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Starman is an interesting example of a character that was initially considered a relative failure, but that has, after a very long wait, achieved critical success. Starman was dreamed up by DC Comics as something of a successor to Superman, and the company launched him with much fanfare in 1941, through full-page advertisements in their comics, a cover and lead slot in Adventure Comics #61, and membership in their top-selling Justice Society of America strip. Starman’s creators were among the company’s best: Sandman and Dr. Fate creator Gardner Fox, and artist Jack Burnley, the first person to draw both Batman and Superman outside of their creators’ studios. Even Starman’s powers—flight and strength—and costume were similar to those of Superman, although the costume had different colors and a hood. And still the strip never quite caught on.
Starman was wealthy American astronomer Theodore (“Ted”) Knight, who had constructed a Gravity Rod (a.k.a. Cosmic Rod) that could harness the energy of the stars and effectively give him almost unlimited powers, including the ability to fly, create energy fields, and melt steel. Fox, and later writer Alfred Bester (the noted science fiction author), peopled the strip with a fine selection of villains, including Electron, Dr. Droog, and their star rogue, the Mist, who coated himself (and his henchmen) with an invisibility paint, leaving only his head eerily visible. Burnley was by some margin the best draftsman at DC Comics, and, as a 2002 reprinting of all his Starman strips has shown, the old episodes still look impressive today. Yet the strip lacked individuality, and DC’s high hopes for its success and impact were never realized. Starman’s cover slot was soon usurped by Manhunter, Green Lantern replaced him in the Justice Society, and the strip was concluded in 1946 with a change to another top artist, Mort Meskin.
Like most Justice Society members, Star-man featured in numerous Justice League guest appearances in the 1960s and 1970s, and co-headlined with Black Canary in two attractive 1965 issues of The Brave and the Bold. In fact, he had more adventures in the revived Justice Society than he had had in the 1940s, and while writers were rarely able to develop his personality very much, he made a decent enough team player. In the revived All Star Comics in 1976, his Gravity Rod was temporarily requisitioned by the Star-Spangled Kid (who then turned it into a belt), but this device was short-lived. Throughout the 1980s, Starman was an occasional presence in the All Star Squadron, one issue of which finally gave him the proper origin that his creators had forgotten to write: It seems that he was inspired to become a hero after seeing Batman in action—an origin that some fans say was hardly worth waiting thirty years for!
In spite of their early disappointment, the DC creative team must have thought that Starman was too good a name to waste on a bit-part player, and since the 1970s they have periodically tried to pass the title on to another character—or, to be precise, five other characters (so far). The first of these (Starman number two) was a blue-skinned alien attired in a sort of disco-era jump suit who starred in First Issue Special #12 (1976); he was met with complete indifference by a bemused public. Starman number three, who ran throughout 1980 in Adventure Comics, was a futuristic superhero from another galaxy, and the strip featured art by Spider-Man’s Steve Ditko. More successfully, the fourth Starman premiered in his own title toward the end of the 1980s and enjoyed four years of relative popularity, though, curiously, he is almost forgotten today. This incarnation was Will Payton, who somehow inherited immense powers (flight, strength, and the ability to change his features) siphoned off from the previous Starman. In an interesting twist, this Star-man bumped into yet another one: David Knight, son of the now aged first Starman, who had taken on his father’s mantle (or, rather, cape).
Readers next come across Knight in the first issue of yet another Starman project (in 1994), only to see him abruptly killed off and the Gravity Rod passed to his brother, Jack. This Starman (the sixth) was a reluctant superhero, preferring to rummage through junk for his antiques shop rather than tackle the likes of the Shade or the Mist (who perennially popped up in the comic). In a device that anticipated the post-millennial move away from costumes, he opted to go into battle wearing a trench-coat and goggles and, even more revolutionarily, he never bothered to adopt a secret identity. Much of the comic’s appeal came from the interplay between two generations of superheroes, as father passed on advice to his novice son, and its quirky, reserved style gradually garnered the sort of praise that DC had hoped for back in the 1940s. Neophyte writer James Robinson became a star through his Star-man scripts, and then surprised everyone by canceling the comic after eighty issues, declaring that he had told all the stories he wanted to tell. A unique ending to a unique comic.
The next member of the Starman dynasty is the young superheroine Courtney Whitmore. Courtney is the stepdaughter of Pat Dugan, who, as Stripesy, was the crime fighting partner of Sylvester Pemberton, the Golden Age superhero known as the Star-Spangled Kid. Created by writer Jerry Siegel (Superman’s co-creator) and artist Hal Sherman, the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy debuted in Action Comics #40 (September 1941). After Pemberton’s death, Courtney became the second Star-Spangled Kid. Wearing an armored battlesuit called S.T.R.I.P. E. (Special Tactics Robotic Integrated Power Enhancer), Dugan accompanied Courtney on missions. Together they starred in the 1999-2000 comics series Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.
When Jack Knight’s Starman series ended, he gave his cosmic staff (an updated version of the gravity rod) to Whitmore, who renamed herself Stargirl. She is a member of the modern Justice Society of America. Actress Britt Irvin played Stargirl in the live action TV series Smallville. Stargirl has also appeared in animation in the television series Justice League Unlimited (with S.T.R.I.PE.) and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. —DAR & PS