In my previous post I took a look at the unusual Questprobe project Marvel Comics published in the mid 1980s. I indicated this would lead into an installment of “It Came from the 1990s.” That brings us to today’s post, where I will be looking at the Starblast crossover from Marvel that came out in late 1993.
Often I put together these “It Came from the 1990s” entries to spotlight comic books from that decade that I feel are overlooked or underrated. Unfortunately, this is NOT one of those series.
Starblast has regrettably been described as one of the worst comic book crossovers of all time. I was reminded of it by longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort on his own WordPress blog in which he took a look at Quasar #56, which he brands with the label of “Worst Cover Ever.” Brevoort’s piece reminded me of Starbast, which in turn got me thinking about Questprobe, as the later indirectly inspired the former. And here we are.
It would not be accurate to say that no one ever sets out to make bad movies, or TV shows, or music, or artwork, or whatever. There are some people who recognize that crap sells, that there is an audience for absolute drek, and so they produce terrible products because they know it will make money.
Having acknowledged that, it is my general observation that the majority of creators who go to work in the comic book industry do so because they truly love the medium, they desire to work within it, and they wish to create genuinely good stories & art. The fact that they don’t always succeed is down to a number of factors, such as unforgiving deadlines, poor pay rates, difficult marketplace conditions, clashes with editorial, and the existence of management that is frequently unsympathetic to talent.
I really do believe that the creators behind Starblast set out to produce a good comic book; the fact that they did not succeed offers a sad snapshot of the comic book industry three decades ago.
Mark Gruenwald was the main creative force behind Starblast. As both a writer and editor Gruewald enjoyed utilizing the more obscure elements of Marvel continuity. He frequently drew on these elements in Quasar, the ongoing series that featured everyman Wendell Vaughn as the reluctant Protector of the Universe. It really felt that Gruenwald was personally invested in the character of Quasar, with Gru even giving Wendell some of the same personal background that he had.
Gruenwald spent two years building up to Starblast in the pages of Quasar. First he had Wendell temporarily acquire the incredibly-powerful cosmic force known as the Star Brand from Marvel’s ill-fated New Universe imprint. Wendell accidentally passed the Star Brand on to his girlfriend Kayla Ballentine. She was then abducted by the Chief Examiner from the Questprobe series, who wanted to duplicate the Star Brand’s power to use against the ravaging Black Fleet that was attacking his world. The Star Brand proves to be too powerful for the Examiner to replicate, and so he is forced to battle the Black Fleet with the powers of the other Earth superhumans he’s previously duplicated. Unfortunately this isn’t enough and he’s defeated, forcing the reluctant Kayla to use the Star Brand to obliterate the Black Fleet.
That at last brings us to Starblast. The cyborg Skeletron and his crew of space pirates the Starblasters are the sole survivors of the Black Fleet. Having witnessed his entire armada destroyed by the Star Brand, Skeletron seeks to acquire its incredible power for himself. He dispatches the Starblasters to attack Earth, distracting the planet’s superheroes so he can abduct Kayla.
I feel there was a certain potential to Starblast. It’s an interesting premise. Gruenwald, despite his unfortunate tendency to write Quasar as a dry series of encyclopedia entries rather than an awe-inspiring exploration of the Marvel cosmos, was a good writer. The editor of Quasar and Starblast was Mike Rockwitz, out of whose office a number of enjoyable books were released in the early 1990s.
Regrettably the Starblast crossover just did not come together in the way Gruenwald must have imagined.
Starblast was a four-issue miniseries, with Quasar #54-56, Secret Defenders #11, Namor the Sub-Mariner #46-48, and Fantastic Four #385-386 all being labeled as parts of the crossover. Starblast and Quasar were both written by Gruenwald, and so the story runs directly between those two books. But the other parts of the crossover are at best peripheral, telling almost-unrelated stories. It seems like there was some problems getting everything coordinated between Gruenwald and the other writers.
The artwork on Starblast is also a major issue. Beneath a gorgeous cover by Claudio Castellini on issue #1 is interior art by penciler Herb Trimpe & inker Ralph Cabrera. Trimpe was a good, solid artist who had been working for Marvel since the late 1960s. However, by the early 1990s his style of art had unfortunately fallen out of favor, and the young, hot artists who worked on the X-Men and Spider-Man books before founding Image Comics were very much in demand. In an effort to make himself more bankable, Trimpe adopted a style inspired by the Image founders.
I am a fan of Trimpe, and I’m usually very charitable towards his work from the 1990s. He was in a tough position, trying to stay employed, doing the best he could. But his art on Starblast is difficult to look at.
Trimpe does well enough on the first few pages of Starblast #1, with his weird work actually enhancing the unearthly menace of the alien Starblasters. But as the issue progresses and Gruenwald brings in Quasar and Earth’s other heroes, the wonky anatomy and bizarre layouts become really painful.
