Monday, November 14, 2005

STARMAN #44 DC Comics, 1998

I can’t decide whether to focus on the radness of James Robinson’s Starman series or the radness of the Phantom Lady in today’s post. Both are worthy of an entire post on their own, and I’d be doing a disservice to their radness by trying to discuss both Starman and Phantom Lady at the same time. So in an effort to have my proverbial cake and eat it, too, I will discuss Phantom Lady in prose and Starman in haiku.

Starman, so retro
Slacker with a cosmic rod
Family heirloom

This is one of the many issues where series writer James Robinson took a detour from the Starman meta-story and focused on a tangent in the Starman Miniverse. I admire Robinson’s confidence as a storyteller and his willingness to dabble in characters and stories that interested him, even when they didn’t feed into the narrative thrust of the series, like the annual “Talking With David” issues, wherein Jack (Starman) chats with his dead brother. After a while, I found diversions like these a little tiresome, but overall I give Robinson points doing his thing.
Robinson wrote it
He wrote Starman well and long
Long long time, sailor

In this particular issue, we hop in the Wayback Machine and visit Washington D.C. circa 1944, where the original Starman’s cousin The Phantom Lady is hot, and is hot on the tail of The Prairie Witch, a green-skinned criminal with a posse of masked thugs. The Phantom Lady stops the Witch’s first heist, but of course she gets away. The Phantom Lady tracks her quarry to Opal City, Starman’s turf, and eventually foils the Witch’s plans and beats the living bejeesus out of her. The end.

Sounds a little thin, storywise?

Well, yes, but Starman #44 is a contemporary take on a simple, formulaic Golden Age plot. The fun of the comic lies in Robinson’s urbane style and focus on character as well as Mike Mayhew’s solid pencils. I don’t usually mention inkers when I talk about comics, primarily because I am a philistine, but I must praise Wade Von Grawbadger’s elegant inks – they enhance Mayhew’s pencils and add a sense of lushness to the book.
Jack had a brother
David, who fought a bullet
But the bullet won

Here’s Phantom Lady (below) after mopping the floor with a bunch of thugs. The Prairie Witch has escaped, but not before calling P.L. a “tramp.” That’s mean.

Let me jump in here and say that The Phantom Lady has a seam that runs down the middle of her costume, okay? It’s not a camel toe – it’s a seam. In the forties they were not as conscious of camel toes as we are in the twenty-first century. It’s a seam, damn it. I just want to clear that up and pre-empt the inevitable discussion of the Phantom Camel Toe in the comments section.

The other Starman
Will Wheaton? No, Will Payton!
He blew up real good

Okay, having settled that, let’s talk about Phantom Lady, the prototype of modern Boob War heroines. Phantom Lady first appeared in Quality Comics fighting crime in a skimpy outfit that emphasized her, um, tits. I don’t mean to be crude, but Phantom Lady was all about the breasts, or “headlights” as they called them Back In The Day.

Phantom Lady gained a certain notoriety for incurring the wrath of Dr. Frederick Wertham in his witch-hunt against lascivious and exploitative comics. It was actually this Matt Baker cover that earned her so much attention:

Holy cats, if that’s not Boob War material, I don’t know what is.

At some point DC Comics bought the rights to the Quality Comics heroes like Phantom Lady, Blackhawk, Doll Man and incorporated them into The Freedom Fighters comic… until writer Geoff Johns had her killed in Infinite Crisis #1, which for some reason really bugged me. I mean, damn! They couldn’t have killed Doll Man?

What happened to Jack?
He quit the Society
And moved to limbo?

Back to Starman #44: The not-dead-yet Phantom Lady finally goes toe-to-toe with the Prairie Witch, who tries to escape on her broom, naturally.

Phantom Lady beats the crap out of The Prairie Witch and saves the day. Yay Phantom Lady!

At the end of the book we get a moody denouement as Starman Sr., who narrated the tale, wraps things up but dangles an enticing plot thread about a lover who wanted Phantom Lady dead.

A lover named Geoff Johns, maybe?

Waiting in the sky
Starman would like to meet us
But he’d blow our minds


Harvey Jerkwater said...

I just re-read the first six issues of Robinson's Starman last week. I remembered not digging it as much as everyone else.

I still don't. Robinson tried just a little to hard to be cool for my tastes, and it came off forced.

And I hate that idea of characterization through possessions. Too much of the book's flavor depended on catching cultural references and the comics' self-mythologizing narrations.

It's The Fonzie Effect. If you're trying hard to be cool, you aren't.

There was a great comic hiding in Starman. Did it ever come out? I gave up around issue 18.

DougBot said...

I loved parts of Robinson's run on Starman, though I totally lost interest during the year or so that he had them wandering around space for no good reason.

