The (Celestial) Starman Saga

Writer: Paul Levitz. Pencils: Steve Ditko, with Jim Starlin. Inks: Romeo Tanghal, with Jim Starlin.

Adventure Comics #467-478 (The Starman stories), DC Comics Presents #36 (1980-1981)

In my They Ain't TPBs (but should be) list of possible comic book story arcs that warrant TPB collections, my sub-category of "honourable mentions" varies from great-but-flawed story arcs to ones that aren't that special, but nonetheless might make a nice TPB, particularly if the original stories would be hard to collect.

And such might be Paul Levitz (and Steve Ditko's) Starman. Because, sure, your life will be no poorer if you never read it -- but that doesn't mean it might not make a breezily enjoyable collection.

Part of the fun is that it was a mix of sci-fi and super hero that (for the most part) was completely isolated from the rest of the DC Universe, making a nice thing to read just for itself. The format was also appealing. Introduced in Adventure Comics it shared the title with a Plastic Man strip (which I also might write about at some point, as it was quite good) so that the Starman stories were nicely efficient, bite-size chapters of often around 8 pages. (The Starman/Plastic Man combo made for a nicely atypical line-up -- eventually joined by Aquaman toward the end of the run).

Levitz was no stranger to trying atypical SF/fantasy concepts in the largely super hero dominated comic book world -- and, indeed, is heavily associated with the Legion of Super-Heroes, another series mixing fantasy/SF with super heroes. The setting here is a distant intergalactic civilization. And the hero is the mysterious Starman -- who can fly through space unaided and fire energy beams from his hands. The saga mixes court intrigue (involving plots against the ruling empress) and space battles, and super hero style fisticuffs. Starman's origin, as it is soon revealed, is that he himself was heir to the throne -- but when the crown was handed to his sister, tradition dictates any remaining heir be executed. A bit harsh -- but, equally, one can see the logic in it (to prevent any possible civil wars and challenges to the throne) and helps lend the series a genuine sense that Levitz is writing science fiction, creating an alien culture -- rather than just a super hero in space.

But Prince Gavyn turns out to be a mutant, surviving his ejection into space, and is rescued by a mysterious alien named Mn'torr (okay, not exactly subtle). The next few issues involve Starman trying to protect his sister from coups (despite she having ordered his death, he bears her no ill-will) with the added gimmick that if anyone knew who he was behind his mask, it'd lead to his execution. He gains a sidekick, and has a girlfriend (who had believed him dead). And, as I say: it's nothing classic. But it is enjoyable, in a tightly-paced way, benefitting from the off-beat milieu (for a comic book) and scenarios (not too many other comics on the stands revolved around court intrigue and coup d'etats).

The art is supplied by comics legend -- and maverick -- Steve Ditko. And the visuals really benefit from Ditko's pairing with inker Romeo Tanghal. Ditko has a distinct style and brings an idiosyncratic vision to the alien architecture and celestial vistas. His storytelling is clear and efficient. At the same time, it's not exactly stylish in its composition, and his figures move in the distinctly stiff, somewhat cartoony, Ditko-esque way. And that's where Tanghal comes in. Because Tanghal softens and rounds out Ditko's pencils, adding a bit more humanity to the faces, more shading and contour to the figures. By this point, Ditko's art in other comics could be a bit rudimentary and his inking was often fairly simple and thin. But Tanghal's embellishing conjures up Ditko's heyday of the mid-1960s when there was more shape and atmosphere to his work.

Honestly -- this is some of Ditko's best art, certainly of the period. Or to put it another way: if you like Ditko, you'll still like this. But if you don't like Ditko -- you'll probably like the Ditko-Tanghal pairing more than you'd expect.

The run is a mix of some stand alone adventures, plus on-going threads. There is a climax to the coup plot, with Starman eventually defeating the main villain. Admittedly, Levitz sets up a few mysteries that never really have much in the way of answers (the origin of Starman's power is that he's just a mutant -- conveniently enough). Yet the Adventure run still ends with threads dangling.

Which led to the Starman/Superman team-up in DC Comics Presents #36. This is a common situation in comics, where in order to tie up a prematurely cancelled series, you have to deal with it in another comic. So after my saying it was nice that Starman was unconnected to the rest of the DCU -- now Superman is brought in, and the villain of the story is a recurring Superman foe, Mongul. Still, the focus remains on Starman and his part of the galaxy, with Superman just dropping by. It's not perhaps the ideal climax of the series for those reasons, and it suddenly introduces into the story a dark secret at the heart of the galactic empire of which we had no previous hint (perhaps a contribution by artist Jim Starlin who often wrote sci-fi comics about overthrowing galactic tyranny). Previously the comic had also summarily killed off a character which, in a way, made Starman's earlier efforts seem kind of pointless!

But with that said, and given the necessary compromises -- it's also a perfectly good story. Steve Ditko is gone as artist, but Jim Starlin, inking himself, does some particularly nice work -- and is certainly no stranger to space operas. Starlin's visuals lack some of Ditko's idiosyncratic designs, but has a stronger, more "realist" vibe that is appealing if you did find Ditko a bit too cartoony. (In a way you could see it as the Adventure Comics instalments were a TV series, and the 25 page DC Comics Presents issue was it being revived as a big budget movie).

Although the story doesn't kill off Starman (which I half expected) it does act as a suitable end to his saga -- and I'm pretty sure this iteration of the character faded into obscurity afterward. (Though certainly there have been innumerable heroes named Starman over the years).

As I say: nothing classic, perhaps. But the very finite-ness of the run -- introducing the character and his world in these pages and developing and unfolding it as it goes, and building to a suitable resolution -- makes it a nice little "graphic novel." And with stylish and appealing visuals throughout.

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