What makes a hero? Is it a cosmic rod and a kick-ass pair of glare-reducing goggles? Is it being a “grim avenger full of hate for the bad” (one of Robinson’s more subtle jabs at Batman during this run)? Or is it simply “doing what’s right because it is”? Is it the honest desire to make the world a better place with “no vengeful motivation” or “nothing ulterior”? We may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but James Robinson really digs into what constitutes a ‘true’ hero here, looking at the classic simplistic conception of the superhero, rejecting the violence of the anti-hero or the deconstruction which has crept into comics over the past few years (mostly in lieu of character development or to seem darker and edgier). Is that what a hero is?
I don’t know, but I find myself agreeing with Batman. No matter how you cut it, Jack Knight is a hero.
And speaking of Batman, Robinson seems absolutely focused on deconstructing that particular superhero archetype in this volume. First he teams up Batman with the original Green Lantern and Jack as they trundle through Solomon Grundy’s subconscious (making Batman the kill-joy of the group) and then he mocks people’s inherent fascination with Batman as the 1990s Starman (Will Payton) finds himself always unfavourably compared with the powerless mortal in A Hero Once… Despite Himself. It’s an ode to a long forgotten DC hero (as you could argue the entire collection is), but Robinson uses Batman’s enduring popularity as a counterpoint.
Earlier in the collection, Robinson teams up the two Golden Age protectors of Gotham – Batman and Adam Scott (formerly Green Lantern, now Sentinel or something ridiculously non-bad-ass-sounding) – as a sort of comparison of the two. Batman hasn’t changed that much. If anything he’s become darker and more cynical over the years and has enjoyed increasing popularity. He takes the whole thing far too seriously, even when he shouldn’t (“we’re in a villain’s subconscious, not a coffee bar,” he poe-facedly reminds his colleagues, as if it’s a line he finds himself delivering regularly and without a trace of ridiculousness you’d seem to expect). He’s a one-dimensional cut-out (he even claims not to have a favourite Woody Allen film – though Robinson later gives him the benefit of the doubt). He’s a very sad individual, who does nothing but talk shop (when he arrives, he remarks on how he thought the Joker would prevent his visit). Robinson seems fascinated that the character has held public attention so well for so long and lampoons the ridiculousness of his perpetual straight-man routine.
Adam Scott, on the other hand, is a character who Robinson appears to have unreserved love for. Scott is an old-timer, who is greeted with by his former teammate, Ted Knight (“I’m glad one of us is able to show this new crowd how it’s done,” he exclaims, perhaps mirroring Robinson’s sentiments on the matter). Scott is at once more comfortable with the ridiculous nature of being a comic book superhero and tuned in to Jack’s obscure references (recognising one of the Mercury Seven).
Robinson enjoys writing these more marginal of the classic heroes and a particular highlight of this impressive run is Talking with David ’97, in which Jack’s annual talk with his dead brother takes the format of a lunch with a whole collection of dead heroes – each offering unique advice. Robinson writes them all as real people (when Jack is surprised to discover Zatara’s first name is John, he quips “You though I had merely the one… like Cher?”) Robinson is a collector, undoubtedly, and here he is a collector of all the broken and forgotten toys, the ones that the kids don’t want to play with any more. He’s gathered them up and given them a new shine. When Will Payton (the 1990s Starman) comes face-to-face with two stand-ins for the cast of Natural Born Killers, it symbolises the loss of the age of innocence in comic books. This is Robinson’s love-letter to that period.
These are the real heroes, he suggests. They are the ones who are motivated by selfless desire to make the world a better place – not by guilt or death or vengeance. Yes, these men (and women) in their suits have their flaws – as Robinson acknowledges with Ted Knight’s affair with the Black Canary – but they are motivated by an inherent altruism. And – however much Jack may have denied it earlier (particularly when he claimed to take the mantle to avenge his brother) – he is that sort of hero. The kind we don’t see too much too often.
In fact, Robinson goes so far as to suggest that his resident antihero – The Shade – may even have that inherent goodness inside him, just hidden pretty deeply. This omnibus collects The Shade miniseries, which doesn’t offer an origin or a character study of the key supporting character, it simply overs a narrative of his long-running feud with a multi-generational family, the Ludlows. I’m not sure if the collection has a narrative purpose, beyond offering us some nice Shade moments and a suggestion (at the finale) that is becoming more of a hero then he lets on.