The title really picked up again during the last year or so, though. And the bits with Wesley Dodd about hafway through are great.

What happened to Robinson, anyway? I heard he did a pass at the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen script, though given his tendency to emphasize words randomly, I'n not sure that was a great idea. (Seriously, try reading any of his issues out loud, the random bold will drove you bonkers.

m b blissett said...

I think that with this variant dying, there might be a Morrison revamp waiting in the wings

Anonymous said...

Before writing the script for the awful LXG movie, Robinson wrote and directed a comedy called Comic Book Villains. It was about a rivalry between two comic shop owners, and their attempt to get their hands on the collection of a recently deceased collector. It was an ok movie with a fair amount of inside jokes that comic geeks like us would enjoy, but overall nothing too terribly clever or funny.

According to IMDB, he's written a script for Hot Wheels, to be directed by McG, though who knows if anything will come of that project as it's a "pre production" listing.

Anonymous said...

Starman! I loved that series, and it was probably the turning point as far as comics in the nineties go. Robinson liked to throw in all sorts of obscure or rarely used characters all of whom seem to have been disposed of starting with Metzler's rape and murder depression fest. In fact they seem to be going out of thier way to undo alot of Robinson's contributions for some bizarre reason I can't begin to fathom.

FYI though, the Phantom Lady that was rather phalically skewered in "I can't believe they're cancelling The Flash, those bastards" Crisis is not the same Phantom Lady in this issue's flashback. She was used later in the series though, when Jack was in space tracking down his future brother-in-law.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't get into Starman in the first place because I found the dialogue infuriating to read, what with all that ineptly placed boldface used for emphasis.

Anonymous said...

Er, what Dougbot said.

Anonymous said...

Man, that is some camel toe the Phantom Lady is showing. Geeze.

I want to be the first to point out that the Phantom Lady killed in Infinite Crisis is a different Phantom Lady. I'm not going to bother reading the other comments to see if anyone pointed this out. Let's just assume I'm the only one clever enough to notice this.

James Robinson ran hot and cold with Starman. He was good when he focused on the O'Dares. Bad when he would write extended story arcs in the voice of The Shade, using long passages of faux-19th century prose.

If I'm not mistaken, Mike Mayhew took a lot of grief for tracing pictures in his artwork. I would look it up and give you guys the references, but if I'm too lazy to read the other comments about the Phantom Lady, I'm certainly not going to type in "Mike Mayhew and tracing" into a Google Search engine.

Hell, I'm so lazy, I can't even be bothered to finish th

Captain Infinity said...

Yeah, I know it's the seam, but it's kind of odd to have a seam running down the front of her costume considering that her costume barely has a front.

Scipio said...

Got to agree with Harvey. I never learned to like Jack himself. But Robinson re-sparked interest in the Fictionopolis as story setting, and I thank him for that.

And, Dave?

You honor Starman with your haiku; Starman should be discussed ONLY in haiku.

Anonymous said...

You know, I think the air's just right for Boob War II: The Quickening.

Mark W. Hale said...

Wade von Grawbadger
Best name in all of comics
Fin Fang Foom comes close

Shon Richards said...

A Phantom Lady
permanently dead or not
quickens my pulse still

Matter-Eater Lad said...

Robinson's random boldfacing always reminded me of that SNL sketch where Alec Baldwin played a soap opera actor who always emphasized the wrong syllables.

JP said...

I liked those Starman-in-space issues! They were crazy silly, the actual quest Jack Knight was on sort of fizzled out with Will Layton assuming an alternative identity, but, heck, fun in space! The Jack Knight Starman was a great bridge character for people of my age. I could identify with him, down to the dorky trying-too-hard pop culture refs, and then the respectful use of classic heroes like the original Green Lantern, the original JSA, Wesley Dodds' Sandman and of course Ted Knight's Starman helped prime a real interest in the good old stuff too. The series had great moments (the 'good' Grundy's heroism, Wesley Dodds donning the old gas mask, Bobo Benneti and Jack Knight slugging a bunch of costumed bank robbers) and low points (that faux-Victorian narrative by The Shade for one, the endless foreshadowing by everybody, the rather lame villain who marred the Infernal Devices storyline) too. What didn't? It was still a great run of mostly very entertaining stories. I think.

Anonymous said...

Because I love you guys, I went back and found the whole "Mike Mayhew turns the beloved King of Spain into a genocidal maniac" controversy (in case anyone missed it the first time...)

Peter said...

Isn't the random boldfacing in comics something almost any writer is guilty of? It never stood out when I read Starman, and I read all 84 issues (including specials) in about two weeks' time. I know I've noticed it in dozens of different comics all across the board though, and sometimes I wonder if it's the letterers who misinterpret things?

