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The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 2

Now we’re getting into it. It seems that Robinson has got all the setup necessary to move the story forward out of the way (or at least the bulk of it) and that Tony Harris has finally found his feet on the series. This collection moves a lot more fluidly than the last one – partially due to the fact that it closes as many threads as it opens, but also because Robinson is no free of having to establish the series’ premise and can now focus on the stories that he wants to tell (almost, we’ll come to the exceptions). Those stories are – by and large – reflective studies of what is known as “The Golden Age” of comic books: the 1930s and 1940s. What happened to the world between then and now? What happened to the heroes? Was it ever really the kinder gentler place we recall?

christmasknight

And it's our first Chrismas-themed image... Earlier every year...

This collection is dominated by the past. Robinson titles these chapters Times Past, and they tell the stories of things that have happened before that reflect on the current events being told. Sometimes – as in Starman Annual #1 or a flashback sequence with Wesley Dodds and Ted Knight in Sand and Stars – Robinson uses the same principle, just without the label. He skilfully creates a sense of legacy behind Jack Knight, bearing a mantle of what has always been a second-tier (at best) character. But it also allows Robinson to comment more and more on the current state of comic books. When reflecting on the first meeting of Ted Knight and the man who would be his archfoe (The Mist), Robinson shows the pair sharing a sense of civility (The Mist does not kill and unconscious Starman and Starman saves his foe) which is in stark contrast to the calculated destruction and assassination which marked The Mist’s return at the start of Robinson’s series.

Maybe times were better back then. Less complicated. Less vicious. The Mist displays a skewed sense of honour – killing a would-be rapist – but is also a murderer himself. It’s hard to believe that holding a knife to a young woman’s throat to force the hero to remove his gas mask represents a more innocent time, but it strangely does. Or Maybe Robinson wants to demonstrate that things are not really so different (only that writers are less likely to use hokey gimmicks like ‘an honorable foe’). He clearly advances the same logic in his other Ted-Knight-focused story (in the Annual). The Prairie Witch is a cheesy Golden Age villain with her green skin and witch motif, but Robinson focuses on the darkness in this 1940s foe. The horrors that take place on a small farmhouse in Turk County (human sacrifice chief amongst them) recall all manner of grisly stories about murders and crimes in the middle of nowhere during the time. It just never really came up in the colourful battles in the urban metropolis.

They have a super father-son relationship...

To be fair, Robinson’s conception of the Golden Age has a basis in the comics of the time. It tends to get lost in all the good-natured Silver Age wackiness that followed, but a lot of these stories were murder-filled noir tales full of violence and revenge. They just got heavily sanitized by the Comics Code, which was designed to prevent “the perversion of our youth” or some other puritan nonsense. In a way Robinson is not deconstructing the original stories, just providing an honest reflection of them. That’s not to say that his stories necessarily lack a light touch or that sense of weirdness and fun (the story arc Hell and Back centres around a poster which serves as a gateway to hell), and in fact, he makes sure the collection never takes itself too seriously (a vice that Robinson evidently has little time for).

While we’re discussing things past, what happens to the heroes of old? Probably the best arc of this collection – Sand and Stars – gives us a team-up between Jack and the Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodds. Dodds is a small man who just sits there silent most of the time. He’s worn out. he has no energy left in him. His friends – Ted Knight in particular – are afraid to visit lest they see their own eventual fates reflected in his weathered skin. He suggests that he longed to go out in a “glorious” passing, instead of simply being allowed to sit there and fade away. Sure enough, the prospect of a case to work on reignites his spark, and gives him drive and energy – a reminder of what he once was. The series deservedly picked up an Eisner Award for the arc.

Robinson's on fire in this volume...

Robinson takes a look at the other side of the coin in the final story in the collect, The Return of Bobo, which sees a Golden Age supervillain released from prison (after murdering his wife of all the almost mundane things) and struggling to find his way in the world. It’s no coincidence that Jack Knight is a collector, nor that he and his father discuss classifying his subject matter as “collectibles” or “junk”. The same argument could be made for these forgotten characters – are they prizes to be treasured, or simply human junk? Or does it take a special kind of person – a collector – to recognise the value in these people, even past their sell-by date?

