Open Mike Night: Starman

Maillaro: This week, Hank Pym’s banner mate, Jack Knight gets the spotlight.

James Robinson’s Starman is my favorite comic series. It really opened my eyes to the full potential of what a superhero comic can be. The heavy focus on the amazing setting of Opal City, and the ripple effects caused by Jack Knight’s often clumsy attempts to be Opal City’s savior are amazing to watch develop throughout the series.

I have read and re-read Starman straight through many, many times. This was actually the first time I had ever skipped around while reading, and it was a very different experience. But still very satisfying.

Weaver: I think it’s a great comic series. The best comic series, like the best books and movies, make the setting a character just as much as any of the real characters, and Opal City is definitely a character. I’ve never read all of it, but this is my first time skipping around too. Well, unless you count how they do Times Past in the trade format.

Beyond Jack himself, who had a totally new style as a superhero in so many ways, we also touch on the idea of legacy heroes in a way that didn’t really happen before. It seems odd since DC has so many legacy heroes that it was never fully explored in this way, but Starman cemented Jack’s place among anyone who ever had the mantle, including his somewhat tumultuous relationship with his father, Ted. It also deals heavily with Starman’s relationship with his opposite number, The Shade. The Shade is one of the best developed villains in comicdom, easily. His role as a pseudo-mentor is amazing.

Maillaro: And like Avengers Forever, Starman doesn’t shy away from the awkward parts of continuity that don’t quite make sense. Shade’s criminal past (including some of the goofier aspects of it) are carefully considered and explained. And they even manage to make “Starman 1951” part of the continuity. Back in the real world, there was a one off story that came out back in 1951 where Batman develops a fear of bats, and briefly changes his name and costume to Starman. Crisis wiped that story out, but Robinson developed a new Starman 1951 for the series, which worked really well.

Weaver: I think it’s a shame that DC tried to wipe out stories like that rather than find ways to shoehorn them in. Batman and Superman in particular have some amazingly crazy stories that aren’t what we see the modern character as, but if we look at them, we can see how the modern character evolved from all of that. When I talk comics with my son, I always bring those things up. He’ll see something like Superman being a total jerk to Jimmy Olsen, and wonder why the hell that guy is the paragon of virtue in the superhero community, and really, it’s not that hard to explain if you take the time to do it. Batman used to shoot people, but now he’s completely anti-gun. Why? Well, comics code for one, but there’s in character things that could be addressed too. I think the history of comics is really neat as we take a look and see not just WHAT happened in continuity, but WHY that was going on in continuity at that time. Comics, like a lot of art, try to reflect ideas in the culture, and Robinson walks up to that and gives it a big hug, whereas DC in general just wanted to take all their old bell bottoms and burn them so no one would ever suspect.

Maillaro: I just think there was a lot of drug use back in the early days of comics which explains a lot of it.

Starman #0, #1

Written by: James Robinson
Pencilled by: Tony Harris
Inked by: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colored by: Gregory Wright
Lettered by: John E. Workman
Published by: DC

Maillaro: Let’s start at the beginning. I actually read Starman 0 when it first came out (I was working at a comic shop at the time and read all the DC 0’s that came out that month), and didn’t think all that much about it at the time. I did think it was weird that they teased a new Starman in Zero Hour #1 after Extent laid a serious smack down on the Justice Society (which actually leads really well into the Sand and Stars story we will deal with later). And then that new Starman dies in the first few pages of Starman 0.

His brother Jack is sort of tossed into the role…and at the time, I was also really amazed by how “weak” they were willing to make Jack look in the beginning. He gets shot and nearly killed, and comes off basically as a bit of a coward throughout the first issue or so. This really wasn’t what 14 year old me was looking for in a superhero comic at the time.

I really didn’t give this new Starman series much more attention or thought until years later when I kept hearing how critically acclaimed it was. It had to be at least ten years later that I went back and tried again. I had a whole new appreciation for those opening pages where they lay out what Opal City is all about, and how David, Jack, and Ted all fit in.

