The Starman is a generational tale of a young hero assuming his father’s mantle, which takes the reader on an educational journey through DC Comics’ past.
Publisher: DC Comics
Contributors: Tony Harris (Illustrator)
Writer: James Robinson
Length: 416 pages
Graphic Novel: The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 2
Publication date: 2009-03
Superhero stories are often generational tales driven by concepts such as legacies, traditions, and the aesthetics of the icons who have come before. Many great tales are replete with torches being passed, mantles being transferred, and guards being changed (although often times these changes are superficial and illusory). Yet this generational trend is not just a storytelling trope, it is a reality amongst comic book fans as well. The fanbase is made up of people of varying age and as a result the fans and the comics they read are often divided by generational boundaries. Some of the best comics are the ones where these two connected trends are utilized simultaneously by gifted creators. The Starman run by James Robinson and Tony Harris is just one those stories; a generational tale of a young hero assuming his father’s mantle, which consequently takes the reader through an educational journey through DC comics’ past. And while this magnificent series has a multitude of examples that highlight this device, one of the most exemplarily, recently reproduced in Starman Omnibus Vol. 2, is Jack Knight’s first time participating in that most-beloved of comic book stories: the superhero team up.
The original Starman, Ted Knight, first appeared in Adventure Comics in 1941 as a brightly garbed hero who utilized his cosmic rod to defend the citizens of Opal City. Over the following decades the series came and went, with other characters eventually taking the name for varying periods of time. By the 1990s the story was started again by writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris focusing on the original Starman’s son, Jack, who is forced to assume his father’s mantle after his brother, the sixth Starman, is murdered by Ted’s old enemies. The series, which had a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, ran for 80 issues (not including various one-shots and annuals). The main focus of the series rested on three main plots; unifying the histories of all the various Starmen, Jack dealing with the trials of assuming a role (as son) he had forsaken, and finally learning to respect the legacy of a multitude of Golden and Silver Age heroes who he had previously ignored. His first confrontation with such a hero from the past comes in the story arc Sands and Stars, collecting issues 20-23, which teams him up with Wesley Dodds, the original Sandman.
The story begins with Jack Knight searching for a medal that belonged to one of his father’s old villains, The Mist. Jack has a dream that alludes to the medal’s future importance and he decides to see if he can locate it. He learns that the Mist first appeared in New York and battled the gasmask-wearing detective, Sandman. Jack then makes arrangements to visit the aging crime fighter whose real name is Wesley Dodds. As Jack makes his way through the city he keeps thinking about how excited he is to meet one of his heroes. In a magnificent inversion of expectations the reader soon discovers that this hero is not Dodds that Jack is excited to meet, but his wife, the prolific writer Dian Belmont. This further underscores the fact that Jack knows very little about the history of his still new profession and has a nonplussed attitude about meeting one of the very first costumed heroes. Of course as the story progresses both Jack and the reader who may be too young to know of the original Sandman’s glory days, are soon relieved of their ignorance.
The most striking initial aspect of the story is Jack’s confrontation with the now very old Dodds. Jack’s father, like other members of the Justice Society, had their youth restored to them during one of their adventures – this allowed DC to maintain the JSA’s past while still having them continue to fight crime in the continuity’s present. Unlike Ted Knight, Wesley Dodds was not lucky enough to have been rejuvenated. Consequently, Jack’s first confrontation is shocking look at the inevitable future of all the heroes. Those who have defied death and saved the world countless times will one day age and die, their accomplishments forgotten and their legacies assumed, or replaced, by younger heroes.
On the suspension of disbelief level Jack’s later internal musings on the subject of ageing and death are poignant and bittersweet. He thinks, “…now I must confront what he is. What fate forestalled from my father, but which I will have to face with him in time ahead.” On a more realistic level comic fans know that death is a fickle thing in The Biz, and as long as someone is willing to pay for an issue characters can expect life-spans far longer then the average human. Nonetheless, these reflections still have a lingering sorrow. It’s a powerful reminder that many of the characters that thrilled fans in previous decades have now disappeared into the symbolic back-issue bins of superhero mythology.
The rest of the story itself is fairly straightforward and to the point. There is a murder and Starman and Sandman must team up to solve the mystery. There is some backstory provided on the relationship between Dodds and Jack’s father, Ted, and by the end the heroes save the day. During the concluding exposition the full mystery is explained by the aged detective and Jack is able to locate the medal he was looking for.
Yet while the story itself may have been fairly formulaic, what it represents and how it functions in relation to the larger fan culture is rife with significance. Jack Knight is ultimately a vehicle for the reader who loves superheroes but may not been fully versed in their traditions and history. His character is the perfect mechanism for Robinson to teach us not only why we should, but also how to respect the Golden Age Heroes. Often times it is easy to dismiss some of the older characters with their hokey costumes and their dated powers as simply being the relics of a boring and unnecessary past. Even Superman and Batman whose careers started in the 1930s have been appropriated by new generations of comic fans, while less-popular heroes have been relegated to an ostensibly irrelevant past. Robinson gives Jack that mindset and then forces both his lead character the reader to confront the failure of that type of dismissive behavior. Consequently, this further strengthens the communal ties between reader and text, creating a more holistic view of the DC Universe and thus strengthening the emotional commitment to the overall mythos.
Jack is the perfect character to teach the type of lessons Robinson’s Starman is inundated with. In addition to initially forsaking his father’s mantle, once he does finally assume the role he refuses to don the original costume and uses a longer more staff-like cosmic rod. And while his father, Ted (a scientist) expresses his love of the stars through astronomy, Jack the artist makes use of astrology as his guiding light. He is the archetypical cool new take on a now dated old character. Yet, once he begins his journey Jack, and the reader, are consistently shown the continued relevance of the genres superhero forbearers. Jack muses during his first meeting with Dodds, “It didn’t matter at all to me. Dodds and his past. Then in a wave of emotion I can’t begin to understand…it suddenly means everything.”
Superhero stories with generational themes will always make for a good read. Yet in the hands of gifted creators, such as James Robinson, that story can transcend the pages that hold it and reach out into the world. While of course there were fans who already knew of the Golden Age Sandman and his adventures before picking up Starman, there were no doubt many, myself included, who did appreciate the significance of that character. As a result of that story many have now seen that the generational divisions that exist throughout the massive corpus of comic book history are not barriers of the old and the new, but instead a legacy, fictional yet real nonetheless. Every true superhero fan is at one point a Jack Knight: someone who is awed and respectful by the history and inheritance of which he or she is now a part.