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, Jack Knight. We’re taking a (very) detailed look at the series’ references to DC’s superhero history, pop culture, collectables, and a lot more besides.
It’s taking us a while to get through the early issues due to the sheer density of references and world-building that’s going on – but I expect that after this entry, rounding off the series’ first story arc, we’ll be able to get through the issues more quickly, as there’ll naturally be fewer characters and concepts reintroduced. Well, you’d think, but we’ll see…
Anyway, on with issues #2 and #3 of the series, which complete the four-part Sins of the Father arc.
“Sins of the Father (Part III of IV) – Mercy”
James Robinson (w), Tony Harris (p), Wade von Grawbadger (i), John E. Workman (l), Gregory Wright (c), Chuck Kim, Jim Spivey, Archie Goodwin (e)
Note: A typo on the cover incorrectly dates this issue as December 1995
A new name on the credits page for this issue: Chuck Kim is the new assistant editor. As of next issue, associate editor Jim Spivey will be gone, and it’ll be Goodwin and Kim on editing duties for a good long while. After his editorial career, Kim would go on to write for the TV show Heroes.
Starman. Animal Man. Superboy (Kon-El). Rogue. There’s something about a 1990s superhero wearing a jacket that I just bloody love.
Perhaps a legacy of writer James Robinson’s Britishness, “Crackerjack” is here written as one word. But it’s not actually referring to the BBC kids’ TV show that ran from 1955-1984 – rather, to the American snack brand. Cracker Jack is a bag of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts that would usually come packaged with some kind of cheap prize. Yes, plastic sheriff’s badges did number among them.
This badge, and its place in Jack’s collection, will later be referenced in Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #0 (July 1999), which flashes back to a meeting between Sylvester “Star Spangled Kid” Pemberton and the teenaged punk incarnation of Jack.
Sneakily dropped in among Jack’s collection of badges. Do we really have to explain this one?
Sneakily dropped in among Jack’s collection of badges. Do we really have to explain this one?
Rag Doll t-shirt
There were allusions to the super-villain Rag Doll on multiple occasions in issue #1, and we discussed them there without going into detail about the character himself. We’ll do the same regarding Jack’s t-shirt, because the shirt itself is going to be directly addressed in a future issue very soon.
“Call Wade now!”
Presumably a reference to inker Wade von Grawbadger, though if it was put there by him or Harris is maybe less than certain.
The poster of Boris Karloff in the 1932 Universal classic monster movie is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that, just a couple of years earlier, Tony Harris had worked on a comic book adaptation of the film.
Inferno is the first, and by title most famous, part of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). Telling as it does the story of the narrator’s journey through hell, it’s hard not to see this as deliberately prefiguring events to come later in the series.
I can’t recall a time in the series when we actually see Jack smoking, but the ashtray and packet of Camels here suggest that he does. Maybe he gives it up as part of becoming a super-hero? Doesn’t seem like something he’d do, but you never know.
“World War II anti-flare goggles”
Jack Knight, as many people will point out to him over the course of the series, doesn’t dress like a superhero. He doesn’t conceal his identity, and he doesn’t wear a brightly coloured costume. But he does still have a costume, even if he doesn’t think of himself as doing. Sure, he wears his own clothes, but he has his star-insigna jacket (even if he sometimes flies around without it), he carries his cosmic rod… and he has these goggles. It’s a really nice piece of writing to come up with a practical reason for him to wear something that falls squarely within the superhero genre conventions. Jack’s goggles, while not intended to conceal his identity, are his “mask”. They’re a recognisable superhero-style accoutrement that remind us that he is still playing that role, no matter how much he might tell us that he isn’t.
“It must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain”
The Shade does a handy job of annotating this quotation from Much Ado About Nothing himself, so we don’t need to explain it much more than he does. It does, however, say a lot about their respective characters that Shade would reference a slightly less well-known comedy rather than one of the great tragedies; and that the Mist, while recognising the cadence of Shakespeare, would only be able to call to mind Hamlet.
Plus, of course, the Shade is certainly not “plain-dealing”, and arguably not even a “villain”. But we’ll get there.
“When we killed Wildcat”
There have been several costumed heroes named Wildcast, but the one referenced here is the pugilist-turned-vigilante Ted Grant, who first appeared in 1942’s Sensation Comics #1, and was an early mainstay of both the All-Star Squadron and the Justice Society. We’ll meet him later in the series.
