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.


Dreadstar #5-6 (1982)

dreadstar jim starlin

This post is one of a series of posts that examine Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar. Some of the concepts and plots discussed here are continuations of the previous posts. Dreadstar is a science-fiction space opera comic book, originally published in the 80s by Epic Comics, Marvel’s (now defunct) imprint for creator-owned projects.

Dreadstar #5

In #5, Syzygy, Oedi & Skeevo (what a name!) visit the ‘Commune,’ a community of scientists who defected from the 200-year war. They set up the Commune to keep doing science as science, a pure pursuit of knowledge. The Commune once stepped in when an incurable plague struck the Monarchy & Instrumentality. It saved the day, proving its usefulness to the two enemies. Eventually, they recognized the Commune as a sovereign and neutral entity. 

The two powers recognized the value of a high-tech neutral party. The Commune grew rich by selling high technology for war, the very thing they were set up to avoid. It turns out that the Commune also controls all mass communication in the galaxy and broadcasts programs in two formats to both enemies. Syzygy & gang are there to buy some air-time to get their message out. But nothing is easy, and they get attacked by Instrumentality agents who smuggled themselves onboard under a Hypno-camouflage spell.

The Commune is immense.

Deep Time

One thing about Dreadstar is that it exists in deep time. All events transpire against a backdrop of centuries, millennia, and millions of years. Starlin doesn’t shy away from detailing profound facts from deep history in every issue. The Commune, for example, is at least as old as the war, and we get the whole narrative as we approach the space colony. There’s also a sense that Vanth Dreadstar is very ancient, having arrived from a different galaxy. Characters like Oedi and Skeevo experience the events of Dreadstar as if naive newborns. They don’t have the deep knowledge of ancient times. Dreadstar, on the other hand, is almost re-living his old life in the Milky Way. How long ago was that? We don’t know yet.

The Commune seems modeled on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Although Starlin’s version gets corrupted almost from the beginning, as if to say that all institutions get corrupted, no matter how noble the original goal.

Tueton Smash!

Tueton Smash!

Anyway, the Instrumentality agents, a Cardinal & Bishop (with magic powers) and giant Hulk-like Tuetun (two-ton or Teuton?), get ahold of Syzygy and pals. The Papal mages ambush Syzygy and knock him out, while Tuetun ‘smashes’ his way after Oedi & Skeevo. The two rebels are overpowered, but they are more intelligent and nimble. Oedi eventually lures ‘two-ton’ into a trap: a floor slicked with oil, sending the giant Hulk-parody down a deep shaft. The two rescue Syzygy. The mission is over.

Dreadstar #6

Dreadstar’s mysterious Plan M is finally revealed in issue 6. Our band of revolutionaries breaches Instrumentality’s space siege of planet Teltoga. Due to the blockade, the planet has been in dire humanitarian need, and Dreadstar is here to help… AND to finally launch the first phase of Plan M.

Messiah Complex

SPOILERS! Plan M is diabolical. Dreadstar creates Maxilon or Max, an android messiah. Now we know what ‘M’ stands for. He’s programmed to be the perfect deity. He always does and says the right things. His unique subsonic transmitter can affect his followers subliminally and elicit a gut reaction. It’s almost a perfect robot-Jesus… except Max’s artificial god brain doesn’t have enough room to include self-preservation programming. Someone from the crew will have to guarantee the safety of the savior of the galaxy. That is foreshadowing some fun glitchy robot messiah hijinks in future issues!

Maxillon the Messiah. Bow to him!

Futurepast

It is always revealing to read science fiction from the past. It has been said that nothing dates worse than science fiction. Each era creates some specific limitation to the technology that makes no sense. In Dreadstar, we have magic and galaxy-spanning technological civilizations, but… robot brains can’t hold enough data.

Fight Fire With Fire

Dreadstar plans to use Max as the seed of a new religion to counter the twelve gods of Instrumentality. He bets that if he can peel pious followers away from Instrumentality’s state religion, he can put the galaxy on a path to peace.

