There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky, and he blew my mind


The 1990s were a grim time for superhero comics. Most DC and Marvel comics descended into an almost-unreadable rabble of overworked poses and chaotic storytelling. But there was a bright star shining amid the dross.

James Robinson’s Starman is my pick for quite possibly the best superhero comic of the 1990s. Only Grant Morrison’s adrenaline-fuelled JLA and Neil Gaiman’s more fantasy-based Sandman are contenders. 

From 1994 to 2001, Robinson told a single story about superheroism as a legacy, and when he was finished, that was it. It’s an approach that feels lacking in superhero tales when you have never-ending adventures of someone like Spider-Man, who’s fighting Doc Ock, again, who’s been replaced by his clone, again. 

The hook for Starman was that he was a legacy character — originally one of DC Comics’ less prominent superheroes from the 1940s, a cool-looking dude who flew around with a “gravity rod” but one that never really had much personality.

Robinson changed all that, by reintroducing the now-senior citizen original Starman Ted Knight and his sons, dutiful David and prickly Jack Knight

In the first issue, son David takes up the Starman mantle, his lifelong dream. He’s shot and killed almost instantly. 

A revenge plot by one of Starman’s old foes leads the reluctant Jack to take up the Starman name himself, but he’s not going to be your average superhero. Hell, he doesn’t even wear a proper costume, but an oh-so-‘90s combo of leather jacket, goggles, occasional goatee and lots of tattoos. 

Robinson’s Jack Knight is a fantastic, multi-faceted creation – an antique-dealing ex-punk rocker who’s spent most of his life fighting with his famous father, who never set out to be Starman. Jack is smart, clever and irreverent, sometimes cruel and sometimes funny. Was he the first true Gen-X superhero? If I were fighting supervillains, would I be thinking of obscure Viewmaster slides and Hawaiian shirts too? At the time, surrounded by gritting Spawns and Wolverines as his peers, he seemed like the most human character in comics to me. 

Robinson paired Jack’s unique character with series artist Tony Harris’ depiction of Starman’s home of Opal City, a baroque, art deco-ish time capsule that’s one of the most gorgeous fictional cities in comics. Starman is as much about Jack’s love for Opal City as it is about his taking up the family name. 

Over 80 issues, Jack Knight battled villains and travelled into outer space, teamed up with Batman and learned more about the Starman legacy, including clever reintroductions of several other obscure DC heroes once called Starmen.

Robinson assembled an all-time great supporting cast, from the reformed villain The Shade to Jack’s homicidal nemesis, The Mist. Every few issues Robinson would detour into “Times Past” tales that dove into Opal City’s history, or the cast’s pasts, dating back into the 1880s. This gave Starman a rich, complex tapestry that made it feel so much more real than its superhero competitors of the era. 

Starman wasn’t perfect, which kind of adds to its charms. Robinson sometimes lacked the machine-tooled storytelling of someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who put every bit just right. Starman sprawled, heading off into curious little rabbit holes. Robinson’s writing could be overly verbose, especially in early issues (and I’m not a fan of the hard-to-read cursive lettering fonts used a bit too often for narration). The big action-packed series finale storyline “Grand Guignol” tried to bring the many, many story threads and characters together but is a classic case of having a few too many moving parts undermining the simple focus of the story. I still love it. 

For me Starman is about the details – Jack Knight’s compulsive pop-culture trivia monologues as he faces death, the way forgotten characters like The Red Bee and The Jester from DC Comics’ long legacy are given fresh life and personalities, the complicated bond between fathers and sons. 

This works because above all with Starman you feel Robinson’s contagious love for his characters, for the imaginary city he created, for the decades of history in DC Comics, for the act of creation itself. Starman feels personal in a way that by-the-numbers superhero comics rarely do. 

And when Robinson drew his Starman story to a close in 2001 and Jack Knight rode off into the sunset, DC Comics did something that still seems beautifully rare to me – they let Jack rest. Stories rarely ever truly end in superhero comics, but this one did. There have been other Starmen (and of course a great young Stargirl) in the years since, but Jack Knight’s story was done. He might have popped up in a cameo appearance here or there, but there’s been no “Starman Reborn!” storyline. 

