Liz (And Jeff) Tell Frank What Happened In “Rising Stars”
Don’t forget, friends — “Liz Tells Frank What Happened In…: The Book” is now available on Amazon!
While you may not have ever read Rising Stars, there is no doubt in my mind that you have heard of it. That’s because I have been arguing about J. Michael Straczynski’s, um, unique take on the superhero mythos with our mutual friend Jeff since…
Jeff: Some drunken party in the mid-00′s.
Liz: Yes. At our friend Asa’s house, undoubtedly, because Asa had a bunch of comics and parties at his house often devolved into drinking and reading comics. The HOTTEST PARTIES.
Jeff: Our lives were basically GOSSIP GIRL.
Liz: Yes. Except we were all old enough to rent cars.
(Frank, Jeff insists on sitting in on this one. I’m sure that he’s able to approach this comic book from a highly respected creator with objective distance and clarity–)
Jeff: Straczynski’s a garbage pile. Sure, some folks (Liz included), dig Babylon 5, but I tried watching it a few years back and it bored me to tears halfway into its first season. More relevant to this discussion, though, is his comics work, including a run on Amazing Spider-Man that introduced the idea of Peter Parker’s teenage high-school girlfriend giving birth to the love children of Spidey’s (middle-aged) arch-nemesis. Straczynski also tackled an ill-advised run on Superman that he unceremoniously quit right in the middle of his story. His latest endeavor seems to be that of corporate comics apologist.
Liz: See, like I said — objective.
The short version of the premise is this: Rising Stars is about 113 super-babies who become super-human because of some comet that passes over a small Illinois town while they’re all in utero.
Jeff: Frank, did I mention that this comic is, and was always intended to be, 24 issues? And spans 60 years? That’s a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it in! Hope you like exposition instead of character development, Frank! You know that old adage “Show, don’t tell”? Well Rising Stars is the tell-iest comic that ever told. And what little page space it does have is often given to narrative dead-ends.
ANYWAY. These kids, The Specials, wind up being raised at a summer camp by the government, basically, because they all have various super powers.
Liz: But their superpowers don’t necessarily keep their lives from getting super-fucked-up — there’s sexual molestation and bullying and unrequited love — which means a few of them “turn bad,” essentially, while others grow up and get corporate.
Jeff: Here’s a great example of what I was talking about! One of the Specials that “turns bad” is a guy named Jerry, aka Pyre, who has fire powers. Except there’s this whole chapter about ANOTHER guy with fire powers, Lee Jackson, and how he went bad (because of the aforementioned molestation), went good again, and eventually exploded.
Jeff: OF COURSE YOU DO. BECAUSE NO EFFORT IS MADE TO DISTINGUISH THEM.
Liz: Jerry’s the one who lives in Vegas a bunch? And Lee’s the one who got child-molested?
Jeff: Right. Jerry becomes a major character as the story progresses, as a villain who eventually has a face turn.
Liz: That’s a wrestling thing, right?
Jeff: Yup! Face = hero, heel = villain. Keep up with my carny lingo, Liz!
Here’s the thing: Rather than establish Jerry’s character early on with an explanation of his villainy, we spend an entire early chapter developing some OTHER fire guy who winds up committing suicide and is never mentioned again! When Jerry finally gets some focus, he’s a complete cipher. THIS IS NOT GOOD STORYTELLING.
Liz: Right, yes. This all happens after the first trade, which I really liked. But the first trade, “Born in Fire,” is really compelling and ends on a strong cliffhanger. In part because it’s basically just a murder mystery–
Jeff: –well, for a while. Then they abandon that entirely–
Liz: –because it’s discovered that for every Special who dies, every other Special gets extra powers. So someone (likely a Special) is running around murdering folks whose superpowers aren’t enough to protect them (like being able to walk through dreams or a really crappy version of invulnerability), so that they can reap the sweet power benefits.
Jeff: The murder mystery stuff is the best part. Decent hook! I’m interested!
Liz: Quickly, though, we figure out that it’s one of the “good” guys who’s doing this, a guy who’s used his Superman-esque powers to become a licensed corporate figure who focus groups have just dubbed Patriot.
Jeff: The reveal of Jason/Patriot as the murderer is the best issue of the series. It’s a nice bit of business with a cool twist. Its big drawback (and that of most of the other issues in the first trade), is that it has awful, sub-Image artwork by Christian Zanier and Ken Lashley. Just the pits.
Liz: Well, it’s not Rob Liefeld bad.
Jeff: I can find several Liefeld issues better than the art in early Rising Stars. At least Liefeld has some energy!
Liz: And pouches. Lots of pouches.
Jeff: MY KINGDOM FOR A POUCH. But as a formal rebuttal, I present exhibit A from issue 4 of Rising Stars.
