Sunday, June 26, 2011

FYC Replay: Starchild with James Owen

Another one from the archives, continuing my Pulse column re-runs. This was another big treat for me, as I got the opportunity to interview James Owen, whose Starchild was one of my favorite comics during the black and white boom - and, to be honest, is still one of my all-time favorites. Although this spotlight was done with the promise of new volumes of Owen's seminal work being published, only the one new volume ever saw the light of day. Owen has since gone on to write the best-selling young adult "Dragon" series, which begins with the novel Here There Be Dragons. Five of the seven volumes have been published so far. I have yet to check them out, but will certainly do so someday. Hopefully, the success of these novels will pave the way for the end of the Starchild saga.

But I digress. Here, for your enjoyment, a focus on James Owen's Starchild.


For Your Consideration: Starchild Mythopolis II

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: James Owen is the best-selling author of the young adult fantasy novel, Here, There be Dragons. And now, after far too long an absence, Owen is returning to his roots with this latest edition from Desperado Publishing, Starchild Mythopolis II – a quarterly anthology that packs 96 pages full of comics and prose for only $6.99. Come in and discover one of the best indie titles of the nineties, reinvigorated for this new century.

The 411:

Starchild Mythopolis II: Book One

Stories and art by James A. Owen

96 pp. b/w


Desperado Publishing

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The late eighties and early nineties saw a revolution in comics with the black and white boom. Prompted by the unexpected success of a small comic created and self-published by two guys from New England (Peter Laird, founder of the Xeric foundation and Kevin Eastman, the owner, editor, and publisher of Heavy Metal), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a comic parodying much of what was popular in comics at the time, spawned a wide host of successors. Many tried to emulate what Eastman and Laird had accomplished, but many of these books inevitably failed.

Eastman and Laird had proven that a black and white comic from unknown creators with a story to tell could be a success, but like so many “movements” before and since, too many aspiring artists and writers assimilated only the surface elements (Rockin’ Rollin’ Miner Ants anyone?), failing to realize what allowed this book to connect with so many fans. Luckily, there were a small number of creators able to capitalize on the success of the Turtles and use this newfound acceptance of small press black and white comics to stamp their own indelible mark upon the medium. One of those creators was James A. Owen, and the comic was Starchild.

Owen had a vision for his series, which was a major difference between his work and many of the also-rans. The remarkable Higgins family had a long and winding history, one that was to encompass one hundred issues of Owen’s book. It was a formidable task, and one that Owen earnestly undertook – creating, writing, drawing, lettering, and publishing the book himself. Owen incorporated many disparate threads within his narrative, bringing in the mythological Faerie Queen Titania, creating characters based upon well-known authors within the comic medium – Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore – as well as parodying characters from many of the more literate comics being published during this period such as Frank Miller’s Marv, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Gaiman’s own embodiment of Death. It was a smorgasbord of stories that helped illuminate the complex ancestry of the remarkable Higgins family, and ultimately that was the main premise of the book, that stories have the power to change reality.

Owen’s storytelling is exciting and fanciful, befitting a contemporary fantasy such as Starchild, and like any good fantasy, he imbues his tale with a distinct setting that allows for the wonder and magic pervading this series. Much of the first act of the tale takes place within a tiny village where life is simple and a well-told tale can get you an ale at Harrigan’s Green. A village in touch with the natural world, from which much of the magic emanates, the status quo changed drastically when Anders Higgins’s grandfather surrounded the forest with a stone wall finished with a gate and a lock of iron. Wishing to capture the maidens that lived within, Ezekiel Higgins set events in motion that would have repercussions farther down his genealogical line. When the final page of first story arc, “Awakenings,” was turned a new world was born, and yet, for all intents and purposes, it had always been thus. This transformation of reality was achieved through the telling of a story on a very special night. It was magical.

With the second chapter of the Higgins family, Owen moved his tale into the world-city of Brigadoon, a claustrophobic place where free will was suppressed and stories were outlawed. But, as with any repressed society, there are always those willing to put their lives on the line in order to work toward a better day – little pockets of resistance working to recruit more people to the cause so that at some point a revolution might free them from their shackles. A toymaker, an occult group of wild-haired storytellers, and the children of the city, it is these and so many hidden others that have started the fires of revolution within the city of Brigadoon, and things are beginning to turn. But what does Anders Higgins have to do with all of this, and what will the world look like?

Owen’s storytelling is very distinctive, eschewing the arbitrary boundaries that pervade the industry, he utilizes traditional comic book pages but also incorporates a stylistic deviation that is reminiscent of children’s picture books. Creating finely detailed single images surrounded by large blocks of prose, Owen weaves these pages seamlessly into Starchild, allowing the story to flow smoothly between these illustrative pages and the more common comic pages. This technique imbues his comics with a rhythm that is difficult to achieve through the traditional manner of creating comics, affording him the opportunity to inject more information about this magical world into the story while pushing the narrative ahead more quickly. It is a masterful use of the comic page that adds even more to this fairy tale land he has created.

Owen’s illustrative technique complements his story perfectly. His rendering style reminds me of classic illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley and Maxfield Parrish, as well as comic artists P. Craig Russell and Barry Windsor-Smith. The fine lines with which he delineates his characters and settings permeates this story with a sense of a time long ago. It is a wonderful melding of art and story.

