Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cosmic Odyssey, Part One: The Players Gather

Cosmic Odyssey #1 (1988)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Mike Mignola
Inker: Carlos Garzon

Karen: Over the next four weeks I will look at Jim Starlin's and Mike Mignola's 1988 four-part series, Cosmic Odyssey. I'm working from a TPB version  that unfortunately does not include the original covers nor does it show where the issues began and ended, but with a little detective work, I believe I have figured it out. It's really frustrating to me when publishers don't include covers, or just run stories together. I much prefer to have things presented in their original format. But this will work.

Karen: In the book The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures, Starlin describes how the project began. As usual, Starlin went down his own path. "DC had just published a series called The Books of Magic, which apparently mapped out the mystical DC universe. They wanted the same sort of thing for their science fiction characters. I wasn't all that into this idea and wrote up the script for Cosmic Odyssey the way I wanted to. No one seemed to be bothered by this and the talented Mike Mignola was given the assignment of pencilling it. It was only when his pages started coming in that someone up at DC finally noticed I hadn't written the book they'd asked for, but by then there was nothing much to be done about it since two issues had already been inked. So they dumped it out on the stands with next to no promotion, figuring that it would sell what it did and that would be the end of that." 

Karen: Starlin wryly adds, "Twice a year since 1988, Mike and I have been getting healthy royalty checks for Cosmic Odyssey from DC Comics. It doesn't look like it's ever going to go out of print."

Karen: So what is it that makes this series so popular? The easiest answer is to point to the cast of characters: it's got Superman, Batman, and Darkseid all front row center, with a gaggle of Kirby Fourth World characters in supporting roles and Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern John Stewart, and Starfire from the Teen Titans, although she hardly seems to be the same character (I don't think Starlin had any feel for her -she was most likely included to pull in the Titans fans). The sheer number of super-heroes is sure to bring some readers in. Then of course, it's also got a grand space adventure, with big stakes (the universe!), so that helps. Some people might pick it up just because Starlin wrote it, or because Mignola drew it.There seem to be any number of reasons that it's stuck around all this time.

Karen: Honestly, I read this as something of an outsider. I didn't read the books when they came out. I think I did pick up the first issue, but didn't find myself that interested. But now, after having read Kirby's Fourth World tales via two Omnibus editions, and being a Starlin fan, I wanted to see what he had done with these characters. It's different for me reading this series than say reading something like the Infinity Gauntlet or some other big cosmic story in the Marvel universe. My connection to the Marvel characters is strong, and when things happen to the characters, I feel it. With the DC characters, I am much more detached. I approach this more with a sense of curiosity than anything else.

Karen: I do wish Starlin had been able to draw the story as well as write it. Nothing against Mignola, who does a good job, but his art takes some getting used to. I read Hellboy and appreciated its quirkiness there, but I don't know that I find it well-suited to this cosmic tale.

Karen: The first issue opens with Superman and Lightray of the New Gods flying into Gotham City right as a boom tube opens up and a bunch of Apokolips soldiers come marching out. The misshapen creatures panic at the sight of the two heroes and re-open their dimensional transport and escape, but one misses the tube and winds up cowering in an alley way, terrified at being left alone on this alien world. Mignola does a nice job using a series of panels that gradually pull away from the soldier to depict his sense of isolation.

Karen: The scene switches to a planetoid in the Alpha Centauri system. The New God Metron sits in his Moebius chair, comatose. A boom tube shatters the silence and Darkseid arrives, accompanied by a group of technicians. They examine Metron and inform Darkseid that all of his data records are intact. They bring him back with them to Apokolips, where Darkseid studies the information and comes to a conclusion that does not please him: he's going to face a power greater than his own, and in order to overcome it, he has to call on the help of those he despises: heroes.

