Thursday, July 8, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #24: October 1994

Look Out Your Window, I Can See His Light

























Starman #0 

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Tony Harris
Inker: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colorist: Gregory Wright

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In September 1994, which was the beginning of my senior year of high school, I wrote a journal entry in which I boldly declared, "Superhero comics are dead." 

My argument was that all that was interesting about superheroes had already been done and that there was nothing new to be done in the genre. I declared that all of the most interesting and innovative comic books were non-superhero titles: Tales of the Beanworld, A Distant Soil, Scud the Disposable Assassin, Atomic City Tales, etc. 

Ah, the brashness of youth.

And though I didn’t state them in that particular one-page handwritten treatise, I realize now there were a trio of reasons I had taken on this attitude. One was the diminished quality of the books Marvel (and Image, and Malibu, and…) were producing. Another was that I was genuinely excited by indie books; they made me feel the way my first superhero comics had. The final reason was that I’d started caring more and more about seeming cool, and being seen a grown-up, and I didn’t see how superhero comics fit into that calculus. I had observed the thirty and fortysomething men who came in to Metropolis Comics each week, still wearing their button down shirts and ties from their office jobs, and I did not see myself becoming like them.

In my journal entry I did make an exception for “well done hero comics coming out at DC and Milestone.” Which DC titles I meant I can only hazard a guess, but my guess is I was probably talking about Legion of Super-Heroes / Legionnaires, and Flash.

And soon enough I'd add Starman to that list. In fact, it would be the comic that showed me just how wrong I was about superhero comics. It became a bridge between my teenage fandom and my adult fandom.

*

Starman had just debuted that summer as part of DC’s Zero Hour event. It was the brainchild of writer James Robinson, a relative newcomer. A native of Great Britain, Robinson moved to California in the late 1980s, attended film school, and began doing work for independent publishers and Dark Horse. In the early 1990s he landed a three-issue story in the Batman anthology book Legends of the Dark Knight. He was also became one of the cofounders of the Ultraverse, writing Firearm for the company. His breakthrough was the 1993 miniseries he did with Paul Smith, The Golden Age. It was an Elseworlds tale of the Justice Society being blacklisted following World War II, and it would be a fitting precursor to his work on Starman.

Robinson had grown up a DC fan, and in writing The Golden Age he realized an entire untapped potential in the Starman character. Like the best ideas, he couldn't believe no one else had already thought of it. It became an obsession. "I have to get it out of my system," he told Steve Darnell of Hero Illustrated.

Without delving too deeply into it, the Starman name has an unusual history, even by comic book standards. The Golden Age original was Ted Knight, a scientist who invented a cosmic rod that allowed him to fly and shoot energy bursts. He was a member of the Justice Society, and had many solo adventures in the pages of Adventure Comics in the 1940s. But he wasn't revived for the Silver Age outside of participating in the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers. In 1975 DC tried rebooting the character as a blue-skinned alien named Mikkal Tomas in the pages of First Issue Special, but this Starman didn’t catch on. In 1980, Paul Levitz and Steve Ditko created another new alien Starman, Prince Gavyn. This one had a longer shelf life than the second, but not by much. The fourth incarnation of the character, Will Payton, was created by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle, and starred in his own series from 1988 till 1992. Like the two before him, he had seemingly no connection to the earlier Starmen.




An integral part of of Robinson's idea for the series involved his Starman being the book to unite them all. He started with Stern’s introduction of David Knight in 1990's Starman #26. David was the son of the first Starman, who was angry at Will Payton for using this father's moniker, which he believes rightly belongs to him. They worked it out, but with Payton apparently dying at the end of his series, Robinson’s Starman #0 opens with David having taken on his father's mantle.

And then he dies on the third page. 

This shocking turn is the result of a calculated revenge plot carried out by the original Starman’s nemesis, the Mist. This plot also involves an attack on the heretofore unknown youngest son of Ted, Jack Knight. Jack is a hipster antique dealer who doesn’t get along well with his brother or his father, at least in part because he’s completely dismissive of their superheroic notions. But with his brother’s death and his father’s life on the line, Jack has to very reluctantly step into the role he so readily dismissed.


