Sunday, January 20, 2008

Looking To The Stars: Sins of the Fathers

It all happens to us comic enthusiasts. Something happens to make us angry at one comic company or another. The editor is an power-mad imbecile. The artist has the same grasp of human anatomy as your average four-year-old does of advanced physics. The writer is a tired old hack who was doing his best work twenty years ago. And before you know it, it just happens; we get burned out on comics.

Some storm out of the hobby in a blast of fury and vow to leave the funny books behind. Some embark on a crusade - however small - to protest what they perceive as a problem. But most, I find, choose to focus upon those books which they continue to enjoy after several readings. The ones that they can continue to read without having their enjoyment spoiled by whatever is going on in the comics being written today.

In my case, this comic is James Robinson and Tony Harris' Starman. And with the first in a series of Starman Omnibuses on the way in May, this seems as good a time as any for me to look back upon the first major story-arc of that classic series; Sins of the Fathers.


I was introduced to Starman at a critical point in my life as a comic fan. Despite having been a fan of the Superfriends cartoons and having the complete collection of Super Powers action figures, I didn't get a lot of exposure to comics until college. And even though I was quickly hooked by Ron Marz's Green Lantern (if only to find out who this new guy in the weird costume was), it wasn't until Starman that I really stopped being ashamed of the hobby.

Oh, I know better now. I know that there's a host of intellectual, artistic and informative graphic novels that go beyond the "kid stuff" that most people think of when they hear the words "comic book". I sing the praises of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Brian K. Vaughan loudly to any one who asks why the library should be spending money on "Superhero Stuff" like V For Vendetta, The Sandman or Ex Machina. But back then, I hadn't been exposed to all of that fine work. All I knew was that I really enjoyed stories about people with super-powers and that as well written as Grant Morrison's Justice League was, it was all but impossible to convince most of my friends that there was something deeper behind the pictures.

That changed with Starman.

Ironically, I was introduced to Starman by one of my few fellow comic-reading friends. He wasn't a fan of it but he said I'd probably like it because "This Jack guy sounds like you." It was an apt comparison. Jack Knight, the central character of Starman, does have a lot in common with me. He is opinionated. He is sarcastic and witty. He has a tendency to mouth off without thinking. He doesn't suffer fools well. He is creative but has a lot of trouble with the actual act of creating. And he is a collector of many eclectic things. And while this common bond with who Jack is may have brought me into this series, it is who Jack becomes that kept me reading and - in a small way - shaped the man I am today.


The story opens with a view of Opal City. Opal, like Gotham in the Batman books, is a city with a personality all it’s own. It has 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 into a child's collage. This is fitting, because the theme of things and people from different times and the unusual conflicting with the expected reoccurs throughout the series. The whole book is truly ironic.

An excellent example of this intrinsic dramatic irony comes shortly after the first view of the city, when 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 had been the city’s superheroic protector since World War II. And no sooner are we introduced to this young man, posing majestically in his tights and cape as he looks down upon his city - the very epitome of superheroic splendor... he is shot by a sniper's bullet 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 brother. 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 mouths off, thoughtlessly insulting both his father and brother before leaving in a huff to go back to work. This is where we first get a look at Jack’s character. We learn through a brief montage that he is a collector of many things, that he has eclectic tastes 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 apart from his father's work and legacy.

Three hours after leaving the observatory, Jack gets a phone call from his dad, who has just learned 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 (devices that gave him his powers as Starman) among some papers he asked Jack to hold for him. Thinking nothing of it, Jack continues with his work until a man comes to the store. The man shoots Jack, sets the store on fire, drops a bomb with a timer and leaves with the Cosmic Belt. Jack escapes the explosion that claims his shop, thanks to the power of flight granted by the 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 criminals, Kyle and Nash respectively, are both children of The Mist: Ted Knight’s arch-enemy 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 shadowy 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 also bombed. 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 there.

Jack wanders into the hallway, shocked at what his father has said. He is joined by a woman; another cop it turns out, 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 (though Jack still manages to instantly annoy her with his sarcastic humor) 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 before going on 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 tells Jack 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 that led to the museum being 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 fights the thugs trashing the museum while a crowd looks on. Among the crowd is The Shadowy Man from before, who immediately realizes that the young man they see fighting the criminals 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 crash-lands 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.

As he flees across the rooftops, Jack fights off various thugs who were waiting for him. Among the thugs, he confronts Nash, who says that she is going to kill him because their fathers 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 fortune-teller 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 father's mantle, as much as he may want to.

While Jack makes his way back to the hospital, we follow The Shadowy Man for a bit longer, watching as he confronts two thugs who lagged behind at the museum to loot rather than destroy. The Shadowy Man muses aloud as to whether he should join in the looting or stop the thugs so that the masses may enjoy the art they are stealing. After being threatened with a gun by one of the thugs, 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, The Shadowy Mans meets with The Mist and we find out that The Shadowy Man is The Shade - another super villain of DC Comics' Golden Age. 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 Cosmic 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 rod (more properly a cosmic staff for its' size), 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.

Thinking 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. Here we see more of the irony that permeates Starman as a series. The family of villains (whose surname we never do learn) appear to be a more normal, healthy and traditional nuclear family than the nominally heroic and very dysfunctional Knights.

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. The irony continues as we find that The Shade, in defiance of the paradigm that comic-book super-villains are completely without scruples, has a very complex personal code of honor and that a large part of it is that he does not commit crimes in "his" town nor will he allow overly destructive crimes to occur.

Jack kills Kyle in the skies over Opal, impaling him on the Cosmic Rod and cremating his body instantly. 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 also 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 he discovered 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 traped in an alien lab.

A few days later, The Shade does visit Jack, as Jack is in the middle of constructing a 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?"

I made these observations once - what seems like a lifetime ago - back when Starman was still being published on a monthly basis and I was still a writer for the late and much-missed Fanzing. In the same issue I originally reviewed this story, my editor at the time did an interview with James Robinson and asked him about my observation that Jack's acceptance of his role as a hero could be seen as a mirror of a fan's feelings about the comics industry and hobby and how the whole series itself was a plea that superheroes could be done with a sense of maturity behind them while still being fun.

Robinson said that it was a good comparison, although he was curious how - pushing that analogy to its' logical conclusion - I would analyze the end of the Starman series.

We'll get to that next week.

1 comment:

  1. Starman is probably the only series where I'm looking FORWARD to buying it for a THIRD time. Damn you Robinson for leaving us for the more lucrative world of script writing!