Original post: 10/8/09)
which I think was one of the most brave and elegant experiments
in comic book story-telling."
-Clive Barker, ("Hellraiser")
-Mike Carey, writer; "Lucifer", "Hellblazer"
STARSTRUCK is a raucous space opera created by writer/actor Elaine Lee and designer/illustrator Michael Wm. Kaluta. It has morphed from stage play to graphic novel, comic series to radio waves, and knows no bounds. For years, in its chimerical forms, it has delighted the daring and perplexed the piddling. It is a science fiction magnum opus where galactic gals boot you up the buttside, revolution is a rollercoaster, and slapstick flies higher than helium.
Smart and sexy, sassy and sacrilegious, STARSTRUCK is flat out more fun than your brain knows what to do with!
(UPDATE: The entire new series is now collected at larger size in the STARSTRUCK Deluxe Edition, available since March, 2011.)
(except Harry Palmer, color by Kaluta;
photo by Sean Smith)
It began as a stage play in 1980 in the postpunk cuisinart of NYC. Lee and Kaluta then extended the mania into challenging adult comics for the radical HEAVY METAL magazine. Those stories became a graphic novel from Marvel Comics in 1984, who unwittingly accompliced a new mini-series through their mature imprint Epic Comics in '85. In 1990, the demented duo began revising and expanding these stories through Dark Horse Comics. Now, they are up to their subversion again; a new remastered version of these legendary stories is now being released by IDW Comics in a monthly comic, with expanded art and breathtaking color by painter Lee Moyer. And then there's the new audio recording of the stage play, and the rumors of the new radio series...
STARSTRUCK draws from a deep reservoir of cultural ideas and then spikes the kool-aid. It can be compared, connected, or coincidenced against many themes, genres, styles, and creators from before it, but it roils quite clearly on its own course. Wanna know Who and Where, and Why it's there? For loyal fans and new readers, this article will try to point out some of the parallels before and after it, to appreciate its beginnings and show how it helped forge the cultural future you live in.
Strap in and hang onto your keister!
ALLUSION: When I assume a clear connection between one thing another.
ILLUSION: When I get it totally wrong.
Getting into character...
The Harpy, recalls the Buck Rogers serial poster.
"Buck Rogers" brought the solar system to Main Street. There had been "scientific fiction" novels before his debut in 1928 -like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs- but Buck Rogers was the one who brought it into everyone's living room. First as a few pulp magazine short stories, then as the first science fiction comic strip ('29), the first sci-fi radio show ('32), and as movie serials ('39), and TV series ('50, '79). Americans were first exposed to a fantastic future, rocket ships, jet packs, killer robots, and rayguns through this swashbuckling futurist. Thirties pulps and Forties comics were flooded with Buck imitations from Flash Gordon and british Dan Dare to countless also-flews.
Bottom: Wilma (Constance Moore) in "Buck Rogers" serial; Brucilla the Muscle
STARSTRUCK often homages the retro technology, clothes, and adventurous spirit of this big bang of modern sci-fi. Buck and his running partner Wilma Deering reflected the hero aviators of the time, like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, with futuristic aviator caps and flight suits. They soared in art nouveau shuttles and sported ringlet laser pistols. Their universe was a playground of weird wonders and cliffhanger escapades, where danger just meant more fun.
Phil Nowlan & Dick Calkins, 1933
Bottom: Buck Rogers rocket toy;
Galactic Girl Guides ship
Artist Dick Calkins, and later Rick Yager, charted this future in ink. For the STARSTRUCK play, Michael Kaluta designed sets based on movie serial spaceships, with screens, piping, and levers. The silhouette of its spaceship, the Harpy, hearkens to the ship's shape on the 1939 Buck Rogers serial poster. The aviator-style cap is worn by hero Brucilla The Muscle. There are rayguns and art deco robots, corkscrew bullet ships, and flying cycles aplenty in the comic stories.
