Characterized in the current issue of Comic Art as one of the genre’s first auteur artists, Starlin developed a personal aesthetic early on that departed from “house style” in reimaging a minor Lee/Kirby creation, Adam Warlock. The result is “a crazily dense, heady, philosophy-minded space opera,” according to writer Douglas Wolk. “Warlock was one of the first American metacomics—a story whose subtext had to do with the comics industry and the art of cartooning.” The meta-device remains a staple in graphic novels, artist-illustrators often depicting themselves hunched over drafting boards.
Noting another of his landmark achievements, Starlin stated, “I did the first-ever graphic novel in this country in 1982, The Death of Captain Marvel—80 pages. The French had been doing single stories for years, but there wasn’t anything that long in the United States, where you had a 17- to 22-page story until a serialized annual.”
Starlin’s Titan Thanos headlines in Marvel’s recently released, graphic novel-formatted The Infinity Gauntlet, illustrated by George Perez and Ron Lim and named for a gem-encrusted magical glove that grants the wearer power to destroy a goodly chunk of the universe with a flick of the wrist. Thanos sets about on this very mission, hoping to woo Mistress Death, which results in a gathering of superheroes—including Hulk, Spider-Man, and Wolverine—bent on reversing the Titan’s destructive course. While Starlin has also based comics around real-life themes, from cancer to incest, he admitted, “I’ve chosen to do superheroes because I like them. There’s also creativity versus the market; I need to make a living at this.”
Straddling the comic galaxy between mainstream and auteurism, Starlin’s newest graphic novel, Kid Kosmos, features 144 pages of his original story and art. Set partly in the Hudson Valley, it stars slang-talking young orphan Ray Torres, an anointed cosmic guardian who tangles with nemesis Hyperion Mors and other galactic threats, combats terrorism (President Bush and cabinet members portrayed in ironic send-ups) and prevents everyday catastrophes. In the final chapter, Kid Kosmos comes to the rescue when “a safety railin’ doesn’t live up to its promise” and a New Paltz Day School bus skids off the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge into the Hudson River.
Similar to the Cosmic Guard choosing Ray Torres as a protégé, their creator inducted real-life Ron Marz into the league of American comics writers. “It’s all Jim Starlin’s fault,” Marz quipped when asked by phone what led him to the industry. A Marist College graduate born and raised in Kingston, Marz lived in Woodstock while writing for the Kingston Daily Freeman. Meeting several Hudson Valley comic book artists rekindled a childhood interest in the genre. In the early 1990s, he co-wrote Silver Surfer storylines with mentor Starlin, who convinced Marvel to turn the series over to Ron. “It was kind of like jumping right into the major leagues without doing the minors,” said Marz. “And work has been steady ever since. I’ve danced with all the girls at the party—DC, Image, Dark Horse, and other publishers.” Additionally, he has provided expertise to film directors Guy Ritchie and John Woo.
Marz now lives in Duanesburg, outside of Albany. He recently wrapped a seven-year stint as main writer on DC’s Green Lantern. “I got to reinvent it from the ground floor,” the author said. He likewise inherited Witchblade, a formerly “girlie, pinup-type series,” turning it into a supernatural-noir vehicle featuring New York City police detective Sara Pezzini; “and the character keeps her clothes on.” Witchblade: Awakenings (issues 86-92 collected in graphic novel form by Top Cow Press) includes compelling artwork by over a dozen contributors, along with intelligent writing certain to hook traditional mystery-genre fans. Though the process of collaborative comic-book construction is different for almost every project, Marz likens it to producing a play or film. “As the writer you’re really visualizing the whole project, so that an artist can essentially draw what’s in your head,” he explained.
Crossing over into the realm of single-story graphic novels, Marz has released innovative titles for Dark Horse, including Samurai: Heaven and Earth, written in English and French and gorgeously drawn by Luke Ross, with artful, muted coloring by Jason Keith. Beginning in feudal Japan of 1704 and marching through time and space across China and Europe to the halls of King Louis XIV’s Versailles, it follows samurai warrior Shiro, who tracks the beautiful Lady Yoshiko, stolen by his enemies.
“As the graphic novel market matures, you’re going to see a whole lot of diversity in style in how you tell a story,” Marz stated.
As Samurai illustrates, globalization, both in terms of multicultural storylines and authorship, is another important development within the expanding graphic novel universe. “Comics have come so far, even in the time from when I started doing it, because of changes in production,” Marz said. In place of Xeroxed storyboard paste-ups delivered via fax or FedEx, writers and artists presently exchange work digitally and electronically. “Now nobody leaves their house,” admitted Marz, “which is how an American writer can script a story about a Japanese warrior, illustrated by a Brazilian artist [Ross].” Marz currently serves as an editor and consultant for Virgin, a comic book venture in India targeting the East Asian market.
Likewise ascendant in the global-readership stratosphere, canny editor Mark Siegel’s First Second imprint has attracted an international roster of author-artists, including Franco-Belgian comics movement luminary Joan Sfar (Vampire Loves) and Malaysian superstar cartoonist Lat (Kampung Boy). Raised in France and long accustomed to comics as broadly mainstream, Siegel observes, “It’s a perfect storm of convergence for graphic novels. There’s a worldwide pool of talent who feel this is their elected medium, this is their chosen way of expression—like music was in the 1960s: a vital form. There’s also the wave of reviews, critical coverage and visibility in popular culture and film. All this means that every major publishing house is jumping on the bandwagon. In the next couple of years there will be wave after wave of illustrated stories flooding the world.”
The world seems extremely receptive. Graphic novels have spawned recent movies (Sin City, V for Vendetta, 300) and turned up in college curricula; even the New York Times Magazine has started to serialize graphic novels in its Funny Pages. As Marz summed it up, “More and better comics are being produced today than ever before, and there’s more of an audience than ever before. Within the medium there’s a realization that you can tell any story—about the Holocaust, about someone with cancer—and that the marriage between word and image can be more powerful than prose alone.” Make that super-powerful.