Needs to go beyond to stand out from traditional comics
I’m one of the lucky few who got to review Kelly Bender‘s Starburn (first story arc), all at once—its first issue was released at STGCC last year, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of it. I did some googling (yeah, okay, so I cheated a little) and found that many people liked it, so I was psyched to give it a shot. Most sites have compared it to Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy and Firely. It’s easy to see why.
The plot stars a band of morally questionable mercenaries onboard the fastest ship in the world—Starburn. The crew has to pick up and drop off a package, and runs into a lot of trouble along the way. We zoom in on the human, Gauge, who questions the dubious nature of the mission, and we’re off on a fast-paced, visual treat.
Starburn’s plot is a fun romp, with action and adventure at every turn. We see characters improvising when things don’t go according to plan, and they have to use their abilities to solve any emergency that is thrust upon them. It’s easy to keep track of the characters and what they do, and there are a few interesting plot twists that keep readers on their toes. However, the story still reads like a traditional space western—while that’s not a bad thing, there is room for more creative and subversive writing that will surprise the reader.
Art-wise, Starburn’s strong lines and illustrations leap off the pages, and it’s apparent that the visual team—Balondo, Docolomansky, and Lee—work well together. Like the plot, Starburn’s art plays it safe and is reminiscent of the visuals we’re used to seeing in DC and Marvel comics. Yet, this style carries the plot forward to its dramatic climax, with some stunning panels for good measure.
While it’s great that there is a burgeoning market for indie comics, Starburn wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf full of titles by Marvel and DC. It reads too much like the established publishers, and there is more room to play with art styles and plot to make it stand out as an independent comic.
Having the main, white male character (Gauge) come into his own in a “special snowflake” moment wihout foreshadowing is cliché and follows the well-trodden path of famous heroes. Making a female character strip to her underwear and using the gratuitous cleavage of another feels contrived and read as a cheap play to get people to turn the pages. Not to mention that the implausibility of the former scenario shocks the reader out of his/her suspension of disbelief.
While Starburn might have a couple of shortcomings, fans of space westerns and operas will love this quick read. While its writing and art is sound most of the time, it would serve the creators well to expand the universe to be more inclusive and less reliant on the all-too pervasive tropes that plague mainstream comics.
Indie comics are known for turning conventions on their heads. Bender and crew now have to challenge them.