My Life is Choked with Comics #10 - Starstruck

This one's for Johnny Bacardi, who first told me about this series. And let me tell you, this is the kind of comic you'll probably need someone to tell you about, because not many other roads lead to it.

I'm going to guess that a bunch of you haven't even heard of Elaine Lee, who wrote the comic; maybe the name's rattling around in the back of your head, but nothing of use is cohering. Hey, I don't blame you. Just about every comic she ever wrote is out of print, after all. While I'll take a little room there to equivocate -- she does have a story floating around out there in Charles Vess' The Book of Ballads collection -- I do believe all her bigger works are pure longbox fodder. Most of the smaller ones too.

It's something nobody likes to think about, really. Someone's entire body of comics work sinking down, left to the funnybook subculture of bin divers, no one piece able to latch on to a famed or renowned predecessor/successor by the same person. Down, down into the bog. It's almost as unpleasant a thought as somebody working on a comics project for over a decade, only to see it fade from view. Unlucky, without embrace, and forlorn.

But the former has apparently happened to Elaine Lee, and the latter certainly happened to Starstruck. That's too bad, because Lee's writing on that comic was intriguing and ambitious; Starstruck is just the type of comic that some today would possibly be considering a classic of the form, had its full, 500+ page length ever been published. But pages came out in various forms, at various times, often taking on an individual character that seemed to match their then-current environment. In other words, there was a Starstruck of 1984 that was very different from the Starstruck of 1991. Maybe inevitable, considering the long path a comic of its go-for-baroque type was bound to follow back in the day.

Let me explain.

As often happens with these things, Lee was involved in other arts before she began writing comics. She'd been a working actress since the mid-'70s, and eventually scored a 1980 Daytime Emmy nomination for a supporting role on the long-running NBC soap opera The Doctors (her flawless soap opera character name: Mildred Trumble). She also wrote plays with her sister, Susan Norfleet Lee, who remains an actress and a comedienne today (sans the "Lee"). In 1979, the pair met an artist by the name of Michael William Kaluta; Lee became impressed with a new art book that Kaluta had contributed to, The Studio, and asked him to participate in a new sci-fi stage project.

I'm being coy. I suspect that most of you have heard of Kaluta - he'd been active in professional comics since 1969, including a much-admired stint on DC's The Shadow in 1973-74, and had spent the mid-to-late '70s working with fellow artists Jeffrey Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith and Berni(e) Wrightson (who'd later draw comics about Batman punching a religion in the face), in a shared space they called The Studio. Which was also the name of that book, you see, since it compiled some of each artist's works from the period.

So anyway, the play was titled Starstruck, and it debuted in NYC in 1980. It was written by the Lee sisters and a man named Dale Place, who was at one point Elaine Lee's husband. Kaluta handled the poster art, plus costume and set designs (with some realization aid from the aforementioned Charles Vess). The show would eventually run again in 1983, and the script book is still around. But even as initial work on the show went forward, Lee and Kaluta began formulating a plan to expand the work, quite greatly, into the medium of comics.

I can only think of two other comics off hand that began on the stage: Kings in Disguise and Rich Johnston's Holed Up (and I think the latter actually began as an unproduced script for a sitcom pilot). Both expanded greatly, I understand, once freed from floorboards. I haven't read the Starstruck script either; I've heard it's a silly comedy with songs. But I don't think either of those other works exploded in breadth like Starstruck did. It bears the "created by" mark of Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta. It is copyright and trademark them. Lee is the sole credited writer, though some of the material gives plot credit to Kaluta as well. The break from the prior work is clean, as is the break from the prior medium; Starstruck the comic is fully and wholly a comic.

Lee and Kaluta hooked up with one Sal Quartuccio, publisher of various prints and posters, whose S.Q. Productions released a six-piece b&w Starstruck illustration portfolio the year of the show's debut, and eventually facilitated an initial publication of the comics version in Spain (which I haven't read). The work was later published in North America by Heavy Metal magazine, in serial form, 1982-83 (didn't read that either). But that wasn't the end of the beginning (luckily for me) - Marvel Comics took note, and compiled the Heavy Metal material into a 1984 publication titled Starstruck: The Luckless, the Abandoned and Forsaked. It was also Marvel Graphic Novel #13, in case you feel the urge to file it behind Dazzler: The Movie.

