Tom Recommends: Starman Volume 2

Gabbing Geek Tom Recommends v2The Legacy Hero is a longstanding DC tradition.  The idea is to take an old character name and concept and rework the character into a new character who may or may not be related to the older one.  There’s a bit less of that with the “new 52” today, but when someone opted to rework the Flash from Golden Age Jay Garrick to Silver Age Barry Allen, everything went from there.  Furthermore, when Barry met Jay, a character most of Barry’s readers would have never heard of given their age and the collectability of old comics back then, the idea of connecting these old heroes took root and hasn’t really gone anywhere since.

One of the more prolific superhero names for DC has been Starman.  Originally, Starman was Ted Knight, an astrophysicist who discovered a way to channel starlight into a small wand he called a cosmic rod (stop giggling, Watson) that allowed him to fly and do stuff with stellar energy (mostly fire energy blasts).   Starman was, like many of his contemporaries, a member of the Justice Society and disappeared when the Golden Age of comics ended.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, the various attempts to create other Starman characters wasn’t as cut-and-dried as, say, Flash or Green Lantern.  There were many Starmen, all with different abilities and few with any relationship whatsoever to Ted Knight.

Post Zero Hour, DC produced another new Starman, this one the son of Ted Knight.  Jack Knight had no desire to be a superhero.  He was into collectables and ran a small knick-knack shop out of his home town of Opal City.  Circumstances pushed him into superheroing, and he probably became the single most memorable Starman of them all.

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That period for DC was a little noteworthy in that DC had three regular series that were run as long as the original creators wanted them to.  Writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake were handling The Spectre, one of my all-time favorite series.  Writer Garth Ennis and artist John McCrea were doing Hitman, the most successful of the “Bloodlines” heroes.  And finally, writer James Robinson was handling Starman, originally with artist Tony Harris, and finishing up with Peter Snejbjerg.  All three of these series showed the creators working ideas that may not have flown in a more mainstream book.  The Spectre took a Golden Age hero and decided to see what made a nearly all-powerful being tick, while often being highly philosophical and theological.  Hitman was something of a ground’s eye view of the DCU, written by a man who didn’t care much for superheroes and their tropes and didn’t have much of a problem showing them acting stupid in the rare instances when they showed up (except for Superman, a character Ennis actually liked a lot and was treated with a great deal of reverence in his guest appearance).

But Starman was a different animal altogether.  Jack Knight became Starman very reluctantly.  The younger of two brothers, when the Justice Society was aged up to something closer to their actual age in Zero Hour, Ted Knight asked one of his sons to take on the name and protect their hometown of Opal City.  Older brother David agreed immediately while younger brother Jack said he thought superheroics was pretty silly.

Then Ted’s archnemesis the Mist came back into town and David was killed on the third page of Starman #1.  The Mist, with two adult kids of his own, was going on a revenge scheme, despite the fact the old villain seemed to be a bit senile himself.  After killing David and taking his cosmic rod, there were attacks on both Ted’s observatory/laboratory and Jack’s collectables shop.  Jack barely escaped with his life and made a deal with his dad to be the new Starman on his own terms.

To start, he went with a different version of the cosmic rod.  Ted’s, and by extension David’s, was a small, handheld wand.  Jack picked up a prototype version, taller than he was, with a bit less of a smooth design than the classic rod.  He also refused to wear his dad’s old costume, or any costume at all, really.  Jack picked up a leather jacket from his surviving merchandise with a star on the back to stay warm while flying, a pair of goggles to protect his eyes, and added a star-shaped badge to his jacket and he was done.  Everything else he wore was his regular street clothes.

He also made his father promise to use his knowledge of cosmic energy to try and make the world a better place with alternative energy sources, something Jack felt his father could have been doing all along.

With that, Jack went out, killed the Mist’s son (and his brother’s killer), had the Mist locked up, and gained his first archenemy when the Mist’s daughter swore revenge.

After that initial storyarc, Jack had the first of an annual Starman tradition, the “Talking with David” issue where Jack would meet his dead brother’s ghost once a year and the two would bond in ways they never did when David was alive.  Those were usually sweet issues.

What made Starman different?  I wouldn’t call it the best series ever, but it was very good.  There was basically a different approach to the material than most readers would have been used to.  The best explanation I can make is a comment I used to make back then to encourage new readers.  I would say that The Flash was the story of the Flash, who happened to be Wally West, while Starman was the story of Jack Knight, who happened to be Starman.

To better illustrate this, one of the things that came up during this period was that Ted Knight had had an extramarital affair briefly with the Golden Age Black Canary.  Jack’s reaction in the pages of Starman was quiet disbelief and disappointment, but he ultimately forgave his dad.  Flash writer Mark Waid, writing JLA Year One, showed the Silver/Modern Age Black Canary, the Golden Age Canary’s daughter, having a much more over the top, and almost comical, reaction to learning this bit of her mother’s past.  The difference was notable and showed just how different the two writers’ approach to superhero writing could be.

Jack’s personality, modeled somewhat after writer James Robinson’s own (Robinson’s collectables interests worked their way into the book rather frequently), meant Jack didn’t often try to solve problems the tradition superhero way.  Jack often saved the day nonviolently when he could.  One issue had a bounty hunter breaking into Jack’s shop to steal a magical shirt.  After a short fight, Jack realizes he can just haggle with the guy and sell him the shirt.  He doesn’t see any reason not to, and the two come to an agreement on the price and the bounty hunter buys the shirt and leaves.  When Jack had the opportunity to meet one of his dad’s old JSA teammates, Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodd, possibly the “first” superhero in the DCU at that time, Jack doesn’t gush over meeting Dodd, but rather Dodd’s longtime love interest Dian Belmont, a famous author and early feminist (she and Dodd never married but had a very modern relationship despite the two meeting in the 30s).  Jack would end up befriending two longtime DC villains, the immortal Shade, who became something of an antihero, and a briefly benevolent Solomon Grundy, as well as a superstrong bank robber named Bobo Benetti who had as much use for costumes and codenames as Jack did.  Jack could fight when he had to, but preferred not to.

Robinson made the series different in other ways as well.  One was the occasional “Times Past” issue, where he would go back in time in Opal City’s history and show some history that would be relevant to future storylines, while providing character growth for whichever characters were being used in the flashback.

Finally, the choice for artists went a long way to establishing mood.  Harris gave the book a very art deco style.  Action scenes weren’t always his strong point, but the look of the book was important.  Opal City was being characterized as a location every bit as important as Gotham is to Batman and Metropolis is to Superman.  The difference was probably at its most striking during a Power of Shazam crossover, when a trip to Captain Marvel’s book in a more standard artistic style really set off how different the look of Starman was.

Combining all this with colorful supporting characters, Robinson even went so far as to make the book about every previous Starman there was, even a short-lived alien one from the 70s.  All the different Starmen got involved at one point in time or another, including ones that appeared to be dead.  Jack ended up with another Starman’s sister at the end of the series.

One thing Starman had in common with the other two series mentioned above was how the series ended.  All three ended in a way that basically was the end of the main character’s story, in a way that was appropriate for the series itself.  I won’t say what happened to Jack, but it was a good ending for him, and one that stuck since despite the fact it would be easy to bring him back, to date no one has.

That may be the best sign of how good this series was.  No one wants to mess with it now.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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