Longtime readers of my work may recall that I’ve often over the years referred to James Robinson and Tony Harris’ STARMAN series as my favorite comic book, bar none. There are plenty of reasons why, which I’ll be getting to over the next couple of weeks. But I’ve got to cop to the fact that there’s more than a little sentimentality to it as well, so please indulge me just a bit here as we all step in to the Wayback Machine, heading back almost 28 years or so.
It’s the summer of 1994, and I had just graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara, with a degree in English that I had absolutely no idea what to do with. I decided to roll the dice, and moved to Los Angeles with no job, no prospects, and only whatever I could carry and what little money I’d saved that year working as a copy editor for the university newspaper. Which is how I found myself that July and August more often than not eating Top Ramen and sitting in a lawn chair in my living room, which was largely empty because I couldn’t afford furniture. Admittedly, it was a scary time — days were spent either job-hunting or heading to the library, since checking out books was almost the only entertainment I could afford.
Almost, that is, because I still managed to keep up on comics, heading to a tiny hole-in-the-wall comic-book store in the upstairs of a sports-card shop near UCLA (it’s long gone now). The big DC crossover event that year had been ZERO HOUR, which had in its pages pretty much slaughtered the original Justice Society, murdering several members and aging others to the point of uselessness. As a longtime JSA fan, this hadn’t gone over real well with me. Any way, one week, I’m scanning the racks looking at the new books (and remember, this was pre-Internet, believe it or not, so you could still be surprised by what would be on the racks any given Wednesday), and the cover of a new STARMAN book catches my eye. To be much more exact, this is what I see:
“Hm,” I think to myself. “Where’s the fin on his head? Doesn’t look like Starman.” But I pick it up regardless, mostly on the strength of the writer’s name: James Robinson, who had the year previous written an excellent JSA miniseries entitled THE GOLDEN AGE, and so I was thus inclined to believe that he at least knew of the original Starman and might do right by the name.
As it turned out, I fell in love with the book, and as Jack Knight grew into his new life as Starman, I at the same time grew into my new life here in L.A., eventually finding work as an editor and even having enough cash to buy a furnishing or two. So, yeah, admittedly, the book means a lot to me; it’s always gonna remind me of that time in my life when I took a real chance, and nowadays, when I see all that’s come out of taking that chance, not the least of which are this very Web site, a readership that seems to enjoy listening to me blather on about comics, and comic books in the shops with my name on ’em — well, it just makes me love Jack Knight all the more.
Enough sentimental sop from me, let’s get to why I liked the book so much in the first place.
First and foremost is Robinson’s writing. I’ve been re-reading the series recently to prepare for the writing of these pieces, and have been very pleased to discover how well the work holds up. But a large part of what made the book so unique especially early on, was the overall voice of the book, an omniscient third-person narration with an almost lyrical poetic quality to it, one that was certainly like nothing else DC or Marvel was offering. It’s kind of a combination of a Tolkien-style historical chronicle and an almost fairy-tale once-upon-a time feeling, but without any sense of being childish. Look at the way Robinson sets the stage for the new series on the very first page of STARMAN #0 (October 1994):
“There is a city.
A glorious and singular place. Old and yet pristine. Ornate and yet streamlined. A metropolis of now and then and never was.
Burnely Ellsworth founded it in 1864, using the riches he’d amassed gem mining in Australia. With that in mind, he named his creation after that which had given him wealth.
And so Opal City stands, glorious and singular.
The city had a champion. A gaudily dressed ‘Quixote’: pure and true…but cursed with perpetual melancholy, as ‘Quixotes’ often are. He used a device, this champion — a weapon that could draw power and light from the heavens. And with this, he fought the bad and the wrong and kept his city free from fear.
In times past.
For Opal City’s champion, no longer young or strong or filled with the same sense of righteous purpose of late had put the costume and cosmic power aside — turning, instead, to the heavens, to study them all the more.
With the need for a new champion … one arose.
His father’s son. Pure and true.
And God help the bad and the wrong.”
Such a stirring and eloquent beginning, fooling the reader into believing we’re about to meet the hero of the tale, Ted Knight’s son David, as seen in the previous STARMAN series. As it turns out, for as much as David wanted to succeed his father, his time as Starman is cruelly brief:
We’re then introduced to David’s younger brother Jack, a collectibles dealer in Opal City who has a contentious relationship with both his father and his brother, and, as we see in flashback, proves that no one can hurt you quite as much as family:
Unluckily for Jack, someone else is looking to hurt the Knight family even more, not stopping with the murder of David, but also blowing up Ted Knight’s observatory in an attempt on his life, and setting fire to Jack’s collectibles shop as well. The mysterious assassin leaves Jack for dead, but not before stealing the cosmic converter belt that Ted had made for the Star-Spangled Kid back in the day, which Ted had given to his son for safekeeping. Jack manages to escape with his life, only because Ted had also left him his original gravity rod for safekeeping as well.