Is the exhaustion with killing something far less cynical than he suggests? Has something besides the shadow and the void crept inside him? Maybe, I don’t know. We know that he does what he wants (and kills who he wants), but none of his selfless acts throughout the series are motivated by explicit personal gain or vengeance or any such thing. Then again, the entire run of Starman is populated by heroes who are heroes simply because they don’t know how to be anything else.
But then, Robinson is good with characters. Take his minor addition of a fascination with antique radios for two-dimensional villain Copperhead in the Infernal Devices arc. It’s a small touch (and slightly derivative, to be honest – Jack Knight was fleshed out with an interest in collectibles), but it instantly adds a touch of distinction to an otherwise bland D-list villain who really should have faded from memory a long time ago – but you could make the same case for a lot of characters that Robinson has drafted into the story at various points.
I have to admit that I am growing to love the unashamed randomness of the series – both in what area of DC lore it draws from and the original touches added by Robinson. For example, how long has it been since there was a villain with the pompousness to christen himself “The Infernal Doctor Pip”? It’s also nice to see The Black Pirate enter the Starman mythos (though he did cameo in the last collection). Once again Robinson balances his storytelling well, varying between finishing old threads and starting new ones. I have to say that I love the way the With Some Help From His Friends/Merry Pranksters story interrupts the overarching Infernal Devices arc (it’s even introduced as an Interlude) – that’s the way life happens, with big events interrupted by smaller personal ones, rather than events dovetailing into one another. Why wouldn’t life as a superhero work the same way?
Now seems to be the appropriate opportunity to discuss the wonderful tapestry of history which Robinson weaves for Opal City. Rumoured to be named for an off-hand reference in a Golden Age Superman story (he saves the S.S. Opal City), Robinson has fashioned a city from the ground up. The art deco architecture style which Robinson and Harris craft for the city calls to mind the original designs of Metropolis and Gotham (now sacrificed at the altar of realism), but the identity of the city goes much deeper than that – Robinson has already taken us in to the surrounds of Turk County (formerly Dead Turk Country) and used the Times Past arcs to give us an idea of the history of the city.
He’s also given the city its own pantheon of heroes and protectors throughout history, ranging from antiquated DC properties like Brian Savage and the Black Pirate through to the modern Starmen. Here we have the reprint of Starman Secret Files, which – along with a compelling examination of the heroism of Jack and his father before him – also includes a map of the city, and some biographies of its more famous residents. It’s little wonder that Robinson still tells us the story of Opal City even as Jack takes to the stars in later volumes of the collection. It’s a character in this epic saga.
Also collected here is the relatively bloodthirsty (for the time) La Fraternite de Justice et Liberte! which reestablishes Nash (last seen way back in the first collection, though she wrote a letter to Jack in the second) as a credible threat and also allows Robinson to offer a story about some Justice League wannabes. As Robinson writes in his commentary during the afterword, he recalls there being a bit of a shocked reaction to the carnage of the piece, but he now scoffs having read some modern comic books. The story works best as a companion piece to the other reflections on the more neglected heroes of the DCU that Robinson has crafted.
I remarked in my review of the last collection that the Starman series is firmly anchored to the events occurring in the DCU at the time of writing. That is equally true of this year, albeit it in a less intrusive fashion. The Genesis Wave crossover pops up for a page-and-a-pit during the Infernal Affairs arc and the Starman Annual #2 was written to be fit into a themed run of annuals – centred around pulpy genres. In fairness, the second example is so well handled by Robinson (with three vignettes on superhero romance) that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not read his commentary and he explains the former event as succinctly as possible (and manages to use it to say something about his characters).
All-in-all another solid collection showing Robinson’s wonderfully loving reflection on the times we had thought long past of superheroics. He deals with the source material in a loving manner – treating it with respect but smartly refusing to take it too seriously. He also asks an interesting question that is too often ignored or taken for granted: what makes a hero? Is Batman, for example, a hero? Robinson seems to foreshadow the complex analysis given by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, but he also proposes the simple idea that a hero is someone who does something heroic because it’s the right thing to do. It comes in all shapes and forms, from a reformed supervillain supporting a collapsing wall to a brightly coloured hero saving a woman thrown from a cliff.
Or a man wearing goggles and carrying a cosmic rod.
Check out our reviews of James Robinson’s entire run on Starman:
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 1
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 2
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 3
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 4
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 5
- The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 6
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | batman, Black Canary, dc comics, green lantern, jack knight, james robinson, review, Shade, starman, starman omnibus, starman omnibus: volume 3, ted knight, tony harris, Woody Allen