Starman was good, by the way. And inadvertently it led directly to the current Infinite Crisis, what with the love/fascination for the Golden Age and Earth-2 and such :)

Anonymous said...

Starman was my favorite DC book of the '90s. It was always well-drawn (Tony Harris, Wade von Grawbadger, & Peter Snjebjerg kick more ass than your mom), and never failed to entertain me. In fact:

If I had to choose
Between Starman and cookies
I'd be very sad.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I've got all the Starman trades.

"Well, you should've read he latest comic Dave's on about!"

No, because after the first four or five, the Times Past stories don't get traded.

"Well, that sucks."

Sure does.

Anyway, the first six issues are pretty much on a par with Geoff Johns career; mediocre. (InfiniCrisis is alright though.) It does get a lot better - bought the first two trades together, and it's just as well, cause if I'd only got the first I dunno if I'd've bothered.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who just ignores the boldfacing? Every time I've ever tried to follow it and emphasize the words in bold, it ALWAYS seems off to me, no matter who's writing. Now I don't even notice it.

Oh, and all you bastards ripping on Robinson and Starman can kiss my ass. :-)

Anonymous said...

Actually, what REALLY lead to IC was Morrison's last arc on Animal Man, which was the first attempt since the mini to acknowledge the events that had happened, other than everyone wondering why Barry Allen was dead.

Rob Schamberger said...

I've never paid attention to bold or italic facing. It never makes sense.

Starman's one of my favorite books ever. Robinson was really an interesting writer towards the beginning of the run, coming off of Firearm.

Anonymous said...

Golden Age was a terrible Elsworlds? Are you on crack? Admittedly it's been a few years, but TERRIBLE?!?!?!?

Sure is a pisser than Leave It to Chance seems to be dead in the water, eh?

DougBot said...

The Golden Age has every old-school superhero (and a few Silver Age folks) fighting HITLER!!

If that's not totally Airwolf, I don't know what is.

Frank said...

I hadn't heard of her before, but I think she bears a striking resemblance to Betty Page in the cover with the ropes. Someone can probably dig up the picture I would guess.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, I loved Golden Age.

Anyway, regarding the improper bolding of words, I'm pretty sure that's a letterer's effort to make the text more readable. I don't think the writer even pencils all of the words in, I think the letterer often goes by the scripts and makes his/her own choices related to formatting.

I agree, though, that it can really suck up the text. I recall a ton of books having that problem in the '90s. I may just be too simple-minded as far as readers go, but I pretty much always tried to read those with the emphasis on the bolded words...and it always ruined the text for me.


It still happens a lot today, especially during longer monologues. More suckitude.

Anonymous said...

I was recently re-reading the Starman series (which I love) and I noticed a lot of forshadowing to Jack going to the "far east". The two references I've noticed so far were Charity the fortune-teller so Jack would go to the far east and in the Times Past graphic novel the final story wher the Shade is living on some planet in the far future and telling stories to children and he mentions stories to be told and the art shows Jack battling a demon Samurai, an event I never saw happen in the enitire series. My question is, is this a mini-series or one shot I'm not aware of or just a storie that never happened?

Anonymous said...

I was recently re-reading the Starman series (which I love) and I noticed a lot of forshadowing to Jack going to the "far east". The two references I've noticed so far were Charity the fortune-teller so Jack would go to the far east and in the Times Past graphic novel the final story wher the Shade is living on some planet in the far future and telling stories to children and he mentions stories to be told and the art shows Jack battling a demon Samurai, an event I never saw happen in the enitire series. My question is, is this a mini-series or one shot I'm not aware of or just a storie that never happened?

Mister Sinister said...

Dude, Starman rules.

Shouldn't "Starman" be more about... oh I don't know...


Anonymous said...

From now on I'm going to refer to that seam as the Phantom Camel Seam. And since I'm all about the, um, tits, here's a much larger version of that famous Matt Baker cover. Don't get an eye poked out.

Matt Baker apparently worked on a wide variety of genres back in the day. Here's a cover from a book called Canteen Kate, who looks like she'd probably be easy. (What was in the canteen? I'm guessing bootleg gin.) And in Seven Seas Comics, a Dorothy Lamour look-alike gets attacked by a shark with a harelip. Apparently Harelip Shark attacks were commonplace in 1947.

Of course these days there's a new version of Phantom Lady (and the Freedom Fighters). Check out Stormy Fucking Knight. Talk about your distracting work environments.

Anonymous said...

I DO think the Phantom Lady pic is hot, but doesn't it look like the rope is just draped over her in a dramatic fashion? Like she's not tied up. Some guy just threw some rope at her.

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