Times Past, Present, and Future: A Look Back at Starman, Part VII
Part VII: Grand Guignol and Starlight's Last Gleaming
Well folks, this is it. The last issues of James Robinson's 'Starman', summarized and reviewed for you reading pleasure. I haven't been looking forward to this, since it's yet another reminder that the series has ended.
I still remember how sad I felt when I bought the last issue. It wasn't the first time that a comic I'd been reading had ended, (I read DC's 'Chase' from its first month of publication to its 10th and final issue.), and it's something I'll have to face again when 'Cerebus' ends in 2004. And it's not like 'Starman' had been cancelled; Robinson had a definite end to the story he was telling, and he told it. The series, as a whole, reads great as a single work. I'll enjoy it for years to come. But because it was so great, because it was one of the best comics on the stands, I shall miss reading new chapters. I will miss it because it was good, and now it is gone.
Anyway, let's get this over with:
Grand Guignol, issues #61-#73
Writer: James Robinson; Artists: Peter Snejbjerg, (with Paul Smith contributing to #69)
"Grand Guignol" was the most frustrating story I had ever read in a monthly comic book.
"Grand Guignol" is one of the greatest stories I have ever read in a comic book series.
To understand how it can be both, you must remember that any story in a comic book series is initially told on a monthly basis. That means an entire month passes between each chapter of a story. When the story is short, say three or four parts, no problem. We long time readers are used to it. Hell, if a comic goes an entire year without one multi-part story, we think less of the book.
"Grand Guignol" cannot, and did not, work in that format. It was a 13-part epic that not only told a single story, but concluded plot threads from every 'Starman' story told so far. Unlike "Stars My Destination", there were no smaller, stand alone stories within the larger arc. It was a year-long conclusion to a 5 year-long saga. Every monthly issue answered another question, but teased the reader with more answers to come. The story jumped back and forth through time, advancing the present-day plot by a few hours in one issue, then summarizing years of history in the next. When I first read the story, I hated it when an issue jumped back to events "a few weeks ago" when the last issue saw Opal City riddled with bombs. "Grand Guignol" can only be enjoyed when read all at once, and only after reading the entire 'Starman' series.
And since "Grand Guignol" is the (almost) ending to the 'Starman' series, I'm not going to tell you what happened. I know, I know, I've told you everything that happened in every other issue, I've given away endings and plot points, so why not now? Because it's The End. Everything else was set-up, preamble, early chapters. Telling you all that was to help you to understand The End. And I refuse to spoil The End.
I can tell you that James Robinson had been leaving little clues throughout 'Starman'; Small details that weren't fully realized until "Grand Guignol". When you read this story, and think about how long Robinson was planning for it, how it relates to everything he wrote so far, it blows your mind! When I read how Dave Sim had mapped out certain signposts for his 'Cerebus' series, I was impressed. When I realized that Kieslowski (sic) had simultaneously filmed "Blue" and "Red" in his "Tres Coloures" trilogy, I was blown away! And when I read "Grand Guignol" in one sitting, after reading every other 'Starman' comic, I gained a new understanding and satisfaction for the series.
Robinson has created another member of that small but prestigious sub-genre of comics: The epic monthly series; A monthly comic with a definite end, told over the course of many years. To my knowledge, 'Sandman', 'Transmetropolitan', and 'Cerebus' are the only other series that belong to this category. And since all of these books are critically acclaimed and sell quite well as trade collections, we're bound to see more such works in the future.
So, in short, "Grand Guignol" is what makes 'Starman' so brilliant. It turns an otherwise smart, witty, warm, off-beat and beautifully written comic book into a single, subtle, complex epic. Of course, you can't read it until you've read everything else.
Gee, what a shame!
Huh, that was shorter than I thought.
Kind of a let down, really. I mean, for the last 6 chapters, you've been reading these long, 7 and 8 page articles describing EVERY SINGLE ISSUE of 'Starman', and here I go and tell you next to nothing about how it ends in just over 1 page.
You deserve more than that.
If it helps, the series doesn't end with #73. It goes on to #80. Also, the mystery of the Starman of 1951 isn't answered in "Grand Guignol". In fact, it gets a little weirder.
Oh, I know! I can list off every little thing from 'Starman' that plays a role in "Grand Guignol". Nitpicking? Maybe, but when you think about how all of these little things added up to something bigger, you might gain a new respect for Robinson's talent.
For starters, the old Mist comes back after his descent into senility. He was last seen in issue #24.
Nash, the new Mist, also returns, after her 'Girlfrenzy' special.
