Sunday, 2 June 2013

Swords & Sorcery & Space Cruisers: DREADSTAR

I'm skipping ahead a bit, because there is still one more "major" title to talk about on the list of Good Old Stuff that emerged from First Comics in the early 80's, but that's because today I'm going to talk about one of my all-time favourites.

A little context first. Jim Starlin began to make his mark on the comics world in the 1970s. His surreal, metaphysical space opera takes on characters like Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel (who he would ultimately kill off in Marvel's first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel) laid the foundation for much of his later work, and changed the Marvel Universe in profound ways -- especially in the stories he wrote about one of Marvel's arch-villains, the Mad Titan Thanos. Yeah. When he shows up again in an Avengers movie, you can thank Jim.

Dreadstar - The Graphic Novel
It's hard to imagine now, but Marvel had a creator-owned imprint called Epic Comics in the early 80s  (edited by the late, great Archie Goodwin) that published a wide variety of interesting and more adult-focused titles like Steve Englehart's Coyote, Elaine Lee's Starstruck, Sergio Aragones's Groo The Wanderer, and of course its premiere title, Dreadstar. In addition to allowing creators ownership of their work, the line was not subject to the Comics Code Authority, and so were able to produce material with more adult themes. The books were mostly produced on higher-quality paper and could only be had through direct sales at comic shops or subscriptions. (It now seems amazing to remember the days when newsstand comic book "spinners" at convenience stores were the primary means for comic book fans to get their books.)

Back to Starlin. Jim had begun the story that would evolve into Dreadstar in Marvel's Metal Hurlant-esque SF magazine Epic Illustrated. In a galaxy-spanning yarn called The Metamorphosis Odyssey, Starlin told the tale of a small group of rebels battling an oppressive galactic empire (there was a lot of that going around in the late 70s). Unlike other small bands of rebels, however, their solution to the problem is monstrous: eliminate the enemy utterly by using a doomsday weapon to destroy the entire Milky Way galaxy. The only survivor of this battle is a fierce warrior from a polar world called Byfrexia with a magic sword -- Vanth Dreadstar.

Starlin continued the story of the Metamorphosis Odyssey in the Dreadstar graphic novel, which picked up where the battle had left off -- Dreadstar awakens, wounded, on a agricultural world at the edge of another galaxy. He makes a life there with the evolved feline-human hybrids who farm the world, and marries a human woman living there.

He eventually makes a friend -- another visitor to the world, a weird-looking wizard named Syzygy Darklock (who Starlin introduced in a stand-alone tale called The Price). Dreadstar finds the wizard agreeable company, but his drinking buddy often seems to steer the conversation toward things that resemble the "bad old days". He urges Vanth to get involved in the ongoing, destructive war between two empires -- the Monarchy  and the theocratic Instrumentality. Vanth is having none of it, but his happiness is short-lived, as the world is attacked by Monarchy forces. Vanth's wife is murdered, and he swears revenge. He assassinates the ruler of the Monarchy, installing a weak king in his place.

Dreadstar hits the ground running.
As we begin the series, Dreadstar and Syzygy are scheming to bring an end to the war, crippling or destroying both of these cruel empires that grind up innocents in their endless battles. They have gathered up a small but deadly band of rebels to fight their war, including the last surviving cat-man from Dreadstar's adopted homeworld, Oedi; a lunkish but canny smuggler named Skeevo; and a blind "cybernetic telepath" named Willow. Dreadstar's rebellion hits the ground running by robbing an Instrumentality space station that holds a chunk of the empire's treasury.

Although they are able to manipulate the weak king of the Monarchy, the rebels face stern opposition from the leader of the Instrumentality, the formidable Lord High Papal. The Papal is truly ruthless, a mighty sorcerer who does the work of strange alien gods. He hounds Dreadstar's rebels with a succession of deadly enemies, including sorcerous Cardinals, bounty hunters, and agents like Infra Red and Ultra Violet who have strange powers. (In the latter case, IR and UV got their powers from an Instrumentality bomb dropped on their home city of millions in an attempt to kill Dreadstar and Darklock. When she learns the truth, Ultra Violet joins the rebel band.)

The series has many exciting twists and turns, which I won't spoil for you here, except to say that -- unlike many stories in the comic book world -- the battle between the rebels and the Papal eventually reaches a climactic conclusion. Our heroes are put through the ringer on the way to the war's end, and not all of our heroes get there alive.

Dreadstar is a rousing adventure tale, but it would have faded with the years if that was all it was. The thing that made it riveting reading back in the day was the difference in tone in this book, compared to others of the era (and indeed others of the Epic line): there was a sense that, from the beginning of the series, Starlin had set the stakes as high as they could possibly be -- cosmically high, of course, but without losing sight of the many lives that hung in the balance when Dreadstar made a decision. This was a comic book about war, and about the ugly consequences of war, and the ugly decisions that "heroes" have to make to serve a greater purpose.

Dreadstar & Co. battle a horde of Starlin's signature mandroids.
Yes, I would call it a superhero comic of sorts -- our heroes have strange powers and wear brightly-coloured costumes. Vanth himself eventually adopts an outfit that is unmistakably a superhero costume. There are big set-piece battles against armies of weird foes, breathless chases, and the sort of cosmic weirdness one would expect to see in a book like Silver Surfer or the aforementioned Captain Marvel.

This was one of the first superhero comics that treated its subject with a serious mind, however -- the threat of cosmic genocide or war atrocities was never far away, and there was a real sense that the heroes were paying a price for the rebellion that they spearheaded. In a way, Dreadstar is like Star Wars if you let the camera linger a little longer over the consequences of some of the boffo action sequences; "Star Wars Is Hell", if you like. The idea that war is a bloody, self-perpetuating thing -- often justified or propped up by things like religion -- haunts every page of Dreadstar. (Weirdly, Dreadstar's brightly-coloured heroes somehow seem to have aged more gracefully than Epic's other space war saga, Alien Legion, which I also loved back in the day. Alien Legion somehow seems too tame and mild today to take seriously, while Dreadstar still packs a narrative punch.)

It's not as dark as something like Frank Miller's Born Again or The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore's Watchmen, but you can see the seeds of those great works being planted here.

Vanth takes on the Lord High Papal. Note Dreadstar's new costume.
Eventually, Dreadstar was to leave Epic Comics for a new home at First Comics. My understanding is that this was due to a struggle with Marvel over reprints of Dreadstar that they had begun, in a cheaper format, called Dreadstar and Company. The series didn't enjoy as long a run at First, and after Starlin wrapped up his epic tale of the Monarchy-Instrumentality war, the writing chores were handed over to the capable Peter David.

Starlin went on to do much more cosmic adventure, including DC's Cosmic Odyssey and the Infinity Gauntlet series from Marvel, and personal creations like The Weird and Breed. After many years of silence on the Dreadstar front, there is a rumour that we might at last see another new chapter in the saga. Starlin's Dreadstar and Metamorphosis Odyssey material is finally back in print through SLG and Dynamite Publishing. You can find these reprints -- and often, the original issues -- at your Friendly Local Comic Book Store. Check 'em out.

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