Columnists Joe and Kevin take you through the experience of learning to read comic books. Each week they alternate as Joe (the teacher) explains why he picked a specific book, and Kevin (the student) gives his impressions.
Inherent to superhero comics, especially the ones we’ve read so far, is the sheer fantasy of it. We’re talking, after all, about men in tights flying around the city, aided by magic or science so astounding it might as well be magic. Even Batman, whose universe is much more grounded in reality, pulls off feats so unimaginable the fact that he’s not from Krypton hardly even matters.
Comic books generally address their fantastical natures by not addressing them, sidestepping questions of how anything on their pages could actually happen by pretending it’s the most natural thing in the world. Sure, the occasional non-super person might look on with amazement as the caped hero zooms by, but rarely do they ever stop to wonder about the mechanics of it all. In the world of the supermen, “how” is a question that’s almost never asked.
One of the ways comics keep their world distinct from ours (thus eliminating some of the need for those pesky explanations) is with fictitious settings. There’s no Gotham City in our world—not one with a guy in a bat suit running around, anyway—nor is there a Metropolis where you can find The Daily Planet (although you can find The Metropolis Planet, which I guess is close enough). And even when Marvel drops Spiderman or The X-Men into New York, it’s hardly our New York, even if there are some familiar landmarks.
And yet the cities, even the real ones, tend to be little more than backdrops. Sure, everyone knows Batman does his fighting in Gotham City and that Superman protects and works in Metropolis, but there’s not a lot of character to these cities. The hero is the face of the city, the only reason for its existence. Despite how tethered to the city the hero seems to be, his adventures could pretty much happen anywhere. Metropolis and Gotham are essentially interchangeable.
But not Opal City.
Starman’s city is every bit as fictional as anything else in the DC universe, and yet it’s the only city that feels real. It has a history and a culture; its French emigrants brought an appreciation of art and fine coffee. It has been visited by Oscar Wilde. There’s an old section of town—the alleys—an undercity with more character than we’ve seen anywhere else in DC’s version of America. With or without a hero, Opal City exists, thrives, lives.
I bring this up because Starman is as much about the story and legacy of Starman as it is about Opal City. And this goes a long way to making Starman the kind of story you really want to read. The second trade book is comprised entirely of journal entries by The Shade, a mysterious, immortal, longtime resident of Opal City who has played both sides of good and evil and seems to have nothing but love for his city at his very core. He discusses in detail the various heroes who have at one point or another been called “Starman,” including Ted Knight, the “original” Starman and the current hero’s father. But more on that in a minute.
Starman is one of the rare comics to ask “how.” Not just “How did Ted Knight get his powers and become Starman?” Every comic book has that origin story. Starman asks the questions other books rarely even acknowledge: How does a hero live and continue fighting for decades? How does cooperation with the police work? How do the heroes and villains coexist in a world full of superpowered people? These aren’t necessarily questions critical to enjoying comics, but they are interesting ones, and Starman’s answers are actually important to the story.
As Joe wrote about last week, he gave me the first five trades. The first book is the “beginning” of our story—specifically the story of how Jack Knight took up the Starman mantle from his father after his brother’s death—but even that’s misleading, because there are so many more stories being told. I was fascinated by the second book; putting a book like this second seems like it would take the wind out of Jack’s story, but it only underscores that Starman is only partly the story of Starman. There’s so much more at stake.
The reason Opal City is so critical to Starman is because the writers want to get at what it means to love and read comics. Jack is a collector, a “junk dealer” by day, who sells vintage collectibles, kitschy novelties, and, yes, comic books. (One wonders what kind of comic books exist in a world where superheroes and villains are everyday life, but I suppose that’s not really the point.) Starman explores not just what it would be like to live in such a world but to really be a part of it, to observe and interact and document it.
Starman achieves this through Jack’s running internal monologue, which carries us from scene to scene and helps illustrate his evolving sense of his work. When Jack reluctantly becomes Starman, eschewing the red-and-green tights for a jacket and steampunk goggles, we learn as much from his thoughts as we do the action on the page. While the action scenes are more conventional comic fare, with one-line zingers and dramatic declarations from villains (because this is how people talk in the DC universe), Jack’s thoughts are more typical. “What am I doing here?”
My favorite story was “13 Years Ago: Five Friends,” wherein a no-name minor villain named Ragdoll, defeated repeatedly over the decades and now old and near death, becomes a cult figure and a madman, leading his acolytes on a rampaging crime spree over Opal City. The story is dark, far darker than anything else in the book, and illustrates a turning point from the halcyon days where heroes foiled bank robbers and turned them over to the police. In “Five Friends,” the heroes struggle to make the adjustment from bad guys to psychopaths capable of murder, and there’s a poignant scene before the action when they reflect on days gone by, knowing they were about to leave behind a world much colder and more violent than the one they once served.
I think what I’m ultimately taking away from Starman is that it’s a comic book about comic books. (This is something that could pretty much only exist in the ironic, meta-heavy 1990s.) Although Starman exists in the same universe as Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern, there’s a something so real about it, which gives readers like me a glimpse at how absorbing the world of heroes and villains can be. It’s fantasy, but it’s also about how important it can be to believe in that fantasy, long after the last panel has ended.
What I Liked:
- Starman is most notable for its writing, which Joe lauded last week. When I wrote about The Death Of Superman, I noted how stilted the writing was and wondered whether it was fairly typical of comic books in general. Based on the few DC books I’ve read, I think there are traces of that writing even in Starman, but the overall structure of the story, with actual narrative arcs and clever use of characters and pacing, makes it stand out.
- There are so many small details to love: I wasn’t sure at first whether The Shade could be trusted (I’m still not sure), but he becomes such a terrific peripheral character I couldn’t imagine the story without him. And the flashback stories are great, even when a coked out Mikaal fights the only other survivor of his race in a disco. (Honestly, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.)
What I Didn’t Like:
- If I have one complaint, it’s that while the writing is so much more advanced, the art varied wildly. Some stories, like “Talking With David, ’95,” make interesting use of color and shadow and take full advantage of the page. But then there’s something like “A (K)night At The Circus” where the characters look downright ugly. Granted, it takes place at a freak show, but even Jack makes contorted, bizarre faces that make him look more like one of the freaks than himself. (Maybe that was the point, but this is hardly the only story where this happens.)
- Related to the art, some of the fight scenes were less than fluid, which made it difficult sometimes to figure out what was happening from panel to panel. I didn’t find this to be the case with any of the other books I’ve read.
Odds & Ends:
- The short scene about the Prairie Witch was outstanding, where Ted Knight, curious to see how she got her broom to fly, discovers that it’s just a regular broom after all, and the Witch is hauled away, laughing maniacally. Sometimes asking “how” yields more questions and no answers.
- OK, the fight at the disco was pretty ridiculous, but it’s saved by a great Bowie reference.
This was a really tough article to write, and not just because I lost a lot of time thanks to power outages. There was a lot I wanted to say, and I hope I conveyed at least that Starman is well worth your time to read and consider. And even though we’re going to take some time off before coming back to this project, I plan to keep reading in the meantime—with Joe’s help, of course—and thinking about what kind of comics I love. Starman is definitely one of them.
Coming Up: Comic Book Logic is going on a hiatus for the rest of the summer, but will be back later this year. In the meantime, check out the rest of the site!
You can also hear Joe and Kevin on their podcast.