Bottom: Serial rocket set; pulp mag spaceship; Bronwyn on Harpy set
SCI-FI GOOD GIRL
Wilma Deering is the template for the SF women that followed. She was bold, in charge, dressed like the men, and did everything beside Buck. She was the modern flapper girl now in the 25th century, leaving all the petticoats and parlors behind. Distaff buccaneers and evil queens now seeded the pop universe because of her, such as Dale Arden and Princess Aura from "Flash Gordon". The 40's publisher Fiction House, in its Planet Stories pulps and Planet Comics, had a knack for showcasing fighting SF women on its covers, particularly brash blonds with blasters like "Mysta of the Moon". Wonder Comics profiled "Tara the Pirate Queen", a spacefaring captain charting her own course.
Many great pulp SF stories were written by Leigh Brackett, the queen of Golden Age Sci-Fi. The type of women she trailblazed clearly inspired George Lucas to homage them with Princess Leia Organa and her mother, Queen Padme Amidala, in the STAR WARS films. (Making the circle complete, Leigh Brackett helped co-write the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back"!)
Bottom: Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher); Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman);
Galatia 9 & Brucilla (Kaluta commission art, 2004)
From this tradition come Galatia 9 and Brucilla The Muscle, Mary Medea and Eeeeeeelah, from STARSTRUCK.
SCI-FI BAD GIRL
But where would the good girls be without the bad girl? If the good girls mentioned were women with the shackles off, bad girls were hellions with all inhibitions gone. If the good no longer needed permission to be full-range, the bad wouldn't even think to ask. The bad girls are secretly admired because they don't apologize for their desires. Even if they are in the wrong, that attitude is rather liberating, even if experienced only vicariously.
Bottom: The Queen (Snow White,'37);
Devil Girl From Mars ('54);
Black Queen (Barbarella,'68)
In the tradition of H. Rider Haggard's "She" and Burroughs' Queen La of Opar there were many powerful women in books, films, pulps, and comics. Always, they were role fantasies based on people's fears or desires. They were as trapped or free as your outlook allowed.
Elaine Lee believes in character over agenda. "You know, I've never purposefully set out to write a feminist story, or even a story with a strong message," she wrote in 1997. "It would be hard for me, as I tend to fall in love with all my characters, so that the bad guys never end up too bad...just misguided."
Bottom: With Kalif (Paul Ratkevich) and Rex (Neal Ashmun);
Lucrezia Bajar, a.k.a., Ronnie Lee Ellis
In STARSTRUCK, two women vie for villainesque. Verloona Ti, a vain and ruthless schemer with flamboyant class and sensual abandon; the two villain men, Kalif Bajar and Rah El Rex, become adjuncts to her. And Lucrezia Bajar, a.k.a. Ronnie Lee Ellis, the twin of Kalif who is both a famous SF writer and a vindictive schemer in her own right. The villains' machinations are motivated erratically more by personal faults than pure evil.
"The story isn’t always linear" says Lee. "Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes serious and sometimes a mix, depending on which character you’re following. We took a character like Kalif, who in the play came off as simply evil, and gave him a past - a sister who tormented him, a father who expected too much – and tried to show how he became who he became." So his sister Ronnie Lee Ellis ended up becoming a crucial player in the crazed game.
This long trend of femme fatales in SF continues through the mercurial Catwoman, the Black Queen in "Barbarella", Ursa from "Superman II", Supreme Commander Servalan from "Blake's 7", the Borg Queen, Kai Winn of "Star Trek: Deep Space 9", Saffron on "Firefly", and T-X the Terminator.
Setting the stage...
Michael Wm. Kaluta is a master artist who is heir to the classical era of design and illustration. He channels little of traditional dynamic superhero cartooning (Jack Kirby, John Buscema), instead drawing from the deeper well of pioneers of art nouveau, art deco, pen illustration, pulp covers, french comix, and manga. STARSTRUCK lets Kaluta make puckish nods at all his inspirations.
Bottom: Aisle of the Dread (Dictator wannabe)
-The symbolist painting, "Isle of the Dead", by Bocklin gets a clever nod in a surreal boat sequence.
Right panels: Michael Wm. Kaluta
-Aubrey Beardsley can be sensed in two ways: the use of hard graphics with lyrical, patterned lines for mid-tones; and in lampooning the spoiled elite in their antiquated masquerade clothing. The former can really be appreciated in Kaluta's fine work on the black/white version of STARSTRUCK from 1990. The latter can often be seen in schizoid dandy Rah El Rex, and courtesans of the corrupt Bajar family.
