Cloonan's "Punisher" Is A "Violent, Bullet-Riddled, Bleeding" Good Time
Before I begin, I should point out that I usually have plenty of SPOILERS in these posts. Okay? Okay!
Dreadstar by Peter David (writer), Angel Medina (penciller, issues #41-50, 53-56, 60-61, 63-64), Chuck Wojtkiewicz (penciller, issues #51-52), John Calimee (penciller, issues #57-58, 62), Steve Epting (artist, issue #59), Sam Grainger (inker, issues #41, 43), Bob Dvorak (inker, issues #42-50, 53-55, 57), Tom Baxa (inker, issue #50), Eric Vincent (inker, issue #51-52), Tim Tyler (inker, issues #56, 60-61), Paul Mounts (inker, issue #58), Bill Anderson (inker, issues #61, 63-64), and Jeff Albrecht (inker, issue #62).
First Comics, 24 issues (#41-64), cover dated March 1989-March 1991.
Peter David’s critics, and there are many of them, seem to take offense at his rather flippant approach to comic book writing. This injection of humor into what ought to be serious situations is evident in much of his writing, including his epic run on The Incredible Hulk. At the same time he was writing that book, he took over for Jim Starlin on Dreadstar, and his detractors can certainly point to this book as an example of perhaps inappropriate jokes in what are not humorous situations. Those of us who think David is a great comic book writer, however, appreciate the humor, because it’s usually very funny, and the way he juxtaposes the humor with the serious situations makes readers a bit more uncomfortable and makes them appreciate the humor we can find in life even when things are down. A great deal of David’s strengths as a writer lies in this gallows humor, as we are caught up in a serious situation and then reminded that his characters are reacting, in some ways, the only way they can – with a joke.
This usage of humor is in large supply during the 24 issues that David wrote Dreadstar, and it keeps the book from being too serious. Only in the final two issues does David devolve into pure slapstick, and even then, the issues are funny even if they aren’t particularly good (they are included here mainly because they finish his run and tie in to some of the plots he developed in the previous issues). Dreadstar is pure space opera, and David understands that, and one of the reasons why he is such a great comic book writer (I have never read his novels, but I am separating prose writers from comic book writers) is because he is able to do two things very well: write single issues that generally contain a decent story that can stand on their own, or at the very least write a complete story in two issues; and keep some plots simmering for many, many issues, so that there is always an overarching storyline in the background, which can wax and wane depending on David’s current situation. These two almost dichotomous axes of comic book writing are very difficult to render in one title, but David does it almost effortlessly in most of the comics he writes. In Dreadstar, there are three main stories: Vanth and his crew help Lord Palafox regain his empire; Vanth and his crew realize that Palafox is a ruthless tyrant and fight back against him and his ally, “Junior,” whom Dreadstar originally found as a baby in deep space; Vanth and his crew go in search of Iron Angel’s soul when Junior steals it after his defeat. These stories form the background and, eventually, the foreground of the issues, but in each issue, there is a subplot that drives the monthly necessities of the title forward. Many comic book writers are good at one of these things or the other, but very few are masterful at both. David is one of them.
To fully appreciate David’s Dreadstar, it’s not totally necessary to read Starlin’s previous 40 issues, but it doesn’t hurt. In issue #41, David does a decent job recapping what has gone before, and he takes some of the ideas Starlin toyed with and uses them to build his story. The most obvious idea is that Vanth Dreadstar is an action junkie. Comics are full of characters like Vanth, but rarely do the writers comment on the desire and – more importantly – the need of their characters to seek out problems and throw themselves into the fray (ironically, the only character I can think of where this was addressed was Psylocke, and that only a cursory examination, as it never interfered with her fighting). We as an audience suspend our disbelief because we want to read exciting adventures, but if we ever stopped to think about it, we might question why these people do such foolhardy things and whether their lives and the lives of those around them might be better if they could curtail their impulses. David does not want to let us forget, however, that Vanth can’t control himself, and he drags his crew into mortal peril simply because he’s bored. Despite the fact that he’s a hero, Vanth could also be viewed as a menace. In his previous incarnation, when Starlin was writing the book, Vanth became the leader because of his skills as a warrior. Once the war was over, he became obsolete and somewhat of an embarrassment to the new government. Starlin solved the problem by having him steal a ship and flee the galaxy, looking for new adventures, but David shows that it’s not that easy. He finds adventure, sure, but it quickly becomes clear that Vanth has entered into a situation that can’t easily be solved by fighting, and when he does fight, innocent people are bound to get hurt.
