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.