Plan M proved to be very controversial in the letter columns. Most letters came out against it, calling out Dreadstar for cynically manipulating the very people he’s trying to save. But this seems like the perfect move for the character and the world Starlin built. Vanth has seen the Milky Way destroyed by conflict. He also participated in that conflict. Now–in a new galaxy (far, far away)–he is thinking meta. He knows that engaging the two sides in military skirmishes will not end the war. In fact, it will only intensify it. He HAS to think about the conflict on a meta-level. He has to look at it like a god or a god-maker. 

Superhero Dillema

The criticism of his plan is valid, but the people are already manipulated and dying in a centuries-long conflict. Theoretically, Vanth could create the messiah, save the galaxy, and free the people once peace is enacted. With super beings like Vanth, it makes sense to go big. But what happens after the people are saved? Who’s going to be in charge? What happens the day after the revolution?

Dreadstar might be Jim Starlin’s answer to the classic superhero dilemma. If the heroes are so powerful, why does nothing change in the world? Exploitation still exists. Crime still exists. Etc. Of course, all of those things MUST exist in a superhero comic because they are the very reason for superheroes to exist. In utopia, we won’t need superheroes. Can Dreadstar stop being a hero when he achieves his goals?

I planned to read only the first few issues, but I’m pretty sucked into the series now. I might just have to keep reading.


Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #3-4 (1982)

This post continues from the previous post which examined Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #1-2. Some of the concepts and plots discussed here are continuations of the previous post. Dreadstar is a science-fiction space opera comic book, originally published in the 80s by Epic Comics, Marvel’s (now defunct) imprint for creator-owned projects.

Dreadstar #3

Vanth Dreadstar and crew continue to implement something called “Plan M.” We don’t know what the plan is, but it seems exciting and complicated. In issue 3 Willow, Oedi, and Skeevo steal new powerful teleportation tech developed by The Instrumentality.

Meanwhile, light-years away, Vanth & Syzygy try to distract Lord High Papal away from Willow’s activities. It works, but Lord High Papal, in his insane murderous zeal, nukes the city where Vanth Dreadstar & Syzygy are hiding. Vanth & Syzygy just barely manage to survive, but millions of innocents die. Vanth is already racked by survivor guilt (from his backstory told in Epic Magazine) and the nuclear holocaust makes him even more determined to fight.

Dreadstar #4

In issue 4, the crew arrives on Jewel world, where they intend to give the stolen teleport tech to The Monarchy. They want to make sure Monarchy & Instrumentality remain in balance militarily, so their rebellion can keep gaining ground. They end up getting recruited as bodyguards to the king. The Instrumentality sent a super-assassin to kill the Monarch and only Dreadstar & crew can stop him. This becomes Oedi’s turn to shine. His cat-like agility and animal senses detect the assassin where even Willow’s telepathy failed. He kills the bad buy, and in gratitude, the King gives them a bigger and better spaceship.

The Monarch’s Vizir is an interesting side character. He has a mask with breathing apparatus that makes him look a bit like a cross between Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Clad from head to toe in red, Vizir resembles the Crimson Guard from The Last Jedi. The king clearly fears him. The Monarchy isn’t quite what it seems when we’re allowed a peek behind the curtain.

Starlin seems to be having a blast on the series. It’s hard to describe how detailed the drawing there is. This is right up there with George Perez-level panel stuffing. The look of Dreadstar’s universe borrows liberally from various corners. Star Wars I already detailed the Star Wars similarities, but you can also see Moebius style vistas, Kirby-Esque energy crackles, and Magnus The Robot Fighter style robots and cyborgs. This is one of Starlin’s strengths. His work is an eclectic mix of influences that he is somehow able to meld into the setting for a galaxy-spanning adventure.

Dancer Not a Fighter

Starlin’s figure drawing has its own energy and vibe. It has always struck me as awkward, but I could never exactly put my finger on why that is so. His figures often lack the kind of grounded weight that, say, John Buscema is able to imbue into his characters. Starlin’s figures are always weightless. They move more like dancers than fighters. I’ll try to unpack this more in future posts.

Always Be Flexing

You can always see the musculature of the figures at full-flex. Again, this is not unusual, but even when we see the characters relaxing, they are still fully flexed; muscles popping. It gives everyone a constantly tense demeanor. I think seeing this constantly tense body language colors the perception of emotions of the characters. They seem to be over-acting as if always posing in a mirror to practice emoting. I used to dislike this. These days I am drawn to the over-the-top atmosphere created by this kind of figure drawing.

