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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jim Starlin talks with Mark Belkin about DC in the 80s

Jim Starlin is a living legend who is responsible for some of the most well-known characters and stories in comic book history. His list of stories include Batman: A Death in the Family, Infinity Gauntlet, Cosmic Odyssey, The Death of Captain Marvel, and the space opera era of Warlock. The timeless characters he has created include Thanos, Drax the Destroyer, and Mongul. We were lucky enough to catch up with Jim at the 2018 Albany Comic-Con where we ONLY asked him about DC in the 80’s, and avoided asking about any upcoming movies that may be coming out in April of 2018.


Mark: Hello, I'm here with the Legendary Jim Starlin at the Albany Comicon, and we're excited that Jim has agreed to speak to DC in the 80s. One of the first things you did, while working at DC comics during the 80s, was introduce Mongul in 1980. It was in a Superman/Martian Manhunter story from DC Comics Presents #27. Could you talk a little bit about creating Mongul and what you saw him as?

First appearance of Mongul
Jim: Well, it was my first chance at doing anything with Superman, and Julie Schwartz was the editor. Julie was an old school editor -- a legend in his time -- and he was coming around to the end of his career at this point and was just trying to 'play it safe'. I was just starting my career and had no idea what 'play it safe' meant, so I was trying to stretch things with Superman as much as I could as soon as I got in there.

Things like Mongul and Warworld (which was a giant planet filled with over-sized missiles and etc), and as we went along I kept trying to stretch it out further, and -- y'know -- every month I would have a new scripter (Julie had someone else scripting my plots) -- at every month it was a new character Superman had to interact/team up with.

We finally got to a point where we had Superman team up with Spectre. And then I thought "well this is where I've got to have Superman meet God"... but I couldn't tell Julie that! I was working with Len Wein on this particular story (if I recall correctly), and when I turned in the pencils and that, Len went "This not what you told Julie!" And I went "No, but watch... we'll get it through there." So Len and I went it and Julie looked through the pages and goes "Y'know... I don't remember this..." and I went "yeah! we talked about it...". Julie said ok and it went through, and Len was passed out with relief. So we had Superman meet God and it went through without any trouble.

panel from DC Comics Presents #29 (1981)

Mark: Now, going back to Mongul... you wanted to create a villain stronger than Superman (I think I read that)... and Mongul kinda had a 'fascist bent' to him. Was it a character you saw surviving long-term? Or a one-off throw-away villain?

Jim: Well... he was sort... I wanted to do my Thanos over at DC. But once I got in there, I wanted to do something different, so we got the whole Warworld in there. I wanted somebody... a BIG villain that would really... Superman had NOT taken on Darkseid by this point... so it really was Superman taking on somebody possibly more powerful than he was. It all led up finally to the Starman cross-over -- which I ended up inking myself -- that was really just these two boxing it out and... y'know... two titans smashing up the landscape and having a great time doing it.

DC Comics Presents #36 (1981)

Mark: So you mentioned that you had a chance to get God into the story. I feel like a lot of your Adam Warlock stories for Marvel Comics are very spiritual. The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel, I felt there was a lot of spirituality in there as well. Is it something that you feel drives you as a creator -- your spirituality and bringing that in? Or do you just think it's a great story-telling device?

Adam Warlock vs the Universal Church of Truth

Jim: It's a lot of different things. Part of it was that my grade school years were a parochial school: religion pound into me six days a week, having to go to mass, nuns being teachers, rebelling against all of that. Later on trying to find an alternate spirituality and looking through things like Carlos Castaneda, Wilhelm Reich... just going in different directions...

Mark: Was Carl Jung part of that?

Jim: Carl Jung was part of the reading list... I was just soaking all of this stuff up. The Warlock, Captain Marvel and Thanos stories -- just about everything I did -- had some thing coming out of that. If it was not an actual spirituality, it was a story-telling device or it was a reaction to my parochial school upbringing. When it gets as complicated as that it's very hard to say "this is that, and this is that". It's a mix.

Mark: It's a part of who you are, and it comes out in your storytelling.

Jim: Yeah, what comes out is who you are, and it doesn't always make sense.

Mark: Did you ever get a chance to explore something in your storytelling that almost spoke back to you about something you didn't see about yourself -- almost like a Grant Morrison or Rick Veitch sort-of-thing? Them writing something and then realizing afterwards that they were speaking through something... or that something was speaking through them. Have you ever had that experience?

Jim: Probably with the Death of Captain Marvel more so than anything. My father had died of cancer a year before, and I hadn't quite worked all that through, but I did better than my brother who bottled it up all this time. But as I was working on that story and afterwards, I said "Oh! This is the cheapest therapy a person could find."

Mark: ...They're paying you...

Jim: Yeah! And it went through about 9 printings or something...

Mark: It's a wonderful graphic novel and probably one of MY favorite Marvel stories of the eighties.

Jim: Thanos is my favorite character, but the Captain Marvel stories were my favorite stories.

Mark: Fast-forwarding a little bit, you got to work with the New Gods in Cosmic Odyssey with Mike Mignola. It's very exciting and still remembered by many fans as one of their favorite stories of the eighties (at least for me). Now, you got to do a little bit of New Gods after that. How was it working on that? Were you excited?

