The Concept of 'Family' in James Robinson's Starman
By D.J. LoTempio
As someone once described, the "Family" is perhaps the most destructive force on the face of the planet. By "Family," he was referring to a fundamental social group in society typically consisting of a man and woman and their offspring or a group of persons sharing common ancestry. The notion disgusted me when I first heard it but how could you really argue with the facts. This social construct called the family has ruined more lives than the sum total of all wars. It bears more than a passing resemblance to our favorite dictatorships, velvet gloves cast in iron. But this self-same power also allows it to be a constructive force, preserving cultures, science, traditions, ecological habitats and literature throughout the world.
Science has revealed much about the underpinnings of family, showing how our genetic lineage contains our evolutionary history, and the foundation for our habits, personalities, and perhaps even our deaths. Families also carry other inheritances with them -- prejudices stereotypes, and secrets. For instance, Rosemary's Baby probably had a hard time finding Nikes for cloven feet while the local exorcists hunted high and low for the little devil.
What then is the consequence of being born to a father who is a superhero?
James Robinson's Starman is the curious pondering of this topic. First published in 1994, Starman is a book that charts the legacy of Ted Knight, elder superhero, who originated the role of Starman back in the 1940s. Like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, it charts the life of the Knight family from cradle to grave and beyond. It is also displays a world profoundly influenced by the legacy of several families battling like latter day Hatfields and McCoys.
The idea of "family" is certainly not original in comic fiction. Notable predecessors include the Marvel Family and the Fantastic Four. Several team books also utilize the idea of familial links to comfort its members, the X-Men and the Teen Titans for example. Unfortunately, most comics have used the concept as an affectation, a device to mimic tribal unity thereby giving the team a reason to stay together after the bad guys have been put away in jail.
Robinson is obviously not satisfied with this idea, and, in Starman, he creates a new paradigm for "the family" in sequential fiction. He examines the concept of the hero family, its role in society and its worth. Three main themes running through the series are:
There are four main families in the series: the Knights, the Mist family, the O'Dares, and the Ludlows. One could add the lengthy number of Starmen as an ostensible family; Robinson does offer the idea in Starman #29. Unfortunately, there is no genealogical connection among ALL the Starmen, unless the reader believes their golden power contains some procreative power. In which case, the cosmic rod takes on different proportions. (Note: I once tried describing the series to a roomful of librarians but couldn't get past the word, 'cosmic rod,' because of the laughter.)
The Knight family is the thematic opposite of Willy Loman's family. In Death of A Salesman, Loman, uber-loser/salesman, is crippled by feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and uses his children as a means to achieve redemption and pride. Ted Knight in contrast is a successful scientist whose accomplishments are remembered far into the future (Starman #1,000,000 & 50). He hopes his sons will continue his Starman legacy, which he describes as, "a Beacon of Light in the Darkness. A Beacon for those who have need of me" (Starman #18). Like Willy, Ted has a troubled relation with Jack, the only surviving son. In addition, Ted must deal with the guilt of accidentally causing the murder of his son, David (Starman #0).
The current Starman is Jack Knight, youngest son of Ted and his departed wife, Doris. Jack starts the series as a reluctant superhero since he is still struggling to achieve his own identity outside of his father's achievements. Some of his animosity with his father surely comes from unspoken guilt for his mother's death transposed on his father. Since assuming the role, Jack has become a true hero is his own right, displaying great courage, respect for his father, and trying to live up to his father's beacon of light for Opal City.
The Mist Family:
Little is known regarding the Mist Family, not even their surname -- a surefire clue that the family is unstable since they are cut off from/conceal their family lineage. Some readers will remember that the Elder Mist did use the surname of Smythe in Sandman Mystery Theatre #37 - 40 but this was merely a fake name. Mystery surrounds this family like its namesake power. We do know that the Elder Mist was the archenemy of Ted Knight, he was a brilliant if unethical scientist, and served proudly with the Canadian Army in World War I. He reappears at the start of the series to take his revenge on Ted with the help of his children, Kyle and Nash. It is worthwhile to note that no information is given regarding the mother(s) - another sign that the lineage contains problems. The Mist and Starman are archenemies whose fight evolves to include their children. Kyle kills David, Jack Knight kills Kyle, and Nash is left to carry on the murderous legacy of the Mist.
