Saturday, September 4, 2004

As a kid, pretty much every summer was spent in the back of a car with my dog and a stack of comics while we drove around the country. I was a pretty aggressive reader of superhero comics, which is why, in the summer of 1985, I was so incredibly pleased by the publication of Who's Who: The Definitive Directory to the DC Universe. For those who missed this, it was basically full or half-page descriptions of every character who had appeared in a DC publication, ever.

For a borderline obsessive like myself, these comics were incredibly addictive. I simply could not read enough about every obscure character, particularly those who I had never actually come across in my 8 years or so of reading comics. This led to some unfortunate purchases (e.g., the Ragman miniseries) but also led to some fantastic discoveries. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the series was the incredibly inclusive approach taken by the editors (Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Bob Greenberger, if you're curious); the A-list superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) co-existed with one-shot villains (Firebug), Wild West sheriffs and cattle rustlers (Jonah Hex, Bat Lash), goofy 60's sci-fi heroes (Adam Strange, Space Cabbie) even characters as seemingly out of place as pirates and WW1 fighter pilots. Looking back on it now, the broad range of stories makes perfect sense, given the shifting tastes of a fickle comic-reading public, but at the time it seemed like it was one giant attempt to create the most incredibly fully realized parallel universe conceivable. Every era of history, every genre, seemed to be represented in these comics and, by placing them all side-by-side in Who's Who, established all of them in the same continuity.

Almost immediately after DC began publishing Who's Who, they proceeded to start mucking about with their own continuity in a truly wanton fashion. The topic is way too big to get into here (I highly recommend Scott Tipton's column for a proper explanation of Crisis on Infinite Earths), but the upshot is that DC felt that a complete reboot was in order and the wonderful sense of grand story implied by Who's Who was largely chucked out the window.

Which brings me around to Starman, James Robinson's 80-issue series regarding Jack Knight, the son of Ted Knight, aka Starman, a largely second-tier golden age hero. I had been hearing about the series for a while, and finally tracked down the first couple trade paperbacks. They were interesting, if a little ham-handedly written. The series opens with the death of the new Starman, Jack's brother David. Quite a lot of the first few issues deal with Jack's uneasy relationship with his father, his disinterest in assuming the role of Starman, guilt over his brother's death - all of which fall a little flat. Once the series gets the setup out of the way, the real appeal of the series starts to shine through.

Jack Knight is, when he's not the defender of Opal City, an antiques dealer, or, as his father derisively refers to it, a "junk collector." Fairly early on, it becomes apparent that, not only is the main character interested in collecting and appreciating junk, but so is Robinson. Not only does Robinson work every version of Starman (there have been 7 Starmen in the DC Universe - plus a Star Boy, who also shows up) into the series, but also a wide variety of discarded characters like Scalphunter, Space Cabbie, Baloon Buster, and others.

Not only is it a fantastic treat to see all these usually forgotten characters get significant story time, but, almost without exception, they are all treated with a fantastic degree of sincerity and acceptance of the character as-is. It's hard to express what I'm getting at here without a certain degree of fanboy digression, so here goes.

DC, throughout it's pre-1985 existence generally took a pretty lax attitude towards continuity. A given character's personality, skills, attitude, etc. could vary wildly depending on who was writing. Some changes got explained away as parallel earth versions of the same character (which is why Batman was able to both fight crime in the 80's as well as during World War II), but most were simply ignored. Crisis on Infinite Earths was supposed to remedy this by giving the writers a clean slate and allowing them to basically start from scratch. Of course, this made things much worse as writers like John Byrne and George Perez decided this gave them free reign to ditch massive amounts of character mythology, completely invalidating years of storytelling.

Robinson, in Starman, takes a much more respectful route. Every story about a character is all equally true. This often necessitates huge amounts of re-working in order to justify all the past stories, but the convoluted narrative twists only add to the character without taking anything away from the previous stories. My favorite example of this is his treatment of Solomon Grundy, the chalky, hulking, usually violent thug that has been a DC fixture for 70 years or so. Grundy is sometimes written as a sub-verbal beast, sometimes fairly intelligent. Sometimes he is viewed as more of a force of nature who destroys out of fear, or sometimes he's actively evil - plotting and scheming with the best of them. Robinson gives Grundy a proper backstory and explains that Grundy grows a new version of himself every time he dies. Each version is keyed off the same core personality, but has slight variations. If this seems needlessly complex, this is nothing compared to the justifications for the disparate characterizations of the Shade, or even the early 90's, mullet-wearing incarnation of Starman.

I'm kind of curious to see how a non-comics geek would respond to the comic. I'm fairly certain the story and characters (and, particularly, the sense of place created in his depiction of Opal City) are strong enough to appeal to reader on whom the continuity aspects are lost, but, for a comics fan, there is no greater geeky thrill that watching continuity work the way it should.

All in all, the series kind of feels like the world's greatest string of No-Prize attempts as Robinson twists and turns his story in order to make every disparate aspect of the DC Universe fit together again, granting it all the kind of continuity and coherence Who's Who has asserted from the beginning.

Rating: A

Reviewed by Padgett Arango
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