Another virtue of using the Times Past stories is that they allow Robinson to create a mythos from nothing. That Robinson found a way to tie all the bearers of the title together (from inventor Ted Knight to Mikaal the blue-skinned alien to prince Gavyn who never set foot on Earth) is no small accomplishment and serves itself as the perfect illustration of his central themes: we don’t always have control over the circumstances of our family, but they are our family nonetheless. The way that comic books work – different authors, different characterisation, different markets, different demands, continuing story – means that these were all unique aspects intended to stand independent of each other, and Robinson manages to skilfully weave a strand of continuity between the characters, with a sense of finesse. It makes Jack Knight’s adventures seem like more than a few years flying around Opal.

Feeling blue?

Feeling blue?

I made the remark in my review of the first two volumes of Gotham Central that the series seemed a passive victim of DC continuity, affected by changes which seem random because the events that caused them occurred in other books). The same is true here. We had a crossover from the Underworld Unleashed saga in a vague reference to Doctor Phosphorus upgrading his powers in the last collection, but here we get a meeting between The Shade and the demon Neron (which – in fairness to Robinson – he uses to trash the cliche of a demonic bargain as a way of upgrading supervillains and gives The Shade one of the best lines I’ve ever read; on being told he’d rue the day he refused, The Shade nonchalantly remarks “If I had a rue for everytime I heard that, I’d be Paris”). Similarly, the Annual takes place during the Legends of a Dead Earth event (and, within that, Prince Gavyn’s death occurring during Zero Hour). Man, there were too many crossovers during the nineties, right?

If you aren’t familiar with these events, don’t worry. Robinson himself doesn’t seem too bothered with what’s happening or why, but uses them to make a point about comic book storytelling. Events like a gigantic energy wave destroying the universe are so ridiculously large that they must seem incomprehensible to smaller, more independent heroes. There’s really no reason for them to impact those characters, except to boost sales. When the energy wave is destroyed by a team of heroes never glimpsed in the panel and while the narrator reveals Gavyn’s efforts to be pointless, it makes sense for his planet to accredit their survival to his efforts. The universe is a cruel and random place (the DC Universe even moreso), so is wrong to look for reason or logic where there is none?

Mommy's boy...

And we’ve gotten this far without discussing Jack Knight. Probably the reason why this collection works so much better than the last one is because Robinson (and the character himself) seem to have given up attempting to define Knight as a completely unique individual. Here Robinson allows Jack to slowly come to realise that he is part of an even greater legacy than just his father and brother. He has a context that is greater than Opal City and a staff which allows him to fly. Jack had come to terms with his position as the city’s hero by the end of the last run, but here he almost seems to enjoy it – we casually see him tackle The Mad Hatter, we hear of him breaking up robberies and the Christmas special even has him helping Santa Claus (okay, a homeless person dressed as Santa). Jack is managing to be both his own man and a hero who is part of a legacy. The two are not as incompatible as he may have thought.

Now might be the time to remark on how well Robinson blends the existing versions of the Starman mythos (albeit heavily tweaked versions) with his own unique additions. Bobo himself and the Prairie Witch never appeared in comic books before, but they seem as natural fit as The Mist does with the world that Robinson creates. Perhaps that is his greatest accomplishment: it feels like it could simply be a new take on an older story. Much like Opal City itself, Robinson crafts a fantastic blend of old and new in his story.

Lost in the sands of time...

The artwork in the collection is much better than in the first volume – maybe Tony Harris was taking a while to find his feet. The covers are as fantastic as they were last time and I greatly enjoy the way that individual pages in individual issues are handled by different artists (particularly as The Shade recounts the story of the poster, for example). In his afterword, Robinson observes that this is a fairly common occurence these days, but it wasn’t back then. I know that there are earlier instances of it occurring, but it certainly wasn’t as widespread a storytelling device as it is today.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the wonderful page layouts that Harris constructed for the series (I know it sounds cheap to focus on this rather than the artwork, but it is striking). Not quite panels so much as frames (coming in all shapes and sizes, like picture frames), they are always presented in fairly interesting patterns, but Harris manages to do this without confusing the reader – it’s all easy-to-follow.

It's a gas comic book...

All in all, a fantastic selection and perhaps a much stronger indicator of what Harris and Robinson intended for the series from its conception. Whereas the first volume featured a lot of random setup (a great portion of which hasn’t even come up yet), here Robinson skillfully blends smaller stories (even a few one-shots) with the larger picture. It feels like a lot more happens here than occurred in the original volumes. There’s a lot of surplus material (material by Robinson not from the Starman series proper – for example two stories from Showcase, including Day & Night, Dark & Bright), which helps give a broader feel for the series than simply collecting the issues. It’s a little bit scattered, but that feels like it’s the point – life is cluttered and confusing.

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

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