And so to Starman. The Man of the Stars is an interesting case for a number of reasons. Firstly, although the character has only ever been a commercial success in the James Robinson series that ran from 1994 – 2001, Starman has had more incarnations that any other JSA members: depending on exactly how you count them, he is the only one to be in double figures.
Secondly, there are two ways in which to approach Starman’s history. The first is the traditional, chronological account of the different characters and the ad hoc, haphazard manner in which they were developed over the decades.
The second recognises that Robinson’s series, as one of its central elements, codified all the Starman characters into a cohesive Mythos, which, amongst many other things, made profound changes to the numbering that would be assigned by the chronology.
In light of this, I’m going to compromise by giving a streamlined account of events chronologically, without using the usual numbering, before describing Robinson’s series in rather more detail than usual, in order to draw out the Mythos, and record the now ‘official’ order of the incarnations.
By whatever count, the first Starman remains the same: socialite and astronomer Ted Knight, who discovered cosmic energy emanating from the stars and built the fabled Gravity Rod – a gold, sceptre-length cylinder – to collect, store and use those energies to fight crime. The Gravity Rod enabled Starman to fly, and to create blasts or shields of light or heat.
Starman is often credited as being another creation of Gardner Fox, who wrote his stories in Adventure Comics from issue 61, but in truth the character was designed by a committee of editors at Detective Comics, and drawn by Jack Burnley, one of the most sophisticated artists in comics in the Forties.
Now committees are usually (and rightly) traduced when it comes to creativity (A camel, etc.) but in this instance they did a decent job. Indeed, Detective Comics, as I’ve already said, believed they were onto a winner to compare with Superman and Batman, and to promote Starman as quickly as possible, they insisted on his inclusion in the Justice Society of America, at the expense of Hourman.
Starman made his début alongside Doctor Mid-Nite in All-Star 8, in an adventure informally known as “Two new members earn their spurs”. It’s an odd situation: Starman is already a member as a result of unknown events between issues, whilst the Doc operates as a guest until virtually the final page, when he’s invited into membership. Mid-Nite spends his whole time interacting with the JSA whilst Starman, apart from his solo chapter, hangs about, silent and solemn, exchanging not a word with his existing team-mates.
He remained with the JSA until All-Star 23, when he and The Spectre became legally unavailable following the All-American divide. He continued, in phantom form, in issues 25, 26 and 30, each of which had been drawn before the split, and which were made publishable by pasting Green Lantern figures on top of Starman, except in the famous two panels where the Lantern uses Starman’s Gravity Rod. By the last of these, All-American and Detective had merged to form National Comics, making Starman available again legally. But his solo series had been cancelled with Adventure 102.
In passing, let us note that a new Starman, dressed in orange and grey, appeared in a Batman story in 1957, and was revealed to be Bruce Wayne, devising a new identity to enable him to continue his war on crime whilst affected by a temporary phobia about bats.
Starman remained in limbo until the second JLA/JSA team-up, in 1964 when, in a nice nod to the past, he was reintroduced alongside Dr Mid-Nite. In retirement, Ted Knight had improved and upgraded his Gravity Rod until it was renamed the Cosmic Rod. This had an even wider range of applications, so much so that it was, effectively, a scientific equivalent of Green Lantern 1’s power ring. Starman made his appearances in various team-ups, but was more-or-less excluded from the All-Star revival: there was nothing he could do that Green Lantern could not, and the Lantern was the bigger character.
Indeed, Starman’s absence was alibied by his being laid up with a broken leg, following an undisclosed fracas with an unseen villain called The British Bat (I say, what?, Dashed bad form.) Insult was then added to injury by having the Cosmic Rod loaned to the Star-Spangled Kid, a Forties teenager drawn into the future, who subsequently ‘improved’ the Cosmic Rod into a hands-free Cosmic Converter Belt. Not a lot of respect for Starman being shown there, overall.
The All-Star revival was book-ended by the first two attempts to revitalise the franchise. The second Starman made a single appearance in First Issue Special 12 (the penultimate issue of the series). He was blue-skinned, red-haired alien Mikaal Tomas, part of an invasion force based on the dark side of the Moon. Tomas was supposed to lead the infiltration, and was given a crystal that he hung round his neck which he used to fire energy bursts. However, Tomas’s pacifist girlfriend influenced him to turn against his race and dedicate his powers to defending Earth. There was no second appearance.
