Friday, April 05, 2024

Jim Starlin Versus the Inevitable: Thoughts on Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable

[This is not a review. I will be discussing Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable in ways that will ‘spoil’ it so, if you haven’t gotten your copy yet and don’t want to learn anything too detailed about what happens, maybe bookmark this piece to return to at a later date. If you don’t particularly care, read on.]

What is a Dreadstar comic?

I’ve been pondering that since reading Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable, the newest Dreadstar graphic novel. It’s the second Dreadstar graphic novel of the 2020s, both published through Kickstarter campaigns, after Jim Starlin departed the book in 1989 with issue 40. He had stopped drawing it a year previously and, after it was continued by writer Peter David with, mostly, artist Angel Medina, Starlin’s only contributions were the odd cover and chapters of a serialised novel that ran in the back. Even when the title returned for a six-issue mini-series under Malibu’s Bravura imprint, Starlin just did covers, focused instead on his ‘Breed series. The last time he had done anything with the character was actually in the third ‘Breed series where Vanth Dreadstar and Oedi from the title joined alongside Starlin’s other creator-owned characters to team up with the protagonist of ‘Breed. While fans always hoped Starlin would return to the character, that appearance seemed likely to be the last time Starlin would draw the character after an injury to his hand seemed to end his drawing career. Instead, after many years of work and recuperation, Starlin managed to regain the use of his drawing hand and the first comic he drew was Dreadstar Returns, which was published in 2021, not only acting as the first Dreadstar comic since the early ‘90s, but also with the promise of several more graphic novels planned. Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable finally had its Kickstarter campaign in 2023 with the property jumping to yet another publisher (if you include the ‘Breed III appearance, Dreadstar has been published by nine different publishers over its 42-year span).

Dreadstar began as a serialised story called The Metamorphosis Odyssey in the pages of Epic Illustrated in 1982 with Starlin writing and painting it. Partly a chance to work on his own characters, partly a chance to try painting a comic, it told the story of a war between two ancient, god-like alien races. With one side realising that that they will eventually lose the war, a plan is put into action to destroy the Milky Way Galaxy – it’s an allegorical story rooted in the Vietnam War. The idea being that the other side is so terrible that, to save the galaxy from the terrible fate of being conquered by this race, it would be better to be destroyed altogether. Vanth Dreadstar is one of four beings gathered to fulfill that plan. Armed with a mystical power sword, Dreadstar is stronger and tougher than the average mortal – the galaxy’s most formidable warrior. He and Aknaton, the alien who destroys the Milky Way Galaxy, are the sole survivors of the explosion that destroys it – and, immediately after reaching safety in a neighbouring galaxy, Vanth kills Aknaton and settles into a quiet life.

The Epic Illustrated story was followed by two graphic novels, also painted, and a short story that led into the ongoing monthly from Epic Comics. The basic set-up was that, in this galaxy, there is also a war between two powerful groups, the Monarchy and the theocratic Instrumentality, and Vanth is drawn into the conflict when the planet he lives on is attacked, killing his wife and the nearby village of cat people. Joining the Monarchy’s army with the goal of getting revenge against the Instrumentality, he learns that neither side is interested in winning the war as both societies are now dependent on the war machine. Basically, it’s too profitable to end the war. Pulling together a group of like-minded individuals, Vanth sets about finding a way to end the war. The monthly title followed Dreadstar and Company in these efforts and, once the Instrumentality won the war, finding a way to overthrow their religious rule, settling into a conflict with the Lord High Papal, leader of the church and government, and his minions.

Starlin stopped drawing the title after the Instrumentality was defeated and the ensuing year where he only wrote the book was a meditation on what happens next with Vanth awaking from a two-year coma, trying to find a place in this new world. Vanth’s efforts to find a direction for his life mirrored Starlin’s efforts to find a direction for the comic. Due to various reasons, Starlin never did find that direction and departed the title, giving it over to Peter David and Angel Medina to continue. This resulted in another change of galaxies and various adventures until the series ended abruptly with plans indicated by First Comics that it would return in a new form. Instead, First Comics didn’t last much longer and it was resurrected as a six-issue mini-series by David with artist Ernie Colon that focused on Vanth’s daughter, the new wielder of the power sword. That story both wrapped up the previous series and told a new story, seemingly bringing the story of Dreadstar to an end.

