There are 30 issues of Dreadstar written by Peter David (#41-64 of the First Comics series and #1-6 of the Bravura mini-series), but there are 31 days in December. When I last did Dreadstar December, I covered up through issue 31 of Dreadstar. Those two facts leave us with today, the first day of Dreadstar December 2, and a far too breezy look at the final nine issues of Dreadstar that Jim Starlin wrote.
These nine issues are a fascinating departure from what came before. The Instrumentality has been defeated, the Lord High Papal is dead, and Vanth Dreadstar has been in a coma for two years, recovering from his final battle with the Lord High Papal. He wakes up to a world where the best he can hope for is a life as a bounty hunter, tracking down the remnants of the Instrumentality for their war crimes. It is a world where his contributions to the fall of that government are forgotten and he is hated for his superhuman powers. A world where his friends seem to hate one another, a once bright woman is drinking herself to death, another has done her best to leave her emotions behind her (aside from rage), and his closest friend, already a walking corpse basically, is closer to true death than ever.
As Jim Starlin said in The Art of Jim Starlin, his heart wasn’t in this and that lack of passion is reflected in Vanth. Neither know where to go from here. The entire Dreadstar story had built to that confrontation between Vanth and the Lord High Papal. Once the war between the Monarchy and Instrumentality was stopped and, then, the Instrumentality overthrown, what was next, for the eponymous star of the series, the series, and its creator? These nine issues are a struggle to figure that out.
The biggest idea that Starlin keeps running into is that the new government is almost as bad as the old ones. No matter what Dreadstar and company do, the people are still oppressed in a way, still allowed to die in far too great numbers, and they’re faced with the prospect of having to overthrow another government. And they do, in a way. But, then what? Overthrow one, put a new one in its place, wait for the new one to show its corruption, and repeat the cycle? By the end of these issues, Starlin seems to recognise that he has no idea (or desire to come up with) what happens next. In issue 39, Syzygy dies and, in issue 40, Vanth contemplates suicide. It’s hard not to read the entire nine issues as Starlin struggling with his love of comics at the time, particularly in the wake of his split from Epic/Marvel a year earlier. Issue 40 is the debate of end the series or let is continue. He opts for the former and ends his tenure on the comic he created by setting his creations free as they leave the galaxy for adventures unknown. He does as much of a reset as he can for incoming writer Peter David.
I’m skipping over a lot, but it feels like the particulars of the story don’t matter so much. These are hard issues to read in a way. No because they’re bad; they’re just so… depressing and bitter. The heroes win and the world still sucks. They overthrew a tyrant and a new one takes his place. Every issue features Vanth Dreadstar basically going “What the fuck am I doing?” It’s a nine-issue recognition that, sometimes, winning is still losing. Even the way that this government is overthrown is one that feels like giving up with no one really happy at the solution of Willow giving up her humanity to put her mind in the central computer, especially when she turns around and fires them all as a way to scale back government waste. Even when they win, they lose. Granted, that provides the impetus for them to leave the galaxy. Starlin fires himself from the book to give it another chance to live again. It does end on that positive note.
Seven of the nine issues are drawn by Luke McDonnell and Val Mayerik, and I rather like that art team. It’s a blocky art style that borders of stiff/stilted a bit much, but is such a departure from Starlin’s line work that it really meshes with the changes the plot go through. It’s a less joyful art style, which mirrors Starlin’s writing, but also brings a surprising amount of energy to the book. Angel Medina (who would draw the bulk of the Peter David issues) does the art on issue 39, while Starlin did layouts for Sam Grainger to finish in issue 32. Those two visual departures work with Starlin transitioning into this new/different world for the book as he introduces the readers to the new status quo with art that’s very familiar, but a bit off. Medina’s issue is the death of Syzygy and a confrontation with the 12 Gods and, given the role that they play in the forthcoming run, it’s a new tie to what comes next.
But, I do lament that the McDonnell/Mayerik team didn’t get to do all nine issues. I love the bleak energy that they bring to the work and the way it works with the various colourists that did these issues. The colouring style is a bit unusual, reminding me of crayons or pencil crayons to a degree. It becomes especially noticeable in issue 40 where both the colours and the line work look their most basic, something that should seem rushed and incomplete, but communicates the rawness of Vanth’s emotional struggle and, then, the switch to the thrill of breaking Skeevo out of prison, stealing a ship, and departing for the unknown. On the surface, it shouldn’t work, but it somehow does.
There are a lot of small moments to like in this brief run from Vanth’s confrontation with Willow over the Instrumentality nun that Vanth doesn’t consider a war criminal to Ultra Violet’s struggles to Syzygy finding Dr. Delphi finally to even the way that Starlin introduces Iron Angel in issue 32 and she doesn’t really show up again until issue 40, just in time for her to take on a major role in what comes next.
Not the best way to kick things off, but come back tomorrow for the beginning of 30 days of Peter David-written Dreadstar.
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