The third Starman followed literally in the footsteps of the JSA revival, which ended in Adventure 466, immediately after which the series was slimmed down to a standard 32 page comic, with the newest Starman as one of its two leads.
This version was written by Paul Levitz and drawn by the legendary Steve Ditko. Prince Gavyn was an effete, lazy fop, one of two heirs to a galactic empire. Gavyn anticipated inheriting the throne and reversing the tradition that demanded unused heirs all be killed, by sparing his sister. Instead, she inherited and he was thrown out of an airlock. He was rescued by an alien named M’ntorr, who invested him with cosmic power (which he directed through a wooden staff). Disguising himself as Starman, Gavyn aided the Empire, eventually taking over when his sister was assassinated. He was one of the many unwanted characters killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths, swallowed by the wall of anti-matter as he attempted to save Throneworld.
Meanwhile, Roy Thomas addressed himself to those old discrepancies from the Forties, first painting Starman 1 as a brash, self-confident man who wanted to join the Justice Society, followed Hourman for the chance of meeting the team and found himself pulling the latter’s fat out of the fire when he first began to suffer side-effects from Miraclo. Hourman subsequently took leave of absence and nominated Starman to succeed him.
As for his JSA retirement, this was explained by marriage to an unnamed woman who made him promise to give up his Starman identity, a promise he kept until her death, shortly before Justice League of America 27.
Post-Crisis, the death of Prince Gavyn cleared the ground for the fourth Starman, the first to get his own series, in 1988. Roger Stern and Tom Lyle created Will Payton, a long-haired Arizonan who, while out trekking in the mountains, was transformed by a blast of cosmic energy deflected to Earth by an orbiting satellite. In keeping with the growing lack of imagination about new heroes’ powers, Payton found himself able to fly and shoot power blasts from his hands.
The series, which was bland and unexceptional, ran for 41 issues, ending in 1992, with Payton losing his life whilst taking down Eclipso at the climax of that year’s cross-over series, Eclipso: the Darkness Within.
The most interesting story in the series was the two-parter in issues 26-27, which introduced David Knight. David was the son of Ted Knight who, after his father’s disappearance, had bummed around Europe for some years before returning, along with personal trainer Andy ‘Murph’ Murphy to take up his father’s identity. David was angered to find Payton using the Starman name and challenged him over it. Payton, who’d never even heard of a prior Starman was happy to surrender the name, but David, under the mental influence of Murph, launched into a fight, during which Murph – who was actually the original Starman’s arch-enemy, the Mist, in disguise – was able to siphon off enough energy to change himself into a weather formation calling itself Nimbus.
Naturally, Payton and Knight teamed up (with Payton as the smarter one) to combat and eventually defeat Nimbus/The Mist, during which David Knight broke his Star Sceptre (as Stern has, unnecessarily and idiotically, renamed the Cosmic Rod). David Knight slunk off.
Thankfully, this was almost immediately followed by the original Starman’s return from limbo. Ted Knight had been a surprise element in the mini-series, albeit as an injured figure, wheelchair bound after an assault by Vandal Savage. By the end, Ted had recovered his strength and was talking about rejoining the JSA, though their disbandment in front of HUAC frustrates this.
In the subsequent series, Starman didn’t make an appearance until the final issue, bringing the power of science to defeat the magics of Kulak. And in due course, Ted Knight was aged in Zero Hour until he could no longer continue as Starman.
This was planned to lead in to the new Starman series, by James Robinson and Tony Harris: Ted hands his Cosmic Rod over to his elder son, David, whilst his hitherto unrevealed younger son Jack is glad it isn’t him.
Which is where we turn to the consciously developed Starman Mythos.
Ted Knight, father of David and Jack, is the original Starman, protector of the art deco paradise that is Opal City. Starman has had a long career, though dogged with interruptions, but he has always remained in favour, even during the years when the Justice Society were forced into retirement by HUAC.
