Oct 8, 2012

Starman Retrospective, Day 1: The Knights, Jack and Ted and David

Welcome to Day 1 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on James Robinson, Tony Harris, and Peter Snejberg's STARMAN. You can read about this series here.

Jack and Ted and David

The main character of STARMAN is Jack Knight, a junk dealer from Opal City who, because of his lineage, inherits a cosmic rod that lets him harness energy from the stars for flight, energy projection, and other offensive and defensive capabilities. Jack is one of the most well-defined characters in mainstream comic books, and it's because we get really specific looks into his head. Unlike, for example, Peter Parker, who is relatable by virtue of having traits that are universal, Jack's tastes are so specific. He's a bit of an elitist and likes the fact that his girlfriend Sadie knows who the Valentine Brothers are. He enjoys EC Comics and Robert Mitchum movies. He knows some martial arts, but only because he went through a period when he just got really into it and decided to learn until he was bored.

Jack also doesn't want to be a hero. He thinks costumes are silly, and would rather be discussing a found Alfred Hitchcock screenplay than fight the bad guys. He's also probably relatable to comic book fans in that he legitimately enjoys collecting stuff that he deems are valuable — the hunt is a source of thrills for him as well as income.

In today's comic book field where it seems that a lot of writers go so far as to make their protagonists as relatable and general as possible in terms of their minute details such as tastes and passing fancies, Jack is proof that you can add very minute details to a character and still achieve relatibility.

The main character of the STARMAN series is Jack Knight, but he wouldn't call himself the hero of the story. "Hero," he says, is a label given to you by other people when you deserve it, not one you readily apply to yourself.

No, if we were to ask Jack Knight who the hero of STARMAN was, he would be quick to point to his father Ted, the original Starman.

Ted Knight was created by Jack Burnley and a host of writers and editors (including Mort Weisnger and Jack Schiff). He first appeared in ADVENTURE COMICS #61, dated April 1941. And as far as Golden Age heroes go, you could say he was pretty generic. He was a billionaire playboy who created a device — the cosmic rod, which lets him harness power from the stars to project light beams and enable him to fly — that would help him in his quest to fight crime. So he dons a red and green costume with a fin on the head and does just that. Ted had an arch-enemy, the Mist, a man made out of nothing but vapor, so in that sense, he was a little different. He joined the Justice Society of America but never had his own series. And but for a short-lived feature in the 60s teaming him up with the Black Canary, he barely had the spotlight on him. He was taken off DC's main stage after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and was brought back a few years later, right before Zero Hour, in which he and the rest of the JSA, kept young by supernatural forces all this time, were rapidly restored to their true ages. Too old to still be active, he passes the cosmic rod to his oldest son David, with Jack in the background, making it clear that he doesn't want the job.

That would lead right into the STARMAN series, where Ted Knight would get more character development than he ever did in 50 years of existence.

This isn't Davey's first appearance either, as he showed up in the previous STARMAN series, the one starring Will Payton, demanding that the latter give up the "Starman" name in a story by Roger Stern and Dave Hoover. As that story unfolded, it was shown that Davey was under the influence of The Mist (calling himself Nimbus, because the trend back then was to amp yourself up, or something). He would also be portrayed as too inexperienced, slightly incompetent, and more than a little harsh on himself.

Robinson would carry that over to STARMAN, and when the series starts, David is wearing the red and green, the captions saying:
"I am Starman. There is no other." David Knight had feared heights as a boy. Now he loves them. He's their master. The device... his father's cosmic device... makes him master of -- everything. With his piper's smile broadening, he steps off into space... and prepares to fly.

It's a pretty standard buildup, used to establish Davey as the hero as early as possible, which makes the next page more startling.

He gets shot. Dead. For good.

This is when Robinson turns back the clock an hour and shows us the events directly before this, quickly establishing the Knight family dynamic: Ted as the patriarch who wants, even needs, someone to carry the mantle of Starman, Davey as the son who looks up to him and defines himself by it, and Jack as the one who ostensibly doesn't, but is even perhaps more defined by the fact that he's determined not to be defined by it.