Karen: Back on Earth, weeks after the initial boom tube incident in Gotham, Batman is called in to investigate a missing policeman. Commissioner Gordon tells Batman that others have gone missing in the area too. Batman decides to use himself as bait and puts on a disguise and wanders around the area. He soon determines that whomever is abducting people is utilizing the sewers, and he makes his way down into them.He finds a hideout, and realizes that his target is too big to be human. Further, he finds technology of alien origin. But the real surprise is when he finds bodies  (and parts of bodies) hung up like meat in a meat locker. This sight even gets to Batman (this was back when he was still somewhat human, after all), and he becomes more determined than ever to stop this thing. Unfortunately, he soon runs into the Apokolips refugee and discovers him to be a towering brute. Batman somewhat foolishly still tries to take him on and gets thrown around like a rag doll. As much as he hates to do it, Batman takes the alien's own gun and uses it on him, blowing a nice big hole in his center.He heads off to get the police but when they return, the alien is gone! What's more, the missing cop, who Bats had seen hanging up like a side of beef, is also missing. The Darknight Detective is puzzled, but he's on the case.
Karen: The White House is paid a visit by an ambassador from New Genesis, who has brought a list of names of Earth ambassadors they would like to meet with. Superman is on the list, and he helps to gather the rest: Batman, Green Lantern John Stewart, The Martian Manhunter, Starfire, and an old man named Mr. Blood. Once they're assembled, the New God fires up his mother box and they're transported to New Genesis. Mignola ably mimics Kirby's otherworldly paradise, replete with giant statues, abstract shapes, and an abundance of foliage. The heroes are greeted by New Genesis leaders Highfather, Orion, and Lightray. Superman immediately begins asking questions, realizing the whole "diplomat" thing was a ruse. Highfather apologizes for having to lie to them, and then another voice says, "It was my idea." Darkseid then steps into the light. Mignola draws Darkseid so stout he at times looks like Thor's pal Volstagg! Superman sees red and goes flying at him, but is repelled. Orion restrains the Man of Steel as the New Gods explain that they have formed a temporary alliance with Darkseid, due to a terrible threat that must all soon face.

Karen: In order for the heroes to understand what they are about to face, Highfather has to give them a history lesson. Really, it's more like a short course- it goes on for 7 pages. That's one of the luxuries of having 48 page issues. To boil it down, millenia ago, two highly advanced civilizations, one humanoid and the other non-humanoid, came into contact and wound up going to war. They threw all sorts of nasty weapons at each other, but the war went on. Finally the humanoid race stumbled upon the answer: the anti-life equation. This discovery was harnessed with technology, a cannon that would wipe out the aliens' solar system. But when it was fired it went haywire, exploding and consuming the humanoids' world and then spreading through more and more star systems. It seemed as though it would tear through the entire universe, but suddenly, without warning, it turned back on itself and imploded. Somehow, two planets orbiting a star survived the cataclysm -New Genesis and Apokolips. They were thrown back to a primal state, and somehow separated from the rest of the universe, reachable now only by boom tube.

Karen: J'Onn J'Onnz asks what this has to do with the current situation. Darkseid explains that although he had long been seeking the secrets of the Anti-Life Equation so has Metron -although for different reasons. He and Highfather believe that although Metron is now catatonic, he still retains the knowledge he gleaned of the Anti-Life Equation. That's where J'Onn comes into play. USing his telepathy, he is able to link with Metron's mind and see what happened to him. We then get a five page flashback told from Metron's point of view, which describes how his thirst for knowledge drove him to learn about the Equation. After he had deciphered the last part of the equation, Metron  went to an unoccupied part of space and triggered the formula. It hurled him into another dimension, to the source of the Equation. It was there that he discovered the truth -the Anti-Life force is a sentient being. Metron's presence has alerted it to a way into our universe. As the New God tried to escape, the Anti-Life entity reached out for him. Metron managed to close off our universe, but not before four aspects of the Anti-Life entity were able to pass through into our universe. 

