Times Past, Present and Future: A Look Back at Starman, Part I

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On June 13 of 2001, DC comics released the 80th and final issue of James Robinson's monthly series 'Starman'. It was one of six new series released in the wake of the "Zero Hour" crossover, outlasting the others by at least 4 years. 'Starman' was one of the last series to be edited by Archie Goodwin, who passed away in 1998. Goodwin's name has appeared in every issue, first as "editor", then as "guiding light". And while the book was never a big seller, its fan base remained strong and true, growing steadily until the end. It may still find new fans through the trade paperbacks, and upcoming stories by series creators James Robinson and Tony Harris. 'Starman' has received more than its share of critical acclaim, the most famous being Ken Tucker's article in 'Entertainment Weekly' which called Starman, "The best written super-hero in comics".

This eight-part series will try to summarize, notarize, and conceptualize the Starman "experience". Every story arc of the monthly series is named here, along with other comics relevant to the series. Unless otherwise noted every book is written by James Robinson, and colored by Gregory Wright. Every book plays a part in the overall story of our hero, Jack Knight.

I could try to explain why 'Starman' is a great book, why the hero, Jack Knight, a collectibles dealer obsessed with everything old and valuable, is instantly relatable and recognizable to anyone who's been collecting comics, (especially comics published before they were born), for most of their lives. I could give examples of why James Robinson is the only writer at DC comics who takes full advantage of the rich story potential lying in the now unwritten history of the DC universe, (Events such as the "Crisis" and "Zero Hour", along with the subtle "moving up" of recent history has resulted in a large chuck of DC comics' history being unwritten. It is not unlike a farm field that has been stripped of all plant life, yet the soil is still rich enough to grow 10 times what was harvested.) I could even attempt to describe how Robinson is such a wonderful writer, that the mere act of reading his words, aloud or silently, brings on true joy. Or how some of the greatest artists in the industry have contributed to this book, and none of them quite equalling the expressive shapes from Tony Harris, or the refined, nostalgic, Golden Age styling of Pete Snejberg, (the series' second and final regular artist. I might even compare it to 'Sandman' in terms of story structure, depth, characterization, and timelessness.

But why bother? I'd rather let the books speak for themselves, as it were.

Before one even begins to read 'Starman', a brief history lesson may be in order. Robinson drew upon the long and rich history of DC comics to produce and reintroduce some of the most unique characters in comicdom. The following books list of books are either early appearances of the most prominent characters in 'Starman', or feature events that affected the series in some way, shape, or form.

'The Golden Age Starman Archives', the earliest adventures of Ted Knight, the first Starman; 'The Golden Age Flash Archives', early appearances of The Shade; 'All-Star Comics Archives', Starman joins the JSA beginning with Vol. 2; 'First Issue Special' #12, first and only appearance of Mikaal Tomas, a blue-skinned alien called Starman; 'Adventure Comics' #467, first appearance of Prince Gavyn, another Starman from space; 'Crisis on Infinite Earths', the death of Prince Gavyn; 'The Final Battle of the JSA', special comic that saw the JSA, Ted Knight among them, vanish into limbo; The first 'Starman' monthly series, published from 1988 to 1992. Told the adventures of another Starman called Will Payton. David Knight, Ted's son, also appeared in the series; 'Eclipso: The Darkness Within', a crossover told in DC's 1992 annuals. Will Payton expended his energies to destroy Eclipso, and was presumed dead; 'Armageddon Inferno', Ted Knight and the JSA return from Limbo; 'The Golden Age', an Elseworlds mini-series by James Robinson. Although not part of DC continuity, some elements of the story were used in 'Starman'. Chief among them was Ted Knight spending time in sanitariums following the use of the atomic bomb; 'Zero Hour', the 1994 crossover that saw the JSA turned into old men. The mini-series saw Ted pass the role of Starman to David, much to the relief of his other son, Jack. Issue #0 of the new 'Starman' series is published the next month. Finally, DC's Millennium Editions of 'Adventure Comics' #64, 'All-Star Comics' #8, and 'Flash' #123, which feature the first appearance of Ted Knight, his joining the JSA, and the first appearance of The Shade in the Silver Age, respectively.

Again, not every book listed is needed to understand the story. In fact, some of them aren't worth reading. But just by being aware of these books, and the time that has past since their initial release, one gains a better appreciation of how much work and research went into the series. 'Starman' is, quite possibly, the first modern comic to revel in the long and often twisted history of its fictional universe.

