25 March 2016

The Darkstars: A Forgotten DC Space Heroes Comic

Over the past year or so I've been reading uncollected DC Comics superhero comics that take place in space; thus far, I've read The Omega Men (1983-86) and L.E.G.I.O.N. (1989-94). None of these have exactly been well-known to contemporary comics readers, but they have their dedicated fans. But most recently I read The Darkstars (1992-96), which pushed obscurity to a whole new level. Both Omega Men and L.E.G.I.O.N. have had multiple, subsequent revivals; Darkstars is lucky if anyone even remembers characters were in it.

SENSATIONAL, you say?
Darkstars #1 (Oct. 1992, cover by Travis Charest, Larry Stroman, and Scott Hanna)
Darkstars was the brainchild of Michael Jan Friedman, best known as the author of numerous Star Trek stories in both prose and comics; at the time, he was the writer of DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation comics (a position he held from 1989 to 1996). Pretty impressively, Friedman wrote all 39 issues of Darkstars himself, without a single fill-in. But exactly what Darkstars was supposed to be is unclear from the beginning. The premise is that the Darkstars are a space law-enforcement organization, part of an organization called NEMO (the Network for the Establishment and Maintenance of Order), created by the Controllers, an offshoot of the same alien race as the Guardians of Oa, the power behind the Green Lantern Corps. They fly around the galaxy fighting crime with the aid of their exo-mantles, suits with built-in masers and force fields.

The problem with this is that it's never really clear what makes Darkstars distinct from Green Lantern. They're both about lone members of big space organizations working on Earth. The Darkstar of Darkstars is Ferrin Colos, recently off a failure to save the planet of Genuwyne, which he angsts over occasionally; he sets up in Dallas, Texas when he finds out that the alien Syndicate he's been pursuing has set up on operation there on Earth. Darkstars is a little distinguished from Green Lantern in that Darkstars deputize locals with their own exo-mantles: in Colos's case, John Flint, a local cop with an "attitude" problem, and Mo Douglas, a homeless man.

This cover shows off both the original main characters (Colos, Mo, Carla, Flint) and the weird faces.
Darkstars #7 (Apr. 1993, cover by Travis Charest)
"Green Lantern with attitude" is how the notes of the writer and editor describe the series on occasion... but with all due respect, Michael Jan Friedman is the exact wrong man to hire to write such a series. I grew up his Star Trek work, and the only attitude Friedman possesses is "nice," and the same usually goes for his characters. Which makes him a great fit for Star Trek: The Next Generation and spin-offs thereof (I was a fan of his Stargazer prequel novels), but I would never on my life hire him for anything described as "[x] with attitude" (which is maybe the most 1990s description I can imagine).

Phase I: Ferrin Colos on Earth (Issues #1-22)
Darkstars divides neatly into two distinct phases. The first concerns Colos and his two human deputies on Earth. At first these are Flint and Mo, as I said above; later, Colos fires Flint because he's reckless and replaces him with Carla White, a black lawyer who quit her job because she realized she was defending the wrong people. (Flint is later kidnapped by aliens and mutated into a killing machine.) This part of the comic is pretty fun, if you put aside the hints of "attitude," it's mostly a light-hearted superhero adventure comic. The best issue is clearly #8, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys!", where Carla takes Colos to a local dive bar for fun, and Colos ends up arguing with locals, riding the mechanical bull, and fighting an alien bounty hunter. I don't know if this is what Friedman was aiming for, but it felt like the platonic ideal of the comic to me.

The cover is sort of amazingly terrible, whereas the story is terribly amazing.
Darkstars #8 (May 1993, cover by Travis Charest)
The characters are mostly pretty fun, too. Colos is your typical sort of alien straight-man, except for his occasional angst about the deaths he didn't stop on Genuwyne, which was always difficult for me to take seriously, because "Genuwyne" seems like what Peter David would name a planet as a set-up for a terrible pun on "genuine." I liked both Mo and Carla, though I felt the characters never got to live up to their potential because most of the plots in the early issues are generic punch-ups, usually against original, undistinguished villains, henchmen of the alien Syndicate. (The leader of the Syndicate himself, Sla Daniiki, was fun, but he rarely directly meets our heroes.)

The extent to which they're minimized as characters is perhaps most driven home in Trinity, an eight-part crossover with L.E.G.I.O.N. and Green Lantern (issues #11-12 of Darkstars) where the two of them just stand around and nothing at all is done with them being humans on an alien planet for the first time. They both have interesting backstories that rarely are dealt with: like, what was the effect of homelessness and then the lack thereof on Mo? Who knows. I also really liked Annie, the non-superhero who they hire to be their secretary. She never had enough to do, but was always fun when she was there with her matter-of-fact attitude toward the odd job she'd been hired for.

What the hell is this?
Darkstars #11 (Aug. 1993, cover by Travis Charest)
The thing that really hurts the early issues is the series's inability to maintain a consistent art team, which is comically embarrassing. No one lasts more than one or two issues, even though the editor is constantly trumpeting each new penciller/inker combo as the new team. Here's how they fare:
  • #1-3: Larry Stroman and Scott Hanna (3 issues)
  • #4-7: Travis Charest and Scott Hanna (4 issues)
  • #8-9: Patrick Zircher and John Lowe (2 issues)
  • #11-12 & 14: Mitch Byrd and Ken Branch (3 issues)
  • #15 & 17: Christopher Taylor and Ken Branch (2 issues)
  • #19-38 & 0: Michael Collins and Ken Branch (21 issues)
This obviously doesn't count one-issue fill-ins (on issues #10, 13, 16, & 18) or art assists (on issues #7-8 & 14). Thankfully, once Michael Collins turns up, he never misses an issue and never requires an assist, but more on him later. The inconsistent art is also a problem because most of the early artists are terrible, working in the 1990s Rob Liefield idiom of warped waists and squashed faces.

