Friday, June 29, 2018

Star Brand #9

Superhero vs Superhero
Star Brand #9
Star Brand vs. Star Brand!

Part 4 of “Stop Hitting Yourself!”

“Where Walks the True Believer!”
Writer – Cary Bates
Penciler – Keith Giffen
Inkers – Bob Wiacek
Letters – Ken Lopez
Colorist – Andy Yanchus
Editor – Michael Higgins
Editor-in-Chief – Jim Shooter
September 1997

Star Brand and Nightmask, the only two heroes to “survive” the New Universe into the Marvel of today. That is to my limited knowledge, of course. Both characters originated from Marvel’s failed “New Universe” line of books, a series set in a more realistic Earth setting than Marvel’s primary universe with the hook that a mysterious cosmic event gave a select number of individuals super powers.

Star Brand was both the name of the hero and the source of that hero’s powers. Ken Connell was granted the Superman power set (minus heat vision and cold breath) when a mysterious old man showed up at his door and slapped a tattoo on Connell. The tattoo, which Connell dubbed “the star brand,” would wind up being the source of frustration for Ken as the superpowers brought on great responsibility, but not a lot of understanding in how to properly use it.

The story has it that Connell was patterned after writer/editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and when he was ousted from Marvel the book lost much of its appeal. More on that later on in the Crapbox.

Nightmask was one of the more intriguing concepts for a monthly book. The White Event wakes Keith Remsen from a coma caused by a bomb that crippled his sister and killed both his parents. The bomb was planted by Dr. Horst Kleinmann, a dream researcher who found a way through cybernetics to enter people’s dreams. Once out of his coma, Remsen finds he also can enter people’s dreams, but doesn’t need Kleinmann’s cybernetics to do it. After settling the score over his parent’s death, Remsen uses his dream persona “Nightmask” to assist psychologically troubled people.

Sure, it rips off the move Dreamscape quite a bit, but there wasn’t any series quite like this being produced on a monthly basis. While it was cancelled after twelve issues and multiple creative teams, I really thought Nightmask made for a good ongoing. Not certain what Marvel has done with the property since, I know that they have attempted to bring him back a couple of ways. Maybe some of those will wander into my clutches.

As it stands, though, this is the issue we have to deal with. And it starts off with Ken Connell’s nerdy friend Myron being woken up from a peaceful sleep…

We’ve got Giffen doing the look and feel he gave the Legion of Superheroes, which is NOT the normal tone of this book, but with Wiacek on inks, it isn’t too far a cry from John Romita, Jr’s prior issues. Issue number 7 was Shooter’s last on the title and he got an assist out the door by Roy Thomas. Cary Bates picked up writing this issue and the one before it and did a stellar job compared to what would come later. And now that we know our creative team, let’s chit-chat a bit about where we are here.

Ken Connell appears to be having trouble sleeping at night. He complains of having nightmares (see where Nightmask will come into this?). Myron finds himself a counselor to Ken and so he listens dutifully as Ken recounts the prior issue’s contents…

…what we have here is Ken feeling guilt over the death of a boy that superpowers could do nothing to prevent. It will of course begin with the youth figuring out the superhero’s identity or something akin to that followed by the hero discovering that the boy will not survive whatever aliment he suffers from.
Myron is startled by this revelation, but we as comic book fans aren’t. This is “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man” redux.

Ken takes the child out for a flying trip and they travel over the dump that poisoned him, which of course leads to the kid asking Ken to take care of it so no other kids get poisoned. And to add emotional impact to that, the kid then falls into a coma…

But it’s too late for little Tad. That’s right: it’s a tad too late for Tad. Kid dies, leaving lots of guilt and regret on Ken Connell’s mind. We can all see where this is going now with the nightmares. 

And so can Myron who sends Ken over to Ballad’s clinic, a place that specializes in dream therapy and sleep disorders.

Which leaves Connell flying his way to Georgetown, in sequences that I won’t show, but were always a treat. See Connell had the same problems any of us would have trying to navigate while flying several miles above the Earth, where the vantage point of being above things makes his journeys difficult. This was just one bit of realism that the book added to a Superman archetype to make it stand out a bit more from the common superhero fantasy.

Connell does arrive and he unloads as much as he dares on Doctor Ballad, telling him a partially true tale of Tad and how he died and the guilt Ken feels over it.

And Ballad’s method is to knock Ken out so he can “view his dreams.” Ken has a moment of hesitation given that he might see his Star Brand powers, but then realizes it will seem like part of the dream. As soon as Ken is out, Ballad calls in his associate Keith Remsen to take a stab at what’s going on in his noggin.

And as Remsen turns in and turns into Nightmask, I want to state that the fun parts of his book were that each person’s dreamscape had their own internal logic and consistency. The art in each story was usually head-trip time, a sort of Ditko-esque nightmare landscape. I only wish they had gone farther and made each issue a different secondary art team for the dream sequences. As it was, Nightmask straddled the lines between horror, fantasy, and superhero tale anthology. As a concept, the book was different enough to lure in an audience but failed to keep them. Partially this might be the long shadow cast by other New Universe titles that were sub-sub par, things like Marc Hazard: Merc and Kickers, Inc.

