I want there to be some kind of cute narrative behind my discovery of Star*Reach Classics 1 like there is for my introductions to Michelinie and McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man 316+317 (my first comics) and Miller’s Sin City: The Big Fat Kill 5 (my first adult comic), but there isn’t one. It was just a book I pulled out of a quarter bin six or seven years ago that I thought was really weird-looking and awkward and therefore must-reading.
I grabbed it for a couple of reasons. I knew and liked Jim Starlin’s work, especially his Adam Warlock-related stuff. I also knew of Neal Adams’s work, though I don’t think I’d had any direct experience with it beyond covers. I’m pretty sure I knew of Dave Sim, too, but I didn’t know that Cerebus was actually an important comic. It looked like a stupid talking animal parody book. So, hey, a quarter? For a book featuring art by one dude I knew I liked, one guy I figured I was supposed to like, and one guy whose name kept popping up? Why not? It turns out that Star*Reach Classics is a weird little time capsule of a comic, some of it great, some of it… strange.
Even though the vast majority of my experience with Starlin comes from reading Marvel comics, even today, I still have this really firm image of what I think his shtick is. There will be a battle between equal numbers, dialogue that’s as much a call-and-response speech as a conversation, amazing starscapes, ankhs, and at some point a close zoom on an eye. Sometimes the eye reveals the universe, sometimes the eye reveals a screaming skull. That’s Starlin in my head. It’s sort of funny how these things build up over the years and we place guys in these boxes. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s right.
“…The Birth of Death!” delivers, in terms of what I expect out of Starlin. “…The Birth of Death!” is a bedtime story delivered by a kid’s Uncle Mort (hey, something about that name…). Starlin remixes the Christian creation story, documenting the creation of angels, humans, immortals, and finally Death. As I was rereading this, I realized that it reminded me of nothing but “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia. They both have that kinda dark and gloomy but still majestic and horrible feel.
I really like how Starlin draws the story. Instead of the bedtime story just being a framing sequence, with Uncle Mort’s words transitioning to captions instead of word balloons, Mort stays in the story every step of the way. His face, or parts of his face at least, is attached to every panel in the story. It’s a technique I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, but very cool. His expressions, from anger to awe, really sell the story, which is heightened in a space opera/high fantasy kind of way. Mort’s sneers and wrinkles elevate a basic story into something else.
I really like how Starlin renders God, too, as a pair of eyes (with ankhs, skulls, and the infinity symbol) floating in crowded space. It’s original and abstract enough to get across the idea of an ever present higher power. Some vague nudity in this one:
I think it’s notable that Starlin’s version of Death hangs out with two topless Conan the Barbarian looking chicks and holds some kind of weird squid-thing that he refers to as “the Dark Thing” in his hand. Starlin’s Death has the same kind of overwrought nobility that Dr Doom bears, but a physicality more fitting for a pulp hero. He’s the kind of villain that would drink wine out of a goblet, throw that goblet against the wall, and then casually bury an axe in a hero’s skull. He looks like he writes poetry about murders between murders, is what I’m saying.
In the end, of course, Uncle Mort is revealed to be Death, and the child he’s reading to is dead. A Longfellow poem and a pale child’s body close out the story.
There’s another story by Starlin in this one, “Death Building.” Was it Matt Fraction who said that the rise of Jim Starlin was the point when nerds discovered acid? Something to that effect, at least. Here’s the bottom two tiers from the first page of “Death Building”:
And here’s the last tier from the last page:
One thing that used to bug me about Starlin was that it seemed like he was always going back to the same well. I eventually got it. It’s not that he was out of ideas or whatever it was I used to think. It was more that he was interested in a specific thing, and working out his feelings about that on the page. Or maybe he was working out the various angles of that specific thing. I don’t want to assume anything about his feelings. Regardless, Starlin has spent a lot of time examining existence, from death to power to destiny and back again.
I like seeing people working out their thoughts in public. I’ve done a lot of it here, obviously. It’s like watching someone rub their chin and mull over a point in person. Starlin married his conundrum to his artwork, and the results are pretty great. It’s not going back to the well at all. It’s trying to solve a puzzle by recreating that puzzle in several different configurations.
There are a few stories in this issue. Starlin has another one-pager called “The Origin of God!” (I love that he uses punctuation in his titles so, so much) that’s just four panels long and pretty solid. Dave Sim supplies the four-page “Cosmix,” which is about suicide, criticism, and art, and still doesn’t manage to be interesting or particularly good. It has a last-minute stinger that isn’t really earned at all. (I just started watching Black Mirror, and the “Welcome To The Twilight Zone” moment in “Cosmix” is similar to a twist in the (pretty solid) second episode, but with a bit less brutal irony, maybe.)
The last story is “Flightmare,” with words by Neal Adams and art by Frank Cirocco, who I’m not familiar with at all, though he apparently drew an issue of Power Man and Iron Fist that I undoubtedly have kicking around somewhere.
“Flightmare” is pretty interesting. Its main thrust is about a man feeling frustrated with training women to fly commercial airliners, and yearning for days gone by. He travels through a series of dreamy sequences as he searches for peace. He sheds the woman, first of all, as he pilots a jet, because ladies these days, am I right fellas? But the jet moves “too fast to enjoy the ride,” so he transfers to a World War II-era P-51 Mustang, and then a biplane, and then… a giant naked blue woman? He’s naked, too, and he says that “This is the way flight was meant to be!” But look! Coming out of the sun! There’s that dastardly woman piloting… a giant naked blue man? So they have a big naked dogfight in their big naked airplanes, the lady shoots the male pilot down with hand lasers from her big naked dude, and then we flash back to reality and she gives him the finger guns, a wink, and a “Gotcha!” Sure. Okay.
It’s one of those stories where I can’t quite figure out if it has a certain point to make or if it’s just a fun lark. It’s pretty and fast-moving enough to get wrapped up in, but I don’t know if it’s about women’s lib or the futility of nostalgia or the cruelty of women or just some weird sex dream. But I liked reading it, even if I couldn’t tell you what Adams and Cirocco were trying to express. The craft and storytelling are really entertaining in a way that transcends the ambiguity. (Cirocco also draws nice airplanes.)
I like Star*Reach Classics 1 a lot. It’s the only one I’ve read, even after years of owning it, but it’s an interesting artifact. I say that I like ’70s comics the best, but that’s not really true. I like ’70s Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man, anything Heroes for Hire related, Doug Moench/Paul Gulacy, and Steve Gerber. There’s this whole other world of ’70s comics that I missed out on that — judging by Star*Reach Classics 1 — are probably pretty great.