Two events drag Dreadstar and his crew into a strange new galaxy of intrigue. At the end of issue #41, Vanth discovers a human-like baby boy floating in space outside the ship. He brings it on board, and strange things begin to happen. Iron Angel is immediately suspicious of it and wants to kill it, but Skeevo, of all people, saves the baby and adopts it, whence comes the name “Junior” (for Skeevo, Jr.). Junior grows incredibly fast, begins talking quickly, and develops an attraction to Iron Angel, who never trusts him and wants nothing to do with him. As the crew grapples with this development, they receive a distress signal from a lonely planet. On this planet resides Lord Palafox, who once ruled the entire galaxy until his son rebelled against him, seized power, and exiled him. Palafox appeals to Dreadstar to help him regain his throne, and after some debate among the crew, Dreadstar agrees. They help Palafox gather allies, until he is ready, in issue #50, to launch a full-scale attack on his son. The battle is beautifully rendered by Medina, who complements David’s high-energy writing very well, and in the end, Rok (Palafox’s son) is defeated (although not killed) and Palafox has regained his power.
We’re fairly certain early on that neither Junior nor Palafox are good guys, but David does a nice job of never giving us too much ammunition for that conclusion. He certainly doesn’t allow Dreadstar to pierce the veil until it’s far too late. What we get with these first nine issues of the run is a man desperate for action, who will ignore danger in order to satisfy his desire for action. Obviously, there’s no way he’s going to allow the giant turtles in issue #42 (who are strangely not unlike certain mutant ninja ones, with their lieutenant, Lairdeast, sounding somehow familiar …) to take Junior, but when Junior suddenly starts talking and growing, Dreadstar doesn’t think this is all that weird. Similarly, when Palafox appeals to him, the crew is initially reticent, but Vanth eventually wins them to his side. Oedi and Iron Angel remain stubborn, but Vanth promises Oedi that he will cut bait if things seem off. He doesn’t bother to investigate anything about Palafox, claiming he’s telling the truth simply because no one would voluntarily live on the horrid planet where he’s been exiled. Dreadstar doesn’t stop to think that perhaps there’s a good reason he was exiled.
Another interesting thing about Peter David is he rarely allows his characters to catch their breaths, knowing that boredom in real life is inevitable, but boredom in a comic book is deadly. As soon as Palafox triumphantly reclaims his empire, he starts executing traitors, even those who claim they have “seen the light” and will be loyal to him. Dreadstar, of course, can’t countenance this, and his crew quickly goes from heroes to outcasts, as the allies that Dreadstar led into battle align themselves with their new emperor and turn against their former commander. Without making too big a deal of it (except for Iron Angel, who keeps saying “I told you so”), David shows that Vanth is foolish and headstrong, and that fighting a war is far, far different from governing an empire. Vanth allowed himself to be blinded by the sparkle of battle, even though he constantly claims he no longer wants to be a warrior. He never understands the ruthlessness that is required to run a government. Palafox is evil, sure, but he is also a politician, and being a politician sometimes means doing things that are unpalatable. As David moves into the second grand arc of the run, Palafox becomes more and more unhinged, but that has a great deal to do with Junior and not necessarily to do with Palafox’s moral character. He does despicable things, but David never allows us to think that his son was any better than he was. It’s a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” sort of thing, and Dreadstar has once again failed to learn a lesson about government. Starlin kept Vanth relatively immature, but with fewer consequences for him. David keeps Vanth immature, but we see the consequences in much greater detail, especially when it comes to Iron Angel.
First, however, Vanth has a breakdown. He understands that the carnage Palafox is unleashing on the galaxy is largely his fault, and his mind can’t handle it. In issue #53, he shuts down, but then, as he dreams of his dead wife and the life he no longer has, he snaps and starts killing the soldiers who are searching for his crew with wild abandon. In a particularly brutal scene, Iron Angel tries to calm him down, and he rips her cybernetic arms clean off. It’s all the more tragic because he doesn’t remember doing it, so when he comes out of his frenzy, he asks her what happened. It’s a horrific moment, and underlines David’s point that Vanth is a force of nature, and should not be trusted. Even when he comes to realize that he’s at fault, he still gets people injured.
