writer: James Robinson art: Tony Harris (inks: publisher: Titan Books (hardback £29.99)
Whilst many writers must dream of working on the great iconic comic book heroes, there’s another group of storytellers who find greater stimulation – if not inspiration – from taking obscurer characters, unpicking their past adventures and reweaving them into new and intricate tapestries that reveal a quality far beyond those original encounters.
DC seems to have been the company most willing to nurture new comic writers by offering them a choice of hero who can have an independent existence, living on the fringes of the established DC Universe. As a result, it gave birth to one of the most seminal and intelligent ongoing series of the past 20 years with brits in charge of each one – Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and The Doom Patrol; Pete Milligan’s Shade, The Changing Man, and of course, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Now we can add Starman as reimagined by another Brit, James Robinson.
First introduced in 1940s, the Golden Age of DC, Starman was the chosen protector of Opal City. Ted Knight possessed the ‘gravity rod’ which granted him the power of flight. He was a member of the JSA, but always seemed to be treated as a second-rate character. Robinson has plucked him from that forgotten obscurity and brought him into the modern world. With Ted too old to don the distinctive red suit with fin-tailed helmet, his eldest son David has taken on the mantle. But he’s murdered as the series begins, leaving the youngest, Jack, to reluctantly pick up the baton (or rather, rod) and become the new Starman.
Robinson is not intent on trampling the past underfoot with his new adventures. Instead, he intelligently builds on the foundations and creates a credible, complex world for his chosen hero. He incorporates elements of the past – all the previous incarnations find a role – as well as devising a back-storyfor villains such as The Shade, as well as constructing a social history to Opal City itself, exploring its past as well as its present, and the more red-neck rural world beyond in Turk County.
Additionally there’s the binding theme of family threading most of the story lines and indeed the main groups of characters. Jack’s ongoing relationship with his father and his dead brother continually shapes him as a person and a hero (witness the ghostly encounter in the poignant “Talking With David ’95″” story), but that finds its reflections in the police duties of the O’Dare siblings and in the actions of the deadly Nash AKA ‘The Mist’ identity, driven by her desire to avenge both her dead father and brother, which is brought to prominence in the ‘Sins of the Child’ story arc.
It’s a measure of his love of the character that he can boldly tell the stories he wants whilst still paying homage to the past and to comics’ continuity. There are appearances from Ted Knight’s JSA allies, whose past actions continually overshadow Jack’s present problems, as well as villainous stints from Ragman, Dr Phosphorous and the misunderstood Solomon Grundy, who’s developed into a unique support cast member. Robinson also brings his own obsessions into the stories, making Jack Knight into his alter ego with the same passion for collectibles, history and comics. Starman, as a result, has a certain autobiographical air to it.
The quality of the stories, however, is driven equally by the consistent look of the book. Tony Harris’s (of Ex Machina) art sets the shadowy look of the book, moody and dramatic without obsessing over intricate details, and cityscapes that are both imposing guardians and silent observers. The choice of a more muted palette also helps with the collaboration of inker Wade Von Grawbadger.
With these early issues gathered together, there’s added pleasure in watching him develop his distinctly dynamic storytelling. If anything, the superheroics are only part of the equation of each story; hence, in between each story arc, there are individual stories that explore the environment which Jack lives in and indeed the various people who interact with his life. That puts the spotlight on his dandified arch nemesis too, The Shade, whose immortal wanderings find him in conversation with Oscar Wilde…
Both Robinson and Harris have worked on other popular characters such as Batman and Daredevil, and the joy of reading Starman comes from re-establishing a more minor known character without close adherence to continuity or indeed fevered fandom, and yet respecting both in a unique and original way, evolving into a superhero story with depth. Each issues adds extra layers to Knight and his cast of characters; it reads more like a novel, proving more rewarding the further you read on. Proof that monthly readings can build a momentum, nurturing plotlines that burst out many issues later. Perfect reading for anyone who enjoys superheroics with substance.