In our Make This! series, we’ll tell you about comics or characters that haven’t yet made it to the screen (or have done in so far unsatisfying fashion), and explain how we think they should be adapted. Think of it, basically, as an extended version of the “Pitch” section of our podcasts.
Starman was a series published by DC between 1994 and 2001, for an eighty-issue run (plus a couple of annuals and specials, and a spinoff miniseries titled The Shade). It was written for its entire run by James Robinson (with plot assistance from David Goyer partway through) and drawn by Tony Harris, Peter Snejbjerg and various guest artists.
The titular character was Jack Knight, a junk dealer and son of a former superhero who finds himself drawn into a heroic legacy, ultimately becoming the new Starman, protector of Opal City. The Starman name had been used several times by DC over the years, starting with Ted Knight (Jack’s father) who was a Golden Age character and member of the Justice Society. But various unrelated characters had also used the name in the 1970s and 1980s. Robinson’s series managed to tie all these previously-unconnected incarnations together, in a lengthy and profound series that focused heavily on DC’s long and proud tradition of so-called “legacy heroes”.
At the start of the series, Jack’s older brother David has willingly taken up the mantle of Starman from his elderly father, but is only a few days into a superhero career when he is brutally murdered by the son of the Mist, Ted’s old arch-enemy. Jack himself is reluctant to ever follow in his father’s footsteps, but is drawn into the conflict after his brother’s death, initially seeking only to avenge him but ultimately growing to accept his role as the city’s hero.
Despite this, he continues to be an unconventional hero, shunning many of the trappings of the genre. Most notably, he doesn’t wear a costume, instead fighting crime in his own clothes and a leather jacket (well, it was the ’90s). And the “cosmic rod” that he uses (the source of his powers of flight and energy) is a long staff rather than the hand-held version his father had wielded, giving him a distinctive and memorable look.
The series’ supporting cast includes Mikaal Tomas, the short-lived 1970s alien Starman who is now an amnesiac; the O’Dare clan, a family of Irish-American cops working in Opal; the Mist’s daughter Nash, who becomes Jack’s own arch-nemesis; and not only Ted Knight but also David, who makes ghostly visitations to Jack every year. But chief among them all (and one of the series’ strongest assets) is The Shade, a former Silver Age Flash villain who is repurposed by Robinson as a bored immortal, originally born in the 1800s. Without undoing his previous career as a criminal, Robinson casts this erudite figure as a hugely engaging anti-hero, with the justification that the Shade has never committed a crime in Opal as it’s the city he loves and calls home. He becomes a tremendously complex and fascinating character, popular enough to spin off into a decade-hopping four issue miniseries exploring his personal background.
Over the course of the series’ eighty issues, Jack comes to terms with his destiny as a superhero, falls in love, teams up with a couple of classic heroes from his father’s era and beyond, goes off into space to try and find one of his predecessors, and ultimately… well, that would be spoiling it. The series was allowed to wrap up neatly, with few dangling plot threads (although the Shade would eventually return in his own twelve-issue series in 2012).
Because it’s great. Which I know sounds like an obvious thing to say, because surely the reason for wanting to see anything adapted is because it’s great. But it really is worth stating here: the series is really, really great. Certainly one of the very best comics of the 1990s, and arguably even one of the best things DC have ever published.
Its characterisation is arguably its greatest strength, and is what continues to make it a pleasure to read and re-read over two decades after the first issue. Jack is an interesting and flawed protagonist, and he and the various characters around him are given strong voice by Robinson (whose dialogue, actually, is somewhat stylised – in a way that could sometimes come off as grating, but suits the tone of this book extremely well). The series is extremely interested in the idea of how the past and present interact with one-another – both in terms of the heroic legacy that Jack is trying to live up to, but also in a more general sense thanks to his interest in collecting and selling old artefacts and memorabilia. Collecting is a pet interest of Robinson’s and it’s an interesting little world that he allows the reader to explore.
It’s also extremely pleasing how it takes as its central tenet the idea that every iteration of a character is important to someone, or in some way. Nobody had ever sought to tie together the various incarnations of a particular character the way Robinson did here – and he successfully rehabilitated names such as Will Payton, the oft-maligned late ’80s version of Starman, who even he admitted that he hadn’t been hugely keen on going in.
Aside from its general quality, the fact that the series is such a strong rumination on the idea of being a superhero is part of what makes it so ripe for translation into another media. It’s not just a book about a superhero – it’s a book about superheroes, the very concept of them, their history, their legacies, and so on. Not that it ever gets metafictional or anything, but it certainly shines a light on the genre, particularly in terms of DC’s long and storied history. That would be a great thing to bring to a wider audience.
It would have to be a TV series, I think – you couldn’t convincingly explore the historical and thematic elements in a single movie. It works best in a longer-form, serialised nature, with individual story arcs that have longer-seeded plot elements running through them. I think perhaps a set of between four and seven seasons of around 10-12 episodes each would cover it best, allowing each season to be its own arc while building up the overall story.
