Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar 7-8 (1982)

dreadstar 7 back cover

This post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, an underrated creator-owned comic from the early 1980s. You can start by reading the post linked below or click here to see other posts in the series.

Covers to Dreadstar 7 & 8

Dreadstar 7

Vanth goes to Caldor to access a “minimally defended small traffic monitoring station.” He’s after some secret data about catorlite, a mysterious substance valuable to the Instrumentality Church. He easily overpowers the guards and jacks—Neuromancer-like—into a telepathic computer network. It gets a bit cyberpunk over the following few pages as Vanth surfs the net searching for the info. Then, he gets attacked—telepathically from across the universe—by Dr. Anton A. Lanstrom Mezlo (what a name!), who ambushes him while Vanth scours the net for information.

Ditkoesque sequence

Psychic Ditko

While the start of the info-retrieval sequence visually owes something to cyberpunk, Mezlo’s psychic attack shifts into Ditkoesque mystical/psychic realms, complete with portals, suspended pathways, Ditko-tendril (a Ditko analog to Kirby dots?), and psychedelic colors. Starlin has long internalized Ditko’s visual conventions as the proper way to depict magical realms and psychic combat.

Steranko collage

Cyberpunk Aesthetics

But it is, the cyberpunk-flavored telepathic computer interface is the most exciting innovation here. Over several panels, Vanth is suspended in cyberspace, which is depicted as printed out dense lines of programming code. It’s a rare instance of collage in comics. Kirby and Steranko innovated the collage technique in comics by creating surreal cosmic modernist images out of magazine clippings. Starlin’s cyber-collage has a different flavor. I don’t know for sure, but it appears to be xeroxes of printed (on a dot-matrix-printer?) computer code collaged with original art. If anything, this speaks to the increasing availability of printers and copy machines in the early 80s. This technology will be used increasingly in comics in the coming years. 

Cyberpunk sequence

Cyber Typography

It is also an early foreshadowing of cyberpunk visual typographical chaos. Think of the animated strings of code present in the opening titles of Ghost in the Shell or the Matrix films. This issue (Nov 1983) predates even the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (July 1984, though some of his short stories have already appeared). I can’t think of an earlier version of Starlin’s cyber-typographic innovation. The only parallel that comes to mind is Ken Bruzenak’s fully-integrated typography in Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Though Chaykin’s comics have a very different and unique design. Please comment below if you can think of other similar instances. 

From Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! #5

A psychic battle ensues, and as Vanth appears to have lost, he is saved last minute by Willow, who cuts the connection, rendering Mezlo unresponsive, “completely catatonic.” They didn’t get the information they wanted, but now they know where to go next: planet Glaxen. Vanth wanted to check on something else on Calador, a grave… and the grave turns out to be empty. An ominous sign.

Meanwhile, the Monarch’s Vizir Z, last seen in #4, shows up at the end to cause some chaos. The fully armored and masked mysterious figure is always a good bet to be hiding some kind of revelation, usually related to the history of one of the characters.

Dreadstar 8

Vanth Dreadstar tells his crew who he is: a million-year-old being from another galaxy—one of only two survivors of the complete annihilation of the Milky Way. We get the whole story: Milky Way was dominated by two alien civilizations at war. The first, the Orsirosians, were great scientists and magicians who built their civilization on truth and fairness. The other society, the Zygoteans, were just as skilled in magic and science, but they went wrong somehow and found meaning only in warfare and conflict. 

Deep Time montage

Infinite War

As the Zogoteans wreaked havoc on the Milky Way, the Orsirsians had no choice but to enter the conflict. The war in the Empirical galaxy lasted 200 years, but the war in the Milky Way lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. The Orsirisans, led by Lord Aknaton, began work on a doomsday device, the Infinity Horn (a precursor of Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet?). Death was preferable to Zygotean conquest. As the war continued, Aknaton looked for the correct beings to activate the Infinity Horn. He planted seeds on many planets to find the right individuals. Vanth Dreadstar was one of these individuals. 

