Some people may scoff at the idea of a comic book making a profound emotional connection with someone. But, since you’re at a blog called “The Dorky Daddy,” I’m hoping you either know what you’re in for or are open to the possibility.
Feeling a craving for a bit of nostalgia from my teen years, I recently decided to re-read one of my all-time favorite comic book series, Starman.
Published from 1994 to 2001, it now sits on my shelf in the form of a nice, six-volume hardcover collection. It was a wonderful comic book series that felt like no other at the time and honestly, since. It can always be tough to go back and re-read something you had so much affection for at a different stage in your life, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to hold up.
What I ended up discovering, though, is this epic saga not only held up, but there were layers upon layers of themes and emotions within that there was no way the teenage and college student version of me could have ever grasped or felt during its initial release the way I do now.
The thing that changed my entire perspective between reading it then and reading it now was becoming a father.
I remember really enjoying this series during its original run because of its keen writing and its bent on nostalgia. It was littered with references to old comics and characters and history-laden stories of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and was a delight for a fan of older comics like myself. Another theme of the series, perhaps – an appreciation for the past and the beauty in previous eras and the things, people, and cultures that came before us.
There were things then, though, that I had no way of appreciating. It was not until now that I feel such resonance for what it is at its core – it is a saga about fathers and sons.
You have Ted Knight, a scientist who used his brains and sense of good during a more naive age of America, becoming a costumed crime fighter. Out of costume, he worked on the atomic bomb during WWII, something that haunted him for the rest of his life and cost him several years in an institution. Now, (now as in, the 90s, when these stories were printed), Ted is old, gray and devoting his remaining years to science.
You have David, the eldest son who wants to make his father proud by putting on the silly costume and taking up the superhero mantle, despite his brother, Jack, mocking it the entire time. David fails at being a hero. More on that in a moment, but his failure leads us to…
Jack Knight, youngest brother, collector, stubborn, and disinterested in the silly costumes of his father and brother.
The gist of the series is that Jack, an antique dealer, reluctantly inherits the mantle of “Starman” – the superhero identity of his father’s from the 1940s. Jack doesn’t want to do it, but after his brother tries to and fails, fatally, Jack has no choice but to use his dad’s inventions (but not his gaudy costume) to save his father, friends and city from old and new evils.
Jack goes on an incredible journey over the course of those 80+ issues, collected in these volumes. He doesn’t want to be a hero. In fact, he thinks his dad was pretty ridiculous to be dressed in a gaudy costume and flying around using his scientific inventions to stop thieves and mad scientists, even for the 1940s and 1950s.
When the tales begin, eldest son David, as mentioned, is trying to make his father proud, while Jack points out just how silly super heroics and costumed crime fighters are. Like many families, they fight. They fight over stupid things.
And when David dies in that silly costume by the bullet of a sniper, Jack does not think, in some cliche way, ‘I must avenge my brother’s death’ or ‘I must carry on my father’s tradition.’
Heck, no. Jack thinks he’s gotta get outta dodge.
However, it turns out it was no random act that his brother died, but old villains from yesteryear, now old themselves, taking out revenge on Jack’s dad and the family for years of those bygone ‘good vs evil battles’ when good always triumphed.
Jack picks up the mantle reluctantly, out of protection for his father more than anything else, but in doing so, inadvertently begins his own path down the road to hero. There’s no secret identity here. Jack makes no bones that it was him when people see a man taking to the skies again with his father’s inventions. But he doesn’t relish it either. No, Jack tells his dad he’ll do it for a little while, then be done. He just wants his normal life with his antique store.
How many of us say we’ll do something ‘just for a bit’ only to find ourselves doing it for years?
In time, Jack’s relationship with his father not only heals from the constantly-fighting father and son they began as, but grows into a man who starts to appreciate all his father had done with his life, and all he did for his family.
It develops into a relationship that can only come as one ages, one matures, and one sees through his own eyes what a father must do for his son(s). It’s in no way cliched and moves organically, naturally, a progression of maturity and spirit in the character of Jack that you feel along with him through each subsequent chapter.
Jack even learns of the mistakes his father made along the way (an affair with the attractive super heroine Black Canary, for one). What this does for Jack is paint his father out to be more than an old man, more than the foil of his angst-ridden years. He learns his father is a human being, like he.
In time, Jack, a man who once went through relationships fast and loose, becomes so smitten in love with a woman that he is willing to head off into space (a scary prospect to think about realistically) for her in an attempt to find her long-lost brother, a forgotten super-hero from the 1980s.