When Davey is killed — by, naturally, the Mist's son, Kyle — Jack is spurred into action in order to survive. On the run, he slowly but surely acclimates to the role, even putting on a costume of sorts: goggles to protect him from the bright lights and a jacket with an astrological star symbol on the back. If he was going to be Starman, he was gonna be Starman on his terms.

Kyle, who has stolen one of Ted's inventions, the cosmic belt, challenges Jack to a battle in the sky. And it's up there, locked in mortal combat with the son of his father's greatest enemy, that Jack could admit what he never could in Davey's life. That he didn't like him, but—

This would prove to be a trait that Jack would display throughout the series: the inability to express his emotions unless the spectre of death was in the air. It's a tiny touch, never once explicitly stated — he doesn't have long conversations about how he doesn't cry, for example — but it's a nuance that lends credibility to the well-roundedness of his character and is a defining characteristic of the family dynamic that's really at the heart of the book.

After Davey dies, Jack and Ted come to an agreement: Jack will be Starman and protect Opal City if Ted uses his scientific research to come up with new energy sources for the world. It is the start of the true development of their father-son relationship. They spend more time together and when they do, it's a highlight of the series, be it discussing Jack's junk-dealing or Ted's favorite artist.

As much as a lot of the subtlety comes from Robinson making sure that some things are left unsaid among the Knights, a lot of it also comes from Tony Harris' — and later, Peter Snejberg's — artwork. Whether it's Ted adjusting his glasses or Jack's talking with his hands, the cast in this comic really "act," as opposed to most comics in history and especially in most comics at the time, where static, poster-worthy poses were the name of the game.

The deceased Davey doesn't leave the stage, however — something keeps him from going to the afterlife, so he meets with Jack once a year. Like Jack, Davey never expressed his love for his brother in life, but is able to do so now that he's dead, a small but powerful message to all of us who are reticent to speak up.

The "Talking With David" stories are always interesting, because of their more abstract, unreal nature. (In one story, for example, Davey takes Jack on a pirate ship, and they have an adventure on the high seas, complete with a pirate's poem.) But what's really interesting to me is how different and similar, at the same time, the Knight Brothers are. They admit to being envious of each other, simply because of who they were. How many of us can't relate to that kind of thing?

For all of Jack's being made out to be his own man, being a rebel, it's clear that his choices were made specificallybecause of who his father was. And both Jack and Davey admired Ted strongly, but one of them wanted to hold onto the image of their father as a hero, while the other one could only accept it once Ted was taken off that pedestal. When they each find out that Ted had an extramarital affair with Dinah Drake, the original Black Canary, they give wildly disparate reactions.

It's counterintuitive to be sure, but it's Ted's humanity that lets Jack finally accept his father for the hero he is, just as it's Jack's humanity, his fallibility and his relatibility, that makes us root for him, and make us want to see him be worthy of the name and legacy of his father.

Tomorrow: Legacy, of Starman, the Justice Society, and the heroic ideal that Jack has to live up to!

For your convenience, STARMAN:


London Elliott said...

When I was a kid and I would read crossovers with the JLA and JSA, it was Hourman who drew me in visually. He just had the most dynamic costume to my warped little brain. But, this fascination with Hourman led to a general love of all things Earth 2. From the amazing All-Star Squadron series to the the lukewarm Young All-Stars to the legacy of Infinity Inc. to the mindblowing Golden Age series, my love of Earth-2 blossomed happily.

It even spurred me to suffer the tepid art and writing of the Will Payton Starman series - just because I wanted to see that legacy continued.

The greatest gift that Robinson's Starman series gave me was by rewarding me for seeking out every nuanced detail to the many bearers of the cosmic rod. Jayne Peyton as Sadie Falk was the perfect reveal, especially as they both retired to rear Jack's son.

Unknown said...

Talk about a family legacy! Not were there Starmen in the Knight family but a Freedom Fighting Phantom Lady who is Jack's aunt.

Duy Tano said...

Who had her own legacy too! (And I think Kate Spencer, Manhunter, was Phantom Lady's niece, making her Jack's cousin or something.)

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