Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Star Brand Classic volume 1

Star Brand Classic volume 1 reprints issues #1 to #7 of the series. The series is written by Jim Shooter with one plot scripted by Roy Thomas. All but one issue is drawn by John Romita Jr, the exception is by Alex Saviuk.

This may seem a stable line-up compared to some New Universe titles but as the other two Classic volumes go up to issue #9 then in the interests of comparison it's worth noting that Star Brand's next two issues were both written by Cary Bates and one was drawn by Arvell Jones and the other by Keith Giffen.

Being written by the Editor-in-Chief and originator of the New Universe, it's natural to expect this series to be the flagship of the line and a template for how to do it right. But instead this is a series that fails to conform to the model of the ordinary universe until one single event unleashes changes upon everything. Instead we get a series that's more of an alternate take on the Green Lantern origin with a twist. Earth may be depicted as "the world outside your window" until a change happens but that's not true of the wider universe and we get a series based upon an encounter with aliens and all the consequences that flows from that. We also get a protagonist who is very different from the usual types encountered in Marvel comics. For all that was revolutionary about the Marvel Silver Age heroes, they ultimately conformed to the traditions of superhero ethics. They might have doubts and insecurities but ultimately they could always be relied on to do the right thing and a big fuss was made whenever they temporarily lapsed. Outside of the costume they were generally respectable people as well.

Star Brand is a very different take on it all. The lead character, Ken Connell (note that "Star Brand" is the object that gives him power, not a superhero code name) is not the most likeable of men. Most notably he's in two relationships at once, with one girlfriend kept ignorant of the other, and he's willing to cheat on them both, doing so with a woman found on a distant beach and even contemplating bedding a seventeen years old babysitter, though not going through with it. Otherwise he's an ordinary person whose career has seemingly stalled as a car mechanic in a large garage and whose hobbies include motorcycling.

The series does its best to present a more realistic approach to an everyday guy suddenly getting powers. He doesn't immediately rush out to stop crime and save lives. Indeed on one occasion he decides not to go and save four men from a collapsed building, in part because he can't get the time off work. When he does venture out he's concerned about concealing his identity and this makes him cautious. There's a moment when he tracks down terrorist students but instead of attacking them he simply breaks open their car boot full of weapons and then calls the police. In another he goes to save a boy trapped down a well but fear of recognition makes him take a long distance route of digging a tunnel and in the meantime the boy is rescued by Jenny Swanson in her robot suit from Spitfire and the Troubleshooters.

More generally this is a world where powers have consequences and special abilities don't come automatically. Ken may be able to lift a sofa when testing his strength, but it damages the roof in the process. When dealing with terrorists he finds a gun, but hasn't a clue how to use it effectively. Ken may be able to fly at great speed and even into space but he hasn't a clue how to know which way to go and has to resort to following coastlines, rivers and roads before taking maps with him. Disappearing from day to day activities gets him in trouble both at work and with one of his girlfriends. His flight gets noticed and his face recognised by terrorists, whilst it's only after the event that he realises he's left his fingerprints all over a gun and can be potentially traced. He contemplates revealing himself to the government but is then told he would be treated as a threat, experimented upon and disposed of. And the Star Brand itself comes in the form of a transferable tattoo but finding a place to hide it isn't easy.

The supporting cast are a mixed bunch. Most prominent are Ken's girlfriends. At one point he proposes to Barb and moves in with her and her two children, Laurie and Bobby. However they're put at danger by the alien who originally gave Ken the Star Brand, though the relationship ultimately crashes when Barb finds out about Debbie. Whereas Barb is slightly older than Ken and a working woman, Debbie seems younger and less with it. She is nicknamed "Duck" and often says "Quack" when the nickname is used. Ken uses her as both an emotional crutch and a confidante, yet she sticks by him no matter what and cannot bear the thought of their relationship stopping. The other cast members are less developed, such as Myron Feldman, a psychiatrist and Ken's friend who starts billing him for their time together, or various work colleagues such as his foreman, John Eberhardt.

This series doesn't go down the route of conventional bigger than life villains with the exception of the mysterious "Old Man" who gives Ken the Star Brand in the first place. His name is unpronounceable and we have only his word for his motives, which seem to be to recruit a young, malleable person to take part in a distant interstellar war. Otherwise the most recurrent foes are Libyan terrorists, reflecting the obsessions of a lot of 1980s fiction, with Ken even flying to Libya and destroying a military base. Beyond this Ken deals with minor annoyances, some with more success than others.

Although the writer and artist are generally consistent, there are signs of errors and laziness creeping in. Some names, particularly Kath, get used more than once whilst both the art and colouring can be a little inconsistent making it difficult to keep track of which minor character is which. Scenes at the end of issue #3 are meant to take place after dark bit are coloured as though it's broad daylight. The start of the same issue implies that it's the morning after issue #1, overlooking issue #2 in the meantime. It's hard to escape the idea that this series was almost thrown together to get it out without much care, which is shocking for the flagship book of such a major launch.

Overall Star Brand is very different type of series from a typical Marvel book, which means it meets at least one set of expectations. But it stops short of some of the hype, retaining the alien races that the New Universe was supposedly going to do without. It's also still feeling its way a lot of the time, trying to figure out just how much time should be spent on Ken's day to day life as opposed to his powers, and it doesn't always get the balance right. This is very much a concept in the experimental stage and it would have been better to have tried the idea out as a low key one-off series to refine it first, rather than such a high profile launch of a whole line. This is not a bad book in itself but it doesn't live up to the contemporary hype.

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