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Dreadstar: The Definitive Collection HC
By Jim Starlin
Published by Dynamic Forces; $49.95 USD

The saga of Vanth Dreadstar and Company spans galaxies, empires, and uncounted millennia. It is a gaudy, often goofy tale that mingles clashing cultures with purple prose, dour warriors with cat-headed compatriots, and includes dire elements of murder, betrayal, rape and incest. And somehow, it works.

Not always well, but Dreadstar works as an entertainment-driven sci-fi/fantasy graphic novel, and also as a relic of an earlier and more naive time, when the idea of a cruel, monumentally powerful religious empire conquering its nigh-helpless enemies by force and amassing vast amounts of unearned wealth seemed, well, fantasy. It's also of historical interest as one of the early Epic Comics, Marvel's creator-owned imprint that briefly thrived under the stewardship of the late Archie Goodwin.

Jim Starlin is the creative engine that binds Dreadstar work together, and the novel could be the work of no other mind -- readers of Starlin's legendary runs on Warlock and Captain Marvel, as well as many, many comics with Infinity in the title, will be right at home here. Starlin's Dreadstar spans a million years or more, but he stays focused on a small cast of characters, keeping the tale comprehensible and manageable. Each member of Dreadstar's team (and its enemies) is given time in the spotlight, their stories crafted to fit them into the greater narrative. The characters do not sing, for the most part, but they do keep the engine humming and the story moving amiably along. There are echoes of Star Wars, Kirby's Fourth World and even Steve Ditko's wonky Dr. Strange-brand magic, but it's all filtered through Starlin's unique artistic vision.

The actual bones of the tale are intriguing, the clash of a religious empire vs. an ancient, powerful monarchy. There are 12 chapters here, representing the 12 original issues of the Epic Comics series, and I was surprised by how much actually happens in each chapter. Starlin was of that era of creators that aimed to entertain every month, and so 12 issues represents a good deal of story. Empires truly do rise and fall, grudges are revealed and debts of all kinds are repaid, sometimes in blood. The actual mechanics of the narrative sometimes strain credulity -- such as the true identity, origin and motivation of the mysterious "Z," but Starlin's drive to keep the story moving forward has an engaging charm that renders most of the story's sins minor.

A few production problems mar the presentation -- some re-lettering is evident, clashing with the original hand-lettering (and at one point featuring the glaring mis-spelling "gallaxy" -- pardon me for spotting that one a mile away, I can't help myself). There is also some less-than-perfect scanning evident in two chapters, resulting in a slight degrading of the artwork -- but for the most part, the art and reproduction is surprisingly bold and clear, boosting my optimism for the Dynamic Forces re-issues of Howard Chaykin's American Flagg later this fall.

Dreadstar works primarily as an entertainment; Dreadstar didn't move the artform forward, it merely used established traditions to tell a familiar adventure story. The key appeal will be for those who enjoy Starlin's strange blend of hope and nihilism, of the grotesque and the ridiculous. No fan of his, or of space-faring fantasy in general, will likely be disappointed by the story to be found here. The prose does occasionally descend to the purple, some of the gags fall a bit flat, but there is a genuine tension established, the sense that the stakes are high for the story's heroes and villains, and those willing to go along for the ride will find it a diverting adventure, very nicely presented. Grade: 4/5

-- Alan David Doane

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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