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The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 4

It did take me a while to get into the series, but it’s hard to describe James Robinson’s fantastic superhero saga as anything other than mandatory reading material for anyone with an interest in the genre, its history or its evolution. Starman was the comic book of the nineties, and a fresh look at an already classic concept. Alan Moore picked apart the superhero genre in Watchmen, declaring that the medium was growing creatively bankrupt. Robinson seems intent to prove otherwise. Brick by brick and strand by strand, Robinson has painstakingly given us one of the most interesting and complex creations in the medium. Often exploring and questioning the roots and the clichés of the superhero genre, Robinson is prone to revel in them. If we are interested in the evolution of the genre, Starman is the book for you.

Everything is better with Nazis...

The Starman Omnibus will be a six volume set essentially pulling together all of James Robinson’s work on the character, who has only intermittently been available in print, with many arcs and standalone stories omitted from the narratives. Not only will this collection include all the issues of the series in order, it will also include supplementary material drawn from surrounding comics. While this was hinted at with the inclusion of The Shade miniseries in the last installment, this collection here offers perhaps the best example of this principle in action. Collecting the long sought-after Batman/Hellboy/Starman crossover, it also draws in a solo Mist story and crossover issues with that other Golden Age revival The Power of Shazam.

It’s a project which certainly deserves recognition and praise. While I’d argue that the individual volumes could be larger (both in the dimensions and in the page count), it does show that DC Comics is relatively proud of this particular series, offering it from end-to-end, as it was intended. And they are right to be proud of it.

It's a Marvel!

Following the latest in a long line (a long line) of Starman heroes, Jack Knight assumes the mantle of the protector of Opal City. The series covers his growth as a result of his decision to stand up, the impact on his troubled relationship with his father and the general wackiness that ensues from a life as a superhero. Rather than dealing with the traditional high-stakes drama and the science-fiction high concepts that traditionally accompany the genre, Robinson complimented both with a very human and organic heart. Jack Knight isn’t your traditional superhero – in fact, when he finds himself joining Grant Morrison’s incarnation of the Justice League in the midst of some sort of global crisis, he remarks just how uncomfortable he feels, observing that “I would have liked to sat around drinking coffee. But this isn’t my city… my world…” It isn’t his world, and he is the better for it.

This year, Robinson offers Jack in a state of transition and makes the themes of his work more philosophical than they have been before. The world of comics is a hokey, ridiculous place, packed with hokey magic and hokey science in equal measure. In a world where demons walk the earth, it’s odd to see a man building technology to allow him to fly. How do you reconcile both of these fantastical elements? Robinson seems to decry the move towards what might be termed ‘hard science fiction’ or ‘gritty realism’ in modern comic books in much the same style as he seemed to criticise the rise of the nineties anti-hero in the last volume. How, he seems to ask, is explaining Jack can fly using advanced technology any different from Captain Marvel flying through magic?

It's a sweet jester...

Rationalising away the power of flight by justifying it as science “takes away from the magic” of Jack and his cosmic rod (or as he describes it “a magic wand”). Why should superhero comic books need to rationalise? Doesn’t that also reduce away the magic of genre? Perhaps the greatest example of the way that Robinson seems to favour the fantastical over the practical is the ship at Jack rides to the stars at the climax of this volume. It looks like something from Jules Verne rather than NASA.

Any man of science living in the DC Universe must be experiencing some large amount of denial. When a bunch of magical-powered Nazi’s show up (as they are wont to do), Batman, ever the rational mind, remarks that their blasts “seemed more like electrical energy” than “magic”, which Hellboy dismisses with as sarcastic “sure”. And this isn’t the only demon-and-detective-against-Nazis pairing in the book. Science and Sorcery, one of the Tales of Times Past (a collection of “historical” tales which add context to the on-going narrative), teams up the original Starman (confirmed here as an atheist) with Etrigan the Demon to stop a bunch of fifth columnist Nazis from destroying the city. It is as hokey and fun as it sounds. Both men track down the group by following their energy trail. Ted Knight justifies it as a scientific endeavour, tracking particles and so forth, while Etrigan simply follows their magical energies.

We all have our demons... Just maybe not so literally...

The best thing about this entire collection so far is how Robinson has added shades of contrast to the whole of the history of DC Comics, giving us some interesting perspectives on… well, everything and just giving perhaps the most interesting depiction of what it must be like to live in the universe populated with such extremes. Perhaps this collection is the best example, both starting and ending with crossover storylines between titles. In fact, there are literally only seven Starman issues collected here (which is about half of what the other omnibus collections contain). the rest of the material is supplemental.