Weaver: I didn’t read it until much much later. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, I decided I’d be totally done with DC. Yes, I’m old enough that Crisis had an impact on my comic buying. I LIKED the old multiverse. I liked Earth-2 better than Earth-1, and I liked the JSA a lot more than the JLA. So even though I heard a lot of good things about Starman, I was hesitant at best. I don’t think I tried it until you kept insisting it was great, then I figured, what the hell, give it a shot.

I like flawed heroes, obviously, and Jack Knight has a lot of flaws. But he also has the heart of a hero, even if he personally tries to deny it. I liked that he sees himself as the son who tried to not be Starman…and while it isn’t in this story, I like the revisiting of that even more.

Maillaro: Yeah, towards the end of this arc, I love when Jack starts to remember how much he did look up to his father when he was still a kid, but he had sort of killed those memories just out of spite. Jack is still a bit of a rebellious youth as Starman starts off, but he grows up pretty quickly. Which is another reoccurring theme in Starman.

Weaver: It’s also interesting that another Starman ex-foe, The Mist, has two kids who want to continue his legacy in different ways and with differing levels of devotion. That contrast is really interesting here. Actually, more than the contrast, the comparison.

Maillaro: Wow…I never made that connection. Like Jack, when her brother is killed, Nash definitely takes over the role of the new Mist with some gusto. The importance of legacy and fathers is obvious in the story, but I never thought about how direct a parallel we see between Nash and Jack Knight. Nice catch!

Another thing I loved about these early issues is how much time they spend showing the other aspects of who Jack is. Jack as a junk dealer more interested in finding deals on old comics than his family’s legacy. One of my favorite lines in Starman is when Jack is talking about having an arch enemy in the collecting business.

Weaver: I like that his junk collecting sometimes helps him out with his superheroing. Often, you see Batman’s detective sense or Superman’s reporter skills come into play when they’re on the job, to say nothing of Spider-Man’s science abilities. All those things are pretty obviously related to superheroics, though, which is why it’s nice to see Jack’s occupation work into occasional stories. Not too often, though, because that would just make it silly.

I’m surprised that you never made the Nash/Jack connection. Personally, I thought it got carpet-bombed to a degree. But then again, there’s so much going on that it’s easy to overlook some things. I think what Robinson does with Nash and Shade throughout the series is make us think about what separates the villains from the heroes, and where the lines are. Or if there are lines at all. This is something I love the exploration of, which may explain why I love Henry Pym and Thunderbolts back when there were some actually redeemable people on it. And Magneto.

Maillaro: I always thought of Nash and Jack as their father’s kids like I said, I more meant the whole “evolving into a very different hero/villain” AFTER the father’s first choice was killed. I actually forgot about Kyle as the series goes on.

I guess it makes sense since Starman is basically just one big long story, but we ended up flushing the format of this column a little this week, focusing more on the bigger themes than the specific issues. BUT, that said, I do want to talk a little bit specifically about the Sand and Stars arc. You want to start since you suggested that arc (which was a perfect choice)?

Starman #20-23

Written by: James Robinson
Pencilled by: Tony Harris
Inked by: Wade Von Grawbadger
Colored by: Gregory Wright
Lettered by: Oakley/N.J.Q.
Published by: DC

Weaver: Of the Starman that I read, it just didn’t get better than this. In the character of Wesley Dodds, we have James Robinson giving us a snapshot of how the Golden Age heroes did business, how Ted was similar and different from the other Golden Agers, and how Jack was similar and different from them. I love this swansong of one of DC’s earliest heroes, and I also loved all the little character moments, like Jack being more excited to meet his wife that to meet Wesley himself.

Maillaro: Yeah, this is definitely one of the strongest arcs in the run. I really loved how Wesley Dodd kept being reminded of an earlier case with Jack’s dad. I also loved the parallel scene where we see Jack talking to Ted about Wesley and Wesley about Ted. We talk a lot about how in a well written comic the characters might see and remember things in very different ways, and that was done to great effect here.

