Mark Millar has had his hand on the pulse of comic books and their movie adaptations for well over a decade: He’s the man behind Kick-Ass. The Ultimates, which heavily influenced 2012’s Avengers Assemble. The best modern Spider-Man comic there is. Civil War – the most epic Marvel event perhaps there has ever been, upon which next year’s Captain America film will be based. Kingsman: The Secret Service, out in cinemas right now. The list of quality action stories the man has produced goes on and on. I’m not sucking up to him because he personally sent us a copy of his latest graphic novel, Starlight, but because he really is a bloody genius. Ever since I became aware of the constantly changing writers in comic books, I realised that Mark Millar was one of the all-time greats.
So what about Starlight? It’s simple, but brilliant. Duke McQueen is a retired astronaut whose claims of saving the universe no one believes except his wife, and when she passes away he really is on his own. But when he receives a visit from his extra-terrestrial past, Duke takes up a final plea to save a world he thought he’d never return to. Sometimes the plot does feel quite similar to The Incredibles (an image of Duke squeezed into his old costume for one final mission was something I felt I’d seen before), but Millar takes it further – Starlight manages to be simultaneously a storyline of epic galactic proportions and a very personal tale of a man whose family means the world to him.
While the storyline might be quite simple, it certainly does not come across as unimaginative. Everything’s very fast paced – some comics these days take 20 issues to leave the Xavier Institute (yes, X-Men is a main culprit) – but Starlight tells a huge story in 6 issues through fast-paced dialogue and choice framing/selection of scenes. It is built upon strong characters – the anti-Brotian rebels are refreshingly idealistic, particularly Duke himself who never lets go of his self-belief once he’s on Tantalus; he’s quite happy to tell 12 thousand soldiers that they ‘haven’t got a prayer’. It does seem strange that a 62-year old man turns out to be as badass as he does (he said before he left ‘I can barely climb the stairs without getting out of breath. I’m on fish oils for God’s sake’), but we don’t question Batman’s abilities; why should Duke be any different? I did find myself expecting a Millar-sized twist towards the end explaining why he was able to go head to head against an army, but I soon realised this wasn’t going to happen: he’s just awesome because he’s awesome – deal with it.
Goran Parlov’s artwork isn’t quite of the epic proportions as some of the previous artists Millar has worked with (Steve Mcniven, John Romita Jr, Leinil Yu etc). There’s none of the Tarantino-excess of gore we’ve seen in his previous comics – when people are shot in the head here, we just see the blast, no blood. Even the guy who gets crumpled into a ball with a telekinetic glove doesn’t bleed. But this is completely suited to the tone of the book: it can be enjoyed by people of any age. It contains elements that mean it still feels mature (murder, cancer, drugs, prostitution), but none of these are ever shown too explicitly for someone starting high school. Instead, Parlov uses his pencils to create an exciting new world (and it feels like its own world – all we’re really missing is a bit more exposure to the civilians considering the part they end up playing), and juxtaposes it with the lonely life Duke leads on Earth – the domestic scenes are where he really kills it. Single panels, for example an elaborately set table as he finds out on the phone that his sons aren’t coming to the anniversary of his wife’s death, pack more emotion than some comic book series have managed to do across hundreds of issues.
One of the best parts about Starlight is how much it feels like a complete story. A lot of the time with modern comic books you can tell when they have been written in a way to leave potential for a follow-up. I won’t spoil the ending, but I highly doubt we’ll see any more from Duke McQueen, which makes this single adventure all the more special. Similarly, I think it feels very much its own thing, rather than a foundation for a film adaptation. In recent years I’ve been slightly concerned that Millar was writing comics purely for them to be adapted (Nacho Vigalando was already attached to direct Supercrooks before the first issue came out), but Starlight is very much for people who want to read a self-contained comic. Turns out they are making it into a film, but this doesn’t feel like a blueprint for screen at all. It has everything a graphic novel needs for success: Emotive characters, action of epic-proportions (which never gets boring or repetitive), evil villains, tragedy, humour and an extremely satisfying ending. Mark Millar is still going strong.
The collected edition of Starlight can be ordered here.