His attempts to make it right lead into the second grand arc of the book, which covers issues #51-60. Junior switches to Palafox’s side when it becomes clear that Dreadstar and his crew are turning against the new emperor, and Palafox conjures up a sword of power so that they can battle the new rebels. Dreadstar tries to stop Junior from grabbing the sword, because he understands that it is not unlike his own sword that was destroyed years before, except opposite – as in evil. Of course, Junior gets the sword, which ultimately leads to his downfall, because he can’t forget his love for Iron Angel and give himself over to the sword. The sword, like Dreadstar’s was, is sentient, female, and rather jealous. Junior was supposed to love it, but by becoming mortal, he opened himself up to mortal emotions, and his love for Iron Angel ultimately destroys him. Junior, it turns out, is the last remnant of the Twelve Gods of the Instrumentality, who were destroyed in issue #39, and he thought that by becoming mortal, he would learn how to get his revenge on Dreadstar. Instead he fell into an all-too-mortal weakness, love, and in issue #60, which is as wonderful a full-scale battle issue as #50 was, his love for Angel prevents him from killing her, which brings the wrath of the sword down upon him. He kills himself rather than kill Angel, but his soul drags Angel’s with him as it departs, leaving her body a shell. It’s a horrible fate, and one that spurs Dreadstar to the next phase of his adventure. However, it again speaks to the failure of Dreadstar as a hero. He helps put a megalomaniac on the throne, and he doesn’t, in the end, defeat Palafox. He nurtures a child who is obviously something dark, and that child ends up almost killing everyone. He doesn’t actually defeat Junior either, and allows Iron Angel’s soul to be stolen. It’s fascinating to read as David tears Vanth down throughout the course of the run. Even as the stories are gripping and full of action and adventure, we are witnessing a man who once toppled a galactic empire lose a bit of his sanity and his moral compass. By the end of issue #60, Dreadstar is a pathetic figure screaming at a soul that he’ll hunt him down to the end of the universe. Often, comic book writers make their heroes suffer in order to redeem them and prove that they can triumph over adversity, but Dreadstar doesn’t get redemption. Whenever he thinks he has it, he does something else to lose it. It can get relentlessly upsetting, but it’s still a very interesting way to look at the heroic ideal that David is writing about here. All the members of his crew do things that are less than noble throughout the run, but they redeem themselves. Only Dreadstar is denied that. He goes from one battle to another, never finding peace. The instant Junior departs, he resurrects the Lord High Papal, who fights Vanth in another drag-down-knock-out fight that comprises issue #61. In many ways, David is parodying the endless resurrections in mainstream superhero comics, as the Papal doesn’t understand what has happened to him and Dreadstar obliges his bloodlust. He tells his old enemy, “We battle over goals that have no meaning. But if that’s what must be … then that’s what will be!” Again, it’s a sad statement by someone who can’t let go. Vanth has no concept of life without fighting.
The other members of the crew – Oedi, Skeevo, Iron Angel, Teuton, and eventually Izak, a six-armed bounty hunter, and Cookie, a cat-woman whom Oedi “wins” in a battle early in the run – go through their own personal traumas, and David does a nice job contrasting their problems with Vanth’s. Oedi is the cast member who gets the most attention, as he has been with Vanth since the beginning, and his rational approach to their adventures, even as he is trying to deal with Cookie, who keeps calling herself his slave and is also a spy for Rok, Palafox’s son. Oedi never acts immaturely, even if he does lose his temper occasionally. When he discovers that Cookie is a spy, he feeds her false information that enables Dreadstar’s army to surprise Rok and defeat him. She turns it around on him and accuses him of using her as much as she used him, but although Oedi reacts with anger, when it comes time to execute her as a traitor, he can’t do it. Cookie joins their group, and she and Oedi become lovers. It’s interesting to contrast the way Oedi handles the things in his life as opposed to Vanth. He isn’t perfectly rational by any means, but he does try to think things through before jumping in with both feet. And when he does become an action figure (in issue #56, which is a very funny parody of the Batman movie), he does so not with Vanth’s reckless disregard for anything but his own desire for fighting, but with an eye toward helping the downtrodden and ridding a world of its obviously evil overlords. Vanth wants adventure; Oedi wants justice. Which character is more mature?
