Feature

The Annotated Starman: Part 2 (Issue #1)

20th October 2018 | by | No Comments

This is a series of articles looking in-depth at one of the most celebrated superhero comics of the 1990s, DC’s Starman (Vol. 2). Written by James Robinson and drawn in the main by Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg, the series followed the adventures of the latest incarnation of the cosmic-powered hero of the title, and son of its original bearer, Jack Knight.

Starman was a series rich in references not just to DC’s entire superhero history, but to the world of old popular culture and collectables that were its lead character’s main interest. It’s always possible to read and enjoy the series without necessarily understanding every one of these references, but in these posts we’re shedding a light on as many of them as we possibly can – so if there’s a question that’s always bugged you about an offhanded remark or reference somewhere in the series, hopefully you’ll find it answered.

In our introductory post we focused entirely on the first issue of the series, due to the sheer volume of history and background that was introduced in it. For part two, I originally intended to cover all the remaining issues of the book’s first story arc, Sins of the Father­ – but blow me, if we didn’t end up hitting almost the same word count again before getting to the end of a single issue.

So this part is just going to be about issue #1 (confusingly, the second issue of the series, as it began with #0), and then next time around we’ll try to cover off two in one go.

STARMAN #1 (November 1994)

“Sins of the Father (Part II of IV) – Oil (Paint) and Water”

James Robinson (w), Tony Harris (p), Wade von Grawbadger (i), John E. Workman (l), Gregory Wright (c), Jim Spivey, Archie Goodwin (e)

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Page 1

“The shadowy, shadowy gentleman sighs.”

We didn’t meet this character at all in the first issue – which is a surprise, since he’ll go on to be the best thing about the series – and while it could be surmised that his journals were the source of its narration, it actually turns out here that the book has an omniscient third-person narrator in addition to his own writings.

We won’t tell you who he is just yet, though. We’ll get into that when this issue sees fit to properly introduce him.

Absinthe

A highly alcoholic (generally over 70% ABV) spirit, famous for its bright green colour and aniseed flavour. And for its especially mind-altering qualities. Heavily associated with bohemian and Parisien culture, it’s therefore not hard to see why this particular character is such a fan of it. At the time this book was written/published, it was banned in the US, although it isn’t any longer.

“Rag Doll” masks

The masks worn by the hoodlums in this and successive issues have a distinctive, scarecrow-ish design to them. We won’t discover this yet, but they are a deliberate reference to an old DC comics supervillain. Not to keep being deliberately obtuse, but we’ll discuss him in more detail when he gets explicitly referenced (and he will). For now, though, it seems as if Robinson has planted this deliberately in order to invite speculation as to the identity of the villain behind the current goings-on.

Page 5

The O’Dares

For the first time in the series, we’re introduced to three members of the red-haired O’Dare family of cops. None of them are given their first names at this point, but they are all creations of Robinson and Harris who haven’t appeared in anything before.

Page 7

“What you have isn’t a cosmic rod, but a far inferior gravity rod. The kind I used in the 1940s”

In the original Golden Age Starman stories, Ted’s device was indeed referred to as a “gravity rod”. The last of these stories was published in 1946’s Adventure Comics #102, after which he disappeared for almost two decades. When he reappeared, it was in 1964’s Justice League of America #29, with the rest of the Justice Society (now designated as living on Earth-2) in the story that introduced the evil-filled Earth-3 for the first time.

For reasons never explained on the page (but likely because, by the 1960s, “gravity rod” just didn’t sound too futuristic any more), Ted’s device was re-christened in that issue as the “cosmic rod”, which it would be referred to from there on out, right up until and beyond his handing over of it to Sylvester “Star-Spangled Kid” Pemberton (which actually occurred off-panel, between 1972’s Justice League of America #102 and 1976’s All-Star Comics #58).

This piece of dialogue by Robinson is the first time the two devices have been referred to as distinct from one-another, rather than simply being a retconned renaming. And as mentioned last time out, we’ll just carefully ignore it being called a “star sceptre” in the Roger Stern-written Starman series.

Page 8

Hope O’Dare

Our first named O’Dare sibling, and the first female one, Hope is again the creation of Robinson and Harris. Without getting too spoilery, she will go on to be one of the more lasting legacies of the Starman series, having appeared in further DC books far later than almost everyone else involved.

Page 9

“Eighteen eighty-nine that was, when the bastard English…”

As Jack surmises when cutting off Hope in full flow, she’s talking about the Great Hunger (or “Potato Famine”), which devastated Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, with the deaths and emigration of millions of Irish citizens. It actually occurred around forty to fifty years before the year Hope mentions the O’Dares first arriving in the USA, but Irish emigration – particularly to the States – remained at its peak throughout the second half of that century.

