Starman by James Robinson is an overlooked masterpiece of comics in general, an early 90s comics in particular. On the face of it, the book tells a simple story about Jack Knight, the second son of the original, Golden Age cape. It’s a story about a reluctant hero struggling with timeless questions — about family, legacy, place, and (above all) time — even as he tries to figure out what it means to try and save the world and how he could ever hope to do it.
Questioning, trying, and hoping are things comics were desperately in need of in 1994. Robinson’s work comes two years after Spawn #1, with book and character being the poster child for 90s big-budget-yet-nihilistic anti-heroes. Starman is also part of the other big trend of the era: resurrecting an anachronistic IP and rebooting it from obscurity into headliner status.
Starman is absolutely informed by these trends. But what makes the book work so well, is how it is nothing like them. Let’s explore.
The Story and James Robinson
The ten-year period stretching between the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 90s was something of a referendum on classic comics, starting with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns putting the Pre- and immediately Post-War comics era on both a pedestal and trial. That judgment follows through Simonson/Jurgen’s The Death of Superman and Moore’s Supreme, both of which use early Action Comics iconography to contrast the idealism of the Golden Age with the newer, brutal, nihilistic — and presumably wiser — Post-Cold War 1990s. That same, bleak outlook was then glorified in titles like The Maxx, Spawn, Weapon X, and the Infinity Saga events. Even the comedy stylings of Lobo were bleak. Things were so bad, even Star Wars had its Dark Empire.
On the other hand, this period also gave rise to the high-brow market. Masterpieces like Maus, Sandman, Seth’s Palookaville, and other luminaries of the genre. Each of which is notably and pointedly darker and/or bleaker than one might expect from comics at the time. And each of which ends up commenting on the industry’s history… by arguably apologizing for it. These works dedicate far more time and apparent effort to making their audiences acknowledge the Holocaust, Shakespeare, and mundanity than any of them do Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, superpowers, or the primacy of either Stan Lee or Joe Shuster.
Robinson sits somewhere off the map. This series questions and occasionally chides the Golden Age as all good 90s books must. But it still finds room to be utterly enthralled at the simple and passe tropes of the era; mundane things like intergalactic travel and superpowers and just trying really hard to figure out the right thing to do. And then having the ability to do that. When and where our protagonist can.
Though he tries, Jack Knight is a poor fit for the role. Beautifully so. The title of “superhero” was his dad’s, and it was supposed to be his brother, David’s (before he was killed in the opening issue.) Jack was supposed to be the burnt-out, Gen X. He was supposed to be in a punk band and then fritter his days away running a collectible shop that deals in seemingly everything from his father’s heyday except the heroics or man himself.
Instead, after the murder of his brother, Jack Knight takes up the mantle. But only as much as he must at any moment. He takes an older Starman weapon because it’s all he can grab. He dispenses with the costume because he can’t embody it. (Also, it’s ugly as sin. Honestly, classic comics, get your aesthetics together.)
This in between state that Robinson makes is truly moving. It allows his characters to breathe and talk and fume and hurt one another’s feelings only to try and come back from it. It allows the Shade, the archnemesis of two whole ages of Starmen, to be beyond redemption and yet still have noble purpose. Robinson’s world has that simple complication of everyday life… only with welder’s goggles and an antigravity scepter. And plenty of Shakespeare.
The Art and Tony Harris, et al.
Harris’ artwork is a fantastic mix of golden age nods and dark age advancements, mixing the flat hokiness of 30-40s comic visual with contemporary styles. It’s a bit like Wayne Boring meets Tim Bradstreet, with the balance of flat, simple-shaped cartooning and digital, high-detail work. There are iris callouts and muddy newsprint colors alongside borderless splashes and digital precision.
There’s a lot of classic homage going on here, from the art deco influences (both nodding to comic history and its Burton/Timm present) to the rich realism of classic pulp artists like Hugh Joseph Ward.
His work feels if not influenced by then certainly connected to his contemporaries like Mike Mignola (for supernatural elements), Dan Clowes (classic pen and ink), and Tim Bradstreet (grungy, barebulb illustration). And I really want to say Chris Ware. Then again, in all of these cases, it might just be a matter of spontaneous co-evolution of sorts, with each artist experiencing similar worlds at similar times and relying on similar influences (particularly in the case of Ware.) In much the same way, I want to say Sean Phillips owes something to Harris, but that too is impossible to pin down exactly.