Other returning villains include Crusher, (the circus strong man from issues #7-#8), Ragdoll and his cult, (#11), Louie Soul, (#15), and an evil version of Solomon Grundy, (reborn after issue #35).
Several second-tier heroes come to help Jack Knight: Elongated Man, Black Condor, Adam Strange, and a new Phantom Lady, all of whom come to Opal in issue #56.
We meet the son of The Spider, the criminal superhero from 'The Shade #3. His mother was Linda Dalt, a reporter who appeared for only two pages in that issue.
The "Bad Dwarf", first mentioned in issue #8, is finally revealed.
A hidden aspect of The Shade's meeting with Jason Mayville in 1882, (#6), is revealed in the course of "Grand Guignol".
Consulting detective Hamilton Drew, mentioned in passing during the poster demon story, (#24-26), returns to play a vital role in this story's mystery.
The Prairie Witch, a mystic villainess from 'Starman Annual' #1 and 'Starman' #44, appears briefly as an old woman, giving advice on occult magic.
The Shade's brusque refusal of Neron's offer, made in 'Showcase '95' #12, results in disaster.
The mystical void dimension from issue #42 threatens to destroy Opal City.
The shadow matter Dr. Fate disposed of in 'Showcase '96' #4-5 returns with a vengeance.
The Infernal Dr. Pip, (#30-#35), returns from The Shade's shadows long enough to built an explosive masterpiece.
The ghost of Jon Valor, the Black Pirate, is finally allowed to rest.
Culp, The Shade's nemesis, mentioned in 'Showcase '96' #4-5 and 'Starman' #50, is revealed as the villain of the story.
The destruction of Opal was predicted in 'Starman Secret Files and Origins'.
The conclusion to "Grand Guignol" is identical to the ending of "Star My Destination". Will Payton/Prince Gavyn even makes an appearance.
Matt O'Dare sees himself reborn as Thom Kallor, Star Boy of the 30th Century.
The Shade's lifetime of contradictory and "insane" behavior is explained.
Mikaal Tomas regains his memory of his life between Opal City, (#28), and Bliss' circus, (#7).
We learn why Barry O'Dare was smirking in issue #56.
Like former Green Lantern Medphyl from "Stars", we see a good man turn bad.
Dr. Phosphorus and Ted Knight have a rematch of their battle from issue #13.
Finally, there are many deaths, 8 characters in all. 9 if you count Grundy, but he'll be back.
So, now that you know that, you could go right ahead and read "Grand Guignol" without reading any other issue of 'Starman'.
But you'd be cheating yourself.
From the Shade's Journal: Various Issues
Writer: James Robinson
Back in the "Sand and Stars" story arc, Robinson began including a serialized text story about The Shade. It took place in Hollywood in the 1940s, back when the area was known as "Hollywoodland". The Shade was hired by Howard Hughes to investigate a series of attacks committed by creatures that resembled characters from "Alice in Wonderland". That's why I call this otherwise untitled story, "The Shade in Hollywoodland".
The story reveals a little more about The Shade and the sadness he carries with him, more than we see in the comics. However, the story also falters a little towards the end. A conversation about a dead superhero is mentioned, but not seen in the story. The name of a city is also misspelled. Twice. Perhaps these errors came about as a result of the story's erratic appearances. The 11-part series began in issue #22, but was not concluded until issue #79! (That's why I waited until now to mention it.)
The story is an entertaining distraction. If you can afford the earlier issues, (often valued at twice cover price), then by all means go out and buy them. In fact, I insist. The best parts happen early in the story. The complete tale is told in issues 22, 23, 25, 31, 33, 35, 38, and 76-79.
His Death and the Dying of It: Issue #74
W: James Robinson; A: Russ Heath
In December of 1899, Brian Savage is thinking about who will replace him as sheriff of Opal City. That's when he hears of store owners being threatened by the Tuesday Club. The Tuesday Club is a secret society of Opal's wealthiest citizens, which practices dark rituals and wields considerable influence over local politics. Savage makes it clear that the club doesn't scare him, and he'll do everything he can to expose them. The Club responds by blowing up the sheriff's office. Only Savage and young Carny O'Dare survive. The two men go on a warpath, killing every single member of the Tuesday Club in town. In less than two days, they've killed 57 men.
