Written by O'Brian Gunn
If it’s got superheroes in it, chances are, my interest level is over 9,000. At least, that’s the way it used to be. With the popularity of superhero properties flooding the television/streaming and movie markets, I’ve become more discerning of my superpower-infused narratives. It takes something truly unique and innovative to get more than a noncommittal shrug and grunt out of this near-jaded geek. Thankfully, J. Michael Straczynski seemed to have the same idea in mind when he created Rising Stars back in 1999.
Rising Stars is a 24-issue comic book series chronicling the lives of 113 infants conceived in Pederson, Illinois during “the Pederson Flash,” a cosmic event that gave only babies superhuman abilities. Known as “the Specials,” the kids are sent to a special facility, a camp of sorts, where they are monitored and studied by the government. The kids encounter a few heavy bumps while learning to control their abilities and understand what it means to have such powerful, unstoppable abilities at such a young age.
John Simon/Poet acts as our narrator, and the story picks up just as someone starts picking off the Specials one by one, a feat considered nearly impossible for some of them (not all of the Specials manifested discernable abilities). From there, Straczynski weaves a yarn of intrigue, social commentary, and hope.
Best known for Babylon 5 and a smattering of comic book titles, perhaps also recognized as a co-creator of the show Sense8, Straczynski is a deft storyteller, one known for the depth of his narrative ambitions. With Rising Stars, Straczynski wanted to take the same sweeping, episodic storytelling approach used in Babylon 5 and apply it to superhero comics. For the most part, he succeeds in his endeavor.
While reading the Rising Stars compendium, I occasionally had to remind myself that it originally debuted back in 1999, meaning that I had to provide Straczynski with a bit, just a bit, of leeway in some of the elements utilized in the story. For one thing, there is a ridiculous lack of characters of color and fully fleshed-out female characters who aren’t little more than plot devices. Again, this was way before the push for diversity that we have now, but it’s just a solid reminder of why we need it in the first place. A lot of the characters have the same look and “voice” to them, making it hard to tell who was who at times and fully cement characters as individual personalities rather than identify them by their abilities.
I was invested in learning about the Specials, their backstories, and how their personalities and environment influenced how they used their abilities. The story started to wane a little bit for me when Straczynski focused more on the stereotypical aspects of the superhero genre: superpowered-battles leading to property damage on a massive scale and generic supervillains with equally generic ambitions. I got the impression that Straczynski wasn’t even feelin’ his work, as that part of the story was easily and quickly wrapped up before the narrative shifts to the next beat, where it got a bit more interesting again.
There’s a lot to take in and enjoy in Rising Stars. Not every detail was explored in as much depth as I may have liked, and there were some well-to-do platitudes that perfectly toe the line between sincere and sappy, such as putting the full responsibility of “taking back the neighborhood” on the citizens rather than also considering the many socio-economic factors at play. There’s a full-page character revelation that takes place in Chicago that’s heavily veiled and ham-fisted (don’t want to give away too much). I wouldn’t blame anyone for missing what Straczynski was going for...and I’m honestly not sure I fully grasped his intentions.
I did enjoy how you can feel Straczynski’s depth of care with most of the script. He clearly knows where his writing strengths are, and he makes a decent effort of trying his hand at something new, even if he doesn’t always hit his target. I have to applaud him for at least making an effort and venturing outside his comfort zone. The artwork has a classic 90s style, courtesy of pencillers Keu Cha, Christian Zanier, Stuart Immonen, Ken Lashley, and Brent Anderson.
In the end, Rising Stars makes for a solid reference point for anyone wanting a superhero story that attempts to not only venture outside titanium box, but demolish and reconstruct it into something with a bit more depth and traces of philosophy. Its age works for it and against it in equal measure, reminding us of just how far superhero comic books have come. And how far those caped stars can still rise.
Page length: 1008 pgs
Recommend Buy New, Rent, or Skip: Check with your local library first. Otherwise, buy used
Up Next: In honor of the spookiest month of the year, I’ll review Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. Originally published in 1988, The Fifth Child is a short, contemporary gothic horror novel surrounding the idyllic, isolated lives of married couple Harriet and David Lovatt as they welcome the birth of their fifth child. The infant is more of a monster, born with a grotesque appearance and a hunger for violence. What happens when the terror and cruelty Harriet and David worked so hard to distance themselves from takes up residence right in their happy home in the form of their own son?