How does one fight and win a war against an empire based around a religion? With Plan M!
Dreadstar #6 (“Siege”) by Jim Starlin has Dreadstar and Company finally put into action Plan M, their strategy to fight against the Instrumentality. This issue is rather elegant in its simplicity of focusing on Plan M, setting up the proper circumstances for it to be executed and then executing it. It’s a smart and cynical plan that ties into another of Starlin’s longstanding interests/themes: the corruption of spiritual faith through organised religion. The Instrumentality clearly is a corrupt church, so do you defeat that?
The issue begins with Dreadstar and Company being tasked with delivering a serum to a Monarchy mining colony that’s been under blockage by three Instrumentality Destroyers and has contracted an outbreak of some virus. It’s a mission of mercy that clearly puts the Instrumentality in the wrong. They break through the blockage by blowing up a Destroyer (though the goal was to cripple it) allowing them to land and distribute the serum. Then, a previously unknown member of the crew, Maxilon, addresses the crowd. He delivers a stirring speech that affects those who hear it immensely. His speech is broadcast throughout the galaxy, affecting those watching as much. Skeevo is the only member of the crew throw offguard by this new member, but he’s just as touched by everyone else who heard his speech. That’s when the bombshell is dropped: Maxilon is a robot. He’s Plan M! He’s a messiah/saviour created by Dreadstar and Company to combat the Church of the Instrumentality on its own terms by presenting an alternative figure to draw people’s need to worship and surrender themselves to. If they had simply continued a frontal attack against the Church, how could they separate the government from the faith? Killing the Lord High Papal isn’t a solution, because he would become a religious martyr. He’s not just the ruler of an empire, he’s the leader of a faith.
Starlin has used religion and ‘the Church’ as a focus for his stories time and time again. In Warlock, the Magus embraced the messianic role that Adam Warlock always spurned, becoming the god of a corrupt church. In The Infinity Crusade, the Goddess represented the ‘good’ in Adam Warlock, but became religious zealotry. In his recent DC work, Lady Styx represented one church, while Synar was the ‘god’ of another. He doesn’t seem to like or trust the institutions of organised religion, seeing them as filled at their highest levels not by humble servants of the faith, but by greedy, nasty, power-hungry individuals who manipulate the true believers to maintain their grasp on power. He doesn’t seem to have any issue with spirituality and faith, he despises those that abuse those things — and, to a degree, those who allow their faith to blind them to the immorality of their church’s leaders.
The way that Starlin presents Maxilon is clever: we never know exactly what he says. Part of his appeal we’re told is that he’s transmitting on a subsonic level when he speaks that stimulates people’s nerve endings to create a gut reaction/special feeling when he speaks. So, it’s not what he says, it’s how he says it — to a degree that we could never experience in a comic. Before revealing this, Starlin’s narration hints at that: “He speaks of the serum which he has brought to his brothers and sisters, to what he calls his cosmic family. / His words are not new. In fact, his message is nearly as old as humankind, but something is different this time.” If Starlin had written his dialogue, it wouldn’t have seemed special. It would have been the same old ‘love thy neighbour, be nice to everyone’ preaching that we all know, have all heard, and how would that make Maxilon come across as something ‘more than’ to us? He needs to seem better and more than human. Not just because he’s a robot, but because we’re meant to believe he could be the sort of person that could draw people to him, who could be “great than they are… / …something they can blame for the bad times and thank for the good times. Something they can worship,” as Dreadstar describes him.
There’s also some cynicism in how Starlin presents Maxilon and what people would want out of a messiah. It’s a very superficial messiash: good looking, clean-cut, somewhat non-threatening… ultimately kind of bland. We’re told that none of the regular Dreadstar crew would fit the bill for various reasons (too warrior-like, too ugly, too non-human, too blind). Look at the Lord High Papal and his hulking chalk white, no-nosed, bald, red-eyed appearance and notice that Dreadstar and Company aren’t simply presenting an alternate choice, they’re presenting a more appealing one — in a superficial sort of way. It’s not the message that matters, it’s that the message comes in an attractive package as well. Someone strong but non-threatening and handsome and human and male. He’s not just a messiah, he’s a pop star type.
Sometimes I’m surprised at how little controversy Starlin seems to create in his attacks on religion. I’m still amazed that Marvel let The Infinity Crusade happen, actually. The Church of Instrumentality not pissing off more people (that I’m aware of) is a surprise. The total lack of any attempt to hide that it’s the Catholic Church would make for some angry Catholics, don’t you think? The clergy in the Church wear the collars, their symbol is a modified cross, and their leader is called the Lord High Papal. Starlin draws upon the time of the Holy Roman Empire, I believe, for the Church of Instrumentality mostly since that was the Church’s high point as a ruling empire, but that doesn’t mean his attacks on the corrupt nature of the Church don’t still ring true to a degree.
It’s telling that the Lord Papal’s reaction to Maxilon is one of anger and wanting to know everything about him, presumably with the plan of getting rid of him. That’s another sign that somewhere in the Papal is a sincere faith. Because he’s a believer, he can’t see beyond the superficial elements of Maxilon. Z. on the other hand tells the King of the Monarchy exactly what Dreadstar is doing. He doesn’t know that Maxilon is a robot, but he sees right through the plan, because he’s not a man of faith. He’s a cynic, he’s a non-believer, and isn’t taken in by the obvious ruse.
This issue features one of Starlin’s better recaps with very little of what came before told to the reader. The recap is buried within a news report on the blockage, eventually letting us know that Dreadstar and Company are rebels fighting the Instrumentality and, then, their names and somewhat brief descriptions. It’s an effective and strong way to catch the reader up to speed. Considering not much has actually happened in the series so far that’s essential to know for this story, it makes sense to keep things brief.
Josef Rubenstein does the inks for this issue. Last issue, Al Milgrom did the inks and he was a better fit. The art here is less polished than usual, espcially when it’s not a close-up panel. Rubenstein’s line work isn’t as smooth as Starlin or Milgrom’s, giving characters a harder, less attractive look at times. On close-ups, he embellishes too much for my taste. His faces go the other way in those instances, having too much detailed, looking too refined. It’s a style of opposites: either a panel will look underdrawn or overdrawn, very little in between.
This issue also began the brief Berni Wrightston back-up strip, but I’ve never read those and won’t be discussing them. Sorry for those of you who are fans.
Tomorrow: beware the mindtrap!