The 90s influences are much easier to see: the leather duster and welder’s goggles of the burgeoning music and sci-fi aesthetic of the time. The ironic toy sheriff badge. The tall, lanky, aimless white guy with borrowed style and seemingly no substance. And that hair and beard that wants to be Ethan Hawk but succeeds in being extremely Kevin Smith.
If there’s a downside to this, it’s that like those other artists, Harris can make heavy use of flat reference materials (particularly photographic reference.) That can give his work a real stiffness at times, which sometimes feels right in line with Golden Age, Art Deco/Nouveau, and Pulp work… and sometimes does not.
Regardless of the cause, the effect can be really effective at both the look and interpretation of the story. The way the styles mix just works for me, making the story and even the book as an object feel wonderfully anachronistic and gleeful, just like an old sci-fi serial.
The Karen Berger Effect
I want to say that Starman is, to me, one of the top 5 books that Vertigo ever published. The only problem is that they didn’t.
Before its closure, Vertigo was DC Comic’s incubator and isolation tank for crazies. A place where dangerous works could be put out by dangerous artists. A home for smart books that challenged the idea of comics and a place for mature comics that DC did want to be associated with the company, but did not want to be associated with Batman, Wonder Woman, or the rest of the publisher’s all-ages money-making operation. And at first blush, it appears that Starman #1 being under the same imprint as books like Superman and Team Titans must be an oversight at the very least. It would be fair to think that Starman might just become a Vertigo title in the same way Swamp Thing #21, Animal Man #5, or the debut issues of Hellblazer and Sandman were published by DC before relocating to Vertigo.
Moreover, the cultural awareness of their titles was spot-on for their time. From Shade the Changing Man to Animal Man to The Invisibles, Vertigo wasn’t just selling a culture back to the people creating it; it was helping people understand the times they were living in.
This brings us to Starman and the Gen-X title.
“The classic super-hero series STARMAN, starring a Gen-X super-hero, is re-presented in high quality format by James Robinson (BATMAN: FACE THE FACE) and Tony Harris (EX MACHINA).”
— Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 (2008), official log line.
Jack Knight is a member of Generation X. The point is inarguable.
Gen X is defined largely with the birth of grunge and the rebirth of hip-hop and punk; the domination of postmodernism; and our culture’s final, holy assumption into media. And the generation would have you believe that’s all one middle finger, a single harlequin smirk from the tarot’s Fool. But the generation is somehow more and less than that. A people raised by Viet Nam war parents and WWII grandparents. A group that’s heard about the greatest generation and free love, and watch both sell those ideals for cash.
The resulting aesthetic — sarcasm, irony, nihilism — each a tool of cultural destruction, not construction. Making a new world, it seemed, was destined to fail just like D-Day and the moon landing ultimately failed to change the world and keep it that way.
Generation X — its books, its musicians, and its legacy — is the ironic revenge of those who are helpless, embracing that which is hopeless.
In so many ways, Starman is the comic book equivalent of “Don’t Want to if You Are Lonely,” which was something of a banner anthem for the time. It’s not the brooding, socially conscious brilliance of Alan Moore and the Clash. It’s not the cheeky, showcased romanticism of Neil Gaiman and Siouxsie Sioux. And it’s certainly not the chaotic, shameless incitement of Grant Morrison and Jello Biafra. It’s just a clear, emotional note played at highway speed.
Most amazing of all, Starman has the ache of its time but escapes the pessimism and fatalism of Peter Milligan, Nirvana, or so many other defining works.
The term “Gen-X” comes with a lot of baggage. If nothing else, I think my little mixtape of references makes that clear. But Knight is every bit the avatar of his strafed and restless age with their sarcasm and their discontent at the world handed to them. And like any good hero, Knight brings the one thing that feels missing: hope. Hope for the clarity of good and bad that Golden Age swears it had, as well as a hope for a chance to make a bigger, better, more inclusive world than these new Dark Ages thrust upon us.