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

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This week, I'll be looking at the comics collected in the TPB, "To Reach the Stars", which I've earlier referred to as "Journey to the Stars". My apologies. "Journey" was the title of issue #45, where Jack leaves for outer space. These include the 'Starman'/'Shazam' crossover, and the death of the Justice League Europe. Once again, I do not have the trade book, so I will be working from the original issues.

I'll also review the second batch of "Times Past" stories: #36, 42, 44, 46, and the second annual issue. That last one reveals the reason for Jack's trip to a distant planet.

Well then, let's get to it. Remember, unless otherwise noted, all stories are written by James Robinson, and colored by Gregory Wright.

A Hero Once...Despite Himself: Issue #36
Art by Richard Pace & Wade Von Grawbadger, colors by John Kalisz

We go back to 1990, when Will Payton used the name Starman when he fought crime. Payton was the star of the first 'Starman' series, which ran from 1988 to 1992. Its 41 issue run is notable for being unremarkable. It just wasn't exciting or popular enough to catch on with a big audience. When the series ended, Payton went with it. He died battling Eclipso in the 1992 DC Annuals event "Eclipso: The Darkness Within".

This issue opens with Payton pondering his unpopularity. "Why doesn't anybody like me", he wonders, as he chases a serial killing couple, the Bodines, into Turk County. Payton finds them after they've taken a woman hostage and are facing down a cop. The Bodines taunt Payton by asking the woman and the cop who'd they bet on in a fight between Payton and Batman. Both people say Batman, "because he has an edge". The Bodines claim that's their advantage too. Payton is able to rescue the woman, but the Bodines vanish. They still remain at large.

The remark about having an edge is a good summary about why some characters catch on, and why others don't. The most enduing characters of fiction, be they superheroes, pulp fiction stars, or even the legends of literature, have something that makes them unique. I don't mean a gimmick like a power or operating in a peculiar set of circumstances. I mean the character has something akin to a personality. Even if it's just a few cliched traits or habits, it's enough to make the character memorable and interesting. Batman and Daredevil are most interesting when struggle against impossible odds and win. Their perseverance is their edge. Some of the best Superman stories have him performing fantastic feats, or reaffirming our most basic moral values. His power and purity are his edge. And Jack Knight's edge is his non-traditional style, how he's a person first and a super-hero second.

Payton, as powerful as he was, as great his battles were, was a boring character. He was an average guy who got lucky. No side-effects to his powers, no problems with the secret identity, just him fighting villains. And these days, that makes for mighty boring reading.

Starman Annual #2
Art by Mitch Byrd & Drew Gerraci, Stefano Gaudiano, Gene Ha, and Steve Yeowell, colors by David Hornung

In the second, and sadly last, 'Starman' annual, we see more of Sadie and Jack's relationship following their third meeting in issue #25. As their relationship, and their love, progress, Jack wonders if he'll have to choose between his love and his role as Starman. Jack tells Sadie three stories about other Opal City defenders who made the same choice: Brain Savage, when he was sheriff of Opal, met and loved a high society woman. They realized they came from two too different worlds; Ted Knight, who was having an affair with the Black Canary in the 1960s. Someone threatened to expose their relationship if they stopped him from robing a bank. They stopped the crook, and their affair; and David, who broke off his engagement because he felt his fiancée wasn't strong enough to be the wife of a superhero.

After a battle puts Jack in the hospital for a few days, Sadie confesses her secret: Her real name is Sadie Payton, Will Payton's sister. She believes her brother is still alive somewhere, and wants Jack to find him. Sadie had intended to seduce Jack and use him for this purpose. She hadn't expected to fall in love with him.

I'd like to take this moment to once again praise the name of Gene Ha. This is the second of three books he did for 'Starman', (the others being 'The Shade' #1 and 'Starman' #46), and they all look beautiful. But only this story's art bears some resemblance to his work on 'Top 10'.

All the artists look great, and are quite appropriate to the time period of their story. Sadly, the work on the three stories is so good, that the framing sequence by Byrd and Geracci pales and looks amateurish. It seems too bright, flat, and cartoony for my tastes. I would have had Steve Yeowell draw the framing sequence in addition to the David Knight story.

1997 was the last year DC produced Annuals for all of their titles. In the years since, we've only seen them made for the JLA-related books, with few exceptions. I haven't seen any come out this year, probably because of the "Our World at War" specials. (One more reason to hate that crossover.)