But one member survives: The newest member, young John Melville, who was overlooked in Savage's hunt. When the night is over, Melville comes out of hiding and shoots Savage in the back. He's quickly killed by Carny O'Dare, but Savage cannot be saved. The Shade is called for, and hears Savage's vision of his reincarnation. Carny is named the new sheriff of Opal, and oversees the city's expansion at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The Shade writes how he met John Melville as a young man in 1882, as seen in issue #6. But at that meeting, the boy is called Jason Mayville. In fact, he's called both John and Jason Melville in issue #74. I'm surprised the editor didn't notice that gaffe, more so than Robinson getting the name wrong. True, 6 years had passed since Mayville's first appearance, but if Robinson had always intended for him to kill Brian Savage, you'd think he'd remember that not-so-small detail. That mistake causes a moment of confusion of the part of the reader, who must tell himself, "Oh, he must have meant Mayville, that kid from the "Times Past" TPB. It breaks the mood and rhythm of the story, briefly, but noticeably.
Sons and Fathers: Issue #75
W: Robinson; A: Peter Snejbjerg
Jack thinks back on his recent adventures since the death of his father. Events shown were seen in 'JSA', 'Martian Manhunter', 'Sins of Youth', and 'JLA'. It helped keep him from thinking about the passing of his father, and Sadie leaving him alone. Meanwhile, Opal City is rebuilding from the destruction of "Grand Guignol". The Black Condor, Elongated Man, Hamilton Drew, and Bobo Benetti are now fighting crime. And Mason O'Dare realizes how much he loves Charity and asks her to marry him.
But Jack's feelings remain grim. He has questions about the future that no one seems able to answer. Fortunately, Superman arrives to ask Jack some questions of his own. Superman has learned about Jack's trip into the past and his meeting with the young Jor-El, Superman's father. He wants to know what Jor-El was like when he was young. Jack tells him he was rebellious, that he "had a light in his eyes. . . in his way of looking and acting." Hearing this seems to bring Superman a feeling of peace.
Later, Jack expresses his desire to quite being a superhero and devote his life to raising his son. Superman doesn't chastise Jack, and instead reflects on how few people he knows have been heroes as long as him. He also asks Jack why he didn't try to warn the young Jor-El about Krypton's destruction, but gave him coordinates to Earth. Jack says he didn't feel like it was his place to change history, and risk making things worse. But he did feel like it was his destiny to help fulfill Superman's destiny. Superman leaves feeling better with what he knows. His questions have been answered. But Jack still has doubts about whether he's doing the right thing with his life.
This was another "talking heads" issue, the kind of comic that's often praised by internet critics. Of course, it only works when you have fully developed characters talking about real feelings with a genuine sense of emotion. In short, the complete opposite of Joe Casey's 'WildCATS'. This story works because it's just two guys talking about matters close to their heart. For Superman, it's another piece of his long-lost Kryptonian heritage. For Jack, it's his future in a role he once considered an obligation, but now feels like a part of his destiny.
Talking with David (and Ted): Issue #76
W: Robinson; A: Snejbjerg
David appears to Jack one last time, with Ted Knight as well. David explains how Jon Valor's curse helped bring him back every year. But now that the curse is lifted, David will have to move on. He's only here now with help from Kent Nelson, the original Dr. Fate, also dead but still powerful.
Jack, David, and Ted look back at the lineage of Starman, from Ted's first adventures, through Mikaal, Gavyn, Payton, and to Jack, and how Jack feels about his place in it all. Jack also gets the chance to make peace with Kyle, the Mist's son, who killed David and was killed by Jack.
Jack tells David and Ted he's done with being Starman, and they understand. They know there'll be another Starman, and they're still proud of Jack. Jack says his last good-byes to his brother and father. But they have one last surprise for him.
A warm, bittersweet issue. Almost a tear-jerker. Lots of great little moments and throwaway lines in this one. My favorite is when Ted shows Jack scenes from his more unusual fights, including one where Ted had the head of a lion.
"What's the significance of these", asks Jack.
"None", says Ted, "I just thought you'd enjoy seeing them."
Just because you're dead doesn't mean you have to be serious.
Who/What/Why: Issues #77-79
W: Robinson & David Goyer; A: Snejbjerg
David and Ted send Jack back to Opal city. Way back. Jack finds himself in late December, 1951, facing the mysterious Starman of that year. After helping him fight the (original) Mist and his men, this Starman reveals himself to be. . .
David's not sure how he got here. Somehow he wound up in November 1951, when Charles McNider was playing the role of Starman. Normally, McNider fought crime as Dr. Mid-Nite. But when his city seemed safe and Ted Knight suffered a breakdown, he created a new Starman persona and protected Opal. David relates how McNider built a star-shaped aircraft and modified Ted's cosmic rod technology with help from two other heroes: Robotman and the Red Torpedo. When McNider's hometown was in danger, he returned as Dr. Mid-Nite and David stepped in as Starman.