Science Heroes

The clothes are always skin tight. This is not unusual in superhero comics, but it sometimes feels off in a space opera like Dreadstar. In a recent Cartoonist Kayfabe interview, legendary cartoonist, Walt Simonson said that science fiction comic books were often perceived as low sellers back then. Perhaps Starlin is trying the fine line between pure sci-fi and superheroes to avoid this? Surely, the huge-selling Star Wars comics must’ve changed that general perception? Despite the science-fiction trappings, Dreadstar does feel more like a superhero comic. Each member of the team has unique superpowers and the team character dynamics would not be out of place in a typical superhero comic of the time. Ultimately, the vibe of the Dreadstar universe is not too different from Starlin’s Warlock (Marvel Comics). But maybe this distinction is not worth pursuing? The whole Marvel Universe can be seen as a sub-genre of science fiction.

Ditko-esque Starlin. Back cover to Dreadstar #3.

Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar #1-2 (1982)

Dreadstar #1 (1982 – I read the newsstand edition of #1, re-published in 1985), Epic Comics

By Jim Starlin. Colors by Glynis Oliver

Intergalactic Refugee

Dreadstar #1 opens with a long, long, long ten-page recap. Vanth Dreadstar is a refugee from the Milky Way, destroyed by war. He settles on planet Nimbus in the Empirical Galaxy, where he tries to forget his old life and live in Peace. But, inevitably, war comes to Nimbus, anyway. A Monarchy starship lays waste to the planet leaving Dreadstar, Syzygy Darklock (a powerful magician), and Oedi—a cat-human hybrid and farmer—as the only survivors. They vow to end this war and become the core of the rebellion against the war. They are joined by Willow, a blind cybernetic telepath who can see through the eyes of her pet space monkey, and later by Skeevo, a smuggler.

Church & State

The war is between the Monarchy and Instrumentality. The Monarchy is what it sounds like, a feudal dynastic monarchy ruling half the galaxy. The Instrumentality is a powerful religious order led by Lord High Papal. They have taken over the other half of the universe. Now the two powers struggle for supremacy over the Empirical galaxy. Starlin is playing around with classic themes of authoritarian dominance, whether monarchic or religious, doesn’t matter. He sees both as two sides of the same coin. Both are wrong, and the struggle between them kills innocents. Dreadstar & crew need to free the Empirical Galaxy, both literally and figuratively.

High Polish

The first issue is a heist. The crew attacks an Instrumentality space station which is full of precious metals. Vanth wants the hoard of wealth to give them the funds to escalate their struggle against both sides.

Starlin draws the crap out of this issue. The environments are fully realized. The crew fights hundreds of robots, all rendered on the page without common visual shortcuts. I’ve always liked the way Stalin plays around with the grid. He’s unafraid to chop the grid into tiny slivers to add urgency to the action. He really wants visual density on a page. All the pages have either a lot of panels or are rendered with a lot of detail. He also doesn’t skimp on text. He really wants to pack a lot of information into the comics. The result is a pretty satisfying read. Even if the intro info dump is a little much, you come away immersed into a huge story. It made me pretty excited for issue 2.

Star Wars

The whole thing is really reminiscent of Star Wars. It checks all the same boxes: 

  • Science-fantasy, check.
  • Mystical swords and powers, check.
  • Empires bent on galactic domination, check. 
  • A scrappy crew caught in the middle, check. 
  • A furry companion, check. 
  • You can keep going and keep finding more similarities. 

And it makes sense. Star Wars made space opera fantasy really popular at that time. Many comics featured high adventure in space (Atari ForceOmega Men, Star JammersAlien Legion, among many others). But Starlin is an idiosyncratic creator, making it all his own. He injects his favorite themes: mysticism, religion, authoritarianism, and a sense of cosmic grandeur. A lot here is reminiscent of Warlock & Captain Marvel, his 70’s psychedelic cosmic comics for Marvel. Dreadstar takes all these concepts, themes, character types and mashes them into a massive, sprawling space epic that is all his own.