“My father was a cop, young in the 1940s…”

Hope is referring to Billy O’Dare, an Opal City beat cop who, the series will reveal to us, was a loyal sidekick to Ted Knight’s Starman. Like his offspring, however, Billy did not actually exist prior to the series – his friendship with Ted is a retcon by Robinson.

“Brash in ‘43. A super-villain was menacing the city…”

Eight issues of Adventure Comics featuring Starman were published in 1943 – from #82 through to #89 – and six of All Star Comics with him in the Justice Society (#14-19). Do any of them feature a brash cop having his life saved by Starman? Well, not exactly – but June’s Adventure #86 does feature a cop with stereotypically Irish speech patterns briefly sharing a page with Ted.

Was Robinson explicitly referencing this issue? We can’t be certain, but I’m absolutely happy to call this a retconned first appearance of Billy O’Dare.

Page 10

“Unlike Gotham. Unlike Keystone or Midway or Metropolis.”

Four of DC’s fictional cities, all more storied and famous than the newly-created Opal, are referenced here. Gotham and Metropolis you should already know as the respective homes of Batman and Superman (along with a bevy of other characters); while Keystone was home to Flashes in both the Golden (Jay Garrick) and Modern (Wally West) Ages. As for Midway, award yourself a bonus point if you knew without looking that it was the Silver Age home of Hawkman and Hawkgirl.

“The criminals here seemed fearful…”

This line can be read, perhaps, as a metatextual reference to (or explanation for) the fact that we’ve never heard Opal City named or discussed in DC Comics prior to this series. In short, no other heroes or vigilantes ever found themselves needing to pitch up there, because nothing was ever really happening.

Page 11

“Theo Knight”

An interesting line here in that it confirms, I believe for the first time, that Ted’s name is short for Theodore, and not the more popular Edward.

“Your dead wife’s memory”

Ted Knight had an on-off girlfriend (as pretty much all Golden Age superheroes did) during his original run of adventures, named Doris Lee. It’s not unreasonable for someone versed in those stories, then, to assume that she’s the wife being referred to here – but for reasons that will become clear, she isn’t.

Page 12

The Mist

Here we are, then, with the reveal of our main villain. And it couldn’t really be anyone else, as the Mist is Starman’s oldest recurring foe. He first appeared in Adventure Comics #67 (October 1941), and his creation is credited to Gardner Fox although his first story was written by Alfred Bester and drawn by Jack Burnley. He would only make nine further appearances in comics over the next four decades, but his 1990 appearance in Starman Vol 1 #26-27, in which he menaced David Knight and Will Payton using the aliases “Murphy” and “Nimbus”, assured his place in Starman lore.

His real name of Kyle had never been revealed prior to Robinson’s series, and his surname has still not been given – although in the Flash TV series a drastically different version of the character was named “Kyle Nimbus”.

Page 13

“Dalt’s bank”

The name of this bank isn’t the only time Robinson will use “Dalt” over the course of this series – but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of actual link with the later characters who will share it. It may just be a name he liked the sound of.

“Adele Knight”

So yes, Ted’s deceased wife (and Jack and David’s mother) is not Doris Lee. Which does rather make sense, when you think about it – DC Comics had no sliding timeline at this point the way Marvel’s do, so characters like Ted who were active in the 1940s had to have their longevity explained away by means magical or otherwise. But these same means don’t apply to old girlfriends, so it’s simply not feasible (well, it’s possible, but it’s not very likely) that a twenty-something Doris in the 1940s could have gone on to be the mother of David and Jack when they were born in (roughly) the mid-1960s/early 1970s.

As such, Robinson here creates the previously unmentioned Adele Knight. While we don’t know it at this point, we will (much) later find out in exactly which year she and Ted met for the first time, and unsurprisingly it falls in that period where no comics featuring Starman were being published. As for Doris… well, we’ll find out much later what happened to her, too.

“Jolly Roger” t-shirt

You shouldn’t need telling that the “Jolly Roger” skull and crossbones design on Jack’s shirt is a classic pirate flag insignia that has endured in culture since the 18th century. What I’ve tried to figure out, however, is whether this specific design is a specific reference to, say, a particular movie, album, clothes brand, whatever.

So far, I’ve been unable to turn anything up. So let’s just assume it’s a generic Jolly Roger and is basically there to prefigure Jack’s future, piracy-connected adventures.

Page 15

Sugar and Spike comics

Interestingly, Sugar and Spike – a humour series about two feuding toddlers created by Sheldon Mayer – was actually itself a DC Comics series, published from 1956 to 1971.

But it’s not exactly unprecedented for DC-published comics to have existed within the DC universe – indeed, the concept goes all the way back to 1961’s landmark Flash of Two Worlds (The Flash #123), in which Barry Allen had read about the adventures of Earth-2’s Jay Garrick in Flash comics that were published on Earth-1.