Indeed, it's worth noting that many of Marvel's "graphic novels" of the time were often just overlong and oversized Marvel-type comics, with a smattering of 'mature' content pressed in. Others had a way of feeling like extended submissions to Epic Illustrated, with an emphasis on visual aplomb. The Starstruck graphic novel isn't anything like that, despite having run in the magazine that inspired Epic Illustrated - it's layered, layered, layered, yet very tightly wound, seeing a large cast of characters age over the course of only 74 pages of story. Pages are packed with stuff, sometimes three streams of narration at once, with captions wandering from song lyrics to poems to real and fake famous quotes to myriad narrations to conversations occurring off-panel. It's no wonder the book is dedicated to Robert Altman and Thomas Pynchon (now if only I could puzzle out that Borges mention in Super Boxers).

The book is structured as a series of vignettes, ranging from one to sixteen pages in length, moving forward in time over the span of 52 "cycles." Each segment comes equipped with its very own title, timecode, discreet location id, and commemorative statement or quote that likely gets alluded to somewhere else in the larger story. The first and last statements of the book tell us the difference between allusion and illusion - there's plenty of both at work.

I suspect the Starstruck graphic novel was probably tough reading for a lot of people at the time. It's still kind of tricky today, until you realize that the book isn't trying to tell a whole story, just a story, rich with incident and cross-reference and sheer joyous worldbuilding. If there's anything in comics I can easily compare it to, it'd have to be Howard Chaykin's 1986 book Time2: The Epiphany (which was also First Graphic Novel #8, in case you feel the urge to file it behind The Secret Island of Oz), which was meant to be the first installment of a series of comics albums, leaving Chaykin (plus letterer Ken Bruzenak & colorist Steve Oliff, both of whom would work on Starstruck at different times) free to pack in as much graphic overload as possible, hopping from place to place, breathless, not bothering to introduce the 'main' character until a quarter of the way through, all in the service of occasion. Of being somewhere.

But it must be noted that Lee's and Kaluta's work on Starstruck slightly predates even Chaykin's seminal American Flagg!, despite Kaluta's controlled, eye-catching layouts (mostly devoid of the decorative touches and curvilinear framing motifs often associated with his illustration work) and letterer Todd Klein's multitude of fonts seeming 'modern' in much the same way as that trendsetting classic, if somewhat less typographically intense. Kaluta's in-panel art, though, is much cleaner than peer and fellow Shadow artist Chaykin's, with candied technology and costuming everywhere, like in this piece, mixing Kaluta's beloved pulp cover influences with whimsical, Art Nouveau touches.

Lee's writing can be whimsical too; Starstruck retains a good deal of humor, often adopting a flippant posture before grand themes. As its small stories move forward, certain groups of characters emerge as primary, all of them women. First, there's a trio of marginalized women, the luckless/abandoned/forsaken of the subtitle.

We meet Galatia 9, a slight, tough woman, erudite and lusty, who became a space sailor after accidentally reaching the stars in the midst of a socio-religious ceremony. She's an Amazon, with bow skills and missing breast to boot. She teams up with Brucilla the Muscle, a brawny, lusty, good-natured former pilot for the Americadian Space Brigade, who got tossed out of the service in a tragic egging misadventure that claimed 26 lives. She's a Valkyrie, a Brünnhilde, and wears a likeably clichéd iron skirt for most of the story. In this postmodern text, all the fragments of fiction mingle. Finally, there's Erotica Ann, the final model in a destroyed line of sex androids, which means that she's picked up the idea of 'mortality' (no longer being part of a collective with a single goal), and has perhaps developed a soul. Unlike the other two women, she isn't all that lusty, and actually doesn't have a ton of personality, but she's both an object of physical lust and nostalgic, collector's lust, being a rare piece and all.

These three women are often contrasted with a second group of powerful, but no less human(ish) women. There's Indira Lucrezia Ronnie Lee Ellis Bajar, unpopular child of the Borgia-like Bajar clan of dictators, arch-capitalists and damaged man-children, who's become a famous sci-fi writer as "Ronnie Lee Ellis" and formed her very own religion. She's keeping an eye on Prime Minister Glorianna of Phoebus, a former revolutionary and sex andriod CEO who's got plans of her own, dressed in the halo of liberty. Also lurking around is Glorianna's wicked sister Verloona, clad in Jazz Age flapper attire. She the very embodiment of vanity and consumption, and a great fan of the "Running in Place" system of sapping the life force out of donors to preserve one's vitality. Her favorite targets are Galactic Girl Guides, lil' scouts of the future who've taken to learning the real ways of survival: cheating, stealing, and miscellaneous chicanery.

