Starman was one of the finest series to come from DC Comics in the 1990s, and it’s great to see it collected in deluxe form.
The is Jack Knight, the son of the Golden Age Starman. I’m sure you kind of vaguely remember the Golden Age Starman. He was the guy in the flashy red and green costume with the fin on his head and gold star on his chest. The Golden Age Starman was a second stringer, but he was a member of the JSA. Remember him? Kind of kept to the backgrounds as if nobody really much cared about him, thought writers still felt obligated to use him?
Well, that Golden Age guy is named Ted Knight, and the main character in this series is his youngest son, a guy named Jack Knight. Jack is a different sort of bird from his dad. He’s really more of an antique collector than a hero–much more obsessed with finding fiestaware pottery than he is in fighting against the often amorphous powers of evil in the world.
Jack is kind of the black sheep of the family as this book begins. His older brother, David, has put on his dad’s flashy costume and assumed the family legacy. In the first few pages, we see David in the old, hokey, red and green suit as he gets shot through the heart. It’s a family tragedy, but David’s murder also brings family tensions to the surface. Jack and Ted find themselves back at each others throats as they decide what to do about David’s murder.
Out of his own reluctant sense of obligation, Jack ends up taking in the heroic mantle, but he insists on doing so in his own way. He chooses to not wear the costume. Instead, he decides to fight crime in his street clothes, a pair of funky goggles, and an old Crackerjacks prize of an Old West-styled sheriff’s badge (for the iconic “star” symbol).
Against all odds, Jack slowly finds himself becoming the hero that his brother had only aspired to become. By the time of the story in Starman #12, reprinted in this book, Jack has come to accept that he was born to be a hero on his own terms. Movingly, in that issue we see Jack and Ted on a park bench just chatting like a father and son might–both at peace with the growth that Jack has had in his life.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is its sense of being a family book. I’ve already mentioned Jack and Ted, and they are the main characters in this book and series. However, there are a whole set of other characters that become part of Jack’s extended family due to his heroism.
In issue #10, Jack fights Solomon Grundy, the Hulk-like super-powered monster. In the midst of the battle, readers suddenly see a new side of Grundy. The formerly volatile and angry monster becomes placid and childlike. Grundy soon moves in with Ted Knight, and his disappearance is a prominent scene towards the end of this book.
Another major family member that we meet in this book is Mikaal Tomas, a blue-skinned space alien who was billed as Starman in an obscure issue of an obscure comic series called First Issue Special. When we first meet him, Mikaal has been kidnapped as part of an odd carnival in the outskirts of the Knight family’s beloved Opal City. Jack saves the alien, and Mikaal also moves into Ted’s house. Mikaal will become prominent in the core storyline later in the series. However, at the end of this book, the blue-skinned alien is simply still trying to escape the traumas that he survived in the carnival.
Perhaps the most important member of the extended family is The Shade, an impossibly old arch-enemy of Ted who has become somewhat of an ally of Jack. The Shade is an intriguing character. In issue six we see him in 1882 visiting with Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde’s protagonist Dorian Gray, The Shade has managed to find eternal life. This character always seems to be working for his own purposes, and his ambiguity is intriguing.
The key thing that the Starman saga delivers is a sense of history. This is a writer’s comic, and it’s clear the very beginning of this book that history will play a strong part in it. One of the real hooks for writer James Robinson in writing this series was the chance to play with DC’s history and fill in some of the gaps in the lives of these characters.
This aspect is manifested in the various “Times Past” segments in this book, as well as the multiple scenes foreshadowing future events. As I re-read these stories, I became very impressed by seeing the groundwork laid for stories that would play out years in the future. Even the debut story is echoed in the epic “Grand Guignol” storyline that came towards the end of the series. However, this quality is also the book’s weakness.
There are times when the stories seem to drift, where moments remind you of the stories you’ve heard about concerts by rock bands. “Hey, you know Lou Reed was in The Velvet Underground and though they didn’t sell a lot of CDs, they were incredibly influential in their time. Do you know the story behind their song ‘Sweet Jane’? It’s a great song, and the story. . . .”
Remember those teachers you had who would segue from quadratic equations to a discussion of their ski trips at Tahoe? The stories would be amusing and it was always fun to take a break from the core work that you had to do but sometimes all you want to do is just study your damn mathematics.
Well, Robinson’s obsession with history and with obscure tangents is like that. They’re interesting and entertaining, but, damn it, sometimes you just want to be able to read the narrative straight through. There were times in reading this book where I wanted desperately to tell Robinson to just GET ON WITH THE MAIN STORY ALREADY!
Oh, sorry for screaming. See, this book made me passionate. There are moments in it that are just so wonderful–the incident of the magical Hawaiian shirt from issue #4 is one of my favorites. However, there are other moments where you wonder if Robinson is just a bit too in love with his own writing–like when Jack goes antiquing in Turk County and haggles, too cutely, with a bunch of yokels.
The art, mostly by Tony Harris, is kind of a work in progress at the point in his run that this book covers. His work in the first few chapters is rather awkwardly cartoonish, the work of an artist whose ambitions lie just a little short of his skill set at that point. However as the book goes on, his work improves. By the final chapter in this book, his art is still a bit awkward and static, but goodness really begins to show through.
Despite its flaws, this is a terrific volume, as good a mainstream book that DC produced in the 90s. There is a genuine sense of history and realistic emotions in Jack Knight’s story. On the whole it’s well written, despite James Robinson’s love of tangents, and there are lots of cute Easter eggs–and it does get better as the series rolls on.