By Tym Stevens, from his blog RockSex
I often say “STARSTRUCK is the greatest comic you’ve never read. And people say, “Well, what is it exactly?” (Or “Who are you?” or “How does this relate to Rock or Sex?” or “Please respect the 100 feet distance from the restraining order, sir.”)
“Let’s do the Time Warp again…”
STARSTRUCK began as a science fiction play performed off-Broadway in 1980. It was written by Elaine Lee, an Emmy-nominated actor on a popular TV soap opera, with her sister Susan Norfleet and Dale Place. Elaine played the wily hero Galatia 9 while Susan played her kickass partner Brucilla The Muscle. By chance the sisters had hooked up with renowned comics artist Michael Wm. Kaluta, who went from volunteering for the poster to designing the sets and costumes, and even building them with compatriot artist Charles Vess.
STARSTRUCK was also created during the exploding late ‘70s/early ‘80s NYC scene, whose Do-It-Yourself spirit ignited the first Punk bands of CBGB’s, the No Wave and Post Punk aftermath, the dawn of Hip Hop, the splicing of Mutant Disco, and a bristling Indie film movement. As part of this hybrid scene, which propelled itself, STARSTRUCK the play was as D.I.Y. with its wicked and absurdist humor, its sets and costumes collaged from street throwaways, and its upending of all conventions. Starlog magazine noticed enough to cover the ensuing madness of this demented semi-musical (Dec. 1980) and a portfolio of designs by Kaluta was released. But that was just the beginning.
The play was essentially like an episode of STAR TREK; on a few ship sets, heroes and villains flung witty dialogue along with some fists. And there were songs and outlandish costumes. And farrr more lead women. Along the way characters rapped rich backgrounds mentioning other characters never shown. Lee and Kaluta realized this backstory was too good to waste. It was too grand to stage or film but Michael could draw it better anyway. So the first STARSTRUCK illustrated adventures began.
At the time the rules of speculative illustrated fiction had been rewritten by METAL HURLANT magazine, a French countercultural exploration of high art, sophisticated stories, and pervasive sensuality. The standard set by creators Moebius, Philippe Druillet, and Enki Bilal raised the bar for mature comics dramatically by filtering the fantasy and science fiction of the radical ‘50s EC comics through the uncensored advances of the ‘60s underground comix. The first wave of STARSTRUCK stories, a series of prequel vignettes to the play, were a natural for this graphix revolution. They first debuted in the similar Spanish anthology, ILUSTRACION+COMIX INTERNATIONAL, edited by Joseph Toutain in 1981; the intricate watercolourish washes were by uncredited Spanish artists using Kaluta’s color directions. They were then reprinted in HEAVY METAL, the American version of Metal Hurlant, from 1982 to 1983. There was also an article about it all (HM #74, May 1983) and a second staging of the play.
“By a clever ruse…”
The indie spirit was infiltrating the comic book world as well. In the early ‘80s, DC and Marvel found their duopoly undermined by upstart start-ups like Star Reach, First, Pacific, and Eclipse Comics. These rebels bypassed the newstand and drugstore racks to sell directly through the emerging network of comics-only stores. Most welcome of all, the creators retained the rights to their work while the company only distributed it. Pulp paper was replaced by archival stock and color got more advanced. Without corporate control, fake morality codes, or a teen threshold, they were free to do whatever they wanted. Like the parallel independent record labels, they infused a stagnant industry with vital new blood. There were new standard-bearers like AZTEC ACE (Eclipse), AMERICAN FLAGG (First), and LOVE AND ROCKETS (Fantagraphics). The two majors noticed.
In Marvel’s more mature line of graphic novels they chose to collect all of the HM stories. “STARSTRUCK: The Luckless, The Abandoned and Forsaked” came out in 1984. The format was really big (8 1/4 x 11″) and the color rich like watercolors. Stacked against anything else out its 74 genius pages were formidable.