And now, on with the show:

Sins of the Father, Issues #0-5
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Wade Von Grawbadger (i)

David has been Starman, protector of Opal City, for all of one week, when he is shot and killed. His assassin is Kyle, the son of the Mist, Ted Knight's old arch-nemesis. This is the beginning of a crime wave organized by the aging Mist, which includes the destruction of Ted Knight's laboratory, and an attempt on Jack Knight's life. Jack escapes by using a spare rod Ted gave him for just such an emergency. Ted, meanwhile, is hospitalized following his lab's destruction. It's up to Jack to protect the city, albeit reluctantly.

This story arc introduces us to the major characters of the series. One of the qualities that makes 'Starman' so unique is its supporting cast. The characters are complete and fairly complex. They're more than just ciphers or props to react to the action. Jack will develop a special relationship with everyone seen here, and they all have a role to play in the larger scheme. Here, we are introduced to the O'Dares, 4 brothers and 1 sister, all cops, all the children of Billy O'Dare, the patrolman known as "Starman's sidekick" in the 1940s. We are reintroduced to The Shade, for Opal City is his home. He will commit no crime here, and often protects the city when it's threatened. Nash, the Mist's daughter, enters the story as a quiet, stuttering girl, but exits swearing revenge.

Robinson also lays the groundwork for future stories. "Sins of the Father" concludes with scenes of Mikaal Tomas captive at a circus, and Will Payton captive on another planet. During a battle, Jack smells lime and sea air. He later speaks with a fortune teller named Charity, who tells him his future. Some of her predictions come true in later stories.

'Starman' does not always follow the cliché formula of the comic book. There isn't necessarily a fight in every issue, and Jack's approach to crime fighting is unique. These differences are established shortly after Jack assumes the role of Starman. Jack is confronted by a hitman demanding an enchanted Hawaiian shirt for his employer. Jack resolves the conflict in an obvious, yet unexpected way: He sells the hitman the shirt.

Finally, we have the first of the annual "Talking with David" stories. For reasons unknown, Jack meets his dead brother in a place without color. Everything, and Jack, is in black and white, except for David. David uses these times to give Jack advice about being a hero, and warnings about the future. But in their first meeting, the brothers settle old grudges and fight in a graveyard.

In short, the tone of the series is established in this book. The characters step out, briefly introduce themselves, and then continue on their way. Robinson's dialogue reads like prose and poetry, Harris' pencils seem taken from photographs, and Grawbadger's inks are dark and thick. This trio is trying to appeal to a more intelligent reader, and they succeed. I could try to say how, but that would be, as they say, like dancing about architecture.

Night and Day, #7-10, 12-16
Artists: Tony Harris, Tommy Lee Edwards, Stuart Immonen, Chris Sprouse, Andrew Robinson, Gary Erskine, and Amanda Conner (p), Wade Von Grawbadger and Gary Erskine (i)

Before I go on, let me assure you that issues #6 and #11 were collected in a TPB. They were the first of the 'Times Past' stories, which I'll discuss later.

Night and Day collects two smaller story arcs. First, "A Knight at the Circus", where Jack finds the blue-skinned alien Mikaal Tomas held captive at a circus sideshow. Mikaal was part of an alien race that planned to invade Earth in the 1970s. But Mikaal turned against his people, and drove them off with his sonic crystal. He fought crime in New York before moving to Opal City, before disappearing for nearly 20 years. Mikaal has no memory of who he was, or where he's been. Jack and Mikaal free the circus' freaks by defeating its demonic owner. He also bumps into a young woman named Sadie Falk, who'll play an important role later in the series, and in Jack's life.

When Jack comes home, his father tells him about Ragdoll, a villain he and other JSA members killed in the early 80s. In the battle's confusion, Ted isn't certain who struck the killing blow. Meanwhile, a demonic poster is literally eating people off the street. The Shade recognizes it as the work of an immortal named Merritt, one who inspired Oscar Wilde to write, "The Portrait of Dorian Gray". (Actually, the correct title is "Picture of Dorian Gray". The Shade was mistaken. This single line is a sign of something sinister that will not be revealed until the series reaches the #60s.) The Shade goes in search of this immortal, taking him out of the city for the next day. After talking with the Shade, Jack meets Sadie Falk for the second time. She gives him a cool reception.