I’d hate to see anyone other than James Robinson do one, frankly. His work since Starman has had its ups and downs, but I still feel only he can really tell Jack Knight’s story.

For a while there in the dark comics clutter of the 1990s, his Starman flew high, shining a light on the glorious possibilities of superhero storytelling. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #13: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional series has shown on several occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.

Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.

Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again. 

Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.  

I’m already a little sick of the multiverse

I’m a comics geek, a mild obsessive who can tell you in detail about the difference between all the Robins or who the best and worst Avengers of all time were. And I love me a good game of “What If” more often than not. But I’ve got to say that I’m already getting pretty sick of the flood of multiverses getting rolled out in both comics and movie adaptations.

“Multiverses” – or alternate versions of existing characters – have a long, strong history in comics, of course, going all the way back to those Superman “imaginary stories” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, on to thinly-veiled spoofs like the Squadron Supreme of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were so many infinite earths and alternate possibilities that DC had a big ol’ Crisis on them back in the mid-1980s meant to simplify everything. There’s been at least a dozen other crises since then.

I absolutely loved learning about Earth-3 and Earth-X back in the day. But whipping out the Captain Ecuador of Earth-78 or the Victorian Batman of Earth 342 who’s also Sherlock Holmes has diminishing returns after a while. There have been many, many great stories involving alternate or reimagined versions of existing characters – it’s one of the ways that icons like Superman or Batman have proven so durable in nearly a century. 

Yet both Marvel and DC now seem determined to not use multiverses sparingly, but to make them the centre of their latest intellectual property strategy. Over in DC Comics, you’ve got Infinite Frontiers and Flashpoints and notions like the idea of seeing Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck’s Batman spread their wings, while Marvel is getting as lost in multiverses as DC did before their ‘80s Crisis, with the kind of underwhelming What If? cartoon show apparently entirely created to give us a shiny team of “Guardians of the Multiverse” versions of the characters we already knew, and the new Dr. Strange and Spider-Man movies set to dive deep into the multiverses of madness. 

I’m still a geek, so I do get a thrill when I see Alfred Molina’s awesome Doctor Octopus from two Spider-Man reboots ago popping up again through some timey-wimey shenanigans. I thought seeing multiple Spider-Men and -Women collide in Into The Spider-Verse was one of the best comic films in recent years. DC’s “President Superman” – a thinly-veiled Barack Obama homage who’s both Superman and the President of the United States – is a cool spin on a shopworn idea. 

But it can get old real fast and becomes the equivalent of a writer just throwing ideas into the air to see what sticks. I dip into DC Comics’ never-ending Crises now and then and it all just becomes a gaudy blur of evil Batman and sideways versions of Flashes. I skipped entirely a recent series of Avengers comics all about yet another evil alternate version of the team.

The multiverse too often becomes all about the colourful over-the-top spectacle of a dozen Batmen together rather than about a good story like Into The Spider-Verse told. It’s all about callbacks and easter eggs rather than forming a solid character arc. It’s fan service turned into plot. A character’s got to have more meaning than “wouldn’t it be cool if Batman, but from Albuquerque?” 

Like I said, the alternate realities of comics have been around a while now, and it used to be, they were a bit of a treat – the bi-monthly issues of What If? in its ‘70s heyday, the goofy stories of Batman and Superman’s sons fighting crime together. But when they start to become the main event all the time, it all just blurs together into an endless stream of writer’s drafts and easy shortcuts to character – what if Wolverine was Aquaman? What if Green Lantern was from apartheid-era South Africa? What if the Hulk was a 6-year-old boy? 

It’s easy for anyone with an imagination to knock off 50 of these multiversal variants in the space of an hour, really. But to make an actual character out of them, that isn’t just a kind of hollow echo of someone else’s creative work? That’s the hard part, and rather than endlessly revisiting the past to riff on it, it’d be great to see all the comics shared universes try a little harder to be new things, rather than new versions of old things. 

Timothy Dalton, the Bond with a killer’s eye

There’s a lot to be annoyed about right now, but in my nerdy brain one of the things that most irks me is that due to New Zealand’s ongoing Delta outbreak I’m probably not going to be seeing the long, long-delayed new James Bond No Time To Die any time soon. 