Karen: Darkseid has theorized that these four aspects will seek out four planets to destroy, and that the destruction of any two of them will cause such instability to our galaxy, that it will collapse. The heroes are incredulous, but Highfather backs up Darkseid's statement, so that's good enough for them. Darkseid tells them he's chosen teams to go to each planet: Superman and Orion to Thanagar, Batman and Forager ( a type of sub-New God) to Earth, Starfire and Lightray to Rann, and Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter to Xanshi. He outfits each team with a device to capture the aspect and then uses a boom tube to send them to their targets. Once on Earth, Batman stops at a payphone(!) and makes a call to someone, asking them to keep an eye on Darkseid (!!). What is the Dark Knight up to, hmmm? Back on New Genesis, Darkseid and Highfather turn to Mr. Blood, who has been neglected throughout our tale. Blood asks what his role is to be. "You are to be a part of a duet," Darkseid says. A curtain is drawn back and the twisted, emaciated body of the Demon is revealed.  

Karen: This first issue unravels rather slowly, as all of the pieces are put out on the board and the plan is revealed. This is my major complaint with this issue -it drags. And as much as I enjoy Batman's role in things, really, why would he be chosen? He's strictly an Earth-bound character, who, granted, is terrifically clever and determined, but not suited to adventures involving other worlds. But the answer of course is he might be the most popular character in the DC universe, so if you're doing a limited series, he's going to be in it. I also have a hard time seeing the New Genesis folks agreeing so readily to an alliance with Darkseid, but again, you have to move the plot forward somehow. So right now, the most interesting and compelling part of the story for me was the segment with Batman dealing with a murderous cannibalistic alien, even though I'm not sure Batman should really be in this type of story! In part two, the story moves on to alien worlds. Will it prove to be more exciting? 


Edo Bosnar said...

Ah, Cosmic Odyssey, so beautiful, with many rather good parts, but ultimately disappointing in so many ways...

Anyway, I really liked this the first time I read it, and later realized that I was just giving it a pass because of the art. I pretty much loved Mignola's style from the start, i.e., I had no problems getting used to it - and I think it's perfectly suited to this story. Even now, it's such a pleasure to look at those scanned panels.
That said, Karen, your point that it would have been better if Starlin had drawn it makes me think: maybe the story would have been better, too. My reasoning is as follows: pretty much everything Starlin both wrote and drew is excellent, whereas a lot of the stuff he just wrote runs from good through all right to really bad (I'm lookin' at you Batman: The Cult).

Otherwise, I really enjoyed the review Karen, and I'm looking forward to future installments.

Doug said...

Before the fun starts here, just wanted everyone to know that our buddy Steve has been freed from the clutches of the Google html police. Steve Does Comics is back open for business.


Doc Savage said...

This must have come out after I stopped buying new comics. But I wouldn't have bought it anyway. I confess I am not interested in "cosmic" stories, but more than that I have never liked Mignola's highly stylized artwork. Put them together, and it's nothing that appeals to me.

Not sure I like the definition on what exactly the Anti-Life Equation is supposed to be. Seems like it was better left an undefined McGuffin, or let Kirby define it.

david_b said...

Whaaat Doug..?? Is your memory THAT limited, sir..?

'Batman not suited for adventures involving other worlds'..?

What was 'Outer-Space Batman' from the late 50s/early 60s all about, that everyone conveeeeeeniently forgets about when they complain about Dozer's treatment..?

All in all, great review sir. I do like the 'Anti-Life Equation' idea, but it sure sounds like Starlin was trying to reheat a 'MarVell/Thanos' souffle here, which never quite works out. It's simply DC characters grafted onto a Marvel idea.

Not to say that's not entertaining, but just calling 'an aquatic fowl and aquatic fowl'..

david_b said...

And thanks to Edo for calling out YET AGAIN Batman: The Cult.

Sorry folks and comrades of BAB, still nursing a healthy grudge here.

Worst couple of measely bucks ever spent.


William said...