Then there is the character of Iron Angel, whose real name is Claudia. She becomes the moral compass of the book, the “voice of reason,” and it’s interesting to track what David puts her through as the voice of reason and what it means. On one level, David certainly didn’t mean to make any sort of statement about Claudia – there are very good reasons why she gets her arms ripped off and her soul stolen. On another level, however, Claudia is a perfect example of why “realism” in comics is difficult to pull off: the “rational” in comic books almost always is punished somehow. First, however, let’s look at what happens to Claudia. Junior falls in love with her, even though she doesn’t trust him. As he grows up, she still fears him, but is also attracted to him. She, unlike Vanth, is torn between her desires and her fears. She succumbs to her desires once or twice when Junior kisses her, but she never succumbs completely, retaining her rationality about the entire situation. When Vanth freaks out, the reason he rips Claudia’s arms off is easy: they’re artificial, having been grafted onto her in a Church experiment back in the old Empirical Galaxy. Therefore, they can be re-attached with little fuss. If Oedi had tried to calm Vanth when he’s in his frenzy, there would have been a lot more blood and mess. Junior stealing Claudia’s soul makes sense, too, not only because he loved her. Willow, who left her body behind back in issue #37 to merge with the computer that governed the Empirical Galaxy, downloaded her consciousness into Vanth’s ship and has been tagging along with him. Palafox brings up the idea of returning to a body soon after he regains control of his empire, and when Junior steals Claudia’s soul, Willow simply enters her body and helps Vanth fight the Lord High Papal. It would have been interesting to see Willow enter a male body, but David had set things up so well with regard to Junior and his twisted love for Claudia that it was perfectly logical to have Willow take the body over. So both horrific events that occur are reasonable within the context of the book. However, it’s also a form of punishment, as Claudia steps outside the narrative very often and points out what a fool Vanth is being. I don’t see it as something anti-female, because David has a long track record of writing interesting women, but I do see it as anti-rational, because Vanth, as the hero, must survive and, more importantly, be right. Claudia dares to question the hero, and therefore, she must pay. All the other cast members – Oedi included – fall in line with what Vanth is doing, even though they occasionally chafe at it. Claudia keeps needling Dreadstar about his failures, and David is making a sly statement about the people who would question the wisdom of the comic-book hero. Yes, Vanth is immature and never learns his lessons. But he always survives. It’s Claudia who suffers the most in this run, and although I’m sure David didn’t intend it to be a commentary on those who want to stop the hero, it turns into that, because he didn’t have to treat the only crew member who is so openly rebellious so poorly.
Angel Medina’s art, which I saw for the first time in this book, is perfectly suited for what David is doing. Medina does a wonderful job with the wild alien scenes that are strewn throughout the issues, and he actually comes up with several alien lifeforms that don’t simply look like green-skinned humans. He brings a marvelous sense of the absurd to the proceedings, too, which does a nice job bringing the weirdness of David’s scripts to life. (We’ll just ignore that a lot of the characters look like they should be singing back-up for Winger – it was the late Eighties/early Nineties, after all.) When he is called upon to draw battle scenes, he’s up to the task, as well. Medina has never looked as good as this – his art has, interestingly enough, become more grotesque through the years – and it’s somewhat of a shame to hear people talking about how much they hate his art when they have never seen this. I certainly don’t like what he’s done recently, but his work on Dreadstar remains beautiful to look at and fun to scan – you almost always see something new in the tremendous detail he brings to each page, and the manic energy of the panels make this a wonderful synergy of drawings and words.
David stumbled at the end of the run, possibly because he wasn’t sure where the title was going. Issues #63 and 64 are rather funny, as David satirizes both American talk-show culture and Star Trek – he wrote many Star Trek comics, so he’s eminently qualified to shred the sub-culture – but although the issues are enjoyable, they come off as a bit shallow. Like I said, it may be because Dreadstar was “cancelled” suddenly after issue #64, with a promise that it would return in a few months in a new format (with Paris Cullins on art). Unfortunately, First went out of business before it ever arrived, so Dreadstar fans were left wanting. In 1994 Malibu Comics published a six-issue mini-series by David and Ernie Colon that continued the story, but it was not the best work David has ever done, and is unfortunately pretty forgettable, despite some nice moments. Since then Dreadstar has lain fallow, although I certainly could imagine Starlin or even David picking it up again, as the possibilities for more stories certainly exist.
These issues are not to my knowledge collected in trades, but the back issues are not expensive and are probably pretty easy to find. They are very fun comics and show the skill that Peter David brings to his writing. Teamed with the vibrant art of Medina, they make wonderful reading with quite a bit of subtext to chew on. They are great comics, and it’s unfortunate David never got a chance to continue the story he had started.
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