Jim Starlin: Dreadstar Returns, Avengers Fears, and Still Learning With Comics (Exclusive Interview)
Jim Starlin is best known to mainstream audiences for his work in comics as th creator in Thanos. Some eagle-eyed fans familiar with the legendary comic artist and writer popped out of their seats when he showed his face for a cameo in Avengers: Endgame. However, Starlin’s work in comics goes beyond major publishers like Marvel and DC. In fact, Starlin is hard at work right now on the recently revisited stories of his Dreadstar character, something which was dormant for him for the creator for decades. Years ago, Starlin injured his drawing hand in an accident, but Dreadstar Returns has become a triumphant return for the artist as he quite literally went back to the drawing board for 100 pages — and has more to come.
Dreadstar Returns coming to fruition (before it raised more than $135,000 on a Kickstarter campaign) goes back to comic convention appearances. Jamie Jameson, who inks Dreadstar Returns, had been asking Starlin to pencil a Dr. Doom sketch for her but he had been putting it off. “I finally sat down after this one convention and drew it and found that the hand didn’t cramp up afterwards, which it had been doing,” Starlin exlained. “When I got to it, 100 pages, I knew I wasn’t going to ink it myself, so I approached her and she agreed. It’s been an adventure ever since.”
By the sounds of it, Starlin and Jameson have become quite close on this Dreadstar Returns endeavor, igniting a new creative spark in Starlin but also a tremendous and deep creative connection which came with a scare from 2020’s pandemic. “She’s a terrific person to work as collaborator with,” he said. During the time we were working on Dreadstar Returns, she contracted COVID and nearly died from it, so this book was a quite a labor for her, among other things, just from surviving it long enough to finish the job, especially with this crazy boss who kept saying, ‘I want another page tomorrow so I have something to color.’ She’s sort of glaring at me right now in remembrance!
The Dreadstar Returns book is available online now in hardcover and digital addition, and Starlin promises they are looking into getting it out into comic shops with physical copies as well. The 100-page installment is just a piece of what Starlin is hoping to bring to the story. “I have five graphic novels planned,” he said. “Dreadstar Return was the first of them. Dreadstar vs. The Inevitable is the next one. There’s another one that is getting solidly in my head, and then there’s two more after that that are results of the two following stories. I know that I’ll have to do them. There’s not even a framework for them at this point. It’s always floating around there. If I stay in good health, I should be able to get these and more out of the way. I have no intention of going off and doing much of anything else.”
Starlin took a look at his comic career, spilled some insight into Dreadstar Returns, and got candid about his fears going into Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in an exclusive interview. Read the entire interview below or watch it above!
CB: I saw you went to Avengers Campus!
Jim Starlin: Yeah. It was quite fun. That Spider-Man ride is quite spectacular. It’s like walking into a video game, first person shooter video game. You just have to sort of fling. I did very poorly I have to tell you. Of the four people in the cart, I had the lowest score.
CB: I saw Simu Liu went there too. Did you get to meet Shang-Chi, being the co-creator the character?
JS: No. No, no. I think that was another day. They had one before and then we were in the second day we came back. I was with Rob Liefeld and James and other folks.
CB: Sounds like a good time. Let’s talk about Dreadstar! You’re getting back to the character, you’re getting his gang back together, and I want to talk about it. The crowdfund campaign and the effort you’re putting in to make Dreadstar Returns and beyond happen is an indication you really believe in this character and story. Why is this character and this story something that you and your team are working so hard to bring back to life?
JS: Well, I haven’t done him in 20-some odd years, maybe 30, and I hadn’t been drawing because of an injury to my hand. That sort of had righted itself, which is a story all unto itself. I didn’t want to work at the majors, for reasons that are pretty crazy over there these days. This is pre-Covid. Even then, it was a little bit too odd for me. It was just the right time. The Ominus people, sort of Rob Mars, we had already been doing Dreadstar Omnibus, which was a big help on me working with a stylist to get my hand going, and had met Jamie Jameson, a Thanos sketch, Dr. Doom, mind you.
I finally sat down after this one convention and drew it and found that the hand didn’t cramp up afterwards, which it had been doing. When I got to it, 100 pages, I knew I wasn’t going to ink it myself, so I approached her and she agreed. It’s been an adventure ever since. She’s a terrific person to work as collaborator with. During the time we were working on Dreadstar Returns, she contracted COVID and nearly died from it, so this book was a quite a labor for her, among other things, just from surviving it long enough to finish the job, especially with this crazy boss who kept saying, “I want another page tomorrow so I have something to color.” She’s sort of glaring at me right now in remembrance!
CB: Wow. That’s a hell of a story to bring this Dreadstar Returns back out to the world, man. I saw a quote that you said we’re getting your best work with Dreadstar, with Vanth this time. Before this would you have looked back before this story and said that was your best? How does it compare?