The Invisible Hood
A Quality Comics character who first appeared in Smash Comics #1 (1939), and was later acquired by DC and used in their retrospective, WW2-set Freedom Fighters stories.
With no post-war appearances taking place between then and this comic (rare enough for just about any DC character) Robinson was freely able to retrospectively have him be killed off back in 1974.
Somewhat obscure villain – not to be confused with Mr Freeze, Captain Cold or anyone else with freezing powers – who first appeared in 1947’s All-American Comics #90 to menace the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott. Killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths and replaced by his son after that. Made a brief appearance in the Flash TV show as the father of Caitlin Snow, aka Killer Frost.
“I don’t age.”
Although it could be reasonably inferred by his appearing in this series looking the same age as he did in his earliest appearances, this is our first confirmation of Shade’s retconned immortality.
Neon the Unknown
At the time of this issue, a largely forgotten Golden Age character created by Jerry Iger for Quality Comics in 1940, one of many characters then purchased by DC and used in their Freedom Fighters and other WW2-set comics. More recently, however, has been revived and revamped for use in Steve Orlando’s critical hit The Unexpected.
Another Quality Comics character, created by Max Elkan and first appearing in Hit Comics in 1941. Unlike many of his peers, however, Foster (who went by the name “The Great Defender”) never actually directly made it across to DC stories, until Robinson picked him up for some brief appearances in The Golden Age (a miniseries that served as a precursor to Starman, and which these notes will doubtless alight on further in future) this reference here, and an equally brief reference in his 2009 Superman run.
The Human Bomb
Probably the best-known of the characters referenced here, the Human Bomb was a mainstay of the Freedom Fighters and the All-Star Squadron in their 1970s-published flashback stories, despite (or perhaps because of) his unusual powers. Created by Paul Gustavson for Quality’s Police Comics in 1941.
A word more commonly used in DC Comics to denote the secret identities of characters such as Bruce Wayne and, as it happens, Ted Knight. But obviously, Jack’s talking here about the men’s magazine founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953.
“Bakelite desk lamps”
Bakelite was the first ever synthetically produced plastic compound – developed by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907 – and as such was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century for the production of all manner of household items. Particularly notable were classic-style rotary phones made of the stuff.
“Funny. Smell. The sea. Salty. And… limes? Caraway seed?”
These lines prefigure the appearance of a recurring character who’ll show up in later arcs. Always with the forward planning, that Robinson.
Those of you familiar with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman run may be familiar – or you may not, even – with the fact that Gaiman repurposed several “storyteller” characters from DC’s 1970s anthology titles to be characters in the Dreaming; to wit, Cain, Abel and Eve. Here, Robinson pulls the same trick, by pulling a previously-unnamed witch character from the 1972-74 title Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, naming her Charity, and setting her up as a fortune teller in Opal City.
Charity’s shop, “Fortunes & Forbidden Tales”, is therefore a reference to her previous series, as is her mention of having previously lived in a “Dark Mansion”. It’s a little nod to DC history for those who’ll spot it rather than anything particularly essential to her character going forwards; although the line “saying something was ‘forbidden’ made my tales seem worth the coin they paid to hear them” does perhaps feel slightly like a commentary on the original comics.
Artist Tony Harris, meanwhile, modelled Charity on his wife Stacie.
“My Salinger and my Faulkner”
Jerome David (“J.D.”) Salinger (1919-2010) and William Cuthbert Faulkner (1897-1962), American authors of some repute.
(Hey, bonus prize if you know the connection between J.D. Salinger and superhero movies? Answer at the end.)
“I see you in the East… the Far East. You’re at a burial. There’s a blessing and needles and paint there, too.”
“You’ll go into space. Deep outer space. There are other worlds out there. You’ll go to one of them… and hate every minute of it.”
We’ve already mentioned a couple of times the long-term planning that Robinson put into the book – and here, even more explicitly than before, he casts reference to various things he was planning to do with the character.
The trip into space, of course, will be a major part of the second half of the book’s run, although the reference to only one world suggests that those plans shifted significantly by the time it came around (something for which there were of course off-the-page reasons, which we’ll come to).
As for the “Far East” story, that’s one that never actually takes place in the pages of the book, but which Robinson pledged would be told in the future. We’re still waiting, sadly.
“And a winged man will come to Opal City. He knew your father too… and yet he didn’t. That point… it’s vague. Even I can’t make sense of it.”
