Wednesday, May 27, 2020
X-amining Starjammers #1-4
October 1995 - January 1996
In a Nutshell
The Starjammers are caught in a war between the Shi'ar and the Uncreated!
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Carlos Pacheco
Inkers: Cam Smith, Mike Miller (issue #2), Mike Christian, Art Nichols & Andew Pepoy (issue #3), Bob Wicek, Dan Panosian & Mark Pennington (issue #4)
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colors: Joe Rosas
Computer Color: Malibu
Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras
Following the annexation of the Kree Empire by the Shi'ar, the Starjammers have been helping resettle Kree refugees on worlds of the Clench, a loose confederation of worlds independent of the Shi'ar, operating out of a Clench world called Standing Still. Meanwhile, planets - both Clench & Shi'ar - are being wiped out by the alien Uncreated who, having killed the being they believed to be their god, are wiping out all worlds which practice any sort of religion. When a small fleet of Shi'ar battlecruisers engage the Uncreated, they discover they only possess three ships, despite their massive power. During the ensuing fight, one of the three craft is damaged, though the Shi'ar sustain heavy losses. The Starjammers get caught in the crossfire, and end up hiding inside a nearby nebula. As Lilandra orders her Minister of Peace, a former supporter of her mad brother, to assemble an armada to face the Uncreated, the Starjammers discover the damaged Uncreated ship is hiding in the nebula as well. They manage to destroy it - gaining access to valuable intel about the Uncreated in the process - but the Starjammer is badly damaged and stalled as the Shi'ar close in.
Ch'od devises a way to detonate the gas inside the nebulae and use the resulting explosion to launch the Starjammer past the waiting Shi'ar ships and into light speed. Returning to Standing Still, they debate what to do with the intelligence on the Uncreated: share it with the Shi'ar, who are still hunting them & targeting the Kree, or keep it to themselves and risk the Uncreated destroying more worlds. As the Shi'ar armada meets the Uncreated in the skies above Standing Still, Corsair comes up with a plan. The Starjammer launches into orbit, and creates a massive hologram of the Uncreated's god. Believing it to be real & therefore their entire reason for being is false, the Uncreated kill themselves, ending their threat. Lilandra thanks the Starjammers by ending the criminal charges against them, and reluctantly enters into a non-aggression agreement with the Clench. The Starjammers celebrate their victory, but other dark forces remain, gathering strength to threaten the fragile peace.
Firsts and Other Notables
This is the third and final limited series released out of the X-office for 1995 (following Rogue and Wolverine/Gambit: Victims), though it carries over into 1996 (the year in which the "three limited series a year" approach of 1994 and 1995 will look positively restrained...). It is written by Excalibur writer Warren Ellis and drawn by Carlos Pacheco, who penciled Bishop's 1994 limited series (as well as X-Universe during "Age of Apocalype"), and will join Ellis on Excalibur shortly after this book wraps.
This series finds the Starjammers (whom we last saw in Excalibur #70, delivering Cerise to the Shi'ar) working with the Clench, helping Kree citizens & refugees being targeted by the Shi'ar in the wake of their defeat of the Kree Empire in "Operation: Galactic Storm" (as touched on in Avengers #350 and X-Men Unlimited #5). The Clench, an loose confederation of worlds existing outside the Shi'ar control on the edge of their territory, has yet to appear outside this series, as far as I know.
The first issue introduces Keeyah, a Kree who is the new pilot of the Starjammer, though similar to the Clench, this series is his only appearance to date.
The antagonists of the story are the Uncreated, the alien species introduced by Warren Ellis in Excalibur's "Dream Nails" trilogy (the Uncreated were the aliens being kept at the titular base, who were being bioengineered into weapons). They are ultimately defeated when the Starjammers project an image of their god into space so lifelike it makes the Uncreated collectively think they failed to kill their god (the defining act of their existence) and decide to kill themselves as a result (it is easily the weakest part of the story, a technique that only lifted from a season 2 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation - which only worked to distract its intended target for a few minutes anyway).
Though they don't actually appear in this story, the Phalanx loom large over it, getting name-checked in a few places as threats to the Shi'ar empire and specifically mentioned as moving in response to a signal sent from Earth (presumably the aborted Babel Spire message from the "Life Signs" portion of "Phalanx Covenant"). Though the threat alluded to here isn't directly paid off in a specific story, parts of the Shi'ar empire will be overrun by the Phalanx in the "X-Men in Space!" story cira Uncanny X-Men #341-345, and the Phalanx will be shown responding to the beacon in a potential future in the 2099 imprint (and, of course, they will become a galactic threat in the later "Annihilation: Conquest" crossover amongst Marvel's "cosmic" books).
The series closes on an ominous note, referencing the Phalanx again as well as factions of the Shi'ar government who remain loyalists of Lilandra's deceased brother, the mad Emperor D'Ken, though I don't believe that particular plotline ever gets picked up anywhere else, either.
Cerise, the one-time member of Excalibur who left the team when she was "sentenced" to serve as an advistor to Lilandra, makes a wordless, one-panel appearance in issue #2 (appearing, appropriately enough, amongst Lilandra's advisers).
Throughout the series, Ellis introduces the idea that the Shi'ar believe it is their religious duty to marry their empire to other cultures, in order to create something in the union better than the separate parts, in a replication of sorts of the forced marriage between their god figures Sharra & Kythri, which resulted in the creation of the Shi'ar themselves (that the other cultures don't have an even say in whether or not they want to be "married" to the Shi'ar is irrelevant to them, making the unions essentially "cultural shotgun weddings", as one character terms it).
