For Those Who Came In Late: In recent weeks, we’ve been exploring the wonder that was James Robinson and Tony Harris’ STARMAN series, arguably the best comic book of the 1990s. Last time, we took a closer look at the art of Tony Harris, saw the first of the recurring favorite features “Talking With David” and “Times Past,” and examined some of James Robinson’s pacing technique. Let’s look now at Jack’s first major case since embracing the superhero life, one which, as usual, he’s not quite ready for…
Robinson and Harris put Jack Knight and company through the wringer in their next adventure, “Sins of the Child,” a five-part series appearing in STARMAN #12-16.
The story opens with Jack and his father leaving the Opal City courthouse, where Jack has just been cleared for the killing of the Mist’s son. We follow them back to Ted’s observatory, where his two new houseguests, the alien Mikaal Tomaas and the now childlike and harmless Solomon Grundy. When the two of them go missing, Jack heads out to look for them, during which two things happen: one, Jack spots a mysterious…something, which gives Robinson an opportunity to deliver another of his gloriously maddening little narrative teases toward the future (which, I might add, he managed to pay off all of eventually)…
And two, Jack gets jumped from behind.
After some disturbingly erotic dreams involving Julie Newmar (seriously), Jack awakens in the Mist’s bed, naked and weaponless, and greeted by the Mist herself (who has now given herself the same powers her father possessed, by the way), who makes Jack a proposition: he can either regain his clothes and equipment by running a gauntlet through her thugs, goons and henchmen, to see if Jack truly has what it takes to be Starman, or else she’ll just have him beaten to death then and there.
The next three issues take place at the same time as the events of issue #12, in a Tarantino-style bit of chronological agility that works well in conveying the breadth and span of the Mist’s operation. STARMAN #13 concerns itself with Ted Knight fending off the assault on his observatory by Dr. Phosphorous, a Batman-villain-turned-hired assassin brought in by the Mist to murder Jack’s father. In a nice touch, when Ted is attacked, the coloring subtly shifts to black-and-white, a subliminal reference to Ted’s age and Golden Age background:
The next issue focuses on the O’Dare family of cops, and their adventures on this day contending with the Mist’s crime wave on the Opal. There’s oldest brother Clarence, stable and happily married, the shallow womanizer Barry, Matthew the dirty cop whose crimes would shame his family, lone sister Hope, and youngest sibling Mason, a silent daredevil whose risk-taking has kept him still a beat cop. We get to know the O’Dares a bit better here — we also see some of Mason’s daredevil antics in action…
As we’ll later find out, and as the Shade had suspected, Matt is the reincarnation of Ke-Woh-No-Tay the Scalphunter, a.k.a. Brian Savage, a young boy stolen and raised by the Kiowa tribe, who in adulthood became Sheriff of Opal City. Scalphunter had been a long-running DC Old West character, with his use here another example of James Robinson subtly weaving his creation Opal City into the fabric of the DC universe.
In STARMAN #15, we discover what happened to the missing Mikaal Tomaas and Solomon Grundy, kidnapped by the Mist’s thugs and taken to the top floors of the Chandler Building, one of Opal City’s landmarks, where they’re beaten and tortured by the Mist’s goons, all while the goons engage in some very Tarantino-esque chatter about who the best big-screen Philip Marlowe was.
The brutality of the sequence is startling, a few notches above what had been seen in the series previously, with the thugs beating Mikaal and Solomon mercilessly for pages, until they decide to either burn or chop up the wood-based plantman Grundy, at which point Mikaal finally manages to overcome the drugs in his system and activate the amulet that’s embedded in his chest, blowing up the top of the Chandler Building.
“Sins of the Child” wraps up in issue #16, with Jack outwitting and outfighting all of the Mist’s thugs and assassins, regaining his clothes and his staff, and coming face to face with the Mist herself, who has the drop on him…
…and lets him go.