One thing that is particular powerful about this comic to me is that it basically got to serve as the one last great adventure for Wesley Dodds. My first real experience with Dodds was when he dies in the opening pages of JSA #1 (which came out like 3 or 4 years after this comic and was co-written by Robinson), so it was nice to see Sandman was still pretty cool and active even at the end of his life.

Weaver: Speaking of a well-written comic, this took me a very long time to read. It’s packed with dialogue, but it doesn’t deter from some absolutely beautiful artwork. Dodds watching the sun set when Jack first meets him is a great use of colors, absolutely beautiful.

One thing with the parallel talking is that we have a third layer to it all: that Jack is obviously telling Wesley some of what his dad said, but not all of it. Wesley reacts to some of it. We’re left thinking about parts of this, and I think any writing that engages your brain is a good thing.

My first encounter with Sandman was during the old JSA/JLA encounters, but he didn’t feature in many because he was a hard guy to feature in a team book. I saw some reprints of him and really liked them, so it’s always a character I had affection for, mainly due to the same reasons Jack mentions: he was rocking a three piece and gas mask, for god’s sakes.

Maillaro: It was also fun to watch Wesley and his wife carrying on their investigations as part of their civvie identities too. It really gave a nice range for this story. We talk a lot about padded stories, but this one just felt exactly the right size. Four great issues dealing with a pretty cool mystery story involving murder and zeppelins, lots of characterization, and tying nicely into the themes of family, legacy, and history that Starman used so well.

It was pretty sad that these issues in trade were out of print (or at least damn hard to find) for so long. I am glad that DC eventually rectified that issue.

Weaver: You’re telling me! I had been looking for A Wicked Inclination forever, and you sending me your copy was the most awesome thing ever.

Another thing that was cool here was the script they used for Dodds. And the changing art for the Golden Age story, which was scratchier because back then, artists wrote four or five issues a month. Imagine that today. Now we have to wait months upon months for one issue from some artists.

Maillaro: Wasn’t exactly a big deal. I had the single issues. I got those for a buck each…THOSE were easy to find. Nothing makes me laugh more than a trade which is so much rarer than the single issues it collects. Astro City is suffering from that lately too. Good luck finding a copy of The Dark Age Book 1 for a reasonable price.

Weaver: Marvel’s recent trade about the trial of Yellowjacket is pricier than the original issues…and that’s if you buy it new. And a lot pricier. I don’t get it.

ANYWAY. What do you think of Dodds’ reflections on mortality and how they echo Jack’s? I found that really interesting. Also, Jack, the junk dealer, getting Wesley’s gas mask.

Maillaro: The stuff about mortality was really well done, especially since like I said, the first story I read with Sandman was the one where he died. I also loved the panels in the last issue where he is worried about Jack, but also envying him that he still gets to risk his life in such an exciting way on a regular basis. There was just so many levels of storytelling and characterization going on at the same time here.

I thought the gas mask went along great with the awesome old fashioned goggles Jack wears. That is just about my favorite superhero accessory ever, and the gas mask was a perfect fit. I kind of wish he had kept using it afterwards, but I think that was just me.

Unless you have something else here, I was going to move on to Starman 75, I had a few big things I wanted to talk about related to that.

Weaver: Nope, nothing more for me except to say that Jack obviously in here is more than a little Golden Age himself, and I loved that.

Starman #75

Written by: James Robinson
Art by: Peter Snejbjerg
Colored by: Gregory Wright
Lettered by: Oakley
Published by: DC

Maillaro: It is strange how there are some characters that are just SO MUCH better as guest stars. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America. Even Wolverine, kind of.

Seeing how the other characters react to them and treat them provide for much more interesting stories than the normal monthly adventures of those characters. Starman 75 features a visit from Superman, and it is probably my all time favorite Superman story. And considering I was reading every Superman comic for a good fifteen years, that is saying a lot.

What made this comic particularly memorable to me is that Superman comes off as very down to Earth here. He had heard that Jack had met his father during his time travels, so wasn’t here as an inspiring heroic figure, he was here as someone curious about his past. The questions he asked were perfect, “Was he funny? Was he brave?” But at the same time, it was clear Superman wasn’t particularly obsessed with Krypton, just curious.