In the late Thirties, Ted discovered cosmic radiation emanating from the stars and built the first Gravity Rod. After discovering that his cousin Sandra had begun going out in costume as the Phantom Lady, Ted became Starman, for no other reason than that it seemed right to use his powers to stop crime. He created a costume of a red helmet topped by a green fin, red long-sleeved top and leggings, green trunks and boots.
Ted quickly found friends in the Opal Police: Inspector ‘Red’ Bailey, who would go on to become Police commissioner, and Patrolman Billy O’Dare, who would father a quintet of red-headed cops to follow him. Ted also worked with FBI Agent Woodley Allen and, privately, dated his niece, Doris Lee. To conceal his identity, Ted would pretend to be a bored hypochondriac.
He joined the Justice Society in 1941, staying with it till the War’s end. A scientific rationalist, he did not accept that his team-mates Doctor Fate and the Spectre used magic, but an encounter with Etrigan the Demon in 1944 cracked his certainty. Ted subsequently resigned when he began to be troubled by the role he had played in helping Einstein with work that contributed to the development of the Atom Bomb. Ted suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in his guilt.
The worst of these occurred early in 1951 when, shortly after discovering his secret identity, Doris Lee was murdered. With Opal left unprotected, the Starman of 1951 (Starman 2) took up Ted’s role, wearing a completely different costume so as not to affect Ted’s recovery.
Starman 2 is actually Ted’s former JSA colleague Charles McNider, aka Doctor Mid-Nite. With the assistance of a number of minor heroes in constructing technology, McNider keeps the peace until October 1951, when an incident in his home city calls him away. His place is taken by another figure, whose identity I’ll hold back for now (Starman 3), who takes over until New Year’s Day 1952, when he abruptly disappears. Starman 3’s last adventure is in collaboration with Hourman and a time-travelling Jack Knight. The case spurs Ted back into action when he spots a clue everyone else has overlooked.
Ted resumes his career. Jack persuades him to go to a New Year’s Party where, unknown to Jack, he will meet Adele Doris Drew on her intended final day in Opal: Adele is Ted’s future wife and the mother of David and Jack.
Though the Starman of 1951 is still a public mystery in Jack’s time, Ted has hinted that he knows more than he’s ever let on: before leaving 1951 with the aid of Starman 9, Jack writes an account of everything that he leaves in one of Ted’s books, for him to find, if he ever does.
(This adventure comes right at the end of Jack’s career as Starman 8: in his era, no-one knows that the Starman of 1951 was actually two different people.)
Ted continues his career during the Fifties and into the Sixties. He teams up with Black Canary for a short series of cases. Their teamwork spills over into a brief but passionate affair, which the two decide to end, being in love with their spouses. The timing is fortuitous: the next day, Ted learns Adele is pregnant with David.
Four years later, Jack is born, but when he is very young, Adele falls ill and, after several years in hospitals and sanitoria, she dies whilst he is still a child. Ted is left to bring up both boys himself.
It is not an easy job. Ted’s duties to his science and to Starman mean the boys are frequently left alone. They are chalk and cheese, and though Jack starts off by hero-worshipping his father, he gradually rebels against Starman. His interests lie in the past, in Collectables. He is frequently openly contemptuous of superheroes.
Sylvester Pemberton Jr, the original Star-Spangled Kid, becomes almost a surrogate son to Ted who, at one point, asks Sly to take his role as Starman. Sly considers it but, recognising that there is more to Jack than meets the eye, and believing that he will, one day, justify his father’s wish to be proud of him, declines. He takes the name Skyman himself, but is killed in action not long after.
Meanwhile, Mikaal Tomas comes to the moon as part of the planned invasion force. He turns against them, ready to defend earth, but no threat materialised. Some people call him Starman (Starman 4). In search of thrills and sensation, he enters the mid-Seventies disco scene, indulging in drugs and casual sex. Eventually, he finds the last member of his race pursuing him: the invasion was called off when their home planet was invaded itself. His fellow wants revenge on Tomas and the two duel. Tomas is the winner, but finds his crystal now seared into his flesh.
Hearing of another Starman, Tomas drifts to Opal City, but before he can get himself together enough to contact Ted, he is kidnapped and drugged. He spends the next twenty five years or so circulating among a group of extremely rich superhero fetishists.