-The pen textures of great line illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson, Joseph Clement Coll, Arthur Rackham, and Franklin Booth grace much of his ink work. (Intrigued readers should also check out unsung women like Clara Elsene Peck, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Dorothy Pulis Lathrop.)
-His sense of adventure illustration in a classically trained style sometimes recalls N.C. Wyeth, J. Allen St. John, and Roy G. Krenkel; and pulp cover wizards like George Rozen ("The Shadow"), Walter M. Baumhofer ("Doc Savage"), Earle K. Bergey, Norman Saunders, and Virgil Finlay.
Left bottom: studies for "The Lovers", Klimt, 1910.
Right: study for Harry Palmer and Erotica Ann, Michael Wm. Kaluta.
-His strong sense of pattern, geometry, and design summons art nouveau eternals like Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt, especially in covers and splash pages.
"Little Nemo", Winsor McCay, 1907
Bottom: The Bajar holoroom by Kaluta
-The art nouveau cartoonist Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo In Slumberland") resonates in his use of wondrous architectural spaces.
Bottom: The planet Hydrangea by Kaluta and Moyer.
-Maxfield Parrish rings in his use of translucent light, lush panoramas, sense of harmonic balance, and strong idyllic graphics. Parrish also painted "The Dinky Bird" as an illustration for "Poems of Childhood" by Eugene Field. This book is quoted during scenes of Galatia 9's childhood.
Right: Galatia 9 and E-V, the recorder droid
-John Held, Jr. specialized in balloonish cartoons for the art deco era. That frankfurter whimsy is captured in the companion droid, E-V. And there may be some of the deco-delic whimsy of Rick Griffin's underground comix creatures there, too.
Bottom: Kalif Bajar bested by Randall Factor
-"Anybody who doesn't think I've studied this Will Eisner fellow just hasn't looked at my work," Kaluta offers up front. Will Eisner created The Spirit, a sophisticated 40's series considered the "Citizen Kane" of comic art. His textured cities, theatrical shadows, use of sound effects, emphasis on storytelling, and deeply human characters are a major influence.
-As mentioned, Kaluta tributes the early futurist tech of Dick Calkins and Rick Yager ("Buck Rogers"). But also other grand strip cartoonists like the graceful storytelling of Hal Foster ("Prince Valiant", "Tarzan"), and the elegant drama of Alex Raymond ("Flash Gordon" ). Consider the sequence where Galatia 9 fights the ogres.
Roy G. Krenkel
Bottom: "Time To Leave", Incredible Science Fiction #31, 1955,
Roy G. Krenkel
-Their heirs were the astounding stable of EC Comics in the 50's, with Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Bernard Krigstein, and Roy G. Krenkel, who went from hero to mentor for Michael. The 60's work of Krenkel and Frazetta for paperback covers like "Tarzan" and "John Carter of Mars" first inspired his career into motion.
-The bastard scion of the EC gang were the Underground Comix freaks in the 60's, who injected shocking levels of freeform chaos, sociopolitical slapstick, deviant sexuality, and hallucinatory mindblow into comics. Culprits include Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, and Melinda Gebbie. Kaluta greatly admires the organic rendering and particularly the strong storytelling of Crumb, especially in his recent post-drug decades.
Bottom: Inki Bilal
They in turn paved the french SF countercultural comix of Jean Gerard (a.k.a., Moebius), Phillipe Druillet, and Inki Bilal. As the collective Les Humanoides Associes they unleashed the adult fantasy magazine METAL HURLANT in 1976. Their work had immediate and dramatic effect on Kaluta's mature style. "(Moebius) has very unusual characters and very unusual situations and they act very unusually," he told Phil Trumbo in '85. " And the end is never necessarily what you're going to expect. I love it."
-More skill refinement came from his friendships with NYC artist peers of deep illustration ilk like Neal Adams, Walt Simonson, and Charles Vess; and Barry Windsor Smith, Jeffrey Jones, and Berni Wrightson, with whom he formed the collective The Studio right before STARSTRUCK emerged. The imprint of this is clear in his initial poster and portfolio of designs for the STARSTRUCK play.