Until Vanth and Oedi appeared in ‘Breed III alongside Starlin’s other creator-owned characters. It wasn’t completely apparent when these characters were from given that both were back in their most well-known clothes from the beginning of the Epic Comics Dreadstar monthly. Rather than an addition to the broader Dreadstar story, it seemed like a fun crossover of Starlin’s various characters as a bit of a treat for his longtime fans. Soon thereafter, Starlin was back at Marvel, writing and drawing new Thanos stories in a series of graphic novels – until his accident that seemed to end his drawing career. He continued working on Thanos stories with the art team of Alan Davis and Mark Farmer and seemed to bring his version of those characters to a conclusion. If I recall, there were some musings about doing more Dreadstar with another artist (and even one or two aborted efforts previously at a new Dreadstar comic by Starlin himself – one of which is included in the Dreadstar Guidebook that was published as part of the Kickstarter for Dreadstar Returns), but, instead, he discovered that he could, in fact, still draw.

Dreadstar Returns was both a return to familiar grounds with the characters looking like their most classic versions but it not only taking place after Starlin’s run but all of the Peter David-written material as well. Vanth and company are back in the galaxy that they had departed, which is run by the telepath Willow, whose consciousness has been merged with a giant computer. Vanth seems content working for this government to help free worlds from tyrants and bring them into Willow Consortium. The story opens with him slaughtering a tyrant king modeled after Donald Trump before being drawn into the real story: a dimensional void is slowly consuming the capital planet of the Consortium and, from within, can be heard a voice calling Willow’s name. Vanth, Oedi, a newly resurrected Willow, and Teuton go into the void to figure out what’s going on. After battling through constructs of old enemies, which gives Starlin an excuse to draw every old bad guy from the title, it’s revealed that the cause is Doctor Delphi, a thought-dead member of the group who was in love with Willow. His death actually resulted in him becoming the god of a pocket dimension and, with his newfound omnipotence (in that dimension), he has been watching over Willow and the rest of his old universe. He’s discovered a new threat, an incredibly power being he calls the Nameless that is dedicated to killing all other life in the universe and will kill Willow and the rest in the future. Delphi sacrifices himself (again) to warn them and give them the barest chance at survival.

Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable picks up there as plans are made to confront the Nameless and, hopefully, stop his path of destruction. This quest eventually involves teaming up with the Lord High Papal, once the primary antagonist of the title, and ends with a lengthy rumination on the necessity of COVID lockdowns. It’s an odd comic, one that never really delivers what you’d expect, but also fits into the larger body of Starlin’s work. I wouldn’t say that it’s good necessarily... definitely interesting. It’s left me, as I said at the beginning of this piece, pondering a question:

What is a Dreadstar comic?

I’ve long had the definition/running joke of DREADSTAR IS POWER! taken from the short story that ran in Epic Illustrated #15. From The Metamorphosis Odyssey on, the stories revolved around the idea of power in its various forms, from raw strength to the influence and control one may exert over an entire populace. Vanth Dreadstar has access to an energy he dubs The Power and always seeks to use it in the service of some idea of ‘good,’ usually against those that would use their power in ‘bad’ ways. The Nameless is presented as such a foe, using advanced technology and military skill to travel across the universe, destroying every inhabited planet that it encounters. In Dreadstar Returns, Delphi tells Willow the origin of the Nameless, the mightiest warrior on a planet that was born into a war that had lasted generations and, eventually, helped end it, but found himself the sole survivor. Having seen the destruction nature of people, his desire to live grew into an all-encompassing paranoia that meant that all other living beings must die to ensure his survival. It’s a bombastic overreaction that fits into a long line of Starlin threats, including the Lord High Papal. But, it also makes for a mirror version of Vanth.

Vanth grew up on an icy planet, constantly fighting, becoming a fantastic warrior until he discovered The Power in the form of a sword. Much like the Nameless, was the greatest warrior on his planet and desires an end to conflict. His experiences with massive genocide left him with a similar wish to be alone, away from everyone. Unlike the Nameless, that desire for solitude and survival only eventually gave way to love and, then, a desire to provide that state of peace to everyone. The Nameless’s path reflects the one taken by Aknaton where it’s better to destroy everything for the idea of peace, completely antithetical to everything Vanth stands for, a twisted mirror image of himself and the authority figure he hates the most. Surprisingly, Starlin doesn’t make these connections explicit, treating the Nameless merely as an incredibly powerful threat to be dealt with, leaving the Nameless almost as an abstract cosmic being rather than a fully fleshed out character like past enemies, like the Lord High Papal, who the Nameless recalls visually somewhat.