At one point in his hero’s journey he is captured, drugged, and raped by the daughter of one of his dad’s old enemies.
A year later, Jack receives a letter from her telling him her intention was to become pregnant, and it worked, adding that she has borne a son and will raise him to hate his father and want to kill him.
As Jack’s eyes swelled with tears reading the letter and telling his father the news, my heart broke for him in ways it never could have when I read this as a teen.
In a medium like comic books, when you picture people like Batman battling the Joker or Superman engaging in a battle of wits with Lex Luthor, this type of villainous plan – getting pregnant and raising the child to hate the father – is quite possibly the most diabolical.
Wow. Just wow. Talk about what an emotional punch to the gut that is for a man to think about.
By the saga’s end, the villainess is no more and Jack finally gets to see and hold his own son. Unfortunately, though, it is not before losing his own father. Ted, the former superhero, now old and dying, gives up his own life to save the city and people he had protected for decades, even paying his old arch-enemy, a man who hated him for decades and orchestrated a bomb that’s about to go off beneath them, a little bit of respect.
It’s soon afterward that Jack finds the love of his life has gone, and without his love, his brother, or his father, he is truly alone in the world to raise his young son.
Following Jack from beginning to end on this journey from snarky punk to savior, son and father – you’ll want to weep right there with him as he falls onto the floor of his antique store, everything in his world gone, wailing alongside his infant child. I did.
A funeral for his father is touching, with old men and women who were once young, popular heroes of comic adventures during World War II giving eulogies about the man who shed his red and green super hero costume but still became a hero to the world.
Not long after the funeral, Jack decides that being a father is the most important thing in the world to him and super-heroics just doesn’t have a place in that life. So, handing over the inventions of his father to a young heroine acquaintance, Jack sets out to start a new life, as a former hero to many, but primarily a hero to his son, not as a man fighting crime or super-villains, but by simply being there and being a father.
What a ride and what a read.
Teenage me sort of got the ‘father and sons’ angle, but it was on the surface. My younger self could never have connected to and grasped the type of emotions touched upon here. As time went on, as I aged, as my parents aged, as I became a parent myself, all of this has given me a new-found set of eyes as I read through these pages once more.
I often find myself growing tired of comics the older I get, at least the new ones. I either pick up something new that in its own way has the feel of something older, or I just return to my bookshelf and the books I’ve enjoyed enough to keep in a collected edition in the hopes of reading and getting those old feelings of excitement again.
Starman is one of those books in spades. Writer James Robinson has woven a masterpiece of epic proportions across multiple fronts – superhero, nostalgia, and most of all, family. It is one of those books that I know I can always pull off the shelf when I want something to read that’s adventurous, funny, and best of all, full of heart.
I’ve gone on and on previously as to why my comic book reading is few and far between these days, likely taking me the full gamut from childhood comic fan to young adult comic aficionado to now being that parent who will one day tell my son that those funnybooks were ‘better in my day!’
With that said, and in all fairness, I thought I should at least give a shout out to the few comic books that I do love to purchase and read, notably because they hold a connection to all the timeless features of comics and characters from my childhood.
Batman ’66 – I’m glad to see the Adam West and Burt Ward era of Batman finally getting a little well-deserved respect. For the longest time, artists, writers, filmmakers, comic readers – they all cringed at the mere mention of the 1966 Batman TV series. I have some friends that still do. But you know what? THEY didn’t make Batman lighthearted, they merely reflected (and accurately, I might add) the Batman comic books of the time period. And catching reruns as a kid (when the Michael Keaton film was coming out, so reruns were everywhere) I loved it. I still do.
Every month I get a comic I can pick up and count on to deliver some whiz-bang-pow fun with very colorful villains just as I remember them. It tells great, done-in-one-issue stories that are like they walked right out of the 60s. It’s a wonderful throwback to simpler times of comic books. I even submitted a proposal for a Batman ’66 story I wrote myself featuring Louie the Lilac and The Minstrel, but alas, any comic with “Bat” in the title these days is big business and small writers like myself are usually not let into the club. Thus, I will continue merely as an entertained reader.
Adventures of Superman – It’s true when I say they just don’t publish Superman comics like they used to. As I’ve mentioned in my lament about comics these days trying to be more evergreen and ready to launch into movies and TV shows, everyone is young, unattached, with very little history to draw upon. This book, however, is different.
And that’s just why I love it.
