Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Superheroes I Love #6: Vanth Dreadstar

PhotobucketOne of the nifty bits of geek-related loot I picked up in California was reassembling my set of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar comic series from back in the 1980s. Like a lot of things, I used to own these comics, got rid of them for some reason and then years later experienced deep remorse. Starlin's "Dreadstar" run from #1-40 is vintage high-octane space opera, with a lot of the deeper themes about mortality and power that Starlin has explored in his other work like "Warlock" and "Captain Marvel."

It's the story of Vanth Dreadstar, who's caught between two evil warring empires and attempts to take them down with the aid of his friends. It's a bit of a riff on "Star Wars" and other such sagas but done with a visceral spin -- people die bloody deaths, and the evil here is a lot more sinister than Darth Vader. The murderous Lord High Papal, the series' main villain, is a genocidal religious maniac without pity.

Who: Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way galaxy who ends up fighting in a war between two empires.

What: Dreadstar is not strictly a "superhero" in the traditional sense of the word (even though he dons a rather garish spandex outfit at one point), but more of a soldier, a rebel who finds himself in a series of never-ending wars. A mystical sword of power and other abilities lead him into conflict with those who would oppress billions. Reprints include the early "Metamorphosis Odyssey" storyline and the first 12 issues of "Dreadstar" in trade paperback if you can find 'em.

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Dreadstar is a kind of King Arthur figure, one surrounded by unimaginable pain and tragedy (at one point, Dreadstar helps to wipe out the entire Milky Way Galaxy; in another, an entire city is nuked by the Lord Papal just to get at him). Starlin surrounds this figure with a good mix of supporting characters (the blind telepath Willow, the cat-man Oedi, the disfigured sorcerer Syzygy). He makes you believe this scrappy band of rebels could take down a massive power. Dreadstar is racked with guilt over his deeds yet also a kind of righteous anger that you rarely see in "good guys" (there's a sequence in #10 where he basically tortures a villain to death; no matter how much the dude had it coming you still sort of cringe at the intensity). Now, in the 1990s, this kind of bloody anti-hero would be commonplace, but in 1982, Dreadstar's darkness was startling.

Starlin's run on the series wound down with an extremely dark coda set post-revolution, where Dreadstar awakens from a coma to find a world where all his struggles seem to have been for nothing. It's a very grim way to go and hard reading, as old characters die, corruption is everywhere and Dreadstar himself even contemplates suicide. But it's also a clear, stinging statement by Starlin that war is never neatly wrapped up (which seems very relevant today in the "War on Terror" era).

As a series, "Dreadstar" isn't perfect, in retrospect -- the first 15 or 20 issues are the best, and Starlin way overdoes the recaps each issue, which are very jarring reading it all in a sitting. The final revolution seems to come a bit too quickly and neatly to be believed (the same could easily be said of "Return of the Jedi," too). Ignore the later issues of the series written by Peter David, which while amusing space-action fun, really lack the emotional power and weight of Starlin's work and rely too much on goofy humour to succeed.

But Starlin's original "Dreadstar" work, nearly 30 years old now, still is terrific reading and as flawed, blood-stained and arrogant as he is, Vanth Dreadstar remains a compelling character.

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