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Jim Starlin makes comics for a strange, mad world

Comic Books

Jim Starlin makes comics for a strange, mad world

The iconic writer/artist on ‘Dreadstar Returns,’ the industry’s future, and beheading Trump.

It’s daunting enough to interview a comics legend like Jim Starlin before he’s the one tossing out questions.

When I told him what AIPT once stood for — that’s Adventures in Poor Taste for any relative newbies — and what prompted the change (branding, mostly), Starlin had a chuckle and said, “Some people don’t have a sense of humor.”

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That is, in and of itself, quite funny. The man who created characters like Thanos and Shang-Chi, one a death-dealing monster and the other a stoic hero, wouldn’t seem like the sort to find the big, bad world so rootin’ tootin’ funny. But that very element is at the heart of Starlin’s work, and it’s especially apparent when you talk about Dreadstar.

Starlin’s own take on the Jack Kirby-inspired tale of cosmic heroism, Dreadstar follows the titular hero, the last survivor of the Milky Way Galaxy tossed into an alien world and forced to traverse a war between the Church of The Instrumentality and the Monarchy. Starlin worked on the first 30 or so issues in the ’80s before writer Peter David took over for the original Marvel run and a subsequent ’90s relaunch at Malibu. But after years away from the series, Starlin, alongside inker and self-proclaimed “anchor” Jaime Jameson, recently unveiled Dreadstar Returns. (The 100-page graphic novel is already available digitally, with physical copies dropping later this month.) Press for the book says it sees hero Vanth Dreadstar “reunite with his old crew to confront a new menace that threatens all they have built.”

So, what’s it like to return to a book after two-plus decades? Starlin seems to take it all in stride, and explains that his approach to comics storytelling has always reflected something essential about how we all live in this world.

“It’s input, and then output, and whatever has happened in your life is reflected in what you’re doing — it just can’t be helped,” he says. “Being as close as I am to the work, it’s hard for me to see a big difference one way or the other. I’ve seen more of a change in the work since we started back at it than I do between the jumps.”

Still, there’s been quite a lot of life in between Starlin’s work with Dreadstar. More than any issues with past employers, or other comics-related works, the real story of the last several years is that Dreadstar marks Starlin’s somewhat miraculous return. In late 2016, after a SodaStream device malfunctioned, Starlin was left with a pretty nasty hand injury. He says the incident “blew an inch-deep hole in my hand. I had a crater between my thumb and forefinger.” And while he spent years worrying if he’d ever work again, he found his path back when he began work on another Dreadstar-related project.

“I spent six months going through and scanning the pages of the old Dreadstar and visually creating the files for the omnibus,” he says. “I literally did work on every one of those pages. So I had a lot of Dreadstar in my system before I ever decided to sit down and start redrawing it again.”

He adds, “It helped working with a stylus. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was strengthening my hand. I was doing exercises, like squeezing rubber balls and doing these other stretching things, but I didn’t think that was doing all that much good.”

And that’s not even counting the chaos that occurred once he and Jameson had actively started working on the actual Returns book.

“Jaime contacted coronavirus twice in the midst of this,” he says. “We didn’t know if she was going to make it. So the excitement of work was augmented with the excitement of life as usual. And, fortunately, she has survived and is in the process of recovering. Working in the middle of a pandemic, with the entire country in upheaval and your co-worker on the precipice of death, it’s made for quite an experience.”

Jim Starlin makes comics for a strange, mad world

So, given the chaos surrounding the project, Starlin wanted to do more than simply return to a beloved character. In true Starlin fashion, the book grapples with these heavy feelings and somber tones swirling all around us, and presents something magical to believe in (and maybe still chuckle over.) Part of that process was in “rewriting” the story of one essential character, though Starlin doesn’t want us to divulge before anyone’s read the book in full. Even still, it speaks volumes about the redemptive power of fiction and Starlin’s own unique ability to find the emotion and humanity in almost any situation.

“There was a character in the old series I had given some very short shift to,” he says. “I always regretted that there was a lot of external factors that forced the story into that direction at the time. This was a chance to rectify that situation and bring him back in order to end his story properly. I think he had a noble end before, and this makes it much even more even. The whole thing became an unrequited cosmic unrequited love story.”

Of course, not all of Starlin’s work with Dreadstar Returns is always so quaint. The book garnered attention last year when it was revealed that, within the book’s first few pages, Dreadstar beheads King Plunddo Tram, a clear effigy for then-President Donald Trump. (Plunddo Tram is also an anagram of Donald Trump, FYI.) As he tells it, though, Starlin wasn’t trying to rock the boat.

“It was like an episode of The Simpsons, where Bart gets in trouble at school,” he says. “And them main story is about Homer burning down the electric plant. It was a diversion, and a storytelling technique I’ve enjoyed using in the past.”

That slightly stoic reaction is likely born out of Starlin’s overarching approach to making comics, especially when it comes to those with a political bent. It’s gotten him in “trouble” before, but he nonetheless keeps telling tales as he sees fit.

“Marvel pulled a line [from his last Thanos story] that they thought was too much of a Trump line about ‘making your own reality,'” he says. “That was not one of my political statements. It was me being philosophically esoteric.”

He adds, “I live in the real world and it gets strange. I’m a regular digester of news, and so I can’t not let those things seep into what I’m telling stories about. So did I intend to be political? Not directly. My last Thanos story was about people getting together and trying not to divide and I’m trying to do a bit of that with Dreadstar. We are in divided times, and it’s a good idea to try and work with people because we’re all going to die if we don’t.”

That very balance — between the silly and the serious, the political and the universal — were engrained into Starlin by some of his heroes in fantasy writing.

“I was a big fan of [Roger] Zelazny,” he says. “Zelazny showed me that you could do a fantastic story, and put some meat in it, too. It doesn’t have to be all garnish, and they [larger meanings] can be hidden away so that folks don’t feel like they’re choking on it. The reader can digest it without having to feel like they’ve been preached at.”

That ideology is exemplified again and again in Dreadstar Returns: it may look like another wacky tale of intergalactic fantasy heroes, but it’s filled with dynamic characters. Like Dreadstar himself, whose sense of cynicism speaks volumes about the character’s arc, Starlin’s own experiences in crafting this story, and the madness of life amid COVID.

Jim Starlin

“It’s more of a case of characters who are perfect or boring — it’s issues and the faults that I find most interesting in my characters,” he says. “Or even any other character I find interesting. I don’t want things to go smoothly. I don’t want to make role models. I want to make people that you want to see what they’re going to do next. Oedi, despite the fact that he’s our most unusual character, is our most traditional hero in the book.”

And just where are Dreadstar and company headed? Starlin and Jameson are already planning quite a ways ahead.

“I’ve got about five graphic novels floating around in my head,” Starlin says, explaining the pair is at work on a “sequel” of sorts for Dreadstar Returns. He adds, “And the one after that is pottering around in my head. Then I have two more vague ideas, or what I want to do, after that. Jamie and I have talked about doing a Dreadstar book a year. Even though I escaped Detroit, the production line is still part of my existence.”

Starlin went on to say he’s about 60 to 65 pages into Dreadstar vs. The Inevitable, which he says is “basically a cosmic pandemic of sorts. How do you face something that you can’t change, and that you have no control over?” It’s very much a book inspired by all things COVID, obviously, and encapsulates a large idea about the entire Dreadstar universe: Starlin wants it to live on forever.

“It’ll probably outlast me,” he says. “Then somebody else will become the driving force behind the character. So, you leave your mark, and it goes on without you.” Starlin says he’s already talked with a few other comics creators, including Ron Lim and Angela Medina, about working on various aspects and/or new projects related to Dreadstar.

It’s not just because Starlin wants to entertain folks after he’s gone. It’s also that, at his core, he understands the slightly “disposable” nature of comics, and he wants more than anything to leave comics to the next generation of talent.

“Donny [Cates] knows this, but I haven’t seen anything Donny’s done on Thanos,” he says. “I’ve made a point, for characters I’ve worked on, to not see what happens down the line. I don’t want to be one of these guys who are screaming that they’re screwing up my character. It’s somebody else’s property.”

He adds, “I’ve worked for close to 50 years in this business. Some characters I’ve created have gone on to become very popular money-makers for the film industry. How doesn’t that make me feel? I’m proud. The characters have been appreciated and inspired other works, but I try to keep my head about me. Because it’s pop culture — a century from now no one will remember my name.”

Jim Starlin makes comics for a strange, mad world

Courtesy of HV1.com.

That outlook into the future extends beyond Starlin’s own work and legacy. He’s also very much interested in what comes next for comics in general. It’s why he was so interested in funding Dreadstar Returns via an Indiegogo campaign (which raised more than $140,000 total).

“I think to crowdfund, in the long run, is going to be the wave of the future,” he says. “Because it gives the artists, rather than having to penny-pinch, control of what the product is going to be. You don’t have to be rushed to produce this inferior product just in order to meet a deadline. It’s more and more the way serious artists will have to approach [comics].”

Part of that is a recognition that the way comics works now may not be entirely sustainable. Case in point: Starling believes that comics are struggling with a problem of quality amid an overly demanding industry run by “bean counters.” He says this gap has become apparent in the grand scheme of monthly comics.

“The major companies, they’re getting rid of the people who cost too much, and they figure they can get away with using folks who are a lot less expensive for cheaper to use,” he says. “As a result, you’re going to get a cheaper product in the long run. I just recently saw a cover for a Thanos book. This painted cover, it looked like a fat teenager in a Halloween costume. Why would they use this? He was probably really cheap.”

You don’t necessarily have to agree, but that’s the thing about Starlin: all his experiences and life in the world have shaped his thoughts and actions. He is a reflection of the comics industry as it’s evolved in the last half-century — this hugely fantastical thing that still has to operate in a slightly bleak world. That dynamic has pushed Starlin into becoming one of the industry’s most essential creators, and he’s responded by continually pushing himself to create great works and maintain accountability for himself and fans and creators alike. It’s made him not only a great artist and writer but a hugely decent person — and an even better interviewee.

“Thank you for keeping me alive,” he says when thanked for his past works. “You buy those books and let me eat.”

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