Oct 11, 2012

Starman Retrospective, Day 4: History, not Continuity

Welcome to Day 4 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on James Robinson, Tony Harris, and Peter Snejberg's STARMAN. You can read about this series here.

not Continuity 

We superhero fans love continuity. We love our OFFICIAL HANDBOOKS OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, our official DC ENCYCLOPEDIAS... heck, some of my first comics were some issues of WHO'S WHO: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO THE DC UNIVERSE that came out after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. We like it when things fall into their nice little boxes, and we like figuring out timelines. Continuity, however, can be a hindrance. Sometimes the hammer starts swinging the carpenter, and before you know it, we get stories that seem to really do nothing more than fix continuity errors and inconsistencies, and that's unfair to both the characters who could be used in more meaningful stories and the very concept of continuity.

One of STARMAN's most oft-cited strengths is its usage of continuity, but I would argue that since "continuity" now has that connotation of making things fit into appropriate boxes and whatnot, STARMAN doesn't really do that. What it uses isn't continuity, but history.

What's the difference? Well, imagine you have a World War II period piece. "History" would be about setting the tone, getting that atmosphere properly, and having the appropriate historical characters and events. A "continuity" nut would be on the lookout for anachronisms and inconsistencies (not even just with World War II, but say, with World War I or something). While it would, of course, be great if you can write your story in such a way that fits every single fact ever established, sometimes your story doesn't call for that and would be hurt if you wrote it that way.

I believe that the only continuity a story has to follow is its own. It has to have internal logic, but shouldn't be so slavish to other things it may be connected to (unless it's a direct sequel or prequel, in which you can't contradict the original work), and should feel free to ignore things that would be to its detriment. And you can't work against widely known facts, either — getting back to my previous example, it wouldn't do to all of a sudden say Pearl Harbor happened on December 10, but would it really matter if Douglas MacArthur had a diary that said he ate ham and eggs on that day, if, for the sake of your story, you needed him to be eating bacon instead?

And that's what STARMAN did. It referenced the big events of the DC Universe — the Crisis, Zero Hour, whatever crossovers were going on at the time — but it took its liberties as well. While I am by no means saying that it didn't respect continuity; it certainly was not slavish to it, and what it used to maximize its impact was history, not continuity.

Prince Gavyn's death during the Crisis on Infinite Earths

In the back matter of STARMAN #0, James Robinson says, "I want to imagine that while Barry Allen and Hal Jordan and Ray Palmer were off having their Silver Age adventures, Ted Knight was too; older, but still active." And this is an example of the book adding a feeling of history to the book. See, when we read history books, we obviously don't get the full stories. Something else is always happening beyond what is written on the page. But as comic book fans, we're somehow conditioned to believe that we have the full story, or that we're getting whatever story matters. If there's a flashback, it's to fill in gaps within that story. But Robinson's approach to Ted Knight wasn't a gap filled; it was just approaching the DC Universe as a setting in a logical manner. Of course we weren't getting the full story.

Of course things happen on the outskirts of these shared universes, and of course we're not privy to all of them, and of course there are stories, stories everywhere, just like in real life. It's — dare I say it? — a realistic approach to establishing history. It gives it more weight; it makes it feel real. It reminds me of one of my favorite novels — Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry — which basically starts out at the end of a couple of cowboys' careers and we're told their histories in bits and pieces, in passing, just like in real life.

Robinson would approach the rest of the STARMAN series like this, infusing the stories with things like they felt like they happened in the DC Universe at specific times. Did they, really? I'm still not sure. There's one panel that showed Ted fighting a bunch of villains while he's wearing a lion head. I know that was actually printed. There's a reference to Scalphunter and Bat Lash saving Abraham Lincoln. That was an old DC story too. Mikaal Tomas was referred to as having fought Alan Scott at one point, and as far as I know that was never printed. Bobo Benetti showed up as a longtime Starman villain paroled from jail, and as it turns out, he was a completely new character. But it didn't feel that way. And that's great.

Bobo Benetti's return from The Golden Age. Also, his first appearance.

I have no idea — and have not really bothered to check — which flashbacks and allusions in the STARMAN series were actually based on old DC stories, and which ones were just made up right then and there to give the book backstory and weight. And I like it that way. I think it does give the series some gravitas and a lot of comic book writers could do with establishing the environment and the history of a book this way.

