A Starlord story

ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2018.

WRITER: CHRIS HALLAM

Forty years ago, in May 1978, Starlord came to Earth. “A new wild era of sci-fi starts here!” the front page of the new comic promised and on early evidence, it seemed to deliver, promising a weekly offering of British comic strip excellence likely to endure well into the 1980s and beyond.

Starlord was bold. It was exciting. It was a bit like 2000AD.

Ultimately, Starlord’s star shone brightly, but only briefly. The last issue, only the 22nd, appeared that October. Readers who had bought every issue from the start would have spent 12p a week during 1978, adding up to a grand total of £2.64. This is slightly less than one copy of 2000AD costs today.

What went wrong for the Galaxy’s OTHER greatest comic? We take a look back…

The same. Only different…

Starlord was supposed to be 2000AD’s older brother: indeed, perhaps a slightly posher brother who had picked up certain airs after attending the local grammar school. Eight of its pages were in full colour – a lot for the time – and at 12p, it was actually more expensive than 2000AD, which was a mere 9p.

2000AD, which was also edited by Kelvin Gosnell, had started just over a year before. Although a success – Judge Dredd was enjoying his first major epic storyline in ‘The Cursed Earth’ during the brief era of Starlord – there is little doubt looking back: Starlord was, for a while, the better of the two comics.

Just as 2000AD had Tharg the Mighty as editor, Starlord had Starlord himself, an alien humanoid with something of the look of Shakin’ Stevens about him. Unlike Tharg, Starlord had an important and urgent message for humans everywhere. “Hail, Star-Troopers,” he declared in the first of his “starzines,” “I have escaped the satanic forces of the INTERSTELLAR FEDERATION…to bring you A DIRE WARNING!”

Yes! Earth was under threat and a crash course in interstellar survival offered the only hope for survival. The comic’s stories were thus “Starlord Survival Blueprints” while the range of six badges given away with issue one were “Starlord Star-Squad Equipment.” Rather alarmingly, Starlord warned of the badges: “DO NOT place it on your skin, as the badge is made from a special metal mined on AXIS 1A you could develop a skin disorder, putting you out of combat”! Issue 2, incidentally, included a free space calculator offered to the reader with the warning: “Use it! It could save your life!”

Like a series of tweets written by an increasingly unbalanced 21st world leader, the use of capital letters grew more frequent as Starlord’s tone grew increasingly shrill. “I have seen the Gronks swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space – a sure sign of inter-Galactic disaster!…THE ENEMY IS MASSING TO STRIKE!” Finally, Starlord evoked the memory of a line from the 1951 film, ‘The Thing From Another World,’ which ended with an appeal to “Watch the skies!” “REMEMBER TROOPERS, STICK WITH ME,” urged Starlord. “AND WATCH THE STARS!”

How long could Starlord have maintained this perpetual state of high alert and frantic calls for vigilance for? Sadly, we never got the chance to find out.

Time after time

According to Starlord’s Survival Blueprints, the story ‘Planet of the Damned,” “toughens your endurance as your strength is tested to the very limit!” In fact, this description turned out to be surprisingly accurate. The first ever story in the comic was a hoary tale of nonsense based on what might happen to survivors lost in the midst of the mysterious Bermuda Triangle. In short, they got transported to another dimension. The story held over from its original planned home in 2000AD was the weakest of the new line-up. A test of endurance indeed…

Things improved somewhat with Timequake in which London tramp steamer skipper and working-class hero James Blocker inadvertently causes World War III. He then gets the opportunity to undo his error thanks to the intervention of a Star Trek type organisation called Time Control made up of recruits from Earth’s past and future ranging from the Roman era to the 40th century. This is all after we are told ‘Lyon Sprague’ invented time travel in the year 1997. But, of course, we all remember that…

The characters including Blocker (“M-me? Y-you’re round the flamin’ twist!”) were all pretty dull but there were lots of fun moments in Timequake. There were the frog-like Droon, Time Control’s enemy who inspired Brian Bolland to do an excellent cover for issue 2. “Human scum! You’re the last survivors!” one Droon says (as with Star Trek’s the Borg, the plural and singular are the same). “We have destroyed every one of your accursed sub-stations from 1978 backwards! And now we Droon destroy you!”

The next Timequake story envisaged a Nazi future created by a maniac who turned out to be real-life senior Nazi Martin Bornmann in disguise, but the follow-up in which another defunct empire, this time the Incas, took over the future, rather suggested inspiration was starting to dry up, despite some excellent visuals from Ian Kennedy.

But the best Starlord strips were yet to come…

Alpha male

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Strontium Dog introduced us to the world of 2180 and mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, a man warped by the impact of a Neutron War thirty years earlier (neutron bombs which kill people while leaving buildings and property relatively intact being briefly a fashionable but terrifying possibliity in 1978).

Johnny Alpha, as extensive captions inform us, has been given white eyes but mind-reading powers by his mutation. Like all mutants, however, he is shunned by society, forced to work as a bounty hunter: an SD or Search/Destroy agent. In common, anti-mutant parlance they are known as “strontium dogs”.

