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There?s a Starman, Waiting in the Sky?

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The name ‘Starman’ goes back a long way in comics. All the way to 1941, in fact. But it wasn’t really until 1994 that the name—and the latest character to use it—became a force to be reckoned with…

The original Starman, dilettante and amateur astronomer Ted Knight, first appeared in Adventures Comics #61 (April 1941) and singularly failed to take the world by storm. He wasn’t a bad character. He was certainly good enough to earn a place in the Justice Society of America. But he wasn’t dynamic enough to compete with Superman or even the Flash, and his invention, the ‘Gravity Rod’, was no Green Lantern’s power ring. Still, he hung on until 1946, and was then consigned to occasional guest star status like most of his peers.

In March 1976, a second Starman debuted in First Issue Special #12. This character, a blue skinned alien stuck on Earth, had no connection to the original and lasted all of…well, one issue, in fact. Hardly surprising, since he looked like a refugee from Saturday Night Fever.

But the third Starman (created by Paul Levitz in Adventure Comics #467, Jan 1980) was slightly more successful. Prince Gavyn of the Infinite Realm lasted until #479 (March ’81) before retiring to comic book limbo, apparently dying in the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. Will Payton, the fourth Starman, was the first to actually debut in his own title (Starman #1, Oct 1988), and managed 46 issues till May 1992, apparently dying a few months later in the crossover storyline ‘Eclipso, the Darkness Within’. One could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Starman’ was not a name with much luck attached to it, in comics. And then, in 1994, we met Jack Knight.

Actually, it wasn’t that simple. In 1990, David Knight-son of the original Starman-had been introduced in Starman #26-27, fighting Payton for the right to bear his father’s name. He lost, and vanished into obscurity. In the new Starman #0 (Oct ’94), David returned and finally got the chance to fulfill his dream, courtesy of writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris. This time, he was shot dead on page 3. Luckily for the people of Opal City, there was someone else ready-if rather unwilling-to step into the breach.

Jack Knight, brother of David and younger son of Ted, had been introduced in the pages of Zero Hour #1 (Sept ’94). He was not a natural at the superhero game (in fact, he dealt in collectibles), and had no wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. David Knight’s murder and their retired father’s injury at the hands of old foe the Mist and his children changed all that, however.

By the end of the second issue (#1), Jack the junk dealer, Jack the coward, Jack who was despised by his father and overlooked by everyone else…was Starman. In fact, if not yet in name. By the end of #3, he’d taken the name too. Though he drew the line at the costume.

James Robinson’s Starman, Jack Knight’s story, is as close to a literary epic as a comic book can get. And it is all one story-though billed as an ongoing series, it’s very clear right from the start that here is a saga with a beginning, middle and an end. Along the way, Robinson brings in a multitude of characters and concepts, both new and original (like the heroic O’Dare family of police officers) and from DC’s dim and distant past (like the Starman of 1951-originally Batman in one of those absurd, throwaway 50s stories, now retconned as a time traveling David Knight prior to his death).

The other previous Starmen were not forgotten, either. At the end of #3, both the alien Mikaal Tomas from First Issue Special and the supposedly dead Will Payton resurfaced in one page epilogues, the former stuck in a circus sideshow, the latter on an alien planet, trapped at the mercy of unseen torturers in a cell beneath  a statue of the dead Prince Gavyn! Mikaal quickly joined the book’s regular supporting cast, but Will’s story took a little longer to play out. Jack eventually found and released him in #58 only to learn that ‘Payton’ had been a reborn, amnesiac Prince Gavyn all along, the real Will supposedly long since dead.

Others too became a part of the book’s ensemble cast. Charity the fortune teller, formerly one of DC’s ‘horror hosts’ of the 1970s when she was the narrator in anthology book Forbidden Tales of the Dark Mansion. The Shade, a minor Golden Age supervillain reinvented by Robinson as an enigmatic, seemingly amoral immortal who gradually became something of a friend and mentor to Jack (and spun off into his own limited series). A benevolent but simple minded incarnation of the eternally reincarnated villain Solomon Grundy. And a super strong retired gangster, Jake “Bobo” Benetti, who also becomes a friend. Ted Knight too was a constant presence, though the old warrior’s Starman days were behind him.

The series repeatedly broke with readers expectations, based on decades of melodramatic comic books past. Veteran hero the Sandman guest starred, but instead of donning his costume for the traditional glorious return he was now retired and in his 80s. Jack’s immediate bond with him served to reinforce the gulf between Jack and his father, Sandman’s old friend.

Another forgotten Golden Age star, Bulletman reappeared and Jack had to help him clear his name after allegations were leveled that he had been a Nazi agent. Jack had a child with Nash, daughter of the Mist, who drugged and raped him in order to conceive.  And in one memorable story, it was strongly hinted that three of the Justice Society, including the elder Starman, had decades earlier murdered the villain Rag Doll in order to prevent him from endangering their families. These were real people with believable motives, not heroic stereotypes or, in the case of the Shade, irredeemable villains. Even the Mist was a figure who commanded some sympathy, his scheming evil dulled by senile dementia.

Other long gone characters were referenced as having retired or died over time-the Jester, the Red Torpedo, the Invisible Hood-while Jack encountered new, second generation heroes like himself, such as the Black Condor and Phantom Lady. One character, the initially corrupt  Matt O’Dare, discovered that his family’s collective vocation as lawmen was nothing new when he learned he was himself the reincarnation of old West crimefighter Scalphunter. More, he was fated to be reborn again in the 30th Century as Thom Kallor, the Starman of the Legion of Superheroes. Jack’s occupation as a dealer in treasures of the past was no coincidence-this was a book about legacies.

It was also a book about Jack Knight’s personal journey from self centered drifter obsessed with the dusty detritus of the past to selfless champion, carrying a heroic legacy into the future. This was not an instant transformation. Indeed, it took years; the whole duration of Starman’s run. Every year, a standalone issue entitled ‘Talking with David’, in which Jack interacted with his dead brother in what seemed to be a surreal dream world, highlighted how much further Jack had come. The secret of David’s ghostly visitations was not revealed until the final storyline, however. By that time Ted Knight had joined him as a spirit, having perished in one final battle with the Mist.

Finally, all the loose ends tied up, in Starman #80 (August ’01) Robinson ended Jack Knight’s tale, the journey complete. Having proved himself a hero, to himself as much as anyone else, Jack gave up the superhero life and left Opal City to raise his infant son in San Francisco along with girlfriend Sadie-Will Payton’s sister. And ultimately, perhaps making that commitment was the most heroic act of all for the self centered boy who became Starman.

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