It’s sad that in the early 1990s an experienced, reliable artist like Trimpe had to churn this stuff out in an effort to extend his career. I’m just glad that when he finally started getting work in comic books again beginning in 2008 he was able to go back to his normal style.
Trimpe & Cabrera also drew the second issue of Starblast, and the artwork is just as poor. By the third issue they’re gone. Pencils are by Grant Miehm. The credit for inks is “Many Hands” which really tells me that there must have been some horrific deadlines and behind-the-scenes problems facing this series.
Miehm is another good, solid, underrated artist. I had been a fan of his art since a few years earlier when he penciled Justice Society of America and Legend of the Shield for DC Comics. He then worked on Ravage 2099 at Marvel, doing very nice work, as well as penciling a couple of fill-in issues of Quasar. Miehm’s previous fill-in work on Quasar, and on the third issue of Starblast, really convinces me that he should have been the artist for the entire miniseries. He draws all of the characters in his chapter really well and his storytelling is solid.
Regrettably Miehm only drew the third issue. Starblast #4 has three pencilers, Brian Kong, Rich Buckler Jr & Nate Palant, and two inkers, Don Hudson & Ernie Chan, and so is a bit of a stylistic mess. Probably the strongest part is the first third of the issue which Kong penciled. I like his work, but I imagine that this must have been another deadline nightmare. Hudson and Chan are both good inkers, but they have such very different styles. All of this gives the impression that Rockwitz must have been forced to grab whoever was available just so he could get the issue finished.
All three issues of Quasar that are part of Starblast are penciled by John Heebink, with inks by Dan & David Day and Aaron McClellan. Their work isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done, and it’s consistent in quality.
The artwork was not the only problem with Starblast. Gruenwald’s story is overly ambitious, unfocused, and crowded. There are too many characters fighting for the spotlight. The second issue of Starblast literally wastes the entire chapter with Quasar, the Squadron Supreme & various random heroes fighting Gladiator & the Shi’ar Imperial Guard.
Well, there is one interesting footnote to this: Gruenwald did finally have Marvel’s two main Superman expies, Hyperion and Gladiator, meet in Quasar #54. He obviously relished the idea of presenting such a metatextual battle.
The Starblasters are visually interesting, but again there’s just too many of them, and most of them are barely developed, with the majority just getting lost in the crowd. It’s odd that Gruenwald would dig up a bunch of obscure alien bad guys and then do almost nothing with them.
For example, one of the Starblasters is Threkker, and he’s either supposed to be the space vampire “The Captive” that Jack Kirby introduced in Captain America Annual #3 or another survivor of his nearly-extinct species the Epsiloni. (Threkker is the guy with the biiiig teeth.) Kirby wrote the character as this horrifying cosmic menace, but here he’s basically just some big generic thug working for Skeletron.
Starblast #4 really rushes along, ending very abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that Quasar #57 is actually an unofficial epilogue that wraps up a lot of the Starblast plotlines. It does seem like Gruenwald was treating the Starblast miniseries as four extra issues of Quasar, rather than as a self-contained event, and as a result it’s something of a narrative jumble.
I feel it’s also worth pointing out that Starblast was simultaneously published at the exact same time as two other Marvel crossovers, “Siege of Darkness” in the Ghost Rider family of “supernatural superhero” books, and “Blood & Thunder” in the “cosmic” books written by Jim Starlin & Ron Marz. Almost comedically, there are scenes in both Quasar #54 and Secret Defenders #11 where Adam Warlock and Doctor Strange explain with some annoyance that they can’t help out against the Starblasters because they’re too busy with the events in “Blood & Thunder” and “Siege of Darkness” respectively. That demonstrates just how cluttered and glutted the Marvel line had become by the end of 1993. Something had to give… and it would very soon after.
One of the reasons why I am so forgiving of Starblast is that, with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize it was produced at a time when the Marvel line had expanded to a completely unmanageable degree, and that it was released immediately before the start of the catastrophic market crash of the mid-1990s. Within a few months various titles would be canceled, including Quasar. Numerous creators and staff at Marvel would lose their jobs. In other words, it was a really dark time for the industry. People like Gruenwald and Rockwitz were just doing their best to get the books out on time and with as much of a level of professionalism as they could in an extremely difficult climate.
I’ve said before that while I love the medium of comic books, I often find the realities of the industry incredibly depressing. It can be a very difficult field to work in. And then, of course, someone like me comes along with his blog and says “Hey, remember that crazy stuff you worked on thirty years ago?”
In the near future I’m planning to look at another project that Mike Rockwitz edited, one that was much more successful. Stay tuned.