Nash, the Younger Mist, assumes her father's role as a villain, less because she believes in it, but more because she is overcompensating for an unbalanced father/daughter relationship. It is clear, early in the series, that the Elder Mist does not think highly of his daughter. Kyle is the perfect heir, strong and capable, while Nash makes mistakes, has a stutter, and seems to lack confidence. When her brother dies, she uses the opportunity to redefine her role in the family. She tries to be better than Kyle, better than her father even, and one can not help but feel that this is all some cruel form of revenge towards both men.
The O'Dares are an Irish-American family that has old ties with Opal City and its police force. The family has long served as protectors of the City; there has been an O'Dare on the Opal City police force since the 1860s. Notably, Billy O'Dare, a cop in the 1940s, was Starman's sidekick and started a tradition continued by his descendants -- Clarence, Matt, Barry, Hope, and Mason -- who aid Jack Knight, the current Starman. In Starman Annual #1, we learn that the O'Dare clan survives far into the future and continues to act as law enforcers.
"I had thought the matter closed [after killing the Ludlow parents], not realizing the hate I would spawn in the two youngest children. A hatred that would manifest itself again and again."
-- Shade #2
The cruelest family in the Starman series is the Ludlow family of England, who first appear in Shade #1. A family of sociopaths, ruthlessness seems bred in their bone, that takes in the Shade, shortly after his transformation into a supernatural creature. The Ludlows do not have charity in mind, and intend to use the Shade as a pasty for their crimes and then kill him. Instead, the Shade uses his dark powers to kill the elder Ludlows, missing the youngest children who swear a family blood oath of revenge. This murderous retribution sets the destiny for the family's descendents - all Ludlows from this point on are taught to hate the Shade and urged to murder him. Although they are not his actual children, the Ludlows can be seen as bastard children of the Shade since their family line has been twisted by his violent act.
The Family as Identity:
Thomas Hardy summed up family identity in his work Heredity:
I am the family face; / Flesh perishes, I live on, / Projecting trait and trace / Through time to times anon, / And leaping from place to place / Over oblivion.
"Family" encompasses more than sires and sibling. Single individuals may die but their ideals and traditions can live on in eternity through the family's identity. It is an idea that Robinson latches onto and uses as a buttress for the whole series. Nearly all the major characters are caught in titanic familial currents that burst in the distant past. For Jack Knight, he strives to uphold his father's virtues and his brother's memory as Starman. Nash, daughter of the Mist, seeks to eclipse her father's ideal of villainy and become his ultimate heir. In return for upholding family tradition, they receive power, continuity and direction in their lives.
Jack Knight's development throughout the series is one indication how inclusion in the family can be positive. We know that Jack had a misspent youth, that he was a bit of a ladies man, and had poor relations with his father. After assuming the Starman mantle, Jack undergoes a profound change - he now upholds the law, he has a steady girlfriend, and he and his father become closer. The later change is especially important since it allows him to access lost family history that in turn provides a foundation for his growth. His journey through his father's past becomes a guiding light for his own development.
Family identity can cause ruin as well. The Ludlows are a case in point, a family of cutthroats who leave a path of death. The Mist Family may be a group of thieves, but killing is incidental to them. It is never the necessity that the Ludlows demand. Through the Ludlows, Robinson demonstrates the excess of family identity; how it can be merciless and uncompromising.
Once their family (dis)honor is besmirched by the Shade, the Ludlows create a new revenge-focused identity. All effort and resource is directed towards eliminating the Shade.
