father invented that allowed him to fly and manipulate cosmic energy in various forms, to avenge his brother.

Jack does avenge David at the end of the first arc, but his story is far from over. Starman seems to work like a Vertigo series, in that it has a central theme that the writer wants to explore, only here the lens of the superhero story is used. Starman is a coming-of-age story, where the young man must take up his responsibility and come out an adult. It is also very much about family; the family we have, the family we make, and the relationships between fathers and sons, and brothers. At the start of the series, Jack is estranged from his father. By the end of the series, well, Jack has come to terms with the issues he had with his father and his brother, and is set to make a better life. And in the end, Jack drives off, leaving behind his time as a superhero, having passed on the Cosmic Rod to a worthy successor, to be with his own family. He makes the choice as an adult, with all the options before him, and chooses to be a husband and father. He gets the ending that most superheroes never do.

I found Starman at an interesting point in my life: I was in my early 20s, maybe a little younger than Jack would have been during the run of the series, and was given the first trade by one of my coworkers at the comic shop. I read it, actually probably devoured it was more accurate, tracked down the other trades, then all the uncollected issues and was able to start reading it monthly as it reached its climax. But I think I found something of a kindred spirit in Jack Knight. I think anyone in their early 20s can feel sort of adrift, and anyone who has grown into their late 20s or early 30s can see a little of their own time growing up. When I read Starman a second time, I had a very different experience, shaking my head and thinking, "Was I like that too?" And the answer was probably yes.

Starman also set up the theme that was central to the DC Universe for the twenty years or so leading up to the New 52 reboot: legacy. Starman was firmly rooted in the Golden Age of comics. Not only was Ted Knight, the golden age Starman, a regular cast member, but his arch rival, the Mist appeared repeatedly, as did the golden age Flash nemesis, The Shade (much more on him later), and classic Green Lantern villain Solomon Grundy. The Justice Society appear in numerous flashbacks, and the golden age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, appeared in a memorable arc. And Jack's story is at least partially about taking up the mantle that his father left behind. Robinson, of course, went on to cowrite the opening arc of the revitalized Justice Society title, JSA, where Jack was a founding member, although he only appeared in the series briefly.

More than just legacy, Starman never shied away from touching on parts of DC Comics history. During Jack's sojourn in space, not only does he travel in time and meet Jor-El, father of Superman, got to hang out on the planet Rann with interplanetary superhero Adam Strange, and arrive on the blue planet from Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, but he meets one of my favorite oddball sixties DC characters: Space Cabbie. You heard me right: Space Cabbie. Throughout the series, Starman featured a series of stories called, "Times Past". These were one shots issues that usually fit in between arcs and featured one of the previous Starmen, or some of the history of Opal City, the home of the Knight family and the setting for most of the series. Robinson and his co-creator of the series, artist Tony Harris, took Opal and between the stories of Times Past, Jack's own feelings, the reminiscence of the immortal Shade, and Harris's impeccable design sense, made Opal a major player in the story, a character in its own right. We see Opal from its early days under the guardianship of a classic DC Western hero, Scalphunter, through the present, with all the heroes who have wandered through it.

                                                                      Opal City

There were six other heroes before Jack Knight who called themselves Starman, and all of them factor into the series. Some, like Ted Knight and the alien Mikaal Tomas, became major parts of the book. Both Prince Gavyn, the alien ruler, and Will Payton, the cosmic powered hero of the 80s, have smaller but still integral roles in the story. Even the mysterious Starman of 1951 is important. That costume was created as an alternate identity for Batman in 1957, but Robinson jettisons that backstory to create something different and wonderful.


The supporting cast of Starman included more than just the previous heroes bearing that name. The principal cast also included the O'Dare family, five siblings (Clarence, Barry,Matt, Hope, and Mason) who were each members of the Opal City Police force, and each became friends with Jack and operated with (and in one case against) him. The psychic Charity provides Jack with guidance. Bobo Bennetti, a former gangster who has retired, meets Jack and begins aiding him in protecting Opal, all the time wearing his 50s clothes and talking like a member of the Rat Pack. Jack's girlfriend, Sadie, is very important to the grand scheme of things for more than just her relationship to Jack for reasons that I don't want to spoil here. Many other heroes also pop up for guest stints in the book, bust one of the most notable, and my favorite, is an extended stay in Opal by the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, and his wife Sue. This was my first real exposure to those characters, and I fell instantly in love with the Ductile Detective. Still want him to show up in the New 52.

