Times Past, Present, and Future: A Look Back at Starman, Part II
This week, we look at the next two 'Starman' trade paperbacks: "Times Past" and "Infernal Devices". These books include the first "flashback" stories that take place in the past, the bombings of Dr. Pip and the sacrifice of Solomon Grundy. We also see Nash, the new Mist, defeat the new Justice League Europe. In short, there is pain and loss, friendship and joy, life and death, with a touch of comedy and a pinch of disco.
Seriously, there's a battle fought to disco music.
Just read on.
Times Past, Issues 6, 11, 18, 28, Secret Files #1, and Annual #1
Artists: Teddy H. Kristiansen, Matt Smith, John Watkiss, Craig Hamilton, Ray Snyder, Phil Jimenez, Lee Weeks, Robert Campanella, Bret Blevins, J. H. Williams III, and Mick Gray
"Times Past" collects all of the single-issue stories "skipped" by the previous three collections, as well as the story from 'Starman Secret Files' #1 and the first annual issue. All of these comics fall under the classification of a "Times Past" story. A "Times Past" story takes place, obviously, in the past. They serve the dual purpose of enriching the overall 'Starman" epic, and giving the regular artist a break. All but one of these stories are taken from The Shade's journal. They are introduced by The Shade's familiar script handwriting. It is assumed that Jack Knight is reading these journals to gain a better understating of his new role and his father. Rest assured, all of these stories play a role in the larger 'Starman' epic, even if they don't directly relate to Jack Knight.
The book begins with the 'Secret Files', by Jimenez, Weeks, and Campanella. Jack relates to his tattoo artist how his father became Starman. Meanwhile, Ted Knight talks about Jack's misspent youth to Sadie Falk, Jack's new girlfriend. Jack and his story are drawn by Weeks and Campanella, while Ted and his story are drawn by Jimenez. Even when the two stories share the same page, the panels are drawn by their respective artists. Furthermore, the pacing of the two stories and the layout of their panels are identical to each other. This gives the story a good balance to underscore how similar Ted and Jack really are.
While this was the only story in the 'Secret Files' special, it would be worth it to track down the original comic. In addition to the usual profile pages, (with first appearance notes for lesser known Starmen), it also has a beautiful map of Opal City, a detailed diagram of Jack's cosmic rod, and a Starman timeline that reveals the ending to the then unpublished "Stars, My Destination" storyline!
Issue #6 was the first "Times Past" story, taking place in Opal City, 1882. The Shade is lunching with Oscar Wilde when a young Jason Mayville asks for The Shade's help. Jason's sister has fallen under the spell of a hypnotist, and is about to turn over her half of their family's estate to him. Jason wants The Shade to drive the mesmerist away from the city and her sister.
The affair ends in death, as most stories involving the Shade often do.
Kristiansen's effectively uses shadow and darkness to give the story a sinister feeling. When the Shade uses his powers, the scene appears to have been drawn in charcoal. He appears more inhuman, more like a ghost than a man, and the fight seems inspired by German impressionist silent movies, ("Nosferatu", "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", etc.) The ending with a large devil's head surrounded by a pile of bodies is one of the most striking images you'll ever see in 'Starman'.
I should point out that Jason Mayville reappears in issue #74, the last "Times Past" story. Although he's called "John Melville", he's talked about as if he was Mayville. Oh well, blame it on Hypertime.
Issue #11, penciled and inked by Matt Smith, relates that terrible summer in 1982 when Opal City was in the grip of fear. The Ragdoll, a three-time loser supervillain, had inspired a murderous cult. Their crimes were so savage and numerous that they seemed unstoppable. Ted Knight, still Starman, called his friends from the Justice Society for help. While Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite foil crimes elsewhere, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Starman attack Ragdoll himself. After he's caught, he threatens the heroes' families with revenge at the hands of his followers.