I like this cover artist in a general sense, but he felt like a tonal mismatch for Darkstars.
Darkstars #18 (Mar. 1994, cover by Randy DuBurke)
Despite its issues, the early issues of Darkstars show potential for enjoyable light comic, even if it seems slightly purposeless.

Phase II: Donna Troy in Space (Issues #23-24, 0, 25-38)
Then, suddenly everything changes. I don't know if Darkstars was in a steep sales decline (figures on The Comics Chronicles begin with issue #29, alas), but Colos is implicated (unjustly) in a conspiracy and suddenly ends up exiled to another universe. Just as suddenly, Donna Troy (formerly Wonder Girl and then Troia of the Teen Titans/New Teen Titans/New Titans, but now powerless) is recruited as the new Darkstar of Earth, and John Stewart (formerly a Green Lantern, but since the cancellation of Green Lantern: Mosaic and the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps in Emerald Twilight, without a book or purpose) is recruited as the new head of NEMO by the Controllers.
I also looked for a John Stewart cover, but apparently the guy never got one, despite essentially being co-lead with Donna.
Darkstars #23 (Aug. 1994, cover by Mike Deodata, Jr.)
The book goes from being its own little corner of the DC universe (with occasional, but largely self-contained crossovers with Hawkman, Green Lantern, and The Flash) to being a home for left-over characters from other books and being constantly involved in crossovers, especially with New Titans (as Donna is also a member there) and Green Lantern (as Donna is dating new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner). It makes the book a pretty difficult read, as you have to follow three or four other books to get the full story of crossovers like The Crimelord-Syndicate War (which finishes off some key plot points from Darkstars) and The Siege of the Zi Charam (which is terrible). Plus Darkstars is not Donna's primary book, so most of the important things that happen to the main character of this book are going on over in New Titans, which just leaves Darkstars as a repository for emotionally empty fight scenes. Darkstars is constantly reacting to the agenda of other books, never setting its own. [Tomorrow, I'll be posting a full reading order for Darkstars that shows the ridic number of crossovers it was involved in.]

So much crossover!
Darkstars #34 (Sept. 1995, cover by Michael Collins and Ken Branch)
Sadly, Mo Douglas and Carla White are written out pretty perfunctorily in issue #29, with Mo joining a Battlestar Galactica-esque refugee space fleet and Carla returning to legal work. Mo puts in the occasional two-page appearance throughout the rest of the run, but Carla gets a one-page cameo on the last page of #38 and that's it. Annie pops up here and there occasionally (she even moves into the New Titans HQ at one point), but vanishes too. One gets the feeling the Friedman never got to write these characters (or the other recurring characters, like Prigatz, the immediate supervisor of Colos and Donna, or the nun who was friends with Mo) the way he really wanted to.

Interestingly, interior artist Michael Collins would later homage this cover with his cover for Star Trek: Early Voyages #12
Darkstars #29 (Mar. 1995, cover by Mike Deodata, Jr.)
This did improve sales figures:
data courtesy The Comics Chronicles
I don't know what figures were like prior to #29 (Jan. 1995), but you'll see that the crossovers The Crimelord-Syndicate War in #32 (Jul. 1995) and The Siege of the Zi Charam in #34 (Sept. 1995) both pull the series from an average sales rank in the 240s up to one in the 170s. But it must have been too little or too late, as the series was cancelled with #38 (Nov. 1995).

The one bright spot in this era is the consistent artwork of Michael Collins. Collins has a bold, traditional superhero style that really suits Friedman's writing; I know Collins's later work on titles like Star Trek: Early Voyages and a huge number of stories for Doctor Who Magazine, so I was pleased to see him here.

I really like the visual callback to the cover of issue #1, with the background now including all of the series's significant guest stars.
Darkstars #38 (Jan. 1996, cover by Michael Collins and Ken Branch)
I will admit that the last issue made me a little misty-eyed, as Colos finally reunites with Carla White (apparently they're in love, but I was never really sure why). Despite this series's myriad problems, it had potential, and I like its protagonists.

Afterlife
Donna Troy and John Stewart are still Darkstars when the series ends, and they pop up occasionally in that capacity for a little bit, until a two-part story in Green Lantern (vol. 3) #74-75, where Kyle Rayner fights the illegitimate son of Darkseid. Basically the Darkstars turn up to be gunned down to prove the situation is serious. When the story begins, all but a dozen are already dead, and all but four are dead by the end of the series. Given Mo Douglas was still a Darkstar in Darkstars #38 but doesn't appear here, that means one of our main characters got killed offscreen without even a mention. Some of the surviving Darkstars, which include Colos, do put in occasional appearances in other DC space stories, but Carla White is never seen again, apparently, so who knows what happened to her.

Um, none of these characters, actually.
Green Lantern (vol. 3) #74 (June 1996, cover by Darryl Banks and Romeo Tanghal)
Donna and John retire at the end of this story, and Darkstars really only continues to remembered as a footnote in their convoluted histories, like in this installment of Comics, Everybody! about Donna.

Poor Darkstars. You could have been something great.

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