Ten years ago, the buzz surrounding "Rising Stars" was great as comparisons to "Watchmen" were made, Neil Gaiman wrote a glowing piece about it in the promotional zero issue, and expectations were high. J. Michael Straczynski was writing an epic story in the vein of "Babylon 5" about 113 children who were affected by a mysterious comet while in utero, and gained special powers as a result. These 'Specials' grew up separate from the rest of society and some went on to greatness, some fell hard, but most just wanted normal lives. It look promising, but saddled with flashy art that couldn't deliver the subtle storytelling Straczynski required and beginning a pattern of hopelessly late shipping, "Rising Stars" soon became a bit of a joke, something that had people asking, "That's still being published?" and it ended mostly unnoticed -- but, now, the entire story is collected in one package along with the three tie-in mini-series, tipping the scales at 1000 pages.
"Rising Stars" is a book with many contradictions and it does improve greatly over the course of its 24 issues once Brent Anderson takes over the art in #15 following a one-off appearance by Stuart Immonen. Before that, Christian Zanier struggles to keep up with Straczynski, delivering scratchy, confusing, sometimes ugly pages. It's hard to blame him, because, on another book, Zanier could have excelled, but for a title where the emphasis was on conversations and body language, he was over his head. It didn't help that many of the characters were designed to look similar -- distinctive enough for only the best of artists to really make clear.
Once Anderson comes on board, things really click, and "Rising Stars" ends strongly, almost living up to its promise. Anderson is an incredibly talented artist who can draw action and quiet conversation with equal skill. He makes these characters come alive in ways they simply weren't until that point. That the only tie-in mini to really work is "Untouchable," the one that he drew is no coincidence.
Looking past the art, at Straczynski's story, it's clear that his ambition was greater than in his talent in many spots. The story begins with a murder mystery: someone is killing low-powered Specials, because that means their share of the energy that powers them all will get redistributed. Straczynski approaches this mystery in an interesting way, using early issues to spotlight some of the lower powered Specials, examining the entire group through their perspectives before moving on to the book's core group of protagonists: John, the narrator (for the most part) and poet; Matthew, the police officer and most respected Special; Randy, the urban vigilante; Jerry, the pyrotechnic villain; Chandra, the most beautiful woman in the world to all who see her; and Jason, the corporate mascot and national icon.
He gives a lot of characters interesting twists on superpowers and the effects they would have on a real person. Peter Dawson, for example, is invulnerable to all pain, but that doesn't help him much since he's obese and out of shape, getting his only sense of pleasure from food. Or, Lionel, who is nearly driven made by his ability to see and hear the dead. Straczynski does his best to think about how these powers would work in the real world and applies them well.
However, the first act-and-a-half read as merely set-up for Straczynski's real interest: examining the conflict between humanity advancing and the darker aspects of human nature. The real story here is about a group of people trying to make the world better, to make humanity better, and those who are too small-minded or fearful to allow it to happen. It's not that the first dozen or so issues are bad, it's just that you get the impression that Straczynski sees them as only necessary to get to the real meat of the story -- and he'd be right, because that's when the series really gets going.
The tie-in series included in this collection, all written by Fiona Avery, fill in gaps in three Specials' pasts, but are, for the most part, unnecessary. The two series spotlighting Matthew and Lionel are superfluous and don't provide new or required information. "Untouchable," the series about Laurel, the telekine recruited to be a government assassin, though, is a welcome addition and complements the main book well. Avery and Anderson work incredibly well as a team there. These extras are just that, but "Untouchable" is almost required reading.
"Rising Stars" may not live up to the high expectations created around its release, but it is worth reading. J. Michael Straczynski's story of 113 Specials begins a little rough, but eventually hits its stride and becomes a truly marvelous examination of what people with superpowers could really do to make the world a better place. This compendium edition collects the entire saga in its entirety and deserves a spot on your shelf.
(Give CBR's preview a look as it contains the first two issues of "Rising Stars" for your reading pleasure!)