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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

X-amining Starjammers #1-4

"Cepheid Variable" / "Nebulae" / "Collapsar" / "Nova"
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

Plot
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).


Austin's Analysis
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.

Next Issue
We get back to Earth for Uncanny X-Men #328, X-Factor #118 and X-Man #11!

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7 comments:

  1. As a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, this sounds fabulous. I'll have to give it a read

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  2. I like a lot this limited series and I also consider it a hidden gem of the 90s.

    There are two things that caught my attention (and were completely unexpected): Firstly, that Warren Ellis seems to try to move the genre from space opera to not so hard science-fiction, but at least much more harder than usual (specially if you compare it with the previous Starjammers limited series). The story seems much closer to a "Babylon 5" episode than a "Star Wars" movie: there a lot of galactic politics discussed (the Shi'ar Empire expansion, the Clench Worlds resisting it, the Uncreated as an "out-of-context problem"), there are a lot of technological devices used and how they work, all problems are solved with decisions made in the Starjammer's bridge, and there is no swashbuckling (the Starjammers never board another ship, shoot their firearms or engage in melee combat).

    Secondly, that the story narrated by Ellis seems to be like the end of a chapter in the Starjammer's life, and the start of a new one. Corsair doesn't considers a pirate anymore, he tells Hezpibah that they can't keep living on revenge anymore, and the last scene explicitly says "This is the last voyage of the Starjammer". It is like some kind of "Space Unforgiven", but with a much happier ending (the heroes seem to be able to leave behind their past as space pirates).

    Imagine my disappointment with the next appearances of the Starjammers seeming to ignore the "character development" made here (and I really dislike their current interpretation in the Hickman comics, specially in "New Mutants", where they seem to be a dumber version of the MCU Guardians of the Galaxy.

    Issue #2 has a small continuity error in the space battle between three Shi'ar ships (a carrier and two escorts) and three Uncreated ships. In the last stages of battle, when there is only a Shi'ar ship left (one of the escorts), one of the vignettes prior the its destruction shows TWO escort ships. The second escort ship was the first casualty in battle, so it shouldn't be there. To add confusion, the destruction of that escort wasn't clearly shown, because the vignette in which it happens it is showing also the Shi'ar carrier suffering a heavy hit (although in the next vignette, a carrier's crewwoman clearly says: "Sharp Feather [one of the names given for the escorts] it is gone").

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  3. I didn't really enjoy this series when I was a teen, so since I had some time constraints anyway this past week, I opted not to re-read it for your post -- but after that glowing review, now I feel like maybe I should!

    I will say that there were bits and pieces in the story I liked back then -- but overall I was disappointed. My main problems with it -- and remember, these are memories from when I first read it 25 years ago -- are nearly all things that you and commenter Agrivar hit upon above. Corsair not wanting to be Corsair anymore. Hepzibah being not just somewhat vengeful toward the Shi'ar as in past appearances, but downright homicidal toward them. Their sudden enmity with Lilandra, who was a valued friend for years.

    And the biggest, which Agrivar specifically noted as a favorable point: no swashbuckling! C'mon! Swashbuckling is the Starjammers' reason for existence. They were created by the most swashbuckling comic creator who ever lived (Dave Cockrum literally wore buccaneer boots, according to John Byrne), for the express purpose of buckling swashes! Corsair is supposed to jump into battle with blasters (or a sword) in hand and a huge grin on his face -- not mope around for four issues lamenting his lot in life. (That's more his son's schtick).

    Also, much as I absolutely love Carlos Pacheco's art here -- he could really do no wrong in the mid-to-late 90s -- I seriously disliked his redesign of Corsair. I have no problem with Hepzibah's new outfit, but Corsair just does not look right to me at all in this get-up. That said, I do think his new costume fits with Ellis's vision of him. It says "resigned pirate" in a way his original costume simply couldn't.