Jim: I was excited -- I always liked the New Gods. Y'know, Kirby was one of *my* Gods. So, Mike [Mignola] and I, they [DC comics] approached us -- they had a book called "The Books of Magic" which apparently mapped out their entire sorcerer/magical/fantasy worlds of DC, and they wanted something like that for their science-fiction. Y'know, I thought about it for a while and then decided that I didn't really want to do that, but I had a good story and I wanted to tell THAT story. And they sort of forgot about it -- y'know, I'd turn in plots and they'd approve them -- and they sort of forgot about the fact that they wanted this map of their science-fiction universe until, I think, Mike had two issues of it done and they suddenly realized that I had gone off the rails on 'em. They were really pissed off about it...

Mark: Oh, they were?

Jim: Oh yeah. Quite. And so they actually dumped the book out there with very little fanfare. There was very little promotion on it. They figured it was just going to disappear -- y'know, just a loss leader for them. And they were very clear about it -- they were very upset that I had treated them that way. As it happened, I continue to get royalty cheques on that to this day. They were a little off the mark on that one.

Mark: Is that why, even though you worked on the first few issues of the New Gods spin-off, you weren't on it after a few issues?

Jim: No, that had to do with Batman. For Batman, we did Death in the Family -- which was their best-selling book that year -- but it turns out they had all these licensing (pajamas, lunch boxes, and stuff like that) and the licensing department was very mad, everybody got mad, and they needed somebody to blame -- so I got blamed. And within 3 months all of my work dried up -- in fact Paris Cullins and whoever the new writer was drew up a new first issue that came in ahead of *my* New Gods issues that I had already written. Y'know, everything just sort of fell apart at that point at DC for me, and I went back with Marvel. And it worked out okay because I went over to do Silver Surfer and the Infinity Gauntlet. So I can't complain about that.

Mark: Would the Infinity Gauntlet have been a New Gods story, possibly, have you had stayed with DC?

Jim: Well, I was going to be doing the New Gods series, and I think we had 3 or 4... we had a number of them planned out ahead of time, but once they got down on me, they said "You have to drop all these other books and finish off this Gilgamesh project you're working on. We've already paid you for one book, and we're not gonna pay you for a new project, so finish that." So I finished it and went back to Marvel.

Mark: So, was Gilgamesh II not a sort of passion project for you?

Jim: I got into it. It wasn't my original idea -- actually, Peter David had proposed the science-fiction Gilgamesh to DC. You'd have to check with Peter on this, because I get conflicting stories on this of how it happened. They approached me, but I thought they had paid him off on creating a story. I've talked to him recently and he remembers it differently.

All I know is that I got caught in the middle of whatever was going on between them -- but they approached me and I thought "well, Gilgamesh is kinda interesting" because when I first got into the business in the 70s at the cocktail parties and that, EVERYONE was talking about "let's do a barbarian Gilgamesh" and I had never read it at that point, so I finally looked it up and went "ok" and I read it and thought "that could be kinda interesting".

I wasn't into barbarians, so when they approached me about the science-fiction version of it, I said "Can I do Bigfoot?" and they said "what do you mean?", and I said that I wanted to do it more humor/science-fiction -- which is how I handled it. They seemed to be fine with it at that point. It was never one of my big sellers. I always enjoyed it and I wish they would reprint it someday, they should have the rights to it -- I don't know why they haven't. Everything else of mine is going to be reprinted. It would be nice to see that in a nice volume someday.

Mark: I thought HEAVY METAL magazine would be a good place for something like that, too. Just that sci-fi with that sort of wit and the imagination. I felt it was in that spirit or in that world. I don't know if you did...

panels from Gilgamesh II #1 (1989)

Jim: Yeah, I was coming from a lot of different spots for where I was. There was a lot of things that, in the eighties, that was kind of "breaking ground". The sort-of homosexual relationship between the two main characters. Y'know, a lot of the strange political things I was just beginning to toss into my work at this point. At the same time, it was obviously esoteric -- it didn't become a big seller like Cosmic Odyssey or Infinity Gauntlet -- I still had a great time with it and still have good memories from it.

Mark: Were there any New Gods stories that you wish you could've been able to tell?

Jim: I wanted to explore more of the relationship between the bugs and the New Gods. I'm sure there were a couple other things I had in mind, but I just can't recall them at this point twenty-something odd years later.

Mark: There's this classic scene with Batman punching Orion, and he says "His name was Forager!". Were you excited to write Batman when that was given to you? Was it a life-long dream come true (like it was for some writers)?

page from Cosmic Odyssey #4

Jim: Yeah, I'd done Superman and I'd always wanted to do some Batman -- but there was always something going on. Frank Miller had done that terrific Year One, and they had someone -- I can't remember who -- writing it afterwards and sales were really going down. This was the point that they had sold off the theater rights to a producer I can't recall, so Batman wasn't a high number for them at this point. So Denny [O'Neil] asked me to do a fill-in issue... and he was kinda surprised he like it, so he asked me to do another one. By the time I'd done four fill-ins I asked "so am I the regular writer on this book at this point?". As it worked out, I started doing this regularly. I always thought that going out and fighting crime in a black and grey outfit while doing it with a teenage sidekick dressed in primary colors goes beyond child abuse... it's child endangerment, and  as you can see, it went where it went.

Mark: Well thanks so much for talking with DC in the 80s today, Mr. Starlin.

Jim Starlin just wrote a story called “Berserker”, drawn by Phil Hester, for Aftershock’s anthology book Shock. Aftershock Comics will also release a new edition of “The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures” on May 2, 2018. Starlin also has his comic-book series, Hardcore Station, available on Amazon. And you will probably see him on TV because his story is the basis for this what may be the most successful movie of the year.

Mark Belkin


  1. He *lied* to his editor to get God in a Superman book. That's funny.

  2. Loved this interview, so much cool stuff I never knew.