Interview Jim Starlin (comicon/pulse)
BY HEIDI MACDONALD
Jim Starlin has a lot of perspective. As a writer and artist he was part of a revolutionary group of creators who changed the face of comics in the early 70s. Next he was a creator-owned pioneer with DREADSTAR for Epic. After some years spent out of comics, he returned and had a surprise hit for Marvel with THE END, in which he killed off the Marvel Universe. Now, he's back with an all new book, COSMIC GUARD, due in August, which Starlin feels may be his strongest work yet. The other is a full-color deluxe hardcover reprint of DREADSTAR, starting in the fall.
COSMIC GUARD is the story of a 12-year-old orphan who finds out he's the savior of a far flung planet, and is able to transform into a 16-year-old hero. The first issue will be out in August, distributed by Devil's Due and published by Dynamic Entertainment.
I sat down with Starlin recently and talked about his career, COSMIC GUARD and his changing approach to his work. As an industry veteran, he remains excited about his new project, yet brings a pragmatic sense of perspective based on his many years in the business that few possess.
THE PULSE: Dreadstar started in 1982?
STARLIN: Yeah, somewhere in there!
THE PULSE: It first appeared in Epic Illustrated, so this is a property from the earliest day of creator-owned comics. Here it is still around and you've kept with it through all that time.
STARLIN: It hasn't actually been in print in over a decade. It went from Marvel's Epic line to First Comics and later on it came back in the Bravura line over at Malibu. So it's had a few incarnations, but it hasn't actually been in print for a long time. Slave Labor printed up a really bad black and white reprint of it. I had some kids who were working in the computer place who needed something to do and so they started scanning the books and put together something. But maybe 50 people bought copies of it!
THE PULSE: But it's still something that has had a lot of lives. You've run the gamut!
STARLIN: Well, there's always a good reason to get away from the main companies, now more so than ever, and DREADSTAR was basically my way of getting away from Marvel and DC. Even though it started at Marvel, it was in reaction to not wanting to give everything away. Enough people remembered it who liked it and wanted it to come back and give it another shot.
THE PULSE: What do you think makes it something that people remember and respond to?
STARLIN: It was a space opera that come out around the same time as STAR WARS. That may have had some thing to do with it. A lot of it is that kids who were reading these things in the '80s are now adults and lot of them have become movers and shakers in their own right and they remember stuff like this. Look at Transformers and GI Joe. They're big now.
THE PULSE: Let me take you back a little bit. You and Howard Chaykin were part of the first new generation of cartoonists to break in
STARLIN: Howard broke in a month ahead of me, he was always a little ahead.
THE PULSE: You started with WARLOCK and CAPTAIN MARVEL, in what I think of as the Cosmic Years. It was very exciting work at the time and inspired a lot of people.
STARLIN: Up until that point no one new had been hired [in comics] since the 1950s. You could count the people on one hand who had been hired since the '50s -- Denny O'Neill, Archie Goodwin and Neal Adams. I think Dick Giordano worked somewhere in at that era. But most of the guys who were doing this stuff had been doing it since the '30s and '40s. And in the '70s Marvel went from something like 8 books a month to something like 60, so they were literally hiring anyone who would come across a state line and hold a pencil. And I was among that batch, I was lucky on the timing.
THE PULSE: Was the kind of work you guys were doing something were you being encouraged to do? Or was it "let's see if we can sneak this by"?
STARLIN: Oh, it was a lot of sneaking by. The idea was to get it in as late as possible so the editors had as little time to handle it as possible. Which worked well for Walt Simonson because he was always late, but I was always weeks ahead of time and then would have to hide it in the closet. [laughs] We'd have the whole thing colored up by the time it was supposed to be done and then just send it in.
THE PULSE: Was there a lot of editorial interference?
STARLIN: Not with Roy [Thomas] so much. At Marvel there was only one editor. So Roy was just happy if it sold and it was out on time. And there was no trouble. Later on Len [Wein] and Marv [Wolfman]came in and there was a little stuff with them. And later on Gerry Conway came in and he was the one who got me to quit. He was the one who wanted me to make changes on the art and I said it wasn't worth the effort.
THE PULSE: Hard to believe now, but this was an era before there was heavy fan feedback, no conventions, no internet. And you were doing this work that was really breaking the mold. It wasn't like now when you have instantaneous feedback from the fans. Who were you doing it for?