Suddenly, Ragdoll breaks free. In the confusion that follows, Ragdoll is killed. His body is later stolen from the morgue. No one is sure who delivered the fatal blow.
This issue serves as a reminder for how comics, and maybe the world, have changed since the creation of the JSA. Green Lantern remarks at how grim and serious crime fighting's become. "When did all the lunatics become psychopaths", he asks. By the story's end, we see that not even the heroes are immune to change. In a way, this issue mourns the inevitable death of innocence, the belief we hold as children that everything has a happy ending. But everyone has to grow up someday.
In issue #18, by John Watkiss, we go back to those golden days, as Ted Knight, new to costumed crime fighting faces the Mist for the first time. We see Ted rely more on his fists than his brains in tracking down the Mist, while the Mist grows to accept his new role as a villain.
At story's end, Starman takes the five men involved in this case to the Mist's hideout. Years later, the Mist's daughter, Nash, would kill these men, thinking one of them had her father's war medal. In his journal, the Shade muses at how such a simple event resulted in the deaths of these men 50 years later.
Hamilton and Snyder drew issue #28, the first book-length story about Mikaal Tomas since his first appearance in 1976. Tomas is living in Opal City in 1976 when he is approached by Komak, a member of his alien race. Komak informs him that their people are dead, their home world destroyed, and the rest killed themselves in grief. Mikaal and Komak are the last of their people, and Komak is dying of Earth-born venereal disease. Before he dies, Komak wishes to complete his last mission: kill Mikaal for betraying his people, and preventing the invasion of Earth. Mikaal and Komak battle on a mental plane while the people below continue dancing, blissfully unaware of the fight taking place through their very bodies.
The art and panel arrangement convey the chaos of the battle and the chaos within Mikaal's mind. His people have a biological need that compels them to conquer. This inner drive can also be sated by the many drugs Mikaal's been taking. You really feel like you're inside Mikaal's jumbled, alien mind. And you leave with as few answers as he.
'Starman Annual #1', like all of DC's annuals in 1996, tells one of the "Legends of the Dead Earth", stories about Earth's heroes in a time long after Earth was dead, and humans had colonized the far corners of space. On a planet covered by a single city, The Shade acts as ruler and storyteller. Here, he tells a group of familiar-looking children two stories about Starmen from the past. First, the tale of Prince Gavyn, the Starman who ruled an empire, and the only Starman the Shade never met. The Shade tells of Gavyn's tumultuous life and his three deaths, the last occurring during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Next, The Shade tells of Ted Knight, a villainess called The Prairie Witch, and how Billy O'Dare became "Starman's sidekick".
This issue serves little purpose, other than to introduce the reader to Gavyn, another Starman who'll come to play a large role later in the series. It also shows an unusual fate for our culture and history. The only things that survive the death/destruction of Earth are humanity itself, our stories, and the one man who knows them; The story, the storyteller, and his audience.
Think about it.
Finally, interspersed through the book are pages "From the Shade's Journal". They were text pieces originally published in the back of the 'Starman' comics. These relate the first time The Shade saw Ted Knight as Starman, his modern day feelings of dread, and the day he decided to leave London forever. That last story, I think, perfectly summarizes the Shade's character. He had been visiting Oscar Wilde hen he realized he had stopped aging. After leaving Oscar, The Shade went down to Tiger Bay, the place where he got his powers. Soon he comes upon a street performer trying to beat to death his performing bear. The Shade muses at the sight before him, thinking it "ludicrous", and perhaps his sadness and guilt over Oscar was still affecting him. His thoughts are cut short with the statement, "Whatever. I killed the man."
That, for me, defines The Shade more than any other story.
Beginning with issue #23, "From the Shade's Journal" appeared at irregular times relating an 11-chapter story about The Shade and Howard Hughes. The epic was finally concluded in issue #79, after an absence of 38 months! I'll list discuss the story in more detail when next I talk about "Times Past" stories.
