by Ian U
“So who is your favourite superhero then?” It’s a question every comics fan has probably been asked many, many times. As soon as someone finds out that you’re into comics it’s generally the first question they’ll ask you. In such non-comic fan company I always answer “Batman”. He’s a character that I do love and I can talk about him fairly easily, be it the comics, the films or the cartoons. But if I’m ever asked that question by a fellow comics fan my answer is very different. My favourite character without a doubt is Starman, or more specifically the Jack Knight version of the character.
Created by James Robinson and Tony Harris back in the early 90s Jack Knight was an attempt to breathe new life into the stagnant Starman title following the Zero Hour crossover. Jack was a man who never wanted to be a superhero, he was happy to leave that to the rest of his family. He was a collector and trader of collectables who was drawn into the superhero world by the assassination of his brother, who had taken the Starman mantle that had originally been created by their father in the 1940s. Jack’s intention was to track down his brother’s killer and then return to his cosy life, but, over the course of the next 80 issues, Jack gradually grew and matured into a hero who first equalled and then surpassed both his brother and his father.
The entire 80 issue run is one of the finest pieces of superhero literature I have ever read (in my eyes it’s up there with Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns) and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s all available in trade paperback and is currently being released in Absolute hardbacks so do yourself a favour and have a look. But, if I try and talk about the whole run, we could still be here at Christmas so I’m going to focus on what I consider to be the pinnacle of the whole run – the year long “Grand Guignol” saga.
Following on from the heavily criticised “The Stars My Destination” arc which had taken Jack into space for over a year “Grand Guignol” finally returned both hero and readers to Opal City, just in time for chaos to ensue. Robinson had been dropping hints for several years that a great disaster was due to befall Opal and finally here it was, in a story that truly shows what a story arc REALLY means. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comic writer create such an intricate plot which draws together so well over the course of 70 odd monthly issues of a comic. While other writers have certainly produced runs of an equal length I’m not aware of anyone who has so successfully used all of that material to tell one overarching story from what appeared to be 20 or 30 unconnected tales. Every story ever told in Starman, or about a Starman character, contributed something to this story. The “Times Past” stories, The Shade’s seemingly random personality, the ghost of pirate Jon Valor - even the seemingly stand alone Shade mini-series and Showcase ‘95 and Showcase ’96 issues. They are all pieces of a much larger mosaic that no-one could see except Robinson. To create a story so complex, so detailed, and yet fit together so elegantly is a testament to James Robinson’s ability as a writer.
Over the course of 13 issues Opal City is invaded, captured and taken to the brink of destruction with no way for the heroes of the DCU to help so it’s down to Jack and his allies to save the day alone. Literally everyone who has ever put in an appearance in the pages of Starman is there to help, from long time Opal cop family the O’Dares and invulnerable ex-mob enforcer Bobo Bennetti to Ralph & Sue Dibney, Adam Strange and Victorian consulting detective Hamilton Drew!
Between them they are facing off against a formidable assembly of villains that includes Solomon Grundy, The Ragdoll and Dr Phosphorous as well as such memorable Robinson creations as Dr Pip, husband and wife thrill-killers the Modines and Culp the evil dwarf (I swear I’m not making this up!)
And yet despite the grand scale and epic feel of this story, and there are some summer blockbuster moments – the destruction of some of Opal’s historic buildings, Ted Knight fighting Dr Phosphorous single handed, the reveal of who and what Culp is, the heroes escape from City Hall - it is the small moments of human emotion that truly make the story great. Ralph Dibny, meeting his lifelong idol Hamilton Drew, receives a salute from him which renders him speechless while Sue, sat next to him, reveals to the reader that “that tea cup salute is perhaps the greatest thrill of her husband’s career”.
Matt O’Dare, a dirty cop when the series began, finally redeems himself in his family’s eyes in the heat of battle. The eulogies at the memorial service in the epilogue include some of the great names of the DCU humbling themselves. And then there is the final climactic rooftop meeting between Jack and his father and the Mist and her father. It is one of the few comic book scenes to ever bring me close to tears as Jack meets his baby son for the first time and one long-standing character makes the ultimate sacrifice. It is also a fine example of Robinson’s on-going commentary on the passing of the superhero mantle from one generation to another as Starman Sr and Mist Sr watch their children fighting on in their names.
At the same time that the final issues of "Grand Guignol" were being published, DC and Robinson announced that the series would be ending within the year and I doubt that anyone was really surprised. There was a distinct feeling of finality around the climax of the story and it was obvious that best was now behind us - of course Robinson still had a few tricks up his sleeves in those last few stories! Looking back it was the right decision and retiring Jack Knight has meant leaving behind a piece of comic book perfection which is unsullied by inferior writers or artists. I’m going to end this article by saying, if you have never read Starman then DON’T just read "Grand Guignol" – read the whole of Starman, in order, from beginning to end! It’s that big. It’s that important. You could go back and enjoy this or any other Starman trade on its own but you’d only know it as “a” story. Read them all and you’ll get THE story. You’ll thank me for it!