True to its name, the comic book maxi-series Rising Stars, is a critical and commercial “star”, very much in its ascendancy. Much of this acclaim can be attributed to one source—writer J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski, of course, is best known as the creator of the science fiction TV series, Babylon 5, one of the finest of its genre. Straczynski is thus a rarity, moving from the mainstream world of television to the marginalised underground ghetto of comic books. This move, by and large, has been met with a highly favourable response, even to the extent that certain sections of the fan community have compared Rising Stars positively with the seminal classic, Watchmen.
Watchmen, created by Brits Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was published in the mid-1980s, during a time when the cold war paranoia over thermo-nuclear destruction was at its peak. A 12-part maxi-series that posited the existence of super-heroes in a grim, gritty, “realistic” world, Watchmen broke ground and challenged the way super-heroes were perceived and presented. The series has thus far provided the yardstick by which all subsequent super-heroic fiction would be measured.
In Rising Stars, Straczynski provides his own little spin on the super-hero genre. There are just 113 of these people in the world of Rising Stars,endowed with super powers. The result of a freak explosive flash over Pedersen, Illinois, these 113 would as young children, manifest special powers that alter their lives forever.
The first five issues set about establishing characters and motivations as the 113 children (better known as the “Pedersen Specials) grew up into adulthood. Straczynski does a good job with developing characterisation - although to be blunt, he is severely hampered by the truly abysmal artwork of pencillers Keu Cha and later, Christian Zanier (more of that later) and the deliberate pacing may be difficult for fans of slam band super hero action. The threadbare plot up to about the mid-point of the first arc revolves around the murders of several of the Pedersen Specials which mirrors Watchmen‘s initial storyline.
However, Straczynski soon makes up for that (in the 3-part “Things Fall Apart”) by picking it up rather urgently as conspiracies and dark schemes are hatched by three Specials (viz Patriot, Pyre & Sanctuary) to preserve their position in an increasingly hostile “normal” world. This results in mayhem, pitched super-heroic battles and death—what every rabid comic book fan is looking out. By the end of the first arc, the environment has totally changed and the world is certainly different to the one “Rising Stars” began with.
That factor is a consistent strength of Straczynski’s writing—every decision has a consequence, maybe not immediate but ultimately. This was in great evidence in his magnum opus, Babylon 5, and by the time the second arc of Rising Stars begins, Straczynski makes it abundantly clear that the actions of the Specials have left a lasting impression on their situation and the world around them.
A pity then that much of the blood, sweat and tears invested by Straczynski in the project has been stymied by the work of the artists. In Babylon 5, the concise direction, competent special effects and not to mention, the outstanding cast buttressed the uncanny structure that had been established by Straczynski’s conceptual vision. Unfortunately, the art in Rising Stars is poorly executed and an obstacle to a complete enjoyment of the story. Both Keu Cha (issues 1 & 2) and Christian Zanier (the rest), have no grasp on fundamentals such as anatomy, distinguishing facial expressions or sequential story-telling whatsoever. It is a travesty that everyone concerned (from the publisher Top Cow to Straczynski himself) has allowed this state of affairs to continue. This makes Rising Stars a deeply flawed super-hero landmark. But there is hope for the future. After all, the comic has been optioned for movie development and we might just get to see Rising Stars done right—or at least that much closer to Straczynski’s visualization. Well, it certainly cannot get much worse.