Too many writers have made that mistake in recent years. Superman is from Earth. He has human parents who raised him. He has human friends, and he sees himself as human. Instead, DC often tries to write him as a god above the mere mortals he protects, and I see that as a huge mistake.

Weaver: I’d agree that I’d rather see Superman as a guest than in his own book, and he’s fantastic here. As you said, Superman considers himself a human (I blame the other perception on a line from Kill Bill), and that’s clear here too. Superman wants to know about his biological father, like all adopted children do, but in the end, and he even specifically notes this, he considers Pa Kent to be his dad. In fact, as you know, I’ve read and learned a lot about the psychology of adopted children, and Superman shows a lot of typical thoughts here. He asks Jack about why Jack didn’t enable Superman’s birth parents to all leave Krypton, for example, so he clearly has a bit of a fantasy/curiosity about what would have happened had he been raised Kryptonian from the cradle. Jack’s answer to that is perfect.

You can feel the series wrapping up here, so it was pretty sad, but definitely uplifting at the same time. Jack, I think, got at least some of the closure he needed, and is ready to move on with his life. The splash pages of significant events outside of Starman itself was a nice touch for that.

But back to guest stars as foils. I think it works well when one of the big characters shows up, because everyone knows them, they need no exposition. You would not be buying Starman if you didn’t know a little about Superman, you wouldn’t be buying Thunderbolts if you’d never heard of Spider-Man, etc. So they can show up, no exposition, and we can see how the main hero compares and contrasts to them. And it’s especially nice to see Starman, like so many other DC heroes, legitimately look at Superman with incredible respect. Now, I think mid to low card guest stars can work out really well too if the writer really knows what they’re doing (there’s an issue of Thunderbolts with Angel that I love), but the A-listers…you can just plug them in, no explanation, and they show you how The Main Hero fits into that world, which is valuable insight.

Maillaro: Ah yes, the infamous Kill Bill line…talk about dialouge-based continuity. I still don’t think even Quintin believed that speech from Bill, but it worked so well for the character at that moment, and too many people take it as gospel. It is even worse that some of the people running DC have taken it as gospel. It just saps away everything I have always liked about Superman and makes him into an uninspired supergod.

Speaking of Starman wrapping up, it was always cool to me that Starman’s big story had basically ended in 72 or 73, but the last few issues never felt like filler. There are so many characters and stories to deal with, and Robinson gives them all a lot of focus. I always that the last Sandman trade was just a big waste, but Starman handled the “epilogue” so well!

Weaver: Hey, Neil likes to cash a paycheck the same as anyone else. At least he eventually did pull the plug on Sandman…except that now he’s making new ones.

I like a story that has an ending, but endings are tough, especially episodically. It seems pretty often the ending of something episodic either does the LOST “And now everything is over, even the stuff you have no idea about” or a Sandman where it’s more of a “And I’m contractually required to churn out these few issues.” It’s not easy to figure out exactly how many installments you need for your story without writing it all down in advance, and we all know how well trying to stick to six years worth of scripts would be in any entertainment media. Eventually editorial will say, “And now you must fight white martians.”

Maillaro: Another thing I loved about this issue (and this happens throughout the series) is the cool transition at the end where Jack sees his brother’s ghost. The black and white tones in those scenes was a great visual trick, and produces some of my favorite panels in Starman.

I also like how it happens when Jack is thinking about how he was glad to help Superman reconcile some with his thoughts about his father, but at the same time he wished he could have seen his own father (not at all subtle FORESHADOWING). When the next issue blurb tells us the next issue features “Talking with David (and Ted),” I couldn’t imagine having to wait a month to read that story when it came out.

Weaver: I’ll be honest, if I weren’t on a budget I’d be buying it right now. Starman always does neat bits of foreshadowing, it’s really one of Robinson’s strengths. It’s also interesting throughout the issue the ideas of different types of fathers and sons, different relationships between them, and how it all works together. Jack’s relationship to his son is different from how he perceives his relationship to his dad, and all of that is different from the three generations of El’s plus Pa Kent who we also get a bit of a light on.

