Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
As with just about any medium, comics are quite fond of Christmas specials. This year alone, DC have put out two festive-themed titles in the week leading up to Christmas – the not-bad Hellblazer #250 anthology special, and the not-good DCU Holiday Special – and it’s something of a tradition for at least one or two big titles somewhere to break format and tell a Christmassy tale. Upon deciding to do a Dusting Off Christmas Special of our own, there were a few different issues I pondered looking at, including the Paul Dini Detective Comics story “Slayride” from a couple of years back, and 1997’s grisly Hitman #22 .
But I’ve settled for this issue of James Robinson’s superb Starman run, published when the book was pretty much at the height of its powers (in the trade collections, you can find it in book three, A Wicked Inclination, which is probably the best of the lot except for the epic Grand Guignol). As a gathering of breath and summation of the book’s current state of play following the “Demon Quest” storyline, it works well – gathering the core cast together in one place (Clarence O’Dare’s house) for Christmas dinner lets us see the then-current state of their various relationships and interactions. Of particular note is the appearance by the Shade, having properly proven himself for the first time to be on the path towards… well, “heroism” is probably the wrong word to describe the Shade, but he certainly becomes the book’s morally-ambiguous heart as it goes on.
To be fair, as a story about Jack encountering a homeless guy dressed as Santa, helping him recover a stolen locket (containing a picture of his dead family), and eventually inviting him around to the O’Dares’ for Christmas dinner, it veers dangerously towards – and at times into – outright schmaltz. But then, that’s something that Starman was guilty of on occasion anyway – as a character-driven story with a strong moral centre, rooted in nostalgia and ideas of heroism, it was kind of an occupational hazard. If you were reading it at this point (and despite effectively “summing up” the book’s state of play, it’s not so much of a deliberate jumping-on point as the excellent Bobo Benetti issue that would follow a couple of months later), the tone wouldn’t be a complete shock, particularly at the time of year.
With the exception of the deliberate fill-in Times Past issues, meanwhile, this was the first “regular” issue not to feature Tony Harris on art – duties instead taken by Steve Yeowell, who would later become the series’ main artist for a short time inbetween Harris and Peter Snejbjerg. To be honest, though, I’m not sure he completely nailed it either here or when he took over – Harris had created such a specific (and such a brilliant) visual style for the book, and it’s one that Yeowell struggles to match. Snejbjerg’s style was different too, but he at least seemed to get a sense of these strongly-defined characters looking like the same people – but Yeowell’s versions look a bit more generic (his Shade, in particular, is just too darned upbeat-looking). It’s not that he’s a bad artist – in fact, he’s a bloody good artist – but he just wasn’t really the right fit for the series. Still, in the context of a one-off Christmas issue, it matters a bit less, and if his character versions aren’t perfect, there’s generally a nice look to the whole thing, and technically it’s typically strong.
There’s nothing particularly sharp about the issue – which is unusual for Starman – but it’s a pleasantly diverting tale in keeping with the tone of a Christmas special. While I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking to get a sense of what Starman was all about or just why it was so bloomin’ fantastic, it’s still a relatively accessible read, and does a nice job of telling an appropriately heartwarming seasonal yarn.