All of these characters, and several more, bounce around Lee's and Kaluta's world, sometimes brushing up against little and big illusions (and countless allusions). Religion, militarism and big business are always revealed to be tools of control aimed at the lessers of the universe, though even the greaters can hardly control their own family affairs. Some of the graphic novel's small sections form lovely little stories, like the take of Ronnie's brother Kalif, who took to loving an Erotic Annie doll behind his father's back, spilling all his secrets:

"Dad took me on a hunting trip to New Siberia. It was so cold that my balls disappeared and I thought they were gone forever and I started to cry and told Dad that my balls were gone and he was so mad that he locked me in the room with my collection of vital organs for three malton units and I threw up."

Naturally, this relationship soon spirals into ruin and overcompensation, eventually leading to the destruction of all Erotic Annies save for one, which sees the Soul escape a seriocomic nightmare of male sex frustration, which itself powers both Kalif's and Ronnie's later actions. Everything in this book, even slight asides or minor characters, have a way of becoming something more important later.

Even then, there's a mystery to Starstruck that's born from its short, serial-ready chapters, perfectly willing to place all of its external influences right on the surface, yet remaining secretive about what it all might mean, and how everone has touched everyone else. As one character says in a in a later incarnation of the series, "The list of players read like a who's who in the social sector and they all had the rule book."

But wait, what's that? "Later incarnation?"

The year after the release of the Starstruck graphic novel, Epic Comics began publishing a six-issue continuation of the work (that's 1985-86). Lee and Kaluta remained as primary authors, with Lee even doing the colors for the first two issues, while the aforementioned Ken Bruzenak did the letters. With issue #3, the aforementioned Steve Oliff took over the colors, and John Workman became letterer.

"All right," you say, "so the Starstruck graphic novel was a big introduction, which explains its elusive nature, and then the series finished it off, right?"

The mutation was somewhat more drastic than that.

I get the feeling that Lee and Kaluta may have wanted their comic to work smoothly in whatever format it happened to exist in at the moment; as a result, while the first issue of the Epic series more-or-less follows the 'short chapters' model of the graphic novel, it's more a stylistic coda than a new beginning. It even concludes with a bravura sequence in which Ronnie explains the thematic and literal relationships between the various cast members through an extended set of card game metaphors, Kaluta packing familiar poses and pictures from the prior incarnation of the story into long panels, for extra iconographic kick.

After that, Starstruck suddenly stretches itself out, for longer stories that flow from issue to issue, much of it following a seemingly minor bartender character (what'd I tell ya?) investigating (or stumbling into) the cast's interrelationships as part of an excellent noir pastiche. It's not just grand plots; I mean, characters turn out to be clones of other characters' grandmothers. Complexities pile up, but the underlying sadness of Lee's story becomes more patent, as all of the relationships in the universe seem fueled by long-ago battles and deep chasms between families. But the dead rise again in Lee's world, and the underappreciated begin taking steps toward betterment.

As a result, the web of relationships Lee creates seems grandly symbolic of the ties that bind the mighty and the meek together in the human experience, little comedies becoming big tragedies, and vice versa. By the end of the Epic series, a resting (but not ending) point is reached, and the thorough reader, with all of the comics spread out before him or her, can isolate dozens of little effects that rippling across characters and into the lengthy world encyclopedia sections in the back, which never replace the comic itself, mind you. The beauty of Starstruck as a comic is that it arranges all of this information in an intuitive enough graphic manner that, say, a fight sequence occurring in the art, a fancy-font religious chant going on with a side character, and various song lyrics from various sources provided via caption, can all draw extra force from spatial proximity and ironic contrast that'd be impossible in any other medium. Not only was this well ahead of the curve in terms of sci-fi comics from Marvel, it's still unique in the mad, uncompromising drive that Lee and Kaluta bring to their million voices. Rings clear today.

However, as I mentioned, the comic stopped rather than ended. After the sixth Epic issue, the characters and creators moved to a backup slot in Comico's Rocketeer Adventure Magazine (The Adventures of Brucilla the Muscle, Galactic Girl Guide), where Dave Stevens' pulp throwback work must have seemed like a nice fit for Kaluta's pulp-fueled art, at least. Only two issues were released by Comico, in 1988 and 1989. Of course, the creators were doing other things too. Lee had actually been working with Charles Vess (him again!) since 1982 on titles like Eclipse's Sabre. Kaluta had many illustration jobs, including a noteworthy illustrated edition of the prose novel Metropolis. But eventually, the Rocketeer magazine wound up at Dark Horse (which eventually published one more issue), and Starstruck found itself revived again.

This time, it was called Starstruck: The Expanding Universe. The plan was that Starstruck was going to be finished for good, now that it was 1990 and readers were totally ready for literary comics and stuff (or that's what I got from Mark Askwith's introduction to issue #1). It'd last for 12 Dark Horse issues in total, with every four issues forming a 'book' in a Starstruck trilogy. In total, over 300 new pages would be added to the work already done. It'd all be in b&w too.