Talking with David '97: Issue #37
Art by Tony Harris & Wade Von Grawbadger

For their annual meeting in the realm between life and death, David takes Jack to a dinner party attended by some Golden Age super-heroes: Zatara, Black Canary, Dr. Mid-Nite, The Atom, Mr. Terrific, Hourman, and a little known character called The Red Bee. They give Jack advice about "The Life", and warn him not to get so caught up in it that he ignores other important things.

The cover of this book features a close-up of Jack's face, part of the "Faces of the DC Universe" theme for that month. Every DC comic was a portrait of a character's face. I regard it as the best cover "gimmick" I've ever seen. The 'Starman' cover is filled with swirling lines that draw you towards Jack's right eye. The style reminds me of Van Gough's self-portrait. I wish this was available as a poster or over-sized print.

This issue re-enforces one of the most appealing aspects of Jack Knight and 'Starman'. It's not all about the bright capes and fancy powers. It's about people. Ordinary, yet unique, people, some of whom just happen to have better-than-normal powers, mostly because they live in a universe where bizarre and extraordinary things happen on a regular basis. That's 'Starman' summed up in a single sentence.

La Fraternite De Justice Et Liberte: Issue #38
Art by Dusty Abnell, Dexter Vines and Norman Lee, colors by Noelle Giddings

The Crimson Fox tries to reform the Justice League Europe with Firestorm, Ice Maiden, Blue Devil and Amazing Man. Sadly, they never get the chance. The Mist kills three of them because she "wanted to see if I could".

This is an unusual issue for two reasons. One, no one named "Starman" appears in the book. The Mist is the only 'Starman' character in the story, and she hadn't been seen since issue #16. Second, two of the heroes who die here have stayed dead. The third, Blue Devil, came back during "Day of Judgement".

Overall, it's a pretty grim story. We are introduced, (or re-introduced, depending on who you are), to the heroes through their conversations. We learn enough about them to like them when they're there, and mourn them when they die. Firestorm delivers a nice soliloquy about how superheroes were simpler, brighter, more fun. "Nowadays", he says, "you fly off for a moment, you come back and two or three of your buddies are dead in that time". It's prophetic, of course. Anyone who thinks the Silver Age was the high point in comic book history should read his speech: it perfectly summarizes their attitude.

On a side note, the clerk at the shop where I bought this book commented on the accuracy and detail of the gun on the cover. He was able to identify it. Scary guy. In the army now.

Lightning and Stars: Issues #39 and #40 (plus ‘The Power of Shazam #35 and #36’),/u>
Starman art by Tony Harris & Wade Von Grawbadger
Shazam written by Jerry Ordway, art by Pete Krause & Dick Giordano

The first, and only, crossover story between 'Starman' and another comic, involves neo-Nazi saboteurs, a fight between Jack Knight and Captain Marvel, and an appearance by a Green Lantern. Also, each pair of issues has a two-part cover. 'Starman's is painted by Harris, while 'Shazam's is done by Ordway. They look great, but I still can't figure out who's the guy in the American flag shirt on 'Starman' #40.

It begins when old newsreel footage of the JSA is discovered, depicting Bulletman, a rocket-powered flying superhero, directing similarly-powered Nazis in WWII. Bulletman is now a respected member of Fawcett City, home of the Marvel Family. This news could ruin him, unless he can produce an alibi. Fortunately, on the day in question, he was working with Ted Knight on a secret mission in Alaska. Unfortunately, they signed confidentiality statements with the government, promising that they wouldn't reveal their mission. So, Bulletman and Ted try to reach their former government contact, another hero called Minuteman, to be released from their statements.

This leaves Jack the unenviable task of fighting off Captain Marvel, who's come to bring Bulletman back into Federal custody. During the fight, Jack begins using his cosmic rod in new ways; ways that his father used them. This bothers Jack, as it means he's becoming more like his father and less like his own man.

I must compliment both Ordway and Robinson on their portrayal of Captain Marvel. In both books, he's portrayed as a kid wanting to do the right thing, but not sure how. I think that's been the key to Marvel's appeal over the years. In many ways, he's just a big, overgrown kid. Young readers can thrill to his feats of super-strength without feeling he's unapproachable. He's like Superman, only flawed. If you want to get a young person hooked on comics, get some old issues of 'Shazam'. It's a pity that it's no longer with us.

