Starman Omnibus, Volume One. By James Robinson, Tony Harris, and Wade Von Grawbadger
If you went to a comic book store during 1994 and scanned the new release racks, you could probably be forgiven if you passed by STARMAN. It was a quiet title hidden among the others, like SPAWN, BATMAN, or the five hundred or so X-MEN titles that were around back then. The mid-90s were a strange time for mainstream superhero comics – the genre was desperate to shed their “comics are for kids” image, so in a case of classic overcompensation, superheroes had more claws, spikes, chains, and oversized plasma rifles than any time before or since. (Most covers of the time feature someone either shouting or grimacing.) STARMAN, however, was different. Writer James Robinson and artists James Harris and Wade Von Grawbadger reinvented a unremarkable B-list superhero from the WWII era and not only modernized the concept, but really paved the way to a different kind of storytelling – one that seems altogether modern to our eyes twenty years later. Jack Knight did not look like any of those superheroes with spikes or chains. First off, he wore no costume – no armor, no spandex. He often wore a Hawaiian shirt, slicked back hair, motorcycle boots, steampunk goggles, and a sheriff’s star on a knee-length leather jacket. Oh, and he was heavily tattooed, too. The son of the original Starman who reluctantly took up his father’s mantle – and after making his brilliant-but-aging inventor father promise to use his technological expertise for the public good rather than fighting bad guys in alleyways after dark – Jack had a life outside of superheroics. Perhaps in a nod to a comic-book industry that was obsessed with the past (outgrowing the “kid stuff” stereotype I mentioned earlier) Jack was a professional collector, with his own antique store full of kitsch and memorabilia, and who saw protecting the city as more of an important side job. Balancing his life and responsibilities as a hero was a main theme of the series – again, this was a modern take, as opposed to pretty much any other comic at the time. Wolverine or Cable never had to haggle over the sale of new merchandise for their store or pick up their shirts from the laundry.
Instead of playing second or third fiddle in super-hero rich cities, Robinson and Harris set their story far away from the rest of the superhero world in Opal City. I’ve always felt that one of DC’s most charming quirks is their fictional cities, as they allow the creators to give their world personality and flair. Like the decaying yet towering Gotham or the ultra-modern, gleaming cityscape of Metropolis - both help in the telling of their stories and, in their own way, interact with the hero who protects them. No one took advantage of this like the creators of STARMAN, who breathed life into Opal City. They created a place filled with colorful Art Deco towers and buildings, infusing them with a personality all their own. Tony Harris in particular spent huge amounts of real estate on the page focusing on scenery, lovingly depicting streets and cafes that felt lived-in, vibrant, and essential to the story.
Starman himself was rarely involved with the world-spanning crossover crisis of the moment. You rarely saw him pulled in with the Justice League or the Teen Titans, bringing down Lex Luthor or stopping an alien invasion.
THE STORIES IN STARMAN WERE QUIET, PERSONAL, AND ABOVE ALL, LOCAL
When crossovers did happen – a later volume of the series has a great arc with the first DC superhero, the octogenarian Wesley Dodds version of Sandman, for example – it was always in service of the mood and feel that made STARMAN unique. (Oh, don’t worry, there were supervillains. And adventure. And fight scenes. This was a non-Vertigo DC comic in the 1990s, after all. Villains were more apt to be in sharply-tailored suits or be ghost pirates though. And yes, you read that right: ghost pirates. Don’t you want to read this now?)
STARMAN managed to stick around for a good run, lasting for about eighty issues before it ended. The series can now be found in graphic novel format, or, if your local library can get a hold of them for you, a half-dozen or so beautifully-bound hardcovers. The series won some awards, but it was more “critically-noticed” than “critically-acclaimed,” however I’ll argue that STARMAN was more influential than successful. It was one of those series that heavily influenced writers and artists who came after it. A quieter, more personal, less traditional superhero tone fit the 2000s and 2010s far more than the 1990s.
Robinson went on to other things and is still active in the industry, although his work has never matched his height here. Tony Harris freelances everywhere and you can catch more of his unique photorealistic style with DC’s EX MACHINA.
So pick up a back issue or check out a graphic novel of STARMAN. And tell me what you think.