Although James Robinson lists Leave it to Chance as his favorite creation, it’s his STARMAN that he’ll be best remembered for (he certainly hasn’t done anything half as good since). The 1990s series was and is unlike anything else as Robinson took all the past Starman characters and wove them into a tapestry centered on the newest Starman, Ted Knight’s son Jack.
In the opening issue, David Knight is Starman; Jack’s a surly tattooed collectibles and antiques dealer who sneers at the family legacy. Then Ted’s old foe the Mist attacks Opal City — oh, I’d better explain that. At a time when everyone was grounding their superheroes by basing them in real cities, Robinson decided to go old school and make up a city for Starman’s base. He gave it a detailed history that plays into the stories (though not always logical — it’s a Western town that’s also a Puritan-settled Atlantic port city) and added touches such as the O’Dares, a family of cops who’ve helped the Starmen through the years. Also residing in the city: the Shade, a former Flash villain bordering on antihero. The Shade steals for fun but never in Opal — it’s his home and he doesn’t shit where he eats. He becomes Jack’s friend, ally and confidante.
Where was I? Oh, yes, the Mist and his two kids attack Opal, killing David. As chaos erupts, Jack reluctantly takes up the cosmic staff, one of his father’s various experimental weapons, and goes into the fight, ultimately killing the Mist’s son. Daughter Nash steps into the role, vowing to become a great villain and destroy Jack, after he becomes a great hero. She also drugs him and rapes him to get pregnant, then leaves town. Jack agrees to become Opal’s protector but only after his father promises to knuckle down and develop non-superhero uses of his stellar energy technology. Over the next few years Jack joins the Justice Society; becomes a hero, travels in space; battles supervillains, demons and cops; falls in love; and encounters all the other Starmen, including a couple of new additions to the lineage.
It’s not just the story but the personalities of everyone involved. Jack, surly but heroic despite himself and slowly maturing; Nash, obsessed with living up her legacy; the ever-snarky Shade. And their conversations: Robinson loved having his characters talk about pop culture, art, movies or the nature of superheroics. This didn’t always work — Robinson’s musings on the heroic life got a little pretentious — but it worked more than often enough.
Robinson did suffer from the perennial tendency to show us how utterly awesomely cool his creations were. As the new Mist, Nash had several battles with other heroes and always defeated them effortlessly, but rarely convincingly. But then again, he established in one story that Jack is not considered the greatest Starmen (the line continues into the future) and the Mist ultimately learns she’s not a great villain, just a tool her father uses, then casts aside.
The one thing that completely failed for me was his use of DC’s Scalphunter series in Opal’s backstory. Part of what I liked about that series was that Brian Savage, unlike most “white kids raised by natives” never stopped thinking of himself as a Kiowa, not a white dude. Having him end up a sheriff in what would later be Opal City was very unconvincing, especially as he now talked “Western” instead of his more formal English phrasing in his own series.
Overall, though, the series was first rate. It ends with Jack, having already taken in Nash’s baby, discovering his girlfriend Sadie is pregnant, retiring from the hero game and moving to San Francisco to become a family. Popular heroes don’t usually get to retire, but this one has stuck for two decades now. That’s impressive. And deserved.
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