Flashback Friday: Robinson’s Starman: The Unrepentant Collector
As comic fans, we often share a similar, repetitive request when people we meet find out about our fandom: “What comics would you recommend?”. Whenever someone asks me this question I invariably respond with the standards–Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, March, and so on. Of course the conversation eventually steers towards superheroes, and I’ll spotlight Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and more of that great–yet gloomy–work.
But for those close friends of mine, those with refined eyes and a discerning taste, the superhero comic I always endorse is James Robinson’s Starman. Brilliantly embellished by Tony Harris at first, and then suitably replaced by Peter Snejbjerg, this series succeeds on many levels: bringing heart to each character, big and small, hero and villain, person and place; it also adds intricacies for the intellect, with a story that unfolds in more and more complexity–never sacrificing clarity, though–and reveals itself as a Russian doll, full of more secrets with each new doll opened.
But that doesn’t even touch on the best serving that Starman brings to the table: a heaping helping of pure geekery. This is possibly most notable when considering the plot of the series as a whole: one that pays tribute to the decades of DC history and it’s most popular characters plus a few of its most unsung ones; one that uses time travel mixed with that continuity to tie together loose ends; one that jumps across worlds in the solar system the way Star Trek does; one that tries different narrative techniques with each new arc; and even one that uses history, architecture, art, and more to bring Opal City and its citizens to life. This attention to detail betrays the obsessive nature of most geeks, myself included.
Now, comics have always been closely connected to geek culture, but Starman brings that connection to a new level, to a perfect degree of alignment with both geek culture and its bastard offspring–collecting culture. After all, Jack Knight, the titular hero, is a pawn shop owner, highlighting for the reader a collector’s mindset that’s touched on in many places through this saga. Robinson’s focus on collectors and their mindset happens most prominently in Jack Knight’s moments of narration, which sometimes seem like the stream of consciousness inhabiting a collector’s daydreams.
To make collecting even more important, Robinson even creates a story arc about a demon that lives in a Hawaiian shirt, one of the world’s most dangerously collectible items. And, as a geek and collector myself, perhaps that’s why I can’t sell these comics, why I continue to reread them, even when I’ve purged most of my superhero comics over the last few years to make extra space and money (being a teacher and a self-publisher doesn’t really earn me the big bucks).
My geek and collecting origin probably shares many similarities with many of you, dear readers. Before I even got into comics, I was a nerd. *Note* I tend to separate geeks and nerds this way: nerds are in love with academic knowledge whereas a geek is in love, actually obsessed, with a certain subculture that isn’t as valued.* Comics are seeing increased value, yes, because of their success on the big screen, but most Americans value STEM byproducts more than artistic showcases. I realize this distinction is mainly something I’ve created, not found in a dictionary, but it’s helped me view the world with greater perception, something that typically is a hallmark of both nerds and geeks (well, except for in the one area we tend to lack perception, leading to that other hallmark of these special clans: poorer social skills, less social awareness and limited social perception).
To give birth to a nerd, my parents dropped workbooks full of math and reading practice in my room every summer that I was in elementary school; to make those summers even more fun, they’d sign me up for enrichment summer school courses. During the school year, my mom even volunteered herself (and me!) for the school’s before-school book club, a memory that remains dear to me. I can’t remember if I fought against this book club at first, but if you’re a gambler, the odds would favor placing a bet on “No–young CJ immediately embraced this opportunity”.
This love of words was fostered by my older brother into a love of certain geeky genres, ones that paved the way for my later geeky travels into comics: I had discovered fantasy and it’s inextricable cousin, science-fiction. My older brother had voraciously consumed the Redwall series (almost like he was eaten one of the many mouth-watering feasts described in each tome), leading me to test those waters. I was soon diving in, and not just with other Redwall books. In elementary school–after exploring Mossflower, Salamandastron and other unknown lands until they were known–I ported to another series, as a third grader easing myself into The Lord of the Rings with The Hobbit; I wouldn’t finish The Lord of the Rings until I was in fifth grade after two years of off-and-on reading.
But I didn’t lose myself in fantasy only: I loved Star Wars, even reading books set in the universe that have since been jettisoned from the Star Wars canon. That doesn’t say much uniquely about me, of course, but it led me to other science fiction stories that were more my speed at the time, like the My Teacher is an Alien series (don’t ask me why I, a self-professed nerd, loved a book that played to most children’s judgement of and disgust towards teachers; I must have just been so sucked into another world that I didn’t think about the intended audience of that series or its satirical implications towards education).
