Hazy Cosmic Jive: DC Comics’ Starman – An Appreciation

❉ One of the best comics of the ’90s, James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman continues to stand the test of time.

DC Comics is a company of stark contrasts. While they’ve struggled to create a shared movie universe the way Marvel has, they are succeeding in television series at a level beyond even what Marvel (for all the acclaim their Netflix programming gets) has accomplished. Programmes like The Flash, with their emphasis on legacy and heritage, also point to one of the central issues their comics have had in recent years. While the “New 52” relaunch in 2011 led to some strong comics, it did so at the expense of the element that most distinguished DC from their main competitor, the sense of history and legacy.

Last year’s “Rebirth” event has attempted to reclaim some of that heritage, but the effort still seems tentative so far, especially for fans of DC’s Golden Age characters. Introduced to many readers through their annual team-ups with the modern Justice League of America (JLA), the older Justice Society of America (JSA) struck a chord even with many younger fans. Some of this was doubtless a function of their wild costumes – a version of the Flash wearing a winged helmet like Mercury, a Green Lantern with a cape and so forth – but another factor was the freedom these characters gave the writers. With rare exceptions, pressing the reset button at the end of the story was inevitable for the modern incarnations, but the older Superman could marry Lois Lane and this Batman could die heroically saving Gotham City. Even when Crisis on Infinite Earths streamlined the continuity, the Justice Society and the heirs to their legacy continued to be a vital part of the DC Universe.

Nowhere was this more rewarding than the series Starman, created by writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris. Centered around Jack Knight, who reluctantly takes over the heroic role from his father, a retired member of the Justice Society member Ted Knight, Starman was among the best ongoing comics of the 1990s and early 00s. This award-winning series wrapped up its magnificent run a little over 15 years ago and continues to stand the test of time.

One of the series’ key innovations was addressing something that confounded even the most dedicated  efforts to make superheroes multi-dimensional. For the most part, these characters just don’t have much of a life beyond their heroic endeavours. Clark Kent works with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet and Tony Stark is a titan of industry, but usually those elements serve just as background details or springboards for whatever trouble is coming to make things difficult for Superman or Iron Man.

Things are very different for Jack Knight. Being forced into the family business sets the story in motion, but it doesn’t define his character. What makes him compelling is the passion he displays in every aspect of his life. Though at first he seems to care about very little beyond the contents of his collectibles store (or junk, as his father – the now-retired Starman – often calls it), over time it becomes clear how deeply he cares for friends, family and loved ones – including the woman for whom he’ll make the boldest choice of his life.

Though it offers lots of action and guest appearances by many of the key characters in the DC Universe, the focus on those relationships and sense that events take place in a lived-in world are what truly distinguishes Starman. Attempting to summarize the series concisely really can’t do it justice, because there are so many plot threads stretching over 81 issues plus assorted specials. In addition, various “Times Past” issues throughout the run depict the backstory of this world and its characters, especially the “Golden Age” characters for whom Robinson clearly has great love. Collectively, they give the series the feel of a novel in a way that far exceeds most collected superhero comics.

During its original run, Starman always seemed to be more of a critical than popular favorite, which may be why some issues were skipped in the initial trade paperback releases. Fortunately, DC Comics released the entire series in six hardcover volumes several years ago, some of which have been reissued as paperbacks, complete with various supplemental stories and reflections on the whole saga from James Robinson. Though Robinson was aided and abetted by some terrific artists (and co-writer David Goyer on two key story-arcs), this series is really his triumph. He’s done some great work in comics before and since, including last year’s excellent ‘Star Wars’ special about C-3PO for Marvel, but this is surely the one for which he’ll be remembered.

❉ Starman has been released in omnibus collections by DC Comics, and all issues are available digitally from Comixology.

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