It’s classic Superman. The Superman we all know, whether we watched George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or just Supes cartoons, you can pick up this anthology, with anywhere from 1-3 stories per issue, and just get classic tales of Superman, the way we all remember him in our memories.
I remember the first time I heard that catchphrase “Who Knows What Evil….Lurks in the Hearts of Men?” or that sinister laugh. I was hooked. Still am.
While the first few issues of this new comic series were more bloody than I would like (I prefer my Shadow a bit more cerebral, like the Orson Welles-era radio plays), the fact that the series keeps itself set in the 1930s is enough to keep me reading.
Another side note on my writing career – I also sent a proposal pitch to Dynamite Entertainment for a Shadow: Classics series, which would adapt some of the old radio scripts to comic form. Alas, once again, it went unanswered. Maybe someone else will pick up on it and do it. Heck, I’d just like to read it. Some of those old radio plays were downright eerie.
Life with Archie – I was never a regular reader of Archie growing up, but sporadically, as a kid, I’d pick up an issue to see what that red-headed ladies’ man was up to. This book intrigued me when I came across it in the grocery store because it’s Archie and his pals all grown up.
On top of that, each book is actually two books. You get one story set in a hypothetical universe where Archie has married Betty and another set in a world where Archie has married Veronica. Yes, Archie apparently gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Either way, he and the gang deal with very adult issues and problems and I love seeing the chances taken by placing these characters in a new, grown-up environment.
So, there you have it. What my comic reading is up to these days. In between these occasional reads, I’ll usually try to sneak in a novel or non-fiction book here and there, or an old comic hardcover or collected edition off my bookshelf, something from the past that I know I enjoyed and will continue to love.
And see, I even was willing to spill the beans to you all about my hopeless attempts at comic pitches that are just out there in the ether. I haven’t quite admitted those to anybody, so there you go. Two for the price of one. 🙂
I’m going to geek out a bit and talk about comic books and families.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a reader of comic books for most of my life. The tastes have changed, as have the characters, topics, and nature of it all, but it dawned on me recently that one of the things that has been a constant staple of my affection and love of the genre is a connection to the idea that characters go through life, change and age, just like the rest of us.
Long before I became a parent, as far back as at the age of ten, I was intrigued by the idea of ‘legacies’ in comic books. By legacies, I mean the passing of the mantle, families, all of it. The mere fact that characters were allowed to grow and change.
These days, I admit that I don’t read too many modern-day comic books. Giant companies like Disney and Warner Brothers own Marvel Comics and DC Comics, respectively, and what they want these days are properties – characters and worlds that they can quickly spread into movies, toys, cartoons and a myriad of other cross-merchandising. For those companies, though, properties need to be timeless.
It used to be that heroes grew up, sidekicks grew up, took over, some died, some had families, and it made it all interesting. Today, executives and editors have chosen to hit a giant, cosmic ‘reset’ button. Now, the heroes of the 40s are gone. Batman, Superman, many of their brethren, instead of being in their 30s/40s with families, etc, are all in their early 20s. No one’s married anymore. It’s all just…uninteresting. And when you read news articles with quotes from these companies and editors, they claim it’s because the stuff before it (generations, families, spouses, etc) were what was boring.
For me it was just the opposite.
While it may sound like the raving of a comic fanboy or grown-up, old nerd, there’s more to it than ‘back in my day…’ I’m 33 years old. I’m a dad. I look in my son’s eyes and I see myself, my wife, our families before us, and all that lies ahead of him.
When I as a kid, comic books, especially DC Comics (of which I was a big reader) told great stories that intrigued me, because the characters had lived life, were changing, and in some cases, were growing old.
I’ll give you a few examples. When I was a kid, I was intrigued with the fact that long before my generation, there was a team of super-heroes known as The Justice Society, who were fighting crime during the 1940s. Even before my parents time, sure, but the thought that there were super heroes during that World War II era fascinated me, especially because these characters WERE STILL AROUND!
Not only that, they were around and older!
Picking up a comic book in the 80s and early 90s, I was finding that the Green Lantern of the 1940s, The Flash of the 1940s, characters like Dr. Mid-Nite, The Hourman were offering advice, guidance, and the occasional side by side fistfight with villains, alongside the heroes of the day. For a ten to twelve year old reader, this was a mind-blowing, yet wonderful concept. Imagine finding out your grandparents had been super heroes, and they and some of their friends were still occasionally hopping into the game, inspiring your parents and people your age to do good.