For the most part, James Owen has been absent from the comic medium for close to a decade, and fans have been waiting anxiously for the continuation of his landmark series Starchild. But if you think Owen has been idle these past ten years you would be incorrect. Not only has he written a number of critically-acclaimed Mythworld novels in Europe as well as designing and publishing the award-winning magazines International Studio and Argosy, but he is also the author of the popular young adult novel Here, There Be Dragons, which sold over 100,000 copies in hardcover and is now available in paperback along with its sequel The Search for the Red Dragon. And finally, he has returned to his first love, comics.

Starchild Mythopolis II from Desperado Publishing is a different sort of beast from the original series. Instead of focusing only on the tale of the Higgins family, Owen has created a quarterly anthology that not only includes the continuation of the original Mythopolis storyline, which Owen was publishing through Image comics in 1997, but it also brings together much more of Owen’s creative oeuvre. In this first issue, Owen also gives readers an unseen Fool’s Hollow vignette, an extension of the four-issue series from the mid-90s, Starchild: Crossroads, which delves into the history of some of the tangential Starchild characters. The first chapter of a six-part pictopia entitled “Obscuro” is a prequel of sorts to Owen’s popular Mythworld novels, while he also offers up the first part of a novella from his Imaginarium Geographica series of young adult novels, and interspersed among all of his fiction and comics, Owen includes a number of essays that not only explain what he has been doing for the past number of years and how the winding creative road has brought him back to comics and to Starchild, but he also delves into the impact Dave Sim – the creator of Cerebus, a 300-issue black and white comic about the life of a talking aardvark that incorporated politics, religion, and anything else of interest to Sim – had on Owen in his creative life. It is an entertaining cornucopia of James Owen goodness – ninety-six pages for only $6.99. Do yourself a favor and get this book right now, then start filling in any holes that might be in your James Owen collection, because it’s all worth the price of admission.

An Interview with James A. Owen:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and has brought you back after a number of years away?

James A. Owen: I love 'em. Love. Them. The aspect of words and pictures together suffuses every part of my life. I loved comics as a child, then started planning for a career in them as a teen. But it's not just reading them - I love to make them. And because there are certain kinds of scenes that can only be done as comics, I'll never stop making them.

True, I was relatively inactive on the working side of comics for a few years, but I was doing things that (I hoped) would yield more financial stability at a time when the comics industry was having a lot of struggles. It's just great synchronicity that as things are going well with my novels, the comics market is also on an upswing. And it doesn't hurt that my forte is fantasy, which is having its own renaissance!

Beckett: One technique you utilize in Starchild is the use of full page images and large caption boxes, almost like a children’s book. What is it about this aesthetic that appeals to you, and why do you think it’s not seen in more comics?

Owen: I do it because 1) it's sometimes easiest to tell a part of a tale in prose, just as I said above, with some sequences of a story, it’s easier as comics. And 2) sometimes, I just want to draw a big pretty picture!

Charles Vess mixed it up like that a bit in his Ballads book. So perhaps it's something that appeals to those of us on the illustrative side of comics. (Other examples would be Gary Gianni, and Mike Kaluta, and, oh, Ladronn.) Dave McKean's done that in Cages.

Beckett: If I remember correctly, Starchild was initially scheduled to run 100 issues. What was the genesis of the story, and do you have it all mapped out, or are you working in a looser manner?

Owen: Roughly speaking, that's still the plan, storywise. The completion of Mythopolis will take me through about a third of the storyline. I'd like to be able to continue just serializing new material as I can, then collecting it. Up after Mythopolis is either Wormwood or Tatterhood. And yes, I have it all pretty mapped out.

Beckett: Recent years have seen you writing novels (Mythworld and Here There Be Dragons) and designing art and literary magazines (Argosy Quarterly, International Studio). What have you learned from these experiences that you are now able to apply to your comics work?

Owen: The Mythworld books and the Imaginarium Geographica books have made me a better writer. I'm better at pacing, and developing story arcs. The magazines made me a better designer, and helped refine my ideas about presentation.

Beckett: I really like the format of the new Starchild with comics, prose, and essays. Do you feel the audience is there for such a different book, and what can readers look forward to with regards to the short prose and essays in future editions?

Owen: Thanks! I think the audience is always there for good material. The novels are giving me exposure to a huge global audience, and so I think that as long as what I have to offer is done well, it'll find a solid readership. The fat quarterly format is one I've been looking at for a while. It's a synthesis of all the things I loved about comics and storytelling from the last couple of decades. I wanted to give readers as much substance as possible, with myself - the creator - being the unifying element. I mean, look at DC's Solo. I loved those. I loved the Paul Pope issue... And wanted a second one. I loved the Doc Allred issue... And wanted a second one. I loved the Aragones issue, and... You get the idea. Now, say (let's use Paul as an example) you took his issue of Solo, and added a chapter of THB; a few essays from his Adhouse art book; and a few illustrated text pieces. And then, when you have that wicked cool package - make it clear there will be more than one. That's what we're doing with Starchild.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Owen: The second Imaginarium Geographica book, The Search for the Red Dragon, is coming out in hardcover in January; the next one, The Indigo King, is coming out in October. I'm working on a Starchild-related Fool’s Hollow ogn for Simon & Schuster; and we're working on maquettes and designs for the Here, There be Dragons movie. And more Starchild. Outside of that, Kurt Busiek and Jimmy Palmiotti and I keep taking about how much fun it would be to do a DC book with a big red 'S' on the spine, so we'll see.

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