Friday, January 1, 2010

Comics Review: STAR COMICS ALL-STAR COLLECTION, Volume 1 (Marvel Comics, 2009)

My "Silver Age of Comics Collecting" (not to be confused with the "Golden Age" of 1975-1982, during which I concentrated solely on RICHIE RICH) began in a peculiar way that sort of typifies my decidedly atypical comics-collecting experience. Here's how I described it in a piece I wrote for THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES! (issue #41):

In the Spring of 1985, in a last, defiant gasp of my overweening interest in "classic" Harvey comics, I buy a small number of Marvel's late and decidedly unlamented Star Comics when they start appearing on the sparsely populated magazine racks of a small food store located down the street from the Brown [University] Graduate Center. In this year of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, I derive considerable pleasure from the likes of TOP DOG, PLANET TERRY, and EWOKS. Don't get me wrong -- even I can see that the Star offerings are, by and large, pale imitations of Harvey comics (especially the notorious ROYAL ROY, which pisses me off... uh, royally). What excites me the most is the presence of creator credits. At long last, I have incontestable proof that the artist who I always thought was Warren Kremer was, in reality, Warren Kremer! I'm so happy to be proved right that I compose a personal letter to Mr. Kremer on my manual typewriter (yep, this WAS a while ago...) and send it to the Marvel offices.

If it sounds like I'm setting up the duckpins for a revisionist bowl-a-rama, you're correct... up to a point. Marvel's recent out-of-nowhere release of the first of a planned series of volumes reprinting the (short-lived) exploits of Star Comics' original creations was a pleasant surprise, given the generally low esteem in which these comics are held. I couldn't help but snap the book up, and I'm delighted to say that these works hold up much better than I'd recalled -- with one big, gold-plated, starts-with-Rs exception. It's no Dark Horse LITTLE LULU line, for sure, but you could certainly do worse than purchase this collection with an eye towards getting a young child interested in comics. If you really want to go "above and beyond," you might also get a couple of the Dark Horse HARVEY COMICS CLASSICS volumes and do a direct "compare-and-contrast," so as to fully understand the tangled Star-Harvey relationship.


Star Comics came into existence because the notoriously deal-happy Harvey family couldn't make a deal. The original Harvey Comics line, unable to cope with the "brave new world" of the direct-market distribution system, ceased publication in 1982. Over the next several years, Marvel, seeing an opening in the kids' comics market -- an opening that would become a gaping maw once Western Publishing finally gave up the ghost in '84 -- dickered with Harvey over the rights to print Harvey comics. When the two parties couldn't come to terms, Marvel hired away some of Harvey's idled personnel and set up shop for itself, giving the line a new title in order to establish a cordon sanitaire between the newbies and the superhero-dominated Marvel Universe. Featuring a mixture of licensed properties and original creations, Star sputtered along for a couple of years before the new line was jettisoned and the few ongoing titles (ALF and BARBIE, most notably) were gathered under the Marvel banner. While no original title lasted longer than TOP DOG's 14 issues, it is these titles that have come to symbolize what minimal profile Star has retained among comics fans -- and it is these titles that are at the center of the controversy over whether Star really was just a bald-faced Harvey knockoff.


ROYAL ROY is the one title reprinted in this collection that truly deserves all the scorn heaped upon it. Roy was a Richie Rich ripoff -- nothing more, nothing less -- and the cast of supporting characters have direct parallels to Richie's cast in a manner not seen again in popular culture until The Lion King's "borrowings" from Kimba the White Lion. Reportedly, young prince Roy's facial features had to be changed at the last minute to make the resemblance to Richie less grindingly obvious. The change in setting from Richville to the kingdom of Cashalot didn't fool anyone -- in fact, the decision to make Cashalot a rich kingdom seemed calculated to twist a painful knuckle into RICHIE fans' spines -- and, I would argue, gave what was already an idea doomed to failure even less of a chance to succeed. For all of his immense wealth, Richie remained, at heart, a fairly typical American kid who could "connect" with readers in a manner that the regal Roy never could, not even when he took a "commoner" girl friend, Crystal Clear (read: Gloria Glad), in ROYAL ROY #2. The cynicism of the whole enterprise almost beggars (heh) belief. Marvel's decision to cancel the title after six issues (in, I might add, the face of the Harvey family's most justified lawsuit ever) didn't remove the bad taste from people's mouths. Indeed, the whole affair wound up curdling Star's overarching reputation for good. More's the pity, as the other, legitimately original Star creations ranged from good to excellent.


