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Dreadstar December — Dreadstar #2

The second issue in and Jim Starlin decides to give us the origin of Willow and, for it’s time, it’s rather shocking.

Dreadstar #2 (“Willow’s Story”) by Jim Starlin tells the origin of Willow and also introduces the fifth member of Dreadstar and Company: Skeevo. His introduction is brief as he helped the group obtain some necessary supplies on a planet. The main focus here is Willow and explaining how she came to be in the group. Before that, we get a scene where a gang of five armed guards approach their ship and all that stands between them and it is Willow. She is death personified here. Looking determined and just plain mad, she says “You don’t need to be a telepath to read you characters. / Still, you get one warning. / Turn around and head back to where you came from. / There’s nothing for you here except death.” When they don’t listen, we’re shown the very briefest of fights. Starlin stages it masterfully, showing a bunch of panels overlaid of the men preparing to fire, a large shot of them firing, and ending the page with Willow duck and firing two laser pistols. Dreadstar and Oedi here the conflict, come running, and find five dead men with Willow standing there. Dreadstar asks if she’s all right and she responds, “Yes. / I’m fine” before walking away.

When I first began (re)reading Dreadstar, I wonderined in a random thoughts column why Willow isn’t remembered by more fans as an example of a strong, independent, flat-out awesome woman comics character. One of the reasons given is that Dreadstar, while a work most have heard of, isn’t exactly a very popular book and a lot of people just don’t have any experience with her. Part of me wonders if another reason is that her origin, groundbreaking at the time, would just be another ‘woman who was abused’ origin right now. When she was a child, her mother was taken away by the authorities for daring to say something critical about the Instrumentality government, causing her father to begin drinking and, one night, he sexually abused her. Because of his guilt, he took off the next day, and Willow drifted, eventually settling into a young adulthood of drinking and drugs until she cleaned herself up and began working for the Instrumentality on a mining colony. That was until Vanth and Oedi visited the colony and she was trapped under that giant boulder. After Vanth saved her, she stowed away on their ship, wanting to join them. They discovered she had latent telepathic abilities and Syzygy trained her. But, despite all of his training, something held her back. That’s when we discover what happened to her as a child and, in the aftermath, she finds her inner strength/light, but it blinds her. They give her a monk to act as her eyes and that brings it all up to date.

For January 1983 (the cover date… also the same month I was born), this is pretty heady stuff. The way that Starlin depicts the rape is very sophisticated and reminds me of some of the sequence in Watchmen. Strong, dynamic images that are meant to convey a specific message without actually showing anything. It’s a series of ten panels taking up the bottom two tiers of a page:

Panel 1: A shot from a distance looking down on Willow’s father as he stands in a doorway. A bottle is in his hand, his shadow goes into the room, light coming from outside of it.

Panel 2: Young Willow sits up in bed, holding the covers close to her chest, seemingly confused.

Panel 3: Full-on shot of the father’s head from the chest up. He looks angry, but also subdued.

Panel 4: His left leg as the bottle falls from his left hand.

Panel 5: The bottle explodes on the ground.

Panel 6: A distant shot looking down from behind the father as he approaches Willow in bed.

Panel 7: Willow still holding the cover up, seemingly from her father’s perspective as he nears the bed. Her face looks confused, but not scared.

Panel 8: A shot possibly from Willow’s perspective. Her father’s face is in 3/4s profile and there’s a bit of a sneer on it.

Panel 9: Full-on shot of him as he undoes his belt.

Panel 10: A close-up of Willow’s panicked right eye as she looks up at him. A scream: “DADDY, NO!”

That final panel recalls the fifth panel of the page, a shot of Willow’s telepathic/spirit self’s eye as she’s about to relive this memory, her shouting “NO!”

