Friday, April 24, 2009

Starslayer: He Might've Slayed 'Em, But the Back-ups Were the Stars

Pacific Comics made a huge splash in 1981. Bill and Steve Schanes had gone from a mail order company (which they started in 1971), to distributors, to art-portfolio publishers, to comicbook publishers at a pretty rapid clip. They seemed to know what they were doing, as when they decided to start their own line of color comicbooks (to be sold directly to Comics Shops--to whom they'd also distribute the comics they published, yep, yep), they started by inviting two extremely popular creators. The Schanes brothers were pals with Jack Kirby due to their generous habit of supplying the King of Comics with copies of the comics he was producing--since the publishers seemed to keep forgetting to do it themselves. As it happened, Kirby had worked up his version of Star Wars for another publisher, but Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers had never been picked up. The Schanes brothers grabbed it and Pacific Comics was off and running. Bill and Steve were also smart enough to know that, while Kirby was a legend, his star wasn't as bright as it had once been, and they needed a star who was blazing at that very moment.

Mike Grell had built up quite a following at DC Comics, rising up from back-up artist on Aquaman and Green Arrow, to fan-favorite on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, to mega-star on his own creation, Warlord (which just happens to be the subject of this weeks Famous First Fridays over at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, hint, hint!). The brothers from Pacific approached "Iron Mike" and hit pay-dirt once again. Grell, too, had created a new series that DC was to have published, but for the housecleaning that had happened over there in 1978, and they decided he would do it as a six-issue mini-series. As a preview of what was to come, Pacific published a portfolio starring Grell's Starslayer*: Log of the Jolly Roger prior to publishing the comic. The portfolio sold out and it looked like Pacific and Grell had a hit.

Grell reversed his Warlord premise of a modern man being sent into a savage world, by having a savage man (a Celtic barbarian named Torin Mac Quillon) sent to a Star Wars-inspired future. It was a cool premise (you can read the first issue on my pal Joe Bloke's blog), with Grell's trademark great characters and art, taut dialogue, and realistic characterization. It should have been a hit. But a funny thing happened...

Pacific didn't run many ads, which meant that they had room for longer stories--or standard-length stories plus a back-up feature. Most of Starslayer's first six issues had back-ups. First, there was something called The Rocketeer by a new kid (who'd been toiling in the cartoon industry) named Dave Stevens ran in issues 2 and 3. While fans were digging Grell's Starslayer, they were totally flipping out over The Rocketeer. Nearly half the letters in Starslayer were paens to Stevens and his genius. Even the letters that focused on Starslayer still found room to praise The Rocketeer. Instead of leaving The Rocketeer as a back-up in Starslayer (there were only three issues to go anyway, right?), Pacific decided to create an anthology title, Pacific Presents, and let Stevens' beautifully illustrated tale of 1930s era barnstormer Cliff Secord and his Bettie Page look-alike girlfriend headline it. There weren't many Rocketeer stories published (though the character did blow through, what?, three publishers?), but what was published was popular enough that Disney put it on the Silver Screen in 1991.

In Starslayer #5, Sergio Aragones' latest creation, an inept barbarian named Groo made his second appearance (his first had been in Eclipse Comics' Destroyer Duck #1) as he went his merrily destructive way on to his own title. Groo turned out to be a mega-hit, appearing under a variety of publishers and in hundreds of comics all the way into the 21st Century.

Grell finished his story of how Torin and his comrades saved the universe by destroying the earth (I told'ja it was a cool story!), then shifted his energies--and creations--to a new publisher, First Comics. Grell's time would be spent mostly on something completely different; a series about a soldier of fortune who poses as a children's book writer called Jon Sable, Freelance. After a few issues of Starslayer at First, he handed the writing chores over to newcomer John Ostrander (he had given the penciling chores to another newcomer, Lenin Delsol, starting with issue #7, his first, eh, First issue) to focus completely on Sable. Like Groo, Sable also enjoyed a long run at a variety of publishers. Over 100 issues on and off up until this past year. Sable also starred in a short-lived ABC-TV series in 1987, and was the subject of Grell's first prose novel in 2000.

With issue #10, Starslayer got a new back-up feature. Written and co-created by Ostrander, co-created by yet another new artist, Tim Truman, Grimjack had all the makings of yet another hit, and First knew it. They began plugging Grimjack in the editorials and letters pages, as well as in the fan magazines. When Grimjack's debut finally appeared, it blew fandom away. A smart mixture of Wolverine, Conan, Batman, Warlock, Mike Hammer, and Humphrey Bogart, the barbaric gumshoe/bar owner of Cynosure (the nexus of creation, where all worlds and realities converged) hit all the right buttons for those of us who had grown up in the 70s. Grimjack was callous, tough, hard-bitten, short-tempered, and mercenary, but he was also cool, heroic, and morally centered by his own code of ethics. Ostrander's stories were biting and hard-bitten, while Truman's art was kind of ugly, but awesomely cool in a punk sort of way, filled with raw energy, and gloriously detailed. By Starslayer #18, Grimjack was teaming up with Torin and then it was straight to his own title. A title that ran 81 issues.

With issue #20, Starslayer gained another back-up, Peter Gillis and Tom Sutton's mystical Black Flame, who had been the back-up in First's short-lived Mars series. The Black Flame never got his own comic, movie, TV show, or novel, but the feature did take over one entire issue of Starslayer, issue #27.

The final issue of Starslayer, #34, appeared in late 1985. Ten years later, Acclaim Comics reprinted Grell's original Pacific mini-series as a "director's cut", allowing Grell to rewrite, redraw, and expand wherever he felt the need. Sadly it didn't lead to a regular Starslayer series. Or movie. Or TV show. Or novel. Or even back-up strip.

That's it for this week, Awesome Ones. Don't worry, Ol' Groove will eventually fill you in on what The Rocketeer, Groo, Grimjack, Jon Sable, and even Starslayer were all about. Can't use up all my ammo in one post, now can I?

NEXT WEEK: "Insert Preview Here: DC Showcase, 80s Style". Don'tcha miss it!

(*At about the same time, Jim Starlin was planning on expanding his Metamorphosis Odyssey, which had been running in Epic Illustrated, into a series. The idea was to spin one of the main characters off into his own series. That character was to have been Vanth Starslayer. Grell informed Starlin of his ownership of the "Starslayer" name, so it was Vanth Dreadstar who went on to star in his own comic.)


joe bloke said...

oh, yes. them's were the days. the original run of Starslayer was - and still is - one of my favourite comics moments. mmmmm, I'm feeling a bout of inspiration coming on. . .

~P~ said...

I used to get MARS (among many others) but I do not recall ever seeing the wonder that is Peter Gillis and Tom Sutton's "Black Flame".

BOTH of those guys are on my MUST GET EVERYTHING list, so I need to find those - AND especially
Starslayer, issue #27!


Any chance you'll SCAN those strips?


Chris said...

First Comics, for awhile, represented to me what I had hoped independent comics would become — still mainstream in nature, but original. I didn't like it when direct sale books began to take on a more "adult" approach.

Starslayer was cool — but the first time I saw "The Rocketeer" — in Pacific Presents no. 2, I was knocked out! Stevens amazed me. It was a direct throwback to the Golden Age, as well as Republic Serials' old "Rocketman" character. As always, I had to special order that comic because it was direct sale and I had no comic shops in my area. But it was worth it. I've always loved Stevens' work....

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