In the midst of this geeky perfect storm, my parents did the one thing that would thrust me deeper into the ocean of geeks, a move that would end up washing me onto the shore of comic collecting–bear with me, we’re slowly getting back to Starman. Toward the end of elementary school, they gave me a box set of 25 X-Men comics, a move that sparked my lifelong love of comics, and a move that possibly burned down other potential interests, along with a move that possibly postponed my first girlfriend.
Soon I was having my parents chauffeur me to comic stores (one time, I convinced them to take my step-brother and me to a store that was about an hour away, since its collection was more thorough than a nearby store. My parents regretted agreeing to this the moment our car sputtered to a stop. Luckily–for me anyway–another family member drove out to pick us up and finish the journey, my dad and step-mom waiting at the car for AAA or some other highway help). About once a month–or twice if I was really lucky–I’d walk by racks of comics, pointer finger pilfering through bagged and boarded back issues, calculations running in my head about what the best deals were, what stories I needed to have told to me and what stories I could live without.
I even started forming lists, the most valuable tool in a collector’s arsenal. Sometimes my lists were comprehensive: a notebook contained every issue title and number that I owned, separated by the boxes they were stored in. Sometimes they were looser, more directed by others: at the back of many trade paperbacks, publishing companies had lists of the most important storylines to collect. In the back of Spider-Man: The Alien Costume Saga, I checked the books I had (actually marking the book, something I shortly stopped doing as a collector, only starting again to annotate texts I read for college or to teach to my high school students–but I still never started annotating graphic novels again, just traditional texts). When I was done checking those books I owned, I stared at the ones I didn’t, as if that alone would put them in my possession.
It took me about a decade to reach the summit of my comic collecting, a weekly Wednesday trip to the comic shop when I was in college (by this point, I’d already read Starman, and Jack’s unrepentant passion towards pawnbroking had spread to me, costing me far too much money, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t change). I even bought what could be called a Comic Collector’s Bible, the Sling and Arrows Comic Guide. That brought a whole new level to my comic collecting: the global world of comics, little explored by me before except with Lone Wolf and Cub, became my new obsession.
I discovered Blueberry for the first time, collecting the long out-of-print 80s translations, so valuable because they let Moebius’s artwork shine in its colorful glory, unlike other more recent, black-and-white reprintings.
And after that, I traveled with Tintin, gloried with the Gauls in Asterix, and many more (yeah–these aren’t really underground global comics, but they seemed that way to my limited experience). If you still want to look down on me with the same snobbish collector’s smirk I give others–a smirk in all our toolbelts, I’m sure–feel free).
So, why did a mere comic help condone my collector behavior so much that it multiplied it tenfold? Why was it the first comic to pop into my head when I decided I wanted to write a Flashback Friday? And why do I have some anxiety about my copies of the comic, currently lent to a friend, an anxiety that will only be alleviated when I have all volumes of Starman returned to me? Well, the answer to the last question has something to do with the quality of the comic, but it probably has more to do with the collector’s mindset and anxiety I have, one that wants to control the world through items, through comics in my possession. The answers to the other two questions, though, all have to do with the quality of the comic, a quality that hasn’t reduced on any re-reading.
Part of Starman’s impact on me stems from Robinson’s love of DC’s continuity: at that point, I’d never done a deep dive into DC comics, staying in the shallow end of the pool, populated by Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, and the other A-listers. I’d never before cared about the Shade, Solomon Grundy, the Sandman (although I liked Neil Gaimain’s Morpheus), and–most central to my argument–I didn’t care about the original Starman. If anything, I just thought he was goofy, but other than the few times I’d thought that, I just didn’t think about Starman at all.
This changed because Robinson’s love of continuity–in addition to helping him create a more complex, intertwined plot and set of secrets–made me care about all of these characters, and not just the “current” incarnation. I loved the Shade who was cultured, who had a relationship with Hope O’Dare, who had a moral code all his own that didn’t always make him a superhero. But that code didn’t always make him a supervillain either. And this ambiguity made me even more curious about his earlier appearances, ones that showed only the typical, one-dimensional bad guy. Perhaps knowing that would be most reader’s reactions, Robinson made that mystery a slow-burning, central plot point, one that would blow up in the magnificent The Grand Guignol storyline.
I’m saying that every single connection to larger DC continuity shines. As much as I love Captain Marvel, the story arc involving him doesn’t seem to further much of the plot or reveal much in terms of character. But that misfire is worth it for the all the dead on shots taken throughout the rest of the series, especially Jack’s adventure with the original Sandman (and if you haven’t read Sandman Mystery Theatre, check that out after Starman!)
Similar to how Robinson’s Shade pushed me into past versions of the character, Robinson’s relatable, atypical portrayal of Jack as a reluctant superhero who had a punkish attitude, made me care even more about Jack–and through extension, his dad, the original Starman. But, before I elaborate on his dad, there’s one more point about Jack that bears mentioning in more depth.