LOOK AT THAT NECK. THAT IS NOT A HUMAN NECK.
Liz: I forgot about Cathy’s neck! Yeah, Cathy’s neck is bullshit.
Anyway, Jason teams up with two of the other Specials — specifically, one of the fire guys and Joshua, who has the ability to float around in a glow of light, and whose Preacher father has made into a religious icon, and who also has A SECRET.
Jeff: Joshua’s secret is that he’s a transvestite, which is revealed in a full-page spread where the art makes it look like he’s just wearing an elaborate robe instead of a dress. Fortunately the overly-wordy narration boxes are there to drive the point home. Man, we haven’t even discussed all of the main characters yet. Hey Liz, let’s talk about Chandra!
Liz: Nooooooooo I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT CHANDRA DON’T MAKE ME TALK ABOUT CHANDRA– Fine. Chandra’s superpower is that she’s the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen. It is never explained what effect this has on women, because the only people who exist in the universe are heterosexual men. At a certain point in the plot, enough Specials die that every living Special gets a major power upgrade, including flying and super-strength. This in theory means Chandra’s superpowers extend beyond being really fucking pretty, but does Chandra do anything with her superpowers except LITERALLY LOOK PRETTY? No. No she fucking does not.
Again, because the only point-of-view that matters in the universe is that of heterosexual men, “everyone” loves and worship Chandra. The only one who doesn’t worship her is essentially the protagonist of Rising Stars — Hey, Jeff, let’s talk about Poet! Pooooooooet!
Jeff: Liz, you didn’t even mention that Chandra works as the world’s most expensive prostitute. I mean, I can’t even.
But ah, John Simon, aka Poet. Our hero. Our boring, boring hero. And since he’s our hero, he actually gets some backstory! You see, John is actually the most powerful Special, able to manipulate the very energy that powers them all, but back at superhero camp, John and his mentor scientist friend decided that John should keep his powers a secret, and would only reveal them if and when a Special went bad and needed to be put down. FRANK, THAT PART’S PRETTY NEAT.
John’s secret role as judge, jury, and executioner means he’s our point-of-view character for the opening murder investigation. But once John reveals his power and the mystery is cast aside in favor of a “government hunts the Specials” plot, John stops developing as a character, but still laboriously narrates the rest of the plot.
Oh, and he and Chandra have the dullest romance in the history of fiction. They clearly love each other, but they don’t get together for DECADES. FOR NO REASON. Imagine that if in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh had no chemistry and everything they said and did was stupid. Then you’re getting pretty close to the epic romance of John and Chandra.
Liz: And she’s pretty much the ONLY female character to appear in all three volumes of the series — there are some other ladies, but they are all boring and/or evil and/or eventually dead. Chandra gets to stick around, but only because she is the love interest. UGH CHANDRA MAKES ME SO MAD.
Jeff: So what next, Liz? Book Two?
Liz: I suppose it’s time. At the end of the first trade, the Specials get their massive power upgrade I mentioned before, and one of them, the batshit-crazy Critical Maas, uses her upgrade to take over the city of Chicago and make it her psycho playground. Because the government does not hesitate to be terrified of the fact that these are super-powered American citizens, they use Critical Maas as justification to treat the other Specials who aren’t working with Critical Maas or the Patriot power-team (which is officially government-sanctioned) as enemies of the state.
So the second trade, “Power,” starts with Poet, this Batman-esque guy called Ravenshadow or something else equally silly and who also looks EXACTLY LIKE Poet, down to the predilection for super-long-flowy-hair–
Jeff: They’re half-brothers, it turns out, but who cares?
Liz: –And a bunch of the other dudes in hiding decide to retake Chicago in the hopes that it’ll get them back on the right side of the law.
Jeff: Couple of things. One, 10 YEARS pass between Critical Maas taking over Chicago and John, Chandra, et al deciding to stop her. AWESOME HEROES. JUST REALLY STAND-UP DUDES. How do we find out what happened in those 10 years? An expository wall-of-text magazine article that takes up most of an issue! Dude, just write a book.
Liz: So the Specials go fight other Specials in Special-controlled Chicago and… Oh, Frank, remember how the first third of this story was about how Patriot was killing other Specials to increase his own powers? And how that was a really compelling dark twist — a hero so desperate to preserve his own power that he turned to murder? Well… Oh, I’ll let Jeff tell you, Frank.
Jeff: Now for the real horseshit. As John and the others fight in Chicago, the government sends in Jason to help out. Jason shows up, but winds up siding with Maas, because HE’S BEEN UNDER HER CONTROL THIS WHOLE TIME. Yup, Jason did all those murders in Book 1 under Maas’s orders so she could get more powerful. Yeah, I can totally see why “mind controlled by evil bitch” is a TOTALLY better motivation than “guilt-ridden golden boy desperate to retain his power and status”. And just like that, Rising Stars retcons its one interesting plot point. HIGH FIVES ALL AROUND.
