The culmination of the fight between Dreadstar and Z, as well as the war between the Monarchy and the Instrumentality!
Dreadstar #10 ("Maniac") by Jim Starlin is Starlin bringing it, pure and simple. Last issue, Dreadstar was locked up in the Monarchy palace on Jewelworld with a bomb set to go off in an hour. Instead, a shot down spaceship crashed into the palace. Freed from his bonds, pissed off, and seeing that Instrumentality is making short work of Jewelworld has Vanth ready to kill someone, namely Z. Before leaving, he grabs a jetpack and adds some paint to his eyes and chest (as the cover shows) as part of an ancient warrior tradition on his planet: "...they wore battle paint to show their ancient gods and their enemies what fearsome warriors they were? / It was a good custom."
The whole issue is just Dreadstar and Z fighting. It's actually one of the better fights I've seen in a comic. Dreadstar is limited to the ground and his sword, while Z uses his gun, flight, and a personal forcefield to evade Dreadstar's attacks. Even bringing the roof down on Z doesn't slow him down much. It isn't until Dreadstar uses the jetpack to nail Z in the back that he gains the upper hand by hitting him with his sword again and again until Z's forcefield finally cuts out. From there, Dreadstar shows a side of him that we haven't seen in a while: he puts his sword away and picks up a chain, considering the sword too quick and clean a death. Z tries to put up a fight, but Dreadstar takes him down and beats him to death with the chain and his bare hands.
As he leaves the palace, some of the Monarchy's soldiers/guards come up to him, but run away in terror when he brings out his sword, which Vanth finds very amusing. But, despite his victory over Z, the damage is done: Jewelworld has been conquered and the Instrumentality has won the war. The issue ends with the Lord High Papal gloating and saying, "We shall begin by summoning my holy inquisitors." This is a typical 'victory' in Dreadstar: one step forward, eight steps back. You don't get to win without there being a cost, sometimes a cost that's higher than the victory's worth. Z created a plan where, even if he died, Dreadstar still loses. All he could 'settle' for was killing Z.
Starlin's art on the fight is dynamic and compelling. He finds different ways to have each man attack the other, and uses a lot of different layouts from pages with tilted, unconventional panels to grids. One of my favourite pages of the whole series is a fantastic melding of Starlin's art with Daina Graziunas's colours. It comes after Vanth dropped the roof on Z and the previous page ends with Vanth looking over his shoulder, a yellow glow hitting him as he quietly says "DAMN" before:
A page with only two panels. First, an explosion with bright yellow, Dreadstar in silhouette, lots of wreckage flying and, second, Vanth on one knee, looking a little freaked out while Z hovers over him, looking triumphant and angry. The colours are simple, but complement Starlin's drawings so much.
The manner in which Vanth kills Z shows that darker warrior side of him that we've seen a couple of times before. The way he just killed Aknaton out of anger or how he killed a surviving Monarchy soldier in the Dreadstar graphic novel were two earlier times that he showed that he can be a vicious killer when he needs to be -- or, rather, when he wants to be. He doesn't show any sense of remorse or hesitation in how he kills Z. It's not a heroic way to act or one that you stand up and cheer for like running Z through with the sword might be. This is just cold, calculating, and brutal. It's not a side of Vanth that comes out often, but it's a little scary when it does.
This issue marks the end of the first stage of the title. The war between the Instrumentality and the Monarchy is over: the Church won. The Lord High Papal rules the galaxy and Dreadstar and company are now rebel fighters completely. Looking over the first ten issues, the war between the two never really drove the stories. That's purposeful to a degree, because the war was never meant to be one that we saw. Remember, this was a war that was stuck in stalemate with neither side truly wanting to win. The tele-drives that the Instrumentality developed were the only sign that the Lord High Papal was ready to end things.
Dreadstar and Company wanted to end the war and were fighting it on two fronts: directly with the Church, both through small strikes and Maxilon, and against the Monarchy by controlling its King. Because of that influence over the Monarchy, it was always the lesser of two evils, something that could be managed later once the greater threat was taken care of. This didn't always come through. The book sometimes got too caught up in its smaller plots to really operate on the larger level. The war ending is big, but doesn't necessarily feel significant because it was always something we were told about and rarely saw. It was usually much more Dreadstar and Company vs. the Lord High Papal and his close advisors. The two empires were rarely seen as such.
Now, it becomes even more about Dreadstar and Company vs. the Lord High Papal and his close advisors. That's a smart move, because it gives the book an even clearer focus as we'll see.
Tomorrow: the origin of the Lord High Papal.