But enough of my musings, we are head down the Ken Connell rabbit hole.

Remsen awakens in a Kirby graphic nightmare, hanging from his heels beside a representation of Tad dressed up like some kind of Silver Age Marvel hero named True Believer. Tad’s name is an obvious call back to both Marvel, Kirby and to the character in the book’s belief that superheroes could solve any problem. This has all the hallmarks of a good Nightmask story right out of the gate.

Tad fills Remsen in: they’ve both been captured by some costumed bad guy named Dr. FOOM! (which us old schoolers would recognize as the name of the club Marvel had back in the late 60’s – early 70’s. FOOM stood for “Friends Of Old Marvel”). And as if on cue, in he Fooshhh’es!

He sounds like old school Lee too, as Bates really does a good job of layering the story with lots of the trappings and tropes of comic book villainy.

There are always hard edges to Nightmask stories however. Places where being in a dream where anything can happen leads to analogies or metaphors for what is going on that cut right to the heart of the matter. Like when True Believer activates his superpower we learn it is “Toxic Waste Breath” which eats at the core of you when you realize that this is Ken dealing with the death of a boy poisoned by toxic waste and desperately trying to find a way to deal with it, to turn it into a happy ending for Tad. 

Which brings up the point of all this: Dr Foom is trying to kill True Believer and in Connell’s mixed up mind Star Brand needs to save him if he is to be any kind of hero. Which means when Dr. Foom moves to active his unnecessarily slow deathtrap he has to bring up that Star Brand can’t save them. Nightmask, of course, doesn’t realize that Connell is superpowered.

And as True Believer rattles on about who exactly Star Brand is while using nearly every tagline associated with a superhero in recent memory, the dream version of Ken Connell shows up as Star Brand and rescues the pair by destroying the hideout and wrecking Dr. Foom’s machines.

Leading to a confrontation between the two…

…a battle that has Dr. Foom declaring it folly that Star Brand thinks he can always arrive in time to save True Believer. To which, Star Brand offers back emphatic denials. It ends with Dr. Foom being blasted into outer space in Kirby-style.

Nightmask gets introduced to Connell’s alter ego but doesn’t grasp just how much of this is real, not about the Star Brand’s power or his origin. He does get a chance to marvel at the world Connell’s mind has concocted to provide as a backdrop.

The depths of which extend to True Believer and his “secret origin”…

…which involves the very same elements that caused real life Tad to contract his heart condition that eventually lead to his death.

Nightmask gets this connection right away…

…and a little investigative digging reveals that this never-ending battle between Dr. Foom and Star Brand centers around saving the life of Tad Soames. Why Foom is the symbol of Soames’ mortality remains a mystery for the moment, but Nightmask has a plan to expose the link.

That plan first involves kidnapping Tad Soames…

…having him change into True Believer and then wait to get captured by Dr. Foom. All of which happens in no time flat.

As they are carted off in the metal scoop of doom,…er, Foom…Nightmask has Tad alert Star Brand of their predicament and then uses his dream power to take over True Believer.

He uses that to get close enough to Dr. Foom to remove the helmet covering the villain’s face. Dr. Foom turns out to be…

…Ken Connell. The real one. Or at least one more aligned with our world than this fantasy. Throughout the dream we though the Star Brand character was symbolic of our hero’s psyche, but this turns the tables on things. Then who is Star Brand, you might ask?

And he might ask it too. And does.

Which makes for a great explanation: Ken is trying to reconcile Tad’s death with his own inadequacies. Perhaps this is the anti-Spider-Man message. That sometimes with great powers comes the still inevitable realization that some things you just can’t change or fix no matter how hard you try, and that’s just life. Nihilistic? Maybe. But also much more in line with New Universe’s theme of having great powers doesn’t automatically make you able to defeat all problems with them.

Nightmask notes there might be more going on here than meets the eye. However, even he realizes that facing this truth might not be the end of Connell’s problems. Ken is going to have to go through the five stages of grief. One of which is clearly Anger…

   And as Nightmask retreats out of Connell’s subconscious, the knowledge that Real Ken Connell can impart about that portion of his mind that is still in Denial over Tad’s death, the part that is still Bargaining, finally gives way to Acceptance and the end of his chain of repetitive nightmares.

And thus when Connell wakes he knows the problem has been solved although it is Dr. Ballad that he thanks for it. Remsen watches from a backroom and the feeling that these two met and yet didn’t meet is one part a shame and another part understandable. It’s not like they could tackle problems together.

…at least not until Marvel gave them other powers, made them teenagers, imported them into the 616 Marvel universe and inducted them into the Avengers or some crap.

I’ll get to that much later. For right now I’m just happy with these first 9 issues of Star Brand. Shooter had a unique idea and even if it was tanking on the store shelves, the New Universe was interesting and Star Brand an intriguing character. At least until Byrne got his hands on him and…

Well, as I said. That’s a story for another time.

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