Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Starman: Sins of the Father - A TPB Review

This is my favorite comic in the whole world. This is the one comic that always keeps me on the edge of my seat wanting more when I reach the last page. This is the one comic that I genuinely get angry about if it isn’t there waiting in my subscription box. And, it’s also the comic that after a rather shaky beginning, turned me into a full time, card-carrying comics geek.

I’d never gotten a chance to read comics much as a kid, my mother being a librarian. Like most librarians, she held the opinion that a child is bound to go illiterate unless they are reading Dickens and Stevenson at all times. And heavens forbid that they ever be reading some of that mind-rotting garbage with all the satanic imagery and scantily clad women! So, despite being a major Superfriends fan as a kid and having the complete line of Super Powers action figures, I had a mostly superheroics free childhood, reading comics only at friends houses. I got dragged into my hobby shortly after getting work at a local bookstore. One of my duties as the newbie was upkeep of the magazines and comic books. And it was while doing that I saw it: an issue of Green Lantern. The name caught my attention and then I noticed the artwork. That was not Green Lantern on the cover. Green Lantern was a guy with brown hair and a green leotard with black tights… this guy… this guy was NOT Hal Jordan, I said the name coming back to me, clear as if I were a five year old watching Superfriends again.

My next day off I went to the local comics store and after looking around for a minute, I was checking a back issue bin. After a few minutes of digging, I found finally found something with the man who looked like what I remembered Green Lantern looking like. I also found the issues for a mini-series called "Emerald Twilight" that the clerk assured me told the whole story about how Green Lantern changed. I spent a birthday check from my grandma on that and all the other Green Lantern comics I could get.

After that, I started reading several of the books with Batman (my other childhood favorite) and began to learn about 50 years of history I’d never known from the cartoons. I learn there had been a man named Alan Scott who was Green Lantern in World War II. I learned there was a third Robin now (I was barely aware there had been a second). Still, as fascinating as I found all of this, I didn’t find anything that really gripped me enough to continue reading despite the stigma of being a twenty-something comic reader.

That changed when I found Starman. I don’t remember quite how I started subscribing to the comic (the store didn’t regularly order even one copy of the book) but I do remember when I picked up "Sins of the Father", a trade paperback covering the first five issues of the series. And reading that, I was taken in. Because in a weird way, Jack Knight is me. I don’t mean that I relate to Jack because he is young, sarcastic, artistic, and a collector with an eclectic taste all his own (which does describe me pretty well, I think). No, it’s because in Sins of the Father, Jack goes through a journey with himself where confronts and settles with a new aspect of himself.

The book opens with a view of Opal City. And Opal, like Gotham in the Batman books, is a city with a personality all it’s own. It has the modern skyscrapers in the background, but the older city itself is made up of smaller, elegant Victorian and Art-Deco designs. The whole city seems as if items from different times were thrown together in an odd grab bag. This is fitting, because the theme of things and people from different times and the unusual conflicting with the expected reoccurs throughout the series. An excellent example of this comes shortly after the view of the city, where we see David Knight. We are told that David is Starman, a title he inherited from his father not more than a week ago and that his father was the city’s protector since World War II. And no sooner are we introduced to this young man, posing majestically as he looks down upon his city, the very epitome of superheroic splendor… that he is shot from some distance away and falls to his death.

We cut to earlier that day as an argument erupts between the just slain David Knight and his younger brother Jack while they are both visiting their father, Ted Knight. The argument erupts over some items that Jack, who runs a collectibles store, wants to buy from his father. It quickly becomes clear that David is the favored son; Jacob to Jack’s Esau, as Ted tells Jack to stop bothering David because "he serves an important role now" and "has a lot on his mind right now". Jack insults both the men and leaves in a huff to go back to work at his collecting business. This is where we first get a look at Jack’s character. We learn that he is a collector of things, that he has eclectic taste and that he is very much a rebel. We also learn that he is very much an outsider in his own family and has spend most of his life just watching the life of a superhero from afar while trying to build his own life.

Three hours after leaving the observatory, Jack gets a phone call from his dad, who has just heard of David’s death. Ted says he is going to identify the body and warns Jack to be careful, telling Jack that there is a spare cosmic rod and a cosmic belt among some papers he asked Jack to hold for him. Thinking nothing of it, Jack continues on his work until a man comes to the store. The man shoots Jack, sets the store on fire, drops a timed grenade and leaves with the cosmic belt. Jack escapes the explosion that claims his shop, thanks to the flight-granting power of the spare cosmic rod.

