Posted - September 19, 2011 | Updated : August 27, 2015
These stories were written by James Robinson and drawn by Tony Harris.
It's been decades since James Robinson's take on Starman was first published. In the best tradition of great comics, time simply doesn't matter. Comicbook lovers still talk about this run as one of the best they've ever read.
Back in the mid-nineties, I took a haitus from collecting so I missed Robinson's Starman, just like I missed Morrison's Animal Man in the late eighties. Both are minor characters in the DC firmament whose books were buoyed by the talents of the writers who handled them.
Not that Tony Harris' art doesn't merit its own mention. Harris quit a job pumping gas and went back home searching for what he really wanted to do. What he really wanted to do was art. Long story short, he went out and took painting lessons and eventually ended up in comics. The result of those painting lessons can be seen by the beautifully painted covers of each of these six issues.
As we go through the story, we'll focus on select panels from Harris as well as Robinson's writing.
So why is Robinson's run so good? Hmmm. After I read the story you know what I kept coming back to? The parts when Starman wasn't flying around doing the superhero bit. His enthusiasm for collectibles, his father's grief, his pain when his Dad lashes out at him. The human interest part is very human and irresistibly interesting. This is a comic were the cape and the powers serve to enlighten us on the character and depth of the man wearing the costume (or, in Starman's case, the man NOT wearing the costume, more on that later). It reminds me a bit of Gotham Central. Starman is very well-wrought and extremely addictive.
Don't believe me? Let me prove it to you . . .
First, let me give a necessary but brief backgrounder before we dive into the story. This is the continuing tale of Ted Knight, the golden-age Starman. Yes, the same superhero who was part of the the Justice Society of America.
He is old now, this erstwhile defender of Opal City and inventor of both the Cosmic Rod and Gravity Rod - the classic weapons of Starman. Not to worry, Ted has two sons David and Jack. David, in particular is keen on continuing the family tradition, so he dons the costume and takes up the rod, and just like that, Starman is young again and Opal City has its defender back.
Other people though, have other plans. Starman's arch-enemy, the Mist, is out to settle an old score. Does he dream up an elaborate trap? Invent a fearsome new weapon? Summon a new villain into town? Nope. He orders his son to shoot David Knight while he flies around in costume. Just like that, the newest Starman is dead. But the Mist is just beginning, he starts a city- wide crime spree and vows perdition on Ted and his remaining son, Jack. It is in this ghastly state of affairs that the story begins.
We are soon introduced to the Flash rogue, the Shade.
The Shade is immortal, can tap into a dark dimension and form its shadow substance into nightmarish creations. He is also a resident of Opal City and apparently very concerned at the crime spree instigated by the Mist. As this panel shows, the Shade, also known as Richard Swift, is very wealthy and cultured and thinks pens are for dorks.
And here we have our first sighting of Jack Knight, our up and coming Starman (though he doesn't know it yet).
He is holding a Gravity Rod given to him by his father, Ted, the original Starman. The Gravity Rod is a lesser kind of Cosmic Rod. Jack's thigh is bleeding. He has just been attacked in his antique shop and has barely escaped with his life. Ted Knight is also a victim of attack and is recovering in the hospital. Jack is on his way to tell his father what happened.
In the hospital, what follows next is pretty brutal. Ted Knight, the original Starman, proceeds to give Jack a dressing down. Maybe it's Ted grieving the death of his elder son, maybe he's scared for himself and Jack. I really don't know, it's all dialog and its pretty savage. His shop destroyed, his leg shot, Jack goes to his father for guidance. What he is told in short order is : He's not as heroic as his brother; his Dad doesn't want to be bothered with knowing what happened to him; he gets called a junk dealer; he's blamed for losing his Dad's Cosmic Belt to the one who attacked his shop; he's accused of not liking his brother; then his father calls him a coward. All this in the presence of police officers, making it painful and a humiliation. You say something like that to your son you might as well beat him up. This is a very powerful sequence of panels and it is a measure of Robinson's ability as a writer that I don't really hate Ted Knight in spite of this behavior - he just lost his other son after all. It's all very subtle and feels very real.