Only four issues (or one 'book') of this incarnation of the series were released, 1990-91. There was a lot of new art -- over 100 pages worth -- and it surely expanded the universe. Of those four issues, the original graphic novel and issue #1 of the Epic series are covered, which sealed that first Epic issue in place as a coda, and would even have set the rest of the Epic series apart from the rest of the work as a new unit, thus excusing the switches in narrative style from tight to broader. It was clever.

But cleverness alone can't always help the nature of comics. Reading through these expanded stories, stuffing characters who'd be introduced much later into the first few pages and greatly stretching dialogues and motivations, it's evident that Lee's outlook as a writer had changed a bit since the whole thing began in the early '80s. She seems more interested in conversational conveyance of information, with more emotion being worn on characters' sleeves and less puckish enigma. Yet, Kaluta can't very well redraw the whole thing - that would be absurdly work-intensive. The old must coexist with the new; perhaps a natural state when working for a long time on a long comic. I personally think that Chris Ware's most undervalued talent is that of assembler, always able to carefully put new books together from bits of old ones, with every project retaining a stunning coherence, like each state of the work is its natural state.

Starstruck doesn't so that. The short bursts of mystery and formal play from the older material sit uneasily beside the more direct newer material, causing a bumpy reading experience, especially if you've read the older versions. The work seems heavier in explanation, and less wonderfully dense for it. If the older Starstruck remains bracingly current, the expanded universe brings it down a bit to the then-present.

But that's the path a long work takes sometimes, in an environment that wasn't built to sustain many works like it.

Work kept up for a while longer, even after publication stopped on the Dark Horse issues. The ill-fated Tundra made plans to publish a five-issue comics 'n activities funtime distraction series titled The Adventures of the Galactic Girl Guards, which apparently did not involve the participation of Lee, but did intend to feature additional art by Linda Medley and Phil Trumbo - the project was never released. Meanwhile, development began on a movie spin-off of the initial Starstruck stage play for no less than Walt Disney Productions, with Kaluta providing everything from visual designs to toy prototypes. It too never took off. A new Starstruck short was completed by Lee & Kaluta for Heavy Metal, which later appeared in 1995, via the initial volume of Skin Tight Orbit, Lee's erotic comics anthology for NBM.

Actually, Kaluta's homepage indicates in his biographical sketch that he was still working on new Starstruck pages in 1996, at which time Marlowe & Co. (which you'll recall published Kyle Baker's The Cowboy Wally Show the same year) was expected to release a collected edition of the first Dark Horse 'book.' Again, the project was not realized, and that was that. Starstruck was never seen again. Luckless, abandoned, forsaked.

Could it have been different today? A comic of the type, populated largely by strong, well-rounded female characters, written by a woman determined to punch the medium into a form that suited her grand design? In a bookstore-friendly market? I also don't know if the broader-than-ever female readership of comics would affect it much - Starstruck is like the mirror image of much of the manga that's so popular today, which also often long, but sleek and decompressed, and easy in narration, and broad in comparison with he emotional beats. That's the popular stuff.

But if there's any broad point I'd like to make, it's that a simple comic is a big enough thing to create, and that a long comic often demands an extremely unwieldy process of creation, and the final result is inevitably dinged and scraped by the extended act of creation. Yet, by looking at these several Starstrucks, we can see the growth of the work across the comics platforms, flailing glamorously in the direction of completion.

Lee worked on a number of odd projects before and after the Dark Horse version of the comic ended. She did a six-issue miniseries for Marvel called Steeltown Rockers (1990), and a two-issue project for Epic titled The Transmutation of Ike Garuda (1991-92). She moved to DC for the six-issue miniseries Ragman: Cry of the Dead (1993-94). At Dark Horse she did some license work on Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny (1995). She was present for DC's short-lived Helix sci-fi imprint with the series Brainbanx (1997). And she found some continuing series success through her Vertigo project with William Simpson, Vamps (1994), which spawned Vamps: Hollywood and Vein (1996) and Vamps: Pumpkin Time (1998-99). Hell, the first one of those got a trade collection! Which is out of print.

Lee wrote for television into the 21st century, once again teamed with her sister. They've written a book together. Kaluta, for that matter, has also been elusive from comics, save for some cover art. Sometimes it's like it's all gone, but that's not really true. The work is still out there, waiting to be pointed at. Anything can be found, here in the future. Even if Starstruck was never finished, it can still act as entertainment and instruction, to those willing to accept its eccentricities, whether by design or by fate.