                                                                       The O'Dares

But my favorite member of the Starman cast was The Shade. The Shade was villain of the Golden Age Flash, a man who had a cane that allowed him to channel shadow matter. Robinson took pretty much everything but the name and the power set, and chucked them. The new take on the Shade was that he was immortal given shadow powers during his life in Victorian England. He is amoral, following his whims on whether or not to do right or wrong at any particular moment. He is a connoisseur of fine absinthe and art, who loves nothing in the world more than Opal City, his home. He also fits into the theme of growth that Jack typifies, as you watch him change from a man with no connection to anyone at the beginning of the series into someone who now chooses to defend Opal and someone who has friends. And his costume, that of a Victorian gentleman all in black, is freakin' awesome. If I ever decided to do the cosplay thing at a convention (don't hold your breath), I would totally dress as The Shade.

                                                                 The Shade

As I said before, Jack owns a collectible and antique shop. The reverence for that past, and the love of collecting and collectibles fill Starman, and it warms the heart of this collector to see nostalgia and the urge to collect to be so positively portrayed. Pop culture as a motif pops up throughout the series, and often in strange ways. Scenes that should be ominous or surreal are balanced by people talking about movies and plays. While a Frankie Soul, a criminal with a vendetta against Mikaal, delivers a savage beating in him, he discusses different actors who have played Philip Marlowe. While a group of drug dealers cut their cocaine, they discuss the relative merits of Into the Woods  versus Sweeney Todd. And in my favorite, while wandering through the psychic landscape of the villain Solomon Grundy, Jack Knight, Alan Scott, and the Floronic Man discuss their favorite Woody Allen movies. Batman is there as well, and while not amused at the time, when they reenter the real world, he admits that Crimes and Misdemeanors is his favorite. What other comic can tell you what Batman's favorite Woody Allen movie is?

I've saved what might be my favorite recurring feature of Starman for last: Talking With David. Like I said, David Knight, Jack's estranged brother, was Starman before him, and was shot and killed after being a hero for a very short time. In the fifth issue, Jack meets David, as a ghost, and the two get into a fight. They come to a certain peace after that encounter, but David continues to pop up once a year to talk with Jack. The issues are all told in black and white, which is a stunning story telling choice, but always end with a full color splash page. These issues are some of my favorite, and tie most of the themes of Starman together.

Over the course of the run, Starman had two principal artists, Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg. They have very different styles, but both work very well for the series. Harris's work is hyper-detailed and beautifully designed. He created the stunning look of Opal City, and helped define Jack's reluctant attitude towards heroism with in Jack's non-costume: jeans, t-shirt, and a leather jacket. Snejbjerg draws wonderful characters, with very expressive faces, that allowed for so much of the emotional nuance that was present in the series. Each "Times Past" issue was drawn by a different artists, and the talent there was incredible. Teddy Kristiansen drew a tale of The Shade and Oscar Wilde in 1882, Matt Smith penciled a chilling tale of the aging JSA fighting the cult of the villain Ragdoll, Russ Heath recounts the final days of Scalphunter in Opal, and many more. An artistic highlight is also the four issue The Shade mini-series, featuring work from Gene Ha, JH Williams III, Bret Blevins, and Michael Zulli, taking place over the whole span of the Shades nearly two hundred years of life, giving some really amazing artistic opportunities.

While I tried to hit a lot of the high points of the series in this discussion, I know there's stuff I didn't really get to discuss at length. Jack's rogues gallery was awesome, with some tremendous new villains and reimaginings of old ones. The intricacy of the plot was also impressive, with little aspects introduced early in the series coming to major payoff at the end. The way some of the stories were told, like the "Sins of the Child" arc, where each issue take place during the same day from the perspective of a different character. The pages from "The Shade's Journal" telling another story of the Shade's past serialized over the course of the series in text pages. There's a reason why this is one of my all-time favorite completed series, and it comes with my highest possible recommendation.

DC recently finished reprinting all of Starman, along with The Shade mini, various one-shots, and the awesome two issue Batman/Hellboy/Starman mini with art by Mike Mignola, in a series of six omnibuses, the first of which was recently released in paperback. While Jack has retired and not really appeared since the series ended, the Shade continues to appear, currently headlining a twelve issue mini-series, issue nine of which was released on Wednesday.

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