But no matter how many light years away they travel, these are journeys into the heart.
For some 40 years, Saugerties’ Starlin has blazed a trail across comics as bright as a comet’s tail.
He has created comic books that are a fusion of Shakespearean tragedy and Bradbury mythology. Hailed as a visionary who popularized if not introduced the space opera — he prefers the term “cosmic tale” — to comics, Starlin’s characters live and breathe, love and long to be loved. Superhumans with human frailties. Artificial life forms with real heart.
He’s been asked so often why he’s been drawn to write and draw cosmic tales that he smiles and gives his pat answer: “Because it beats having to pencil horses and cars.”
But when he confesses that, “I’ve always been a lot more interested in what goes on in the heart than at the end of a fist,” you realize there’s a reflective and introspective mind carefully crafting these comics.
Or as Starlin’s frequent collaborator, Ron Marz, puts it, “To me the cosmic stuff is the wrapping paper on Jim’s stories. What’s inside the package is very human and very universal. The stories are ultimately about the human heart and psyche...I think the readers might show up for the cosmic trappings, but what stays with them is emotional impact of the stories.”
Starlin’s latest project, “‘Breed III,” may be more mystical than celestial, but it is nonetheless an epic saga in the Starlin tradition.
The protagonist, Ray Stoner, is having to face his demons after learning his father is, well, a demon. He is on a path of self-discovery, and a confrontation with his father looms. Through the first two issues of this seven-issue arc, Stoner has rescued the mysterious Zoe and her son from some fellow half-breeds and barely escaped Demonworld with his life. While Stoner encounters all manner of winged beasts and fanged monsters, there could be romance in his future.
Starlin calls it his “most quasi-autobiographical” work yet, admitting that parts of his life and personality have seeped into the story. Some are obvious, such as how Starlin and Stoner are both Vietnam veterans. Some are so subtle that it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that Starlin realized that Stoner speaks in the same mess of dangling participles and dropping pronouns as his creator.
And Stoner’s great search — not outwardly to find his father, but inwardly to figure out who he is — has also been Starlin’s.
“The whole idea of self-discovery, my life was like everyone else’s,” said Starlin. “(I’m) trying to figure out where I’m going, although it was nowhere near as dramatic as having my father turn into a beast as he does in the story.
“If anything, the scenes with Ray’s mother resonate more with me. My mother has suffered from psychological problems as she has gotten older. In some ways, I have already lost her. In ‘‘Breed,’ there are some scenes that sort of reflect that reality.”
The complexities of familial relationships have been one of the reoccurring themes in Starlin’s work going back to the 1970s. In fact, Starlin’s seminal book, The Death of Captain Marvel, wasn’t just the first graphic novel published by Marvel, it was also his way of dealing with his father’s death. Starlin’s father lost his battle with cancer and chemotherapy six months before he started work on Captain Marvel, who developed cancer as an after-effect of fight with the villainous Nitro.
“I was on my way home to see my dad and he was actually on the phone with my mother, telling her he wasn‘t feeling well,” Starlin said. “We think he died while he was on the phone. She had thought he had just hung up because there was just silence.”
His parents initially fostered his love of comics. His dad was a draftsman, so he’d give young Jim stacks of tracing paper that he used to duplicate Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comics created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
One day, Jim had a nightmare, and his parents were convinced it was caused by something scary in one of his comics. After that, he would have to hide his comics in the rafters of the garage and sneak away to read them.
By high school, says veteran comic writer and artist Al Milgrom, Starlin was light years ahead of kids his age, drafting sophisticated pages from fully-realized scripts he had written.
“We went to a high school called Berkley in suburban Detroit, and Jim was a few years ahead of me,” Milgrom remembers. “He ran with a tough crowd that I didn’t. But we knew each other and we knew we both like comics.
“I approached him one day in the hall and started to ask him if he had read the recent issue of ‘Creepy.’ It was an old horror comic. He must have been embarrassed to talk about comics in front of his friends because he kind of whispered to me, ‘Call me later.’”
Milgrom says Starlin emerged on the comics scene just as major publishers such as DC and Marvel were ready for a change. Kirby, Ditko and many of their peers were retiring, leaving the door open for a young man who wanted to explore themes such as corporate greed, absolute power and religion run amok through the adventures of the Silver Surfer and Green Lantern.
“I find it easier to examine any sensitive subject if you remove it at least one layer from the reality that makes it so difficult to discuss it in this reality,” said Starlin. He points to his ground-breaking book from the 1980s and says, “I tackled both atomic annihilation and incest in ‘Dreadstar’ in this fashion.”
Starlin proved to be a keen story-teller in other comic book genres, too. He brought kung-fu to comics, creating the character Shang-Chi for Marvel. And Starlin was working on Batman when DC’s readers voted to have Robin killed by The Joker.
In the past 20 years, Starlin has broken away from DC and Marvel. In fact, “’Breed III” has been some 17 years in the making. The first two chapters of the “Breed” story were published by Malibu Comics in the early 1990s. Malibu was soon disbanded after being bought by Marvel in 1995. Starlin says he had a few offers from publishers, but did not want to relinquish the movie rights. So it wasn’t until he hooked up with Image — a publisher which allows the creators to main ownership of their work — that Starlin had a chance to finish the Ray Stoner’s journey.
In the meantime, Starlin and his wife, Sonny Lan, settled down in Saugerties. Statuettes of Thanos, Adam Warlock, Dr. Strange and others stand vigilantly on nearby shelves as he spends his days at his drawing table in his home studio. Starlin says the room has been cat-proofed so Gypsy doesn’t knock over a bottle of ink onto some freshly finished pages.
Morning hikes through the countryside don’t just keep him looking trim and tanned: nature has become his muse. Many times a thread of dialogue or a plot twist will come to him while he’s kayaking on the river. He’ll often bring his camera along, in case a snapping turtle or blue heron wanders by.
Starlin is totally California laid-back, perhaps a little introverted. But he still attends a handful of comic book conventions every year. Fans line up to get an autograph, a photograph or just thank him for making comics they love. The adulation makes Sonny wonder if this is the same guy who wakes her up at night with his snoring.
She remembers the time the owners of a comic book shop in France flew them in for an in-store signing.
“They had hundreds of people on line, out the door and around the block,” Sonny said. “There were people there who had come from other countries to meet him. Some came from Germany. Some fans of his from Belgium brought him a box of chocolates.
“He has touched a lot of people’s lives with his work and they just want the opportunity to thank him.”
Marz doesn’t disagree with the notion that Starlin stands shoulder to shoulder with Lee, Kirby, Ditko and others who are considered the greatest comic creators.
“I think Jim certainly belongs in that pantheon, particularly of writer-artists, which are more of a rarity these days,” he said. “Jim has worked both ends of the spectrum. He’s made his mark working on company-owned characters like Warlock and Captain Marvel, and he’s created lasting, important works like “Dreadstar” and “‘Breed.” The list of people who have accomplished that, especially both writing and drawing, is pretty short.”++
For more information about Jim Starlin and “’Breed III,” check out imagecomics.com