While there is a winged character who shows up in Opal much later in the series, that’s not who’s being referred to here. In fact, Robinson had plans to bring Hawkman into the book – hence the reference to vagueness and possibly knowing Ted Knight, thanks to the complex and variable histories of the character. But for assorted editorial reasons, the team were ultimately unable to use Hawkman – we’ll see a reference to this change in prediction from Charity down the line.
“Oh, and you’ll have a night at the circus like none other.”
This one, meanwhile, prefigures something that’s going to happen very soon. So we don’t need to go into too much detail about it now.
“It was 1950. The first week. Washington.”
You might think that this is a date that Robinson has plucked out of the air, due to the original Starman adventures not running past the end of the 1940s. But you’d be wrong! 1991’s Justice Society of America miniseries, by Len Strazewski and Mike Parobek, was a flashback story set in, yes, 1950.
In the series, Ted’s Cosmic Rod was stolen by Vandal Savage, necessitating him building a second one to defeat the immortal villain – in the process, destroying the original. The events actually took place in New Mexico – said to be the location of Ted Knight’s observatory – but the change in detail by Robinson can presumably be put down to some kind of post-Crisis shuffling.
This series also established that Ted was out of action as Starman in the early 1950s, a plot point that Robinson will make a major feature of in this run.
The Cosmic Rod
And so Jack gets his hands on his rod (stop it, you lot at the back) for the first time. Turning the Rod from a handheld device into a staff was the design of Robinson and Harris, and a masterstroke in terms of giving Jack Knight’s Starman a distinctive look and feel.
The design we see here is not the final form of Jack’s version of the Rod, however – the tip is based on the original Ted Knight design, but we’ll see that refined in later issues. Probably, in all honesty, to ensure it looks a bit less like a big throbbing dong.
“As the actress said to the bishop”
See, look, even Jack can’t hold back from making jokes about it. This expression probably owes much to Robinson’s native British tongue, but you can well imagine Jack having picked it up from Simon The Saint Templar.
Wikipedia makes a comparison to the American phrase (beloved of The Office’s Michael Scott) “That’s what she said”, which is about the best possible way of describing it.
Beginning with this issue, Robinson starts to – whenever he gets the opportunity – use the extra space at the end of the book to present us with prose excerpts of the Shade’s journal. These excerpts comprise assorted vignettes of varying length that ultimately tell one long-form narrative, and in some ways enlighten what happens in the pages of the comic. However, due to already-barely-manageable length of these annotations, I won’t be tackling them as they appear. There’s just too much to include, otherwise!
If we ever get to the end of the series, though, I might run through the journal as an addendum.
“Sins of the Father (Part IV of IV) – Night F(l)ight”
James Robinson (w), Tony Harris (p), Wade von Grawbadger (i), John E. Workman (l), Gregory Wright (c), Chuck Kim, Archie Goodwin (e)
“I sometimes grow a goatee”
A common characteristic of superheroes is that they rarely vary their look – or, if they do, it’s as part of a whole-scale redesign. In Jack’s case, however, due to his not taking on the standard superhero trappings, he often looks different from arc to arc – from his clothes, to the fact that he’s sometimes seen sporting a beard and sometimes not. We haven’t seen him with the beard yet, but this line prepares us for the possibility.
Almost certainly the most famous brand of stereoscope viewer and film, View-Masters were introduced in 1939, and reached a peak of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. As a mid-century pop culture object fashioned in Bakelite (later standard plastic), it’s no surprise that they’re a favoured collectable not just of Jack, but (as he reveals at one point in backmatter) James Robinson himself.
“Justice Society in the Macy’s parade”
I’ve always liked the idea that in superhero universes, superheroes are themselves fodder for merchandising and other cultural opportunities, so it’s nice to see a nod to that here. Of course there would have been JSA View-Masters in the 1950s.
Lee Jun-fan (1940-1973), almost certainly the most significant Asian-American figure in modern pop culture, and the defining martial artist of, well, ever. But you knew that, right?
New York World’s Fair
The poster in the background at Jack’s place could be from either of the famous New York World’s Fairs in 1939/40 and 1964/65. Knowing Jack I would have assumed the latter, but looking up assorted poster designs it seems slightly more likely to represent the former.
“Rock the Boat” by the Hughes Corporation
A 1973 hit single and something of a disco standard, as one of the earliest examples of the genre. Not technically a one-hit wonder, but not far off.
Nat King Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles (1919-1965). Jazz singer and pianist, and owner of one of the most famous voices in recording history.
Soul/R&B group from Canton, Ohio, formed in 1958 and still active today with two of their original members surviving. Probably most famous for the song “Love Train”.
