One of the most heralded comics runs of the 1990s – and a strong counterargument to anyone who tries to write off that decade creatively – was DC Comics’ Starman (Vol. 2), which ran from 1994 to 2001. The series saw writer James Robinson and main artists Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg, alongside a wide range of other artistic collaborators, tell the story of Jack Knight, the son of a Golden Age superhero named Ted Knight (Starman) who reluctantly becomes the latest in the long line of (usually unrelated) heroes to bear that name.
Starman was an unusual series for many reasons. Its lead character, Jack, was not only a reluctant hero, but one who didn’t even wear a superhero-style costume. At a time when DC were routinely chasing newness – with many replaced or revamped versions of existing heroes making their debuts – Starman looked as much to the past as to the future that Jack represented. Indeed, the series played DC’s proclivity for the concept of “legacy heroes” as an asset – exploring the history not just of the convoluted Starman lineage, but of the entire DC universe itself.
If the series had a theme above anything else, it was how the past informs and enriches the present – and that extended not just to the way it was entrenched in DC lore, but in Jack’s own interest (inherited from Robinson himself) in collectables and “old things”. And that means that although it is generally a very accessible series for any reader to pick up – because the depth of character is so strong, and because everything you need to know about the history is explained for you – there is also an awful lot of material that rewards further digging and research.
So for anyone who has either read Starman before or is embarking on it for the first time, who would like to know a bit more about the fictional and real concepts that are mined to give the series its rich depth, we’re taking a look at it with some detailed annotations that hopefully fill you in on everything that went into Robinson and company’s worldbuilding.
We’ll be concentrating predominantly on two main strands of reference: the previous superhero comics history that informs the book, and the various pop cultural artefacts and references that make up Jack’s personality and lifestyle. But if anything else strikes us as relevant as we go along, we’ll note that too.
We don’t intend for each of these posts to cover a single issue – as we go along, with various concepts already introduced, it’s likely that one post can cover a whole arc or at the very least a few issues – but for this special introductory post, we’re covering the first issue alone, because there’s so much introduced here to get through. And we’ll start out by giving you a bit of background on the people who made it…
“Sins of the Father (Part I of IV) – Falling Star, Rising Son”
James Robinson (w), Tony Harris (p), Wade von Grawbadger (i), John E. Workman (l), Gregory Wright (c), Jim Spivey, Archie Goodwin (e)
British-born writer who moved to the US in 1989 and began writing in comics shortly afterwards. His earliest success at DC was the miniseries The Golden Age, an Elseworlds tale that looked at the Justice Society and associated characters (including the original Starman) during a McCarthy-esque 1950s era. The Golden Age was a huge success and, although not officially in-continuity, many elements of its plot and character developments would be fed directly by Robinson into Starman.
Robinson pitched DC to write a Starman series after Roger Stern and Tom Lyle’s 1988-1992 run, about the Will Payton version of the character, was cancelled. Eventually given the title by editor Archie Goodwin, he would write the series with great success between 1994 and 2001, as we’ll see.
After Starman ended, Robinson left the industry for several years, moving predominantly into screenwriting. Most notably, he worked on the 2003 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. In 2006, he returned to DC as writer of the “Face the Face” arc in Batman and Detective Comics, and has worked alternately at DC, Marvel and Image since then. Most recently at DC he’s written Wonder Woman and, again, Detective.
Harris had never worked as a regular monthly interiors artist before co-creating Starman with Robinson, but in the event managed four and a half years of consistent issues (with “Times Past” fill in stories featuring guest artists to give him the odd month’s breather) before leaving the title in 1998. He continued as cover artist for a while afterwards, though not for the book’s entire run.
From 2004-10, Harris was the artist (and cover artist) of the Brian K. Vaughan-written political superhero thriller series Ex Machina. Since then, he hasn’t generally worked on comics interiors, largely working as a cover artist. With a realistic (and often painted) style generally reliant on photo-referencing, Harris himself was the model for Jack Knight.
Wade Von Grawbadger
Hugely renowned inker best known for his collaborations with penciller Stuart Immonen. Von Grawbadger first came to prominence at DC in the 1990s, with his work supporting Harris on Starman an early (and Eisner-winning) highlight.
John E. Workman
One of the most legendary letterers in comics, perhaps best known for being the trusted word-filler of Walt Simonson’s work, but also for the entirety of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Has worked for almost every major comics company, and was art director of Heavy Metal magazine in the 1970s.