Kaluta was most known for his gritty, retro work on THE SHADOW (1973), all edgy intensity and Pulp chiaroscuro. But his STARSTRUCK was a revelation: a vast dreamlike landscape infused with light like Winsor McCay; the technology of Dick Calkins’ ‘30s BUCK ROGERS strips filtered through the hallucinatory kineticism of Moebius; and the elegant architecture and design sense of Mucha and Klimt. But Lee upped the ante with her storytelling: these prelude stories covered generational arcs in sprinting gallops; the narrators changed, the conversations piled up or overlapped or became song verse, the glossary was hysterical; the dialogue was so crackling you read it out loud to savor it; what seemed like happenstance eventually built up in layers and every minor thing paid off startlingly. It was like William Burroughs writing STAR WARS, or Lily Tomlin writing DUNE, or Robert Altman filming FIREFLY, only much funnier and weirder.
You didn’t read STARSTRUCK, you held on to your keister and rode it like a rollercoaster.
The most profound innovation of STARSTRUCK was its redefinition of female leads. To be fair, a male-led industry selling to mostly teen boys had made some advances in the ‘70s responding to feminism. There were more women heroes up front, with equal strength and solo titles. But attitude and aggro don’t equal depth or range. And often it felt like they were still just stronger pin-ups for young guys who hadn’t worked out their range of respect yet beyond fists and fishnets. There needed to be a mature illustrated fiction where characters were just individuals with real personalities, period. Where gender was about as relevent as a shirt and sensuality was natural as breathing. But STARSTRUCK was already beyond even that. Lee wasn’t interested in a SciFi that was trapped in the didactic slants of anyone’s war of the sexes. She built a universe of possibility where everyone fended for themselves full-on. Everyone was as unique, quirky, irritating, horny, and surprising as reality. These people lived, they breathed, they were a riot. Seeing that fuller range in fruition was the real liberation. (Meanwhile, the most edgy advance for women in the majors was that Elektra could be just as much an amoral thug as The Punisher.)
“In a desperate race against time…”
Marvel Comics had responded to the threat of Heavy Metal with their own Epic Illustrated magazine. In their most inspired move of the ‘80s they started a separate imprint for mature titles called Epic Comics. These were creator-owned series for adults, edited by the beloved Archie Goodwin, who promptly tractor-beamed Lee and Kaluta into a bi-monthly STARSTRUCK comic book. It would be “direct market” only to comic stores, in amounts limited to market sales. They could do whatever they wanted. The comic series continued from the set-up of the graphic novel, but focused more fully on the cosmic misadventures of the swashbuckling Galatia 9 and fireball Brucilla. There were six issues of 32 pages each from 1985 to 1986, no ads except for their own T-Shirts, and often character photos from the play inside the cover. After decades of misregistered color on pulp paper, these specialized comics had stronger brighter stock and more controlled color. They also cost more, but maturing readers dropped the newstand superhero stuff entirely for direct-market books that rewarded their attention and age. But not enough of them yet. Despite cover stories on Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes, STARSTRUCK was like a secret even your best friends missed out on and it was discontinued. But it wasn’t truly ended.
Par for the course, in its wake, the mainstream started catching up. Alan Moore and Frank Miller paved most of that in 1986, and DC’s imprint Vertigo Comics later succeeded in the adult path that Epic had paved. By 1990, the upstart indie Dark Horse Comics felt the time was right for Lee and Kaluta to finish what they started. “STARSTRUCK: The Expanding Universe” came out with a revitalized and revisionary mandate: it would reprint everything but with a projected 320 pages of new material laced through; there would be 12 48-page issues covering three major arcs until it was all done. The catch was it was black and white and cost twice as much. And there was the page size thing; to match the more square dimensions of the story portions from the graphic novel, the new integrated page art left more blank air at the bottom of the rectangular book.
But what a ride! Suddenly everything was deeper, wider, richer. The single-page story that had jumpstarted the original novel now had an additional six pages opening up new levels of clarity and connection. Fresh chapters revealed unseen characters. The first third of the grand plan came out in four issues with more than 100 new pages enriching the grand tale. The toll of this huge amount of work and the dispiriting lack of support in the comics world exhausted Kaluta, which led to another cancellation. While everyone gushed about SANDMAN and WATCHMEN, they’d missed the real party again.
