This week the Smash Pages crew focused on longer bodies of work from a variety of decades, looking at comics from the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2010s. Have a look at what we’ve been reading, and let us know what’s been on your list in the comments.
This week on “Why Do I Own This, Again?” I pulled the first of six Starman Omnibuses off the shelves and cracked it open. Starman, by James Robinson, Tony Harris and Wade von Grawbadger, is from 1994 and was a comic I only got into maybe in its last few issues in 2001. I had just started working at Metro Entertainment (Santa Barbara’s premier comics and gaming shop for over 25 years!) and a comic connoisseur I worked with was in love with the series. Jack Knight was an antiques-dealing hipster who found himself thrust reluctantly into a world of DC’s Golden Age heroes and villains; what a metaphor for working at a comic shop! The series grew, matured, found ways to introduce you to a whole host of supporting cast and history that could make you weep for characters long dead or recognize background faces in a crowd. It lured me into other books and titles, and got me to dig through the back issue bin for more. As a True Believer, this was my first introduction to what the DC Universe could hold in its history and characterization.
That all being said, boy those first issues are rough. Woof. It’s not bad, per se, just…. verbose. Pages on pages of little yellow text boxes like this whole thing has to be written on as many Post-Its as possible, Robinson is at his most “tell, don’t show” as he introduces you to all of Starman’s major cast, future plot threads, flavor text on Jack’s collections and ambience to Opal City itself. The latter is practically unnecessary as Tony Harris’s moody artwork is fantastic at casting shadow and stained glass like highlights to this art deco piece; an immersive mix of ancient futurism and pop art history. Opal City reminds me of Gotham from Batman: The Animated Series in being so stylized and yet approachable, a fantastic place that you could feasibly live in. Characters either say a lot (pages and pages) or not enough, as Jack Knight is our main protagonist with way too many thoughts and mediocre dialogue. Characters repeat their motivations and current situations a lot, but these once were single issues and I’m reading months of story all in one sitting.
Comics aren’t written like this anymore. There is so much of James Robinson in these pages, from his own love of the DC Universe to his fascination with old collectables from a bygone age. I don’t know if anyone past Generation X would be into hearing about Oscar Wilde, Jay Garrack or Roy Rogers Quaker Oats cups. References are dated, what was once super hip now seems “try too hard” and quaint from a modern point of view. But that’s all style; the substance is what matters and Starman has plenty of it under the poetic waxing. This is a story about a man and his father, about two brothers, about a family history that stretches into long generations. This is a story about the bizarre, the macabre and the start of so many things that will later blossom into a huge arc across the universe. It’s a series with a rare beginning, middle and end. Pick it up, but be ready for the long haul.
This week I read the bulk of the New Gods By Gerry Conway and Mister Miracle By Steve Englehart And Steve Gerber collections. These reprint the eponymous mid-1970s revival series, and they have pretty impressive creative teams (Don Newton pencilling New Gods and Marshall Rogers and Michael Golden pencilling Mister Miracle); but they end up not amounting to a whole lot. For one thing, Jack Kirby himself closed out New Gods with 1985’s Hunger Dogs graphic novel, and this revival got lost in the shuffle.
More to the point, though, each of these series sort of casts around. Everyone’s trying to honor and build upon Kirby’s work, but New Gods presents a pastiche-y quest storyline; while Mister Miracle can’t decide whether Scott Free is a messiah, a human paragon or something of both. Meanwhile, outside those series they get teamed up with various main-line superheroes like the Flash and Superman for more conventional fare.
It all comes to a head in 1980’s three-part Justice League of America arc (pencilled by Dick Dillin and George Pérez) where the annual Justice League/Justice Society team-up goes to the Fourth World. Presumably, having the New Gods as guest-stars and plot movers carries less of a burden than following directly from the King of Comics; so you can really sense Conway’s relief at being on much more familiar ground. When a character recaps Darkseid’s fate from the New Gods revival’s hasty wrap-up, it comes across as “so that happened.”
To be fair, there are a lot of crazy-fantastic ideas bouncing around these issues, and the art is always engaging. We might see these comics today as artifacts of the directions DC sought to go during a particular period of its history, but they are still worth exploring for all the potential they never quite realized.
Poppy and the Lost Lagoon by Matt Kindt (Dept. H) and Brian Hurtt (The Sixth Gun) came out back in 2016 from Dark Horse and is available for free right now on comiXology. It was recommended by fellow writer-about-comics Arpad Okay, and its definitely worth checking out. It’s by a great creative team, but it’s very different than anything I’ve read by either of them. They’re listed as co-writers, with Hurtt providing the line art and Kindt the coloring, which has a fun watercolor style to it.
The story itself is about a 10-year-old girl explorer who teams up with her grandfather’s ex-partner (That’s him on the cover, falling off the magic carpet) and Ramses, an ancient pharaoh trapped in the body of a kid. It’s reminiscent of old-fashioned globetrotting adventures like Tintin, Indiana Jones and the like, with engaging characters and a mystery centered on Poppy’s grandfather. Kindt and Hurtt go all-in on this all-ages graphic novel, which I highly recommend, esp. at the current price point on comiXology.