JS: You look back at your own work there’s all sorts of stages. Looking back at those early Captain Marvels I did, I’m kind of horrified by what my idea what anatomy was like. Captain Marvel had more ribcage than any other human being that ever walked the face of the earth. Warlock got a little bit better because I had taken an anatomy class at the Art Students League in New York after that. I was starting ink at that point and that was a mixed bag because I’ve never been crazy about my own inks. A lot of pencilers aren’t. I know Jack Kirby, who inked very few of his own things, hated everything that he did.
This new on with Dreadstar was another stage. A couple stages, actually. The first books were painted, and they weren’t pen and ink. They were fully rendered paintings that I worked with a lot of photo reference on. Later on, going back to the pen and ink when the Dreadstar series started, they were some of the best inking stuff I did. Later on there was a job called Pawns that ended up in the back of Dreadstar, which I did some really fine line pen work. That’s another stage. After that, I think there was a lull. I just didn’t have the fire in me. Coming back to Thanos, the pencils improved a bit, again. But I really wasn’t fired until after I lost the hand. When I came back, I wanted it to be the best I could. We got more out of me then then we ever did in any of the previous jobs. This is the first time I’ve ever done an analysis of that. But that’s basically the way it went.
CB: I pulled up the Kickstarter because I wanted to see how much money you guys raised. $135,000. That’s unbelievable.
JS: Yeah. It was a record there for a while until Keanu Reeves came along and made it impossible for anyone who’s not been in a movie to raise that much money. I’d only been in five minutes of a movie while he’s been in several of them, so I use that as my excuse.
CB: :Listen, you got to start marketing that Endgame cameo out there!
JS: Yes! No, cameos don’t quite have the star power that a starring role has.
CB: With how some of the bigger publishers, I’ve heard you don’t get as much freedom as when you’re working with Epic Comics. Do you think you would have gotten to do the world building and some of the character choices and your more recent anti-Trump art that you made with Dreadstar… Do you think you would have got to do that kind of stuff at a Marvel or a DC?
JS: Definitely not at Marvel with the Trump thing because at one point in my last, or second to last, Thanos story, I had a line in it there about creating your own reality. One of the lawyers up at Marvel wanted that line grabbed because they thought it was a jab at Trump, where it had nothing to do with Trump in my story or in my head. I only went after Trump after he played Thanos in one of his political ads with my character. After the way his administration handled the COVID catastrophe, I think he’s responsible for thousands of deaths, so I figure he was open game and he deserves a lot worse than what I gave him.
Early on, though, with Marvel, when I was doing Captain Marvel and Warlock, yes, I did build a lot of world building there. I had a lot of freedom because Roy Thomas, who’s the editor, the only editor, just didn’t have time to supervise and he had the sense that a good editor back then did, ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t mess with it.’ Archie Goodwin was another great editor along those lines with Dreadstar. ‘Keep your hands off unless there’s a problem.’ They were very good about that. I think in my time with Archie, he only made one suggestion once, which was a right on suggestion about a cover. The good ones know what they’re doing, and you listen to them when they do speak.
CB: Do you find yourself still learning now, when you’re working on the book now, after so many years in this industry? What skills do you feel like Dreadstar has taught you with Dreadstar Returns?
JS: I have learned a lot in this time period. Among other things, working with Jamie Jameson, she turned me on to Poser, which is this program that you can get a figure and set it up. I’ve been using it in my own way. I set the figure up and I don’t want to wait for the rendering, so I just pull out my phone and take a picture of the screen. That saves a tremendous amount of time on construction and that. I can do 10 minutes and have all the figures laid out for the page and then shot up. You don’t stay with what the poser did. You have to make it that character. But if I blow it up on the printer the right way, I can get the basic shape down there and that saves me an hour on each page. Maybe two hours, depending on the number of figures. I still have to know how to draw, but it has made it easier for me to do a dramatic figure without going through reams and reams of tracing paper to make the construction ahead of time.
Other things you learn, you’re always learning, I hope. I’d like to think I was doing that. You look at people and you see that eyebrows don’t go to quite the way you think they have all these years and you make a remedy, make a change that way. It’s something you learn and you figure out as you go along. These things, hopefully, are always helpful making a better job.
CB: Within its own world, Dreadstar does have its own fully established mythology, so many characters, and sprawling dynamics… How much of it is still in your head? How much of it are you yet to deliver in the expansion of that world? Do you think you’ll get to all of it?
JS: I have five graphic novels planned. Dreadstar Return was the first of them. Dreadstar vs. The Inevitable is the next one. There’s another one that is getting solidly in my head, and then there’s two more after that that are results of the two following stories. I know that I’ll have to do them. There’s not even a framework for them at this point. It’s always floating around there. If I stay in good health, I should be able to get these and more out of the way. I have no intention of going off and doing much of anything else.
There is one series, limited series that I had planned with Rags Morales and Jamie. She’s co-writing this one with me and helping me plan. But these are the things I can’t talk about just yet!
CB: If Dreadstar does become an adaptation in TV or film, I know you said this is something that has to be a TV show because it is a world that is so rich, have you ever thought about who can play Vanth?
JS [to Jamie Jameson]: Who are you thinking about?
Jamie: Jameson: Charlie Hunnam.
