When I was about 14 years old, and Marvel Comics was about to turn 50, the folks at the Mighty Marvel Bullpen decided to REVOLUTIONIZE comics and start an entire “New Universe,” set not in some cartoony, fantasy world, but instead set in OUR world—plain old reality. To create the New Universe, a bunch of incredibly creative folks (including Jim Shooter, Archie Goodwin, Mark Gruenwald, Tom DeFalco…) sat down together and came up with a batch of stories, characters, and new titles that were going to change EVERYTHING about comics, forever. The line lasted about three years before getting cancelled. Of those books, though, my 14 year old mind particularly remembers loving Star Brand, which is now available as a digital download on a certain comic book reading platform that I use on my e-reader, so I thought I’d give the book another look!
Jim Shooter, Roy Thomas, John Romita Jr., and others – Star Brand (2016)
Star Brand started publication in 1986, and I was a fan from the very beginning. By this time, I already had a “box” at the local comic shop, and my favorite titles would be held for me, making sure I never missed a single issue of whatever it was I was reading at the time. Star Brand was one of these books. (Since then, I’ve lost all my original issues… I’m a bad collector.)
The concept for this book revolves around a fellow named Ken, a tall, blonde, muscular, handsome guy who rode a motorcycle and worked in an autobody shop. (I’ll give the creators credit here: Ken isn’t a billionaire playboy or a computer genius or an alien god sent to Earth when his own planet was destroyed—he’s a grease monkey.) Out for a joy-ride on his dirt bike, Ken comes across a section of the woods that looks like it’s seen some hard times, burned areas, trees knocked down—it looked like a war zone. As he’s exploring the damage, an old man shows up, a seven-foot-tall old man, who says he needs to give something to Ken, and then he transfers this weird tattoo to Ken’s hand. Suddenly, Ken discovers that he can fly and is incredibly strong and has other powers as well. Then the old man up and dies—and is revealed to be some kind of alien.
Ken is freaked out—I would be too. The next night, he’s attacked by another alien in space armor who says he wants the Brand. Ken fights him off, and in the process discovers that he can channel so much energy through is body that he causes an explosion, destroying half the “slag heap” where he and the alien have been fighting. The rest of this book involves Ken trying to decide if he should tell people that he has these new powers, if he should try to use the powers “for good,” all the while trying to learn what exactly his new abilities include. (It’s a bit like that awful old television series, which I thought was really funny when I was a kid, The Greatest American Hero. Ken gets an awesome alien weapon, but no instruction manual comes with it to tell him what it does or how to control it.)
And there’s something else about Ken that I feel I should mention: he’s a skeezy, sexist, asshole horn-dog. Ken has a blonde girlfriend with Farrah Fawcett hair (and two young kids) who he is happy with, but with whom he can’t quite commit to a long-term relationship. He also has a devoted “friend” named Debbie “Duck,” that he is always calling stupid, even to her face, but with whom he doesn’t mind sleeping every now and then. He leers at his “official” girlfriend’s young babysitter—he meets a woman piloting a robot and, instead of being amazed by the robot, he says, “Redhead. NICE body…”—and then he goes off to Switzerland to visit one of his best friends since childhood, meets the friends fiancé and, within about five pages, is already trying to kiss her and tells her he loves her. This man is a serious douche-bag! And HE, ladies and gentlemen, is in possession of the most powerful weapon in the New Universe line of comics.
As a kid, I loved this series, and to be fair, I can still see why. It’s got action, it’s got drama, it’s got aliens, and it’s got a messed up “hero” who claims to just want to do the right thing, but is constantly screwing up, getting people killed, and ruining his personal relationships because of his juvenile behavior and lack of impulse control. At this point in my life, I’m not really buying the idea that the “New Universe” was set in OUR reality, but that’s fine. Obviously, the concept didn’t revolutionize comics as we know them, either, but it did produce some pretty okay stories, and this book was still fun to read, even if the star of the story was a truly horrible person. Hell, it WAS the decadent 80s, after all, so his behavior probably wasn’t that far off from most of the young males of the day. We live in a different world now (despite the current political regime’s attempt to throw us back several decades.)
Overall, Star Brand is a fun, sci-fi-lite comic, which (either from nostalgia or from genuinely decent writing) was still pretty entertaining thirty years after it was originally published, IF you can get over a massively sexist primary character. I found the 2nd collected volume at Free Comic Book Day a couple of weeks ago, and I’m definitely still interested enough to read that book, so that’s good. This series isn’t as life changing or entertaining as The Sandman or Watchmen—not by a LOOOOOONG shot, or as bat-shit crazy and thrill packed as the early, Stan Lee / Jack Kirby era Fantastic Four or The Avengers, but if you find this book for a bargain and just want some middle-of-the-road superhero fun…there are much worse things that you could spend your time reading. (For a comprehensive list of THAT crap, send me a note…)
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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