I’ve heard good things about James Robinson’s Starman comic through the years, so I ordered the first volume hardcover omnibus that was released earlier this year. It collects the first seventeen issues of the series, from #0 to #16. Unfortunately it wasn’t as satisfying a purchase as I’d hoped it would be.
The series is about Jack Knight, a young man who follows in his father’s footsteps as the guardian of Opal City. He has initially no interest in becoming a superhero, preferring to stick to his job as a dealer in special interest vintage goods, but due to some unfortunate events he soon enough ends up knee-deep in his superhero legacy and donning his father’s old Starman pseudonym and cosmic staff – the source of his powers.
I found this comic a bit disappointing. The first issue was quite good, but after that it didn’t manage to hold me interest very well and I ultimate found it a slow read and a chore to get through. The storytelling and writing seemed stilted and unnatural, never establishing a good and believable flow in either department, and I raised my eyebrow in disbelief at more than one occurrence. For example, early on Jack meets a female character who stutters. The next issue she undergoes a traumatic experience which presumably changes her character, as the next time she and Jack meet – which I believe happens the same day as the incident, and within the same issue – she no longer stutters. “I thought you stuttered,” he asks her. She responds, “That was somebody else.” I can see a traumatic experience causing a character change, and perhaps also “curing stuttering” (but perhaps not the recommended treatment for this unfortunate condition), but this all took place over so few pages, within such a short amount of time, with no real exposition. Had this happened over a longer period of time with real character development, then sure.
I also wish there had been fewer descriptions and metaphors; it’s sometimes too wordy, and the words that make up the wordiness don’t always work that well together. Consider this curious sentence from a narration during a hectic fight: “Cornered like a badger with no hope.” Is this a normal simile, or did the author just pick a random animal? Are badgers known for getting cornered or for having no hope? A fox might have made more sense, given the history of fox hunting – I’m guessing they’ve been more prone to finding themselves cornered and with no hope than badgers have. Lucky badgers. But why do you need to lay on heavy with narration – and metaphors and similes, no less – in a comic book fight scene in the first place? Sure, it can work, but sometimes it’s better to keep the writing to a minimum and let the images talk for themselves.
Jack Knight’s fighting prowess was also an eyebrow raiser. Despite being a fledgling superhero with no prior training, Jack turns out to be a competent fighter, able to beat down hordes of henchmen and bad guys. It’s mentioned that Jack took up martial arts in his younger years, apparently just for the heck of it. From this one could conclude that he could hold his own in a bar brawl or amateur martial arts tournament, but would probably not be a great fighter. But apparently he is.
It’s also never quite explained whether or not the Starman persona is a secret identity – it doesn’t seem to be and he doesn’t wear a mask, yet Jack seems able to live his life more or less like normal without everyday citizens pestering him, though with the occasional bad guy stopping by. What his super powers are I’m not quite sure either; he inherits a staff, known as the cosmic staff, from his father, the previous Starman, which makes him able to fly and it also seems to work as a cattle prod of sorts and a general fighting staff (or bo, if you prefer): the end of it lights up, and it can be swung around or thrusted to deal some damage to baddies, but it doesn’t seem overly powerful.
That being said, the series does have some good things going for it. The actual plot, the story, and the characters, are, for the most part, interesting. It’s also neat that the superhero protagonist is a bit of a collector and aesthetics guy, making him perhaps a bit more relatable for suave comic book hipsters as myself. There doesn’t seem to be that much rhyme and reason behind his collecting interests though, generally being interested in anything he deems cool, and sometimes the minor monologues and dialogues about such collectibles can get tiring. The author, James Robinson, is apparently “known for his interest in vintage collectibles and memorabilia” (from Wikipedia) so he’s obviously projecting a lot of his own personal knowledge and opinion into his writing of this character and series.
Now, moving onto the actual collection, I unfortunately I had a few serious issues with it, first of which is the standard retail price.
Generally these kind of collections, unless they’re deluxe over sized limited special editions, are usually a bit cheaper than the sum of the collected issues would be. The retail price for this collection is 50 USD, which is a lot of money, though you do get a bit over 400 pages for the price – in a hardcover bound book format, no less. The normal price for comics these days is about 3 USD for one issue. As this collection contains seventeen issues, that would be seventeen times 3 USD, which amount to 51 USD. So, by buying the collection you save a dollar. However, the comics were originally priced at 2 USD for the first seven issues, then it went up to 2.25 USD for the remaining ten issues. So if any stores are selling these back issues at the old retail price, you could definitely save a few USDs by buying those instead.
Other than a possibly steep price, the collection has two other, more severe problems. The first is that parts of the pages are often lost in the spine, and you may need to crack the spine to be able to make out some of the obscured words. So the bounding (or what the correct word for it is) is not as it should be, and I would say that it’s almost working against the reader.
The final problem is that the letter pages have not been re-printed in this collection, except for in the first two issues. It’s not a normal practice to include the letter pages of a comic book series when reprinting it in collection format, but in this series much seems to be lost when you don’t. I was somewhat excited when I read the first two issues in this collection, which both had an afterward by James Robinson lifted from the actual letter pages, where he, among other things, urges people to write in about their own collections and about any interesting collectibles the readers may have acquired or seen. So I thought, “Hey, this is great, they’ve decided to include the letter pages as well, and this looks like it’ll be an interesting one for a fine semi-collector such as myself!” But, those were the only two letter pages that were reprinted, so they only served as a tease, telling me “this is what you miss out on in this collection”. But, it turns out letters isn’t the only thing we’re missing out on, as two excerpts from Shade’s (a character from the series) journal was also printed in the letter pages! They’re not essential to the main plot, but they’re a part of the Starman cannon the author is establishing none the less. Why couldn’t they have at least included these two texts?! Perhaps left out the two other texts that just teased us about what we were missing out on and including the two journal excerpts instead.
So we’re not only missing out on some potentially interesting letters, but we’re missing out on some actual story, even if it’s just the “left over bits” which weren’t essential to the ongoing plot.
Therefore I’d recommend against getting this collection; it’s somewhat expensive, it’s hard to read without cracking the spine, and it doesn’t reprint some texts from the original comics. If you want to read the series, try to see if you can’t find the actual issues for a reasonable price as I’m fairly sure they’d ultimately make for a more satisfying purchase. The actual comic isn’t bad per se, but it has its share of annoying problems. I like the idea behind the series and the general plot and characters, but I thought it lacked in execution. It might in some part be due to a matter of taste on my part, but there are definitely things which should have been done differently.