As described earlier, part of the appeal of Jack is the running stream of collector’s consciousness he displays the whole series.
This is perhaps seen most prominently, because of contrast with the other characters’ also offering narration, in “Sins of the Past”. In this arc, Robinson starts each chapter by returning to the beginning events of that arc but with a new narrator, building characters and conflict to a level that creates more sympathy and suspense.
This is a big reason I fell in love with Jack as a character (and the others), but he’s not a one-note character, only about collecting. In fact, Jack experiences tremendous growth in the series, like his resolve to never take another life after he’s haunted by a murder–done in self-defense–haunted by his own conscience and by the consequences thrust on him by those close to the person he killed. Other than that character growth, Jack experiences a realistic romance full of ups and downs, one that is part of the realistic closure mentioned earlier. Finally, one of the biggest ways Jack grows is in his relationship with his dad, one that started off with distant antagonism and ends with close compassion.
And speaking of the original Starman, the more Robinson peppered in past exploits of Ted Knight, the original Starman, the more I researched his past appearances. And that led to another mystery: the one featuring Ted’s retirement and the Starman right after Ted, an unknown Starman only revealed in the final volume of the series–if the reveal of Shade’s secret in The Grand Guignol was earth-shattering, the reveal of this Starman’s identity was out of this world, much like the previous journey to help the space-borne Starman!
This last revelation, though, was made even more impactful because of the time-traveling element that allowed Jack to peer behind the scenes–Robinson always excelled at making Jack and characterization the central element, even more important than the intricate plot. Jack got some answers, but he also found some closure on another note, seemingly unrelated, just like we did as readers. And I dare you to name many superhero stories that actually end with closure instead of a return to the status quo, a return that prevents true character growth and thematic completion.
Not only were these plot points so intricate as to be worthy of rereading–justifying the need to collect Starman a little more, so we don’t have to get it at the library or pirate it–the style they were told in was revolutionary for superhero comics of the time. Most of my focus this whole essay has been on Robinson’s strong writing (and I’ll be the first to admit that he doesn’t always equal this caliber; Justice League: Cry for Justice, I’m looking at you). But focusing so much on Robinson’s writing is truly a disservice to the strong artists in this series, one I’ll try to rectify, but I might not be able to, since–as a writer–I’m better equipped to talk about other writers. Still I’ll give it a try…
Having such a dense, fully outlined, years-long plot is often standard in today’s comics, but a 70ish issue superhero story in Robinson’s time was almost unheard of. And Robinson–accompanied ably by Harris and Snejbjerg–brought a mature sense of storytelling rarely seen in superhero comics, then and now.
Anyone familiar with Harris’s work will see that he brings more of the same, but different enough to keep our interest (the fine balance every artist walks to gain and keep audience approval).
His trademark tableus, sometimes reminiscent of J.H. Williams III, are still there, offering variety past the only-linear, strongly similar to storyboards-style dominant in so many comics.
But when he needs to get traditional, he can–shining more, though, because of the strong shading, level of detail, and color pallette that typifies his work.
As much as I love Snejbjerg, it’s a shame Harris couldn’t finish the series, although he stays on for covers, offering some more creative consistency, a creative consistency often lacking in most modern, factory-model comics (and I love DC and Marvel, so I’m not trying to say that approach is bad: it just limits singularity of vision).
Snejbjerg took over from Harris about halfway through the series, offering a distinctly different artistic voice that would seem to clash with Harris’s. Snejbjerg has more linear storytelling, sometimes adapting the storyboard approach, but he still maintains some tableaus (albeit in his own style) to offer variety and some consistency with Harris. Moreover, he elevates the more traditional linear storytelling with a crisp line–more reminiscent of the European clean, clear line approach (ligne claire) than the hyper kinetic, overly detailed art done by Marvel and DC. This clean line makes the story feel more mythic, which is what a superhero story should feel like (even though Starman is also grounded in reality through its complex characters). It’s no surprise that Snejbjerg has worked on other mythic masterpieces, like Vertigo’s Lucifer and The Unwritten. Another byproduct of this mythic, clean line is that it makes the characters more relatable, something that is consistent with Harris’s approach and Robinson’s vision.
I could keep going on, but you’re starting to get the picture. It’s not like I have a magnum opus critique for Starman; Robinson plotted out a magnum opus, and that’s good enough for me. But–like any collector–if you feel the need to dig into more nooks and crannies, looking for that hidden treasure of a tidbit that will make you appreciate this work on an even deeper level, there are plenty of places you can go to. Tell them Jack sent you.