Hope O' Dare, a police officer, is the nearest thing we have to a babeshot in this comic, so let's have it.
The Mist gives Ted Knight a phone call. Very wordy and very chilling. What the villain is threatening is slow death and torture to Ted and his family. Ted Knight immediately tells Jack to get out of Opal City.
The next scene is Jack waiting in a bus stop. He's going to go far away and restart his shop. It's a quiet, nothing moment, and, just like in real life, the most pivotal times sometimes happen in these quiet, nothing moments. On the surface, Jack is just one more guy in the bus stop, but inside him something is happening. Just like in real life, the big changes happen to people beneath the surface. See what I told you about the dead-on way Robinson handles the human side of Starman? This is all good. In that bus stop, we have the moment that could be called the origin of the newest Starman: Jack Knight. Jack's mother is dead but there is a wing of the local museum that is dedicated to her, that wing is being attacked. Suddenly we're not at the bus stop anymore.
Look at that, Jack is using the Gravity Rod against the criminals. I'm a bit baffled at this panel. Ted Knight referred to the Gravity Rod as inferior to the Cosmic Rod that was destroyed when David died. I always thought the Gravity Rod was inferior because it could not project energy blasts and you could only fly with it. Hmmm. Seems I was wrong, maybe the Cosmic Rod simply packed more punch. Aside from the Rod, Jack also has some training that harnesses the power of the ki or soul force. So how's he taking his first outing as a hero? This panel should explain it:
All this heroics gets the attention of the Shade. Even during his career as a villain the Shade chose to ply his dark trade in Keystone City, bringing him into confrontation with the Flash. Opal City is his sanctuary, untouchable, it must be protected, so the Shade is particularly keen on seeing Jack take on the mantle of Starman.
So how does it all end? It ends with Jack being driven off by the criminal gang, led by their leader, the Mist's son, a total a-hole who is now using the Cosmic Belt, originally given by Ted Knight to an old hero named Skyman. The criminals manage to send Jack crashing into the river. During the mayhem Jack let's go of the Gravity Rod and loses it.
What a story.
The beautiful painted cover of issue 2 is by Tony Harris and shows the closest thing Jack will ever have to a costume. He's also sporting a new Cosmic Rod in the form of a staff. Looks promising. Let's dive in . . .
I did mention that Jack is very fond of memorabilia right? Just look at his room
See that Mummy poster? One of the projects that Tony Harris worked on was a comic adaptation of the Boris Karloff mummy movie - this little art detail must be a tribute.
The next scene is the formation of an alliance between the Shade and the Mist. The Mist is not of sound mind, even for the murderous jackass that he is. Must be Alzheimer's or something like it. The script Robinson gives the two villains is seriously malevolent - Jack is definitely in danger.
I'm a bit skeptical of this next bit: Jack goes up on the rooftop without any weapon whatsoever and proceeds to beat up the Mist's goons. Granted he knows Aikido but when did this guy suddenly become the Batman? Anyway, there it is. He's enjoying it too.
Another great thing about Robinson's writing is that it's puttering along in the straight and narrow and then it suddenly takes a weird turn. Anyway, the weird turn at this juncture is a shop called "Fortunes and Forbidden Tales".
It's a mysterious shop that just sorts of pops up. The proprietress is a psychic called Charity.
Here are Charity's prophecies concerning Jack : He'll travel to the Far East; He'll go to another planet and hate it (he he); and a winged man his father knows will go to Opal City (remember this if we ever see Hawkman in a future issue). And that's that for Charity.
Back at the hospital Ted Knight is much, much more toned down than in the first issue - I think Jacks recent actions have proven him wrong in many points. The immediate problem is that the Knight family are a bunch of weaponless Starmen. Ted can't create another one because his lab was blown up. Luckily, he remembers a prototype Cosmic Rod that he has in storage.