My heavens, if this family had attacked the world of commerce with the zeal with which they attacked me, they would have rivaled the Rockefellers. Lucky for the Rockefellers they thought me a far worthier goal. -- Shade #2
The result is a family that dooms all its descendents to a pathetic death at the hands of Shade. Worst of all, this identity is unfairly imposed on all descendants; they must fit the role of Shade killer or lose all position in the family. The sad case of Sanderson Ludlow is one such incident. Sanderson meets the Shade during a transatlantic journey during which they become friends (Shade #2). The poor man is caught between family pressure and his own honor; after all, how can you betray a friend. Instead, he chooses to kill himself rather than betray both family and friend. The family never speaks of his name again.
Let's face it. Families can be bull-headed and occasionally drive their members like lemmings off a cliff. A member must act in accordance with the family image at all times. It is this or that but never the other thing; and woe betide any that strive against the appointed course. It is this myopic drive that spells the doom of Marguerite Ludlow (Croft), the Shade's true love. In Shade #2, the reader learns of the Shade's love affair with Marguerite and her subsequent betrayal of he. It is a powerful moment in the Starman cycle since Robinson portrays Marguerite's love for the Shade as honest and true. Unfortunately, it is a love grown from a family consumed with hate for this man. This hate is so powerful that it compels Marguerite to kill her one chance at true love. It is a scene both sad and frightening.
The Family as Power
Power can congregate around a family just as easily as fleas to a dog. The Rockefellers and Kennedys of America have demonstrated how old families with wealth and power can alter the course of nations. It is a form of power not typically examined in comics since the medium seems preoccupied with high school illusions of personal empowerment. But Starman is a series that places the hero in a broader context.
There are several families that alter the destiny of Opal City. The Knights become champions and the O'Dares play the role of foot soldiers. The family with the greatest impact is the Valor family. Jon Valor first appeared as the Black Pirate in Sensation Comics #1 and swung from his Spaniard riggings for almost 10 years before vanishing in obscurity. Robinson resurrects the character to set a backdrop of Shakespearean proportions. In Opal City's past, the Pirate was falsely accused of killing his own son, thereby neutering his family line, and hung by Opal's townspeople. Valor curses Opal City for this miscarriage of justice.
"I shall walk this berg until the truth and my innocence are both to light. You shall see me in the flicker of candlelight. You shall hear my boots and the creak of their footfall. And as you die, so you all will walk with me. Through the streets and dales of this land around. None to know peace until I share it with you." - Starman #31
The ramifications of this curse are tremendous. As revealed in Starman #68, no dead soul in Opal City has known rest since Valor's curse. They have been stuck in a purgatory somewhere between our world and the next. His curse sets the stage for the epic Grand Guignol story line where the evil dwarf, Culp, uses the lost souls to power his mad scheme for revenge.
Thiis curse is the final expression of the Valor lines' power. It is not merely anger but also the blood of father, son and family. Unfortunately, it is a baleful legacy that scours the luster of Valor's heroism. Not surprising, this story plays off all three of the main themes. The family's identity is besmirched, it uses its power to curse society, and society can sit on a solid foundation only when the family's honor has been returned.
The Family as the Foundation for Society.
"A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden."
In Shakespeare's King Lear, the audience is witness to a bloody display of power politics within a family. The whole tragedy hinges on the bequething of power from King Lear to his daughters. Instead of placing his power in one daughter, he divides it among the three, and sets up a bloody revolution that will eventually take his daughter's life and his as well. Family is the earthy bed in which civilization grows and for much of the late 80s and early 90s "family values" polemic was jack-hammered into the heads of Americans by political and social leaders as civilizations last refuge.
Robinson uses the various families as gauges of the society's health. When the family is unhinged, then the community is threatened by chaos. In Starman #6, the Shade fights and kills the hypnotist Lune to preserve the power, money, and lineage of the Mayville family. The Mayvilles are old wealth and are responsible for funding Opal's grandeur. Since Lune threatens to steal their money, he also threatens the lively hood of the growing city.
We can also see the idea in the Younger Mist's plan to corrupt Jack Knight's son. The Knight line represents positive energy and creativity but the Younger Mist threatens the future continuity of the line by introducing her genetic discord. The Starman of the 853rd century tells Ted Knight of the evil Knight family members throughout history (Starman #1,000,000).