Nice job Karen. Like you, I was not the world's biggest DC fan when Cosmic Odyssey came out, but I picked it up because it looked interesting. Well, I immediately loved it, (for both the story and the art). In fact it's one of my all-time favorite mini-series, as I posted in yesterday's topic…

2. COSMIC ODYSSEY - by Starlin & Mignola
Don't know why I love this one so much, but I do. I think Starlin is at his best when writing epic sci-fi adventures, and it was also the first time I realized that l really dig Mike Mignola's art. In fact the art in this series had a big influence on my own drawing style. (For what it's worth).

I think one of the reasons this story was so popular and enduring is because of the straight forward movie style plot. Which basically goes like this:

A powerful evil villain is out to destroy the universe by blowing up four key planets. So, what to do? Simple. You gather together 8 powerful superheroes, split them into 4 teams of 2, and send each pair to one of the endangered planets to stop whatever badness is going on there.

When you think about it, it's really a pretty simple story, but those are usually the most effective and enduring kind. (Just look at the original Star Wars for example). Cosmic Odyssey is a lot like that - The main narrative is very easy to follow and understand because it's divided up into smaller units. That is something I always loved about this book. Plus, once it gets going, it's very action packed and never gets too overly complicated. It's just a lot of fun.

Karen, you said didn't really like Mignola's art on this, but I have to respectfully disagree. I absolutely LOVE the art in this series. (It's really what first attracted me to it). I think that Mignola's deceptively simple style fits perfectly with the basic "good vs. evil" plot.

This series made me a much bigger fan of DC and got me more interested in the characters. It also made John Stewart my favorite Green Lantern. But I'll discuss that later, after your next couple of installments.

Edo Bosnar said...

I was going to save some of my main misgivings about this story for later reviews, but Matt pretty much hit the nail on the head: the Anti-life Equation as sentient being.

Oh, and David, I think you've got your reviewers mixed up...

Mike said...

Thanks Karen -- I never picked this one up because Kirby's Fourth World stuff never appealed to me before. However, being exposed to it more through re-watching the Justice League and Superman cartoons with my son, it has really piqued my interest. After your posts I'll determine whether I want to pick this up to read or not.

Based on your scans I also think Mignola's style actually fits this material. And as far as Batman doing out-of-this-world stuff, I would argue that Batman has always been involved doing extraordinary fantasy things like that, from the Golden Age right on up. I wholeheartedly agree that the best Batman is always when he is The Detective. However, he is easily DC's #1 character since the 1960's, so from a marketing standpoint, for better or worse he basically becomes involved in just about everything.

Doug said...

Thanks, Edo. Yep, David -- this one's all-Karen, all-the-time!

And she did a great job. I've gotten to see the future installments, and I have to heap kudos on her for tackling a four-issue prestige series all by her lonesome. Talk about your Herculean tasks! I'd have twisted her arm into splitting this into an 8-parter if I was on board!


david_b said...

Accck..!!! Karen, please accept my humble apologies.

Doug, I must pick on you more because I'm in that northern Chicago suburb called Milwaukee or something. Oy.

I hate bifocals. Seriously.

Still one MUST not ignore all the hard-driving, gritty stories of outer space wars won and conquests secured by our caped crusaders back in the days of Batmite, Bathound, Bathorse, Batwoman, Batgirl, the list tediously goes on.

Garett said...

This came out the year after I got out of comics, so I'm unfamiliar with it. The cover and those first few pages look good. I haven't been a big Mignola fan, little too stylized for me, but this looks worth picking up. I like the cast of characters involved. Looking forward to the rest of the review!

Here's a bit of an interview with Starlin that I found interesting.

UHQ: What were the differences of working with Marvel back in the days when you drew Adam Warlock and The Avengers (The Thanos saga), and the later period when you did the mini-series Infinity Gauntlet and Thanos Quest?

Starlin: The longer I work for Marvel the slower they are about okaying projects. When I did Warlock I talked to Roy Thomas in the afternoon and was drawing the first page that night. Now I’ve been waiting three months for them to give a green light on the Infinity Abyss.

Doug said...

I can never make up my mind about Mignola's style. I look at some of the pages posted today and like what's going on, but then I see others that are a bit "quirkier" and it's really not to my taste. I would say that overall I would not seek out his work.