    I was also disappointed that nothing more came of the D'Ken loyalists -- though I feel like Ed Brubaker did something with that idea during his "Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire" storyline -- but whether he realized he was following up on something Ellis had planted a decade earlier, I don't know. A secret sect remaining loyal to a long-dead emperor isn't exactly an original idea.

    Lastly, I will observe that there seemed to be a push by the X-Office around this time to toss random Kree characters onto established Shi'ar and Shi'ar adjancent teams. In addition to Keeyah here, John Ostrander's IMPERIAL GUARD limited series of 1997 (which I really enjoyed quite a bit, unlike STARJAMMERS) would see a Kree conscript named Commando assigned to the Guard. I guess it makes sense; since Bob Harras had co-written the Avengers storyline where the Shi'ar assimilated the Kree, maybe he wanted to see the story's legacy preserved.

    (I'm actually impressed that the status quo set up by "Operation: Galactic Storm" lasted as long as it did... I don't think the Kree came back as any sort of a major power until "Live Kree or Die!" in 1999, during the Busiek Perez AVENGERS run!)

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    1. Not sure why I thought John Ostrander wrote IMPERIAL GUARD... it was actually Brian Augustyn.

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  4. A quick note about the addition of a kree pilot to the Starjammer crew; the comic says that the former pilot of the ship, a robot named Waldo, died (or was damaged beyond being salvageable) in a previous battle. I suppose that makes him the dubious honor of being one of those minor characters from the Marvel Universe whose death has stick.

    I find somewhat funny that the "Farscape" TV series premise is quite similar to what happened to Corsair: a human fleeing from an interstellar empire in company of a crew of escaped prisoners in a stolen ship.

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  5. It is a bit hard to get so worked up about this series. As well executed as it is, nothing in it is really followed up on by future writers; most of the plot threads and status quo established here really don't go anywhere. So it is something of a minor, minor footnote in 90s era X-men.

    The hate/dislike the Starjammers have for Lilandra is baffling, they spent far too much time with her (about a hundred or so issues our time) fighting to help her reclaim her empire to be thinking about her this way.

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  6. This one was a fun surprise for all the reasons stated in other comments. I wasn't eager to read this but now I want more Shi'ar stuff.

    The Starjammers were pals to Princess Lilandra, but the Empress Lilandra is another sort of beast. As its monarch, she acts as the personification of the Shi'ar Empire, and hers is the blame to bear when the empire goes on to do empire things. More, she has the duty to service the empire to the empire's benefit. It is bound to put her in direct collision with once-friends who have become a luxury she ill can afford. The finale of the Dark Phoenix Saga is all the proof one needs.

    She pretty much needed to be usurped and exiled and effectively reduced back to the princess role to be fit to be used as a supporting character around UXM #150-200, because as an empress she's completely out of the league for everyone to be written as a friend or an ally.

    It's kind of hard to blame the numerous factions seeking to oust her from the throne. Honestly, she's trying but probably she's a complete disaster as an empress for the Shi'ar Empire. Deathbird may have been better choice; a shame that she committed the matricide(?) to unqualify herself. We have always been let to assume it was a bad thing, but seeing how the Neramani tend to be, maybe Deathbird had solid reasons. D'Ken's insanity may have been an inherited strait from the mom for what we know.

    I... don't like the Shi'ar religion to be fleshed out -- an quite literally so in form of the statue that I assume depicts Sharra and K'ythri in the act of consummation of their marriage. It was always the coolest thing to hear Shi'ar characters swear by Sharra's burning blade and K'ythri's blooded claws and having to yourself imagine what Sharra and K'ythri might be all about.

    I mean, it's not bad reveal that there is such a religious background for the particular Shi'ar empire building ethos. Maybe I'm just angry to realize that they never were the "good" guys that you kind of were led to assume by using the anomalous princess Lilandra as your point-of-view Shi'ar. And suddenly I'm thinking that Skrull princess Anelle was kind of a good guy, too.

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