-Kaluta is also an admirer of manga and anime legends like Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira"), Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away", "Ponyo"), and Masamune Shirow ("Ghost In the Shell"). Some of that shows in the samurai-tech design for the Vercadian Protector Droid, or "Veep".
That set the stage; now here's the Players and the Scenery...
STARSTRUCK begins with Mary Medea, a former rebel who helped usher in the anarchic era of freedoms, or Anarchera, in the wake of the Dread Dictator's fall. Mary is the catalyst for everything that unfolds in the story, kickstarting its heroes and its villains into a larger scheme.
"As the books progress," Michael Kaluta discloses, "the reader gets a slow reveal of the greater energies and alliances by the way they impact the lives of the happy-go-lucky space girls and boys eking out their bits of the big ball of wax."
"Planet Stories", pulp sci-fi rebel by Allen Anderson, 1952
Bottom: Mary Medea, rebel grrrl
In greek myths Medea has a complex history, which varies according to the teller. In general she is known as the wife of Jason during the Trojan War, a clever strategist who you don't want to cross. Most of her stories credit this resourcefulness and her protection of her family. But one oddly negative variant, in which her anger over Jason's adultery propels her to kill their children, hogs all the attention. It's understandable that filicide attracts our horror, but the fact that this defiant woman in an era of male dominance is nullified by an injected scare story seems awfully suspect. Take it with a pillar of salt.
Mary Medea becomes Glorianna, the prime minister of the asteroid sector of Phoebus where the valuable krystals are mined, and potentially ruler of the emerging interworld order if she plays the cards right.
Bottom: Glorianna is behind Erotica Ann
This has parallels in "The Faerie Queene" (1590-96), a long allegorical poem by Edmund Spenser that tributes Queen Elizabeth I. In it he refers to her as 'Gloriana', which naturally set him up for life with the queen. Also, the sun god Phoebus is a latin variation of either Apollo or Helios. And the mythical Medea happens to be the granddaughter of Helios.
Mary Medea/ Glorianna is the granddaughter of Molly Medea, a freedom fighter who took down the Dread Dictator. After that victory, the universe is left in the anarchic free-for-all that we find in the stories. Making sure to have a wild card on winning destiny, Mary sees that Molly has a second go-around...
...as Galatia 9, or the cloned Molly Medea. In her 22nd year, we see Galatia on a backwater world where amazons fight hillbilly ogres. As an amazon intern, Galatia has gained fighting skills and focus, and lost a breast through initiation. This circle of sisterhood gets rudely interrupted as she is hurtled out into the universe and destiny.
SF pulp hero by John Russell Fearn
Middle: pulp SF amazon; "Wonder Woman,"
Wm. Moulton Marston & H.G. Peter, 1945
Bottom: Galatia 9 initiation and keg party
The greek myth of amazons is well-known, but evidence of actual warrior women who banded together for defense and expression exist in all cultures of the world. These sisterhoods of strength became important symbols for the feminist movement in the early 70's. Gloria Steinem almost single-handedly resurrected Wonder Woman with a 1972 hardback book of 40's reprints, and a thorough essay of archealogical and historical examples of amazons by Phyllis Chesler prefaced it.
The desire to purge patriarchal theocracy led to Goddess worship in the late 70's which centered on a female diety and perceived feminine spirituality. Elaine Lee says that, "Galatia 9's amazons and the Cosmic Veil were influenced by the whole Goddess movement" and particularly "Dianic Wicca for the amazons."
STARSTRUCK is a fluid universe where all views collide and creative chaos insues. It doesn't have time for didactic stances and 'either/or' traps because everything is everything. "Science Fiction is at its best when it offers us new ways to look at our problems," Lee wrote in 1997. "It is silliest when it offers too many (or too little) solutions. Then it is simply an allegory...or worse, propaganda." Aspects of religion, philosophy, consumerism, militarism, and the arts are all blasted irreverently through the series' blender just to see what happens. The amazon sequence explored a rising new dimension of SF writing from the time.