There were multiple attempts to resurrect STARSTRUCK through the ‘90s; talk of a film, toys, trade collections, TV series. But too many deals collapsed during the process. While other rebel works were canonized and reached the mainstream book stores in graphic novels, with no STARSTRUCK reprint collections, a new generation was left clueless. Diehard fans have held the secret faith since 1991, scrabbling for any rumor like it was a portent.
“Then, by a miracle…”
Enter IDW Comics in 2009 with the best STARSTRUCK ever seen: a 13 issue reprint series that was more of a remastered expansion. Kaluta now rectified the ‘square’ art problem – mentioned above – by extending new art on every page to full rectangular dimensions. It included all of the initial Expanded Universe tales, in color for the first time thanks to the stunningly lush work of painter Lee Moyer. Elaine amplified the sly glossary and added new intro pages. And it featured back-up stories of Brucilla’s childhood in the larcenous and slapstick Galactic Girl Guides, with inking by fantasy art great Charles Vess. Only two of these had ever been seen before, published by Dave “The Rocketeer” Stevens in his Rocketeer Adventure Magazine.
“Elsewhere, at that very moment…”
STARSTRUCK is best known by its comic stories, which are all actually prequels to the play. And though many have heard of the STARSTRUCK play, few have seen it.
The Audiocomics Company has remedied this with a timely new audio adaption of STARSTRUCK that finally brings the play, and the dimension of sound, to the general public. Now fans used to the visual side of STARSTRUCK – from Kaluta’s art, Moyer’s color, or Sean Smith’s stage photos – can finally hear the stage personalities, sound effects, and composer Dwight Dixon’s original score.
The audio play homages the roots of STARSTRUCK in several ways. It bands together a new troupe of actors to bring it to life. But its sound format also recalls all of the BUCK ROGERS radio dramas, TV shows like TOM CORBETT, and films like BARBARELLA that inspired the play. Fittingly, it was created in cooperation with WMPG radio in Portland, and will run as radio broadcasts on other stations going forward. Plus, there is talk of new adventures being written directly for radio in the future.
“We find our Heroes…”
STARSTRUCK had helped lead the ‘80s comics revolution without getting the laurels. It was easily as good as renaissance classics like WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and SANDMAN. In truth, probably better, because it was more ambitious, progressive, funnier, and subversive without the aggro male angst underlining them. It was for sharp adults with a sense of wonder and subversion, for radical freespirits, for punk grrrls who were too young to know about it yet. It paved the way for TANK GIRL, MARTHA WASHINGTON, AEON FLUX, FUTURAMA, PROMETHEA, and SERENITY. Fanboy teens may have missed out back then but quality is timeless. It’s taken 25 years to catch up to what this series was always doing. The rise of manga, serial TV shows, cyberpunk novels, indie comics, and Riot Grrrl have broadened the audience market to catch up with this book. With their blogs, sites, tweets, and tongues, this new generation is spreading the word and seizing the future Lee and Kaluta made for them.
“So, here’s the lowdown…”
Let’s see, where to begin? The plot involves a gradually dumbing dynasty versus a revolutionary cowgirl, pleasure droids who become sentient, an amazon clone and freelance fighter, passive/passive space nuns, an omnivorously sexual scheme queen, The Brand New Testament, robot samurai, frivolous cults, Noir detective bartenders, piously jingoistic space fleets, street-lethal Girl Scouts, schizoid dandies, alien boytoys, copious booting (see: boots, knocking), immortality bootlegging, Art Squads from the aesthetic planet Guernica (“Sex is art and art is power.”), the infamous Recreation Station 97, and everything is increasingly connected. There is much drinking, explosions, polymorphous polyamory, slapstick chaos, some songs, and vicious satire that goes down like ice cream. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, you’ll feel hot to trot.
STARSTRUCK is smart art for hip people. Catch up to the better revolution before you. The future is cooler than ever!