Before I go on, I should point out that I do not own, nor have I actually read the 'Infernal Devices' and 'Journey to the Stars' trade books. Instead, I have the original comics, upon which I base my reviews. Should there be any differences or omissions in the trade books, I am not aware of them, and apologize in advance for any confusion this may cause you.
Infernal Devices, Issues 29-35
Artists: Tony Harris, Wade Von Grawbadger, Ray Snyder, Mark Buckingham, Steve Yeowell, and Wayne Faucher.
Issue #29, "The Return of Bobo", houses two great ideas from which the entire industry could benefit. This comic was part of a month-long promotion at DC in February of 1997 called "Starman Month". In addition to this book, DC also released the 'Night and Day’ TPB, some Starman merchandise, and the 'Shade' mini-series. But this issue had the best promotional gimmick: a story. A self-contained, self-explained, 32-page ad-free mini-masterpiece that anyone, ANYONE, could read. There were no plot threads from previous issues, no characters who weren't identified, and anything you wanted to know about these people is told in the 8-page intro written by "The Shade". If only every comic did this once in a while, just set everything aside for an issue and write a simple, easy to understand story, maybe comics would attract more new readers.
The second idea is the retroactive creation of Jake "Bobo" Benetti, a super-tough banker robber with a long history James Robinson just made up. I've heard some folks complain that the destruction of DC's parallel Earths threw away a wealth of great story ideas. I say there are plenty of ideas yet to be mined in DC's new continuity. I've mentioned before how stories like "Crisis" and "Zero Hour" have unwritten most of DC's comics continuity. (The 60s and 70s are, from my understanding, almost completely free of superheroes.) Robinson uses this to his advantage by inventing new history, whether its writing a new story that takes place in the past, (Times Past), or by creating whole new characters and events, like Bobo Benetti. Call it sacrilege, call it being a slave to continuity, just don't call it crap. As long as the story's good, I don't care!
And this story in particular is especially good. Bobo has just been released after a long stint in prison. He's still trying to decide whether or not to go straight. Meanwhile, Ted, Jack, Mikaal, and the O'Dares are all keeping an eye on him. Jack also receives a letter from the Mist that really knocks the wind out of his gut.
Just looking at the book, not reading it, just looking at the pictures, almost tells the whole story. Harris' talent really shines through here. His characters aren't just emotional, they're expressive. He adds subtle touches to their faces and bodies that convey depth along with their feeling. The bartender's eyes go wide and gleaming when he asks Bobo if he's going to rob a bank, perfectly showing his excitement and interest. Tears run down Jack's face for two pages when he's read the Mist's letter. Bobo's moves are slow and graceful, even when he's fighting. This lends him and air of experience; of thinking before he acts. It's all these little things that make an otherwise good story a great comic. Truly can it be said greatness is in the details.
"Infernal Devices" runs through issues #30 to #35, though the story's name only appears on the first four parts. The city is threatened by a mad bomber called The Infernal Dr. Pip, (Man, you just don't hear villain names like that anymore. When was the last time you saw a villain called "Infernal", or even "Pip"? I'm working on one called The Diabolical Mr. Nigel). Jack finds the bomber with help from Dudley Donovan, a third-generation stoolie. Jack's fight with Pip is joined by the ghost of Jon Valor, the Black Pirate.
Later, Valor tells Jack how his son was murdered and he was blamed. When he hanged, he cursed the young city of Opal that his ghost and the ghosts of all who died after him would not find rest, but walk the streets of Opal until his name was cleared. Valor now asks for Jack's help in clearing his name. But first, they have to find Pip.
In their next fight, Jack is captured by Pip and his new bodyguard, Copperhead. Jack awakens at the site of Pip's last target: a crowded department store. Valor frees Jack, who's able to get some people out of the store. Sadly, the bomb detonates. Some are killed instantly, but Jack and others are trapped inside. Suddenly, Grundy returns from hiding. Grundy had felt guilty when he heard Ted Knight talk about an earlier version of Grundy killing the hero Skyman. Ashamed, Grundy hid until he heard about Jack's kidnapping. Grundy is able to support the building long enough for Jack and the others to escape. Grundy is not so lucky.