The Lord High Papal was the victim of prejudice as a child, the mixed-race son of a human and an unknown alien. An outsider, he grew up weak and abused by those around him, finding a path to power in the Instrumentality’s church. Eventually, he became the leader of the church, the most powerful being in the galaxy and tool of the Twelve Gods – their living weapon against the universe. His hatred of others led to a great power that he used to subjugate and oppress. His death at the hands of Vanth, eventual resurrection and, then, mentorship of Kalla, Vanth’s daughter, makes for a different version of the character in Dreadstar vs. the Inevitable. His inclusion in the comic is one of the early moments where I questioned Starlin’s approach. While Dreadstar has featured numerous characters changing alliances, the ease with which Vanth and Papal settle into a partnership feels off... and familiar.

Rather than the next step in these characters’ journeys, it reminded me of the relationship of Adam Warlock and Thanos. Papal’s characterisation was never far off from that of Thanos (nor his design) with the Twelve Gods of the Instrumentality replacing Mistress Death to an extent, but there were differences. The thirst for power as a means to rule rather than its own end was the largest one. Thanos’s goals were always smaller and more deeply personal, it seemed to me; Papal wanted safety and control. While both grew up as outsiders, set apart by physical appearances, Papal seemed more defined by those formative experiences than Thanos, particularly as Starlin kept writing the Titan. Post-Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos became a different sort of character and that existence continued when Starlin wrote him, up through the series of graphic novels from the past decade. He and Warlock entered into a unique relationship of respect, sometimes working together, sometimes against, but always with the sense that whatever personal animus may have existed was behind them. That’s the relationship of Vanth and Papal here, and it’s unsettling. There’s a little more bite to their interactions, a little more distrust, but it’s largely the same.

One moment, in particular, stood out that seemed to firmly place them into the pseudo-roles of Warlock and Thanos. As the two prepared to board the Nameless’s vessel, Papal addresses their past regarding Kalla and Dreadstar’s current relationship with Willow: “WE ARE BETTER SUITED TO A SOLITARY EXISTENCE. / OUR KING WERE NEVER MEANT TO SIRE OFFSPRING... / ...NOR PARTAKE IN ANY OTHER KIND OF PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP. [...] AS POWERFUL AS SHE IS, THE WOMAN IS NOT OF THE SAME COSMIC STOCK AS YOU AND I.” That last phrase, in particular, is very reminiscent of the language used for Warlock and Thanos in the recent graphic novels where their status as unique cosmic beings was emphasised heavily. Starlin using the same language for Vanth and Papal is a hard to miss allusion. That isn’t necessarily a problem. I tend to appreciate the way that similar ideas turn up across the body of work by a writer. The original Dreadstar run contained many similarities to Starlin’s work before and after, both in the writing and the art. That was part of the fun when his various creator-owned characters all got together in ‘Breed III, seeing the similarities and differences. It’s always been the case. This feels different than that.

When the two eventually confront the Nameless, they find that he is a giant compared to them and is impervious to their most destructive, powerful attack. If their portrayal recalls Warlock and Thanos, the Nameless becomes something of a Galactus figure. It’s at this point that the story really feels less like a Dreadstar story and like an unwritten Thanos graphic novel repurposed. Everything that follows, from destroying the Nameless’s records of inhabited planets (depriving him of his Herald) to avoiding destruction by appearing uninhabited feels like a very Marvel/Galactus sort of story. Most Warlock/Thanos stories by Starlin are not resolved through direct conflict or physical violence – there’s reason and cleverness. Not that Dreadstar and Company were brainless dolts; Vanth Dreadstar tends to win through power. Dreadstar is power. It’s a running joke for me, yes – one rooted in an essential truth. Vanth Dreadstar is an anachronism, a warrior that thinks that enough violence will bring peace. The sad joke of the character is that he subscribes to the destroy the village to save it mindset of Aknaton while thinking that he doesn’t. That is part of this story, as well. When Papal prompts them to leave the Nameless’s ship after their failure to do even the minimum amount of harm, Vanth argues that they need to stay and fight. It’s the moment in the story that felt the most right, because that’s what he’s done so many times (and barely survived many times). It’s also a moment that renders Vanth Dreadstar unnecessary.

