This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 27, 2015.
These words have become signifiers in comics for backhanded compliments, angry reprisals, and well-intentioned praise of substandard fare. Superhero comics, specifically superhero event comics, are the definition of corporate comics. They are born from a profit-driven motive and designed to carefully control and craft intellectual property long since removed from the minds of legendary creators like Jack Kirby and Bill Finger. Even the best recent examples of this specific sub-genre of comics storytelling, comics like Final Crisis and Secret Wars, are introduced with modifiers begging for forgiveness.
Yet I am an eternal optimist, and I am a man who loves both comics and superheroes. So despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, comics like Infinite Crisis and Fear Itself and Identity Crisis and Axis, I still find the concept of superhero events to be appealing. So how do you discover the value within this thing that is repeatedly trotted out in hackneyed cash grabs deserving of derision?
You find the exceptions. And there is no greater exception to the mediocrity of superhero events than Cosmic Odyssey.
Cosmic Odyssey is the combined work of two of the most interesting figures from comics in the 1980s, Jim Starlin peaking very early in his career and Mike Mignola just beginning to unveil a talent that has only grown in the decades to follow. Cosmic Odyssey is a work of staggering breadth reaching across the galaxy and confronting the end of existence itself. Cosmic Odyssey is a comic of endless depth, diving into themes of power, violence, teamwork, and the endless struggle of existence. Cosmic Odyssey is a literary work constructed within the genre of the superhero event.
Reading the essays on each of Cosmic Odyssey’s four chapters here at Comics Bulletin has only further convinced me of this fact. Only half of these essays?have been positive in their regard for the comic, but all of them have tackled it with a serious attitude and found reasons to wrestle and struggle with its text.
Kyle’s essay discussed the possibilities of author’s intent and the manner in which this comic is woven into the history of two massive publishers, along with the varied works of one of their greatest writers. Jason’s essay dove deeply into the art and presentation on display, the enormity of a true comics master’s craft evolving on the page.Elkin’s essay ran through the excitement and feeling of a wizened educator’s reaction to a genre he thought long since expired. Daniel’s essay hunkered down to ponder the historical significance of a piece of fiction that exists in a publishing industry where fluid continuity trumps all and status is determined by corporations.
The breadth of these four pieces alone speaks not only to the power of Cosmic Odyssey, but to the potential power of comics. They are smart, insightful pieces of comics writing developed from very different perspectives all about the same work. Reading them reveals a variety of ways from which one can approach this four-issue work. It is a reminder as to why we write about, analyze, and explore comics, in spite of its readily recognizable lack of rewards.
And so I come to my challenge, the challenge of adding one final perspective on Cosmic Odyssey to cap off this series. I look at these fine ideas, this tremendous work, and I am overwhelmed. This essay is not just about Cosmic Odyssey; it is about comics and why we love them.
The construction of this tale is simple, even for the superhero genre. It lacks the decades-spanning sub-plots of Chris Claremont’s X-Men narratives and the crisis of infinite tie-ins found in every modern superhero crossover. By the conclusion of the first issue, Starlin and Mignola make both the threat and its opposition exceedingly clear. Every significant character, with only a single possible exception, can be found in the first 40 pages. They have an easily understood obstacle and a simple plan to overcome it. Teams of two must stop at least three of four separate entities from destroying a planet or all of existence may be ended. The stakes are massive and never in doubt.
Mignola and Starlin are not working as hacks or company men here, although that would change for Starlin in proceeding years. These guys get story and that’s why the simplicity of Cosmic Odyssey is purposeful, not reductive. It’s a choice used to focus on the core of this story: character. Most superhero events can be describe in terms of plot, Wikipedia synopses of Avengers fighting X-Men and Brainiac smashing worlds together. This story is all about how its characters respond to and affect events; it is the rare example of a truly character-driven story within the genre.
Jason carefully detailed the dynamics of the various teams within his essay. The manner in which both Superman and Orion construct and deconstruct one another is tremendous. There is no doubt that these two characters were chosen on purpose; they are creations of genius (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and Jack Kirby, respectively) with distinct personalities and purposes.
