DC Comics in the mid and late 80’s was a place of change. After the merging of Its universes in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DCU was reborn as a drastically different place. Both Superman and Wonder Woman were rebooted, now with the angst and joy that came with being humanized.
This was DC via Marvel, complete with creators jumping ship to relaunch the DCU.
One of those creators was Jim Starlin. While Starlin had done one-off issues here and there for DC while he was working primarily for Marvel, in 1987 he became the regular writer of Batman, a run that would become known for the “Death in the Family” storyline that would see the Joker kill then Robin Jason Todd.
Starlin has always been best known for his work on cosmic characters; he created Thanos, Drax, and Starfox. He chronicled the life and death of the original Captain Marvel. He spent decades reintroducing Adam Warlock whenever Marvel would let him. It seemed only natural, then, that he would decide to tell a cosmic story for DC.
Which brings us, somewhat haphazardly, to Cosmic Odyssey, an event comic that wasn’t, published by DC and featuring art by Mike Mignola, Jose Garzan, Jr., and Steve Oliff. It is, perhaps justifiably so, known for the art more than the story. The art is revelatory in that it’s introducing us to a master of the craft. It’s appealing to us almost outside of the story. That’s not to say that it’s not serving the story, as Mignola is an excellent story teller. But it transcends it. Cosmic Odyssey isn’t something fans talk about because of the events therein so much as how those events look.
Starlin is playing with two ideas here, neither of which makes for a smooth, flowing narrative. He is addressing a system of binary opposites that has been drastically altered, and he’s doing so by making himself a god. He’s not subtle about either of these points.
Crisis was ultimately DC’s attempt at starting fresh, unburdening itself from its much deserved reputation, and “Marvelizing” its most recognizable characters. And yet, interestingly enough, Marvel’s big event comic of the same time, Secret Wars, was created to sell toys; it wasn’t a story that grew organically out of the characters, it was a story that was manufactured to move product, something DC had been doing for decades.
DC had also always been the “corporate” of the Big Two, yet (perhaps justifiably so) Marvel had become a well oiled business in the 80s under Jim Shooter, a far cry from the chaos and unfettered creative of the 70s when Starlin broke in.
While the “Marvel vs. DC” debate may continue to rage on between unenlightened comic book fans, these days the two companies are producing a large quantity of content that is largely indistinguishable from each other. There is nothing about a Marvel Comics story that is specifically a Marvel Comics story aside from the characters that are being used. The same type of story could be told at DC.
This was also true in 1988 when Cosmic Odyssey was released. The shared superhero universes were telling similar types of stories. The new DCU was meant to be new reader friendly, departing from decades of problematic continuity. Marvel had gone even a step further, issuing an editorial edict that every issue begin with a recap of the current story so far. Even their forays into cutting edge count took similar paths, separated from the main universes with a “suggested for mature readers” label or an Epic Comics logo. The comics means for new stands telling standard tales of men in tights.
Jim Starlin had something to say about this and DC gave him a venue with Cosmic Odyssey.
Starlin wasn’t going to hide what he was doing. It would be easy to assume, for example, that Batman misattributing a quote from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in issue #1 is simply a mistake on Starlin’s part and an editorial oversight. But when you connect it to the gross mischaracterization of the characters who get any characterization and the seemingly forced removal of characterization from everyone else, you begin to put pieces together. Batman’s quote actually introduces the idea that this story isn’t even set in the DCU proper, although it ends up having ramifications in the Green Lantern book.
To take it a step further, most of these characters can be replaced by Marvel characters, whom Starlin is more familiar with. Darkseid’s obsession with death seems more like something from Thanos’ playbook. Lightray’s strange obsession with Starfire makes more sense if he’s not Lightray, but Starfox. For those not versed in obscure Avengers’ characters, Starfox is an Eternal, not unlike a New God, son of Mentor, not unlike Highfather, and brother to Thanos, not unlike Darkseid. He was something of a womanizer which is only awful when you consider that one of his superpowers was influence others’ emotions. He also happened to be co-created by Jim Starlin.
