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The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 6 (The Grand Guignol) (Review/Retrospective)

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way. Earlier today we reviewed the New Krypton crossover, which was largely driven by author James Robinson, so we thought we’d end the day by taking a look at the final collection of Robinson’s work on Starman.

This volume represents perhaps my favourite stories that James and the wonderful group of artists he worked with created because it has something that nearly every on-going superhero series doesn’t have – a definitive ending – and a whole satisfying one at that.

– Geoff Johns’ introduction

We’ve come a long way, baby. 80 issues, six hardcover collections, countless extras (including supplements, specials and miniseries). A collection of diaries written by James Robinson documenting his time writing the saga, collected in the back of each collection. Starman has been collected nearly perfectly, and the sixth volume is no exception. It’s still something of a mixed blessing, because – no matter how much I appreciate the sense of closure – I’m still sad to see the series end.

Birds of a feather...

I’ll concede that it took me a while to get into James Robinson’s cross-generational superhero epic. However, I did get into it. I came to love it. It was crafted with a genuine affection (and a genuine skill) all too rare in comics (and superhero comics at that). As Robinson enters the last act of his epic, it becomes clear just how perfectly the author set up everything. Both in terms of story and character arcs, it seems that not a line or panel was wasted. It’s beautiful.

Perhaps the best thing about the collection is that, unlike most superhero comics, it has an ending and, like the best endings, it’s also a new beginning. Things have genuinely changed and this is likely the last time that you will see these characters (well, apart from the Blackest Night tie-in), but life goes on. These adventures are over, but there are infinite new adventures awaiting each and every character in the story.

Out of the shadows...

And so the series is granted the sort of poignancy that most comics can aspire to, but few will accomplish. Jack Knight has grown and changed over the run, as has Opal and its residents. Even the Shade himself, that immortal and eternal trickster concedes that he might find himself becoming an unlikely hero. It’s a journey that very few characters in the shared universes of Marvel and DC can ever accomplish – let alone an entire ensemble – as there are always more stories to tell.

It’s to DC’s credit that they have so steadfastly respected Robinson’s ending. After all, what good is an ending if it isn’t respected? A lot of the power of Frank Miller’s “Elektra Saga” (from his Daredevil run) was undermined when Marvel forced him to revive his female ninja and push her into the shared universe. Even reading the arc now, it’s not nearly as potent as it might be – given one knows that her fate is not in any way final. By contrast, Starman #80 represents the last time we see Jack, and it remains a powerful farewell because we’re not sure we’ll ever see him again.

Culp's evil dwarfs that of the Shade...

Still, even if DC revived the characters, the ending would be a good one. There’s a sense that, despite his obsession with collecting and pop culture, Jack Knight has a maturity and complexity that most heroes could only dream of. Starman reads like Robinson himself has reached a stage of maturity where has learned to embrace the folly of his obsessions, but to view them with a considered eye. Robinson injected a lot of himself into the story, and there are hints that he used the series to work out his own personal thoughts and reflections, something which grants these collections considerable depth.

I’ve remarked before that Robinson’s go-to character trait is collecting. Jack runs a shop for antiquities and collectables, but Robinson also gave the minor villain Copperhead an obsession with antique radios. Here, even the villainous dwarf Culp is a collector (“Watches was me vice,” he explains, “a dealer n’a collector, me”). Robinson himself is a collector, and he has remarked countless times in the superb and honest afterwords to these collections that his interest and vigour has faded with age – as he comes to appreciate what he has, rather than what he wants.

Shine on...

That’s the thing about collecting, especially with regards to comics. There comes a point when, as a collector or a reader, you realise that you will never have everything. It’s a harrowing and terrifying moment, one of those many small glimpses of your own mortality creeping in through the most innocuous vice. You realise that you will never be “done”. I will never read every Batman story, for example. This insight, this revelation, might just spur on your enthusiasm or lead to a sense of apathy – or it might make you realise that you long for a sense of a closure. That’s a mature reflection, and it’s one that I see in Robinson’s work here.

Starman is essentially about a man realising that such things don’t last forever (and, in other ways, yet they do). There will always be a Starman, from Ted Knight to Thom Kallor and beyond to Farris Knight. Jack is part of a story far larger than himself. But his own story comes to an end. Starman allows Jack a story that doesn’t just perpetually continue, collecting story arcs and issues as it goes (and never being complete), but gives him a solid character arc. For that, I’m thankful.

Jack gets some help from an expert in the field...

I’m also glad that the big epic climax of Robinson’s run (The Grand Guignol) actually leaves a few issues for Robinson to round out his character arcs afterwards. In particular, the Superman appearance in Fathers and their Sons, in which Robinson gets to use Jack to thank one of his favourite characters, hinting that perhaps Robinson feared that he was done with comics – “thank you, Superman, for your words and for simply being you.” This, coupled with the decision to leave the fictional Opal for “a real city” like San Francisco reflect a writer and a character ready to move on and out of this eighty-issue story. The final Talking With David is also well worth a look. Issues like these give the series a sense of closure, and allow the characters room to breathe.

