Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Something caught my eye the other day- The Starman Omnibus. This makes me happy for a couple of reasons. The first- I love to see such an extensive reprinting. Those big, in-color collected editions of Witchblade and The Darkness really tantalize me. I just love the idea that I could walk into a store and buy an entire three or four years worth of a single comic, bound into a single volume. It’s the OCD in me. In fact, the only reason I’m not out there buying Essential X-Men volumes 1 through bazillion is that I just can’t re-live my childhood with colorless, monochromatic panels. I mean, I understand- economically- how reprinting the entire library of Marvel comics, in-color, isn’t feasible. Still, a guy can dream. The second? The series in question has been notoriously difficult to find for some time now. I’ve been waiting for DC to reprint the collected editions for a couple of years, and I’m happy to see them finally get around to it. And the third: Starman is probably the best superhero comic that you’ve never heard it. A couple years ago, I stumbled across it at the suggestion of another. I knew nothing about it at the time that it was in print (mid to late nineties), and I’ve always regretted not getting my hands on it when I had the chance. It seems to me when you ask people- comic book aficionados and casual readers alike- what the best comic book series they’ve ever read is, you get the same three answers: Watchmen by Moore, Sandman by Gaiman and, believe it or not, Swamp Thing by…well, a lot of writers, but mostly Moore, again. (Notice I didn’t say: when you ask people who their favorite characters were). It’s strange, the list I have here. Mostly because they aren’t super well-known comics. Like even Watchmen- it’s the best selling graphic novel of all time, but do most people really know what that comic is about? The characters in it? Still, IF someone HAS read any of these- I find, consistently, that these are their answers. There are few people, that I know, who have read any of these three and consistently stick by another series (I know there are some hardcore Frank Miller fans out there, you know, Dark Knight Returns). I’m probably going to get flogged for what I’m writing here- of course there ARE fans who have a personal series that they really love above and beyond all others, and I’m not trying to shove these specific three down anyone’s thoughts. I’m such a fanboy that I’ve got too many first-loves to count, so I’m not much of a judge. So I’m not trying to play favorites. Still, I’d like to think that part of the reason that these three really stand out is because they’re really…ABOUT something. Comics and pop-philosophy have always been intrinsically linked- Civil War kind of says it all. But for the most part, comics is the realm of Sopranos-like crime dramas, super-hero soap opera, and self-indulgent science-fiction. Most comics are COOL- but ultimately, I can only label a couple as “meaningful.” It took me a long time to get over the hype and really accept what a great writer Neil Gaiman is, for example. I mentioned him last week, in regards to Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?. I don’t know anyone who tells stories quite like he does. I like to think of him as writing a sort of “modern day fairy tales.” That is, the characters are all very human- in fact, even inhuman characters can seem kind of human, or at least, real, in his hands. The details of the story sometimes seem dreamy- a little bit surreal. But ultimately, the choices the characters make, the theme of the story, the moral, the POINT, comes across so easily. Sandman is filled with incredibly beautiful vignettes about life (and death), for example. It isn’t that the point Gaiman is making is ever simplistic- but it’s that it comes across so clearly, for you, the reader. You “get” it, even without it ever being said, directly. And you really…feel, for the characters. Sometimes even the worst characters. His story has action, but it’s the characters- their choices- that really drive the story. I’d like to think you learn something. How many comics can you really say that you’ve read and felt that way about? The LONG-winded point I’m making here is this- if there’s a writer and comic that I could install into the consciousness of the comic-going public, it’s Starman by James Robinson. I really couldn’t say enough good things about it. It takes place in the mainline continuity of the DC universe, and yet, I don’t know any other superhero series that has the same feel. In fact, Sandman is probably a much better comparison than Batman or Justice League. Starman is an old, Golden Age superhero from way back. DC has revamped the character and brought him back a couple of different times and in different ways- none with terrible success. The star of the series- Jack Knight- is the son of the original Golden Age hero, Ted. Actually, the series’ protagonist has even already passed the torch off- in this case, the JSA’s Courtney Whitmore (A.K.A. Stargirl) is the heir to the Starman legacy. But that isn’t really the point. You see- Robinson wasn’t really looking to revamp and relaunch the character, no matter how obscure and under-selling Starman may have been in the DC lineup. Instead, it honors it. Essentially, Robinson’s take on the Golden Age is this- everything that happened in those comics, from 1940 on, HAPPENED, just the way it was written. No matter how cheesy, how out-of-date. This is a tough trick for a writer to pull off, but he makes it work. Characters that probably haven’t had a starring role in DC comics since our grandparents were teenagers make appearances (living and dead- long story)- and in Robinson’s hands, they’re fascinating. Captivating. Passionate and complex. But the nice thing is, you don’t have to be loaded up on DC lore to appreciate the comic. In fact, quite the opposite- you, the reader, are kind of right there with the hero as he learns about the past, his father’s life and struggles, and how the superhero game has changed over the years. In fact, not to spoil it for everyone- but that’s kind of the metaphor right there. You go into adulthood, sometimes feeling different, distant from your family. But slowly, little by little, you become them. You encounter the same things they did, and even if you deal with it differently, you start to understand them better, WHY they made the choices they made. Your experiences in the present really help you understand how the past shaped you. So the whole comic works on these two levels- it’s a tribute to the Golden Age of heroes, done in the style of modern day storytelling. And at the same time, it’s a tribute to parents and children, and how like each other we can really be. I know that last bit can sound horrifying- even suffocating- to some, but somehow, in this comic, the insight is moving instead of painful. Ultimately, what I’ve written here doesn’t even do it justice. But I’m trying hard to spread the word. There are a lot more subtleties to the themes than I’ve just written about here, but I won’t butcher them by trying to explain them. Very true to the Starman series, I’ll just leave off by saying it has to be experienced to be understood.