Previously: When we left off in our look at the brief but brilliant superhero career of Jack “Starman” Knight, the gentle giant Solomon Grundy had sacrificed his life to save Jack’s and repay the debt incurred by his accidental killing of the Star-Spangled Kid, and Jack had met and fallen in love with a woman named SadIe Falk, only to later learn what she’d been keeping from him: that her name wasn’t Sadie Falk at all, it was Jayne Payton, brother of fallen Starman Will Payton, believed by most to be dead, lost on a mission in deep space. His sister doesn’t think so, and wants Jack to go find him.
Oh, and Jack was taken to dinner by his dead brother, dining with all of his father’s departed superhero colleagues in perhaps the best issue of the series.
What next? Well, let’s find out:
Following the sentimentality and warm fuzzy vibes of Jack’s dinner in STARMAN #37, writer James Robinson switched gears big-time in the next issue with a solo Mist tale, in which the neophyte supervillain decides to earn her stripes in the big leagues by murdering a few superheroes. Her targets: the newly reformed Justice League Europe, just reformed after the JLA legacy was reclaimed by Superman, Batman, J’onn J’onzz and company a few months previously. Consisting of Crimson Fox, Blue Devil, Amazing Man, Firestorm and Icemaiden, the Mist (having infiltrated the group disguised as Icemaiden) manages to murder Fox, Devil and Amazing Man — Firestorm, she conceded, is still a little out of her league, no pun intended.
These days, killing off ex-JLI members is so routine you can set your watch by it, but back when this came out, it was fairly controversial, with some readers decrying the callousness of it. Which seemed to me to be the point: ratcheting up the Mist’s villainous cred with a body count. And as usual, characters like Amazing Man and Crimson Fox showed more personality and potential here, in a page or two of being under Robinson’s pen, than they had for years as perennial DC third-stringers.
Before Jack could deal with the revelation about Sadie, he was drawn into a case form his father’s past, in a four-issue crossover between STARMAN and POWER OF SHAZAM, in which another Golden Age hero of Ted Knight’s acquaintance, Bulletman, comes to Ted on the run, having been accused of being a Nazi agent during WW II. While Ted can provide an alibi for Bulletman, the now elderly Bulletman (a.k.a. Jim Barr) refuses to let him come forward, since the two were on a secret mission for the government at the time. Ted asks Jack to buy them some time while they head to Washington, D.C., since the resident superhero of Bulletman’s hometown is most likely on the way to the Opal looking for him. Unluckily for Jack, the hometown in question is Fawcett City, and the hero in question on the World’s Mightiest Mortal himself, Captain Marvel.
Vastly outmatched, Jack pulls out every trick in the book to try to keep the Big Red Cheese busy so that his father and Jim Barr can get away, including a few new tricks with his cosmic rod that his father had never told him about, including the ability to repel objects, the ability to levitate objects, and even the ability to control the rod mentally.
While Jack does manage to buy enough time, he never really had a chance against Captain Marvel, who’s about to put Jack down for the count if not for the intervention of some folks Jack himself had earlier said he never thought would truly have his back: the Opal City Police:
By issue #43, there was no avoiding it: Jack was determined to make the trip to outer space to look for Will Payton, no easy task for a simple collectibles dealer from the Opal. The timing couldn’t have been worse, either, as Jack only just finally managed to re-open his store, Knight’s Past, thanks to a generous gift from Dian Belmont after Jack’s adventure with Sandman.
Jack first goes to his superhero contemporaries in the JLA for assistance, but they seem at best unsympathetic, and at worst downright indifferent. To them, Payton is dead and the matter is closed, and they don’t seem willing to hand over a spaceship to Jack on a whim based on a sister’s “gut instinct.”
Still, they could’ve been a little nicer about it. Jack’s dilemma is solved by, of all people, the Shade, who remembers a story that his friend Brian Savage told him years ago, involving an inventor who was creating “a vehicle to carry him to the stars.” As it turns out the inventor was very close to discovering the same source of energy that Ted Knight had, and the craft can be powered (and protected from the vacuum of space) by Jack’s cosmic rod.
As for tracking down Payton, Ted uses his JSA connections for a meeting with the Justice League that goes considerably better than Jack’s, charming the New God Orion into loaning Jack a Mother Box, which when attuned to Will Payton’s energy signature, should lead Jack right to him. At least that’s the theory.
After having seen to his responsibilities, turning over his store to Sadie and asking Bobo Bennetti to watch over the Opal, Jack bids farewell to his loved ones (including Sadie, whom he asks to marry him before he departs), departing along with a surprising travel companion: Mikaal Tomaas, who, despite finding happiness in a relationship with an Opal City man, still longs to discover his forgotten past, and suspects this trip into the void may be his only opportunity. The two Starmen climb aboard the Victorian-styled starship (and how appropriate that Jack heads off into outer space in an antique) and are gone.
The months after that were made up of a series of single-issue stories: first in STARMAN #46 was a charming Times Past tale from 1954 in which Ted Knight teams up with obscure DC mystery man The Jester, visiting the Opal on the trail of local boy Bobo Bennetti. Bennett, meanwhile, learns of a plot to assassinate Starman, and while he’s admittedly a crook and a thief, he’s no murderer, and is frozen by indecision. The beautiful art by Gene Ha accentuates the “once-upon-a-time”‘ quality of the tale from bygone days, as well as adding a wonderful touch of realism in the facial expressions, such as this moment when the Jester unmasks, and when we see him for what he really is, a middle-aged policeman just beginning to be past his prime:
STARMAN #47 gave us a glimpse of the Opal without Jack, with new heroes like the Black Condor arriving, heroes new to the business like Bobo stepping up to fill Jack’s shoes, and big trouble brewing on the horizon, be it in the bow-and-arrow murder of Dudley Donovan, a small-time crook who fancied himself Jack’s underworld snitch, or the much grislier murder by shadow demon of Opal’s Police Commissioner Sam Woo.
And finally came STARMAN 1,000,000, the series’ offering to that summer’s giant DC ONE MILLION crossover event. While the story is excellent, involving the arrival of Farris Knight, the Starman of the year 1,000,000, to Ted Knight’s observatory, trying to describe the backstory would take up far too much space here: suffice it to say that as usual, James Robinson takes underutilized and underwritten characters from another source and gives them back far more emotionally rich and developed than when he found them. And besides, I love this issue just for this scene of Ted Knight defending himself against an assassination attempt by paid supervillain hitman Deathbolt:
So as STARMAN neared its landmark issue #50, Opal City was without its Starman, and, it turned out, STARMAN was without its artist, as Tony Harris had left the series. Why?
We’ll take a look at the story we got then, and what may be apparent now thanks to a few years’ perspective, next time.