The Cosmic Rod, which we see on the cover is the big thing here, but I love how Jack reacts to all the stuff in storage. He's a really enthusiastic collector. I really appreciate that he is a collector - I know how much fun it is to be one.
Next, we have Ted Knight in the hospital with thought balloon captions and it just makes me angry! Remember how hard he was on Jack in the first issue? Right now he's thinking that he always knew Jack would be the hero instead of David. He always knew. So why don't you say it to him old man? Why did you hurt your son? Grrr.
Anyway, Ted is kidnapped and Jack is told of it. We end the issue with our fully outfitted new Starman.
Jack has just been challenged by Kyle, the Mist's son, to an aerial dog fight of sorts. Kyle is armed with the stolen Cosmic Belt while Jack weilds a Cosmic Staff.
From the beginning, Kyle, David Knights killer, has been a world class douche bag but the one dimensional portrayal ends here. Right before the fight and his imminent death (yes, our hero is going to kill this a-hole), he has a tender moment with his sister. Reminds me of those mafia hit men who have no problems knee-capping people but are absolute pussycats at home.
So let's get to the fight.
The belt, just like the rod, can fire off energy bursts. Here's one that almost takes out Jack.
What I love about Jack in this fight is that some of the strongest hits he makes are because of his Aikido skills not the Cosmic Staff.
And here's another one
The fight goes on for a bit, but here's the coup de grace
The "I loved him" statement refers to David. Speaking of David we have a bit of a flashback. Here, the young Jack bounds into the room excited about a new find - a View Master.
Guess who collects View Masters in real life? James Robinson.
In this issue too, we have the big reveal from the Shade. He loves Opal City and wants it to remain a peaceful place. His alliance with the Mist was a sham to enable him to manipulate things so that the Mist loses his bid to take out the Starmen and the city with them. Here's the Shade with the cops attacking the Mist in his hideout.
Notice Hope O' Dare sans bulletproof vest?
Before the issue ends we have a panel that I've been dying to see
This speaks volumes. That's Ted Knight with his arm around Jack after Kyle bites it and the Mist is carted of to jail. None of us needs our father's approval but it sure is nice to have it.
In this issue Tony Harris gives us an incredible look at Opal City.
Since the first story arc, collectively known as Sins of the Fathers, we find Jack trying to rebuild his collectable shop inventory which was blown up by Kyle. Kyle, in turn, was blown up by Jack. That's justice for you. Now the wacky thing here is that Jack has managed to gets his hands on a magic Hawaiian shirt. That's right. Magic. Hawaiian. Shirt. This alone should tell you that the issue is off to a good start. Jack doesn't know it's magic but someone else does; someone very rich who hires 'help' to 'retrieve' the shirt. So the guy shows up in Jack's shop with a gun. So the routine here is he kills Jack and gets the shirt. But the guy hesitates. I think he hesitates because who kills anybody for a Hawaiian shirt? And besides Jack has a mean looking stick (the Cosmic Staff). Do you remember those Bronze Age comics when there had to be a fight scene (I'm looking at you Marvel)? Well, that age is past, comics - in this case Starman - is more realistic - not everything has to result in a fight. So we have the agreement.
Jack sells the shirt.
The Shade also makes an appearance and finally gets to sit down with Jack; making clear that he expects Jack to be Opal City's protector. He also hands Jack a 'gift': one of the Shade's journals for Jack to read. I don't know what for, but considering the Shade has been alive for hundreds of years I'm very interested in that journal. We don't get any details at this juncture, just the handoff.
And that's it, very simple story, but don't be mistaken. It's not boring at all. Tony Harris provides all sorts of eye-catching details; here and there and we get to follow Jack as he haggles for collectables.
Of the Starman stories this next one is my favorite. It's surreal, creative, and it's a story that I wanted to happen since the first issue.