Anyway, there’s like five issues of fighting, and then the good guys win. This kicks of the final phase of the story, where the remaining Specials decide to use their incredible powers to FIX THE WORLD, which turns out to be way easier than you might think, Frank!
Liz: By far the crowning achievement of this section is the bit where the government assassin lady (who can control very tiny objects with HER MIND and murders people by pinching their carotid arteries shut) goes to Israel to blow it up. But instead, Poet convinces her to use her powers to make the desert of the Middle East into lush farmland, because THAT’S the problem with the Middle East: NOT ENOUGH GARDENING.
Liz: All the other world-improving stuff proceeds with a modicum of conflict — Patriot’s rounding up all the world’s nukes and hiding them in the Arctic, the fire guy who’s still alive is destroying cocaine fields, etc. The only problem is that the US Government is all pissy about how powerful the Specials are now — so as soon as they figure out that the Specials are susceptible to certain kinds of radiation, well, BLAMMO.
Jeff: Yup, a generic Board of Shadowy Figures nukes the hell out of a big gathering of all the Specials except for John. And that’s how the climax of Rising Stars is very similar to Gremlins. Then the Specials’ energy envelops the planet, cures all diseases, and everyone experiences true empathy for 24 hours. And thus THE WORLD IS SAVED. Seems like the Specials could have fixed the world a lot faster just by killing themselves decades ago. And what of John, the Loneliest Special? He’s been working on a TOP SECRET PROJECT.
Liz: The reason he’s working on this TOP SECRET PROJECT is ostensibly tied to the fact that none of the Specials can have children — which I guess would be interesting except HOLY SHIT, Frank, if you thought that Patriot retcon was bullshit, it’s got NOTHING on the fertility of the Specials, which fluctuates on an issue-by-issue basis. I’m really not kidding about this — in the first trade, it’s explicitly mentioned that some of the 113 Specials have had children (who have not inherited their parents’ powers). There are also children seen — wait, no, not seen, but we’re TOLD that there are children around at various Specials gatherings.
This continues all the way up until near the very end of the story, up to and including the point where Patriot’s kids and wife die because of the radiation he’s brought home from his nuke-gathering, until Poet/John’s all like OH BY THE WAY NONE OF US CAN HAVE CHILDREN DESPITE THE 22 ISSUES BEFORE NOW WHICH DIRECTLY CONTRADICT WHAT I JUST SAID JEFF I’M GETTING THE RAGE SHAKES YOU BETTER TAKE OVER–
Jeff: WHOOPS, SOMEONE WAS PAID TO WRITE AND EDIT THIS COMIC. But it’s a bummer about Jason’s impossible family. Future Spider-Man feels your pain, bro.
So John, full of all the Specials’ energy, builds himself a spaceship and tools around the galaxy for a bit until he’s compelled to bring his ship in over an alien planet and WHOA HIS SHIP TURNS INTO A COMET AND THE CYCLE IS TOTALLY GOING TO BEGIN ANEW. OH AND THESE ALIEN KIDS ARE PLAYING ALIEN SPORTS WITH THEIR ALIEN DOG. THEY TOTALLY HAVE ALIEN BASEBALL HATS ON I SWEAR TO GOD.
Liz: And thus John sacrifices himself to give another planet its own Specials and THE END. Seriously. The alien baseball caps. If you take away anything from this, take away that.
Frank, you might be wondering why Jeff and I would get into drunken fights about Rising Stars all those years ago, given that we seem to be pretty united on the fact that it’s terrible. There are a lot of reasons — for one thing, I really did like the first third of the story a whole bunch, and don’t always feel that a terrible conclusion invalidates what came before. (This philosophy is why I’m able to rewatch early X-Files episodes.)
The other reason is that YEAH, rereading the series for the purposes of this retelling, it does NOT hold up. And it also came out at a time before a new wave of deconstructed superhero narratives, built on the work of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, really tackled the question of what superpowers would mean for human, flawed individuals.
Also, it was really funny when Jeff would shout profanities about Rising Stars. One time, I left an Asa party, went home to bed, and woke up to a voicemail from Jeff, left at 4 AM, who needed to keep shouting at me about Rising Stars.
Jeff: That is true. I did do that. Anyway, my purpose here was to prove I was right about Rising Stars all along, and I think I achieved that. VICTORY.
Liz: Frank, I know this has been super-long, but here is all you really need to know: Rising Stars may be terrible as a whole, but it is the cornerstone of at least one drunken shouty friendship. And for that, I’m glad it exists.