It’s been a while since I’ve been able to read a book that, through and through, just embodies a sense of child-like fun and delight but Starlight is precisely that – pure, unadulterated sci-fi pulp adventure that was also one of the best comics from last year.
Originally a 2014 six-issue limited series from Image Comics by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov, Starlight was compiled and released as a trade paperback back in February of this year but it’s only now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it and, boy, let me tell you: this is the most fun I’ve had with a comic this year. Other comics may have moved me or made me think but nothing this year has quite given me a rambunctiously good time as Starlight (except for perhaps Millar’s own MPH or Chrononauts).
Starlight plays off the aging-guy-relives-his-glory-days trope that has often been used to good effect in films like The Incredibles, Galaxy Quest and Rocky Balboa. The awesomely named Duke McQueen was once an Air Force pilot whose plane got pulled into a worm hole and who found himself on a distant planet known as Tantalus that was being ruled by a tyrant named Typhon. There he somehow became the leader of a resistance and overthrew Typhon, thus freeing Tantalus and becoming the planet’s most celebrated hero. But instead of choosing to stay as a king, he chose to go back home to earth to his beloved wife.
Forty years later, McQueen is a new widower, sad and lonely, with two grown sons who never believed their father’s tales of intergalactic adventures and who have written him off as an old eccentric, a view shared by the rest of the world. In a medium with as limited space as a comic miniseries, it’s crucial to get readers sympathizing with the hero early on and Millar pulls this off with panache, in the process creating in my opinion one of his best characters.
When Tantalus is again taken over by a despotic alien race and a kid named Krish lands a spaceship on his front lawn to entread his help, Duke must decide if he will leave earth behind and go try to save Tantalus yet again despite his aching joints and high cholesterol. Of course we all want him to, and of course he goes.
First pages are often very indicative of a comic’s aesthetic and from page one we are treated to a beautiful splash page by Goran Parlov that establishes the nostalgic, retro look of the book and its pleasingly pastel color palette. Both the story and visual design of Starlight are clearly intended to pay homage to pulp sci-fi, particularly Flash Gordon. I mean, with that laser pistol in one hand and a fencing sword in the other, Duke McQueen basically is Flash Gordon. Goran Parlov’s character, costume and architectural design here is top notch and is a perfect match for the story and its retro aesthetic. He draws the same kind of squiggly features that seem characteristic of a lot of European artists but his style is clean and uncluttered, and he’s able to convey much with just a few short pencil strokes.
Although Flash Gordon is the most readily apparent inspiration, there’s a bit of Star Wars in here too which, if you think about it, isn’t surprising given that George Lucas’s original idea for the Star Wars films was to make them in to a kind of modern re-envisioning of the Flash Gordon serials. The character of Tilda Starr here, with her swagger and confidence, is basically a female version of Han Solo right down to her costume. And the use of swords in sci-fi is also like Star Wars, of course, which in turn was inspired partly by Flash Gordon.
For those worried about violence, Starlight does have some of it but nothing like what you’d find in, say, the Kick-Ass comics. Most of it, with the exception of one panel, is cartoony and along the lines of your usual pulp sci-fi adventure fare. If I had a kid I wouldn’t have any problem with him reading it.
As fans of Mark Millar know, Starlight is being made into a movie with the script being written by Gary Whitta who also wrote the script for Star Wars: Rogue One. One hopes that the filmmakers will be able to carry over the same space-operatic sense of magic, wonder and sheer pulpy delight from this, one of the best comics of 2014-15.