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.
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superhero tales when you have never-ending adventures of someone like Spider-Man, who’s fighting Doc Ock, again, who’s been replaced by his clone, again.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.