Aside from the wonderful contrast between science and magic, the main function of the issues collected herein is to offer a bridge and a transition. Mainly for Jack, whose quest for a rocket to take him to the stars forms the backbone of this run, but also for each of the ensemble, most of which are given a chance to shine through the Starman 80-page Giant, a giant collection of stories framed around a mystic African statuette, and the Times Past issues collected herein. Having decided to go into space looking for Will Patton, the long-lost carrier of his title and brother of his lover, Robinson offers us a clear and organic example of how far Jack has come from a character initially hesitant to take the mantle of hero, promising to the city “if I return, I’ll be your champion again. I’ll never leave you.”

Captain Marvel hits the wall...

That isn’t the only example. Though Robinson famously convinced fans that Jake ‘Bobo’ Bennetti was a real Golden Age villain, he was in fact created for this series and retroactively inserted into continuity. Almost an anti-villain, Robinson gives the character a wonderful inner voice – as the arrival of the Starman of 1951 interrupts his introduction, he remarks “there’s no way this Charlie’s spoiling my inner monologue. What kind of square cat would I be to let that happen?” From his introduction in the second collection, Robinson has followed his rehabilitation and life after his release from prison. The last Starman issue in this collection – Good Men and Bad – offers a demonstration that perhaps such a rehabilitation is unnecessary. But you could pick up any other character that Robinson incorporated into his epic and you could be fairly sure that they’ve never been written better.

James Robinson has contributed a growing afterward to the collections (Times Past: An (ongoing) afterword), which offers a fairly frank disclosure of where each collection came in his life. Perhaps that’s one the triumphs of month-by-month storytelling that the medium of comic books offers: it allows the author to grow and change with the characters and to see that reflected in the work that they are producing. His work is always insightful (if a tad melodramatic), and gives us the image of the creator as lost as his creation. With his interest in collecting and antiques, Jack Knight has always been some form of stand-in for Robinson, so it’s hard not read subtext into his departure from our planet at the end of Destiny.

Starman becomes a space man...

The transitional nature of this volume (and that it seems to serve only to add texture rather than content) may undermine it a bit, but I am quite comfortable with this collection of issues serving to provide a bridge to The Stars My Destination. Much as that arc would allow Robinson to explore the overpopulated DC cosmos (obviously a pet like of his, given that he took Superman the same direction in World of New Krypton), here Robinson revels in another classic pop culture obsession: Nazis! I suppose it was inevitable for a Golden-Age-homage, but here they serve as the villains in three different stories. The Nazi fascination with the occult has long been a staple of pop history, and Robinson takes great pleasure inserting it here, where it suits the material in a pulpy Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of way. Of these Nazi-themed stories, it is perhaps only Stars and Lightening which doesn’t really succeed.

Crossing over Starman with that other retro-title The Power of Shazam! might have seemed a logical choice at the time, given their similar nostalgia, but the writing styles of James Robinson and Jerry Ordway are arguably too different to render them compatible. Though Starman loves to play with the history of the DC Universe, Shazam! seems to revel in its stylistic trappings. Thought bubbles ahoy in the two issues reprinted in this collection. I can’t help but get the sense that elements of this crossover – shape-changing Nazis and the whole “let the two heroes fight” schtick – feel more at home in the bright and colourful world of Shazam!

I sense a buddy cop show in the works...

Starman likes these sort of tropes, but like to play with them rather than serving them up as straight as they are offered here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bulk of the storytelling occurs in The Power of Shazam! issues while Starman contributes mostly mood. In contrast, Batman/Hellboy/Starman works amazingly well, juxtaposing the worlds of rational thought and magical fantasy the series straddles.

The artwork continues to be beyond solid. As I remarked in my review of the first collection, the artwork by Tony Harris has grown as fantastically as Robinson’s writing over the course of the series (although his covers have always been fantastic). It’s a shame that he and Robinson would eventually part ways (more on that in the next volume). As ever, the vast majority of work on the Tales of Times Past are equally impressive, but it’s particularly worth mentioning Gene Ha’s work on Good Men and Bad. It looks stunning, calling to mind his work on The Shade miniseries in the last collection.

Is Jack out of their league?

Starman is easily the best superhero comic of the nineties. It’s a whistle-stop tour of the genre, managing to be incredibly progressive and yet impressively nostalgic at the same time. When Robinson complements Geoff Johns for reviving the Black Hand, a Green Lantern villain wallowing in obscurity before appearing in a story collected here, it’s hard not to get the sense that with Robinson there would be no Johns. The impact the series has had on the medium is unprecedented. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the series as a “must-read” as I would for Watchmen or The Sandman, but I would recommend Starman to anyone with any interest in comic books. I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume, even though it is six months away.

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. Be sure to join us. This article isn’t part of the celebrations, but jump on board!

Check out our reviews of James Robinson’s entire run on Starman:

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