Oh, and Flash of Two Worlds was written by none other than Starman’s co-creator, Gardner Fox.

Robert Mitchum

Hugely prolific American actor, active from the 1940s all the way up until his death in 1997. Particularly known for playing antihero-type characters in noir movies, so you can see why he’d be a favourite of Jack’s. He played Max Cady, the character later made famous by Robert de Niro, in the original Cape Fear.

“Lade-ite” dinnerware

This would appear to be a typo of what should be “Jade-ite” (or “jadeite”), the popular American early-mid-twentieth century style of green glassware.

Page 19

Renny Harlin

Finnish director who at the time this comic was published was at the crest of a wave following two major action blockbusters: 1990’s Die Hard 2 and 1993’s Cliffhanger. The following year he would make the infamous flop Cutthroat Island, starring his then-wife Geena Davis, which grossed $10m from a budget of $98m. Rehabilitated his reputation slightly with The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea, but would never hit his original heights again.

Also made Driven, the 2001 IndyCar-based movie which is by no objective standard a good film but which I have a not-so-secret fondness for.

The Shade

Right, then. Here he is. The shadowy figure from the opening page of the issue, and Starman’s unquestionable MVP.

The Shade was a relatively minor Flash villain, created by Gardner Fox and Hal Sharp in 1942’s Flash Comics #33. After that solitary appearance, he made his way over into the Silver Age by being one of the three villains that showed up in the aforementioned Flash of Two Worlds – and would make sporadic appearances battling the (second) Flash, the Justice League and Infinity Inc in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

After his initial appearance, in which his schtick was basically that he was a criminal who turned the lights off, in the Silver and Bronze Ages he was a top-hatted villain with a cane that enabled him to variously bring down shadow darkness and project “solid” shadows from a cane of his own invention; later, it was further established that he was master of a “dark dimension” that his cane was a gateway to. Aside from that, probably his most distinguishing characteristic across this dozen or so appearances was an occasional catchphrase, “By Erebus!” (referring to the Ancient Greek personification of darkness).

So he was something of a blank slate for James Robinson to work on in this series. Over the next eighty-odd issues (plus a couple of solo miniseries of his own) he would become one of DC’s most interesting and fascinating villain-turned-antihero characters – without ever actually contradicting his previous personality and crimes (but giving no small amount of explanation for and context to them).

I could sit here and write lots more about how much I love the Shade, but there’ll be plenty of opportunities as we go along. One more thing to note for now is that Robinson stated on multiple occasions that he modelled Shade’s voice and mannerisms on the actor Jonathan Pryce.

Page 22

“Not since the Native American lawman died”

The Native American lawman being referred to here is Brian Savage, aka Scalphunter, created by Sergio Aragones (!) and Joe Orlando in 1977’s Weird Western Tales #39. He’ll become much more relevant later on, so we’ll talk more about him when the series does.

Page 24

Powdered Toast Man

A bevy of background references stuck on the wall by artist Tony Harris includes a nod to John Kricfaluski’s controversial cartoon Ren and Stimpy, which originally aired on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1995. The character drawn on the wall is the titular Ren; while Powdered Toast Man was a recurring superhero character who first appeared in the 1992 episode of the same name.

“Gaijin 92”

Struggling to find what this might specifically refer to, but “Gaijin” is a Japanese word, used to denote non-Japanese people. Could just be a random piece of graffiti, but given all the other references on the wall it would be surprising if it didn’t mean something.

Obergeist

This is a fun one: Obergeist is the name of a comic created by Harris and writer Dan Jolley and published by Top Cow. The interesting thing is that it wasn’t first published until 2001 – but as this little nod makes clear, the pair had had the idea kicking around for some years beforehand. In fact, the concept was originally rejected by DC before they took it to Top Cow.

808 State

An acid-house band formed in Manchester in 1987 and a significant fixture in the “Madchester” scene thanks largely to their UK #10 hit single “Pacific State”. You might not know the title offhand but you’ve almost certainly heard it:

“Mr. Klaw was here”

Can’t be certain that this is what Harris is referencing, but the only notable place I can find “Mr. Klaw” spelled that way is a They Might Be Giants track, originally released on their 1988 “(She Was) A Hotel Detective” and later made available on 1991’s Miscellaneous T compilation.

“Rag Doll” face

Another reference to the villain mentioned earlier, although the issue has now made clear that it’s not him behind things. Again, we’ll talk about him further down the line.

Phew. So that’s two issues down, and an awful lot of stuff covered. Several of our main characters are now in place, although we still have some very major figures to meet soon. We’ll start to talk about some of them when we finish off Sins of the Father… next time!