Let’s say you were looking for a mainstream comic-book artist to stand in for the entire boomer generation: you’d have a hard time finding anyone who represented the zeitgeist more than Jim Starlin. Throughout his career, Starlin has landed on just about every space of the Superhero Artist board game: Marvel/DC work-for-hire; creator-owned characters; wanky portfolios for the collector market; Hollywood-related windfall; and occasional and fraught returns to Marvel/DC as a brand name superstar.
The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life In Words and Pictures begins with apologies for egocentrism and prose-writing ability (granted, though it’s unfortunate that editors overlooked “glorious hay days” and “AIDs,” as well as two misidentified pages from Iron Man #56). Further disarming self-deprecation comes in the form of a disclaimer that “I am well aware that the work I do can only be considered pop culture, and will probably only outlive me by a few years.” The pleasant surprise, though, is how much Starlin’s early life deviates from most of his peers—instead of the typical attended art school —> worked from home trajectory, Starlin was a Catholic School introvert (“the nuns, who taught the majority of the classes, were sadistic John Birch lunatics”) turned teenage greaser who joined the Navy, flew helicopters in Vietnam, and returned to the States to fix cars and break into the superhero-drawing biz. (And then there are the really tantalizing parts, which he glosses over: in Detroit, he “acted as an armed guard at a couple of illegal business transactions.”)
Starlin got work shortly after arriving in New York. Although Stan Lee threw him off Iron Man after only a few issues, within months Roy Thomas offered Starlin and writer Mike Friedrich Captain Marvel; when Friedrich exited soon after, Starlin became Marvel’s first artist-writer since Jim Steranko left Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He filled Captain Marvel with grim characters he’d created in college, channeling the dual rages of his Catholic upbringing and Vietnam service. While Gerry Conway’s Amazing Spider-Man was portraying Harry Osborne as an LSD-fueled lunatic, Captain Marvel was becoming “cosmically aware,” and giving post-adolescent Marvel readers their freakiest and grooviest experiences since the 1960s. Starlin decanted the (perhaps accidentally) lysergic visions of Steve Ditko and turned them into darker meditations on mortality and enlightenment. It was also a visual departure for Marvel, and though the fixed-vantage-point, skinny-panel sequences of Eisner, Kurtzman, and Krigstein (which Rich Buckler, George Perez, and Frank Miller would also draw on, to varying degrees of success) may have been filtered through Ditko, they gave Starlin a cartooning style that was all but non-existent at Marvel Comics in the early 1970s, when the goal was to match Jack Kirby’s whump with Neal Adams’ or Berni Wrightson’s illustrative detail.
The hot-tempered Starlin quit Captain Marvel over an inker substitution, and began doing work for Friedrich’s just-launched Star*Reach Publications, which hewed to the business model of the undergrounds: artists retained ownership of their creations. But he quickly returned to Marvel to reimagine Adam Warlock, a Jesus-like being with yellow skin. Warlock was Starlin’s masterpiece, a superhero comic about a suicidal paranoid schizophrenic that also just happened to freight commentary about the vagaries of mass-produced, work-for-hire comics. He was, within a few years, involved in negotiating royalty rates for Marvel’s graphic novel line (he wrote and drew the first volume, for which he killed Captain Marvel); shortly after that, he helped to hammer out the terms of Marvel’s creator-owned Epic Comics line (he wrote and drew its first title, Dreadstar).
Since then, Starlin has reshuffled his pet themes and visual motifs for a variety of projects, each of which bears the auteur’s stamp. Dreadstar, ’Breed, a long run on Batman, and a dizzying number of Marvel books with the word “Infinity” in the title all include not just Starlin’s preoccupation with death and suspicion of organized religion, but his visual quirks as well—an endless parade of eye patches, goatees, Mohawks, knives, scaly villains, and one-foot-raised action shots. Despite the $49.99 investment that it requires, A Life In Words and Pictures isn’t likely to deepen your appreciation of Starlin’s recent oeuvre beyond those surface signifiers. His best work is not well served by the coffee-table format, which eliminates storytelling from the equation and puts a burden on single images. As he fairly warned in the beginning, “I’m not creating the next Mona Lisa.”
The reproduction quality is excellent, especially for the painted images, and the choice to not re-color old comic pages is laudable. But there’s a tremendous amount of white space in this book, which spills not just the around the more awkwardly proportioned artwork, but also the enormous spaces between lines of prose. The chronology of the images is jumbled, so that six pages of a 1977 portfolio precede a chapter about the 1973–4 stint on Captain Marvel. Worse, there’s a curious dearth of original art from Starlin’s early days, and precious few insights into the artistic process. And the dependence on cover reproductions means that the end of the book begins to resemble a solicitation catalog—in one 45-page stretch, the Marvel logo appears 23 times. It’s especially jarring, given that the accompanying text is about Starlin’s impatience with the company’s business practices.
A Life In Words and Pictures is sure to please those who know the difference between Infinity Crusade and Infinity War and Infinity Abyss, or who thirst for unpublished illustrations of ’Breed. For less money, the uninitiated would be wiser to invest in used copies of the entire Warlock series, or Starlin’s nine painted issues of Epic Illustrated (never reprinted in color), or—if you’re feeling optimistic—the next fifteen issues of whatever Starlin does next.