The Infinity Horn activates

The mystical sword eventually wielded by Vanth was planted on his planet by Aknaton years before Vanth was even born. Vanth’s finding and mastering the powers of the blade primed him to join Aknaton’s crusade. As the Zygoteans final assault on the Orsirisians approached, Aknaton and Dreadstar held them off as long as possible before activating the Infinity Horn. They succeeded, and annihilated the Milky Way. Only Aknaton and Vanth survive in a mystical bubble. 

Million Year Memories

They entered suspended animation, and the bubble traveled the spaceways for a million years until it crashed-landed on planet Caldor in the Empirical galaxy. Vanth, crazed from grief and insane from survivor guilt, kills Aknaton and becomes the sole survivor of the Milky Way.

BUT, Aknatons’s grave is empty! Vanth suspects that he’s Monarchy’s Vizir Z. Aknaton had lost his arm in the last phase of the Milky Way conflict, and Z is also missing one. Z is also powerful, able to mystically shield himself from Willow’s powerful telepathy. Vanth, Skeevo, and Oedi travel to Jewel World, the capital of the Monarchy, to see if they can find any more information on Z to confirm Vanth’s suspicions. And they are RIGHT! In the process, Oedi gets almost killed, and they find out that Z has betrayed the Monarchy and opened the door to an Instrumentality invasion of Jewel World. Vanth sends his friends away and stays on Jewel to confront Z.

Deep Time / Flat History

The Dreadstar mythology is absolutely bonkers. A million years separate the destruction of the Milky Way and current events in the comic. Add another several hundred thousand years for the galaxy-wide war, and time stretches immeasurably. This is deep time, cosmically deep! Characters like Vanth and Aknaton have lived for incredible amounts of time. All of our current human civilization would fit into only a tiny sliver of that history. Our very species is younger than the wars Dreadstar describes. 

At the same time, there’s a weird flattening of time. Events from millions of years ago are present with us in glorious detail. The memories of these characters don’t seem to degrade. Their motivations and loyalties stay locked in. Revenge can build over a million years and be as fresh as at the conception. This is the logic of the comic book series or TV series. Each new episode “resets” the timeline. Even as events and history accrue, the characters remain essentially the same. Many of the comics of the 70s and 80s still had this ahistorical characteristic.

A new sensibility was creeping into comics around this time—a more novelistic quality, where meaningful events and a real sense of history emerge. To give Starlin a bit of credit, Dreadstar does a bit of both. He attempts to provide weight to the stories, but he’s confined by the demands of an ongoing series, where change, almost by definition, must be minimal.


Mutants, Supermen, New Soviet Men, and Homo Superior: Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John

Odd John

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon is a fascinating science-fictional artifact. Written in 1936, it anticipates much later science fiction and comics developments. The story traces the life of “Odd” John Wainwright, a genetically superior human specimen, a homo superior (Stapledon coined this term). We witness his growing pains as he develops his superhuman intellect and abilities. We also follow his journey worldwide as he tries to find others like him, and eventually, his demise, on a remote island where he sets up a utopian community. This post is not a full review of the book, but I want to note some interesting things.

Odd John. Cover art by Richard Powers

Archaeopteryx

“They do their simple jobs with more style than man shows in his complicated job. Watch a gannet in flight, or a curlew probing the mud for food. Man, I suppose, is about as clever along his own line as the earliest birds were at flight. He’s a sort of archaeopteryx of the spirit.

Odd John (p.33)

Birds have evolved to be birds with style and maturity. Man has only begun on his evolutionary journey. “Odd” John is aware of his evolutionary superiority and already sees ordinary humans as living fossils. While John ordinarily is a kind and peace-loving being, he also contains a Nietzschean core. Maybe he does not quite live up to being an apex predator—a majestic raptor in flight-ready to devour its prey—but walks the tightrope between animal and superman.

