1987 And All That: Star Brand #4-10

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

1987 And All That: Star Brand #4-10 (Marvel) by Jim Shooter (#4-7), Roy Thomas (#7), Cary Bates (#8-9), George Caragonne (#10), John Romita, Jr. (#4-7), Arvell Jones (#8), Keith Giffen (#9), Mark Bagley (#10), Al Williamson (#4-6), Rick Bryant (#6), Al Milgrom (#6), Art Nichols (#7), Danny Bulanadi (#8), Bob Wiacek (#9), Pablo Marcos (#10), Christie Scheele (#4), Janet Jackson (#5-7), Petra Scotese (#8), Andy Yanchus (#9-10), Joe Rosen (#4-5, 7-8), Rick Parker (#6, 10), Ken Lopez (#9), Jack Morelli (#10), Michael Higgins (#4-9), Howard Mackie (#10)

There is no single, unifying narrative or theme that bonds all of these issues together, and often when that happens, I will review only one arc of the title rather than the entire year's worth of material. In the case of Star Brand, though, the most interesting element of this particular run of issues is just how different they are from each other, and in particular the stark change that occurs when Jim Shooter and John Romita, Jr. leave the book. Technically Shooter is still editor-in-chief right up until issue #10, but he stops being a writer after issue #7, and even that he only plots while Roy Thomas scripts. It's also Romita's last issue, so it marks a clear turning point for the series, a transitional moment between one kind of superhero comic and another. When Shooter and Romita are running the show, Star Brand has some ambitious goals that it never quite pulls off. After they depart, the book instantly becomes far less ambitious, which is a shame, but it also becomes more successful, since the stories it tells are simpler and more familiar, sometimes even trite, and thus easier to relate in a more digestible, easy-to-follow way.

Star Brand was part of the New Universe, a Marvel imprint in the late 80's that attempted to tell superhero stories in a more realistic, modern, true-to-life environment. Basically, the New Universe existed completely separately from the main Marvel Universe, and the people who got powers in the New Universe didn't immediately throw on spandex costumes and start beating up bad guys. Some of them did that eventually (or some version of it, anyway), but the idea was to explore what normal people would actually do with incredible, superhuman abilities, as opposed to merely filling a new setting with the usual cape-and-cowl types.

This realism and avoidance of superhero tropes are part of the ambition I mentioned earlier. In the Shooter/Romita era, Star Brand made a concentrated effort to have its protagonist be just about as unheroic as he could without making him into a bona fide villain. Ken Connell is selfish, immature, listless, inconsiderate, and oblivious, at least while Jim Shooter is writing him. These flaws are all intentional, personality details included to distinguish him from the typical, morally righteous superpowered do-gooder. Ken's faults are mined for story content as well, primarily the aggravating (for readers and cast alike) love triangle between him, Barb, and Duck. Barb is a single mother of two who Ken is dating, and while they claim to love each other (and maybe even do), Ken's not emotionally grown up enough to be in a committed monogamous relationship. So, with Barb's knowledge and begrudging consent, Ken also dates Duck. Her real name is Deb, but Ken calls her Duck as a pet name, and she adores it, saying, "Quack," as part or all of most of her lines. Duck is more on board with the romantic casualness than Barb, but she's also less stable overall, and when Ken does finally decide to settle down with Barb for good, Duck refuses to accept it, insisting she and Ken continue to see each other "once in a while" and even vaguely threatening to kill herself if he won't agree to her terms. Ken, meanwhile, is in a constant state of trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to see other people, but gets super frustrated when Barb starts dating another man. Then he sort of forces himself to believe that he wants to be with Barb only, but can't find the resolve to break things off with Duck completely, nor to be honest with Barb about his newfound powers. Because, oh yeah, I forgot to mention, Ken's got powers.

Throughout all this personal drama, Ken is also dealing with the fact that a strange old man (who might have been an alien) saddled him with superpowers he didn't ask for and doesn't totally understand. Ken can fly, he's invulnerable, he can fire off huge bursts of heat/energy from his body, and he's got incredible strength, all thanks to the titular Star Brand, a small tattoo given to Ken by the Old Man. The Brand can be moved to any spot on Ken's body, and even, in theory, transferred to other people, the same way the Old Man transferred it to Ken. Some of what Ken struggles with is figuring out how his powers work; he can mentally turn them on or off, but they also turn themselves off if he gets too distracted or scared, and the full extent of what he can do is unclear. Perhaps the bigger and more important mystery, though, is why he was given the Star Brand in the first place. The Old Man's origins and motives are vague at best, as he himself gives contradictory accounts over time of who he is and what he wants, and appears to die more than once, only to later return. He's the person who gives Ken the Brand, but then before long he seems to want to back. Yet so much of what the Old Man says are lies or at best half-truths, Ken refuses to trust him, and eventually they become out-and-out enemies, the Old Man threatening to commit a massacre if Ken doesn't give the Brand back, and Ken responding by killing the Old Man in a brutal fight. Their dynamic is as close to the usual arch-nemesis relationship seen in so many other comicbooks, but they also have a bit of a master-student thing going on, with a dash of the good ol' alien who doesn't understand or value life on Earth being shown by a stubborn Earthling why our planet is not to be trifled with.