"Jeez", says Jack, "Could your backstory be any more complex?"
But based on what David tells him now, and what David's ghost told him in issue #76, Jack figures out that Dr. Fate had "plucked" David moments before his death to give him the chance to be Starman, but only for a month. Jack's unsure if he should tell David about his fate. He's even more uncomfortable meeting the Ted Knight of this time. Ted's depression has been worsened by the recent murder of his fiancée, Doris Lee. He has brief moments of clarity followed by long, silent periods of melancholy. As much as it pains Jack to see his father like this, he feels even worse about lying to everyone about who he is and where he comes from.
Jack and David fight the Mist's gang again at Tyler chemicals, where they're joined by Hourman, a.k.a. Rex Tyler. Jack is quickly drugged, but still helps to catch a henchman for interrogation. After meeting the legendary Red Bailey and Billy O'Dare, Jack finally tells David the truth about his future. David accepts his fate with his head held high and gets back to the case. Jack has never been prouder of his brother.
The henchman finally explains how the Mist has been stealing hallucinogenic chemicals to mix a potent panic-inducing gas. The Mist plans to sell it to the Russians. The Mist planned to test it, but he never said how. Jack remembers an urban legend in Opal about how a movie theater crowd went crazy during the film. Jack, David, and Hourman head for the theater. But first, they call Wesley Dodds for his Sandman knockout gas. They need it. Once they reach the theater, the Mist has already released his gas and the crowd is going crazy. Jack and David try to subdue the crowd while Hourman releases the knockout gas.
Meanwhile, something has been bothering Ted Knight. He finds it strange that the first lab the Mist robbed wasn't blown up like the others. He learns that the lab was owned by Doris Lee's father. Ted confronts Mr. Lee who admits he sold the Mist what he needed. Doris found out and threatened to expose him. Mr. Lee called the Mist. The next morning, Doris was dead. Lee tells Ted where the Mist is selling his formula and Ted walks out, not caring if Lee turns himself in or kills himself. Grim and determined, Ted battles the Mist and catches the Russian spies, once again as Starman.
The New Year begins with Ted slowly returning to his life as Starman, but unsure about his life as Ted Knight. It takes some talking on Jack's part to convince Ted to go to a party. Later, at David's apartment, Jack is still unsure of why he was sent here. When Jack tells David where Ted went, David reminds him that Ted met their mother at that party. Question answered. Destiny fulfilled.
And then David's time runs out. He vanishes into the future to die.
Jack writes a letter explaining everything and hides it in one of Ted's unused journals, thinking that fate will decide whether Ted finds out or not. He then starts to wonder about how he's going to spend the rest of his life living 50 years in the past.
That's when Thom Kallor shows up with a time sphere.
This story seemed to have a lot of references to the previous 'Starman' stories. Jack muses on how many of the buildings he sees have been destroyed in "Grand Guignol". Jack's "trip" on the Mist's drug includes a garbled narration similar to Mikaal's mixed-up speech from issue #28. Wesley Dodds makes an appearance, perhaps in homage to "Sand and Stars". And, of course, the entire story takes place in "times past".
Most importantly, it's one more mystery resolved with Jack Knight being Jack Knight.
Arrivederci, Bon Voyage, Goodbye: Issue #80
W: Robinson; A: Snejbjerg
Thom Kallor, once Star Boy of the 30th Century, now a full-grown Starman, brings Jack back to present day Opal City. He tells Jack that when he returns to his own time, he will die the next day. But his life has been so full, he doesn't fear his fate. Besides, the future is unwritten. His life as Starman is just one of many possible futures leading from Jack's time.
Jack returns to his shop to find a letter from Sadie. She says she's pregnant with Jack's daughter and wants him to come live with them in San Francisco. But she'll only marry him if he gives up his life as Starman. Since Jack was planning to do that anyway, he starts saying his good-byes.
Jack visits the Dibnys, (Mr. and Mrs. Elongated Man), to see how long they're staying. He then talks with Bobo who tells him about his new job. He's now employed by the city to fight crime. Not as a cop, more like a "professional super-hero". Bobo also tells Jack to stop worrying so much about Opal and start taking care of himself.