We also learn at the close of the first issue who’s behind it all: the father of the assassin, none other than Ted’s old enemy the Mist:
Despite his best intentions, Jack finds himself slowly drawn into the superhero life, at first only to protect his family and its legacy, but as the Mist’s crime wave grows, Jack finds himself more and the man he’d never expected to be: his father’s son. Along the way, Jack meets up with some unexpected allies, such as the O’Dare family, four brothers and a sister all on the Opal City police force, all of whom take it upon themselves to honor their father’s promise and protect Jack’s father, who’s been hospitalized following the Mist’s murder attempt. While on the run from the Mist’s killers, Jack meets Charity, a fortune teller newly moved to Opal City, who gives Jack an impromptu reading. Also showing his face is the Shade, the longtime Golden Age Flash villain, who, we discover in these pages, is not only practically immortal, but has always been a longtime resident of Opal City (or “the Opal,” as it’s often affectionately called) and always refused to engage in any villainous activities in his hometown.
Jack also has a run-in with the Mist’s other a child, a daughter, Nash, who can’t quite bring herself to obey her father’s wishes and kill Jack. It’s a first meeting that would have long repercussions for both.
Jack’s initial forays into super-fights aren’t exactly raving successes, considering all he’s got going for him is some jiu jitsu training from high school, a gravity rod he has no experience in using, and a very strong desire not to die. In fact, after his first skirmish with the Mist’s goons, not only does he barely escape, but he shatters the gravity rod in the process.
Stopping by his apartment after the battle, Jack hurriedly puts together what would be the basis of what passes for his “Starman” costume: a heavy leather jacket with an astrological symbol on the back, a CrackerJack-prize Sheriff’s star, and a pair of WWII-era anti-flare goggles.
Upon returning to the hospital to see his father about replacing the rod, Ted remembers that there was an earlier prototype Cosmic Rod he had built in the 1950s, which lay hidden away in storage. Jack goes to find it, and falls in love:
No sooner is Jack armed again when his father is kidnapped, and an ultimatum is made: Jack must meet the Mist’s son Kyle in battle, in the skies over the Opal, or Jack’s father will die.
Issue #3 is almost entirely devoted to the airborne duel between Jack and Kyle, interspersed with moments of Jack flashing back to the past, to memories of he and his murdered brother, some good, some not so good, but all treasured. Some memories also surprise Jack, proving that the disdain for his father’s life he thought he’d always had might not necessarily be so:
In the end, Jack prevails, although it’s not a victory he relishes:
Even worse, it’s clear he has new problems on the horizon when Kyle’s sister Nash sees what he’s done.
Meanwhile, the Shade proves his true colors, gathering the O’Dares on a raid of the Mist’s lair to retrieve Ted Knight. Ted is recovered safely, and there’s little satisfaction in collaring the clearly addled Mist, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s.
In the aftermath, Jack and Ted have a heart-to-heart, in which Jack agrees to take up the mantle of Starman (although not to wear a costume) if Ted will devote himself full-time to science, putting the technology behind his Cosmic Rod to use for the world.
Ted agrees, and says he knew all along that Jack would agree to play the hero. “After all,” he says, “if you’re not Starman…who else is there?” This leads us to two epilogues in response, each revealing a fallen Starman:
All that in only five issues. If you’re not hooked yet, don’t worry, there’s so much more to come.
By the early 90s, I was growing increasingly disenchanted with superhero comics (thank heavens for Bone and Love & Rockets, to keep me interested in comics). However, a few titles restored a bit of faith. The first two were from Kurt Busiek, Marvels and Astro City; but, the big one was Starman. Amongst all of the “grim and gritty” excesses and “bad girl” t&a was someone (a team of someones, actually), who got what true heroism is all about. Jack Knight is an irresponisble young man who embodies the worst stereotypes of Gen X; he’s more Jerk Knight. However, there is more beneath that cynical, hip-wannabee exterior. Sure, his first acts are about self-preservation; but, aren’t they all? With each step, however, his journey to the hero is that much closer. He starts to understand why his father sacrificed so much of his life to the life of a hero. He learns a “with great power comes great responsibility,” and he does what he has to, because he can, not because of some great reward. Jack Knight becomes one of the Thousand Faces that Joseph Campbell illuminated.
In this day and age, when the word “hero” is thrown about, just because someone wears a uniform, and violence escalates in both the real and the four-color world, Starman still resonates as a powerful treatise on the nature of heroism.