An assistant editor at Marvel in the 1980s, Wright moved into freelance writing and colouring at the end of the decade. After Robinson he was one of the longest-serving members of Starman’s creative team, working through the mid-series change in artists all the way through to the final issue, with only intermittent breaks.
Worked in comics from the 1960s through to the end of the 1990s, sometimes as a writer but most often as an editor. Passed through the doors of DC Comics more than once as well as Warren Comics and Marvel, where he had a year’s term as Editor-in-Chief and also ran the Epic line in the 1980s. Was notable in the industry for being possibly its most universally well-liked figure among fellow creators.
In 1994 he was back for a second and hugely creatively fruitful stint at DC, where among the many titles he was responsible for was the shepherding into existence of Starman, having personally handpicked Robinson for the title.
Goodwin died in March 1998, leaving Robinson in something of a crisis about whether to carry on and finish the series without the guiding hand of his mentor. Ultimately Robinson decided to continue, and Goodwin was credited as “guiding light” on every remaining issue after his passing.
Associate editor on the first three issues of Starman, Spivey worked on various titles at DC throughout the 1990s.
Created by Robinson and Harris in DC’s grand tradition of fictional cities, Opal was retrospectively set up from this moment onwards as the home of Ted Knight’s adventures as Starman all the way back to the Golden Age, as the original stories had seen him based out of Gotham.
We’ll get into Opal’s distinctive quirks and landmarks plenty as we go along, so for now we don’t need to go into any more detail about it; except to say that while its location within the US was only hinted at in vague terms by Starman, it has since been explicitly confirmed, with Robinson’s approval, as being in Maryland.
The founder of Opal City is, appropriately enough, named after two of Starman’s original creators: Jack Burnley, the artist who drew his earliest adventures, and Whitney Ellsworth, executive editor of the Adventure Comics issues in which they appeared.
“The city had a champion…”
The (as yet unidentified) narrator is, of course, referring here to the original Starman: Ted Knight. Created by Burnley and writer Gardner Fox, Starman first appeared in Adventure Comics #61 (April 1941). A bored playboy who decided to fight crime using a star-powered “gravity rod” (later rechristened “cosmic rod”) and a gaudy red and green costume, Starman’s solo adventures never attracted the popularity of many of his peers, but he became a member of the Justice Society of America, in whose title All-Star Comics he began appearing from issue #8.
By 1946, however, Ted had lost his spot in both Adventure Comics and the JSA. He would reappear in the 1960s, when the Justice Society would begin to annually team up with the Justice League; and make sporadic guest appearance in his own right, including two adventures alongside Black Canary in 1965’s The Brave and the Bold #61-62 (and we’ll come back to those).
Ted briefly retired in the 1970s, but returned amid a wave of new Justice Society popularity later that decade (at which time it was also established that the team had been affected by a magical spell that caused them to age at a much slower rate than they otherwise should have done). Then, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity revamp of 1985, they were all shunted off into a limbo dimension by the 1986 Last Days of the Justice Society one-shot.
This disappearance, however, only lasted until the JSA’s return to their own series in 1992 – but along with the rest of the team, Ted lost his rejuvenation during 1994’s Zero Hour crossover, causing him to retire once and for all and leading directly into the new Starman title.
If you somehow didn’t get it (but hey, we’re trying to be thorough) this is a reference to Miguel de Cervantes’ 1615 novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha or The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The word “quixotic”, and the phrase “tilting at windmills”, both derive from this work, and refer to the pursuit of idealistic, unrealistic or impractical goals.
The narrator is perhaps being a little unfair to Ted, here.
So to talk about David Knight’s version of Starman, we actually have to start with a different version of Starman. Specifically, Will Payton, who was created by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle in 1988 as a brand new character and hero. The fourth character to bear that name (Ted was, of course, the first; we’ll get to the other two in due course), Will was the first to get his own series, which ran for 45 issues until 1992. It’s a really fun book, as it goes.
Although Will was an entirely new character unconnected to any of the previous Starmen, Stern and artist Tom Hooper paid tribute to the lineage in issues #26 and #27 of the series, by introducing David Knight, Ted’s son. The issue explained that while Ted had been thought dead (actually in limbo), David had travelled the world preparing himself to take over the Starman lineage – unaware that in the meantime, Will had gained his powers and coincidentally taken on the name himself (he was actually called it by an onlooker during an early adventure).