Meanwhile, in space, Prince Gavyn (Starman 5) has his career as previously recorded, and dies in the Crisis. Ted follows the Justice Society into their final adventure and ends up in limbo. Officially he is regarded as dead, though Jack retains the belief that his father remains alive during that period.
Whilst Ted is in limbo, Will Payton gains powers and is called Starman (Starman 6) in the press. Ted’s son David, under the influence of The Mist, challenges him for the right to the name, but finds himself outsmarted and his Cosmic Rod destroyed. David gives way with seeming good grace. Payton does visit Opal City on one occasion, but dies in battle fighting Eclipso.
Ted returns from limbo with the JSA, having received another ‘booster’ against ageing, but this and his other rejuvenations are removed by the Extant in Zero Hour. Though Ted retains more vitality than others of his old colleagues, he recognises that he can no longer act as Starman and hands his Cosmic Rod and costume on to his elder son, David (Starman 7).
Jack is still derisive of the ‘family business’, and is openly contemptuous of his brother in their last meeting, a few days into David’s career, just before he heads out on patrol. An hour later, David Knight is shot and killed.
This heralds a crime spree in Opal, organised by Ted’s arch-enemy, The Mist. His son, Kyle, kills David and fails to kill Jack: his daughter Nash destroys Ted’s observatory and incapacitates Ted. Jack, the only survivor, is forced to play Starman until the last Cosmic Rod is broken. However, though Ted gives him leave to flee, to save himself, Jack refuses to go. He is equipped with the original Cosmic Rod prototype, from 1950, which is quarterstaff length, instead of sceptre-sized, and is surprised to find an affinity with it. Kyle dies in battle with Jack, The Mist slips into senility and Nash, a shy, stuttering girl who had allowed Jack to escape out of pity, swears to become the new Mist and get vengeance on him.
Jack agrees to become Starman, on a number of conditions: he won’t wear the costume, he won’t patrol and Ted must now use his science to put cosmic energy to humanity’s benefit, instead of heroing. Ted readily agrees: he is aware Jack intends to ‘cheat’ by not looking for action, but knows that the ‘life’ will find him. Jack becomes Starman 8.
Immediately, he finds himself negotiating an uneasy alliance with the immortal villain The Shade, a manipulator of shadow stuff who, it transpires, is an Opal resident, loves the city and refuses to commit crime here. The Shade believes Jack may be the hero Opal is waiting for.
Whilst looking for Collectibles in Turk County, Jack happens on a circus at which Mikaal Tomas is being used as a Freak. The circus is run by Bliss, an incubus who is feeding off the fear and hatred of all his Freaks. When Jack fights him, Mikaal – who is unable to speak English – assists him in defeating Bliss. Subsequently, Mikaal will lose his powers is defending Solomon Grundy: he regains his ability to speak English but not his memories. These are not revealed until later.
This happens during another crime-wave, this one organised by Nash, the new Mist, now very self-confident. Nash kidnaps and drugs Jack and, whilst he is unconscious, she rapes him and impregnates herself.
Angry that Nash has compared herself to him, Jack tries to do something she wouldn’t do by finding her father’s missing medal. This leads to an adventure with Wesley (Sandman) Dodds in New York, which has far-reaching implications for both Jack and Dodds later on.
Slowly, Jack finds himself adjusting to the life of the superhero, though he maintains his unorthodox approach to it. Every year, by means he doesn’t understand, Jack has a meeting with his dead brother David, at which time David tries to assist Jack in preparing for future events.
Jack’s growing relationship with his girlfriend, Sadie Falk, is threatened by her revelation that her real name is Jane Sadie Payton. She is Will Payton’s sister and believes him to still be alive. Because he loves her, Jack agrees to go into space to try to find Payton. Mikaal joins him, hoping to refind himself.
In space, Jack and Mikaal are bounced forwards and backwards in time. In the Thirtieth Century, they encounter Star Boy (aka Thom Kallor) of the Legion of Superheroes and assist him in dispersing a planet-spanning field of shadow that is found to be the result of the Shade’s powers gone haywire. The Shade reveals to Kallor that he is destined to go to the 2st Century, after Jack has ended his career, and become Starman under the name of Danny Blaine, one of the most famous Starmen in history. Kallor knows every detail of Danny Blaine’s life, including when, and how, he will die.