In a brief interlude, we learn that the man who bombed Jack’s shop was working in concert with a woman who bombed Ted Knight’s observatory. The two of them, Kyle and Nash, are both children of The Mist: Ted Knight’s archenemy as Starman. In another interlude, we see a "shadowy man" eating dinner as he listens to news regarding a crime spree in Opal City. The man decides to go for a walk and see how badly his city is fairing.

When Jack gets to the hospital, he finds out that his father was injured by debris from his observatory, which was hit with a bomb. Going to visit his father, Jack finds him being guarded by three cops, who identify themselves as the O’Dares. Jack tries to talk to Ted about what happened, but Ted turns on Jack, wondering aloud how David could die and his "less-heroic son" could be spared. He accuses Jack of being a coward, afraid of the family heritage and tells Jack that he not needed.

Jack wanders into the hallway, shocked at what his father has said. He is joined by a woman; a cop named Hope O’Dare. Hope explains that the cops guarding his father are her brothers, and that their father, Billy O’Dare, was close friends with Ted when he was Starman. She and Jack don’t have much chance to talk before Jack is called back into the room to hear a phone call for Ted. It is the Mist, who tells Ted that he has taken his observatory and his sons. He continues to say that he will take everything that Ted values before finally killing him and that his next goal will be the memory of his dead wife. Apologizing for his rash words, Ted apologizes to Jack and tells him to leave town before things get worse. Jack agrees to do so and is waiting at the train station when he hears on the news that a wing of county museum is being ransacked by The Mist’s thugs. Jack realizes the wing in question is one named for his mother, who donated the money to the museum to have it built; her memory. With that thought, Jack spurs into action and uses his the cosmic rod he still has to fly to the museum and fight the thugs while a crowd looks on. Among the crowd is the Shadowy Man from before, who immediately realizes that the young man they see fighting is Jack Knight, not David. Jack is forced to flee when Kyle, the Mist’s son, arrives armed with the cosmic belt. In his escape, Jack crashes into the Opal River and loses the rod.

Returning to his apartment, Jack creates a costume of his own. He eventually selects three items. The first is a leather jacket, which has painted on the back a star encircled with astronomy/astrology symbols. The second is a pair of World War II anti-flare goggles, which he takes to protect his eyes from the light of the rod. Finally, he pins a toy Sheriff’s badge (a five pointed star) to the jacket and leaves his apartment by the roof. Soon after he is forced to fight off various thugs who were waiting for him. Among the thugs, he confronts Nash, who says that she is going to kill him because they’re father’s are enemies. Jack manages to convince her not to kill him, pointing out that she has no personal reason to do so. He escapes and rests for a moment in the shop of a fortuneteller named Charity. The two talk for a while and Charity leaves Jack with a prophecy of the future, telling him among other things that he cannot shake his destiny or his mantle as much as he may want to.

Quick aside here, but old time DC fans may recognize Charity as the host of "FORBIDDEN TALES OF DARK MANSION", a DC horror anthology from the early 70’s. I mention this because James Robinson and Starman are often compared to Neil Gaiman and his Sandman series for many reasons. Among these are their similar uses of dark humor and intelligent dialogue. But one similarity that rarely gets discussed is the obvious love they both share for old DC Horror book characters. Her appearance here is brief, but Charity went on to take a much larger role in Starman than she did in her own solo book. Gaiman did similar things with Cain and Able, the hosts of The House of Mysteries and House of Secrets books, respectively. He made them both storytellers in the dream realm ruled over by Morpheus, along with Lucien the Librarian, who was host of an even more short lived horror anthology called "Tales of the Ghost Castle" in 1975.

While Jack makes his way back to the hospital, we follow the Shadowy Man for a bit longer, watching as he confronts two thugs at the museum. Ater being threatened, the Shadowy man brings the shadows to life and shapes them into the form of a dragon, who eats the thug. He then makes a discovery amongst the rubble that he thinks Jack Knight would want to see. Later, this same man meets with The Mist. We find out that the shadowy man is The Shade, another super villain of old. The two strike a bargain that in exchange for a share of the loot from the Mist’s crime spree, The Shade will kidnap Ted Knight from his hospital bed.