This isn't to say that the series ignored continuity altogether, or avoided fixing continuity problems. But when it did, it did so in such a way that felt real. For example, stories prior to this had conflicting accounts as to who invented the cosmic rod. Robinson addresses that simply by having Jack and his tattoo artist bring it up. It's a subtle but brilliant approach to fixing these tiny bits of continuity, and again it's more to add to the history. Just as in real life, we get different accounts of the same story. (I'm sure we can come up with a metatextual take on this — something about how the people of Opal have different versions of events, and how we only read their stories and not their biographies, or something, but I'm not gonna go there.) If nothing else, it establishes that in Opal, people talk about their heroes, and not "Do you think Batman really exists?" talk; actual talk about their city, their hero, and their history.

Here's another example. I have no idea if there are really multiple versions of this story in DC history. But again, it adds a bit of poignancy, a bit of weight.

Tony Harris was the perfect artist to establish this aspect of the series, as I stated yesterday, since his art has such an old-school, historic design sense. There was something about the way he drew, a quirkiness, that would lend itself to panels of Jack Knight watching a movie, and making such a quiet, mundane moment seem cool. His aesthetic would emphasize it when Jack was trading his collectibles — a real affection for history was prevalent.

And it's pretty understandable that STARMAN fans aren't happy that Harris isn't the one who finished the book out.

However, I do think it's quite unfair to Peter Snejberg, the guy who did, because I think he did an unparalleled job in the second half of the series. He had a more modern design sense (or maybe Harris' design sense just really captures the feel of old school stuff) in terms of layouts and composition, but his way with expressions and body language was at least just as good, and in some cases even superior. He didn't shy away from drawing the lines on Ted's face, or the unique architecture of Opal City, and it worked perfectly with Robinson's style of narration.

The switch from Harris to Snejberg was also good for the series' tone. Where Harris' style established this environment that Jack was in and bridged the Golden Age and the Modern Age, Snejberg's took that amalgam and bridged it so that it would move toward the future. He took over in the middle of "Stars, My Destination" (the space arc), and then went on to "Grand Guignol," featuring the destruction of Opal City. Maybe the sense of that particular setting being destroyed would have had more power if Harris had drawn it, but with Snejberg's use of camera angles, facial expressions, and shadows, I just can't think of anyone else but him drawing this saga. And at this point, the history of the series and the city had been so long established that the story was helped by a more minimalist artist who could communicate the action and emotion in an arguably more straightforward manner. (And look — he doesn't shy away from backgrounds. It's clearly still Opal.)

The penultimate story of STARMAN took place in 1951, where Jack figured out who the Starman of 1951 was. Even 50 years ago, Opal City felt like Opal City, and Starman felt like Starman.

(Side note: The Starman of 1951 is based on an old Batman story, where Batman became "Starman" for a while. Almost exactly the same costume and everything. Robinson took the idea, discarded the Batman connection, and ran with it. In this case, all that's needed is fort he idea to have existed to give it that little something extra. If you didn't know it, it was fine. If you did, it was cool.)

And to get him back to his own time, Jack had help from Thom Kallor, the Star Boy of the future, and the Starman soon after him. I really love Snejberg's work on this sequence, and I really think the series was no less strong for having him on it.

By the middle of the series, DC released a timeline of events in STARMAN SECRET FILES, showing clearly that Jack had been active as STARMAN for three years. But in JSA SECRET FILES two years later, they had condensed Jack's entire career into a shorter period of time.

And again, that's just the way continuity works. You work with what's best for your story; you don't let it bog you down. And if need be, you have your readers make the call as to which they prefer.

No exploration of the use of history in STARMAN would be complete without the "Times Past" issues. Since there was so much in the dialogue, mostly in passing, of things that happened in the past, you didn't really expect them to go in depth about any of those events. They were just anecdotes, little snippets to remind you that these characters have been around for a long time, even if they really weren't. But sometimes Robinson would take something said in passing and then write a story about it a few issues later. Here's a small moment between Ted and Jack where Ted explains the Rag Doll's significance to Opal City.

I didn't expect them to actually tell that whole story eventually, but they did, just a few issues later. The act of telling you the story in passing before actually showing it is an example of the kind of history-setting I was speaking of earlier.

Each Times Past story was drawn by a different artists, and my favorite is the one drawn by Gene Ha, with one of the reasons being that it featured the Jester. Seriously, the Jester, in a solid, serious story without losing any of his charm.

In other news, Gene Ha draws pretty.

Every Times Past story was narrated in first person by the one character whose continuity Robinson actually did try fixing in the course of the series, and who, in doing so, he established a long and yet still mostly unrevealed history for. This narration came from the character's journal, and this character seems to be the only effort DC made afterward to still build off the legacy of the STARMAN series.

This character is, of course, The Shade.

Tomorrow: The Shade! 

For your convenience, STARMAN:

1 comment:

London Elliott said...

My favorite piece of the retrospective, yet. I had never thought of Robinson's tales as history vs. continuity, but it makes perfect sense to me. Very well done, sir!

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