Starman: Sand and Stars
Written by James Robinson; Art by Tony Harris and Guy David
1997 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story
During the dark days of the nineties for superhero comics there were few bright spots. The brightest of these was Starman which stepped beyond the typical superheroics and told the story of a man trying to live up to the ideal of the superheroes. It's title character is better remembered by his actual name than the pseudonym he took up. It had its emotional ups and downs but even at its worse avoided reveling in the violence and gloom that defined superhero comics at that time. It's a story best told from the beginning but if you want to jump into the middle then Sand and Stars is one of its high points.
Jack Knight's father was the superhero Starman in the 1940's and was followed by many other people in his foot steps. Jack himself had no interest in it and enjoyed a quiet life dealing in collectibles. When events conspire to force Jack to take up his father's mantle he does it reluctantly at first. Over time he gradually becomes more comfortable in his role as hero of the city.
A few years later comes "Sand and Stars" where a hunt for a cherished belonging of his father's greatest enemy sends Jack to the home of man who was the superhero Sandman in the 40's. When a neighbor is murdered the retired superhero and the man who isn't sure he wants to be a superhero join forces to track down those responsible.
It's not the plot that makes "Sand and Stars" enjoyable; the mystery is a bit light and I coudn't get that interested in it. What is terrific in "Sand and Stars" is the characters. Jack reveres the past so working alongside a hero from fifty years before inspires him. He has to deal with hero worship and not all of it directed to Sandman. The Sandman on the other hand is living in a comfortable retirement until Jack inspires him to become involved in a new case. They play off each other fantastically in a way that works with Robinson's strengths. They're men who are not superheroes and yet find themselves in that role.
This storyline is a turning point in Jack's heroic journey and that aspect of it makes it a weak place to start with Starman. It is where he starts finding his willingness to jump into action and grows in other ways. Still it is very understandable on a basic level as just an adventure story on its own.
Tony Harris has a style that matches such a character driven story well. On the other hand I'm not fond of how he depicts action; it seems a bit static and the layouts don't ever go beyond a basic level. Since action tends to be the least important thing in Starman this didn't really bother me. Guy David on the other hand did a brief sequence in the story in the style of a 1930's New Yorker cartoon and it looks fantastic. It would have been distracting if it went longer but he did a great job at giving it a unique feeling.
If you want to read Starman, and I do recommend it to anyone who isn't completely repulsed by the concept of superheroes, then start with Sins of the Father or the first volume of the omnibus. The entire arc from beginning to end is a great story. Sand and Stars in isolation is also great but it will feel like just another superhero story to someone who doesn't have the background.