It's an interesting development of the Shi'ar culture, one consistent with their previous appearances while still building on the (slim) framework established previously, and helps give their status as one of the major galactic powers a unique perspective different from, say, the similarly imperialistic (and now conquered) Kree (even if no other writers really do a lot with the idea after this).
Issue #3 establishes that Corsair maintains a garden aboard the Starjammer, something which will feature in a New Mutants story early in the Hickman/Krakoa era (flip a coin as to whether Hickman remembered this about the Starjammer, or just coincidentally hit on a bit of established continuity).
A Work in Progress
Early in the issue Corsair insists on being called Chris or Christopher, as he's "no longer a corsair", and he spends much of the series struggling to reconcile the Starjammers overall goals and place in the galaxy.
Hepzibah, meanwhile, is shown throughout the series to be increasingly zealous towards killing Shi'ar, to the point where Corsair and Keeyah anticipate her co-opting their plan to defeat the Uncreated in order to kill some Shi'ar, and move to stop her.
The specific Clench world the Starjammers are using as a base of operations is called Standing Still.
Issue #2 provides a flashback showing the origins of the Starjammer/Clench alliance.
Similarly, scattered throughout the series are assorted flashbacks to the Starjammers' pre-Starjammer times, showing how they came to be in the Shi'ar slave pits (where they all met) or encountering one another for the first time (all of which is broadly consistent with what's been previously established).
At one point, Corsair laments having missed Cyclops and Jean's wedding and not having made the time to get back to Earth to congratulate his son (though he did at least make it to Cyclops' first wedding).
While the Starjammers are certainly X-characters, they have always been supporting characters, at best, so making them the stars of their own limited series, especially one set entirely in Shi'ar space and devoid of any other direct X-Men characters, allows Warren Ellis to turn in his best work for the X-Office yet. Devoid of any significant ties to continuity (the main stumbling block of his other X-book work thus far) and lacking most of his tics (there's no too-cool-for-school writer insert character here, for example), Ellis is able to craft a tight, riveting space opera that also does some engaging character work (with characters who, previously, were for the most part one or two-note at best) and explores some interesting themes. All of the Starjammers are presented consistently with their past appearances, but come into sharper relief here. Corsair's weariness & uncertainty about his future are palpable throughput, and serve as a kind of character-based spine for the entire series, while Ellis' also does a great job of slowly building Hepzibah's zeal for killing Shi'ar issue by issue, until it comes to a head in the final chapter. Even Ch'od gets a few standout moments, reflecting on his past as a mercenary and highlighting the dichotomy between his monstrous appearance and cunning intellect (only Raza, of the core Starjammers, is largely under-served here).
Thematically, Ellis explores the role of religion within empire-building, using his previously introduced atheistic-to-the-point-of genocide Uncreated to contrast with the Shi'ar, who view cultural assimilation as a religious act. By casting both sides as antagonists relative to the Starjammers, Ellis introduces some unexpected nuance to the discussion: the Shi'ar may be religious zealots, of a sort, but they genuinely believe in the virtues of cultural assimilation (and not domination - they want to grow stronger from adopting the practices of other cultures) and aren't the genocidal maniacs the Uncreated are. At the same time, they're still a dominant, militant force, bringing about assimilation at gunpoint, and there are forces within their government that would act just as zealously as the Uncreated against their enemies if allowed. The notion of backing the lesser of two evils and finding a "good enough" solution when no perfect one exists is another throughline of the series (another place where Ellis highlights this theme is with the Kree refugees, whom the Starjammers are helping relocate to Clench worlds. The Starjammers resent the Shi'ar for what they're doing to the Kree, even as they acknowledge the Kree themselves were no less militaristic or aggressive in their heyday).
Art throughout the book comes from Carlos Pacheco, who injects the proceedings with the appropriate space opera sheen and effectively depicts the cosmic-level action when necessary, while also giving the avian Shi'ar the vaguely alien/non-mammalian look they sometimes lack in other stories. He also does some interesting things with interior space & architecture: the Starjammer itself is often rendered huge, its small crew a blip within its massive space, a group struggling to fill their own home, while large statutes repeatedly loom over Shi'ar officials in the backgrounds of their scenes, an ever-present reminder of the steadfast traditions guiding their actions. Like Ellis, it's Pacheco's strongest X-book work yet.
All in all, this turned out to be a pleasant surprise (I know I've read it before, but had no memory of it prior to revisiting it for review). It is both very much a Warren Ellis story, yet also free of many of his more distracting stylistic tics. It both acknowledges the history of the Starjammers but also moves them forward (Corsair even gets something of a character arc, ending the series in a different place than he began, more comfortable with his current role). It raises some interesting & tough questions about empire building, religion and cultural appropriation, yet still manages to tell a satisfying story without offering up any easy answers (the Starjammers are more committed to their purpose - and on better footing with Lilandra, at least - but there's still a bunch of Kree refugees in need of help. The Uncreated are stopped, but their absence may just open the door to something worse. Lilandra's hawkish minister is removed from power, but the forces that supported him are still very much in play, etc.). An engaging, entertaining and well-drawn bit of sci-fi, this is easily one of the X-books' hidden gems of the 90s.
We get back to Earth for Uncanny X-Men #328, X-Factor #118 and X-Man #11!
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