"Back in the late 1970's, the women's movement was raging, and a lot of 'women's sci-fi' was produced," Lee recalls. Writers included greats like Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Octavia Butler. "I read a lot of it, and saw that it tended to fall into one of two categories. The first type followed the 'planet of the chauvinist pigs' scenario." Women are enslaved by piggish men, and either become love dolls or rebels who fight back. "The second type... was Utopian." Women achieve a separated state of sister-love and selective cloning somewhat like a tranquil New Age dream. "My main problem with Utopian sci-fi is that nothing ever explodes, and the love scenes are really boring."
Confronted with being "some musclebound alien's house drudge" or a blissed role-modelbot, Lee created her own path. "I wrote Galatia 9 for myself because I was acting in soap operas and commercials, and I'm small and blond, and I was getting all the wimpy dumb blond parts. So I wanted to be a tough starship captain. I said, why do all Amazons have to be really tall and buxom?" She performed Galatia 9 onstage and Kaluta draws her in Elaine's likeness.
George Clinton once described the premise of his funk concept albums as 'putting the black man where you least expected to find him'. In the case of his group Parliament in 1975, this meant in the White House, and as spacefaring Afronauts who had originated early human cultures. Lee and Kaluta, with the simple act of featuring acerbic women in roles so worn out by decades of men, had likewise flipped the SF script. This was met with kneejerk defensiveness then and now, but STARSTRUCK has too much fun to even care. "They're people that don't pander to what you're expecting a female character in a science fiction play or comic book to be," Kaluta replied in the 80's, "they're just people. If you don't like them, they're not going to change for you."
Middle: 'Amazon' Stories, 1949; "Prince Valiant", Hal Foster, 1964
Bottom: Galatia 9 fights valiantly
The amazon sequence also recalls "Prince Valiant": Galatia's short bob haircut, her swordplay and archery; fighting trollish louts; the castle-esque ruins of the refinery; a hearty battle song; and Kaluta's illustrative linework. Later, Elaine co-wrote an excellent mini-series of "Prince Valiant" with Charles Vess for Marvel, which Michael did the covers for.
Galatia's partner is Brucilla the Muscle, a stout-framed pilot. We first see her when her space brigade squadron is strafing a nebula cloud in formation.
Middle: Arthur Rackham, 1910
Bottom: Brucilla by Kaluta, 1980
Brucilla is a pulp update on Brynhildr the valkyrie, or Brunnhilde as she's known in the opera, "The Ring of the Nibelung". Valkyries of Norse legend emerged from the clouds on flying horses to deliver dead warriors to heaven. By turn, Brucilla is tricked into a suicide run through the space clouds that kills all of her team. Afterward, her uncanny piloting through it seems to open up a gate to something...else.
With her strong build, we-can-do-it attitude, and dexterous mechanical skills, Brucilla also recalls Norman Rockwell's take on Rosie the Riveter.
Top: "Rosie the Riveter", Norman Rockwell, 1943
Bottom: Brucilla the mechanic
"Brucilla was that young hothead (previously male) in every space opera," says Elaine, "but is also based on my uncle, John M. Waters, who wrote a couple of books called "Rescue At Sea" (1966), about flying helicopter rescue missions for the coast guard (which he did), and "Bloody Winter", about submarine warfare in the North Atlantic (where he served in WWII). When he was a kid he was in the Sea Scouts and I have his old manual. He collected sea shanties and sang them all the time. He sounded like Foghorn Leghorn. So there's a lot of Foghorn in Bru."
Foghorn, I say, Foghorn Leghorn
50's sci-fi carried the imprint of the military design, rank, and attitudes of the War, which is apparent in the 'blockhead-trumps-egghead' stance of this "Tom Corbett" episode. The series also released a 45 single of their fight
anthem. Likewise, Brucilla proudly bellows the Amercadian Space Brigade Anthem often. This is also known as "Us Against the Void": not content that their xenophobia drove them to blow up the "other side" of the Earth, Amercadia (the western hemisphere) turned that jingoism into a manifest destiny pointed at the universe. This eventually led to the Dread Dictator. (Insert Bush joke here.)
"Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all."
-Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici (later Pope Leo X), warning of the Borgias' reign
BOTTOM: Baron Bajar; Kalif Bajar;
The rebel Medea family has been in a generational war against the corrupt Bajar dynasty. The Bajars have names that act as historical signifiers of evil scheming:
-Baron Roderigo Sejanus Vasco d'Gama Bajar, the machiavellian twit
-his son, Prince Phillipe Cesare Kalif Alexander Bajar, the chosen heir and airhead
-his daughter, Indira Lucrezia Ronnie Lee Ellis Bajar, the slighted heir with slight-of-hand
Primarily the Baron and his scheming son and daughter reflect the Borgias of Renaissance Italy: Roderic de Borja i Borja of the Spanish kingdom of Valencia, who bribed his way to become Pope Alexander VI; his murderous son Cesare Borgia; and equally poisonous daughter Lucrezia Borgia. Just as the Borgias misused their religious power to murder, rob, and colonize, the Bajars use religion, the military, and politics to advance their wicked power dreams. Pope Alexander may have been poisoned by his son, a fate that doesn't portend well for Baron Bajar.
The word "bajar" is spanish for 'to descend', a pun on both decline and descendents. The spiritual incest at the heart of the Bajars' backbiting struggles is doomed to eat them inside out. The Baron's name also refers to Sejanus, the Roman Praetorian who ended badly; and Vasco da Gama, the thuggish Portuguese explorer.
The Bajar son's name refers to (perhaps) Phillip III of Spain, a right bastard; the general term Kalif/ Calliph, a Muslim civil and religious leader, but also Kalifah, a radical revolutionary distortion of that power; and Alexander the Great and Pope Alexander VI. Clearly his father was loading the conqueror thing on heavy.
This is leavened by the wily daughter, whose name happily puts good Indira Gandhi right next to twisted Lucrezia Borgia, aptly summing her schizoid potential; and the downhome Ronnie Lee Ellis, which probably has nothing to do with basketball player LeRon Ellis but may have some hint of a certain sci-fi writer turned evangelist....
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row."
1: PYGMALION & GALATEA
In the greek myth, Pygmalion was a Cypress sculptor who, repulsed by real women, created an idealized statue that he fell in love with. Through divine intervention she is given life and becomes his wife. In later accounts she was given the name Galatea.
George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion" was a variant on this, with a King trying to reprogram a beggar girl to fit his station. This was filmed in 1938, and turned into the musical play "My Fair Lady" and then film (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn.
These themes are subversively inverted in STARSTRUCK, where revolutionary Mary Medea makes android doubles of herself to undermine a corrupt ruler, and also a clone of her ancestor who becomes the freedom-fighter named Galatia 9.
Initially, when Mary Medea was first seen with the baby clone, a poem referencing Pygmalion narrated the sequence. "I whose name means heavenly womb will play Pygmalion to her Galatea/ and shape a Goddess not of clay/ but out of dancing atoms and another's Spiralling DNA." But in later print revisions this text was dropped as the scene was expanded.
Lee was also reading the Bible while writing the original play. "Galatia was named for the Epistle to the Galatians, the ninth book in the New Testament," explains Lee, saying it had no specific allusion to it. "Then in the play, the character says it was a name she took among the amazons, so we told that story in the (prequel) graphic novel. In that story, Galatia sees the name on the side of a ruined grain silo."
The story upends themes of vanitas from different angles. There's Glorianna/ Mary Medea with her army of Ann droids, a practical move made for surveillance and infiltration, but with a hint of self-preservation. But then there's her target, Baron Bajar, who wanted the perfect heir and got twins; a son who can't get it together, and a smarter daughter he rejects because he can't get it together. "Zounds! That boy is not working out the way I'd planned," he grouses. "Almost too close for fraternal twins," Mary later ponders, "More like-," at which point a tangent song about clones is sung.
"I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own than a fickle-minded real live girl." -Johnny S. Black, "Paper Doll", 1942
2: PAPER DOLL
Pygmalion can be seen as an allegory of the insecure heart yearning for love, turning from the unpleasantness of reality to construct a romance that comforts them. In an individual sense the story is touching and universal. But taken more broadly, the story can err into the worst side of male control fantasies, in which their intended is only an mirror to reflect their own vanity or power. The area between romantic and chauvinist blurs pretty quick.