While less ambitious than PLANET TERRY (the first "children's comic" of my acquaintance to essay a continuing story line) and less artfully produced than WALLY THE WIZARD (to my mind, the real revelation of this collection), Top Dog was at the beginning, and probably always will be, my favorite Star character. The concept is simple enough -- "typical kid" Joey Jordan meets and adopts (in a manner of speaking) an opinionated talking dog who's something of a "Renaissance mutt" -- but the execution is charming. Kremer, inked by Harvey associate Jacqueline Roettcher in a manner that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's read Kremer's work on RICHIE RICH AND CASPER in the 1970s, makes TD, Joey, and the supporting players very appealing. Lennie Herman's scripts for TD #1-#3 are also excellent, though the Cold War-flavored "Spies" (TOP DOG #2) has aged a bit. (The prolific Herman actually died before the first Star comics appeared on the shelves; it'll be interesting to see how the stories' quality will hold up once other hands take the controls.) If I have any modern complaints with these engaging stories, they lie in (1) the use of a wealthy snob, Mervin Megabucks, as Joey and TD's main antagonist -- he's much too reminiscent of Richie's "mean" Cousin Reggie van Dough for my taste -- and (2) the fact that TD, wisecracker though he may be, isn't as big of a smart-aleck as he probably ought to have been. He's a Bugs Bunny type, but rendered in pale pastels. If Herman had combined the likability of Richie Rich with the sassiness of, say, a Hot Stuff or a Little Audrey, then we would really have had something.


PLANET TERRY looks a lot like a conventional Harvey comic -- same page layout, same division into "chapters" with different titles, etc. -- but just look at the characters once and the novelty is obvious. Terry, an (extremely) prematurely graying teenager, is on a galaxy-spanning quest to find his lost parents. Along the way, he acquires a comely female robot and a scaly green muscle-monster as allies. The temptation to link Terry to Timmy Time -- the young, white-haired time-traveler (created by one of Alfred Harvey's sons, BTW) who appeared in a single issue of Harvey's RICHIE RICH AND TIMMY TIME (1977) -- is as strong with me as "The Force" was with young Luke Skywalker, but I don't honestly think that Terry was a ripoff. Star had already tweaked the Harvey family's nose once with Royal Roy, so what could have been gained by antagonizing them again? Terry's adventures (which ceased prematurely when the comic was cancelled with issue #12) are good, solid "space opera" with definite Star Wars overtones. Even though the story arc was never resolved, I only read a couple of issues of the comic, so a lot of the future goings-on will be entirely new to me.



Speaking of new experiences, I had never read WALLY THE WIZARD before sampling issues #1-#2 in this collection. Perhaps I've been softened up by a combination of the HARRY POTTER novels and the ongoing Wizards of Mickey story line in MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS, but I found these adventures of an apprentice wizard in a vaguely defined medieval setting to be utterly winning. For all of Wally's boss Marlin's muttering "To think that I had my pick of apprentices!", Wally's mastery (or lack thereof) of magic isn't really germane to his success; he relies more on a combination of quick-wittedness and thoughtfulness to get his ju-ju jobs done. In "A Plague of Locust" (WW #1), Wally's willingness to help a dragon's offspring turns the dragon into an ally in a battle against a metal locust (Duke Igthorn is probably feverishly taking notes even now) that is threatening the royal family. Wally then wins "The Magic-a-Thon" (WW #2) through what Marlin, somewhat patronizingly, describes as "sheer intelligence." Wally's creator, Bob Bolling of LITTLE ARCHIE fame, peppers "Locust" with sight gags and verbal jokes while also breaking the "Harvey boundaries" by using multiple splash panels and three-tiered pages. Howie Post (with inker Jon D'Agostino) takes up the drawing reins from Bolling in #2 and gives all of the characters that goofy Post "spin" so familiar to Harvey Comics readers, while Sid Jacobson's plot is every bit as good as Bolling's. WALLY, like PLANET TERRY, lasted 12 issues even though, unlike the other titles mentioned above, it did not lean on Harvey (in the time-honored manner of the drunk leaning on the lamp post: "for support, not illumination") as a clear aesthetic inspiration. Too bad: this is one comic that could (and probably should) have survived Star's later "engulfment" by Marvel.

Kudos to Marvel for finally making this material available again. These characters, for the most part, deserve a chance to gain the attention of a new comics-reading generation.

4 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

No disrespect to the great Warren Kremmer – and all of the other STAR creators, a group which included even Don R. Christensen – but you will never convince me that THIS was a project that needed to be done!

Has “Eighties Nostalgia” become this much of a force – outside of FAMILY GUY, that is?

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

You'd better hope 80s nostalgia has hit in a big way. That fully-loaded, comment-packed, Blu-Ray edition of DUCKTALES may be riding on it!

Chris

Inger Fountain said...

Hey Chris
Thanks for the review.
I read these as a kid too and picked up a heap on ebay for my kids to peruse.
Just a quick question-Are these printed on glossy paper or the cheaper (and my preferred format for these old comics) matte paper?
Cheers
Inger

Chris Barat said...

Inger,

I'm not an expert on paper types, but the paper appears to be the typical paper used for softcover collections by all publishers. Semiglossy, I guess you would call it.

Chris