Dodano: 3 May 2013
The author of the article is Lukasz Chmielewski. You can find more about him here.
The eighties were more than a festival of shoulder pads, peculiar pop music and the Miami Vice TV show craze. In comics this period was a time of gradual evolution of graphic stories from a children’s and teenage pastime into a medium meant for adult readers as well. Jim Starlin and Batman stories he created prove that there was more to the ’80s than the rule of cocaine snorting yuppies.
From the shelf of Chmiel: Jim Starlin’s Batman
Starlin is both a writer and a graphic artist. He gained his status of a comics legend as the creator of a space opera-flavoured part of the Marvel universe. He is known mostly as the father of Thanos, one of the most interesting aliens among Marvel characters. The villain, who enjoys somewhat cult status, appeared on the big screen in The Avengers and he is likely to come back either in its sequel or in The Guardians of the Galaxy, a film being currently developed by James Gunn. There can be no doubt that Jim Starlin is a living comics legend, even though he is surprisingly rarely associated with his more “earthly” creations, such as Punisher: P.O.V. Stories he contributed to the Batman series are similarly a perfect example of remarkable, yet slightly forgotten comic books.
Starlin took the lead as a writer on Batman in 1986, soon after DC Comics had decided to reboot the series. From the very beginning it was quite clear that he was not interested in writing formulaic superhero storylines, in which the hero repeatedly defeats the same enemies. Starlin, being a creator with sensibilities similar to Frank Miller’s or that of Alan Grant and John Wagner, set out to use the Dark Knight style and format to present his view on the contemporary US and the people in general, not only those who wear masks.
As in the case of many pop-cultural phenomena, Starlin’s Batman features a commentary on the socio-political situation of the country of the time. The same could be observed in at the same time cult and camp series Miami Vice. Despite ridiculously blatant disregard for police procedure and vivid, colourful background, the series showcases American anxieties perfectly. There is a threat of communist expansion in South America and shady CIA operations; fighting against drug dealers spreading like wildfire, while realising that supply really is created by demand. Poverty, homelessness, serial killers and corporations as the real power governing the country are featured as well. This seemingly frivolous TV show superbly exemplifies that this land of freedom is deeply flawed. Starlin’s Batman run did exactly the same thing. In Ten Nights of the Beast the Dark Knight had to prevent a Soviet super-terrorist from triggering worldwide armed conflict. In A Death in the Family ayatollah Khomeini appointed the Joker a US ambassador to Iran. In Diplomat’s Son Batman and Robin proved helpless against the serial rapist, who happened to be the son of a South American diplomat. Thanks to Starlin’s writing the world of Batman ceased to be simply black-and-white, boundaries started to blur and many grey areas emerged.
Jason Todd, trained by Batman, turned out to be not only insubordinate, but also he dared to imply that it was the high time to change the way things were done. Despite his young age Todd realised that in the world where politicians protect drug dealers old tricks were no longer useful – and that only Batman remained oblivious to this fact. Robin, as written by Starlin, became an interesting character for the very first time since his appearance in the series: this version became a blueprint for Alan Grant’s and later Chick Dixon’s version of the Batman’s sidekick – a character, who is more than a kid in a silly costume shouting “Holy donut!” once in a while. Development of the relationship between the master and his trainee as well as giving a psychological depth to the Robin character may be surprising, considering the fact that Starlin never really liked the young sidekick.
Unfortunately, A Death in the Family, which has since become a true classic, proved that DC Comics editors were afraid of such a controversial change in direction and decided on a solution unprecedented in the history of American comic book industry: they organised a call vote to decide Robin’s fate. As we know, Batman readers voted for Jason Todd’s death and consequently, he was killed by the Joker. To this day many wonder if the votes cast in favour of Jason’s death were really directed against this incarnation (he had received some bad press due to the writer Max Collins) or against the character of Robin in general.
A Death in the Family was a powerful conclusion of a much too short run Starlin had in Batman, but he said his goodbyes to the character in a special project, which was later to become one of the most significant titles in the history of the Dark Knight. The Cult is a story about Batman’s encounter with Deacon Blackfire. People started to disappear from Gotham City and a cult leader with a communist penchant decided to introduce his own order of things in the city, dethrone corrupted elites and force people to adopt the only proper way of life – his way. Despite having realised that Blackfire’s point is not entirely without merit, Batman cannot allow him to roam free and thus two charismatic men end up on a collision course. The Cult is a very unique story, with a format clearly referring to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It may not be equally ground-breaking, but it does force readers to think, which was not a frequent property of comics of that era. Illustrations created by famed Bernie Wrightson, the master of comic book horror, are yet another strong point of The Cult. Later on, Wrightson went on to collaborate with Starlin again on Punisher P.O.V.
However, Starlin’s opus magnum remains Dumpster Killer, a remarkable thriller story in which Bruce Wayne tries to catch a serial killer dumping his victims in the trash. For Bruce the case is personal, since one of the women killed turns out to be his old friend. This brilliant story, full of unexpected plot twists, is one of the most underrated comics in history and definitely one of the best storylines in the history of the Batman character. It proves beyond doubt that the adventures of the Dark Knight are not necessarily meant only for children and young adults.
Starlin is among the few ’80s’ comic book writes who did not put words before visual content. His comics are never too verbose, quite the contrary – if the story does not strictly require it, the reader is not submitted to enduring ridiculous dialogue or superfluous narrator’s account of the events. If we add to that directions for artists concerning original placing of the panels, which he included in his scripts, it becomes clear that Starlin was ahead of his time and fully deserves a title of a master craftsman.
Years pass and despite introducing various new ideas and reviving less remarkable storylines, DC Comics did not decide to remind their readers how good Batman stories used to be. Starlin’s Batman, alongside Grant/Wagner/Breyfogle run in Detective Comics, still waits for a reprint, perhaps in a collected form with improved colours. These issues printed in mediocre quality on lousy paper are true milestones in the history of comics – and not only American comics.
Recommended: „Batman” (vol. 1) # 414-430 (1987-1990) and miniseries „Batman: The Cult”