A Nostalgic Look Back at Starman

scanned cover to Starman #50, art by Tony Harris

In case you haven’t heard of Starman, it was a DC comic that ran for 80 issues* and the entire series was written by James Robinson, whom you might know from his Superman: New Krypton storyline as well as his recent run on JLA.  During that time, it won a lot of critical praise and had a pretty healthy fan-base (I read somewhere it boasted some of the highest subscriptions in all of DC).  Among the comic-culture, it’s still thought of with loving nostalgia as one of the best comics ever, somewhere on the same level as The Sandman.

The series is about Jack Knight, a reluctant superhero who is the son of the original Starman, Ted Knight.  Starman was a character that originated back in the days of All Star Comics (in the 1940s) and was created by Gardner Fox, who also created Sandman (the guy who fought with a gas-mask, not Dream from Gaiman’s series) and Zatanna. Outside of the JSA, Starman hardly appeared in the DCU, eventually vanishing into obscurity.

Fast-forward to the 90s.  DC has established a tradition of giving writers new to DC characters that are barely used or whose sales are failing, that way if the writers mess up, it’s not a huge loss.  That’s how Alan Moore got Swamp-Thing and how Gaiman got the Sandman (and both reinvented the characters entirely).  That’s also how James Robinson (another Brit) got the chance to write the Sandman.

Instead of making it about Ted Knight, Robinson makes his series about Ted’s son Jack.  Jack is one of the great misfit characters in comics.  At the start of the series, he’s a guy who runs a vintage-novelty shop.  His life revolves around collecting things (something comic book fans can relate to).  His brother is the current hero in the family, after his father retires the rod.  The rod, by the way, is what gives Starman his powers.  It allows the wielder to fly and shoot energy bolts, and was created by Ted, a scientist, thus making Ted one of the first self-made men in the DCU, as so many of the early characters got their powers by chance or by mistake (the original Flash Jay Garrick got his powers in a lab accident, the original Green Lantern Alan Scott chanced to find a green flame from outer space encased in a lantern, and Superman just happens to come to a planet where he has all sorts of splendid abilities).

In one of the earliest issues of the series, Jack’s brother is killed in the line of duty, and as a crisis hits the town, and it’s up to Jack to set things right.  The thing is, he doesn’t exactly want to.  He always thought his father and brother were the heroes in the family, whereas he was cut out for a simple life.  He’s given little choice though but to take up the rod and save the day.

It’s his reluctance that sets Jack apart from other comic heroes.  For that reason, he appears more human, and is someone the reader can identify with.  We all like to believe that if granted powers we’d go off saving the world 7 days a week, but in reality we’d be more like Jack, nervous and often unsure of ourselves.  In one of the early issues, Jack even plummets from the sky when he uses the rod the wrong way.

The city he protects is Opal City, which is similar to Metropolis but scaled down and full of neat looking art-deco buildings.  It’s populated by a lot of second-string DC characters who are underused in other comics, such as Doctor Phosphorus, Solomon Grundy, Rag Doll, and The Shade (who will soon be getting his own series).

Originally, the series was meant to be drawn entirely by Tony Harris (who drew all the issues of Ex Machina) but he got out of his contract when there was much discord between himself and Robinson.  It’s rumored that Robinson was being too specific about what he wanted in each panel, and didn’t give Tony Harris much room for creativity.  I would say the split didn’t hurt the comic, since it was then taken over by Peter Snejbjerg, whose art I also like.

Starman was essentially a creator owned comic, which is rare for DC.  All of the Vertigo and Dark Horse books are creator owned, but it doesn’t happen much in the big companies.  Being creator owned means that the writer retains all the rights to his or her creations.  So after Starman ended, not only did Jack Knight stop appearing in the DCU (except for a few tiny cameos) but so did some members of the supporting cast.  Recently, writing JLA gave Robinson a chance to incorporate Mikaal Thomas into the lineup, one of the few gay characters in the DCU.

Starman is an accessible comic that people who aren’t big fans of comics can get into.  My girlfriend even likes it.  Part of its appeal lies in how it in many ways resembles a novel rather than a comic.  The series was big on character development, and there was more reading involved than usual in comics.  Also–I find this refreshing–family plays a big role in the series.  The superhero community is full of orphans or intergalactic exiles, thus bypassing family obligations for the heroes.  Not so with Starman.  Not only does Jack’s story revolve around his relationship with his father, but the villains too are given back stories and siblings and parents.  There’s the Bodines, a husband-wife crime duo, the supervillain The Mist who has a daughter that wants to impress him through villainy, and the O’Dare family, who are split between the right and wrong sides of the law.

So for these reasons and many more, Starman was a fantastic series, worth the effort it takes to find, and definitely worth the time to read.

*Technically, the series ran for 81 issues, if you take into account the one-shot created for the Blackest Night crossover event.  In that issue, The Shade returns to fight the undead.  It’s cool to see The Shade in action, but it’s not necessarily a big part of the Starman series.  Starman doesn’t even appear in it.

Check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories by clicking on the pic below!


2 thoughts on “A Nostalgic Look Back at Starman

  1. Well… Actually since Starman ran from issue zero originally, up to issue 80, that’s 81 issues, and then issue 81 is actually the 82nd issue. Plus, it depends if you count the two annuals (and i think one should, really) because that brings it to a total of 84 issues in the James Robinson Starman run, proper.

    I do also think the one off “girlfrenzy” issue of “The Mist” rightly belongs as part of the Starman run too, bringing it to 85 issues, really…

    Then there’s the four issues of Shade, and the twelve further issues of Shade, all by Robinson… 🙂

    but yes, you’re right, Starman was indeed fantastic.

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