JS: That’s a good one. I’ve also been, and I haven’t even told Jamie about this one, is I’ve been looking at Ross Marquand. [I watched] Endgame the other night while I was working, and I’ve met him a couple times too, and he does grow a good beard like you. I think that he’s a possibility. I think he’s got the versatility to pull something off like that. Probably when the time comes, it will be completely out of my hands.
CB: It’s still fun to think about. The goatee on Dreadstar reminds me of you. Was that intentional?
JS: We started off doing the Metamorphosis Odyssey. I was painting it. There was a person who was a model for each one of them, each one of the characters. I had Val Mayerak doing some of the Akhnaton shots. Jim Sherman was a doctor inside the Price. Frank Miller was Juliette’s father. His wife at the time, whose name is escaping me at this point, and I apologize to her for it, she was Juliette. Al Milgrom was Willow’s father, Kane, or whatever he was in the second episode. I stood in for Zah and Dreadstar and sometimes Akhnaton. Val and I shared that role because they had this bald cap that we would put on. I don’t need that any longer, but at the time I did. He looks like me because he was modeled at me at the time. I’ve never felt comfortable getting rid of this [goatee]. I’m sort of the gray version of Dreadstar at this point.
CB: You’ve earned it. I think you’ve earned it. I do want to talk Marvel with you. You know I’m a big Thanos fan. Now that we’ve had the years to remove ourselves and digest the Infinity War and the Endgame of it all, I would love to hear from you, as the guy who kind of really coined that first story that inspired those movies with Infinity Gauntlet, is there anything in the book that you think would have been particularly fun that didn’t make the cut? Like Nebula holding the gauntlet, or just anything that you put in it you kind of were like, “It would be cool to see this,” but then it didn’t happen?
JS: Warlock and the Silver Surfer, because they were so central. But Warlock hadn’t been introduced to the universe yet, and the Surfer was over on another company. So they would have been nice to do it. You got to come in with any adaptation with the realization that what you put on the page is not going to get there. Only an idiot would think they’re going to do a page-by-page adaptation of your story. Because I worked on other things with a couple of novels they had adapted that never go to the screen, so I didn’t come in there with any heavy expectations.
Though I did have a few bad moments just before the Infinity War! I had been down to the set for the cameo shoot, and had shot … Sat and talked with the two screen writers, Markus and McFeely and quite a bit with Joe Russo. In the Infinity War, they had had a half hour that they had to cut which was going to be Thanos’s back story. There was going to be a half hour without the Avengers, apparently. So, I thought, “That’s pretty cool.” Then I was on a plane and I watched the Justice League movie, and they just sort of threw Steppenwolf in there at the end, and he does his thing. All in all, it was kind of a bad movie. So about a month or so before the Infinity War came out Russo said… Let me know that they had to cut the half hour of Thanos. All I could think of was, “Oh my god, that’s going to make it into the Justice League movie.”
So, I suddenly had Bob Kane on my mind all the time, because back in the ’60s they did this really bad Batman. Well, at the time, it was the best Batman that had been out there because it was the only Batman. It was very campy. It was the antithesis of what Bob had created. But he was getting a piece of it, with his residualswith all the Batman stuff. He had made a pretty good deal that others hadn’t, so I imagined him having to go on interviews and saying, “I love it.” I thought, “I’m going to be in the same damn position. I’m going to have to go the interviews and go, “Oh yeah, I love it. It’s great. That’s terrific.” Then the heart going, “Oh, it’s a piece of sh-t!”
So I’m in line for the premiere and going in there and practicing, “I love it. I love it. I love it.” Three minutes into the movie, even before the Hulk shows up, I’m going, “Hey, I’m not going to have any trouble with this at all. This is going to be one that I’m going to easily say, ‘I love it,’ and mean it.” It has held true. I have been the luckiest cartoonist out there. Three, four times up to bat, if you include the Infinity Gauntlet, and they’ve hit it out of the park with my characters every time.
Drax is probably the most diverse from them, but I just love what Bautista and Gunn did with him. He’s just this wacky, lovable character. I mean, I feel very lucky. I’m looking forward to see what they do with Shang-Chi. I’m sure it’ll be terrific.
CB: Dave Bautista has also kind of said that he kind of feels like Drax got a short end of the stick from Marvel Studios, as well. What kind of stuff would you like to see if we get one more, just a few more movies out of him?
JS: Well, I don’t know. I know at one point Bautista was lobbying for a Drax movie, which I would have loved to have seen. It didn’t work out that way because big movies have their own scheduling and routine, and that whole thing with Gunn after the second movie popped up, and so it complicated everything.
CB: I want to see Moondragon. I want to see Ovette and Camaria.
JS: Moondragon would be fun to see. What I’d really like to see is a Pip The Troll streaming TV series, before they actually bring Warlock in. Have a little Pip The Troll comedy series.
Their other streaming things, they’ve been phenomenally successful. WandaVision was just this beautiful head trip, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier was this great little adventure story. Most of them top-notch and up to the top level of what they’ve been doing, what anybody can do with those particular genres. There’s no fear on Shang-Chi. Let’s hope that that no fear is the one that makes that it doesn’t bring it!