Angered by the apparent insult shown by this newcomer, and spurred on by his personal trainer “Murph”, Knight challenged Payton to a duel. Of course, “Murph” turned out to be a villain named Nimbus (actually an evolved form of classic Starman villain The Mist), manipulating Knight for his own ends. Eventually, Will and David see eye to eye, and team up to defeat Nimbus/Mist – but in the process, David’s cosmic rod (or “star sceptre” as it’s inexplicably referred to here) is destroyed. Recognising the heroism of Payton, David gracefully hands over the mantle and retires from superheroics.
Following David’s retirement, Ted would return from limbo and take up the original Starman costume and identity again (existing, briefly, at the same time as Payton). But when Ted reverted to his natural age during Zero Hour, he handed the mantle to David once more, leading us to the opening pages of this very issue.
It’s just worth noting, incidentally, that there’s a change made to David’s costume in the pages of Starman vol 2: while Ted’s costume had a red headpiece, David’s is green. Throughout the run, it’s a handy way to differentiate the two versions of the character who wore otherwise identical costumes. Or at least it is when the colourists aren’t occasionally getting it wrong.
“Will Payton or Layton or whatever his name was, died in space”
We could talk about Will himself a lot more, but let’s save it until it becomes even more relevant. For now, just know that the death in space being referred to occurred in the pages of the 1992 crossover event Eclipso: The Darkness Within. In that series, Will was one of the first heroes to be possessed by the titular villain, and was used as his pawn to fight other heroes throughout the run. He ultimately sacrificed himself to help defeat Eclipso.
OR DID HE?
So here he is, then: Jack Knight. After the misdirection of the opening pages (although it’s only really misdirection if you didn’t look at the cover) our new lead character makes his first appearance.
Well, actually, it’s his second appearance. His first came on a single page in Zero Hour #1 (actually the fourth issue of that series – the numbers counted downwards) in which he was also present while Ted was handing the cosmic rod over to David. Amusingly, his first line of dialogue is “Good luck, bro! I wouldn’t want that gig.” Do you see what they were doing, do you?
In a nice continuity touch, the distinctive shirt Jack is seen wearing later in this issue was replicated by Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway in Zero Hour, presumably based on notes from Harris and/or Robinson. Ordway would later write Jack during a notable crossover between Starman and another title.
Zero Hour, incidentally, is the reason why this series begins with #0 and not #1 – every DC book that month, including the new series launches, was numbered #0.
“Big Little books”
The first mention of a collectable item that we’ll have to go and do some actual research about, Big Little books are a format of fiction book initially popularised by the Whitman Publishing Company. The first, Adventures of Dick Tracy, was published in 1932, and several other publishers would replicate the format in the decades that followed.
“Major Matt Mason dolls”
An action figure series first produced by Mattel in 1966, Major Matt Mason was a gloriously retro-futuristic astronaut.
The line had largely disappeared by the 1970s, and has interestingly never made it into any kind of fictional adaptation, but a movie was purportedly in development by Tom Hanks and Graham Yost in the early 2010s.
“Lemmy Caution paperbacks”
Lemmy Caution was, unusually for the time, an American FBI agent created by a British author, Peter Cheyney. Ten novels were published between 1936 and 1945, with an Australian radio series in the 1940s. Interestingly, the character proved popular in France, with a series of French-language films produced between the 1950s and early ‘90s in which he was played by Eddie Constantine.
Tru-Vue was a brand of stereoscope viewer, similar to Viewmaster but not as famous. However, Viewmaster doesn’t fit as easily into the title of a famous Madonna song, so, swings and roundabouts.
One of DC’s famed fictional cities, originally home to the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, and first appearing in January 1940’s Flash Comics #1. Also a city in which one of this series’ major characters spent a lot of time.
A Golden Age hero who originally fought Nazis (and then crime) under the name of Star-Spangled Kid, Sylvester was linked to the Starman mythos in the 1970s, when Ted Knight lent him his Cosmic Rod technology, which was later fashioned into the more convenient belt that Ted mentions here.
In the 1980s, he took on the name Skyman and was a major player in the Infinity Inc series (which dealt with the lineage of the JSA), before being killed by Solomon Grundy in 1988.
Created for this series by Robinson and Harris, Kyle is the son of… well, that would be a spoiler at this point, wouldn’t it?
Well, now, this is a heavy page – Robinson using an extreme volume of references to the old stuff that’s being destroyed in Jack’s shop to effectively get across the kind of things he’s into. Not that these are a comprehensive overview of his personality, but they certainly help to flesh him out – and even if you don’t know what they are, just the listing of them starts to give you a bit of an idea about him.