Villain's Redemption: Issue #41
Art by Gary Erskine

Dr. Phosphorus escapes from prison, and Jack asks Ted where he can get a rocket ship. But the main story is The Shade and Matt O'Dare. After learning he was the reincarnation of Brain Savage, a.k.a. Scalphunter, Matt has vowed to reform his corrupt ways. But to make that new start, he needs to "silence" those who could dig up his dark past. The Shade, who was Savage's friend, and wants peace in his city, helps Matt to kill those he can't scare into silence.

This issue boils down to two scenes: Matt talking to a trucker who drove for the mob, and Shade talking to a crime boss. Matt tells the trucker about his desire to go straight, and how he's killed to that end. Matt tells all of this while holding the trucker's baby. There's a wonderfully sinister undercurrent to the conversation. Matt has, quite effectively, taken control of the situation and made his intentions clear, but all in a manner that makes you sympathetic for him! The Shade's exchange is more direct. First, he slaughters all of the crime boss' guards. Then he gives the boss a chance to forget Matt's past. The boss agrees.

The Shade doesn't believe him.

I don't think many villains take the time or effort to "play" with their victims the way the Shade does. It's too bad.

1944: Science and Sorcery: Issue #42
Art by Matt Smith & Wade Von Grawbadger

In 1944, Nazi sorcerers have stolen a spell book that opens up a gateway to a void dimension. They wish to use it as a weapon. The Demon tracks them down, because the book would give him power to rule Hell. And since the sorcerers are in Opal City, Ted Knight investigates.

I should point out that Robinson has ret-conned Ted into an atheist. He has no believe in anything remotely supernatural. When Knight meets The Demon, he can't accept its supernatural claims. A year later, Ted Knight suffers a nervous breakdown after seeing the effects of the atom bomb he helped create. But in his journal, The Shade wonders if meeting a real demon didn't contribute to Ted's problems.

Not much else to say, save that I enjoyed "Day of Judgement", which was also drawn by Matt Smith. Granted, it wasn't great, but it was a fun read and it got Hal Jordan up and around again.

Knight's Past: Issue #43
Art by Tony Harris & Wade Von Grawbadger

Jack opens his new store, "Knights Past", and tells his dad why he needs a rocket ship. Ted gets Jack to see the JLA, where they fight robots for reasons unknown. They tell Jack they don't have any ships to spare, and aren't willing to believe Payton's still alive. Still, all is not lost. The Shade has found a ship, right in Opal city. It was built at the turn of the century, and its inventor was involved in an adventure with Brian Savage. A little work, and it can take Jack to the stars.

A couple of notes about this issue: Jack slips in a marijuana joke. It's so subtle, you might miss it the first time you read it. Also, Jack knows Green Lantern's real name. Maybe he introduced himself when they met at Hal Jordan's funeral in 'GL' #82. Here's another nugget for you continuity nuts: Although Wonder Woman and Aquaman appear on the cover, they do not appear in the story. This happened with Jack on several occasions in early issues of 'JSA'. Beyond that, this book is almost all dialogue and no action. Mainly a "bridge" between past and future events.

Things That Go Bump in the Night: Issue #44
Art by Mike Mayhew & Wade Von Grawbadger

In 1943 (although the cover says 1944), the Phantom Lady fought the Prairie Witch in Washington D.C. The witch escapes, but Phantom Lady, a.k.a. Sandra Knight, tracks her to Opal City. It gives Sandra a chance to meet her cousin, Ted Knight. Later that night, Sandra fights and captures the Witch. She earns a large cash reward, which he uses to buy war bonds.

The Phantom Lady originally appeared in 'Police Comics' published by Quality Comics in the 1940s. She holds two unique places in history. Her first appearance in 'Police Comics' #1, (now available as a Millennium Edition reprint), was published six months before Wonder Woman's debut in 'All-Star Comics' #8. Thus, the Phantom Lady is the first female costumed crime fighter in comics. Second, the 'Phantom Lady' series of the late 40s and early 50s featured sexually suggestive covers. Dr. Frederick Wertham singled them out as evidence of how comics were perverting children. This attention helped make the Phantom Lady one of the most controversial characters in comics. (And in a costume like that, I'm not surprised!)