Future Shock

“The have-nots with very good reason exercise their hate upon the haves, who have made the mess and can’t clean it up. The haves fear and therefore zestfully hate the have-nots. What people can’t realize is that if there were no deep-rooted need to hate in almost every mind, the social problem would be at least intelligently faced, perhaps solved. Then there’s the third factor, namely, the growing sense that there’s something all wrong with modern solely-scientific culture. I don’t mean that people are intellectually doubtful about science. It’s much deeper than that. They are simply finding that modern culture isn’t enough to live by. It just doesn’t work in practice. It has got a screw loose somewhere. Or some vital bit of it is dead. Now this horror against modern culture, against science and mechanization and standardization, is only just beginning to be a serious factor. It’s newer than Bolshevism. The Bolshies, and all socially left-wing people, are still content with modern culture. Or rather, they put all its faults down to capitalism, dear innocent theorists. But the essence of it they still accept. They are rationalistic, scientific, mechanistic, brass-tack-istic. But another crowd, scattered about all over the place, are having the hell of a deep revulsion against all this. They don’t know what’s the matter with it, but they are sure it’s not enough.”

Odd John (p.77)

The above quote is an interesting analysis of modern civilization. Communism is generally seen as the rational solution to Capitalism. In John’s view, Communism sits at the apex of the mechanized cultural movement. In other words, it is the logical end game of modern civilization. But, Stapledon (via John) detects a more profound revulsion against contemporary society. He doesn’t expound on this further, but one can leap to various similar diagnoses posited by thinkers like Marshall McLuhan or Alin Toffler. He identifies a civilizational shift that McLuhan would probably identify as a movement from a flat literary/visual culture (through electrified technology) back to an immersive oral/tactile culture.

As oral/tactile communication becomes dominant, the culture built on visual/literary communication becomes flat and inadequate. The people living in such a transitional phase become alienated. They instinctively seek new ways of being out of step with established norms. This transitional phase leads to Tofflers Future Schock, a period of social upheaval. Under this model, Communism and Capitalism are both civilizational technologies of the past. They were developed and brought into being under a literary/visual culture, which begins to feel strange and alienating to people immersed in aural/tactile film, radio, telephone, consumerism, etc. Political and cultural norms become unstable, outmoded, and inherently alienating.

The powers of “Odd” John are a kind of internalization of this new civilization’s technical capabilities. For example, he can communicate remotely (radio/telephone), he has prodigious memory (print/library), superior technical ability (modern science/technology), and can split the atom with his mind to power vehicles (electricity/fossil fuels). John’s abilities allow him to participate in the new alienating civilization as if it was natural. For John, modern society is almost as natural as a tropical forest to an apex predator. Eventually, John and his like will create the perfect superior un-alienated Communism.

Homo Superior

“As I was saying, it’s much harder to get in touch with people one doesn’t know, and at first, I didn’t know any of the people I was looking for. On the other hand, I found that people of my sort [i.e., homo superior] make, so to speak, a much bigger ‘noise’ telepathically than the rest. At least they do when they want to, or when they don’t care. But when they want not to, they can shut themselves off completely. Well, at last I managed to single out from the general buzz of telepathic ‘noise,’ made by the normal species, a few outstanding streaks or themes that seemed to have about them something or other of the special quality that I was looking for.”

Odd John (p.107-108)
The Cerebro device. Art by Jack Kirby

Just a quick note that John’s ability to find others like him also describes X-Men’s Cerebro device. Professor X uses the Cerebro to enhance his mental abilities to detect other mutants worldwide. 

Shadow King

“Meanwhile, he continued to improve his supernormal powers, and would sometimes use them to practice psycho-therapy upon his fellow-proletarians. But his chief interest was exploration of the past. At this time, the knowledge of Ancient Egypt was extremely scanty, and Adlan’s passion was to gain direct experience of the great race long ago.”

Odd John (p.131)

There are so many similarities between the homo superior of Odd John and Marvel’s mutants (frequently referred to as homo superior) that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of the first mutants Professor X meets is Amahl Farouk (The Shadow King), a powerful Egyptian mutant similar to Adlan in Odd John. They both hide their true abilities by posing as a crime lord (Farouk) and a ferryman (Adlan). Has there ever been anything written on this similarity? Has any of the many X-Men creators talked about reading Odd John?