STARLIN: Myself, basically. And the other cartoonists. We'd meet on Friday's up at Frank Brunner's and everybody would bring their best work along and you were doing your best work to show them.
THE PULSE: Did you have any sense of whether it was going to be commercial or not? Did you worry about that at all?
STARLIN: No, we were just glad to be doing it. At that point most of the time they hid what the sales figures were.
THE PULSE: They actually still do at times!
STARLIN: Yeah. They had a spell there during the '80s where they actually got honest about it, but that didn't last. Mostly all of us wanted to do art, the big A. I came from Detroit where art wasn't a big existence. The local museum would have the car designers, occasionally; their big show was to do cars of the future. I came [to New York], this was my only outlet for what I wanted to do. The fact that it was so chaotic just allowed us to do what we wanted
THE PULSE: To take a huge leap in time and attitude, now the connection between the publishers and the fans and internet is instantaneous. You're reprinting DREADSTAR and doing a new book called COSMIC GUARD. [There's a break in the interview to look over the art to the first issue.] It's interesting you almost have your trademark with the star trails. You're still doing that. It's like your icon in a way.
STARLIN: Yeah, I was the one who threw those onto Captain Marvel to begin with, even though they were kind of ripped off from Captain Atom. So, this is in many ways, sort of a Captain Marvel kind of story, but the original Captain Marvel, Shazam. It's about a 12 year old kid who becomes a 16 year old savior of the universe, and it's gotta be one of the wackiest stories I've ever done. I'm having so much fun with this. It's lighthearted and yet pretty serious at the same time. I tried to do a mix with that. He's an orphan and at the beginning of the book, he's going to throw himself off the roof of the orphanage he's stuck in. Then he looks up and sees a star, and we see what's happening at the star, it's the end of that civilization and this guy is going to pass on his legacy, and it goes to this kid who becomes a 16-year-old savior. And he goes back and forth and in his dreams. a character comes to him and instructs him in how to be a champion.
THE PULSE: I get frustrated with current comics because when you pick up the first issue of a comic book it's based on some old property and they assume the only reason you're picking it up is because you were a fan of the old thing, so they never bother to explain what's going on and never set up the characters. No one ever does an origin any more.
STARLIN: [Chuckles] This one has a 6 issue origin!
THE PULSE: How did you get involved with Devil's Due on this?
STARLIN: That's pretty much through Nick [Barucci]. This is something he wanted to set up and he has another book set up at somewhere else. I'm working on something with another artist.
THE PULSE: You talked about your art…how has your approach to drawing changed?
STARLIN: When I first started drawing Captain Marvel, he had about 32 ribs on each side. I just loved drawing those. I learned that people don't have those by taking anatomy classes. I see an image more than I did back then. Before I was just telling a story, now I see an image that has to work with the story. But when I'm going to draw something I've got to be able to see it in movie form before I put it on the board.
THE PULSE: You are still kind of the "cosmic guy". It's called COSMIC GUARD. Why are you so attracted to space opera?
STARLIN: You don’t' have to draw cars or horses. [laughter] That's my standard answer, I'm afraid. It's easier to make up worlds someplace that isn't real. You do a story set here in Runnemede, and I'm going to run into the reality of Runnemede--it's going to get in that way.
THE PULSE: God, what a straight line. Anyway…What excites you about COSMIC GUARD?
STARLIN: I want to do a kid thing that's not a kid thing. See, they've done things in the past with IMPULSE or SUPERBOY and they're stories for kids I want to do an adult story about a kid. They think he's a doper after they find him on the roof with his powers. There are organs being stolen from orphans. I want to do grim stuff along with the funny stuff. At the same time though, he's a 12-year-old kid who's every time he changes he blasts through puberty and he's 16 years old. Later on he gets a guardian who's a very good looking woman. The whole set up allows me to do things I've never been able to do. It's more like an old Shazam look, but when you read it it's more like Peter David's CAPTAIN AMERICA, without being like that either.
THE PULSE: COSMIC GUARD seems more lighthearted than I would expect to see from you. It's more open, I guess.