It stinks, but it is what it is. The cure for that, though – watch some of the other 24 James Bond movies! And with all the talk ramping up about this being Daniel Craig’s final Bond adventure and who the next Bond might be, I felt like taking a look back at the brief tenure of the almost forgotten Bond, Timothy Dalton.

Dalton only managed two Bond movies, the shortest tenure as 007 outside of George Lazenby’s 1969 one-off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton’s term got stymied by delays and legal wrangles (a perpetual Blofeld-level villain in the Bond industry) and after waiting five years for his third film to kick into gear, he left and was replaced by the shiny if a bit insubstantial Bond of Pierce Brosnan. 

Dalton had been earmarked for years for James Bond – he was offered the role way back in 1968 before Lazenby, but he waited to take it on until he was a bit more seasoned and closer to 40. Yet although Dalton’s tenure was short, and the movies he were in never quite rise to Skyfall or Goldfinger levels of greatness, he was for a short time an excellent James Bond. 

Dalton is not exactly underrated by Bond fans – in fact, he’s been called “under-appreciated” so often that he’s actually maybe getting a bit over-appreciated in some circles. But I think for the general public, Dalton’s tenure is sadly barely remembered, which is a shame, because he was very good and unlike almost every other Bond before or since, he didn’t wear out his welcome by the end.

The Living Daylights ramps down the puns and gadgetry of Roger Moore’s tenure for a more realistic tone. But it’s saddled with a rather convoluted plot and rather than one indelible bad guy like the best Bond flicks, it’s got at least three jousting with each other. (Although any movie that features Joe Don Baker as a Bond villain I very much approve.) The story revolves around corrupt arms deals and people caught in between callous leaders during the fading days of the Cold War. It feels rather timely viewed 35 years on, with its climax featuring Bond riding into action in war-torn Afghanistan. Debuting with a minimum of pomp, Dalton’s Bond is immediately comfortable – ice-cold and professional with a hint of something more. He’s far less showy than Moore or Connery and it’s easy to see he’s the direct forefather of Craig’s own approach to Bond. 

Dalton’s second Bond, License To Kill, is stripped-down and streamlined, a straightforward tale of Bond seeking revenge against a drug dealer who crippled his friend. James Bond “going rogue” has been done a few too many times by now, but this was the first time in the movies – you get the sense that Bond is a tiger being let out of his cage. It’s rather brutal and got a very Miami Vice/Death Wish vibe to it, a world away from Roger Moore fighting on moon bases. It faltered badly in the US – License to Kill stands out as still the worst-performing of the Bond movies financially in the US with a mere $35 million, and it had the bad fortune to open in the summer of Batman. Yet it holds up far better than many other Bonds do with its angry Dalton anticipating Craig’s debut in Casino Royale. Dalton really comes into his own in License, doing a lot with his shark’s smile and never letting you forget for long that Bond is basically a hired killer. As the sinister drug dealer Sanchez, Robert Davi is one of the better Bond villains of the ‘80s. License deviates a lot from the Bond “formula” which hurt it in the go-go ‘80s, but today its mean streak and Dalton’s unsparing performance make it work well. 

What’s interesting in both of Dalton’s movies is that the fate of the world is never at stake. No nuclear annihilation or killer viruses here – these are smaller-scale battles, even if they are capped with plenty of explosions and daring chases. It was a brief blip for Bond. With the Pierce Brosnan era, big, bold Bond was back, inflated to ever more ridiculous extremes until Casino Royale came along to downsize everything once again. 

A fusion of Sean Connery’s alpha-male physicality, Moore’s wit, Craig’s wounded brute, Brosnan’s slick polish and Dalton’s glittering carnivore’s eye would probably be the iconic “best Bond,” but Timothy Dalton came very close to giving us a Bond that stepped right out of the novels. It’s a shame he didn’t get a better run, but those are the breaks, 007. 

What I’ve been working on

Get ready for the 30th issue of Amoeba Adventures, featuring the long-awaited return of fan favourite Rambunny in a story full of thrills, spills and twists, debuting October 31.

More details soon, and don’t forget you can always download every single previous issue of Amoeba Adventures going all the way back to 1990 right here on the website as free PDFs, or last year’s super-sized Amoeba Archive publication full of rarities and more!