At the police station, Jack congratulates Clarence O'Dare on his promotion to police Commissioner. Hope tells her plans to vacation in Mexico and then ask The Shade on a date. As he speaks with Mason, Mason sees something across the street. He has a vision of what his life with Charity may be. Then he shoves Jack aside and gets an arrow in his chest. In her shop, Charity has a terrible feeling that Mason is dead.
What follows are some of the most intense and emotional pages I've ever seen in a comic book. The combination of sharp, short dialogue and bright, solid colored backgrounds, perfectly communicate the anger, violence, and rage of the scene. The sequence culminates with Jack, eyes wider that dinner plates, screaming at no one in particular, "No. No!! He died saving me!! I won't have it! I...no, Mason! MASON!" It hits you like a fist to the gut.
And then Mason comes back to life, thanks to Zatarra, a magician who died years ago. Hell of a moment, that.
Jack talks to Mikaal, and learns his relationship with Tony isn't going well. Jack can't offer much advice, but leaves Mikaal as a brother.
Jack's seeing The Shade when they learn the Spider was responsible for Mason's "death", and has committed other murders. The Shade announces his intentions to hunt the Spider down, then takes Jack to his home. The Shade shows Jack the land given to him by "Jason Melville", (again with that mistake), and gives him a dark blue rose bred in Opal. The Shade also gives the unusual advice that a city is just a city, even Opal. It's up to you to make it special.
Finally, Jack gives his rod to the last person you'd expect: Courtney Whitmore, the Star-Spangled Kid. Jack explains how impressed he was when Courtney was Starwoman during "Sins of Youth", and how she reminded him of himself when he was younger. Me, I still feel like smacking that annoying li'l bitch down six feet under. But I guess there aren't a lot of other young heroes Jack could've passed the rod on to. Or are there? You DC fans can post your suggestions on the message boards.
By the end of the story, Jack has packed his things, rediscovered his desire to paint, and drove off to San Fran. Even though he starts crying, he doesn't look back. He looks to the road ahead.
In the letters page, Robinson explains how he needed a break from comics. But he plans to reunite with Tony Harris on another project featuring Jack Knight. "Something with an Eastern flavor", he says. And he still has to tell The Shade's origin. So Robinson's not gone for good. And neither is Jack.
So, now you may be asking yourself, "Why would anyone spend weeks, even months, writing about an entire comic book series?" The obvious answer is, "It's a really great comic book series." But my answer is, "I had to do something." The ending of the book left me feeling so depressed, so empty, I had to write about it to gain a sense of closure. By putting to (electronic) paper what I felt about the book, and why I thought it was so great, it helped me accept the series as a complete work, one with a definite and planned ending. I still miss it, but I miss it less.
But there are other books, other comics to read. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll have the chance to write one myself. It's not my dream or ambition, mind you, but if the opportunity presented itself, I'd take it. Until then, I'll keep reading and writing about comics. But there'll never be another one like 'Starman'. Some may be better, some may be longer, and some may be stranger, but never will there be another exactly like this.
Thank you to everyone who bought 'Starman' when it first came out. You helped keep it published long enough for me to discover it. And the next time you're in a shop, pick up a comic you hadn't read before; something that looks different. Or one you never gave much thought to before. Maybe you'll like it and buy every issue ever published. Or maybe you'll hate it and wish you hadn't wasted $3.00. either way, you gave something new a chance. someone put a lot of time and effort into that story, and you read it. That's the best compliment a writer or artist could receive.
I think variety should be rewarded for its own sake. If any culture, any medium, is to evolve and improve, it must change. Change must be encouraged. If it's a change for the better, and it's widely accepted, everyone benefits. If it's a change for the worse, it won't be completely rejected until it's been widely viewed, tested, criticized, analyzed, and thoroughly disseminated. Either way, all changes must be considered and encouraged. It is the first step towards progress.
Six years ago, James Robinson decided to do a different kind of superhero book. He's changed the way I look at comics. His words have a beautiful poetic quality that must be read aloud to be fully enjoyed. Robinson's characters were the first I ever saw to be truly complex, with odd tastes, subtle manners, and unique voices. He introduced me to artists like Tony Harris, Teddy Kristiansen, and Peter Snejbjerg; talented men who are among the finest illustrators I've ever seen. And I never would have heard of them if I hadn't read 'Starman'.
So, if you're reading this Mr. Robinson and Mr. Harris, thank you for Jack Knight, your version of The Shade, your additions to Golden Age continuity, and "Times Past" stories. In short, thank you for 'Starman'.
Especially issue #55, "Taxi Cab Confessions". Funniest comic I ever read. Heh.
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