STARLIN: The story determines a lot of that. It is a kid so I'm not going to be doing a lot of wrinkles. I also wanted to attract kids to it. It's an adult story but I figure in the early Marvel stuff that Stan was trying to write for adults was attracting kids too, and I'd like to be able to pull that off. And I think the art is involved in that. It's a little more open, yes, because, you can do so much more on that computer than you could ever do before. There are things in there where 90% of the page is done on the computer. I do as much of the coloring in the background sometimes as the colorist does. That space background on the fourth page is all mine. I put it in and send it to the colorist to finish off. It's different because comics are different, the medium is different, and the story's different.
THE PULSE: The theme of the boy who jumps forward in age is kind of manga-like in some ways.
THE PULSE: Yeah. Do you read manga at all?
STARLIN: No, not at all.
THE PULSE: Most of those books for younger readers have a certain kind of story -- a boy who finds out his teacher is a sexy robot, or a kid who finds his life is different and has to deal with it.
STARLIN: Actually the manga has hit me in some ways, but more for the art than the stories. The kid has big eyes, but that's getting more common in general in American comics.
THE PULSE: The new generation of comic readers is used to that I guess. You might as well go with the flow.
STARLIN: I want to make it accessible.
THE PULSE: Do you read contemporary comics at all?
STARLIN: Not too many, there's a few I pick up on a regular basis. I get some of the Alan Moore books...not all of them. A lot of Peter David's CAPTAIN MARVEL. I wanted to see how far he could sustain what he was doing with it -- I think he's painting himself into a corner, but I've felt that way for a year and he still hasn't done it.
THE PULSE: Do you enjoy reading about this character that you've been very closely associated with?
STARLIN: Well, it's no longer my character. It's so far removed from my Captain Marvel character. I enjoy it because Peter's a creative writer who gives you some meat with your potatoes. It’s not all French fries.
THE PULSE: We were talking a little before about doing it for yourself. Now you have a lot more feedback, a website, a message board. How does that affect your work?
STARLIN: I guess it does, but for the most part it's not on a conscious level, because I try to keep it separate from what I'm doing. Most of the time while I'm working on things, the ideas come at night, going out for a walk at night, or sitting in the back yard, you think, oh yeah he's 16 he's 12, puberty! Here's a whole different story thing to go on to. So I don't know how much difference it makes. If the idea hits me and I'm amused by it I'll pursue it But I won't go after it just because somebody's been saying, well, we ought to do this because it will sell. "You want to do a Thanos story? Have him destroy the Marvel Universe and bring the X-men early. And I did, so I could kill them off early." In this there's none of that, it's whatever works best for the stories or the characters.
THE PULSE: As a creator owned book, you'll have more sales information. Is that useful to you? Is being more involved in the publishing business good or bad?
STARLIN: I was able to find out a lot of figures for recent things from Marvel just because I knew where to go on the web to look for things. Diamond can give you a pretty good idea of what things sell. It'll tell you if you will get work six months from now. If the thing's tanking, you start looking for something else to do. I don't think this one is going to. I think I've found my Spider-man this time around. I have more faith in this book than anything I've done before. I knew when I did things like THE WEIRD and Mystic Warrior, I had a loser on my hands. It was strictly done for politics, I knew maybe 10 people were going to see it. But this thing here I think is my Harry Potter, or my Spiderman. It has some legs. More so than Dreadstar in the long run. And I have a whole series in my head I can't wait to draw. The second 6-issue arc is already floating around.
THE PULSE: You grew up Detroit and then you were in the Navy in Viet Nam. Were you drawing then?
STARLIN: Actually, in our barracks we were able to build these boxes which most people put their stereos in. I put my drawing board in mine. I was drawing comic books. Some of these guys were from Texas called the Texas Trio, they did a book called Doctor Weird, and I did one called The Eagle which was my anti-war comic that I did while I was in the middle of the war. I did the first two issues and was inking the third issue. If you're inking in a tropical country, ink tends to spread across the paper, so I would ink in this [refrigerated] beer locker. And I would leave the work there because I made an arrangement. One time I went off on a flight and came back and there were Marines everywhere going crazy because one of these early SCUDS that looks like a telephone pole flopping around in the air came into the base at Cameron Bay and blew up the beer locker. The Marines were all freaked out because the beer was gone and I was freaked out picking up little piece of paper from everywhere.
THE PULSE: Your art had been blown to smithereens!
STARLIN: It was completely . I had maybe 3/4 of the issue done and it was gone.
THE PULSE: Did you think then that you'd be able to have a career as a cartoonist, writing and drawing your own stuff?