The rest of the story has them seem to survive the Nameless in a somewhat anticlimactic manner where a plan is put into place to have all of the worlds of the Willow Consortium use as little power as possible and do everything that they can to make it seem like the worlds are uninhabited, hoping that the Nameless, no longer in possession of his information on inhabited planets, will pass them by. It becomes a thin allegory for COVID lockdowns and the sorts that wouldn’t abide them. Starlin mocks the likes of Mitch McConnell and has one guy arrested for trying to turn on a giant electric sign to announce the gender of his unborn baby. Dreadstar and Company merely enforce the lockdown and it appears that it works. It leaves the two graphic novels in a place where it’s hard to tell what the point was entirely. They were stories that exist with no real drive, no real triumph for its seeming protagonist. While Dreadstar has always been an ensemble piece, to an extent, Vanth Dreadstar was always central (aside from the graphic novel The Price that preceded the ongoing series). Here, he no longer fits.

Two books in with two Kickstarter campaigns and it seems like a good place to ask if this return to Dreadstar makes sense. From the beginning, the conceit seemed a little contrived. Part a return to the familiar, while not ignoring anything that happened before. It reminds me, again, of Starlin’s Thanos graphic novels where, for the first time, he seemed to make an effort to incorporate and acknowledge the work of others on the characters. In his previous return to the characters, a decade earlier, he made a very explicit point of dismissing other Thanos stories as featuring clones, not the real character. In the graphic novels, a central plot point was giving us two versions of both Thanos and Warlock, one his and one the in-continuity Marvel, and finding a way to reconcile the differences. There’s no such effort here. Instead, things are much like you remember but everything that happened did, in fact, happen. Just because. Which is Starlin’s right. What’s lacking is a strong purpose.

What is a Dreadstar comic?

As I said, it’s about power. More than that, it’s about large powers in conflict, ones beyond the control of regular people. Governments, advanced civilisations, authority. It’s about noticing the power structures of the world, saying that things that people take for granted are wrong, and doing something to fix them. The Peter David run was rooted in subverting that idea where Dreadstar and Company think that they’re overthrowing a corrupt leader in favour of a wrongfully deposed, genial king. Instead, they were wrong and reinstall a brutal tyrant. The story that takes up these two volumes – and it is a single story, seemingly – isn’t about anything like that. It’s a cosmic godlike being warning them of impending doom and, then, trying to confront that external doom. Yes, that cosmic doom is powerful, so powerful that the combined might of Vanth Dreadstar and the Lord High Papal can’t even hurt it, let along destroy it. The Nameless is something beyond typical power structures – something from outside the system.

And I want to say that is another form of subverting the Dreadstar model. The COVID analogy that practically leaps off the page it’s so blatant is what it’s about. Something so big and unavoidable that it overwhelms existing power structures. Vanth Dreadstar is useless, because he’s useless. We all were. All we could do is submit to power structures and hope that their plans worked. And it feels wrong somehow, because it’s doing something by doing nothing. I’m not sure how much I believe in this argument. Or, better yet, how much that redeems these two books, particularly the newest one. Does it make them more enjoyable? No. More interesting? Perhaps. Does it answer the question of why Dreadstar? No.

I said it when Dreadstar Returns came out, but I find a joy in these comics that goes beyond the plot or characters. I’m still bowled over by how one of my favourite artists thought that his ability to draw was gone forever and, then, it wasn’t. These comics shouldn’t exist. In a large way, they’re about that. About pushing through and finding a way, where maybe the process is more important than the results. I like to imagine the joy that Starlin feels drawing these comics. I hope there is joy. Where maybe he returned to Vanth Dreadstar because, for a time, he thought he would never be able to, even if he never really planned to. Throw these characters back into mostly familiar roles and looks and just run with things. Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say about these characters and is just hoping he will. I think there is something there even if this one didn’t quite seem it.

There will be more Dreadstar graphic novels. The next one is titled Dreadstar vs. Dreadstar and deals with his daughter. Will that one make these two suddenly fall into place and make more sense? Maybe. I’m there, though.