Starfire (DC Comics, 1976)
Writers: David Michelinie (1,2), Elliot Maggin (3-5), Steve Englehart (6-7), Tom DeFalco (8).
Art: Mike Vosburg, Vince Colletta.
In 1973, Red Sonja made her debut in the pages of Conan the Barbarian, relaunching the medieval woman warrior trope that had lain dormant since the glorious weirdness of the Golden Age. There followed from Marvel in quick succession a trilogy of female hero titles, The Claws of the Cat, Night Nurse, and Shanna the She-Devil, two of which were penned by female authors, all of which gave the impression that the current of gender consciousness was running swiftly through the Marvel offices, bypassing the confused and thrashing efforts of the Distinguished Competition.
DC had struck it improbably rich with Wonder Woman in 1941, and had been resting on those laurels ever since, with only a 1972 Supergirl title and the courageous but ill-starred Diana Prince experiment of 1968 to mark the passage of time. Something needed to be done, something to show that DC was still the monarch of female super hero titles. The result was Starfire.
It’s a book that shows editorial panic at every seam and is, as such, a pretty good textbook on how editorial Oughting can drive a comic into the ground. DC put three different story editors on the book in the space of just eight issues, and four different writers. The first issue features an essay on the back page setting a defiant tone: “We hope that Starfire is more in line with the changed world in which we dwell, where people and ideas are judged by their merit – not by the physical form in which they happen to dwell.”
So far, so decent. But then, in the very next line we have, “On the other hand, this is hardly a magazine about women’s liberation.” This statement of hazily defined editorial policy is refreshingly explicit – wanting to create a new woman hero, but not wanting to offend, wanting her to be strong, but not to ruffle any feathers that might hurt sales. By the fifth and sixth issue, the editors are morosely apologetic and defensive in the letters column, rolling over and showing their soft underbelly to anybody who pointed out that the comic didn’t really seem decided on itself.
The changing costumes of Starfire (no relation, by the way, to the later Teen Titan) are the emblems of this larger confusion. Starfire begins the story as a slave raised to be the concubine of the monstrous Mygorg, a species that holds humanity in thrall. As such, she has a boob-windowed skin-tight slave costume that’s highly sexual, but makes sense given the story. That she continues wearing it through several issues is a bit strange, but in issue six they finally give her a costume that looks like that of a warrior leading humanity to freedom against their oppressors – the bits of extraneously exposed flesh are covered, and she’s actually given a pretty boss cape. Only to have, and this is true, the new costume SNAG ON A NAIL and get conveniently torn from her body in an improbable explosion of fabric at the start of the very next issue, leaving her to run around issues 7 and 8 in thigh high boots and a battle bra. Just like with Shanna, trouble for the comic spelt a reduction of the heroine’s wardrobe.
The uncertainty over her characterization continues in the writing. She is almost continuously threatened with casual rape. The Mygorg want to rape her. Her followers fantasize about raping her, and one of them tries to, only to be instantly forgiven, the event laughed off in a “Boys will be boys” spirit. Her army finds a civilization of hidden priests, the leader of whom poisons her, ties her up, and threatens to kill her unless she becomes his concubine.
Which gets us to Starfire‘s main problem. It is a book about a woman heroically rising from slavery to lead a revolution for mankind’s freedom, but the gang that she leads is so utterly worthless that it’s hard to care. No matter her passion or skills with weaponry, her ceaseless devotion to a crew of cowardly rapists isn’t terribly fulfilling. To make her strong, the decision was made to make her followers as abjectly useless as possible, a sort of negative space definition of heroism that has the result of rendering her whole enterprise hollow.
The title is a clear attempt to cash in on the success of Red Sonja (the first editorial even gives a lengthy explanation of how Starfire is about “sword and SCIENCE” rather than Sword and Sorcery in a protesting-too-much attempt to separate itself from “a certain other sword-swinging lady”), with grand prose about liberating a humanity that we only ever see at its worst in order to augment the leadership potential of the heroine. And yet… for all of that, I rather like it. Visually, the combination of futurism and medievalism is interesting, and the universe that the hodge-podge of talented writers were building is one that would have been nice to live a while longer in – a world of ancient technologies being held together by arcane sorcerers, of scientists turned into mindless brutes, and an entire species so degraded by thralldom that they would rather suffer self-destruction than face terrible freedom. It could have gone places, but by failing to maintain its focus and sense of purpose, it never got the chance. Instead, it stands as a reminder to the current generation of editors of what happens to promise when the sham of Ought lords over unified creativity, and the attempt to replicate the success of others dominates the ability to forge one’s own.
All happy Power Meters are Alike
Fierce: 9: Quite the contrary of relying on the men around her to tell her what to do and get her out of trouble, Starfire is positively hampered by the men around her. She has to do what she does in spite of them, a rather good parable for the state of women in the work place at the time. Still, a fair amount of what she does is to get revenge for the death of her rescuer/trainer/lover, a man who had no problem forming a sexual relationship with her while she was still recovering from the psychological trauma of slavery, so that casts a slight pall.
Smart: 5: Starfire’s a fighter, not a thinker, and most of the tropes in the book are borrowed from elsewhere, but the treatment of intellectual thralldom is something of a piece with Sartre’s revolutionary existentialism, and that’s kind of cool. So, it averages out.