Declaring that she’s not quite the villain she wants to be, and that Jack isn’t the Starman he could be yet either, she intends to let him live so they can both grow into their next encounter. Jack secures a promise from the Mist that she leaves his father out of all future attacks, in return for continuing to work toward “becoming the one, true, best Starman.”
Throughout the five-issue storyline, we’d also seen the Mist committing six seemingly unrelated murders on Opal City senior citizens, innocent bystanders who had been shown the original Mist’s headquarters back in the ’40s by Starman after their first encounter, and one of whom she believed to be in possession of her father’s WWI medal of valor, which she desperately wanted to return to her Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Unfortunately, none had it, although it wasn’t enough to spare their lives.
The Mist departs, promising to see Jack again in 11 months, and leaving him confused and relieved.
It was back to some single-issues again after that, including a “Times Past” revealing Ted Knight’s first encounter with the Mist back in the early ’40s, and an excellent STARMAN ANNUAL, which featured a far, far-future Shade, still alive, telling stories of the past to the children of the descendants of Earth. Robinson uses this opportunity to give us our first look in this series at the fourth Starman by his count, the 1980s Ditko Starman, Prince Gavyn.
Robinson gives Prince Gavyn a far better sendoff here than he ever got in CRISIS, showing him making the difficult decision to leave his kingdom and his wife for a mission that most likely would mean his death, and making him a real person for these few scant panels, making his casually tossed-off death in CRISIS far more of a tragedy, especially in light of the fact that it was ultimately in vain, that had he not gone, the crisis would have been solved without him. And as with just about everything else in STARMAN, the story is told for a greater reason as well, one that wouldn’t be revealed for years to come.
Next up was the second installment of “Talking With David” in STARMAN #19, which set Jack and David off on a pirate adventure, while the two brothers talk about the events of Jack’s life over the past year. This issue in particular is one of Robinson and Harris’ best, with the pirate theme clearly inspiring them both, particularly in this sequence involving Jack and David’s ship attacking another galleon, while a Robinson-penned sea shanty plays in the background:
“Load the cannon and powder up, for the sea, this sea, is ours, boys.”
By the way, as an aside, re-reading the series as a whole now, and having met Tony Harris a few times over the past few years, I hadn’t realized just how much Tony was using himself as the visual model for Jack Knight, and with increasing accuracy and depth as the series went on. It really made Jack seem all the more like a real person, which made his emotional moments all the sweeter, such as here, when David reveals to Jack what the destination of their pirate voyage had been: a visit with their departed mother, who had passed on when Jack was still a child. Speaking as someone who lost his mom much too soon, this scene hits hard.
Closing out the end of STARMAN’s second year was “Sand and Stars,” in which Jack looks up his father’s JSA teammate Wes Dodds, a.k.a. the Sandman, in the hopes of locating the Mist’s father’s medal, Jack’s way of proving to the Mist that they’re not as alike as she thinks. Naturally, once the two meet, Jack and Wes wind up investigating a murder. Although the main mystery plotline is decent, the real meat here is in the characterization: in Jack’s awe and respect for the now octogenarian Sandman, for all intents and purposes the first superhero to don the mask and cape and in his hero-worship of Sandman’s lifelong love Dian Belmont, a writer and novelist Jack has admired all his life.
We also get to see Wes Dodds grappling with his own mortality and feelings of uselessness as he’s forced back into costume to save the life of his new friend Jack, a struggle highlighted by a lengthy flashback to Wes and Ted Knight in their prime, working together as young men in the early ’40s.
We’re also made aware of a startling bit of gossip from Wes, that Ted and his JSA teammate the Black Canary, both married, had had an affair, a bit of information that puts those BRAVE AND THE BOLD issues from the 1960s in something of a new light.
As the book began to deal more and more with Jack learning about his father’s past and embracing his legacy, I know I only grew to love the series even more. Luckily for me, this was a trend that would continue.