Starlight by Mark Millar – Comicbook Review [Bellarius]
Breaking away from the usual realm of superheroics, Bellarius takes a long into one of the original works of Mark Millar: Starlight.
“Exciting, intelligent, fun and colourful, Starlight is easily one of the most underrated comics of the decade.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Given his recent work, if you removed Mark Millar’s name from the cover, you’d never guess this was one of his tales. Between Nemesis, Kick-Ass, ruining Marvel with Civil War and sticking to the grim and gritty aspects of modern comics, it’s almost expected for any title he’s involved in to involve copious amounts of rape, murder and worse things beyond the two. However, some forget this was the same man who brought us Superman: Red Son and once worked on some of the most optimistic stories of the JLA comics. Perhaps, in some ways, this is just the author returning to his roots.
What you have here is the tale of a washed up high adventure sci-fi hero finding his place in the sun again. Forty years ago Duke McQueen saved the universe. A test pilot who was dragged to an alien world, much of his youth was spent fighting to defend a peaceful kingdom again endless horde of alien conquerors, warlords and abominations. That was then, and this is now. Having taken a chance via a collapsing wormhole to return home, he was met only with ridicule and incredulity, with even his own children refusing to believe his old stories. Now a widower, he sits at home, left only with his old memories to comfort him. That is, until a rocket ship lands on his front lawn, its pilot desperately calling for his help.
It’s an interesting premise to be sure, and it’s honestly one of a remarkable few which manages to strike a near perfect balance between its themes. After all, the heavy realism of Duke’s home life is a stark contrast to the death defying stories of his youth, and it would have been easy for one to crush the next. In the hands of a lesser writer it might well have done so but instead it never pushes things too far. The first issue and a good chunk of the second are spent on Duke’s home life and you’re given a real impression of his history and how truly miserable he is. This is conveyed brilliantly as we see the funeral procession for his wife play out (spliced with flashbacks of his times with her after his return) and the party afterwards.
In just a few pages you’re conveyed the decades he’s spent being seen as an absolute joke, but it makes that key decision to never push things too far. There’s no moment he finally breaks down or strikes out in anger, and that decision ultimately saves the work. The very second the comic is done with that world though, it starts to rapidly introduce elements of the far flung science fiction setting he left behind. It’s not a simple leap, but over the course of the second issue more humour starts to creep into the book and there’s a subtle shift in tone as Duke is reminded he’s still needed in the galaxy. Between donning his old uniform again and seeing the devastation wracked upon those who once followed him, it’s enough to convince him to fight once more.
The action itself gradually builds up bit by bit, much like the science fiction setting itself. Despite some of the flashier trappings, the opening street fight against a group of tyrannical guards after he arrives is oddly low key. Take away the rayguns and floating cars, and this could have easily been a brawl from just about any story, but that’s while it’s still easing you into the shift from realism to the truly exciting. What follows soon after equally looks as if it might be the standard jailbreak, until everyone grabs a jetpack and the story promptly goes full 30s science fiction. By that point it’s fully shifted gears entirely, but it does have to be emphasised just how masterfully Millar blended the two together.
Better even than the shift in genres though, this is a comic which is obviously in love with classic science fiction to its core. The raygun gothic outfits and visuals alone speak volumes about that, and while it’s willing to make more than a few cracks at its expense, there’re an obvious fondness in the writing and even a few subtle jabs at modern takes scoffing on the genre. Want to see the hero single-handedly storming the castle and succeeding? He more or less does just that. Want to see the villain’s powers turned against him, thwarted in a moment of heavy handed irony? Yep, though you might not see it coming. Want a fight against alien fishmen? It’s thrown in there for the hell of it.
While many seem to criticise more than a few story elements for being overly simplistic in terms of the main plot, those same ones seem to be subtly tipping the hat to their origins; the villain might simply be villainous, the hero might simply be heroic and characters might have one primary drive, but watch any of the Flash Gordon serials the comic seems to be taking as inspiration, and that’s what those stories tended to stick to. That and, in some ways, it plays well against the parallels of life vs the fantasy world there. It shows one depressing reality where the hero has lost everything, but shows somewhere in which decency, heroism and kindness are highly valued and the villain doesn’t get away. In this regard it could even be seen as a message that some realism and escapism is more than justified and that, given the ending, it can even seriously help those in need of happiness.
If there is one thing to seriously criticise here, it’s the artwork. While far from bad, the lack of textures and general tones on characters, items and backgrounds started to get irksome after a while. It really did look as if someone were trying to take the basics of Mike Mignola’s style but failed to really grab the essence of what worked overall. It’s a sad weak-spot for what’s otherwise a fantastic comic, and it’s easily understandable how some could be put off by the visuals.
Ultimately though, Starlight has to be one of the best original comics I have personally read in years. It hits that Total Recall sweet spot where you can enjoy it just as a fun, engaging action piece and read into its themes, ideas and concepts in equal measure. If you’re after a great comic which doesn’t involve capes for once and something which ends on an unambiguously positive note, definitely grab this one at the earliest opportunity.
Oh, and Mr Millar? If you’re reading this, you’re forgiven for Civil War. You earned it.