There was even a revived Justice Society comic book series in the 1990s that had the aging heroes dealing with their place in a modern world. Whether it was heart attacks, medication, what the public thought of them, whether younger generations of heroes were too violent, or whether they were still making a difference, it was an incredible perspective, and one that I was mesmerized by as a kid. The book sold well and had a great following. Unfortunately, the book’s writer has stated time and again that DC Comics editor of the time, Mike Carlin thought ‘no one wants to read about elderly super heroes’ and abruptly cancelled the series. It was sad.
Even as a pre-teen, I felt that these characters were getting a raw deal due to ageism.
Characters like The Flash (one of my favorites as a kid) was another great example of legacies. You had Jay Garrick, the super-speeding Flash of the 1940s who grew old, retired, occasionally making an appearance to help the younger generation. Then you had Barry Allen, who took up the mantle after Jay retired, was the Flash for a decade or two and then died while saving the world (the way a hero should go out). With that, the former kid sidekick Kid Flash, took up the mantle and became the third generation Flash, and there would eventually be even more speedsters. Once again, the kid in me thought this concept was incredible. It was like discovering your grandparent or elderly neighbor had been a super hero in the 40s, your parent or uncle, inspired to do the same, had done so after him, and then, you knew the time would come when it was your turn, and that, in time, you’d also pass the mantle on to someone else.
Even Batman had some legacy. Back in those days, the story in comics went that Batman had gotten trained by retired 1940s hero Wildcat, and found much inspiration to join the costumed variety of hero while watching the 1940s Green Lantern fight crime while he was a kid.
The fictional character of Batman at that time was in his 30s/40s. Dick Grayson was all grown up and maybe that’s why when Bruce Wayne got injured in a long storyline of the 90s, it just felt natural for me as a reader that Dick Grayson then take up the mantle to become Batman.
It was sadly, not meant to last, and after about a year or less, Bruce made a miraculous recovery and became Batman once again. They repeated the concept some ten years later or so, but again, it didn’t stick.
People grow, they have families, they teach younger generations, they age, and eventually, they pass on. To the young me, it made these characters more believable. Yes, you have to suspend belief when it comes to supermen who can fly, mystery men who move at super-speed and a grown man who dresses up as a flying rodent. When you saw them have emotions, connections, wives, husbands, children, heart attacks and health problems, though, it was tethers to the real world for me.
Then, years later, with years of history, families, characters built upon them in comic books, legacies were thrown out almost completely. The fictional reset button was set, character who had been married and older were now in their 20s, single and unattached. Children the characters had were gone. The generations, the inspirations, that feeling that these were traditions carried on and torches passed, were no more.
Perhaps these days, the people in charge, the executives making decisions and creating comics, movies, etc, think that children, teens and young adults don’t want to have that kind of connection with fictional characters.
For me, that was why I loved them as a kid. I felt like they could very well be real because of the generations and history that were built upon them.
When characters don’t change, when they have to be evergreen so ‘anyone can jump on board,’ they become boring. They weren’t evergreen when I was a kid and I had no problem keeping up. If anything, it made me want to read more.
Many interviews I’ve read for the decision-makers in the realm of comics saying they took away the age, the spouses, the children, because they felt it made the characters boring. For me, it was the growing old, the married lives, the children, that made it all so damn interesting.
It’s a huge part of what made reading comic books fun for me. Maybe that’s why I honestly don’t find them fun anymore.
I think growing older myself, becoming a father has only reinforced what was already there since I was ten years old. It’s why I don’t buy many modern-day comic books. It’s why I’ll dig through 50 cent bargain bins for an old back issue of something from those eras where it was okay to have a middle aged or senior hero.
This long-winded rant, though, is not supposed to be so much ‘what’s wrong with a literary medium of comics today’ as it is an appreciation for the idea that generations carry on. Families grow, they have problems, and sometimes they fall apart. It’s also about the idea that one generation can inspire the next.
We all take cues from those who have come before, whether they are good or bad. Our ancestors passed down traits and lessons to those who would become our great-grandparents, our grandparents, who would then influence (good or bad), our own parents, who would, in turn, make us the people we are. Now we, as parents, have to be the examples and inspirations for the next round.
As I look around at my son, full of hope, joy, intelligence and goodwill, as well as my longtime friends around me as they begin their own families, the comic book geek in me can’t help but look at us as one of those generations of heroes, now setting examples for and priming the next generation of little heroes.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with something slightly related, but just plain fun – an episode of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” that’s all about legacies: