Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogathon 15: Dreadstar #1-12 (Jeff Lester Guest post)

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1
by Jim Starlin
377 pages, Dynamite

This is one of those pieces you write where you're less interested in what you're going to say than in what the reaction is, because in this case I'm very, very curious about Chad's take on this material. His take on it has to be very different from what mine is, just because the way he found this material must be substantially different from how I originally experienced it (and then experienced it again).

For you see I am one of the Old Farts in the Comics Blogosphere, and Chad is not. I bought these first twelve issues at the local bookstore that also carried direct market comics, and if Wikipedia was to be believed, I was somewhere around 16 for the first issue and 18 for the twelfth, the last in this volume. It was, in so many ways, perfect for me, and in its way perfect for the comics market at the time: Because, like me, the marketplace was young and dumb and impaired in its judgment, unsure of how to react to being challenged in our likes and dislikes.

But--and this is something I had to keep telling myself as I made my way through these twelve issues--we were also used to our best and brightest leaving us. As an even younger kid, Starlin's work at Marvel, along with Englehart's, Gerber's ,Gulacy's, and McGregor's, (Buckler's work on Deathlok, and Gene Day's work on MOKF) had blown my mind. I'd never been a completist, so my back order collection didn't go very far back but I at least had sampled work by Steranko and Barry Smith (pre-Windsor) and a few of the undergrounds. Most of them did a little bit of work, left, and then never returned.

So having a new series by Starlin--and a series he was both writing and pencilling--was something I accepted and loved unconditionally. I was genuinely grateful to have it out in the marketplace. Actually, that states a concern about the industry I never had at 16 through 18. What I really mean is, I was grateful to have it in my hands, in my collection.

Interestingly, that wasn't the case for me with Englehart (Coyote), Gerber (Destroyer Duck) or much of McGregor (Sabre) with their own independent projects. I wonder now, was that stuff too challenging for me? Or did I not like it because the art for nearly all the projects was outside my narrow range of tastes? Either way, Dreadstar trumped them: it was Starlin writing a cosmic space epic and the work looked almost 100% like his earlier Marvel work. It was simple when it needed to be, and busy when it wanted to be, and Starlin clearly put a shit-ton of work into them. Even now, I'm in awe of the pages in the Dreadstar Omnibus--his default is mostly set to a three-tiered grid, with pages frequently moving up past nine panels to a page so he can save the space for a killer full page or double-page spread when he needs it. In an industry where the big two churn out monthly books with widescreen tiers of four to six panels to a page, I was faintly embarrassed to reread this material. The effort Starlin puts into Dreadstar doesn't just shame the Big Two's output; it shamed me for going along with that output. Oh sure, I complain...while I shuffle every week or every other week to the comic book store. If nothing else, these twelve issues are one of the best arguments that can be made for the necessity of bi-monthly material in the marketplace, as opposed to bi-weekly. I know bi-monthly books are not the easiest things for retailers to sell, or for readers to remember to buy. And it was probably the case that in 1982, it was easier to just come to the store every week and be delighted when a new issue was out. There were only something like twelve titles a week. If nothing else, every issue ended up being read two or three times because you didn't have a content pipeline sitting on your desk, or resting in your pocket.

And but so here's the interesting thing about these twelve issues of Dreadstar, after having said all that: it's not great. When I try to peek behind the veil of nostalgia, and appreciation for the ambition and the hard work, I find myself thinking that it's....all right. In fact, it's a'ight, that version of "all right" where it's arguably not worth these extra consonant sounds.

A lot of people may disagree with me, but this work just isn't as gripping as Warlock or his original run on Captain Marvel. What Starlin has to prove is very different here from what he felt he had to prove the first time around; the demons Starlin has to exorcise are much smaller, while perhaps equally personal with less of the semi-psychotic megalomania that was his thesis on the Marvel books.

I realize I've gotten this far into the piece without really talking about the plot or the theme or characters or stuff (always a failing of mine) so let's usher that in here now: Vanth Dreadstar is a galactic rebel who, after having unwitting participated in the destruction of the Milky Way, arrives on a backwater planet in the Empirical Galaxy, and is yolked into ending the bicentennial war between the Galactic Monarchy and the Galactic Church. He and his four man crew are trying to end the war without choosing a side. (Though after Vanth kills the reigning Monarch, his son the successor is quick to act as ally.

It's the first Star Wars movie, basically, slightly grown up and jostling with The Empire Strikes Back to see who can more quickly infuse the proceedings with daunting dourness, and I remember there were many times I picked up an issue of Dreadstar and thought "I wish the Star Wars comic could be like this." Dreadstar was funny and cool and personal and not in any way wimpy. Even Oedi, the farmer-turned-rebel a la Luke Skywalker, is more of a kick-ass athelete, springing all over the panels while avoiding blaster fire.

But, again, cojones aside, there is a huge difference between doing your version of Star Wars and doing your version of Elric. Dreadstar, like Starlin, is the veteran of a war he's bitter about having participated in, and that's a pretty good melodramtic hook on which you can hang a some clenched-fist single tear series of panels with Vanth muttering "Damn you! Damn you all to hell!' through clenched teeth. But that really doesn't have the resonance for me that Mar-Vell, the conflicted soldier turned cosmically aligned zen warrior, or Warlock, the ex-savior with the weapon that is slowly killing and corrupting him, the artificial man who knows he will have to kill himself before he becomes the universe's worst enemy. In Sean Howe's Marvel Comics The Untold Story, Howe quotes Starlin as saying, "I was just as crazy as everybody else post-Watergate, post-Vietnam... Mavell was a warrior who decided he was going to become a god, and that's where his trip was." Contextually, this isn't really the case, but it is the case with Thanos, the villain Starlin created and returned to again and again over four decades. Thanos is Starlin's ultimate mirror image, at least in those days: he is a supremely confident schemer and powerhouse whose megalomania finds its essence in the dual desires of nihilistic death and transcendent divinity. I'm assuming it would be true for all teens and pre-teens, but the push and pull of in all three characters--"Am I nothing? Am I everything?"--was, I regret to admit, crucial to me.

Dreadstar hates what he is doing but in these twelve issues he never doubts himself, and it never feels like Starlin does, either. Although the storytelling is gorgeous, the story itself is equally turgid and smug--spending pages focusing on exposition or the horrors of war, before going on to have two of the crew defeat a dumb enemy using a Bugs Bunny routine.

Although I hasten to add, that was the era--the hammy, self-satisfied pathos of Sylvester Stallone was big then, and unless you bought comedy albums, most humor came from cartoons over three to four decades old. (Only the hardiest of nerds moved in Monty Python--I myself stalled out around Dr. Demento and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) But although I can't begrudge Dreadstar for being so much of its time, I can't bring myself to laud it, either: working with a lot of the same ideas and with many of the same influences, Dave Sim was doing High Society and the Church & State I at the same time. While not exactly perfect either, I'd still maintain Sim's work holds up better because it's cartoonier, which can allow for the pathos and the hijinks to turn on themselves more tightly. Both men conclude that religion is a creation of material men to sway the masses, but Sim is far more interested in exploring what that means and how it works. Starlin is quick to let it go, as if that idea is such a stunner he really doesn't think he needs to go any further with it. Which is why the Dreadstar Omnibus reads like what it is--a master craftsman showing he has mastered the craft of narrative storytelling and deadline-hitting--instead of how I wish it would read (as Star Wars by way of Chomsky). It's big ideas handled inelegantly. It's the next stage of Marvel Comics for people who read Marvel Comics, by people who read Marvel Comics. It was perfect for me at sixteen, who wanted to feel grown up, but didn't really want to actually grow up. I was uncomfortable with Heavy Metal; had only the vaguest sense of manga, was creeped out by R. Crumb and his bands of merry ids.

Which brings me, finally, to my questions for Chad (although I wish I could figure out the right way to praise Starlin's amazing synthesis of Ditko's Dr. Strange in Dreadstar, which I think is probably the best Ditko work not done by Ditko).

Chad, how did you discover this work? What does it do for you? Are you fond of it on its own, or are you fond of it because it is such a big bag of Starlin, with all of his themes cut into tasty McNuggets? What parts of the above do you think I'm high on crack? Which parts do you think I'm right on track?

Finally, I should mention that without Dreadstar, we wouldn't have Starlin's return to Marvel in the '90s being nearly as impressive as it was: his desire to tell big, crowd-pleasing work within the narrow lines of circumscribed work for hire was something I don't think he could've pulled off if he hadn't spent all this time mastering his craft, even if he couldn't keep himself from snorting the heady scent of his own armpits. It's something I think about as you prepare to leave the Internet (for however long). I'm half-hoping for you to stay, to see if you can wring out any more skill from your own work. And I am hopeful for your return. Thanks for all the words and insight you've given us, and all of your generosity along the way.

[Don't forget to donate what you can to the Hero Initiative (Details in this post)! After you do, let me know via comment or e-mail (found at the righthand side) so I can keep track of donations -- and who to thank.]