Tonally, it doesn’t need to be a particularly “adult” series (in terms of violence or language), but nor would the light and breezy tone of the CW’s adaptations really suit it either. Perhaps the closest comparison I can think of would be something like Agent Carter.
The opening half of the series, including storylines such as “Sins of the Father”, “Night and Day” and “Infernal Devices”, could be adapted fairly straight, I think. The big question would be what to do about the occasional “Times Past” issues that were littered throughout the series, with guest artists telling flashback stories about characters such as Ted Knight and the Shade. I think it would be better to fold some of these into other episodes rather than to give them entire episodes to themselves – as the format-breaking would be too frequent, otherwise. Perhaps use them to parallel or otherwise reflect what’s going on in the present day?
And certainly, while skimming over some of the stuff that goes on in the second half of the run (see below), the climactic (actually penultimate) storyline “Grand Guignol” needs to remain as intact as possible. It’s a masterpiece.
In its second half, the series interacts more heavily with the wider DC universe, and this is where things start to get tricky. For example, the “Sand and Stars” crossover – where Jack teams up with an elderly Wesley Dodds, aka the Golden Age Sandman – could be done quite nicely and easily. But “Lightning and Stars”, which crossed over directly with Captain Marvel and The Power of Shazam! would be trickier, and is probably best left out. So too is the issue where Jack, Green Lantern (Alan Scott) and Batman all voyage into the mind of sometime-villain turned-friend Solomon Grundy. As a rule of thumb, I would say that the Golden Age characters that Jack and Ted interact with could be used as much as possible, but whenever a modern character such as Superman or Batman shows up, that should probably be cut for simplicity’s sake.
Perhaps the biggest question mark, though, is what to do with the section of the run in which Jack goes off into space. The book suffered from some behind-the-scenes problems at the time of these issues, with editor Archie Goodwin passing away and Robinson struggling to maintain the inclination to carry on with the series (it was at this time that Goyer came in to help him write it). But even without that, the cosmic storylines feel somewhat detached from the tone and style of the rest of the series, even though the twist of what happened to Will Payton is quite well played. I would perhaps look to, if not cut the journey into space entirely, maybe try to keep it as a significantly smaller part of the whole story.
Jack’s a tricky one to cast: he needs to be someone who can get across the laid-back, old-movie-loving, slightly hipsterish nature of the junk dealer side of the character, while also convincing as someone who grows into the role of an actual, crime-fighting hero. The right Jack should have dark hair and be able to pull off both his goatee and clean-shaven looks, and ideally be somewhere in his mid-to-late twenties. Given that he also has the sort of distinctive long nose that both Harris and Snejbjerg gave Jack in their portrayals, I’m finding it hard to look past Miles Teller as a strong option.
Rather easier to pin down is The Shade. Originally envisaged by Robinson as being like Jonathan Pryce, twenty years down the line I can only see one candidate for him now: it’s got to be Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, he’s bloody everywhere, but it doesn’t matter – the Shade is an utterly perfect role for him.
The series isn’t fantastic when it comes to female lead characters – Hope O’Dare is probably the strongest, but for much of the run she’s more of a secondary figure. I’d look to maybe boost her role (although not have her be a love interest for Jack) and have her played by Karen Gillan. Jack’s actual girlfriend, Sadie Falk, is a bit of a blank canvas character-wise, and that makes it harder to zero in on a particular actress for her. But she’d be a good opportunity to bring some much-needed diversity into what is otherwise a fairly white set of characters, so let’s go with British actress Vinette Robinson (of Sherlock and The A Word), who is ace, and try to give her a bit more personality than she has in the comic. And for Nash, the shy stutterer turned fearsome villainness, let’s have Jaimie Alexander.
Ted Knight is another difficult one to get right, because you have to have an older actor who can convincingly portray someone who both used to be a costumed superhero, and yet also in his older age is a calm and intelligent scientist. Plus, there’s a likelihood that we’ll flash back to scenes with a younger Ted donning the red and green of Starman, so you’ll want an actor to play him there. For the older Ted, although it probably puts more emphasis on the “retired superhero” side, I’m going with Ted Danson – he just really, really looks the part for me. And to play the younger version, I’m reuniting him with his recent Fargo co-star (although they didn’t play the same character in that, I feel like they could do): Patrick Wilson.
There are other characters worth considering, too – from Mikaal Thomas to Matt O’Dare – but these are the main roles that I think would anchor the series.
There was talk of a Starman movie in the early 2010s, but since then things have gone somewhat quiet on the idea of the character ever being adapted, despite the series’ popularity (it’s still held by many as one of DC’s strongest comics of the era, and there was a lavish set of hardback omnibuses released a few years ago). I’d love to think that DC/Warners might want to do a series examining the historical significance of their characters at some point, but it doesn’t really fit in with everything else they’re doing at the moment. But you never know: if someone in TV or movie land who has a singular vision for Starman should pop up in the same way that Rogen/Goldberg did with Preacher, it could make it to our screens as a passion project one day.