The family relationship between Sandra and Ted is, of course, a post-Crisis addition, though she was always called "Sandra Knight". In fact, I'll bet James Robinson himself first made that connection in the 'Starman Secret Files and Origins'. I re-read this issue just after reading the 'Crisis' TPB. While talking with Sandra, Ted doesn't recall the first time they went riding together. Normally, this is an innocent mistake. But in a world where all of time and history has been altered, one has to wonder if the event really did take place.

This issue, instead of a letters page, has messages from various writers and artists giving their thoughts and feelings about the then-recent death of Archie Goodwin, editor of 'Starman'.

Destiny: Issue #45
Art by Tony Harris & Wade Von Grawbadger

Jack asks "Bobo" Benetti to watch over the city while he's gone. Ted fits his modern cosmic energy technology to the space ship, making it ready for flight. He also adds a Mother Box from Orion to track down Will Payton's energy signature. Mikaal tells his lover, Tony, that he has to go out there too; to rediscover his lost past. And just before he and Jack leave, Sadie agrees to marry Jack.

Another nice, quiet issue. Emotional, but otherwise quiet. The night he leaves, Jack says good-bye to his city and ponders his place in the larger world. He feels comfortable knowing he's not as famous as Superman or Green Lantern, or even the Doom Patrol. But then, he doesn't want to be. He's happy protecting Opal city, and just Opal.

That's one of the most appealing qualities of 'Starman'; It's a second-string book that knows it's a second-string book. Too many new comics try to gain the same attention and popularity as bigger-selling books, but rarely fulfil their own promises. 'Generation X' was such a book, as was 'Steel'. But the creators and editors of 'Starman' knew they'd never set sales records. So they focused on doing the best story they could for as long as they could. Lucky for us, it lasted long enough for Robinson to tell his whole story.

This was the last issue to feature interior art by Tony Harris. He continued to draw covers for the series, but never drew another complete 'Starman' story again. That doesn't mean he never will, though.

Good Men and Bad: Issue #46
Art by Gene Ha

In 1952 (though the cover says 1954, again with that!), Bobo learns about three super-villains' plan to settle down in Opal City as the ruling crime kings. Part of that plan involves killing Starman (Ted Knight, recently released from a sanitarium). He tells this to the Shade, since he knows the Shade has never committed a crime in Opal. The Shade claims to be disinterested, leaving Bobo in an awkward position: he's no killer, but he's no rat either.

Meanwhile, Starman is joined by the Jester, a minor costumed hero who's been tracking Bobo from New York. The Jester reveals his secret ID to Starman, because he's deduced Ted Knight's double life. Together they search for Bobo, but are interrupted by the arrival of the aforementioned three villains: the Fiddler, the Icicle, and the Gambler. (Gee, read enough Golden Age comics, and the names in 'The Authority' don't sound so dumb.) While Ted and the Jester fight this terrible trio, hired gunmen try to shoot Ted from the surrounding rooftops. Fortunately, Bobo shows up to stop them. He's able to take out 4 of the 5 snipers, when the Shade lends a hand. The two agree never to tell anyone about this.

This was the third and final 'Starman' story by Gene Ha. Now Ha didn't just do pencils and inks for his work. He also did the colors; wonderful, watercolor shades of washed-out sepias and faded primaries. They are truly a sight to behold. That's why I didn't buy 'Top Ten'. As good as the art is, it's not Gene at his best. And his best has spoiled me for anything else.

Tony Harris says his good-bye at the end of this issue. He says he can't give 'Starman' the time and detail that it deserves. On one hand, I find that a valid excuse. If an artist can't give a book the time and attention it deserves, its best if he says so and steps aside. On the other hand, I haven't seen him do any other projects until 'Obergeist'. So I've got to wonder what he did in the interim.

Well, this marks the half-way point in the 'Starman' epic saga. In two weeks, I'll focus on some 'Starman' related books, such as the crossover special with Batman and Hellboy, Jack's appearances with the new JSA, and the 'Starman 80-page Giant'. I'll also talk about 'Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.' #0. It was co-written by Robinson, and has a story about how the old Star-Spangled Kid almost became Starman. It also has a temporal paradox that makes it impossible to place in 'Starman' continuity.

Seriously, it does. So that's one more reason not to buy the book.

So until next time, follow the advice of the comic-collecting UFO believer: "Keep watching the stands!"

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