Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Starman: An Appreciation

This is nothing more than what it is: an appreciation.

An appreciation of what was, what is and what will be.

I just got done re-reading James Robinson's Starman and man, was it worth it!

I'd never realized it up until now just how amazing and good this series was. It so many things on so many levels. One, it introduced us to, of course, Jack Knight, arguably, the greatest of Starmen.

Two, it introduced us to sprawling art deco metropolis, Opal City and the very idea that in the DC Universe, the city is every bit the star as its lead character.

Until this series hit, I'd never thought of Gotham or Metropolis as having a rhythm, a pulse that drives its movement. One that its hero is keenly attuned to. I never thought of the city and its hero as intertwined. I'd never seen it as integral. Starman helped me re-discover the DC Universe.

Thirdly and most importantly, it introduced us to a concept and term we'd never thought of as a collective before:


Before Starman, few comics writers had bothered to explore the subject of "legacy." Before, if DC were to introduce a new character, the character was simply a re-branding, a way to sometimes even, re-establish copyright with little or no regard to what came before.

Before Starman, there was no such term as "The Legacy Hero."

Before Starman, the most popular exploration of legacy came from Marvel in the form of a virus.

Before that, superhero connections to their predecessors were something to be explained away with. If DC decided to create a new Firebrand, they simply were parking on the name, not the legacy. Before Starman, legacy, largely, was a thing to be damned.

With Starman, legacy wasn't something to be ignored or forgotten, it was a thing to be explored and even honored.

Under Robinson, threads were pulled together, continuity was explained and the tapestry was explored. Starman explored the idea that the hero is only as great as the obstacles put before him. From this, we saw the re-emergence of The Shade and Solomon Grundy. From these pages we were given our comics history back. As readers, we were to become this story. We were asked to visit a city, explore it and its hero's origins and explore the things it gained in the fire.

Because of Starman, we have the DCU landscape that we have today. Because of Starman, we have his spiritual predecessor, Stargirl. Because of Starman, we still have The Justice Society of America. Because of James Robinson's Starman, we were introduced to the DC Universe's master architect, Geoff Johns. Because of Starman, we explore the legacies and origins of the DCU with events such as Final Crisis.

The argument could be made that Starman, good or bad, has become the cornerstone on which the modern DC Universe has been built. Regardless of how one feels, there's little doubt that Starman was and still is, what any comic should be.



ChrisM said...

I didn't get around to reading Starman for several years after the series concluded. I still remember how sad I was when I put down the last trade and watched Jack drive off into the west to be with his kid. It was one of the most amazing character-driven actual SUPERHERO comics I had read up to that point.

Plus, Robinson's ability to fill in the characters of the JSA when they were blank slates..and even to add some moral ambiguity during the Rag Doll story (without comprising the character's integrity) really made me a believer that anything Robinson touches can't be bad.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

"Starman" as the first legacy hero? "Infinity, Inc." was an entire team of legacy heroes, and they were defined by their legacies. Their position as the successors to the Golden Age generation of heroes was the pivot of the book.

Devon Sanders said...

I never said anywhere that Starman was the first legacy hero.


What I did say that it was the first book out there that took the exploration of legacy seriously.

Anonymous said...

You know what sealed the deal for me in terms of legacies? The end of the first JSA story arc (I'm talking the James Robinson revival), when a new Dr. Fate has emerged and he's fighting Mordru. It's been revealed that Mordru will go on forever -- but -- so will the heroes, and the JSA were the original primordial heroes who started it all. Like the titans of myth, what they set into motion will continue on and on and on, through the JLA and the LSH and beyond. Nobody'd ever put it that way, but once James Robinson did ... wow.

Then James Robinson made that movie about how comic book fans suck and broke my heart.

Harvey Jerkwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harvey Jerkwater said...

I disagree -- "Infinity, Inc." took the legacy portion of itself seriously. It was a key angle of the series. I'm not saying it was a *good* series, by any stretch, but it plowed the same ground earlier and thoroughly. "Starman" took the idea in different directions, but I dispute the idea that it introduced us to the idea of the "legacy hero," or the concept of "legacy."

I think you're overstating the matter. "Starman" may have influenced the last ten or fifteen years' comics interpretation of legacy, but that's not the same thing as introducing us to the idea of legacy.

I too re-read "Starman" recently, and I came away not liking it much at all. Robinson over-identifies with Jack Knight, making him painfully close to a hipster Mary Sue. The stories are, looked at from a distance, cliched, even by comic book standards. Action is rare and, when it arrives, non-descript. And for a series so character-focused, the characters aren't developed much at all. They're all one dimensional, even Jack.

Then there's that writing tic that makes me want to hit people with a fireplace poker -- "characterization through consumer taste." A character expressing a love for Eames Chairs, Hawaiian shirts, and "Night of the Hunter" doesn't tell me a single useful thing about that character. It's not a shorthand that grants the reader sudden insight into his mind. It tells us zero about who that character is as a person.

That method assumes that we all draw the same conclusions about the significance of the objects that the author intended. "Edward is reading 'The Bell Jar!' That will indicate to everyone that he..." What? It indicates what, exactly? It could mean anything. What I take from "The Bell Jar" may not be what you do. Don't put much weight on its connotations to make me understand the character. Saints and bastards and the driven and the lazy can all love an Eames chair. So what difference does it make that Jack loves them too?

If you want to develop a character of any depth or flavor, you have to come up with that character's nature and relations with other people. Bad writers will instead produce a series of factoids and quirks and call it "characterization." "My detective is an individual because he plays ragtime piano!” That's not a character trait, that's trivia. In the case of Robinson, it's also a way to be demonstrate his taste, which is also common among bad novelists and quite annoying. It's teenager thinking. It's mall logic. It's using consumer products to create a collage to express inner life. Feh. Robinson didn't use this tool to the exclusion of others, but he used it a hell of a lot, and it's a crap tool.

The one breakthrough that "Starman" definately had was a renewed focus on fictionopolises. Gotham and Metropolis always had flavors, but seldom did they rise to the level of full settings. Robinson put Opal City front and center and left it there, and yeah, that was damn cool, and yeah, it influenced other series to expand and embrace their fake cities.

Unknown said...

Devon: Amen.

Harvey: I disagree with your take on the thematic focus of Infinity, Inc. For as much as you got "He must not know I'm the daughter of Wonder Woman!" you got a higher degree of "Look out DC! These aren't your father's Earth-2 heroes!" A higher emphasis on putting the past behind them and taking on the future on their own terms.

--and yeah, we can kinda tell that you didn't enjoy Starman much. : )

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Thinking for a minute, I do get what Devon is talking about. The entire series is about relating to the past. Opal is steeped in it, Jack is obsessed with collectibles created well before he was born, heroes and villains work in generations, the Shade is almost two centuries old, the series jumped around in time, and so forth. The degree to which the series focused on that one idea was unique.

It's an excellent idea for a series. I just found the actual comic more self-congratulatory and navel-gazing than I like. To go back to Jack's love of old stuff, yes, it was thematically appropriate. But it also veered into fetish, as though we were supposed to have a specific reaction to Jack's collecting, and that reaction was supposed to be "hey, that's cool." If you don't share that opinion, the book felt a bit off. Also, the book depended upon its characters to draw you in, and I maintain that Robinson didn't make them interesting enough to succeed.

It was so close to being excellent. There were so many good ideas in it. I wanted to like it. But it just dies on the page.

This is all just my opinion, of course.

"Starman" is a great frustration to me, so I had to pop off. (Plus, lots of coffee today.)