Superman being called to the White House makes more sense if he’s Captain America, which in turn makes the opening scene more believable in that Cap and Starfox were both Avengers in the ‘80s. In issue #2, Superman burrows underground to infiltrate a city, something Captain America obviously couldn’t do. But it’s also a cliche Superman move, lacking any kind of originality, the kind of thing you would expect Starlin to come up with when suddenly faced with having to use the Man of Steel.
It’s also easy to imagine Daredevil in Batman’s role, particularly given he had a closer relationship with Dr. Strange than Batman did with Dr. Fate. A hot headed Richard Rider as Nova makes more sense than John Stewart as Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter could easily be replaced by the Silver Surfer, leaving that dynamic unchanged.
These characters are interchangeable, just as this shared superhero universe is interchangeable.
The characters themselves don’t matter to the point where Starlin doesn’t bother trying to accurately portray them. Instead, they become place holders for character types, chosen to work in opposition to their partners, not for actual character growth. After all, the focus of Cosmic Odyssey is on binary oppositions, the distinctions (or lack thereof) between fundamental forces at odds with one another. On one side there is Highfather, on the other Darkseid. On one side there is life, on the other anti-life which, appropriately enough, is a shadow creature reminiscent of the creatures we saw in Crisis.
The pairings formed in the first issue make no strategic sense. The tandems that Darkseid chooses seem arbitrary and horribly thought out, yet no one questions these decisions. No one questions them because these teams were decided upon by Starlin, and while most writers would at least attempt to give a story based reason for such an odd division of force, Starlin has already let you know that he’ll be doing what he wants, when he wants.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to Starlin’s choices, it just means they are clearly Starlin’s choices, not ones that come from the story. Superman and Orion are the most powerful, but represent opposite philosophies in how to use that power. John Stewart is an earthling operating in space and the Martian Manhunter is a space alien operating on earth. The former has no humility, the latter is nothing but. Lightray is portrayed as the ultimate womanizer and Starfire is meant to be the ultimate woman. Forager is from a lower class of citizens on New Genesis, while Batman is a rich white guy who periodically mingles with high society.
These pairings are meant to be the real conflict of the story, set up as opposites forced to work together, but ultimately undermined by the lack of a true dichotomy.
Batman is always in costume; Bruce Wayne, member of high society, is never shown, and Forager’s status on New Genesis is only hinted at. Starfire and Lightray are joined by Adam Strange, a character who spends his life trying to pinpoint the exact location of the zeta beam that will take him back to the alien world where the love of his life lives. John Stewart isn’t the hothead he’s portrayed as in Cosmic Odyssey. Starlin literally has to intervene to make his story line work and even then it’s forced. Orion kills hundreds of people and Superman does absolutely nothing about it.
The John Stewart thread might be Starlin’s most flagrant abuse of the narrative. The Green Lantern ring is powerless against the color yellow so when John Stewart goes to stop the world destroying bomb, he finds that it’s been painted yellow…by some guy. We see some random guy with a paint brush, hanging out. There’s no big explanation, no crazy comic book science, just a regular Joe with a bucket of paint. It’s like Starlin himself decided that this thing needed to happen, so he jumped in and made the bomb yellow. Because that’s what needed to happen for his story to move forward.
It becomes clear when we come back to the villain of the piece, to the anti-life, and to Starlin’s “Metamorphosis Odyssey.” The Metamorphosis Odyssey first appeared in 1980 in Marvel’s Epic Illustrated. The main story was only the beginning, as The Metamorphosis Odyssey would become a giant, multi-series story, ultimately focused on the character of Vanth Dreadstar, the lone survivor of the Milky Way. Aside from the reference to Kafka, Starlin’s saga was a statement on human perseverance, of being able to evolve and survive.
Cosmic Odyssey was the opposite of that. Anti-life was the opposite of evolution. At this point in his career, Starlin had already moved his creator owned series, Dreadstar, from Marvel’s Epic imprint to First Comics. Independent comics were the future. Anti-life was the flattening of superhero comics, the monotone drone of two corporations producing the same types of stories.
In the end the heroes don’t win. Darkseid absconds with aspects of the anti-life, now a part of the DCU. The Earth is saved at the cost of the underclass, but anti-life has already infected the universe.
And Jim Starlin has shown us what the future will look like.