Dreadstar #2

After loading up on cash in the first issue, Dreadstar & gang continue their rebellion against the 200-year war between The Monarchy & The Instrumentality. The 2nd issue focuses on Willow, the blind telepath. She can read and affect the minds of humans and machines. We start out with Willow being a total badass as she effortlessly takes out a squad of military police that endangers their mission. We see how valuable she is to the Dreadstar crew. She quickly retreats into her private quarters and begins to ruminate on her life, which of course, means we’re about to get Willow’s origin story.

Willow

The Dreadstar crew rescue Willow in another operation (these events were apparently told in Epic Illustrated). She leaves her unhappy life and stowaways in Dreadstar’s spaceship. When she’s discovered, she has a powerful psychic outburst. Vanth & Syzygy decide that having a telepath on board could be helpful, so they decide to keep her around. Syzygy trains Willow to use her mental powers, but she has some mental block that prevents her from reaching her full potential.

Ditkoesque

Most of this issue is an excuse for Starlin to go all Ditko on the art. Much of the training sequence with Syzygy and Willow takes place on various astral and mental planes, mystical dimensions, and other realms. Panels are full of cosmic psychedelia Steve Ditko pioneered in Doctor Strange and other books. Starlin has always been into this stuff. Warlock was full of Ditkoesque psychedelic touches. We’re treated to squiggly cosmic pathways, portals to unknown dimensions, and blinding white energy emanations that are the ‘force that dwells within all of us.’ Starlin’s psychedelia here is more abstract, with thin lines holding large overlapping color fields. This approach gives the ‘astral plane’ a less solid, etherial vibe.

Soul Searching

Syzygy manages to identify Willow’s block: She was sexually abused by her father (this proved to be very controversial in future letters columns). To overcome her trauma, she enters—against Syzygy’s warning—the white energy of her soul only to be permanently blinded. But she triumphs over her traumatic blocks and becomes a powerful telepath. She accepts the trade-off: blindness for power. Dreadstar gifts her a space monkey, and now, by seeing through the eyes of the animal, she’s not so blind either. The white light stays with her, and she can call upon it in times of need.


This article is part of the Event Horizon series on comics. Click here to see others in the series.


Logging Ink on Infinite Blogs

dreadstar_2_jim-starlin

I’m writing a lot more. Here a a few places you can find my writing:

  1. In the last post, I mentioned my TCJ column, Event Horizon.
  2. I’m also blogging much more regularly on Uncivilized Books. (check out the first part of the History of Uncivilized Books)
  3. On top of that, I’m writing for Ink Logging, a Tumblr community reading and writing about comics. I mostly use it to log comics I’m reading in preparation for the Event Horizon column, so if you follow me there, you’ll get a preview of where the column is going. I’m having a blast thought. My most recent post is on Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar.

Starlin draws the crap out of this issue. The environments are fully realized, and the crew fight hundreds of robots, all rendered on the page without too many shortcuts. I’ve always liked the way Stalin plays around with the grid. He’s unafraid to chop the grid into small slivers, to give the action an added urgency. He really likes density on a page. All the pages have either a lot of panels, or are rendered with a lot of detail. He also doesn’t skimp on text. He really wants to pack a lot of information into the comic. The result is a pretty satisfying read. Even if the intro info dump is a little much, you come away immersed into a huge story. It made me pretty excited for issue 2.

But I’ve also written on Doctor Zero:

As the series continues, Doc Zero is revealed to be an immortal (or at least very ancient) who has been around the planet since before humanity evolved. In fact in one caption, he says he walked on Gondwana, which would make him several hundred million years old(!!!). Maybe ‘zero’ means he’s the oldest of the Shadowline beings? His Machiavellian machinations are some kind of god-like need to intervene in human affairs. We need saving, and we know not what we do. These kinds of proclamations are frequent with Doc Zero. He clearly has a god-complex.

And Batman and the Outsiders:

The story involves yet another invasion of Markovia. Baron Bedlam returns, takes over Markovia, and proceeds to clone… Hitler! Unfortunately for Bedlam, Clone-Hitler is appalled by the actions of his original and takes his own life. An interesting and rare case of nurture-over-nature in comics. Generally speaking genetics are presented as unalterable law, at least in my experience.

Check out the whole Dreadstar post on Tumblr. Maybe I should turn this into a Dreadstar book club? Let me know if anyone out there is interested. Haha!

Dreadstar by Jim Starlin