American musician born 1956, who brought 1950s crooner-stylings to the 1990s, most notably with his (actually 1989) single “Wicked Game”.
Not remotely cool, which makes him an odd comparison for Jack to make; but then, maybe a 1990s man obsessed with the stylings of the 1950s is exactly the kind of person Jack would find cool.
“Like spies in a Len Deighton novel”
British author Len Deighton (born 1929) is most famous for his spy novels, including The IPCRESS File (1962) and associated sequels, with its hero played on the screen by Michael Caine.
Tower of Power
American R&B-based horn section and band, originating in Oakland, California, first formed in 1968. Probably more famed for their many appearances with other artists than their own records.
“Roy Rogers Quaker Oats souvenir cup”
Roy Rogers (born Leonard Franklin Slye), 1911-1998, was an American cowboy actor and singer who appeared under the same name in a long-running film and TV series of the same name. The souvenir cup given away by Quaker Oats featuring his likeness is a popular 1950s collectible.
I Seem to be a Verb by R. Buckminster Fuller
I hadn’t heard of the author Jack quotes here, but reading that he was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist who published more than 30 books, coining or popularising terms such as “Spaceship Earth”, “Dymaxion” house/car, ephemeralization, synergetic, and “tensegrity”, developed numerous inventions, mainly architectural designs, and popularized the widely known geodesic dome, and served as the second World President of Mensa from 1974 to 1983, really makes me feel inadequate for spending my life pointing out references in superhero comics on the internet.
“And once. He was Starman.”
Well, here we are. Three of the most important pages in the whole of the Starman series, and ones that still give a shiver down the spine when I read them. In quick succession we’re being shown images of not one, not two, but three of the men who have born the name of Starman before Jack Knight but after Ted Knight.
The first, shown here, is Mikaal Tomas. Created by Gerry Conway and Mike Vosburg, he had at this point only appeared in one previous comic: First Issue Special #12, in 1976. An alien from a race who planned to conquer Earth who rebelled against his people, he had powers of flight and energy by way of a crystal worn around his neck, and was named not out of any reference to Ted Knight, but after the David Bowie song of the same name that had become a hit in 1972.
When Starman began, there were people in the letters pages who wondered if the series was going to give any recognition to the characters who had borne the name after Ted. Here, then, was a quite resounding answer.
It’s not remarked upon in the captions, but on this page we get our look at the next prior Starman. The statue is of Prince Gavyn, the Starman created by Paul Levitz and Steve Ditko in 1980. Gavyn featured in twelve issues of fairly by-the-numbers space opera in the pages of Adventure Comics before next appearing – and dying – in 1985’s Crisis on Infinity Earths.
The comic very deliberately isn’t making a point out of drawing attention to him for now, so we’ll address him in some more detail when the time is right.
“His name is Will Payton. And once… he, too, was Starman.”
YEAH HE WAS.
So, Will Payton: the fourth (well, possibly not the fourth when you take various factors into account, but let’s call him “the fourth” now for simplicity’s sake) iteration of Starman, and the first to get his own series.
We covered him a little bit back in part one, because we had to mention him in the context of David Knight; but to recap, he starred in a 45 issue series by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle between 1988 and 1992. He was completely unconnected to any previous Starman (he got his name from his solar-energy-derived powers) but as mentioned, he did have an encounter with David Knight partway through his run.
Over the course of those 45 issues, he had some adventures, got two different costumes, interacted with a whole bunch of DC characters, and just generally participated in one of the most characteristically late-80s DC superhero books you could imagine.
All was going swimmingly until his series got cancelled and he was deemed the perfect candidate to be a major sacrifice during…
“… against a man with the moon in his face.”
… 1992’s summer crossover event, Eclipso: The Darkness Within. Will was the first hero possessed by Eclipso, the “man with the moon in his face”, triggering the events of the series; but made up for it by sacrificing himself to stop the villain.
And he hadn’t been seen since. Which actually isn’t that long a time – remember, the comic we’re talking about is from late 1994 – but still, with the launch of an entirely new Starman series linked so heavily to the original character, readers could be forgiven for thinking that Will would have been completely consigned to history.
This, happily, would not be the case. But we’ll find out just how and why in issues to come. For now, with the series’ first major arc complete, it’s time to take a breather…
Trivia answer: J.D. Salinger’s son Matt played Captain America in the less-than-impressive 1990 movie adaptation of the same name.