But if you do want to know what they are, well…
“Cheney Brothers ties from ’48, designed by Tina Lesser”
Cheney Brothers were pioneers of silk production in the USA, active in Manchester, Connecticut from the 1830s until being bought out by J.P. Stevens in 1955.
Tina Leser (misspelled in the comic) was a fashion designer, especially prominent in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She was particularly notable for designing for movies and actresses in the 1950s, but I can’t find specific reference to her ever designing ties or working for Cheney Brothers. Maybe in the DC universe she did, though.
“A J. Allen St. John original”
American artist and illustrator (1872-1957), known for his illustrations accompanying the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter).
“Unused bolts of ‘50s Dali-designed fabric”
Yes, while better known for his paintings and sculptures, Salvador Dali’s work did find its way onto fabric, courtesy of fabric makers including Wesley Simpson. If anyone can specifically find a design of the type Jack mentions here (“park benches and triangular trees”), let us know.
“The complete Thorne Smith”
James Thorne Smith Jr (1892-1934), author of humorous fiction based largely around sex and the supernatural. Right up Jack’s street, then.
“Fifteen Sax Rhomer”
Sax Rohmer was the pseudonym of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (1883-1959), a British novelist best known for creating Fu Manchu.
“Robert Ryan’s autograph”
American actor and political activist, 1909-1973.
“Nat Nast bowling shirts”
Nat Nast is credited with inventing the trademark “action back shirt”, designed to better help bowlers with comfort and arm movement. In the company’s earliest days, bowling a perfect 300 game while wearing a Nat Nast shirt would earn you a $1,000 savings bond from them. The firm is still active today.
“Starburst Franciscan ware”
Franciscan were manufacturers of clay-based building products, who moved into pottery and tableware in 1934. In 1954, they introduced their distinctive “Starburst” line, with a distinctly atomic-age-themed design. Only in production between 1954 and 1957, the line is now hugely collectable and widely imitated.
“Dell map books”
Not, as you might think, books of maps. Dell publishing were one of the largest paperback and magazine publishers in the USA between the 1920s and 1940s, known for their pulp and humour lines. They became particularly known for their “mapbacks”, which featured on their back cover a map showing the location of the story contained within the book. There were hundreds upon hundreds of titles produced, and you can browse an extensive catalogue of them here.
“Lee railroad worker jackets”
Distinctive blue denim jackets produced by Lee Jeans since 1925. Known by Lee as the Rider jacket, and colloquially as the “Loco”.
The Shawnee are an indigenous American ethnic group. Jack could be referring to any number of Shawnee poets.
“Kamahameha Hawaiian shirts”
The first company to mass-produce Hawaiian shirts following their creation (or, to avoid an argument, “popularisation”) by Ellery Chun in the 1920s, named after the legendary king Kamehameha I.
“Half sheet poster, This Island Earth”
1955 sci-fi movie directed by Joseph M. Newman and Jack Arnold. The poster, interestingly, adds a comma into the title that isn’t otherwise there.
“Fourteen years’ worth of Colliers”
Weekly American magazine published between 1888 and 1957. You would expect that Jack’s fourteen years’ worth probably come from the latter part of that run.
“Captain Action. Mint in the box.”
A novel action figure produced between 1966 and 1968, that took the G.I. Joe concept of changeable outfits and applied it to superheroes – with licensed versions available from a wide assortment of characters including Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Phantom, the Green Hornet, Flash Gordon, Captain America and many more. No Starman one, though, that we’re aware of.
(Also, best not to ask which characters were available for it in the DC universe, given that Superman and Batman didn’t exist in the 1960s post-Crisis, and as far as we’re aware there aren’t any Spider-Man or Captain America comics kicking around.)
Created for this series by Robinson and Harris, Nash is the daughter of… well, that would be a spoiler at this point, wouldn’t it?
Stacie’s Romance of the Sea
This sign in the background seemed oddly prominent, so I wondered if it was a reference to something specific. It doesn’t seem to be… except for the fact that Tony Harris’ wife is named Stacie, so it’s presumably just a little something he threw in for her.
Phew. So that’s… well, it’s more than I intended to write for a single issue, that’s for sure. Like I say, I expect future issues will generally have far less in them to cover, so we should be able to rattle through them a fair bit more quickly! Join us next time, then, for some or all of the remainder of the Sins of the Father arc!