Whilst preparing to write this review, the death of Christopher Reeve appeared in the news. It was sad moment in my life for me and yet, strangely fortunate in that it made this review more relevant to the premise and idea of the hero.
Here was a man who epitomised the very meaning of this over-used and somewhat devalued word. Someone who did not wish for the role he was to be given so late in life, and did not fully understand what it meant before. But as a true hero should, Reeves rose to his challenge and fully met it head on. He constantly made the statement that he would some day walk unaided again. The dragon to be slain was not only his disability, but how it is seen and perceived. Even acceptance of his condition would be a defeat and although it would probably never come during his lifetime (or even mine), the Holy Grail of a world where no-one need suffer needlessly was always in sight. I, for one, believed the man when he said that he would walk again, and I believed him for two reasons:-
1. Because he was SUPERMAN
2. Because he WAS Superman
Heroes are not born; they are made, both in real-life and legend. Although there are thousands of people around the world now doing something worthwhile and good, they are not heroes, just human beings defining what the word human means. Being a hero needs a bigger stage, a more public setting and therefore a possible fall from grace scenario. The dragons may have changed their shape, but they still exist. And in this bleak and cynical age of impoverished ideas, self-seeking justification and a need to latch onto something, anything, no matter how shallow or sentimental, that will give some small meaning to our lives, it’s still good to know that real heroes walk the Earth- even if they, or we, cannot see it.
Jack Knight is one such man. He is the Starman and the latest to hold that title. Forced into the role with the murder of his brother (who was Starman briefly), he has matured and grown into the role to the point that he now epitomises the very meaning of the word “hero”, and his path has not been easy. Estranged from his father (the first Starman, inventor of the Starman staff and discover of the power that drives it), and a somewhat atypical rebel in that although he dresses and appears to part of the modern era (tattoos, piercings, leather jackets), he loves anything old. Anything with a past or history- but not too old, it still has to be cool. But it is this very love of things with a history that gives him a greater understanding of the Starman lineage and makes him realise of its importance, especially when he is flung into the far future and he sees what a difference he, his father and other bearers of the name Starman have made.
Starman: Grand Guignol by James Robinson and Peter Snejbjerg is the last of the Starman tales. Jack has been into deep space and returned a much wiser and stronger person. Good thing really, as the final dragon has to be slain. Clues and sub-plots that have been on-going throughout the whole saga come to fruition and Jack needs all his inner strength and good companions to save his beloved city of Opal. Starman is a book about heroes and this final one is full of them. From meta-human to ordinary people, Robinson and Snejbjerg show the greatness that people are capable of. Whether fighting on the front lines (Jack, Mikaal, the Black Condor, Bobo Bennetti, the O’Dares), or working out the mysteries that could help their cause (The Dibny’s, Adam Strange, The Shade). All are committed to seeing justice done and evil vanquished. And with heroes you must have villains, preferably with dark blackness in their hearts. But the bad guys are not your stereo-typical black hats. Robinson drinks deep from DC’s vast gallery of evil and gives each and everyone of them meaning and history. From the Silver Age (The Shade), to the modern (Rag Doll), each has been fully fleshed out and given equal time.
The tale is one of blood and thunder, but told with elegance that gives it the grandeur and greatness of heroic sagas. Past deeds and wrong-doings are blended into the main story without breaking it up or losing the reader. On one level it is full of daring-do, but on another it’s a detective story. Turn the page again and you are reading a thriller, a love story, a tale of regret and redemption. Grand Guignol has everything that the wrapping up of an epic should have. Fact of the matter is, I shouldn’t really be reviewing this book singly as you need to read the rest of the story to fully appreciate its structure, twists and turns. The writing is on a par with some of the best of modern literature and artist Snejbjerg brings each and every character to live with just a few brush lines. The faces alone are expressive and tell a story in each stroke whilst the framing makes the eye move around the whole page, giving a delicate sense of movement.
Examples of heroism and love abound throughout the saga. Ted Knight, Jack’s father, is afraid to turn off the original Star Rod he carries as it is draining away the fatal radiation burns that he received whilst fighting the Bat-Man villain, Dr. Phosphorus. Realising that it is only delaying the inevitable he does so, condemning himself to death, but not before finally saving the day. Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man, races back to the hotel where he and his wife have been staying- it having been destroyed in the multiple explosions that have decimated Opal City- berating himself all the time for not allowing her to join him on his mission like he usually does. His joy upon finding her alive and well, plus the love that they obviously share for each other, is beautifully put across and adds poignancy for what happens to Sue in DC’s latest series Identity Crisis.
Adam Strange is forced to kill one of the villains or else the plan to save Opal goes awry. He immediately regrets it, but understands that there was no other way. The wife of the Chief of Police is willing to put her life on the line, if it means saving her husband. Jack and The Shade fight constantly to reach the main villain of the piece, where upon good doesn’t always bring about the desired result.
Robinson gives every character little vignettes, relating to how they got to where they are and how it affects them. That he manages to juggle and then weave all these seemingly unrelated strands into a bigger whole without losing sight of each one goes to prove what can be done in the world of story-telling if you stick to the basic fundamentals of writing. That even if a story is massive in scale it can be the little things that matter.
Robinson also nails what it means to be a hero with two fine examples. Jack tells villainess, The Mist (mother of his son), that not one of them calls themselves a hero. It’s a name awarded by people they help, and that only villains call themselves “a Master Criminal”. Ted Knight makes the final sacrifice when he launches the building containing the nuclear device that will destroy Opal into space (you may think that this is a bit of a silly James Bondian style of destruction, and you would be right. But Robinson uses it to show how old-fashioned and out of date some of the villains can be). With it comes the revelation from Ted that he, others and the villains they have fought have finally become old and that it is time to make way for the younger generation. He goes to his death knowing that the future is in safe hands. Being a hero comes from within, not from a name.
Heroes (and dragons) abound in the world of comics. In fact, comics- along with good children’s literature- are probably the last bastion of traditional story-telling. The kind that started with oral story-telling around the fire, just one person enthralling and frightening his captive audience with the power of his voice. Robinson, along with the other artists in the story, has added his voice to this rich tapestry and the world of story is enriched by it.
Starman: Grand Guignol is by James Robinson and Peter Snejbjerg. Published by DC Comics priced £12.99, and available at all good comic book shops. By the way, I really do mean this about good comic book shops. In my opinion ordinary bookshops have no idea what do to do with graphic novels, although amongst some of their staff must be somebody who reads them. This lack of understanding was brought home to me whilst I was browsing through my local Waterstones and found a copy of Art Spigelman’s (Maus) latest work In the Shadow of No Towers, an over-sized hardback about 9/11, his feelings towards it (his daughter went to the school inside one of the towers on the day) and the subsequent war on terror in the humour section. I can just see the thinking of one of the staff now: – “It’s got pictures in it, so it’s either for kids or humorous”.
Support your nearest comic book shop, or spread the word in what comics are really about (but be picky in your choice. As I’ve said many times, there just as many bad comic book shops as there are good ones. The one down here in MK is useless and I rarely go in).