I originally bought Starman as individual comics in the mid-90’s and then purchased them again (in graphic novel format called “Sins of the Father”) around ten years ago, so this actually marks my third reading of this collection (I seem to get around to reading them every decade or so), which- in and of itself- says something good about the quality of Starman.
Starman comics and “Sins of the Father” in particular are/ is dynamite work!
To begin with Jack Knight, aka Starman, the hero himself, is a great character. He is a reluctant hero, a 90’s urban hipster who would rather be managing his vintage-collectibles shop or getting fresh tattoos instead of fighting evil. He is only begrudgingly brought into the world of superheroics. He also has a big mouth, and I find it inspiring that he is both very likable (in terms of being human) and just a little bit of a prick, enough so that he is not lovable. (I think that’s why people like Bruce Wayne/ Batman too)
The creator, James Robinson, gives the entire comic a nice, rich depth. Here are some examples of things that I love:
Jack Knight (our hero) is a avid collector of vintage art and artifacts and constantly spouting off about things like retro-ties, collector mugs, old vinyl, or old comic books. For anyone who collects comics (eg: most of the readers) it’s an instant connection. He is a geek like us! He is one of us!
“Sins of the Father” is not afraid to look at the shades of gray within the framework human morality. An aging psychotic villain can also be a poor, tired, demented old man. A superhero can by so full of himself that no one can stand him. An ageless villain who thinks little of killing his enemies can also save the day. Jack’s world is complicated and morally ambiguous. The tinkering hero who can create marvelous devices can be called out for failing to use his skills to help humanity. Resolutions are rarely neat. Victories strike a bitter note. Losses and defeats leave hopeful calling cards.
The plotwork here is also graceful. The story bobs and weaves in unexpected ways from the get-go, including the initial “fall” of David Knight that starts the whole story. The plot of one episode called “A Day at the Opal” has one of the best twists ever; when a smooth-operator, bad-guy enforcer confronts Jack about a magical Hawaiian shirt. It’s a confrontation that ends with a great little comic twist. Probably one of my favorite plot twists in all of comicdom.
The supporting cast is great to. From Theodore Knight (Jacks’ earnestly “square” father) to the O’Dares (a red-headed family of hard-working cops) to the mysterious “Shade” who has an agenda all his own, all of them- even the villains- are interesting and well-crafted. You can tell that the person who made these characters loved them all.
And then there is the setting, Opal City itself. Presented as visually stunning (literally visually stunning as this is a comic book) and filling up the background of the story, it demands our attention and admiration. You know all those film makers who make movies that are a love story to Manhattan or Paris (or Middle Earth)? James Robinson is like that, except in comic book format.
The characters, plot and setting come together to form a might good synthesis. A comic book that is sparky and alive. Touching and funny. Tough and muddy and bloody. A comic that favors the literary wonk (with quotes borrowed from Shakespeare among others), and the lifelong comic book fan (with nods to the Golden Age of comics), and just those who love a great story.
Interestingly, my feelings about the art itself is mixed. On the plus side, Opal City, the backdrop of the series, is visually stunning and admire the artist(s) who spent so much time creating the place, which feels like a Victorian-Art-Deco metropolis. In my eyes, it captures the best parts of Hartford and Boston. (In fact, it is suggested that Opal City is somewhere near Hartford, CT.) I also admire the liberal use of black and gray ink (Starman really does use 50 shades of gray and probably half a dozen shades of black, ranging from midnight charcoal to glossy-vinyl black).
Still- at other times- the art gets chunky and bumpy. Characters’ faces change from page to page and sometimes even from panel to panel. In one panel, Jack’s nose will be long and sharp, and in the next one, his nose will be smaller but his head is bigger. In some panels he looks like he’s 16 and then later, more like he’s in his 40’s. This might be a convention of sorts (I remember similar stuff in DC’s Sandman comics) but it just bugs me. The other things that I find annoying is that use of perspective really distorts images.
People leaning “towards the camera” (that is to say- towards us) seem to have gigantic heads and torsos. I know that perspective changes the way we see things, but the Starman comics tend to exaggerate this, as though we are viewing everything throug a fish-eye lens.
And finally- I’m sorry to say this- but whoever is illustrating this (Tony Harris according to the notes) cannot draw hands. Hands are always too big, too small, too “veiny”, or weirdly lumpy, or poorly articulated. It’s distracting.
But my mixed feelings about the art aside, I cannot recommenced “Sins of the Father” enough. Particularly considering the time it was published, it cut fresh new ground in a market where there weren’t enough risks being taken. And it’s a might-fine story.