STARLIN: Well, it was what I wanted to do. But there were a lot of times I had to question that. When I got out of the service, I could have worked as a photographer wherever I wanted, I had the experience, but I didn't want to do that. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy sending these drawings into New York. I had wanted to be a cartoonist since I was about 8 years old. My dad worked at Chrysler and he would liberate all this tracing paper and pencils and masking tape from Chrysler's drafting department, and I would trace off the comics, Superman and Batman – that's what I wanted to do. When I finally saw a credit -– I think it was Jack Kirby in a Marvel book – I went, wow, they actually have people who do this?
THE PULSE: Was Kirby a role model for you?
STARLIN: Oh yeah. Kirby, Ditko, Kubert, Carmine and Gil those were my high heroes.
STARLIN: But then it was harder to find out information about stuff. Now you just google it up. Kids today are like, “Of course I can make a living at this, this is who does it, and where I go and how I do it.” It was a lot more mysterious then.
STARLIN: We didn't even have much knowledge. I remember Walt Simonson telling me how he did this one page with a space background. He didn't know about white paint – he inked around all the stars. He has that page still! We were growing in the dark. I was friends with Al Milgrom in high school and he had some ideas of what it was and we put them together, we just sort of worked it from there, until I ran off to New York just in time when they were hiring.
THE PULSE: Right time and right place. And here you still are. Do you think there's really been a lot of progress in creator's rights since you did EPIC ILLUSTRATED?
STARLIN: I think just the opposite. They’ve lost ground.
THE PULSE: : You do?
STARLIN : Oh, yeah. Tremendously. Especially through the major companies that we were able to push in with creator rights There's no place that wants to give creator rights at the bigger companies now. Even most of the smaller companies want a good piece of the action on the ancillary market. Wildstorm wants like 25% of the movie rights you can generate-- they won't do anything to [make it happen], but they take 25%. No, I think we're in much worse shape. It's a corporate world now. The whole idea is to pick the bones clean and not leave anything for us little scavengers who do the work.
THE PULSE: When the tape was off we talked a bit about HELLBOY. I think that's the first movie based on a creator owned character where the guy who actually created and owned the character has gotten so much credit.
STARLIN: But Marvel has decided they aren't giving any credit any more. I think DAREDEVIL is the first movie where they decided they weren't going to give Bill Everett or Frank Miller or anyone credit
THE PULSE: They named the characters after the creators, though. That was their homage. You did play in the licensed character field for a while, writing stuff for Marvel and you worked on and created a lot of very successful characters for them. Did you enjoy doing that? Was it fun?
STARLIN: Yeah. As long as I had a good editor to work with. Working with Archie [Goodwin] on Dreadstar stuff was a pleasure. But there were other editors who were just a nightmare to work with. I won't name names, but they just didn't understand the attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." And most of the time my stuff isn't broken. Most of the time my stuff works pretty well. I did one thing over at DC called HARDCORE STATION. You never heard of it, no one ever did, because they had a committee over there that looked through the plot and everyone gave on the committee gave parts that had to be added to it. So by the time I sat down and drew it, I didn't recognize it anymore. And it was gone.
THE PULSE: When was this?
STARLIN: This is when I first decided I was going to come back into comics. I had been away for a while. In the mid-90s somewhere.
THE PULSE: Lord, I don't even remember that, and I have a pretty good memory.
STARLIN : Yeah, it had no promotion, nothing, it was just thrown out there and it was a mess.
THE PULSE: When did you leave comics?
STARLIN: I left somewhere in the early '90s. I'd been working in different things like animation, and started writing novels and started up a computer software company and worked on that. We actually colored some comics through that company for a bit. Then we started converting architectural drawings. We did a lot of work on the Atlantis Casino in the Bahamas. We made some pretty good money but I'm a kid -- I love comics. I keep coming back. My family thinks I'm nuts, they think I should be writing novels all the time.
THE PULSE: Because you were successful in your novel writing. You had one that was optioned by Steven Spielberg.
STARLIN: Actually all of them were optioned in one form or another. You know what optioned is in the movie biz -- 99% don't get made. So every once in a while my lawyer options them off and I get a nice check for a few thousand bucks and then 6 months later they'll be optioned again --either picked up or by someone else.
THE PULSE: How many novels did you write?
STARLIN: Four altogether.