Orion is the “Dog of War”, created by Kirby and further defined by Walt Simonson (a peer for the King, himself, if there ever was one). Orion is violence and brutality defined, but put to use on the side of right. Even though he is fighting to save the universe and holds himself to a code of honor and conduct, the pain he inflicts cannot be denied. From the innocent men and women of Thanagar he murders to his cold words for the noble Forager, his warrior’s code fails to protect him from the ways in which violence diminishes his own humanity. Orion’s journey and denouement in the final page of Cosmic Odyssey reveals a poignant statement on the nature of war.
Superman also must confront the impossibility of a permanent aversion to killing or, at least, its incredible costs. His own power allows him to hold a high standard, but when saving a world at the cost of a universe, he must confront alternative ideas of necessity. While he always retains the moral high ground, there is a thrashing that occurs. Superman charges Darkseid only to be thrown away. He screams at Orion who allowed him to stop the destruction of Thanagar. Superman remains the best possible version of humanity, but the darkness and vagaries of war trouble even this paragon.
It would be possible to do a comprehensive deconstruction of the pairings and characters within Cosmic Odyssey, just like this. In Starfire and Lightray we find a contrast of alien perspectives showing how confidence is a trait that can lead to both success and failure. The conflicting gradients of evil and regret (or lack thereof) between two of Kirby’s greatest creations Darkseid and Etrigan, expose the nuance of evil and unfortunate allies. Each choice of character and their corresponding arc reveals grand ideas worthy of expanded exploration.
When you top all of this with the craftsmanship of Mignola in 1988, five years before the debut of Hellboy, it becomes a true tour de force. This is the moment when Mignola truly begins to become Mignola through a study of Kirby and acceptance of abstraction. Over the course of his career, his layouts are increasingly focused on form and position. He uses these elements to relay character dynamics and power structures to readers in a manner that somehow manages to be both bold and subtle simultaneously.
Cosmic Odyssey’s craft is undebatable, but its merits go far beyond simply having excellent talent attached. In fact, most modern sagas in the superhero epic have good writers, artists, and colorists assigned to their creation. YetCosmic Odyssey manages to be entirely itself, a thematic whole determined to relay a message despite whatever baggage may come with what it supposedly ought to be. This is where it doubles down on what some may perceive to be flaws and metamorphosizes into the butterfly where so many others froze and died from fear in chrysalis. This is the moment in which it becomes.
This is a story about everything that the superhero genre is about. It is a story about power, about discovery, and about responsibility. While it all may be written on the intergalactic level of worlds living and dying, it is really about people coming to understand and integrate these concepts into their own lives.
None of us will ever know the guilt of John Stewart failing to save Xanshi, but we will all know what it is like to fuck up because we thought we could manage something that was not within our power. Some of us will even be lucky enough to have a friend like J’onn J’onzz who is capable of both recognizing our failure and giving us the love (tough as it may be) to survive and improve based on what we have done. None of us will ever know what it is like to unleash Orion, the Dog of War, on the brainwashed masses of Hawkworld, but we will all know what it is like to trust the wrong person, and learn to be more careful. The stories found within Cosmic Odyssey are epic and timeless, bound within a narrative that is massive and incredibly personal.
This is the truth of Cosmic Odyssey.
This is the beauty of Cosmic Odyssey.
This is why Cosmic Odyssey matters. While it is tremendous superhero event, it is also a story of people, of ideas, and of life. It is a story that helps us understand the big ideas that rumble through our heads at night and sleep ever so slightly better. As big as this comic is, it never ceases to be human.
Read any of the essays on this comic and you will notice a single coherent theme: humanity. Responding to personality, art, thematics, and history, we have all formed a coherent, human connection to this work and one that the work itself supports. Starlin, Mignola, and all of their collaborators took creations of their predecessors and crafted them into something unique.
They are telling a tale of life and death, creation and destruction, achievement and failure. They tackle the biggest of ideas and do so through the lens of character, allowing us to tap into each of these moments and experience them for ourselves. The grandiose visuals of anti-life made reality allow us to recognize everyday consequences on the grandest of scales. It is comics at their purest form transforming the operas in our heads into CMYK, two-dimensional realities that we may experience.
We may never make a decision that impacts reality. We may never fail an entire planet. We may never watch a friend sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
But we will make important decisions and we will sometimes fail and we will see sacrifice.
We will live and we will suffer, and Cosmic Odyssey provides us a story to better understand this human experience. This is why both it and comics matter, because it matters to us.