Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hello Cosmic Part 26: Cosmic Odyssey

[The first of two posts devoted to Jim Starlin's take of Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters. In this post, I look at Cosmic Odyssey, a 1988 four-issue prestige format series Starlin wrote and Mike Mignola drew. This post fits into a larger look at Starlin's cosmic work.]

A year after completing my look at Jim Starlin's cosmic work for Marvel, I'm back with two posts examining Starlin's take on the New Gods--twenty years apart. The New Gods seem like the perfect cast for a Jim Starlin comic book since they combine the cosmic and the mythic in that way he loves to--never mind that Thanos was clearly inspired by Darkseid (although, I'd say has become a much better character over the years). Really, the right mix is here for a fantastic story, which Cosmic Odyssey isn't quite. It's not bad, but it doesn't quite work in the way that nothing I've read of Starlin's DC work has... I am honestly mystified as to why Starlin's DC stuff fails to live up to the skill he displayed at Marvel, but that's how it goes.

However, Cosmic Odyssey is an interesting and decent read. What's most telling is that Starlin immediately sets about making Darkseid more like Thanos by making his coveted Anti-Life Equation a sentient being, something to aspire to and worship ala Thanos's relationship with Death. Starlin never quite pushes things that far, because Darkseid's motivation is control and power, while Thanos's motive was love--but that Starlin immediately makes the Anti-Life Equation (and isn't "anti-life" death?) an entity, a being, something that lives clearly shows that he wanted to make these characters more to his liking, more in his comfort zone. Cosmic Odyssey comes between Starlin's last cosmic work at Marvel, The Death of Captain Marvel and his next work, Silver Surfer where he resurrected Thanos and Adam Warlock and began his long "Infinity"-themed stories. Was he already missing those characters? Thankfully, his reworking of the Anti-Life Equation is his only major overhaul here as he prefers to stick close to the established identities of the characters involved.

The plot is rather simple: the Anti-Life Equation wants to eat our universe after Metron accidentally opened the door for it on one of his knowledge quests. The Equation sent in four aspects of itself and is trying to destroy four planets in the Milky Way galaxy, which will collapse the galaxy and allow it to enter our universe. The kicker is that it only needs to destroy two of the planets to succeed. So, Darkseid and Highfather have gathered a bunch of Earth heroes: Batman and Forager (a "bug" on New Genesis) have Earth; Superman and Orion have Thanagar; Starfire and Lightray have Rann (and meet up with Adam Strange); and John Stewart and the Martian Manhunter have Xanshi.

The most well known ramification of this series was the Stewart/J'onn mission where John Stewart is so arrogant and reliant on his ring that he leaves J'onn behind at one point (because taking him would slow him down) and, when he gets to the Anti-Life Aspect and its giant bomb, he discovers that it's painted yellow, the one weakness of the Green Lanterns! And there goes Xanshi. Starlin really does some good work with this subplot by having J'onn bitch Stewart out, while Stewart contemplates suicide later in the series, even going so far to send his ring away and put the gun to his head. Not at all what one would expect (then... now, I think Stewart would have pulled the trigger...) and quite good.

There's also some great moments between Superman and Orion where the Anti-Life Aspect mind-controls the population of Thanagar, sending them out to stop Superman and Orion. Superman goes on ahead, burrowing underground to get past the defences, while Orion is left to distract the Thanagarians. When Superman returns, he finds every soldier slaughtered and Orion unapologetic. He says that there are no innocents in war and with stakes that high, he wasn't going to play nice. Superman responds by hitting him. Not the last time a DC hero would deck Orion in this series. Orion is a racist. As Forager is a "bug," Orion treats him with disdain. This pisses Batman off after Forager sacrifices his life to stop the Anti-Life Aspect on Earth, so Batman let's fly a punch and is then held back by Superman. The book ends with Highfather informing Orion that he would accompany Forager's body back to his home in a lesson of tolerance.

When reading Jim Starlin writing the New Gods, particularly Darkseid, I can't help but compare it to how he would handle Adam Warlock and Thanos. People often say that Thanos is just a rip-off of Darkseid, which, in a very superficial way, is true. However, where Thanos is self-loathing and psychologically complex, Darkseid is simple. He's self-serving and evil--evil in that way where he says that he's evil and revels in death and destruction. His is the ugly face that he wants the universe to share. If you actually read Starlin's Thanos and his Darkseid, there isn't much similarity despite Starlin making the Anti-Life Equation an entity.

His New Gods are very much like the gods of myths. They are brash, arrogant, very human in their qualities. We don't see many of them here, just Highfather, Lightray, Orion, Darkseid, Metron and, briefly, Lonar (and Desaad for, like, a panel--lurking in the shadows). Metron is out of it for the story, his mind broken by his encounter with the Anti-Life Equation. Only Highfather and Darkseid seem in check of their emotions much of the time, both composed--Darkseid goes off the rails a little towards the end. Since one of Starlin's pet themes is religion, I went into this wondering how he would handle the idea of these characters being called the New Gods, if he would really explore that idea in any depth, but he doesn't, sadly.

One small moment of interest: the story begins with a group of Apokolips Storm Troopers invading Gotham only to be repelled by Superman and Lightray. However, one is left behind. Later, Batman is on the trail of various missing persons and comes across this monster in the sewers. After the Storm Trooper drops its gun, Batman, clearly out of his league, picks it up, narrating, "I NORMALLY DON'T LIKE USING WEAPONS... / ...ESPECIALLY FIREARMS. / BUT I'M FLEXIBLE, ABLE TO ADAPT TO THE SITUATION." At which point he blasts a giant hole in the Trooper's chest and leaves it for dead.

I should mention Mike Mignola's art, which is just as good as you'd think it would be. He really does a great job here, using interesting layouts and repeating panels effectively. His Darkseid looks like a creature of rock. He uses shadows well and I particularly enjoy his Metron.

Ultimately, I don't know how much influence this book had on the New Gods and the DCU (aside from the John Stewart stuff). But, it does influence the next series I'm looking at, The Death of the New Gods. I'll get to that sometime in the next few days.