The Art of the Start: Starfire #1

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

You’ve got a handful of pages to prove your concept, to introduce your character, to get your hooks into your reader and keep ’em coming back for more. How do you handle it? In The Art of the Start, we look at first issues, be they new originals, fresh story angles, or total reboots. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

starfire 1 coverStarfire’s had a bit of a rocky decade so far. Originally created in 1980 as part of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s fan favorite New Teen Titans lineup, she was a free-spirited and deeply passionate alien princess, as quick to affection as she was to violence. Though she was certainly intended as eye candy, all va-va-voom and battle bikini, her pure heart and ebullient personality endeared her to female readers too.

In 2003, the Teen Titans animated series redesigned her for a younger audience as a bubbly naif, prone to hilarious misunderstandings of Earth customs. This version won the hearts and minds of the viewing audience, so it was a disappointment to comics and cartoon fans alike when Starfire showed up in the New 52’s Red Hood and the Outlaws as a vacant amnesiac, pasted into her skimpiest costume yet and boredly inviting her male costars to sleep with her, or not, whatever, who cares. Starfire had always been scantily-clad and sex positive, but without her cheerful, affectionate, and absolutely agency-driven attitude towards sex, the whole thing just felt…icky.

So I was delighted when a new Starfire series was announced as part of the DC You initiative. Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, both on writing duties for this one, have proven that they can handle female characters who lend themselves to cheesecake with a playful, decidedly non-icky approach, and I adore Emanuela Lupacchino’s art. The cute as heck new costume was a bonus.

Also a bonus? The eight-page preview of the series DC released last month as a backup in Convergence: The Question #2 and for free online. It was totally adorable, showing Starfire talking to her various superfriends (zing!) about finding a new place to call home, going with Superman’s suggestion of Key West, Florida, and making her way to the precinct to announce herself as the new local superhero. I loved the art and Kori’s bubbly friendliness, and was totally stoked for the full issue.

And, well? It’s kind of a mixed bag.

The biggest problem is that that preview I mentioned? Wasn’t a preview so much as a prequel. I assumed the eight-pagers were the first eight pages of the actual issues in question, but that seems to only be the case for some of them. Starfire #1 picks up literally where the preview left off, with Kori in Sheriff Stella Gomez’s office. There’s no real explanation for how she got there or why she’s in Key West.

starfire splash page

This strikes me as…well, a tremendously bad use of a preview. It was a really smart move for DC to release all their previews online for free, because it gave fans a chance to check out titles they might be interested in, and drove buzz for the start of Divergence/DC You/whatever we’re calling this. It’s a really stupid move, though, to make the preview required reading when the whole point of this initiative is to provide an easy jumping-on place. What about casual readers who haven’t been following online buzz and didn’t happen to pick up that particular Convergence title? What about readers who already knew they were going to try Starfire so decided to skip the preview? Why on Earth would you make this kind of #1 not the first part of your story – especially when the book itself reveals that you’re clearly aiming at grown-up fans of the cartoon as part of your audience? The mind, she boggles.

But okay. I did read the preview, so I was only confused by marketing strategy, not plot. How was the book itself?

Well, honestly…a little uneven. Mostly, I was disappointed by the lack of action. (It’s my reward!) Kori chats with Stella, she flies around, she sells some space diamonds and rents a trailer, she fails to recognize that she’s being hit on but then makes out with a stranger because…?, and we end with a hurricane hitting Key West. There’s no mystery, no real villains, no hint of an overarching plot. It’s just Starfire’s Real Estate Adventures, which isn’t a particularly gripping angle. I’m totally fine with comics that are low on punching if they’re counterbalanced by a lot of humor or emotion, but this one, while lightly witty throughout, is certainly never split-your-sides-laughing funny, and as it’s an introduction to the supporting cast – and really, to a new Kori – there’s no way to draw out deep emotion this early.

starfire big ones

The selling point, then, is that aforementioned New Kori. She’s essentially being written as Cartoon Starfire: perky, bubbly, affectionate, prone to overarticulating her English, and failing to understand idioms. As such, she’s completely lovable; you just want to pat her on the head and introduce her to ice cream. However, this is part of why I wanted to see more action in the book; she comes off as very one-note without getting to display the warrior side of her personality, and, well, a little dumb. I’m also not totally sure the gimmick of pictorial thought bubbles to show her misunderstanding idioms totally works – Lupacchino’s art isn’t really cartoony enough to let the thought bubbles mesh. But overall, this Kori is relentlessly charming, and her sunny personality, more than anything, makes me want to pick up issue #2.

The other big selling point for me was the art. Lupacchino’s work is aggressively gorgeous; her Kori is a stunning ray of sunshine, bigger than life on every page. Ray McCarthy’s lush inks and Hi-Fi’s vibrant colors help fill a beautiful Key West with beautiful people, but Kori still stands out as markedly alien; the unworldly effects on her hair are particularly good. Despite that, she still feels very real. This art team is working with a character who is largely visually defined by her open sexuality and scanty attire (and though I like the new costume, which I believe was designed by Connor, those shorts are verrrrry short), and it would be easy to make Kori a vacant blow-up doll, but Lupacchino puts a person in that body, and that makes all the difference.

starfire towel

Which brings me to my last point, which is the sex comedy aspect of the book. Again, Kori’s always been a sexual character, and I have no problem with her continuing to be so – it’s part of who she is. But with so little else going on in the book, the sex farce stuff dominates: the dudes hitting on her in the restaurant, making out with her landlady’s grandson for no reason, showering without closing the door, etc. None of that bothered me, per se, because the creative team tackles it with a light and playful approach that doesn’t give you the sense anyone’s working on this book with one hand, ifyaknowwhatImean, but in the absence of more plot that’s all Kori’s doing, and that’s going to be a problem in the long run. Let her stop a bank robbery and fight some Gordanians or something, then have a hilarious misunderstanding where everyone runs around in their underwear. She is still a superhero, after all.

All in all, I think there were some pretty obvious missteps with this first issue that could have been avoided – but it was still a charming re-introduction to a character that I love, from a creative team that I have a lot of faith in. I’m absolutely picking up #2, and I’m excited to see where Kori goes next.

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