David, Jack's older brother, died rather abruptly. Shot in his Starman costume David fell to earth shattering his Cosmic Rod. More than that, he died shortly after one of Jack's and his innumerable spats. They were always fighting, David and Jack were. In the end, too much was left unsaid. This issue addresses all that.
Before I go on, I'd like to acknowledge the excellent color palette chosen by colorist Gregory Wright in this issue. The whole issue happens outside of real time since Jack encounters his dead brother in a graveyard in this issue. Wright chose to give everything a somber gray tone - except David. The effect is wonderful.
To recap : In this issue Jack wanders into a surreal cemetery to have an encounter with his dead brother David.
Jack is in his Starman outfit, David is in his father's Starman costume - the classic golden age Starman gear including a fully functional Cosmic Rod.
It's a typical meeting between two brothers who don't get along. It starts with smiles and greetings then devolves to an argument about nothing.
See that? "Where are we?". "I'm not telling you". That's their whole relationship in a nutshell.
Because these are two boys, there's a higher than normal probability that the verbal war will further devolve into a physical one. And it does.
Just like in real life, they both stop when they see how much of a mess they've made. In the end, sense prevails.
All these so this two could really talk to each other.
Here's the big thing that Jack gets to tell Dave.
And here's the big thing that Dave get's to tell his little brother
The issue ends with an agreement for them to meet once a year which makes me wonder if there are further issues like this down the line.
Before we move on, I'd like to share some thoughts I have about these two sons of Starman. The fact that on becoming Starman Jack created his own outfit and ended up with a different version of the Cosmic Rod and David wore the exact same outfit as his Dad wielding the exact same Cosmic Rod is very revealing of the kind of men they have become (In David's case, became).
David did not have an identity of his own so he tried to become his Dad. I would expect this was not only true for his short career as Starman but with everything else. You know the type. Doesn't really know what they want or care for; so they import somebody else's personality. Jack was the exact opposite. He was his own man. Knew he wanted a career in collectibles even if it meant his Dad would call him a junk shop owner. Has his own way of dressing. Went for things he wanted like Aikido. Knew what he wanted. And when it came time to be Starman this is a Starman by David Knight not Ted Knight.
It also explains why David is such a, well, jerk. Jack, on the other hand is laid back and mellow. David was trying to be somebody else and on some subconscious level it was pissing him off - it made him irritable, particularly with his younger brother who does not have his identity issues.
Robinson has really fleshed out this pair - the fact that one of them is dead just adds to the charm of Starman.
The next story doesn't have Starman in it. James Robinson has snuck in an issue's worth of the Shade's adventures. No worries. It's a great read.
This all comes from that journal the Shade gave Jack; the events that follow is one of the narratives in that journal.
The year is 1882.
From the beginning Robinson has made the Shade out to be a very cultured individual. Here we have the Shade hanging out with Oscar Wilde. How's that for culture? Wilde is a real historical figure and was a British aesthete; a wit, he is widely quoted. The novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a Wilde novel. In his day he was also a celebrity. During his final days Wilde was a victim of homophobia and was rudely and unjustly treated. Nonetheless, he has won his place as one of the immortals of history.
Long before his days as a villain in Keystone City, the Shade had a reputation as some kind of mercenary. To the point, we get to accompany the Shade on one of his missions. The Shade is no superhero. He is a paid mercenary. Very well paid mercenary.
The case is pretty straighforward. Some circus hypnotist manages to take control of a young heiress. The Shade comes in to tell him off. He tells the Shade to fuck off. This is what happens if you tell the shade to fuck off.
It's a very simple and satisfying tale. What is noticeable is that Tony Harris doesn't do the art for this issue - the credits go to a whole gang of artists and the effect reminds me of Frank Miller - dark and sketchy. The lettering too is from a bunch of people - very readable but borderline cartoony.
What with the relatively complex plots and dynamics of the first few stories, this is a great way to end the early adventures of Starman.