I’ve remarked before, but Robinson has done great work with Opal City. Over the run, through clever exploration of the city’s urban legends and the wonderful Times Past issues, Robinson has built a rather detailed sketch of the fantasy city. Here in particular he seems to acknowledge something that even the design and architecture make clear – Opal City probably couldn’t actually exist. It’s a paradox, a magical fantasy. Cowboys and pirate mingle in the city. Even Culp, the murderous dwarf, remarks that he was difficulty figuring out “where it was… east n’yet inland just enough…” It’s ftting that Jakc leaves his comic book behind by moving to San Fransisco, “a real city.”

Never a stretch...

Robinson’s work has been so wonderfully skilful that all of the surprise revelations in The Grand Guignol about how its history has been cursed and manipulated don’t seem entirely out of left field. It takes great skill to foreshadow twists like these without giving the game away, but none of these reveals seem especially out of character. There are quite a lot of plot elements at play in the finale – and it would seem ridiculous if he just pulled them out of the proverbial bag (or out of anywhere else, for that matter).

Instead everything from the occult element of Opal to the Shade miniseries and other non-Starman appearances has been foreshadowed, with events we’d seen explained in a new context. Sometimes Robinson reaches a little bit too far for connections (Neron’s involvement seems a bit strange… since he doesn’t make any appearance here, but is merely used as a plot device to bring back some of Robinson’s bad guys), but it holds together quite well. Your realise how essential every line of dialogue and every issue has been.

Just because...

This heavy foreshadowing pays off, even when details aren’t necessarily “important”. There’s a sense that, despite the importance of all these little bits of continuity, many of these things developed in a natural rather than a forced way. When Ted takes his sons through a tour of his life (in the superb Talking with David issue), we are treated to various continuity-related images, explaining how each character fits within the greater context. And then we are treated to the sight of Ted fighting an octopus. “What’s the significance of these?” Jack asks, as we’ve never seen them or anyone in them (apart from Ted, obviously) before. “None,” Ted answers, “I just thought you’d enjoy seeing them.” There’s a sense that all of this is here not just because of its “significance”, but because James enjoyed imagining it and wanted to share. That’s quite sweet.

You can tell, for example, that Robinson has picked the supporting cast to work with Jack during The Grand Guignol based pretty much on his own preferences. He steers clear of established heroes, locking “Superman or any of those muscle lads who punch and flex” out of the city. Instead, he focuses on Sue and Ralph Dibny, among many other relatively minor characters. Indeed, Robinson’s continued trend of making disparaging remarks about Batman continues here, as Robinson is quick to note that Ralph’s detective skills saved the day, rather than those of the infinitely more popular and darker character.

A Strange man...

As Ralph stretches his way through Opal, he remarks with regret that perhaps he’s out of touch, “Maybe kids today are inspired by Batman.” However, Jack makes it clear that Ralph is as much a detective as Bruce Wayne, if not moreso. “Batman wasn’t the detective this adventure needed, Ralph,” Jack states. “You were.” I’m beginning to think that Robinson really has it in for the Caped Crusader, which seems especially ironic given his love for Superman – the only other DC icon who can match Batman’s popularity.

There’s also an appearance from Adam Strange. “Adam Strange is a man of two worlds,” a caption box explains, clearly having a great time, “but is only known to one. Not Earth.” Strange is clearly a favourite of Robinson’s, and it’s easy to understand why – I’m disappointed that the character has never received quite the same attention as some of DC’s other space-faring heroes (like Green Lantern, for example). Not only has Robinson already used Strange in The Stars My Destination arc, but he also popped up during Robinson’s time writing New Krypton.

A black star...

The extras this time are pretty thin on the ground, but the omnibus collects a full twenty-issue section of the run. There’s the usual stuff – a wonderful introduction (this time from Geoff Johns, a fan of the work and one of the most influential comic writers of our day) and the touchingly honest afterword from Robinson himself, recounting his own thoughts. There isn’t an issue-per-issue breakdown like usual, instead he just discusses all the loose ends and things. He’s kept these sections interesting, and they’re the kind of back-matter that most comic books really should aspire towards.

There’s also, by way of an epilogue, Starman #81 included. For those without an especially in-depth knowledge of the DC universe, this was one of the titles “resurrected” as part of Blackest Night, a gigantic crossover about the dead rising and challenging their loved ones. I’ve recorded my thoughts on the crossover elsewhere, but the issue is quite nice. Robinson pretty much tied up all his loose ends with the series finale, but it’s nice to check back in with the Shade in Opal. Robinson wisely leaves Jack out of it and the issue features some beautiful artwork for Bill Sienkewicz. The plot is fairly standard and generic (Robinson has 22 pages to set up, play with and wrap up his threat), so it’s nothing spectacular – but it’s nice. And, truth be told, I’m glad that it was included.

David fell flat on his face...

Although I am fond of DC’s Absolute editions or Marvel’s Omnibus collections, I think that these Starman omnibus collections are the benchmark for collecting long-running series in a hardcover format. They contain everything. I can look at my bookshelf safe and secure in the knowledge that I have everything that I will every need to read. It looks like a labour of love, collecting nearly every page of Starman-related material (apart from his appearances in JSA, but perhaps they will be one of the next series to receive this treatment). Well done, DC. I look forward to Geoff Johns’ Flash run receiving the same care.

So, it’s over. That’s it. It’s a superhero story with a beginning, a middle and an end. What more could you ask for?

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

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