Amahl Farouk vs. Professor X. Art by John Byrne

New Men

“Indeed one of his favourite occupations, as he plied his oars, was to expound to John with prophetic enthusiasm the kind of world that “John’s New Men” would make, and how much more vital and more happy it would be than the world of Homo Sapiens.” p.133

Odd John (p.133)
New (X) Men. Art by Frank Quitely

Another X-Men similarity! John’s ragtag team is called “New Men.” The words form a kind of mirror palindrome. When Grant Morrison took over X-Men in (2001), he explicitly renamed the team “New X Men” and expressly visualized the palindromic nature of New/Men in the new logo. 

Kill the Unfit

“For to-day the chief lesson which your species has to learn is that it is far better to die, far better to sacrifice even the loftiest of all ‘sapient’ purposes, than to kill beings of one’s own mental order. But, just as you kill wolves and tigers so that the far brighter spirits of men may flourish, so we killed those unfortunate creatures that we had rescued. Innocent as they were, they were dangerous. Unwittingly they threatened the noblest practical venture that has yet occurred on this planet. Think! If you, and Bertha had found yourselves in a world of great apes, clever in their own way, lovable too, but blind, brutish, and violent, would you have refused to kill? Would you have sacrificed the founding of a human world? To refuse would be cowardly, not physically, but spiritually. Well, if we could wipe out your whole species, frankly, we would. For if your species discovers us, and realizes at all what we are, it will certainly destroy us. And we know, you must remember, that Homo sapiens has little more to contribute to the music of this planet, nothing in fact but vain repetition. It is time for finer instruments to take up the theme.”

Odd John (p.147-8)

You can detect shades of so many things to come—the conflicts of the Planet of the Apes, the human-mutant conflict, etc. Of course, Stapledon is playing with ideas already present in his time: Darwinian evolution, survival of the fittest, genetic ideas about race, advanced technology, etc. The way Odd John embodies these often contradictory ideas will prove very influential. John is Professor X (hero) and Magneto (villain) in one. It makes sense that as a species, homo superior (which internalized all the powers of the civilized world) would feel no moral obligation to the inferior homo sapiens. John represents the highest ideals and abilities of technological civilization, and at the same time, he contains all the unspoken terrifying consequences. 

Island

“After many weeks of cruising, a suitable though minute island was discovered somewhere in the angle between the routes from New Zealand to Panama and New Zealand to Cape Horn, and well away from both courses.”

Odd John (p.150)
Map from the Marvel Atlas

Yet another parallel with X-Men. A faction of separatist mutants, led by Magneto, found Genosha, an island where they can live apart from regular humans. The specter of the fundamental incompatibility between the two species haunts Odd John and Marvel’s mutants. 

Individualistic Communism

“Comrades, you have the wrong approach. Like you, we are Communists, but we are other things also. For you, Communism is the goal, but for us it is the beginning. For you the group is sacred, but for us it is only the pattern made up of individuals. Though we are Communists, we have reached beyond Communism to a new individualism. Our Communism is individualistic.”

Odd John (p.183)

Interestingly, when he finally creates his perfect community, John calls it Communist. There are some correspondences between John and the Communist ideal man, also often called a “new man” or “Soviet Man.” The Communist man will be a “new man” with a better consciousness (not false consciousness). This new man can finally experience Communism as liberation (as opposed to oppression) and become a new kind of Communist individual. The idea that Communism can’t be realized with ordinary (read regressive or reactionary) humans is implicit. In Odd John and real-world Communist societies, this fundamental incompatibility ended in tragedy. 

Marx/Nietzsche Complex

As I read Odd John, I started Čeika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle. It’s an interesting book that attempts to find common ground between Marx and Nietzsche—two thinkers usually seen as incompatible. Without going too deep into it, Čeika finds a lot of similarities between the two. Finding the Nietzschean superman inside Marx’s Communism is perhaps not a work of theory but one of archaeology. With Odd John in the mix, I had a kind of synesthetic experience. The two books rhymed with each other across time and space. Together they were dark mirror reflections of each other. By trying to incept Nietsche into Marx (and vice versa), we might be exhuming the undead mummified corpse of Soviet Man. I will try to illustrate this more in a future post.