Jack and Mikaal, who has recovered his powers and his aggression, eventually reach Throneworld, which is now governed as Regent by Prince Gavyn’s former lieutenant, Jediah Rikane, who has married the Queen. Payton is imprisoned on Throneworld and undergoing torture: he was discovered in Throneworld space, displaying an energy signature identical to that of Prince Gavyn.
Inadvertently, Jack sends a signal that starts a revolution against Rikane. Payton is killed, but is resurrected by M’ntorr, who explains that when Gavyn died in the Crisis, his energy was directed to Earth, and it was that which was reflected into Arizona and transformed Payton, killing the young man in the process, but impressing his form and features on Gavyn. Payton protests this, insisting that he is and is only Payton, though his access to Gavyn’s memories, and his powers, rapidly grows. Though he remains unconvinced, he ultimately opts to stay on Throneworld, with Queen Merria: whereas the Starman of 1951 turned out to be two different people, Starmans 5 and 6 are revealed to be the same person.
Back on Earth, Jack faces a final battle to save his city, during which Ted, battling Doctor Phosphorus, receives a lethal dose of radiation. At the last, he uses his advanced Cosmic Ray science to save Opal City one last time: The Mist, his mind restored, has set off an extremely destructive bomb to kill the Knights and their city: Ted uses a hyper-advanced Cosmic Rod to elevate the building, the bomb, the Mist and himself into space, where the bomb explosdes harmlessly, killing two old men but causing no other damage.
Jack, distraught at losing his father, begins to question his vocation as Starman. Nash is dead, killed by her father, but giving their son Kyle to Jack at the last. Sadie has left him: she is pregnant too and, whilst willing herself to share Jack’s life as Starman, will not subject her baby to it.
Jack’s final meeting with David also includes Ted: these visits have been made possible by the post-death magics of Kent (Doctor Fate) Nelson, utilising an ancient curse affecting the Opal, which Jack has helped to lift. Ted gives Jack’s intention to retire his blessing. David, however, has a final surprise for his brother, a journey home via 1951, where Jack inadvertently secures his own birth, and learns the secrets of the mystery Starman – which include the fact that Starman 3, the replacement Starman of 1951, is his brother David.
Again, thanks to Kent Nelson’s spells, David was magically transported from the moment of his death to 1951, to be granted the chance to live out his dream of acting as Starman, to show his quality, and demonstrate that he did, indeed, have what it took. His realisation that Jack has sent their father off to meet their mother is the completion of that spell, and David is returned to the instant of his death.
Jack, unsure how he will return to his own time, is collected by Starman 9, Thom Kallor/Danny Blaine. It is a farewell gift: after dropping off Jack, Blaine is returning to the day of his death.
All that remained for Jack was to pass on his Cosmic Rod. With the knowledge that Blaine was due to appear before long, and with Mikaal restored to active status, Jack chose to hand his Rod on to Courtney Whitmore, the teenage girl who had become the second Star-Spangled Kid. Courtney has continued her career as Star Girl, and may be regarded as Starman (so to speak) 10. (She’s actually destined to be overshadowed by her baby half-sister, Patricia Dugan, who will grow up to become Starwoman, another of the most famous of the line.)
Since Jack Knight’s series has ended, Kallor has returned from the Thirtieth century, adopted the role of Starman and the name of Danny Blaine and been in action as such in the most recent incarnation of the Justice Society, alongside Stargirl. Robinson has returned to comics after a break, writing a number of Justice League series, into which he has introduced Mikaal Tomas. Though the possibility was held out of a further adventure, Jack Knight has retired to San Francisco,with Kyle, to Sadie and his daughter, and resumed painting. He has not been seen since. Which, given the way in which Robinson’s writing has deteriorated in the past decade, is probably a good thing.
How much of this still applies post-New 52 is debatable. Within months of Jack Knight’s series ending, a large part of his space adventure was erased from continuity by a revision of Superman’s background and origins.
To date, no Starman has appeared. Robinson is the writer of the sadly dire Earth-2 series featuring the new Justice Society so we’re bound to get a Starman at some point, but which one, and in what shape is something I am not anxious to learn.