Meanwhile, Jack finally reaches the hospital where Ted tells him of a warehouse where an older, larger version of his rod is stored. Jack leaves to fetch the rod, leaving Matt O’Dare to guard his father. Shortly after he leaves, The Shade enters and takes Ted with him, telling Matt to make a note that while The Shade could have easily killed him, he didn’t. When Jack returns with the cosmic staff, he recieves a phone call from The Mist, who proposes a duel between his son and Jack for the life of Ted Knight. Jack reluctantly agrees and starts preparing for the fight.

As Jack prepares, he is joined by Matt, Hope and Mason O’Dare. Hope says that she thinks Jack is being very brave to agree to do what he’s doing but Jack shrugs off the praise and insists that despite everything he has done so far, he is still not a hero. As he says this, he recalls a forgotten memory of when he was a kid and his looking at a Viewmaster reel of his father and saying that one day, he was going to be just like his father. Think about how he’s now living a life he’d wanted as a child, Jack flies off to the duel. At the same time, Nash and Kyle say farewell to each other. Nash says she’ll be so unsure of what to do if Kyle gets killed but Kyle reassures her that he’ll be okay and even promises that they can go and see a movie together like old times once the duel is done. It’s an ironic contrast that it is the children of a villain who have a closer relationship. Indeed, the Mist’s family seems to be much more stable and loving that the heroic Knight family.

As the duel in the sky goes on, The Shade appears to the O’Dares. He explains that the only reason he agreed to kidnap Ted Knight was so that he could learn the location of the Mist’s hideout, which it turns out is inside the Knight family mausoleum. The shadowy villain leads the police to the hideout and even assists in the capture of the Mist and Nash. At the same time Jack kills Kyle in the skies over Opal, impaling him on the cosmic rod and cremating his body. Meeting with the police and his father later, Jack gets a note from The Shade, saying that the two will talk another day and that Jack will receive two gifts. We see Nash get taken away, swearing revenge on Jack for what he did to Kyle and her father. Her father, we discover, went mad upon the discovery of his son’s death and is now confused and senile. Returning to Ted’s other observatory in the country, Jack and Ted discuss what they will do now. Despite still seeing superheroics as "an excuse for grown men to put their underwear on the outside of their tights", Jack agrees to act as the city’s protector on the condition that Ted start trying to find ways to use the cosmic energy for something besides weapons. We then get two brief interludes to two other heroes who called themselves Starman: one an alien imprisoned in an sideshow on Earth and the other an Earthman trapped in an alien lab.

A few days later, The Shade does visit Jack, as he works on constructing his new custom cosmic rod. After a brief discussion regarding reincarnation and the possibility of Jack’s being reincarnated from a sheriff who once defended Opal 100 years ago, Shade shows Jack the two gifts he spoke of. The first is the memorial plaque from the museum, dedicated to Jack’s mother. The second is a book; a journal belonging to Shade, who is immortal. He says that he thinks that Jack will need to know the history of the city in order to defend it properly and leaves telling Jack that he does believe he is destined for great things. Later that night, in a story tying into one of the books odder subplots, Jack is visited by a man who seeks a Hawaiian shirt that supposedly has a portal to heaven painted on the back. The final story of the trade paperback has Jack meeting his brother David in a black and white dream world. The two fight and talk, coming to terms with their lives and finally making peace with one another. The story ends with David promising to visit Jack at least once a year in this manner.

By the end of the story, I saw that Jack’s internal struggle with the idea of becoming a hero was similar to my struggle with becoming a comics fan. We were both concerned about being labeled as something clashing with our personal image because of something we were doing that might be considered childish. But by the end of the story, Jack begins to realize that there is a bit more to what he considered a childish dream when he kills a man in his capacity as a hero. Kind of like how I felt when I read my first issue of Preacher. Jack found, as I did, that one can still be the same person while adopting a new aspect to your overall personality. Jack does refer to superheroics as "Self-propagating kid stuff" and an excuse for grown men to act foolish at first, but he eventually comes to accept and even love his status as a superhero. Likewise, many older readers look upon their hobby with a shame that they are doing something childish but then they decide "Damn, but I do love it."

It’s like a wise person once said, "What’s the point of being an adult if you aren’t allowed to act childish once in a while?" But young or old, one thing is certain: the trade paperback of ‘Sins of the Father’ is a worthy edition to your comics library and well worth the $12.95 asking price and a great read.

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