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