Previously in Comics 101: Last time, we were introduced to Jack Knight, youngest son of original Golden Age Starman Ted Knight, who has reluctantly taken up the name and role of Starman (if not the costume), following the murder of his older brother David by their father’s longtime enemy the Mist. With the help of his father’s Cosmic Rod, Jack avenges his brother, murdering the Mist’s son, who had performed the killing, and makes an enemy of Nash, the Mist’s daughter, who had earlier spared Jack’s life, only to have Jack kill her own beloved brother. Where to go from here? STARMAN creators James Robinson and Tony Harris had an idea or two…
With the first storyline completed and the status quo of the series firmly in place, James Robinson introduced two new recurring features to STARMAN, both of which would become trademarks of the book’s 80-plus-issue run. First off, in issue #5, was the first “Talking With David” issue, in which Jack meets up with his departed brother in a shadowy dreamland and has the kind of heart-to-heart conversation they were never able to do when David was alive.
In this first installment, Jack finds himself in a graveyard, and is surprised and startled by the appearance of his brother, all bright and shiny color in a black-and-white cemetery gloom. In the only nod to comic-book clichÃ©, the two fight at first, then settle down and really get to know one another, in a way it seemed they never had in the past, including a startling admission from David:
By the issue’s end, David promises that his visits to Jack from beyond the grave will be an annual affair, news that Jack meets with anticipation.
A word here about the artwork of Tony Harris. STARMAN was his breakthrough work, and this issue in particular was, I believe, where he really began to come into his own. Although issues 0 through 4 are quite good, there’s a certain stiffness in some of its storytelling that can probably be ascribed to anything from unfamiliarity with his own all-new characters to difficulty with the rigors of a monthly schedule to stage fright. With this issue, however, Harris really seemed to claim ownership of the book, improving his panel-to-panel storytelling dramatically, while bringing an all-new dimension in his ability to portray emotions thorough his characters’ expressions, such as in this scene where Jack and David are blaming each other for the damage they’ve wreaked on the cemetery. We really see Harris outdo himself in the next storyline, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The other innovation of Robinson’s made its debut in the next issue, STARMAN #6: namely, his recurring series of flashback issues, entitled “Times Past.” In the “Times Past” stories, we’d get glimpses of the original Starman, the Shade, and anyone who’d ever taken the name Starman, as well as various other protectors of the Opal over the course of its history. Not only did these issues help Robinson create a real sense of history and legacy, for both his neophyte hero and his newly created city, but from a more practical standpoint, these “Times Past” issues, which were always illustrated by guest-artists, would allow Tony Harris (and much later, his successor on the series) some much-needed breathing room, giving him a few extra weeks between the larger story arcs to catch up on the artwork. The “Times Past” stories would also allow Robinson to do some serious foreshadowing, introducing characters, themes and incidents that may not play out in the main storyline for years to come.
The first “Times Past” story, courtesy of Robinson and artist Teddy H. Kristiansen, involves the Shade, telling the tale of a job he took at the turn of the century, reclaiming an heiress from a sinister hypnotist and his carnival troupe, which resulted in the Shade’s acquisition of a piece of Opal real estate, cementing his bond to the Opal, a city he had already grown to love. Compared to later “Times Past” stories, this one seems particularly unconnected to the main narrative thread, but in typical Robinson style, even this tale eventually comes to have a bearing on the big picture.
Jack’s next adventure, “A (K)Night at the Circus,” in STARMAN #7-8, is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, the plot itself, in which a collectible-hunting Jack stumbles across a traveling carnival in Turk County (the creepy rural flatlands just outside of Opal City) and discovers a blue-skinned alien being held there against his will by the carnival’s demonic proprietor. The alien, of course, is none other than Mikaal Tomaas, the 1970s Starman we discussed a few weeks back.
From a characterization perspective, the tale is important in that it’s the first time we see Jack take up the role of the hero not from guilt or family obligations, but simply because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, freeing Mikaal and the other enslaved freakshow performers from their unwilling slavery. And as a consequence, Jack discovers the rewards of heroism as well…
Robinson was very clever in how he paced the storyline in STARMAN, especially early on. In between the longer multi-issue story arcs, Robinson would include one or two single-issue adventures of Jack, partly to give the reader a bit of time to recover and settle into Jack’s status quo, and partly to get across the sense of Jack living his life kind of the way you or I do — it’s not all big life-changing events, one right after the other; sometimes (probably most of the time) life is more of a comfortable monotony, which Robinson seemed to want to reinforce with his non-event issues.
For example, take a look at STARMAN #9, which is almost entirely a transitional issue, beginning with the denouement of his adventure at the carnival, and ending with Jack lounging on his couch, about to get the news that the Mist’s daughter Nash has escaped from prison. The rest of this issue is taken up with prologue for a story arc to come almost a year later, Jack’s adventures in collectible-hunting, and a surprising revelation from Ted to Jack about one of his never-revealed cases as Starman:
Luckily for us, we get to see this story in great detail in a future “Times Past” issue, only two months later. In “Five Friends,” by Robinson and artist Matt Smith (STARMAN #11, September 1995), we go back some 13 years, when once smalltime supervillain the Ragdoll has become a Charlie Manson-style cult leader, whose minions are terrorizing the Opal. With the crisis escalating, a worried Ted Knight calls in his friends: Alan “Green Lantern” Scott, Jay “Flash” Garrick, Charles “Doc Mid-Nite” McNider and Rex “Hourman” Tyler.
Doc Mid-Nite is assigned the task of recovering a pair of kidnapped twins held for ransom, while Hourman must by himself stop an army of goons who plant to ransack a retirement community. Meanwhile, Ted, Alan and Jay take it upon themselves to bring in the mastermind himself, the Ragdoll. Which they do, only to receive a most disturbing threat:
Robinson is at his best here, deftly combining nostalgia with his usual lyrical narration, making the middle-aged JSA here seem like legends stepping out of the past. And artist Matt Smith provides wonderfully moody, minimalist artwork, giving the whole project the feel of a fading but still vivid memory. This issue is an all-time favorite.
Another member is added to Jack Knight’s growing extended family in STARMAN #10, when he’s cajoled by Alan Scott’s daughter Jade into tracking down none other than Solomon Grundy, the savage swamp creature who had befriended her years earlier in the pages of INFINTY, INC., and who was now rumored to be living in the sewers beneath the Opal. Jack agrees (mostly because Jade’s a hottie, a surprising realistic motivation for any guy to do anything he doesn’t feel like doing), and after a brief skirmish with Grundy, discovers he’s really not much more than an overgrown toddler:
At just about the one-year point of the series, Robinson and Harris had already established a mood, a style and a world for their new creation that was arguably more compelling and more real than books that had been around for decades.
And the cool thing is, they were just getting warmed up.