Oct 10, 2012

Starman Retrospective, Day 3: Opal City

Welcome to Day 3 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on James Robinson, Tony Harris, and Peter Snejberg's STARMAN. You can read about this series here.


The first page in the entire STARMAN saga is a shot of Opal City. The captions describe its atmosphere and its history.

As the series progresses, we learn more about Opal City and are treated to panoramic shots and desciptions of the various boroughs. James Robinson in fact states in the back matter of STARMAN #0:

In the course of this book, I intend to create this city — give it streets you recognize by the landmarks; give it a design sense all its own. Fortunately, I'm collaborating with Tony Harris, an artist who not only shares that vision, but has the visual talent and skill to bring off the architectural diversity we have in mind. We want the Opal City skyline to be so distinctive that you'll recognize it without a caption or any verbal indication of where you are. Starman's home.

Within only a handful of issues, they do just that. In the captions accompanying establishing shots, Robinson would insert bits and pieces of the town's history, while Tony Harris would show what the Opal, as it's called, was all about. Sometimes, you'd get beautiful panoramic shots.

Sometimes it's more piecemeal. In one notable sequence, Alan Scott and Jack fly around Opal, talking while comparing the members of the JSA to the Mercury Seven (they don't explain who the Mercury Seven are; it's up to you to pick up what you can and learn on your own, which is an approach I've always been partial to). Each panel is in a different part of Opal, and Harris draws the background in every single panel. In that way, it truly involves the reader, as pictures and text give you totally different pieces of information that come together in your mind as a whole.

The unique art deco style of Opal City makes it perfect for our title character, as Jack loves old things and makes his living dealing old things. Jack's mind is constantly on the past — not his past, but the past in the general sense — and it's what makes him and Opal such a hand-in-glove fit. Despite the leather jacket and the goggles, Jack is a callback to a bygone era. Especially in the 90s, when everything was more and more about moral ambiguity, STARMAN stands out as having clear-cut heroes and villains. This following monologue by the Mist would have been out of place in any book and in any setting that's not STARMAN or Opal.

This mix of atmosphere, setting, and characters is so fitting for the series that it's almost dependent on that alchemy to really work. Most STARMAN readers agree that the weakest arc in the entire series is the one where Jack and Mikaal go into space to search for Will Payton. Without Opal as a backdrop, something was missing. (The length of the arc and Harris' departure from the series, along with Pete Snejberg taking some time to really find his footing, probably contributed to it too.) This is also evident in a Mist-centric issue, in which she fights some former Justice League members in France, and those characters were also talking like they stepped out of Opal. It didn't really go over very well — at one point, Firestorm, long a casual, laid back, young hero says of a nuclear device, "I can transmute such a thing. Turn it to flower petals and pixie dust." It would have worked if an Opal hero were saying it, if a Golden Ager were saying it, and maybe it would have worked if Firestorm said it in Opal (but I doubt it) — it doesn't work not just because it's so out of character for Firestorm, but also because it's so structured and formal that it simply doesn't work outside of the regular context of the series.

And yet, when Jack Knight went to New York City, the story didn't feel out of place at all, and that's probably because he had Wesley Dodds, the original Sandman, with him.

Some heroes such as Batman and Captain Marvel don't really go very well in the atmosphere that Opal City sets, and in fact, it's that contrast that highlights Opal's features, as well as Jack's in general. Other heroes, however, fit perfectly, like any of the Golden Age heroes, Superman, the new Black Condor and Phantom Lady, and, my personal favorite Opal City fit: Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man.

Under the pens of James Robinson and Peter Snejberg, Ralph Dibny looked like an actual detective and a competent superhero instead of a comedy figure for the first time in a long time, without sacrificing the visual spectacle that made him a lighthearted figure to begin with. And maybe all he really needed was a setting that both embraced his quirkiness and let him play it straight. Maybe all he needed was Opal.

Opal also produced its own share of interesting characters, and so STARMAN has one of the most varied and fun supporting casts in history. The most "normal" of the characters is Jack's girlfriend Sadie, who, as we'd eventually learn, still has connections to the superhumans prior to meeting Jack. Beyond her, there's Charity the fortune teller, the circus freaks that Jack saves (including Octavia, a tentacled woman he sleeps with one drunken night) in the second storyline, and the O'Dares, who are the children of Billy O'Dare, Ted's friend on the police force when he was active as Starman, and descendants of Carny O'Dare, one of the first policemen in Opal City.

The O'Dares give Jack a solid supporting cast in terms of helping him to gather information and catch criminals, but they also lend a sense of history to the series due to their lineage (which didn't exist prior to this series, proving that history is something that could be created in serial fiction and not just something where you have to work with what already exists). But they also are interesting characters in their own right. Clarence, the oldest, is the most responsible the closest thing Jack has to a Commissioner Gordon. Hope is an Irish spitfire. Mason, the only one still in uniform, barely speaks. Barry is the only one Jack doesn't feel like he knows well enough. And Matt is the corrupt cop who eventually sees the error of his ways when he finds out that he's the reincarnation of Brian Savage, Keh-Woh-Noh-Tay — the Western hero known as the Scalphunter. Savage was Opal's first sheriff, and one of his deputies was Carny O'Dare. There's this wonderful circular feeling when reading STARMAN, figuring out that the history of the city and the characters is just as important as what's going on in the present.

No article about Opal City would be complete, of course, without The Shade. An immortal villain, seen since the Golden Age but active well before then, very little was known about the manipulator of darkness, until this series, in which it's made clear that he'd always lived in Opal City, always left Opal City alone, and no matter what happened, he loved Opal City and would be there to protect it, which, of course, made it all the more shocking when he started destroying it during "Grand Guignol," the series' penultimate story arc.

The Shade, more than any character other than the Knights, was synonymous with Opal City, and we'll get to him more on Friday. But his immortality and the fact that he was Brian Savage's best friend, among many other things about him, really infused this series with a sense of history, lending it gravitas and a poignancy that was unique in itself, and certainly unusual among mainstream superhero comics. But why? Don't all mainstream superhero comics have to deal and work with continuity?

And there's the difference. STARMAN was embedded in history. Not continuity.

Tomorrow: History, not Continuity, the difference between the two, and how STARMAN used them to maximum effect!

For your convenience, STARMAN:


London Elliott said...

It comes as no surprise to me to find out that one of my favorite arcs (Jack in space discovering the Gavyn/Payton connection) is one of the least popular.

It did, however, surprise me when Robinson laid out the O'Dare/Scalphunter connection. I found it a wonderfully unique idea.

Duy Tano said...

I do really like the space arc, as that is how I discovered the series to begin with, but it did go on too long and it was the transition period between Tony and Peter. It's not that I hate it; just that if I were to rank the storylines, it'd be near the bottom. (There are no bad storylines in Starman, for me.)

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