As I closed the final page on Cosmic Odyssey, one question held steady on the tip of my tongue: “why”. It’s a question that could be applied a myriad of things. The choice of characters and their depiction. Motivations of Fourth World figureheads Highfather and Darkseid. My decision to join in this exercise. These and many other things begged an answer to the question “why?” The biggest “why” is “why does this book exist?” It’s a “why” that leads to a “what” – as in “what did Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola hope to accomplish with Cosmic Odyssey?”
As Kyle Garret commented in the first installment of this review series, Starlin does not seem to care whether or not DC’s iconic characters are portrayed accurately. In fact, as Garret points out, Starlin has written these characters as if they were their analogues from Marvel. Batman is Daredevil. Superman is Captain America. Darkseid is Thanos. This is because storytelling in corporate superhero comics are very cookie-cutter and formulaic while the truly bold, creative options for storytellers lie in the realm of creator owned comics.
There is a growing sentiment in the comics community that superhero comics lack merit. Their redundant and predictable nature – and the demands that each character (or “IP” in the eyes of their corporate overlords) be changed as little as possible – limits creators, preventing them from truly showcasing their talents. But the truth is that readers do not want these heroes altered much either. Stan Lee once said that readers do not want change, they want the illusion of change. It’s the dirty secret among readers of superhero comics, one that the genre’s critics, which are mostly from the fan community, fail to grasp.
Superhero comics are not the best-selling genre in comics (or as of late, movies) because they provide an intellectual, emotional, or any other challenge their audience – it’s because they provide an escape from the mundane and normal world we inhabit. A part of the comfort they provide is the consistent characterization of heroes and villains. Readers can expect Superman to be kind and righteous, Batman to be smart and cynical, and Darkseid to be tyrannical. They like knowing that in the end, the hero will triumph. To them, it’s not important that the outcome is always the same, but that the journey to that outcome it is. This fundamental truth that Cosmic Odyssey has failed to grasp through the first three issues, and it is a truth that it fails to grasp in its conclusion.
Cosmic Odyssey: Book Four ends with the the DC Universe reverted back to its status quo, with a limited impact on the universe going forward. The New Gods remain in their realm while the heroes are returned to their homes. However, the journey from that first page in Book One to the last page here fails to capture any of the appeal of superhero comics, save for the artwork by rising star Mike Mignola. This is peculiar given the period in which this story was crafted, when there was a newfound vigor and shattered boundaries on the superhero genre. Even the characterizations are astounding. John Stewart is written with the hot-headed arrogance of Guy Gardner. Starfire lacks her aloof, but fiery personality. And the decision of these characters to team up with Darkseid without significant opposition is baffling.
Highfather and Superman – two of the comic’s morally just leaders – raise their doubts to Darkseid’s plan, but they do little to raise their stance to the group at large. For Superman in particular, this passive depiction is a curious decision. A few years prior to this story’s publication, John Byrne had revamped the Superman mythos – including the hero’s personality – by making both Superman and Clark Kent more assertive, confident individuals. That assertion is even on display when Superman first sees Darkseid in Book One, but is almost immediately pacified when given an equivalent to “Nah bro, it’s cool.” That assertiveness returns in Book Four, but by then bulk of the the narrative has been spent on a character that resembles Superman in appearance only.
Other heroes are not immune to this criticism, including DC’s cash cow: Batman. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (also published years prior to this miniseries) showed readers that a grizzled, older Batman could retain his sharp mental faculties. Despite being the World’s Greatest Detective – a title earned through a career of pessimism and a questioning attitude – Batman also lacks the balls to say “Is the evil and deceptive god’s plan the only way to go about this?” Once back in Gotham (with Forager in tow), he returns to his investigative ways, but the moment to question Darkseid has passed.
There was one death in Cosmic Odyssey, but like the story as a whole it fails to resonate. Even an emotionally charged Batman defending the fallen’s honor can only elicit a shrug from the reader. At the very least, Starlin needed to spend more time building the relationships between Batman, Orion, and Forager. The dynamic between the latter two might be lost on some of the most well-read fans, let alone the casual readers. I’d argue that an overwhelming majority of the readership is not familiar with the extended cast of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (much to the chagrin of our very own Chase Magnett), and for the issue’s climax to be truly effective, a greater emphasis needed to be placed on those characters.
Whether it’s DC, Marvel, or another publisher dealing in the realm of a shared superhero universe, the story almost always ends with practically no true progression in the character’s history, which holds true for Cosmic Odyssey. However, the ultimate disappointment comes from Starlin boldly taking these characters in new and different directions at the onset, only to revert them back to their status quo by the conclusion. What were strange but intriguing choices in Book One are revealed as inconsistencies in Book Four. This story’s impact behind the scenes, in pushing the concept of creator-owned comics forward, fails to be memorable. Starlin’s efforts only progress the cause a bit further, but is not remembered like other notable, watershed moments in comics history. In failing to be memorable from a narrative or historical perspective, Cosmic Odyssey is certain to quickly recess from my mind.