THE PULSE: Did you enjoy writing them?
STARLIN: Yes, but it wasn't exactly my niche. I was working with my ex-wife, Daina [Graziunis], who contributed greatly in reworking the structure after I did the first draft, reworking my structure mostly in my long run on sentences. I'm more visually oriented. Looking back through the stories recently I realized just how visual these novels are. So it worked out well, but I didn't have a thirst for it. I have my retirement covered at this point, I have my house paid off all from those novels.
THE PULSE: It was a very successful detour!
STARLIN: It was a nice detour so now I can come back and play with this stuff. Now with COSMIC GUARD no one's paying me to do this. I'm not going to see a cent off of this until it comes out in publication. So I had to decide if I was going to put my money where mouth was and do this. I've got a big stake in this.
THE PULSE: It is exciting that you have the chance to do that now. It's something that wasn't available to Jack Kirby or any of those guys. They were more cogs in the machine, in a way. And you can say: this is my thing.
STARLIN: A few of them did try to give their shot. Gil Kane tried BLACKMARK. TOR for Joe Kubert. Those are things that were labors of love that were long shots that didn't pay off for them financially. But it's a little bit different now. Kubert published TOR as a partnership with a smaller company then, but he owned it so he was able to bring it back. Jack…I don't think Jack had any head for business. His ideas were coming out and he couldn't put them down on the drawing board fast enough.
THE PULSE: Is there a theme to your work?
STARLIN: There's a different theme to all my work. COSMIC GUARD it's that you can prevail if you stick at it. That's the theme of this one. DREADSTAR was that you can make a change but you have to make a sacrifice. CAPTAIN MARVEL was finding enlightenment. And WARLOCK was a response to that and was having enlightenment and then going down into the dark area, basically the story of a suicidal paranoiac. Everybody thinks it's this great book!
THE PULSE: We were the right age so we thought it was cosmic.
STARLIN: No, it's about a guy who wanted to kill himself.
THE PULSE: Now you do rack up a tremendous death toll in your comics. You gave Captain Marvel cancer, and killed off the Marvel Universe, and Thanos is death…what's up with that?
STARLIN: Well, I know it's comics, but Norman Mailer said every true story ends with death, if you're playing the high stakes game that a superhero or adventurer would have, there's no way not to have death as part of the story. It becomes unrealistic. Even though its fantasy there's also a certain amount of credibility. I just think my death toll is giving them a little bit of reality.
THE PULSE: Or you just focus on the part of the story that happens to be where they all kick off.
STARLIN: Plus ever since THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL everybody wanted me to kill somebody off for them.
THE PULSE: So you were the go to guy for death?
STARLIN: It really took off after WARLOCK and CAPTAIN MARVEL. They wanted me to kill Shang Chi at one point. DC was going to have me kill off somebody…it didn't work out.
THE PULSE: Did you welcome that kind of stereotype or did you feel like "Let them live!"?
STARLIN: At certain times. With Thanos I'd go for the death of the Marvel Universe because he's all about death and destruction anyhow. They had suggested killing off the Marvel Universe – and I might have done it anyhow -- but spending that time in the industry, dealing with people in the industry who feel that I'm stereotyped. I did admit that at the time HARDCORE STATION was prompted by everybody wanting to hammer this back into stuff I was doing back before I left, and I wanted to do a certain amount of that when I came back from Marvel. I wanted to do Warlock first off. Bob Harras wouldn't let me do it -- he wanted me to revamp Captain Marvel instead. Thankfully I passed on that and Peter David got that. I know there are some kind of stereotypes and I love doing the cosmic stuff so if that's my stereotype [so be it].
THE PULSE: You don’t mind the word cosmic.
STARLIN: I don’t want to do detective novels. I don't want to draw horses. You're talking to a cartoonist. Horses are the worst things to draw.
THE PULSE: You've come in, then gone away, do you feel COSMIC GUARD is a new chapter for you?
STARLIN: Yeah, I'm at the steering wheel this time. I've got a good editor in Kevin McCarthy who knows just to leave me alone. Yeah. I think I'm at about the same age as Kirby was when he did New Gods. It may not be as big as seller as THANOS was but I'm writing and drawing better than I have in a long time, especially the writing part of COSMIC GUARD. I don't know. Our president said of history, by the time you figure it out we're all going to be dead.
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