Last Time, in COMICS 101: Our coverage of James Robinson and Tony Harris’s STARMAN series has continued unabated, ending last time with the series’ big promotional push of 1997. However, as the series entered into the 30s, big changes were afoot that would push the series in a surprising direction:
Jack’s next continued adventure was “Infernal Devices,” which pitted him against “The Infernal Dr. Pip,” a mad bomber terrorizing Opal City with bombings in department stores and the like.
Jack receives some supernatural assistance in his investigation from Jon Valor, a.k.a. the Black Pirate, another of DC’s long-forgotten historical characters rescued from oblivion by James Robinson and relocated to the Opal. Valor had been a pirate and privateer wrongly accused and executed in Opal (long before the city had even been named) for the murder of his own son. With his dying breath on the gallows, Valor swore to walk the streets of the town, tormenting its people until his name was cleared, and it was that which he sought from Jack Knight, assistance in proving his innocence.
“Infernal Devices” is probably the weakest of the STARMAN story arcs, lacking a strong antagonist and a real themeline, but it does boast one of the most emotional moments in the series, when Solomon Grundy returns from hiding, having run away from Ted’s observatory after overhearing Ted’s misgivings about taking in the murderer of one of his friends. (Grundy, even then evolved into the gentler creature we see here, had been manipulated into killing Sylvester Pemberton, a.k.a. Skyman, the former Star-Spangled Kid, whose Cosmic Belt had been a gift from his JSA teammate Ted Knight.)
When Jack is trapped while trying to evacuate a department store during one of Dr. Pip’s bombings, Grundy emerges, literally holding the collapsed building on his back long enough for Jack to get the survivors to safety. It’s a heartbreaking moment:
Grundy is pulled from the wreckage, barely alive, and Ted calls in some friends to attempt to save him: the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott and an expert in plant-based life-forms like Grundy, Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man. And since Woodrue had been incarcerated in Arkham Asylum, accompanying him to the Opal was a very special warden: Batman. Together, Jack, Alan Scott, Woodrue and Batman enter the mind of Solomon Grundy in an attempt to save the kinder Grundy they had known, before he re-evolves into another, possibly more vicious incarnation. Once there, they find themselves overwhelmed by countless evil Grundys before receiving assistance from the late-arriving Ted Knight, who, in the dreamworld of Grundy’s mind, appears a young man in his prime.
The battle for Grundy’s soul was the high point of “Infernal Devices,” not only for the heart of the Grundy story, but also for the appearance of a young Ted and the slow build of Batman gaining some respect for the brash new hero on the block Jack. However, the arc ends with something of a whimper, being forcibly shoehorned into DC’s summer crossover event de joure, GENESIS, probably the least-remembered of those types of things, and for good reason. Best to just move on.
Jack was certainly moving on, as “Infernal Devices” saw him becoming romantically involved with a young lady named Sadie Falk, who had been showing up here and there in the series as far back as his adventure at the carnival. Jack first quite literally bumped into her there, and then ran into her again a few issues later at the shop of Charity the fortune teller. As this storyline moved along, Sadie was slowly introduced as Jack’s girlfriend, a status made clear in this moment of the two of them on a date:
It turned out that Sadie had her own secret, one revealed in STARMAN ANNUAL #2, in a story entitled “Young Romance,” by Robinson and a crew of artists, including Steve Yeowell and Gene Ha. In the story’s framing device, Jack tells Sadie about how it seems that all the men who took on the responsibility of protecting Opal City have had to sacrifice the one they love in doing so, and he’s afraid of the same. We’re then treated to short tales involving Scalphunter Brian Savage in his days as Sheriff of Opal City during the Old West, Jack’s brother David and what he gave up for his brief time as Starman, and the full story behind Ted Knight’s affair with the original Black Canary. By issue’s end, Sadie gets up the nerve to tell Jack the truth, that her name isn’t really Sadie Falk:
Appearing not long after that was STARMAN: SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS #1, which featured a marvelous story entitled “Talking with Ted…Talking With Jack,” in which we get Ted and Jack Knight each telling the other’s history and backstory, with art on Ted’s story handled by Lee Weeks, and on Jack’s by Phil Jimenez.
With Sadie’s secret now revealed, Robinson must have felt it time to acquaint his audience with the Will Payton Starman, with a bittersweet Times Past story in STARMAN #36, “A Hero Once…Despite Himself,” in which the Shade looks back on the Starman that no one really remembers, and his one visit to Turk Country, on the trail of the murderous husband-and-wife criminals the Bodines. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is probably the best-written Will Payton story, with him dealing with his own self-doubt and general lack of respect as well as his vicious adversaries.
Rather than the unorthodox settings of their previous two meetings, this time David simply escorts Jack to an elegant dining room to meet their dinner companions: his father’s deceased teammates from the Justice Society and the All-Star Squadron.
The dinner guests are Rex “Hourman” Tyler, Charles “Doc Mid-Nite” McNider, Al “Atom” Pratt, Diana “Black Canary” Lance, Terry “Mr. Terrific” Sloane, Zatara the Magician and Rick “Red Bee” Raleigh. Each in turn gives Jack a piece of advice about his new career as a superhero, while reflecting on their own pasts. Robinson is at his best here in the dialogue and characterizations, capturing each of their characters perfectly while reflecting through Jack’s eyes the proper mix of affection and awe. As for Harris, in an issue with no fight scenes and practically no action, he does a bravura job on the visual storytelling, providing just enough motion and visual variety to keep the reader focused on the story. Harris understands that this particular issue is all about the dialogue, and reins in the artwork to complement the speeches and better serve the story. Not that Harris isn’t given a chance to shine; each character is given a half-page pin-up in what looks like an almost pointillist style, to give it the sense of the cloudy haze of memory, and in full color, to pop out against the black-and-white of David’s netherworld. In addition, Harris supplies a gorgeous full-color painting to end the issue.
My favorite moments come toward the end of the issue, in Jack’s conversations with Mr. Terrific and the Red Bee. Here Terrific talks about why he became a superhero and what he’s remembered for, and Jack points out why, despite being thought of as a second-stringer, he may be the best of them all:
Everything that’s great about STARMAN the series can be found in this issue: the sense of family and legacy, the brilliant characterizations, the beautiful wordsmithing and the fantastic art, which expertly walked that line between legend and reality. You should buy the trade for this issue alone.