Funny: N/A: Humor is not an element of Starfire. I think one of the casual rape scenes was supposed to play as amusing but, no.
Art: 9: While the writer changed every third issue, the artistic team stayed constant throughout Starfire‘s run, and the unified look, with its own conception of how high science and barbarism would look after eons of intermixing, is interesting. On the character design front, Starfire’s middle costume is great and should have been arrived at sooner, and kept longer before caving into the demand to put her in a Red Sonja bikini top.
The Pro (Image, 2002)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Art: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
With Special Thanks to Eitan Manhoff.
America likes evils it can punch. Our deep-seated, still uncured Puritanism demands that our foes be Satanic and our desires unexamined, and on the fringes of those twin impulses a lot of heinous shit goes down. We happily spend billions on weaponry and the trappings of power, and consider it indecent to reflect upon urban misery and how our declared morality exists at total cross purposes with the grinding economic system that keeps everyone’s 401K accounts blandly humming along.
9/11 shocked the complacency of decades of Eisenhowerean self-congratulations, forced us to stare at how we behave internationally and at home, and showed us a persistent darkness there which comic books were among the first to intelligently probe. Many different tacks were taken, from the maudlin to the vengeful, but one of the most challenging came in the form of Garth Ennis’s The Pro, a title about a Denny’s waitress slash prostitute suddenly granted super powers and a spot on a Justice League-esque team of heroes.
She is real. She has a constantly bawling baby that saps her sleep and haunts her every waking moment. She has to give blowjobs in car parking lots to keep the lights on, and has seen and experienced every cheap depravity of which men are capable. She is all anger and profanity and hopelessness, because she comes from a world not dramatic enough for the heroes to give a damn about. Like the America they protect, the heroes are only interested in problems that are splashy and titanic, in fights of good versus evil, of battles that win popularity with the right demographic. They exist in a state of never-ending symbiosis with their enemies, a perpetual kink rendered heroic by a nation that wants to think of evil as external to itself.
The Pro knows better, and has no illusions about what to do with her powers. She seeks over-the-top revenge on those who wronged her in her normal life, and adds degradation on top of mere victory in regular combat. She sees that a fair part of the team’s perverse sense of play-acted justice is a result of their denial of their dirty basic humanity. They have traded in the regular sloppy joys of life, the fucking and curse words and indignity, for a sublimated sham of fist-delivered justice, and it has twisted their ability to recognize reality, and what really deserves their attention.
All of which makes this sound like a very turgid, philosophical thought piece. It isn’t. It’s raucously fun and hugely inappropriate as only Ennis can manage. The Pro takes revenge on a John who stiffed her in a scene directly analogous to the “Pull yourself together!” bit from Airplane, but with the perversity turned all the way up. Blowing the Superman stand-in, she moves her head just in time for the ejected semen to slice the wing off a passing plane. The Green Lantern is an insufferable stream of DJ Jazzy Jeff patter that sadly still represents the usage of minorities in ensemble casts. The first super villain team they fight is grammar-themed. It’s a book about a chain smoking, breast feeding prostitute whose job it is to inject reality into a culture that hates nothing more than the sanding off of its favorite veneers. It’s funny and brash and at the bottom as important and true now as it was in the midst of the national paranoia of a dozen plus years ago. In the words of the Pro herself, “Sounds better than sucking cock for a living, I guess.”
Sounds better than sucking cock for a living, indeed.
Power Meters Always Pay Up Front.
Fierce: 10: The Pro does not fuck around. When she’s real, she’s real, and when she finds herself in the midst of the elaborate play-acting of super hero battle, she cuts through the inauthentic posturing to do what needs to be done so focus can go back on stuff that actually matters.
Smart: 9: The main character isn’t about book smarts, but the raw intelligence of knowing what is important, and what is artfully decorated fluff. It’s a societal intelligence that has seen enough perversity, greed, and weakness to know when they take superficially noble forms, and to call them out on it. The book as a whole is brilliant at taking a titanic theme of a nation’s perverted sense of willful blindness and presenting it in a way so outrageous that we have to listen.
Funny: 9: This humor is not going to be for everybody. At least, not everybody is going to say this humor is for them which will, in turn, go back to reinforcing the central thesis of America’s crippling Puritanism and the danger it holds for our sense of justice and scale. One could say that the book, by being so casual about the realities of single parenting and prostitution, renders the topic cavalier, when it ought to be treated with a more sober earnestness. I think, though, that that very insistence upon earnestness is what makes us so twisted in our views of sexual conduct, which in turn has turned something potentially benign (witness Scandinavia’s healthy grasp of human sexuality) into something secretive and shameful and therefore dangerous for all concerned, and that part of the point of the book is to break us out of that pattern of making the lives of the poor worse via our Enlightened Concern.
Art: 10: Conner and Palmiotti, now the wonder team behind Harley Quinn, are perfect for this book. Their sense for rendering the grim realities of sex and violence as both cartoonish and impactful at the same time, exhibited for all ages in HQ, is allowed its full flowering here. The pages feel filthy, but done in such an absolute spirit of comic abandon that your eye keeps pushing on, absorbing the levity that you need to not abandon all hope, and at the same time the grit that gives the story substance.