Oh, I also absolutely love the part where Jack and Kal just smack around a couple random criminals in one panel. Beautiful.

The art on this issue was kind of a mixed bag for me. It felt flat quite a bit, then I’d see a facial expression on Superman or background detail that was just perfect. So to me, it was mediocre with moments of greatness.

Maillaro: Starman was always tricky for art for me. I actually didn’t think most of the characters looked all that great, but Opal City was so beautiful and it always managed to set the right theme and tone. When Peter Snejbjerg took over the book around halfway through, the art does decline a bit, but like you said, there are so many small brilliant moments that it’s very easy to just ignore them.

Weaver: Dammit artists, make our job easier.

You know, I just realized, we haven’t done scores at all in this one.

Maillaro: Well, like I said earlier, we kind of flushed the format on this one. Unlike anything else we’ve done before, Starman really is basically just one giant work, and I wasn’t sure if we should do the issues we review separately or just Starman as one big oeuvre.

Weaver: In that case, I give it straight zeroes.

Maillaro: Seems reasonable to me. I will give it 10’s, so that averages out to perfect scores!

Weaver: In honesty, I’m going to give it a 5 on writing, but the art’s going to have to be a 3. It has moments of greatness, but not enough to bump it to a 4 or 5 given some of the more pedestrian moments. Okay, 3.5 since it has excellent work from letterers, colorists, and cover artists.

Maillaro: Actually, I think those scores are perfectly fair and will definitely go along with them. The art ranges from brilliant to god awful at times. But the writing is solid pretty much all the way through (though I will admit, I don’t like a lot of the Times Past issues).

Weaver: I wonder if the trade presentation of Times Past makes it better or worse. I enjoyed the Times Past trade, may not have if they were busting up the regular plot.

Maillaro: I always read Starman in order, including reading the Times Past issues where they naturally fit in. They can be very disruptive.

Weaver: It’s interesting, since Talking With David always works so well in order. I wonder what exactly the plan was with why Times Past was handled sequentially as it was.

Maillaro: No idea. And there were some weird periods where there would be a lot of them in a relatively small period of time.

Weaver: I wonder if it was the equivalent of stock issues.

ANYWAY. What’s on the docket for next week?

Maillaro: I was thinking maybe we could do Quantum and Woody (2013) #1. Any thoughts on an older book?

Weaver: I don’t know what that’s about. What would be thematically similar?

Maillaro: I am not sure there is anything else in the world like Quantum and Woody, to be honest. It is sort of a superhero book. Very funny and weird.

Weaver: How about one of the Share Your Universe freebies?

Maillaro: OH! That is a great idea! Something for the kiddies!

Weaver: Avengers?

Maillaro: Sounds good!

Weaver: The first time (my youngest son) AJ saw the ocean in Fort Lauderdale, he ran into it yelling, “Avengers Assemble!” So I feel I have to give him this. Also, this Wednesday I’m going to be meeting Iron Man and Captain America, so I’ll interview them for the column.

Maillaro: Were you able to get tickets, or you just winging it?

Weaver: Tickets. I listened to your wisdom. Good thing too, because that place is set up really strange (I’d never been before).

Okay, I’m going to take my kids to meet some Marvel characters, Captain America and Iron Man are the two advertised, at a localish mall. Which again, I need to say, when I was a kid, it would have been Hulk and Spider-Man.

Maillaro: When I was a kid it would have been Wolverine and Spider-Man….

We are old.

Weaver: I wonder what that says about us as a culture. We have varying degrees of wise ass and badass in our groups, whereas now the badass doesn’t have uncontrollable rage and/or adamantium claws, but rather a symbol of America.

Maillaro: That is way too deep a thought for this column which is already late. But I think we can squeeze that in next time! Definitely worth talking about!

Weaver: Alright, that’s a wrap!

Final Scores

Maillaro – Story Weaver – Story Maillaro – Art Weaver – Art
Starman 5 5 3.5 3.5

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