Between awkwardly and unskillfully juggling two women and trying to make sense of his powers and the mysterious figure who gave them to him, Ken's got a lot on his plate. At a high level, I find that pretty compelling. The idea of giving superpowers to a guy who's kind of a schmuck, and then following him as he tries to navigate problems both mundane and fantastical, is definitely an interesting, appealing concept. Ken is neither wholly likable nor despicable; he has high highs and extremely low lows, acting like a spoiled brat much of the time, but also really stepping up and doing some noble, self-sacrificial kinds of things with his powers when it counts. He's also aware of his own shortcomings, with a near-constant inner monologue running about how he needs to treat the women he loves better, how he should be doing more with his powers than he is, and other sorts of futile anger at his own inability to be the kind of man he wants to be. Again, in theory, this makes for a strong lead character, and sometimes it does in practice, too. Sadly, though, the Shooter/Romita issues of Star Brand tend to be too slow, meandering, and repetitive to pay off in the way they potentially could. They're not terrible comics, but they're unfocused and arrhythmic, to the point that it sometimes feels like Shooter is figuring out what he wants to write as he's writing it. It never feels like there's a concretely-formed plan behind the story's events. Instead, things just sort of happen one after the other, creating a jerky, inconsistent narrative momentum. Admittedly, that's the way real life moves, so an argument could be made that Shooter's scripts as exactly as "real" as they're supposed to be. But even the most true-to-life fiction needs to have purpose and drive, so the ultimate execution of Star Brand #4-7 leaves something to be desired.

On the other hand, once Shooter stops writing the comic, it transforms into a more familiar, run-of-the-mill superhero serial. There still aren't any costumes, but suddenly Star Brand stops being about Ken's day-to-day life and becomes a series of self-contained adventures where he uses his powers to fight evil. The villains he thwarts are slightly left of traditional, but they're not as atypical as when Ken's worst enemies were his own libido and fear of commitment. In issue #9, he even has a hyper-stereotypical superhero adventure, explicitly modeled off of classic comicbooks. Yes, that happens inside of Ken's dreams, but from the reader's perspective it's still an entire issue devoted to finding an excuse to squeeze in a more commonplace superhero narrative.

There are some good twists in the mix, no doubt. Issue #10 features the reversal of a well-worn story structure, where two (or more) superheroes meet for the first time, get in a fight, and then eventually realize they are on the same side. In Star Brand, the opposite happens: two super-people meet, start off with a friendly and rational conversation, and then slowly but surely realize they are diametrically morally opposed, leading to a huge fight that ends with Ken throwing his foe into the depths of space to float forever in the vast nothingness. While turning that trope on its head is certainly amusing, the last act of the issue ends up being just another superpowered brawl, not nearly as fresh or brave as so much of what preceded it. Even when Star Brand is doing something old, it does it in a new way, but it's just not as new, and therefore not quite as interesting, as when Shooter and Romita were in charge.

Romita's art is very recognizably his, angular and kinetic and rock solid throughout. He's a great storyteller, and his work helps make Shooter's wandering scripts easier to follow and more fun to get caught up in. There's a real personality to the visuals, and they're able to shift from playful to serious as the story demands, which is essential for a book like this where the mood can change drastically from one panel to the next. And in those rare moments when Ken is really cutting loose with his powers, especially the few times he fights the Old Man, Romita cuts loose, too, flooding the book with excitement and spectacle. Because both the art and text are so subdued most of the time, these brief bursts of intense action are all the more impressive and enjoyable. Romita understands this and uses it for great effect.

The artists who come after Romita all bring their own strengths to the title, and there's more cohesion among them than there is with the various writers, though only slightly, and largely just because they all make Ken look more-or-less the same. Arvell Jones has the most grounded style, upping the humanity and tragedy but at the same time downplaying the superhero stuff. Keith Giffen does the throwback story I mentioned above, and he's a perfect fit for that, as well as a nice contrast to Jones. Giffen enthusiastically amps up the super, and highly stylizes the mundane so that it looks more super. Finally, there's Mark Bagley, whose aesthetic is the most reminiscent of Romita's, but not quite as standout. Bagley's issue looks the most, for lack of a better word, normal. It's a generic, unremarkable, but still totally serviceable effort.

There are some smart choices made by every creator involved in this run of Star Brand, but they all make some missteps, too. Everyone is trying their best to stick to the heart of this series and of the New Universe as a whole, yet their strategies are dissimilar enough that the contrast is fairly dramatic. Shooter and Romita are mostly interested in Ken's inner life, the romantic torment and self-deprecation he puts himself through, and how having superpowers exacerbates those problems. The creators who follow shift their attention to how Ken uses his powers to influence the rest of the world, an external focus rather than an internal one. Both are valid approaches, but in the end I think I come down on the side of Romita and Shooter. Their issues may not have been as tightly structured as what came next, but they're more daring, stranger, and less comfortable. They embrace a hero who's hard to get behind, and they treat his powers as a burden first and a blessing second. I support that because it makes for engaging reading even when it fails, whereas the standard superheroics that come after are less gripping even when they succeed.

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