Review: 'The Star*Reach Companion' is a horribly disjointed and entirely problematic effortA comic review article by: Eric Hoffman
Richard Arndt's The Star*Reach Companion is a horribly disjointed and entirely problematic effort. Its major flaw is in its construction. Rather than providing a linear narrative arguing for the importance of Mike Friedrich's seminal 1970s ground level press – a welcome argument as comics historians begin piecing together this heady, if mostly transitional, period – Arndt's text is comprised of seven disparate chapters that largely eschew any attempt at consecutive order, thus undermining the book's coherence. Moreover, the time spent focusing on context –Star*Reach's precursors and contemporaries –only dilutes what is seemingly the book's central thesis, i.e. the importance of Star*Reach and its eponymous, flagship title.
Arndt's laid-back, non-scholarly approach to writing further weakens this argument. Arndt does, however, effectively manage to explain why Star*Reach was so groundbreaking, noting that Friedrich was among the first publishers to take full advantage of the direct market. Friedrich incentivized and attracted first-rate talent – including Howard Chaykin, Barry Windsor-Smith, P. Craig Russell, Ken Steacy and Gene Day – by providing them with a larger percentage of the profits and considerably more creative control than offered by the major publishers. He also managed to publish titles on a regular schedule, a feat that often eluded his competitors (and was a crucial factor with regard to the success of another major ground-level title, Dave Sim's Cerebus). Finally, Friedrich published accessible material that had popular appeal, largely science fiction and fantasy genre work. Regrettably, Arndt's argument, laid out in the book's first chapter, is not much longer or more penetrating than the above summary.
The book's second chapter, "What Came Before," discusses Friedrich's precursors, beginning with Wally Wood's witzend (started in 1966), and provides snippet summaries of a dozen or so other fanzines and prozines. While interesting, the entries are little more than summaries, and only scratch the surface, failing to satisfactorily explore the various socio-cultural underpinnings of these ventures, as well as their larger cultural import and relevance.
The third chapter is comprised of an interview Ardnt conducted with Friedrich that, while the interview does contain some fascinating insight into Friedrich's background – in particular his work at DC Comics under the 1960s tutelage of Julius Schwartz, as well as details concerning the transition from the old school comics writers and artists who viewed comic books as slumming or a mere stepping stone to other, more profitable work, to the new school of talent that grew up reading comics and viewed working in comics as a perfectly legitimate, or even desirable career choice – Arndt fails to engage Friedrich concerning the relevance of Star*Reach, which is, one assumes, the whole point of this book in the first place. The interview does include some interesting recollections concerning Friedrich's transition to publishing, of attracting various artists to contributing work to Star*Reach, of various stories and their origins, and the challenges of publication and distribution in those pre-desktop, offset printing days, yet these recollections are for the most part anecdotal and do not coalesce into a more substantial whole.
Chapter Four's checklist underlines yet another major problem concerning the book's construction: repetition. Had each Star*Reach story been discussed in a more organized, cohesive fashion, such repetition could have easily been avoided. However, providing details on each story appearing in the pages of Star*Reach and Friedrich's other edifications necessarily results in repeated information otherwise gleaned from other sections in the book. (Also, Arndt did not bother to track down original publications of Star*Reach – why could not Friedrich have provided them to him? – as a result, this "checklist," Arndt must admit, is incomplete.) For example, Arndt notes in the checklist that the first issue of Star*Reach was planned as a 32-page comic, and then expanded to 48 pages – this on page 38 – yet this same information is provided by Friedrich in his interview on page 23.
Chapter Five includes several very brief interviews with various artists associated with Star*Reach. The longest, and therefore almost by default most interesting, is with P. Craig Russell, followed by the interview with Lori Lovecraft artist Mike Vosburg (whose interview is the most substantial even though he is possibly the least substantial artist interviewed). The interview with Lee Marrs, Steve Leialoha (four questions!) and Walt Simonson (one question!) are so slight as to be basically non-existent.
Chapter Six, as with Chapter Two, is merely a summary of ten contemporary ground-level publications. Arndt does not provide any reason for having included them besides the arguable claim that these efforts challenged Star*Reach's dominance, an argument that just plain falls apart in some instances (does anyone remember Gene Day's Future Day? That was not even a regular publication). Similarly, the two-page seventh chapter, "Star*Reach During Its Run," briefly summarizes other efforts by artists associated with Star*Reach, like Chaykin, Day, Simonson and Russell, but so what? Ardnt mentions them, then again reiterates a few points already outlined in chapter one – i.e. Friedrich's success being based on creative freedom and monetary gains provided to his creative talent, and regular publication.
Chapter Eight includes a discussion of various magazines – such as Marvel's Epic Illustrated – which followed in Star*Reach's wake. I'm not convinced that Epic is such a good example here as its presentation and distribution models imitated Heavy Metal and not Star*Reach. This final chapter (not listed in the book's table of contents, by the way. One of many printing errors, including, most egregiously, forgetting to include Friedrich's introduction, which has been slipped in looseleaf to these pages) closes with Arndt's summary of the impact of Star*Reach. His conclusion? "Star*Reach was cool." Sorry, Mr. Arndt, but that doesn't cut it.
Two appendices follow: the first being an "Early Independents Checklist" so closely approximate to the "Star*Reach Checklist" of Chapter Four that you have to wonder why one merits a chapter and the other a checklist. Yet I digress. Again, the information provided here, while interesting, has very little to do with the importance of Star*Reach. A full 39 pages are devoted to an issue-by-issue synopsis of various independent comics – and it is even drier than it sounds. For example, will anyone looking for the contents of issue 3 of witzend think to pull a book on Star*Reach off the shelf in order to retrieve this information? Did Arndt or his publishers ever stop to consider this? Clearly not.
A final appendix includes a selection of various stories published in Star*Reach. Alas, it is little over a half-dozen pages long and thus too insubstantial a sampling to be representative and, as a result, is somewhat self-defeating. A larger sampling of Star*Reach comics, and a jettisoning of most of the rest of this book, would have probably been preferable. As a result, this section is also representative of the overall problem affecting most of the rest of this book: a missed opportunity.
Which brings me to my final thought: I honestly cannot imagine to whom the publishers are marketing this book. It's too mired in mostly inconsequential minutiae to be of much interest to the general reader, yet composed and constructed in such a lackadaisical and confused fashion as to repel any more refined purveyor of comics, The Star*Reach Companion is a lesson in how not to go about publishing a Companion book.
Eric Hoffman is the author of Oppen: A Narrative, a biography of the poet George Oppen, available from amazon.co.uk. He is co-editor, with Dominick Grace, of two volumes of University Press of Mississippi's Conversations with Comic Artists series: Dave Sim: Conversations and Chester Brown: Conversations and the editor of Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard .