28
Feb
10

Issue #4: A Day in the Opal

On rereading this issue, I’ve become quite fond of it. It is more or less a done-in-one story that is neither a “Talking with David” nor a “Times Past” (of which we’ll get our first samples in the next two issues). While being self contained, it still manages to set up some nice elements for the next six months or more of Starman issues.

Up until this issue, it’s been standard origin story/ superhero fare: a reluctant adopts the mantle of hero, fights a villain, and saves the city. Issue four begins a trend of establishing Jack as a different kind of hero with different kinds of adventures. This is rarely a book about punch-’em-ups and mustache twirling. Even the stories focused on superheroism are more thoughtful and slightly askew.

Here, we’ve got a nice prologue at the beginning here that sets up the MacGuffin for the issue. The occultist/ artist, Harry Ajax, is a creation of Robinson’s. The Hawaiian shirts are a nice touch that fit with Robinson and Jack’s  retro sensibilities. It’s as good a time as any to point out that Jack Knight is very much informed by James Robinson’s own tastes, habits, and personality. Reading his letter columns and text pieces, and seeing the man’s collection of tattoos in person, it is evident that Jack is often Robinson’s proxy.

Back to the story though. From the prologue introducing this Hawaiian shirt that is a gateway to heaven, we jump to the present seeing a Swiss chalet very much like the one in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” With his dark suit and bald head, the man we’re introduced to, Albert Bekker, looks to be cut from the same cloth as Telly Savalas’s Bloefeld. Wanting the shirt makes him seem sinister. Where else would it land? Opal City. Silly as it seems, it always makes me a little sad that there is no city like this anywhere in the real world. The two-page splash of the city here is fantastic. In all of the DCU, there are only three cities in which I’d want to live: Opal, Fawcett, and Ivy Town. There are some similarities between Ordway’s Fawcett and Robinson/Harris’s Opal. Fawcett tended to be more streamline and less ornate. There are kindred sensibilities in these two cities. It’s also kind of funny to me that there’s a exhibit devoted to Deco when all of Opal is a museum to this style.

We see Jack on the title page trying to rebuild his shop. He’s on a phone wheeling and dealing for stock. Evidently he is a natural haggler. Of interest to his character is that there isn’t as clear a line between Jack and Starman in the same way that there is between Superman and Clark Kent or Batman and Bruce Wayne. By that same token, the balance isn’t swinging so far toward the hero persona as it is in characters like Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern.

And an interlude: Robinson gives us another view of The Alleys, where Jack worked and lives. It’s gas lamps and tight passages. The poster of Hades here is a story element that will be cropping up for the next year or so until it is finally resolved. It’s always eye catching and lures a victim into it, but each time the appearance is different. This time, it’s a fairly standard demon with the word Hades printed at the bottom. Each time, the poster’s look is reminiscent of those psychedelic rock concert posters of the 1960’s and ’70’s. About the other signs and posters I can only point out that the large one blocked by the text box is probably for They Might be Giants. We will learn the identity of the man collecting the poster (an immortal named Merrit) and his reasons in issue 10. More on all of that later.

One thing that many critics have panned Robinson for is the excessive talkiness of the book. For me, and I suspect most fans of the series, these mini-essays made the series quite special. They added depth to the characters and the setting. Here we get a lovely piece on the City itself. In the text piece at the end of issue 0, Robinson explains that he wants to flesh out Opal City; his hope is that the references to the places and streets could be made into a coherent map. On pages 10 and 11, you have a piece that compares Opal to a symphony orchestra. We get references to areas, landmarks and specific streets: Cinema Luna, Libra Avenue (the attorneys street aptly named for the balances), Zulu Boulevard, and Burnley Street.

One thing I had wanted to mention in the first issue, and am reminded of it now, is Jack Burnley. Robinson mentions Burnley as being one of the greatest of the golden age artists. He’s not joking. Burnley’s art was clean and showed a high sense of realism and proportion. Check out his work in the visually excellent Starman Archives vol. 1 and 2. It’s better than 95% of the stuff from that time. Worth mentioning here because Burnley Ellsworth is the fictional founder of Opal City, combining artist Jack Burnley and editor/writer Whitney Ellsworth.

Jack’s love of the city is one of the strongest motivators for his becoming a “hero.” It is the first and strongest connection that he will have with The Shade. The new rod design is both more elegant and sturdier looking than its predecessor. The bend near the top and the crook are functional changes as we will see especially in this issue.

The Shade appears and he’s ready to have his talk with Jack that was promised at the end of the previous issue. Outside of the general interest in Opal’s new protector, The Shade has a specific interest which will be revealed later in the series. The comments about Jack instinctively being a hero and the question here about dreaming of being a Native American point to Scalphunter. There was a reference made previously about the lawman. We’ll later see that the Shade is looking for a reincarnation of this former protector of Opal. There is one, it just turns out not to be Jack… by years end, we’ll see that it is Matthew O’Dare (the mustachioed O’Dare).

Yeah, if you haven’t previously read the whole series, or are living this scene, you might consider this conversation as something straight from a film by Ingmar Bergman. The darkness and the position of the characters is reminiscent of the chess game with Death in “The Seventh Seal.” Felliniesque is also a good descriptor of the scene.

Swords, pirates, and swashbuckling? The importance of these references comes into play much later in the series. It’s not random that there are dreams of pirates or that the Shade pull out a pirate wind-up toy. We get another reference to it by the end of the year. More then as it’ll tie up a loose end from the first arc. It never ceases to amaze me how well Robinson laid this series out. 80 issues and he laid the ground work for all of it in the first four issues. I’d kill to see the bible on this pitch/series.

For those who thought that Jack was now a fully blossomed hero ready to accept it, sorry to disappoint. We’re reminded that he’s still human and is still prone to stubbornness and denial. We’re introduced to the Shade’s journal here. We’ll get more excerpts and issues revolving around them as the series progresses. We also see the item the Shade picked up at the art museum. It wasn’t a piece  of art for himself. Instead, the dedication plaque for the Knight wing of the museum is a sign of good faith. I can’t comment much on Jack’s reference to “The Two Jakes” and “Chinatown” except to say that the former is a sequel to the latter.

There’s a good montage here of Jack’s life outside of the cosmic rod, and we tie it back to the beginning. I love how this scene plays out. The start on page 19 mirrors the encounter between Jack and Kyle that resulted in the destruction of his shop. From the shades, weird questions, and the gun to the generally creep factor, we’re reminded of that scene in issue 0. What makes this scene so fantastic is that it quickly diffuses. Page 21 and the question, “Well, would you sell the shirt? What about that?” makes me chuckle. This is why Jack Knight and Starman should not lead you to any of the usual expectations of superhero books. Guy pulls a gun, and a bargain/ business transaction occurs? Apparently, Jack wasn’t expecting this outcome either as we end with the ominous words of consolation by Ted. Weirdness is going to find Jack.

The epilogue wraps up the story with the Hawaiian shirt in a surprisingly nonsupervillainy fashion.

The letter column is of note here because Robinson addresses the issue of Ted’s age in the (then) current appearances. After the various de-agings and re-agings, Robinson places Ted as a “vibrant 65-year-old…”

As usual, Matt’s captured most of the things I’ve noticed, and gotten a lot of mileage out of things I never knew.  I thought I might have caught the They Might Be Giants poster before him, but he’s too quick.  The poster on page 6 appears to be of The Shadow, whose pulp origins play nicely off of Opal City and The Shade.

This is a really great issue, paced so perfectly that it seems like Robinson has all the space in the world to tell his story; he gets to set several scenes (Opal, and the creation of Harry Ajax’s shirt) so fully, and they never feel too drawn out. I also enjoy the scenes where we get to watch Jack barter.  It rings so true (at least for me), as I can’t leave a comic shop without trying to cut a deal.

As much as Starman tells several parallel stories (Jack, The Shade, and The Mist), this issue is especially nice because it tells (or at least introduces) two complimentary stories.  As Matt mentions we see the first appearance of Merrit and his portal to Hell even as we’re told the story of Harry Ajax and his gateway to Heaven.

The climax of the story is Sands’ arrival in Jack’s new shop.  Keeping in mind that the last time a freaky stranger walked into his shop it got burned down and he wound up shot, he is understandably on-edge.  Again Robinson turns our expectations on their head: we expect a fight, but we see a peaceful negotiation and resolution.

The story ends with some great and foreboding advice from Ted to Jack: “I didn’t want to tell you EARLIER when we struck our deal that you’d play the hero but the weirdness finds YOU.”  And indeed it will.

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