One of the most interesting and influential of the post-Jack Kirby Marvel talents, Jim Starlin exploded onto the early-1970’s comics landscape with the impact of a hail of 50-megaton bombs. While the company struggled to find its creative footing in the wake of The King’s departure, Starlin came from out of nowhere to single-handedly define the genre of the “cosmic” saga, an epic story form that soon became one of Marvel’s stocks-in-trade. The genre had its antecedents in Kirby’s work on Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor, as well as the famous Kree-Skrull War arc in The Avengers (written by Roy Thomas, with art by John Buscema, Neal Adams and Sal Buscema), but it was Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel and his later take on Warlock that truly gave the superhero space opera its sense of scale and grandeur, coupled with stunning artwork, devastating action and truly heady concepts.
When the opportunity arose for Starlin to express his vision of space opera with a creator-owned work, he came up with Dreadstar, the ongoing adventures of Vanth Dreadstar, a dour engine of destruction who witnessed the death of the Milky Way galaxy (consequently becoming its sole survivor) and wound up in another star system, only to find it under the twin thumbs of opposing evil galactic super-powers. Aided by a disparate crew comprised of individuals possessed of singular mystical, mental and other skills, Dreadstar waged a war rife with heavy drama and adult concerns and consequences lightyears removed from the spandex set-tos of his contemporaries on the comic book page.
Dynamite Entertainment has begun reissuing Dreadstar in a library of handsome hardcover editions, appropriately launching with “The Beginning.” This inaugural volume contains the “Metamorphosis Odyssey” (the fourteen-chapter epic that introduced Vanth Dreadstar) and the graphic novels “The Price” and “Dreadstar,” from which the ongoing comics series spun off. Ripe for re-discovery, Dreadstar remains a very personal work that deserves another look, and following that goal, PW Comics Week had the chance to discuss the piece with its groundbreaking creator.
Publishers Weekly Comics Week: Your legendary runs on Captain Marvel and Warlock and later Dreadstar set the standard for what could be accomplished in a “cosmic” narrative, infusing the super-heroic action with a sense of epic scale and grandeur seldom seen before or since. What draws you to this area of Homeric space opera?
Jim Starlin: I was originally attracted to sprawling science fiction stories by the fact that spaceships are much more fun to draw than horses or cars. But once I got into the writing more, I found that these types of story settings gave me the option to go way beyond the usual superhero-fights-villain tales that are the mainstay of comics. Remove your characters from every day reality and a story about incest, religious intolerance or abuse of power avoids sounding preachy and takes a bit of the sting out of otherwise taboo subjects.
PWCW: Your work often examines the negative aspects of religion as opposed to spirituality. What fostered this point of view?
Jim Starlin: My well-meaning parents decided to send me to a Catholic grade school, to get a better education than I probably would have received at the local public school. They had no way of knowing that the school nuns, who were the majority of the teachers at this particular parochial school, were right-wing, card-carrying John Birch Society members. By the time I was in third grade, I already knew that the class-conscious, and often racist, bile coming from these supposed teachers was utter nonsense. I remember one nun denouncing President John Kennedy for his stand on civil rights. She was certain that his “vile attacks” on the country’s class structure would bring about Armageddon. With a background like that, I couldn’t help but question the validity of all religions.
PWCW: Frank discussion of the consequences of warfare and the often power-mad and insane mentalities that drive it marks your body of work and made many of your younger readers, who were used to the glorification of violence in their comics, consider such things from an adult perspective for the first time. As someone who came of age during the Vietnam era, do aspects of your work stem from what you saw and experienced during that time?
Jim Starlin: Vietnam affected everything in life while it went on. My time in the service made it clear to me that what we were being told in our newspapers and newscasts, back in the States, wasn’t half the story of what was really going on. I worked as a photographer in an intelligence outfit and we would get these rolls of aerial film in every so often, showing the results of bomb runs along the Ho Chi Min Trail; mile after mile of bomb craters with the occasional shattered village thrown into the mix. Half the time, you could have easily mistaken these shots for photos of the moon. Again, this kind of thing couldn’t help but surface in my work.
PWCW: All of your major works involve various aspects of death, from Captain Marvel’s heart-wrenching demise to Adam Warlock’s time-bending solution to the horror of the Universal Church of Truth and his mad future self, and then to the events in “The Metamorphosis Odyssey,” “The Price” and “Dreadstar.” In the case of Vanth Dreadstar, it seems as if his very existence is defined and forged by great tragedy and the grisly deaths of those around him, so it would seem that death is a hero’s greatest obstacle, yet one that simply cannot be overcome. Your thoughts on this?
PWCW: I think it was Norman Mailer who said, “All true stories end in death." From the start, it struck me that this game that comic book characters play must have some real world consequences, for the stories to have any merit. Most times, life or death is the highest stake a person can play for. Dreadstar, on the other hand, was conceived to be the ultimate anarchist. His stated goal was to right any horrible wrong he stumbled upon. In his later stories it became clear that he was much better at overthrowing evil than he was living in or aiding to run a fairer government or society. I set Vanth to have limits, just as all real people have.
PWCW: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to fill our readers in on?
Jim Starlin: Come September, I have an art book coming out called A Life In Words and Pictures, from Desperado Publishing. Currently I’m finishing off a novel called Lazgood’s Boys that my agent should be receiving next week some time, if my wife can get me to stop tinkering with it. The downside of word processing: it’s quite possible to never end a work-in-progress.
Dreadstar: The Beginning is currently available at comics shops, bookstores and online.