If that were the only premise of the book, it would have been enough. Grief, father-son dynamics, and the complicated process of growing up and accepting your legacy are rich areas to explore, and the book does that. But it also does more than that. Over the course its seven-year run, the book would also deftly bring all of the disparate Starman concepts together into an interlocking whole. But it does even more than that! It takes a stock villain called the Shade and makes him into a complex and compelling anti-hero. But it does more even more yet! It adds an entirely new location to the fictional DC map, Opal City, and does it so well that the city itself feels like another character in the book. 

Whether or not it’s the actual truth, Robinson gave the appearance of having approached Starman with a carefully-considered long-term plan. And he actually executed it. From the Shade spotlight issues to the periodic “Times Past” standalones that filled in vital backstory to the yearly beyond-the-grave visits with David to the romance between Jack and Hope O’Dare to the bitter-but-complex rivalry between Jack and Nash Nimbus (the Mist’s daughter), nearly all of the series’ defining elements are in place by the end of its first few issues.

To me this is the big thrill of superhero comics: A writer with a vision comes into his own little corner of the shared universe and builds upon the work of those who came before him to create something far richer than what was there before. 

*

Of course back in late 1994 I didn’t know the scope of what Robinson would do with Starman. I only knew that it felt way different than any of the other books I was reading 
 
A big part of that was the character of Jack himself, who was unlike any other superhero I’d ever encountered. He was more like someone out of a Nick Hornby novel (though of course I hadn't yet read any Nick Hornby novels yet) than any Marvel or DC book I’d ever read. And I could relate to him. He was well-versed in movies, TV, art, books, and he didn’t differentiate between highbrow and lowbrow. He was just as likely to make a reference to Tod Browning as he was the Hues Corporation hit “Rock the Boat.” My own development into a pop culture obsessive was just in its infancy, but I recognized like.

And I was fascinated by his job as a dealer of antiques and vintage items. A collector himself, Robinson packed the book with specific references to the artifacts Jack sought out and sold, and as a degenerate amasser of artifacts myself I could relate. It helped that my dad and step-mom were at that time heavy into side-careers as antique dealers themselves, and I had spent many a Saturday and Sunday with them at antique malls, garage sales, thrift shops, and flea markets. That world made complete sense to me, and I’d certainly never seen it reflected in a comic book before.

It was such a big part of Jack's character that it created a conflict over priorities. Robinson amusingly told Hero Illustrated: "If [Jack] had some Bakelite cutlery to go out and buy and he had a supervillain – he’d probably fight the supervillain, but he’d kind of weigh the options.”

Having not at that point read Swamp Thing or Animal Man or Doom Patrol or any other "mature" take on superheroes, this was completely novel to me. I'd read plenty of low-hanging fruit superhero parodies, hut Starman managed to be off-kilter while also taking itself seriously, and that was something I'd never experienced in an ongoing superhero book: the depth of characterization, the culture references, the longform storytelling, the reverence for the character’s history, and, oh, the art.

Robinson’s primary artistic collaborator was penciller Tony Harris, whom Robinson specifically requested for the book. As it was for Robinson, Starman was Harris’s first high-profile comics work. He’d only done a couple of projects for Marvel, and some horror adaptations for independent publishers. His high contrast, design-minded, angular style was enhanced and defined by the heavy inks of Wade Von Grawbadger. Harris also painted the title’s eye-catching covers.

It all added up to something that showed my 17-year-old self that there was plenty more to superheroes than what I'd experienced to that point, and that of course there were still new things to say about them. Just as Jack's attitude toward superheroes evolved as the series progressed, and so did mine. Like Jack, I realized that growing up didn't mean having to deny or leave behind vital parts of myself, and that in fact true maturity meant fully owning and embracing those things.

*

Harris left Starman in 1998 with issue #45, and the talented Peter Snejbjerg took over. 
Starman ended in August 2001 with issue #80, with Robinson having told the complete story he wanted to tell. Jack Knight would go on to have a brief membership in the revived Justice Society of America title (more on that later), but for the most part has been allowed to remain retired. Robinson returned to the world of Starman twice, for a one-off tie-in to 2009’s Blackest Night event and again for a 2011 Shade miniseries.


Works Cited:
Darnell, Steve. “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Hero Illustrated #15 (September 1994).

Darnell, Steve. “A Day at the Races.” Hero Illustrated #16 (October 1994).

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