Perhaps the most pivotal moment illustrating this point occurs in Starman #0 when David Knight is murdered by Kyle, son of the Elder Mist. David is dead not just because he wants to be Starman, but because Jack - the rightful heir - refuses the responsibility. For much of the first four issues, Opal City is without its champion, Starman, and consequently pays the price. The Elder Mist orchestrates a siege of the city, killing many and stealing millions. Order is only restored when Jack Knight accepts the mantle of Starman and avenges his brother. It is an archetypal myth with old origins in the east. We see the first glimmer of this story in Gilgamesh where Enkidu, Gilgamesh's brother, is killed because of Gilgamesh's irresponsibility.
The theme is not just confined to Opal City either. It reoccurs twice during The Stars, My Destination Cycle. In the famous Swamp Thing #54-55, Alan Moore introduces the theme of genetic preservation into the Adam Strange cycle of stories. He implies that Strange was brought to Rann as breeding stock since the natural Rannians have trouble reproducing. Adam Strange's family is the genetic salvation of Rann. When they are threatened by Turran Kha, not just their lives are held in jeopardy but the future of the Rann civilization and the fledgling United Planets as well.
The preservation of good genetic stock is also raised in the Throneworld episode. Rikane, the usurper king, tells the Lady Merria that they owe their loving populace an heir (Starman #57). It has been the responsibility of lords and champions for centuries to bear children that ensure continuity in leadership and cultural tradition. Look no farther than the English ruling family for evidence. But the Lady Merria denies children to Rikane because she considers him unworthy. She waits for the true king, Gravyn, and the powers inherit in his line. This is a crucial drama in the plot which mirrors the Starman/Mist drama. If Merria bears Rikane's child, she will introduce his traits into the ruling line. Since Rikane is treacherous and tyrannical, I think we can guess how that would be a bad thing.
For the sake of brevity, I have compiled a list of instances where 'Family' has played a major role in the Starman drama.
Elders are the usual arbitrators of family image in society. Strangely, the real enforcer of family power and image in Starman is not Ted Knight, the Elder Mist, or any other senior citizen. Instead, Robinson casts Nash, the Younger Mist, as a matriarchal adjudicator of tradition.
"I'm not the Mist. Not yet. I still have things to learn skills to perfect. It might only take me a week or a month until I feel I am truly the villain I want to be. It might take decades." She adds "Work at becoming the One, True, Best Starman [to Jack Knight], as I am working at becoming the One True Mist. You do that, and I'll leave your father in peace." - (Starman #16)
Unfortunately, she is the last person you want to uphold tradition. She comes from a morally bankrupt family, and has obviously assumed the role of the Mist in an effort to obtain her father's unrequited love and respect. The Older Mist continually denigrates Nash in Starman #0-3 with the implication that she has never measured up to his perfect child. In effect, the Older Mist cuts Nash off from the family heritage. This abuse must have seriously undermined her emotional character, negating any mooring that her family may have offered.
The final battle in Starman shall not be one of supernatural power or might versus right. These are dressings for the true evolutionary action concealed beneath the surface. The true conflict in Starman is one that can be seen around the average supper table. Who are we, who shall we love, what can we be, and how shall these answers affect our world? This questions fueling the war between the Knights and Mists. It is only once Jack and Nash answer these questions that can conflict be resolved. Is anyone surprised that Jack lies in Nash's power at the end of Starman #70? She, more than Jack, must now decide whether she will eclipse her father's role and become the one, true Mist by killing Jack. And if she kills him, she also sacrifices Opal City to the machinations of Culp.
Nash and Jack are metaphors for the average individual's quest for identity in this world. More than anything else, Robinson's answer seems to be the family. We must look back into our ancestral line for the clues to our future and then compare it with our own inner desires. Only by reconciling these two forces can harmony be achieved in the world. Here's hoping Nash makes the right choice.
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This piece is © 2000 by David J. LoTempio.
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