It’s a compelling sequence that we actually see bits of four pages before. It comes as Willow tells Syzygy her story, ending one part with “Then one night he came to my room…” Then, we get this long panel that has Syzygy and the young Willow (as that’s her form while recounting her past) overlaid atop flashes of the ten panels depicting that night, some repeated, only the ninth panel missing entirely. We only learn what happens because Syzygy forces the issue, taking control and, oddly, performing a form of mental rape. It’s unclear if he expected to discover what he did; it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t know… But, that’s also from a 2010 perspective where so much about child molestation has been exposed in the past couple of decades and rape in comics is common place. Your mind just kind of jumps there when you get sentences like “Then one night he came to my room…”

Starlin’s art in this issue is some of his most impressive work. The sequence I outlined above is so stunning, but he also does these fantastic mental landscapes with complex layouts, using repeated panels in a very effective manner, as well as smooth zooms and pull aways. There’s a lot that’s cinematic about the way he draws some sequences. He’ll also use light and shadow as he sees fit, throwing characters into these dark shadows for short sequences to show their inner turmoil. One of my favourite panels is a shot of Willow from the bottom of her nose to her forehead, eyes blank, her saying “I’m blind, aren’t I?” It’s so effective, because it’s a short, long panel that should take up the entire tier, but has a white space after it that plays off her newfound blindness so well.

Glynis Wein’s colouring is very strong on this issue. In the early sequence where Willow takes on the gang, the overlapping panels use a blue/green filter, while the panel where they open fire has this deep red background, while the men are all coloured completely in a pale yellow. It’s visually arresting. The ‘rape’ sequence is done entirely in red, no other colours. The red tone used for a panel from Syzygy’s perspective when Willow ‘sees’ through his cybernetic eye is very cool.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Willow’s childhood sexual abuse. It informs her character, obviously, but Starlin is careful to make sure that it never defines her. Her embracing of her inner light is meant to show her moving past it to a degree (not completely), drawing on her own strength to recognise that she doesn’t need to be held back by something done to her like that. It all happens very quickly, but I like where Starlin takes it. As the series progresses, the issue of her father does come up again, but Starlin wisely avoids having her ever find her father. His influence to make her angry and harder than she probably would be otherwise, especially knowing what she knows — the Willow of the opening wouldn’t exist without Syzygy unlocking that memory… but a big part of that is also the white light scene.

Two issues in and Starlin produces a damn fine comic. One of the series’s strongest issues, I’d say. Tomorrow, we’ll find out how he follows it up.

13 Comments

“…and rape in comics is common place”.

And people wonder why kids don’t read comics these days.

Is anyone else sicked by this trend?

Yes, I’m very sicked [sic] by compound words being broken up into two separate words. Kids will never learn proper grammar that way!

Crap. Of course I meant “sickened”…

I have to say, even in 1983 it felt kind of exploitative. Kind of a Very Special Issue, y’know?

Also, IMS Willow was ever after presented as pretty asexual — a bit of an unrequited crush on Dreadstar, of course, but otherwise no romantic or sexual relationships. See, she was raped, and now she can never have a normal sex life. She does end up with cool superpowers, though, so that’s okay.

On the plus side, Willow’s consistently drawn like an attractive but normally proportioned human female. Starlin may even have used an actual woman as a body model! Go Starlin!

Also, I suppose you could argue there’s a continuing theme here that power comes with a price — Darklock is horribly maimed, Willow loses her sight. Other hand, that doesn’t really seem to apply to Vanth Dreadstar. Other-other hand, Dreadstar is something of a Starlin standin, which means that different rules apply.

Doug M.

“why Willow isn’t remembered by more fans as an example of a strong, independent, flat-out awesome woman comics character.”

Was she really that strong and/or independent, though? She was one member of an ensemble built around a leader who was the book’s protagonist. I think she had a “solo adventure” or two, but she never did much on her own. She wasn’t the team’s second-in-command — that was Syzygy — and I don’t recall her having that much of an influence on decision-making. It’s been 20+ years since I looked at this book, but I remember her as being something of a Wendy to the Lost Boys of Team Dreadstar.

“One of the reasons given is that Dreadstar, while a work most have heard of, isn’t exactly a very popular book and a lot of people just don’t have any experience with her. Part of me wonders if another reason is that her origin, groundbreaking at the time, would just be another ‘woman who was abused’ origin right now.”