Grundy is dug out from the rubble, and found to be just barely alive. Since he is a plant based creature, Ted Knight sends for Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, to help save his life. Woodrue is escorted by Batman, a hero Jack doesn't particularly like. Also joining them is Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern. Together, the four of them enter Grundy's consciousness to help the friendly incarnation of Grundy survive. They meet strong resistance from other, angrier parts of Grundy's mind, chief among them is Cyrus Gold, the human mind from whom Grundy was first created. The heroes do all they can, but despite it all, and a timely arrival by Ted Knight, Grundy dies. He will be reborn as someone, or something else, all too soon.
But the story doesn't end there. Pip, literally torn to pieces and dying, returns in an armor wired to explode. He plans to destroy the department building he bombed before, and take the heroes with him. Jack and Alan Scott find themselves powerless to stop him, when the Genesis wave disrupts their powers, ("Genesis" was DC's crossover for the fall of '97. 'Starman' #35 was a tie-in. In fact, Jack Knight is one of only four characters who appears on all the covers of the 'Genesis' mini-series, and is very visible throughout the story. Too bad it sucked.) Fortunately, The Shade returns in the nick of time, after a trip he took in his mini-series. He envelops Pip and his bomb in his Shadow matter, and effectively damns him to a dark and endless hell.
This story has one of my favorite conversations from the series. While the heroes are inside Grundy's mind, Gold asks Jack how it feels to be working alongside Alan Scott and Batman. Jack's response: "It's like Woody Allen movies. Everyone knows in their heart which are the great ones, . . . but they're not the ones you necessarily like." This takes the heroes on a brief tangent of naming their favorite Allen films. Batman brings it to a halt with, "I don't watch films. And I don't understand how we even got onto this absurd tangent. We're in a supervillain's subconscious, not a coffee bar." This tells me two things. One, except for Jack Knight, we don't know the little details about comic book characters. We don't know things like their favorite movies, or how they like their coffee, or even their politics. When one of them appears in 'Starman', Robinson goes through the trouble of adding these little things. Copperhead, for example, is shown collecting old transistor radios. You'd never think of a super-villain of having a hobby.
Two, other heroes tend to take the ridiculous very seriously. Batman's mind has been transferred into the subconscious of a plant-based, 60-year old villain through the ingestion of fruit grown from the fingers of Woodrue, a second plant-man. He is now talking with the ghost of a man who died in 1892 who won't help them unless they "amuse" him.
And he thinks talking about Woody Allen films right now would be ridiculous?
At least Jack keeps things in perspective. His interior monologues often comment on the unbelievable nature of his life as a crime-fighter. Oh, he takes his job seriously, especially when other people's lives are at stake. He just has a real life, outside of superhero weirdness. Grundy's passing is touching and sad. It's the kind of quiet, dignified death that so few comic book characters get these days, (re: Our Worlds at War). If there was ever a trade book collecting the best deaths in comics, this would be an easy shoe-in.
If you'd like to see more of the Black Pirate's early adventures, you can pick up the Millennium Edition reprint of 'Sensation Comics' #1 featuring his first appearance. It's a good old-fashioned adventure strip in the style of "Prince Valiant".
As for the art, the contrast between the pages by Harris and Yeowell is so striking as to hurt the book's rhythm and flow. Yeowell's work is simple, bold, and clear. It could work in other books, but not alongside the shadowy, photo-realistic style of Harris. Still, Yeowell's best work was in Grant Morrison's 'The Invisibles'. (Yep, Jack Knight and Jack Frost are connected in a weird Kevin Bacon-esque way.)
BTW, my favorite Allen movie: "Interiors", with costumes by Joel Schumaker. Bad director, but a great fashion designer.
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