Originally conceived as a New York taxi driver type, Alpha’s sidekick ultimately became Wulf Sternhammer, a formidable but benevolent Viking. “Comrades ve are, Johnny! Vere you go, Wulf go!” Wulf argues, explaining why he sticks with Alpha, despite his own non-mutant status. “A skull to crack with the happy stick und Vulf is fine!”

Strontium Dog provided Starlord with its first cover hero and many of the comic’s best moments: a space pirate attack, a giant, but irritable and slightly deaf computer called McIntyre and a creature called the Gronk, a timid creature, who lives in a box and has a mouth in its stomach.

Is this one of the same Gronks Starlord was on about “swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space” before? It was never really made clear.

Big jobs

Finally, there was Ro-Busters. Rejecting an initial bizarre idea from someone else about wounded Second World War veterans developing superpowers, writer Pat Mills instead created droids Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (get it?) who are rescued from destruction by billionaire Howard Quartz (known as “Mr Ten Percent” as 90% of his actual body parts have been mechanically replaced in a bid to cheat death) to form a new international rescue organisation in the late 21st century. With the robots dealing with such trifles as a hole emerging in the trans-Atlantic tunnel and an organised robot uprising, this soon became very much “Thunderbirds with robots”. Ultimately, however, it was the likeable characters of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein themselves, rather than the overall android international recue concept which would prove most enduring.

Two become one

There was more. Some brilliant covers: “It’s Planet Earth’s last day for this is the day of the clone. The day of Clone Wars!” There was another major strip, Mind Wars (“my brain is a time-bomb programmed to destroy all human life!”) and a brilliant one-off about a man, Sheldon and his ultimately deadly dream house.

But in October 1978, Starlord delivered his final message. “EARTH IS SAVED! The Int. Stell. Fed have abandoned their plans to attack and destroy us.” And there was other more news: “This is it! The big one! Two sci-fi greats unite in a giant leap for mankind!” Starlord – or at least, some of Starlord – was merging into its sister title, 2000AD.

Why had Starlord failed? Some argue it was doomed from an early stage.

“Starlord had been the creation of Kelvin Gosnell,” Steve MacManus wrote later. “His initial concept was a monthly science-fiction title that would sit comfortably alongside magazines such as Omni and Metal Hurlant. Both these titles were printed on glossy magazine paper and were aimed at fans of science-fiction stories and comic strips”. It was envisaged as an aspirational magazine packed with stories and sci-fi features which a 2000AD reader’s older brother might enjoy.

Sadly, all of these admirable plans soon went out the window.

“Out of the blue, management had decreed that the frequency should be weekly, not monthly,” MacManus explains. “This single change more or less ruined the title’s chances of establishing itself as a serious science-fiction magazine.”

The altered situation also caused problems for Ro-Busters’ author, Pat Mills.

“After writing it as a twelve-page self-contained story, there was a change of plan and the story was cut down to six pages an episode. This leads to all kinds of pacing problems,” Mills explains. And these were problems which he didn’t have time to fix. “A pity, because I knew the new format was wrong for it, and it’s why I started to lose interest in the series.”

MacManus soon found himself frustrated to be writing Starlord’s comparatively juvenile starzines. Although it often sold better than 2000AD, its similarity to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic essentially doomed it to failure.

“Starlord was still a relatively unknown quantity to the five thousand odd newsagents who stocked comics and magazines at the time,” muses Steve MacManus. “whereas they’d had a year to grow accustomed to 2000AD.”

So that was it. The final cover proclaimed: “Starlord’s ship is waiting to carry him beyond the stars!” “Now that your future is assured, I must return to the spaceways for the Gronks are calling and I cannot let them down.” Yes. The Gronks again.

He concluded: “And so, it is farewell for the last time, my friends! But keep watching the stars, for one day I may return!”

This hasn’t happened.

Afterlife

Actually, in a way, Starlord did return: in three annuals dated 1980, 1981 and 1982. All three were a pale shadow of the short-lived comic which had spawned them: a monochrome assortment of below par Strontium Dog and Mind Wars episodes, random short stories (“Ghost Hunter”) and scientific features (“Telephone lines in space”) and a few stories which had never been in the original comic (“Jimmi From Jupiter”).

2000AD and Starlord became 2000AD and Tornado in 1979 when another short-lived sister comic merged into it. In 1980, it became just 2000AD again. It has just been 2000AD ever since. Very unusually for a British comic it survived the whole of the 1980s and 1990s without ever merging again with anyone else.

Timequake returned briefly in 2000AD in 1979 but never appeared again. The other characters have enjoyed a rich post-Starlord afterlife, however. Although Ro-Busters ended in 1979, the characters Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein have appeared in the strips Nemesis the Warlock and particularly The ABC Warriors up to this day. Hammerstein even appeared in the 1990s Judge Dredd film. Strontium Dog too, still continues.

In short, forty years on, Starlord’s legacy continues.

Watch the stars!

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