Thirteen Years Ago

One of my favorite stories in Starman isn’t about Jack Knight. It’s about his father and some of his old friends – Jay Garrick Flash, Alan Scott Green Lantern, Rex Tyler Hourman, and Charles McNider Doctor Mid-Nite. Starman #11: “13 Years Ago: Five Friends” has the ring of older folks telling stories about walking to school seven miles in the snow and cold uphill both ways.

We all have those relatives or family friends. These guys don’t seem bitter though; they’re just not up with the times.

In this installment of “Times Past,” the fearless heroes are up against Rag Doll and his cult. Rag Doll has seen better days, too. The villain in his in sixties. Once spry and deft, he’s now plagued by aches and pains. Arthritis is bad enough but imagine going through similar pain when you’ve got the gift/curse of being triple-jointed. His ligaments are so stretched that tubs of Icy Hot couldn’t make it better. On top of that, his mind starts to fray around the edges.

His crazy ranting (because those two words go together more often than not) draws a following. Rag Doll has a way with words. He builds a cult, and the members bend to his will. And what he wants more than anything is revenge.

Opal City became his playground – not the fun kind with jungle gyms. The kind with death and blood. His gang commits senseless and random acts of crime that stain the streets with red. The citizens of the glimmering city looked hopefully to their hero, to Starman.

Starman couldn’t face the devastation alone. He swallowed his pride and called in his tried and true friends from the Justice Society of America. They worked together as they always had and though watching them take down Rag Doll was satisfying, it’s satisfying because of the way these guys interact with each other.

James Robinson’s story makes you care. I haven’t read most of these heroes’ stories, but I could feel and see their histories. They carry their pasts on their shoulders. The art by Matthew Dow Smith communicates it too; the heavy style with a darker pallet fits. None of the heroes are necessarily in their prime, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve done the job for years. They’ve faced tons of villains. They’ve got it covered. They walk with swagger and confidence.

I especially enjoyed the way they discuss old times fondly. Villains used to be different. They were silly instead of dangerous. Alan Scott makes a fantastic comment about Batman and his mentally unstable rogue’s gallery. Starman #11 was published in 1995. The world has changed and like Scott says, villains don’t wear removable masks anymore. It’s brilliant commentary. The heroes from a lighter time in this darker, gritty setting works is unexpected but it works on every level. Just like the once silly Rag Doll becoming a fearsome bad guy works.

Starman and friends toe the line between the brighter world of old and the new heavier world right to the ambiguous ending. Even when Rag Doll is defeated, he threatens the heroes and their families. He reminds them how his followers will continue even after he’s gone. What happens next is fuzzy, but it ends with a dead villain. It appears as if our heroes of a different age were willing to do what heroes like Batman and Superman aren’t. Maybe it’s because they haven’t faced the decision as many times and maybe it’s just because they’re older and cranky.

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Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.