(c) all of the above. Dreadstar was a long time ago, and the series didn’t run for that long, and never got distributed outside of comic shops.

Willow never meeting her father: yeah, it probably speaks well of Starlin that he never went there.

The only artist I can think of who did something like that, and sort of pulled it off, was Grant Morrison. (Yeah, big surprise there.) In fact, now that I think of it, I half wonder if Crazy Jane’s backstory didn’t owe something to Willow. Crazy Jane was more plausible, though, and more fucked up. And more plausibly fucked up, if you see what I mean.

Doug M.

No enough people remember Willow as a strong female character, eh? Well maybe you should force some sort of deal with your sometimes Random Thoughts fill in, Kelly Thompson. Random thought: Read Dreadstar!

Doug, just because she’s part of the group doesn’t mean Willow doesn’t stand out on her own. Her fight with Monalo, the subplot with her mother, later when her powers are augmented… she’s not on part with Vanth, but she’s the equal of Syzygy and Oedi, I’d argue.

@Doug M. “Also, I suppose you could argue there’s a continuing theme here that power comes with a price — Darklock is horribly maimed, Willow loses her sight. Other hand, that doesn’t really seem to apply to Vanth Dreadstar. Other-other hand, Dreadstar is something of a Starlin standin, which means that different rules apply.”

It’s been years since I read it, but didn’t Dreadstar destroy a galaxy (in Metamorphosis Odyssey) and then have his family slaughtered in the Dreadstar Graphic Novel that preceded the series? Do those not count as him paying a price?

“Do those not count as him paying a price?”

I’m not sure they do, actually. Dreadstar’s traumatic past doesn’t really seem to have permanently damaged him. The loss of his wife and child is rarely referred to; he doesn’t spend much time talking or thinking about them. it’s not a Batman-style primal wound or a continuing motivation. Basically, they died in order to kick-start his new heroic career.

@Chad, sure, she’s the equal of Syzygy or Oedi. That means she’s one of three roughly equal backup characters to the main guy. And I’d argue that she had less agency than (for instance) Syzygy.

She’s not a horrible character, nor an overly dull one. But I don’t see what would make her stand out from the second rank, even if the series had received much more exposure.

Doug M.

Syzygy was clearly superior to Willow, who by her turn overshadowed Oedi. Then again, Oedi was emphasized more than Willow anyway.

Actually, it seems to me that at this point Syzygy is more powerful and wiser than Vanth Dreadstar. In many ways I liked Syzygy best. Willow had perhaps the best plots, however, mostly involving Monalo and her own past.

And of course, later on things changed a lot for both Willow and Vanth. He is not too scarred this early on, but I don’t know that this will last.

I remember liking the Willow-Monalo conflict. The way it got resolved was a fun surprise.

That said, I’ve been thinking about this, and it occurs to me that _Dreadstar_ probably doesn’t have a single issue that would pass the Bechdel test. Not really a criticism; very very few comics could, in 1983.

But WRT Willow, in particular, her history and character has really been shaped by men: her father rapes her, Vanth rescues her, Syzygy trains her, Monalo is her nemesis. A female character who’s all about the male characters around here — who only becomes a protagonist and gains agency by or through those males — is perhaps less likely to be remembered as strong and independent.

Willow definitely overshadowed Oedi in terms of power; Oedi was supposed to be the Everyman character, the (relatively) sane and normal one among the superpowered but damaged.

Doug M.

How many characters exist without definition from others the way you describe, though?

Very few. But my point here is, it’s a female character taking definition from a bunch of male characters.

Expand the question: How many female characters of significance are there in Dreadstar? I don’t remember there being a lot, though I welcome correction.

So you’ve basically got one female character, and she’s there because she was rescued / mentored by the two major male characters. Oh, and she’s a rape victim.

One’s first reaction to this is not “wow, what a strong independent female character we have here”.

Seriously: I think it´s not only that the abused woman thing has been done so many times since then (though it has, dear lord, yes it has), but also that the one token female in the all-boys adventure comic had already been done to death by 1983.

Doug M.

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