A Special Star

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Rising Stars’ 1999 debut began with a fiery star crashing to Earth. It also marked the arrival of red-hot J. Michael Straczynski as a legitimate comic book superstar. 

Fresh off his cult-favorite television series, Babylon 5, Stracyznski promised comic fans a 24-issue maxi-series of an epic scope.  His saga of the Specials (113 people of power) immediately captured the imagination of the comic buying community, becoming one of the hottest projects on the market.  Some even went so far as to predict that Rising Stars become the first “Watchmen” of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, delays began plaguing the project; by late 2001, when the series had been originally been scheduled to end, Rising Stars had only reached 16 issues.  2002 brought a meager four new issues, one in 2003 when a long-rumored dispute between Stracyznski and Top Cow Productions became public and the writer announced he was withholding the final three scripts until the situation was resolved.  Much to the surprise and delight of Rising Stars fans, 2004 brought news that Straczynski and Top Cow had settled their differences.  By the end of the year, issues #22 and 23 hit shops and finally, this past month, the “series finale” of Rising Stars shipped. 

While the actual story ended in an explosive manner, the conclusion of the epic arrived with little fanfare.  The delays in the monthly serial may have cost Rising Stars to burn out prematurely, but the series could find a second life in April, when Top Cow releases the Rising Stars Hardcover (collecting all 24 issues of the series).

Issues #1-8, collected as the “Born in Fire” trade paperback, comprise the first Act of Rising Stars.  “Born in Fire” may be the weakest act in terms of art (the tall, dark-haired Poet and the tall, dark-haired Ravenshadow are easily confused), but it is easy to see why Straczynski’s tale quickly gathered a large fan base.  The first issue is a tight self-contained story that brings readers to the 1960s town of Pederson when a mysterious fireball lights the night sky with a powerful flash.  A few years later, all 113 Special children that were in utero at the time of the “Pederson Flash” begin developing amazing super-human abilities.  Some generate energy blasts, have great strength or are pyrokinetic.  Others develop more mundane abilities, such as floating.  In the words of the Special known as Poet, “some…would embrace what was coming, others would deny it…some would become stars or comets, burning out too soon.” 

The first glimpse of the full scope of Straczynski’s vision comes with the final pages as readers learn that Rising Stars is actually a eulogy by Poet, for the 112 Specials that died before him.

The rest of the first Act focuses on the Specials and their efforts to assimilate with the general population, before the appropriately entitled finale, “Things Fall Apart.”  Most of the plot is driven by the mystery of a killer hunting the Specials however, along the way, Straczynski provides several enjoyable stand-alone tales (#4 “Masques” tells of a Special who never developed any powers and #5 “The World Between” features a spectacular plot twist).  Through the entire arc, Straczynski offers readers an engaging mystery, intriguing interpretations of super-hero clichés (invulnerability may not be such an attractive power after all) and a few cute in-jokes (involving the Special called Patriot and a fellow named Chaykin).

Act Two, “Power,” in comprised of issues #9-16.  The first half of the arc is probably the least original part of the saga, focusing on a “civil war” between two groups of Specials.  While the battle might not stand on its own merits, it sets up a major shift in status quo when, realizing that they have failed to use their powers to the fullest, the remaining Specials decide to change the world for the better.  The art is stronger, but inconsistent, as several artists contribute to accommodate the delays on the production of the title. 

The final arc, available soon as the “Fire and Ash” trade paperback, picks up the saga many years later.  Many of these stories deal with governments trying to prevent changes to the status quo, which Straczynski presents with a great deal of passion and emotion.  The inevitable tragedy of the story looms throughout every chapter (no spoiler warning here, as from issue one readers have know that Poet will be the only survivor).  The penultimate tale involves one of the Specials running for the presidency, with surprising results.  By the time the finale arrives, Straczynski adds a bittersweet feeling to the saga, ending with a powerful scene that brings Rising Stars full circle.

Straczynski’s opus takes readers on a grand journey, spanning 60 years, and through coming-of-age tales, super-hero epics, dark conspiracies and finally to hope for the future.  Rising Stars reads much better as one story, as opposed to 24 serialized chapters.  By removing the long delays between issues, it is much easier to invest an emotional attachment to the large cast.  If there is a flaw in the title, it would be that the artwork often fails to rise beyond average, with even Brent Anderson’s later issues lacking the impact of his earlier work.  In spite of this, Rising Stars provides readers with an exciting, dramatic epic that captures a true sense of scope. 

Is it of the same caliber as Watchmen?

No.  But J. Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars is something special.

- Fletch Adams

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