Anonymous said...

And during the few moments that we have ..., we want to talk, right down to Earth, in a language that everybody here can easily understand.

The truly talented can take elements that are familiar and, seemingly, with little or no effort, craft stories that capture the imagination. This is a quest tale. Whether it's the long journey home, the destruction of the ring or the search for Spock, it's one we all know.

I wonder if Batman was in this at the beginning or if the Powers That Be inserted him?

Do we find out later that Batman dialed 1-NEED-ORACLE?

As I've mentioned before, I was a MARVEL-ombie but ended up following Byrne to DC. And stayed a bit.....

With Batman being the non-superpowered character, does that make him Frodo? Is Supes Aragon? Manhunter as an Elf? GL's the dwarf? Which one is Pink?

The Prowler (kinslayer, traitor, last lord of the Dreaming City, Emperor of a Dying Kingdom).

PS One point, Karen, I think the term might be man-eater and not cannibalistic.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for the review. I like some of Mignola's art, but I generally shy away from Cosmic comic stories, unless Starlin drew it. I prefer my heroes & villains to be slugging it out in Central Park or New York Harbor.

Karen said...

Nice to see all the comments here. I truly have mixed feelings about this miniseries, which will become more apparent as we go on. Like Doug, I find myself at times enjoying Mignola's art, especially his Batman, but at other times finding it unappealing (like Superman).

I would agree, the Anti-Life Equation would probably have been better off left as an abstract concept rather than as a nasty sentient death-figure. Don't we have enough of those?

Starlin seems like an obvious choice to come in and play with Kirby's Fourth World toys, but I can't say I am all that impressed with what he does with them. Maybe it would have been better to keep the focus on them and only bring in a couple of non-New Gods.

David B. -no worries. I assumed you had not had enough coffee. And yes, Batman CAN be anywhere, but I think he's best when he's Earthbound. Then again, he was my favorite part of the story.

Edo -I do wonder if Starlin might have been more engaged if he had also drawn it.

And what would the day be without Prowler quoting Malcolm X?

Steve Does Comics said...

Doug, thanks for the plug.

Doc Savage said...

Wasn't anti-life more like the absence of free will when Kirby wrote his 4th World stuff?

This version just seems so shallow in comparison to Kirby's depth.

Anonymous said...

It would've been interesting to see Starlin draw this, but his art didn't come off the same after the 70's. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it had something to do with the paper, the inking, the coloring, or the use of shadows. Maybe the medium didn't fit the artist anymore.
All I know is, is if you look at his stuff in Strange Tales or Warlock, vs. say, Dreadstar, it doesn't quite seem the same.

Doc Savage said...

Gee, I remember liking what little Dreadstar I read. Never liked Warlock or any of his ilk.

mr. oyola said...

I've never read it, but it looks beautiful to me.

I love me some so-called "stylized" comics art (isn't all stylized to some degree?), and the more cosmic the more stylized it should be.

I would probably never pick this up b/c I am not a big fan of Batman - but perhaps if I ever came across a cheap copy.

And Karen, I am with you. I HATE when the covers are not included. I can deal with no letters pages (though I miss those too), but the covers are a must as chapter breaks or at the very least as extras at the end of the collection.

Doc Savage said...

I, too, prefer the covers be included. The letters pages are sorely missed but there may be copyright issues involved in addition to space considerations, as the writer of the letter owns the rights. Curious whether they had to get releases or something for the letters reprinted in those Omnibus books. I love reading the letters in old comics.

david_b said...

The letters pages are what keeps me collecting the actual comics, more so than Masterwork-type alternatives, especially for Marvel.

William said...

Some have mentioned that they don't like Batman being involved in a space fantasy, cosmic type story, and I would definitely agree - most of the time. However, in the case of Cosmic Odyssey I think Batman works quite well. Mostly for the reason that he spends most of the story on Earth. In fact Batman's part in the first issue (when he tracks down the parademon) was one of my favorite parts of the whole series.

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