Jack then gets a request from super-heroine/model Jade to search for Soloman Grundy in the sewers of Opal. Formerly an enemy of the JSA, Grundy has been reborn as a childlike soul. Finally, Nash escapes from prison and transforms herself into the new Mist. Like her father, she has the power to turn her body into a cloud of vapor. All of this leads up to "The Sins of the Child".

"Sins of the Child" takes place over a single day,with each issue focusing on a different person. First is Jack, who finds Mikaal and Grundy have vanished. As Jack searches the city for them, he is kidnapped and drugged by Nash. Jack comes to in Nash's hideout, completely naked. Nash wants Jack to run a maze, both to collect his clothes and prove his mettle as a hero.

Next, Ted Knight is attacked in his home by Dr. Phosphorus. (This issue, by the way, was an "Underworld Unleashed" crossover.) The book turns black and white to create the mood of an old crime noir movie. Meanwhile, the O'Dares deal with Nash's crime wave, as Nash continues to kill old men for reasons unknown. Matt O'Dare has an epiphany during this crisis. He realizes he is the reincarnation of Scalphunter, a lawman from the Old West. Matt renounces his crooked ways and begins going straight.

In Grundy and Mikaal's story, we see them kidnapped by Nash's men. One of the henchmen is the son of No Mercy, a super-villain Mikaal fought and killed in the 70s. As Mikaal and Grundy are slowly tortured, Mikaal's crystal suddenly erupts. The explosion destroys the upper floors of the building where they're being held.

The last issue sees Jack successfully fight his way to the end of Nash's maze. She's waiting for him with a gun. Nash decides to let Jack go, provided that he works on becoming, "the one, true, best Starman, as I am working at becoming the one true Mist". She also explains why she was killing old men. After Ted Knight defeated the Mist for the first time back in 1940, he took five men to the Mist's lair. She believed one of these men had taken a medal her father earned in WWI. She didn't find it. In that respect, she considers her first crime wave a failure. Nash leaves Jack with the promise of seeing him in eleven months.

Again, the standard formula for comics is not followed here. The action is more intense than most books. Harris, Grawbadger, and Robinson give the action a violent intensity. Small drops of blood, a well-drawn face, and an internal monologue more effectively convey emotion and action than a bunch of intestines flying across the page ever could. In short, it's subtle, something comics have traditionally not been.

We also get a lot of downright strange conversations form the villains. For example, the henchman beating Mikaal is talking about his favorite Philip Marlowe movies. He even admits to killing a person just for liking the wrong one. When Matt O'Dare has a change of heart, he's guarding mobsters dividing up drugs. These mobsters, these made men, are arguing about Steven Sondheim musicals. Sondhiem! It's one of the funniest sequences in all of comics history! Try to imagine Tony Soprano saying, "You cannot ignore the resonant narrative purity of the European #*[email protected] folk tale", or "Angela Lansbury kicks ass!" It's weird, bizarre, original, and brilliant. You might think it comes from Quentin Tarentino movies, but they were never this smart, literate, or culturally aware. It's the little, oddball lines like that that make these characters real people.

More than Sins of the Father, Night and Day is a "typical" 'Starman' book. The narrative structure isn't strictly linear, yet the chapters flow in a natural manner. We see the past return to change the present, and how that history can shape a destiny. But most importantly, we get more useless and unusual trivia about subjects we never even thought about. If you can't start from the beginning, start here.

A Wicked Inclination, #17, 19-27
Artists: Tony Harris, Steve Yeowell, Guy Davis, Crhis Sprouse, J.H. Williams, Gary Erskine (p), Wade Von Grawbadger, Guy Davis, Ray Snyder, Mick Gray (i)

Once again, two story arcs are collected here. But first, a few subplots are advanced. In Opal, the ghost of Jon Valor, the Black Pirate, makes his presence known. The Shade enlists the aid of the O'Dares in tracking down Merritt. But Merritt was forewarned of their coming, and our heroes are caught in a fierce battle with Merritt's henchmen. (The tale of how this happened will be told later, the narration promises. It's yet to be told.) We do see the tale's end, with The Shade and Matt O'Dare pulled into the poster, a gateway to Hell. Unaware of these events, Jack bumps into Sadie again under more friendly circumstances. Later, David takes Jack on a mock pirate adventure saying that Jack will need to know what the life was like.

More details about the characters personal lives are revealed, as their lives undergo important changes. Clarence O'Dare, the eldest of the clan, is named to a new post as superhero liaison. Mikaal begins speaking in English, but still has no memory of his life. Ted tells a seemingly unconscious Grundy how torn he feels. While Grundy is now childlike and innocent, he was once a monstrous villain. He killed Sylvester Pemberton, aka the Star-Spangled Kid, who used a flying belt made by Ted Knight. Each of these revelations and changes are brief. And as they all occur in issue #17, before the two main story arcs even begin, they do not interrupt nor distract the reader.

In "Sand and Stars", a strange dream compels Jack visits Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age hero called Sandman. Jack comes to him looking for The Mist's WWI medal, when one of Wesley's friends is murdered. This leads to an adventure involving an explosive zeppelin, two face-changing villains, and a senior citizen wearing a gas mask and cane. Jack also learns that his father had an affair with Diana Lance, the Golden Age super-heroine called the Black Canary.

The third part of "Sand and Stars" sees Wesley Dodds thinking back to an adventure where he rescued Ted Knight, just as he's now going to rescue Jack. The flashback is drawn by Guy Davis, the regular artist of 'Sandman Mystery Theater'. 'Mystery Theater' followed the adventures of a young Dodds, and was published under the Vertigo imprint. Since this flashback was also published in an issue of 'Mystery Theater' that same month, this 'Starman' story could be the first crossover between a DCU and a Vertigo comic.

"Hell and Back" begins with Jack returning the Mist's medal. He later learns about the abduction of The Shade and Matt by Merritt. We learn about Merritt's long and storied life through excerpts from the Shade's journal. Much of the first part of "Hell and Back" is devoted to the life of Merritt, even though he never appears in the series again after this story. Jack and the police use the poster as bait to capture Merritt. In the battle, Jack is pulled into the poster. Inside, the demon offers his three captives a deal: their souls for the release of all those he's taken.

"Hell and Back" has a unique artistic look. All three issues in the series have an elaborate, colored pattern around the pages edges. This technique is often used by J.H. Williams and Mick Gray, who contribute to the story's conclusion. Issue #24, the story's beginning, has a blue border of squares and rectangles. The second part is a yellow and black leaf pattern, similar to what one may find on the edges of furniture. The third and concluding chapter is decorated with small caricatures of demons and skeletons, colored in red, yellow, or blue with no clear pattern. This lends a subtle feeling of order giving way to chaos. Ironically enough, the story begins in an asylum, and concludes in the demon's hell.

When Jack, Shade, and Matt are separated, each is taken to a different climate, and drawn by a different artist. Harris and Grawbadger draw Jack, Willaims and Gray draw The Shade, and Gary Erskine draws Matt. This helps to emphasize each character's unique qualities and personalities. The Shade's dark city street stands in stark contrast to Matt's bright desert plateau and Jack Knight's warm beach. I find this to be a unique and ideal alternative to the fill-in artist. By dividing the art of the story into different segments, the regular artist can focus on those pages that relate directly to the character and/or plot he's currently working on. Meanwhile, artists are brought in to finish the other pages. I find this less jarring than an entire issue drawn by someone who's style is dramatically different from the regular art.

You can see this for yourself in the final issue of the book, "A Christmas Knight". Penciled by Steve Yowell and inked by Grawbadger, this story sees Jack helping a homeless Santa Claus. The story is, quite frankly, a little sappy. And while Yeowell's style is very professional, it doesn't have the abstract quality that makes Harris' work so memorable. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a comic book with an unhappy Christmas story?

One last note: Issue #23 was originally published with a two-page text piece called, "From the Shade's Journal". Similar text stories had appeared before then, but this one was the beginning of an 11-chapter tale told over the course of the entire series. The conclusion wasn't printed until issue #79! I'll talk more about it and other Shade stories in my next article.

This concludes Part One of our 'Starman' retrospective. These first three trade books collect the main stories from the first 27 issues of 'Starman'. Next time, I'll review the books "Times Past", which collects the issues not reprinted in the previous books, "Infernal Devices", issues #29-35, and "Journey to the Stars", featuring the 'Starman'/'Power of Shazam' crossover. I'll also discuss the stories featuring The Shade, including his mini-series, Journal pages, and appearances in 'Showcase'.

Until then, keep an eye out for the next Robinson/Harris project, order the upcoming Starman poster by Harris and Alex Ross, and don't throw anything away! You never know how much someone will pay for the past.

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