Who isn't moved during the film "Vertigo" when Judy pleads, "Couldn't you just love me, for who I am?" And chilled when Scotty insists she be someone else with, "Judy, please, it can't matter to you."
This theme of women as a fetish object or empty vessel of another's ego runs through pop culture. It takes forms in stories about mannequins, toy dolls, androids, sex dolls, and emotional puppets. In STARSTRUCK, all of these are combined in Erotica Ann, the pleasure droid that Mary Medea creates. Erotica Ann's gradual arc includes being spy, love slave, barmaid, bargaining chip, science officer, and sentient rebel.
Parallels to this include:
-Fritz Lang's expressionist deco masterpiece "Metropolis" (1927), where the consciousness of Maria is placed into an android who takes on human form.
-"The Bride of Frankenstein" (1931), where a constructed female mate for Frankenstein's pitiful creation is repulsed by him and wants escape.
-"Vertigo" (1958), a tale of two women and one man's blind obsession.
-Elaine points to an episode of "The Twilight Zone" that struck her in youth called "The Lonely" (1959) which explores the middle ground between ownership and companionship. Another episode with a related theme of prefab identity is "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1964), where a young woman in the consumerist future of 2000 resists becoming a plastic surgery copy of everyone else. Ahem.
-Elaine also was influenced by the brief series "My Living Doll" (1965), starring Julie Newmar, as some inspiration for Erotica Ann. Julie plays a brilliant but inexperienced android surrounded by men who only want to paw or domesticate her. Played for chucklehead yuks, of course.
-"In the town of Stepford, the men are getting what they always dreamed of...perfect wives. And the dreams are becoming a nightmare for The Stepford Wives." (1975)
-In the films "Westworld" (1973) and "Futureworld" (1976) robots role-play every human fantasy, including as love slaves. But they rebel.
-In "The Bionic Woman" TV series (1976-78), the cyborg heroine combats 'Fembots', killer female androids controlled by an evil scientist.
Pris the anti-doll, "Blade Runner"
-In "Blade Runner" (1982), replicants of both sexes are used for everything including as sex toys. But a group rebels violently, including sex model Pris (Daryl Hannah). In the STARSTRUCK play, Erotica Ann uses her legs to crush a certain enemy, a move that preceded the similar scene with Pris in "Blade Runner" by two years.
-Recent variations include the hero of "Ghost In the Shell", the adult dolls of "A.I.", the villain in "Terminator III", the hero of "Terminator: The Sara Connor Chronicles" (Summer Glau), the perfected-self society of "Surrogates", and the inverse puppets of "Dollhouse" (Eliza Dushku).
Erotica Ann is first seen as a gift given to the corrupt Bajar family, where young Kalif Bajar falls for the idealized gynoid. A bad incident involving her traumitizes Kalif who goes on the wrong path as a future villain. When all Erotica Anns are ordered destroyed, the final one houses their collective consciousness and she breaks off on her own path. This is recorded in a galactic bestseller by his neglected twin, Ronnie Lee Ellis, as "The Prince and the Pleasure Droid."
Of course STARSTRUCK quips the script. There are male versions of sex droids, like Handi Andi and Joe Andy Nova, or "kick-on-a-stick". From the STARSTRUCK Glossary: "Living Doll Cybernetics sent questionnaires to billions of women asking them exactly what they would like to see in or on a male pleasure droid. They got answers like: 1) blue eyes, 2) a nice voice, 3) an assortment of detachable appendages." Women bought them in droves but then returned them because something wasn't 'right'. LDC left the doll the same and changed the advertising. Now pitched as a companion instead of a convenience, Joe was a grand slam. "He's been with me now through sub-space, six lovers, and an interplanetary war, and I find that I've grown to love him."
One of the strongest inspirations for the pleasure droids was Barbie, confirms Elaine Lee. This is clear in her exaggerated feminine body proportions, her use as a fantasy toy, her assembly manufacture, and as social fetish object for gender attitudes.
"Look at Erotica Ann's Dream House in the first issue," Lee says. "And its pink!"
Right Top: vintage Barbie Dream House
Right Bottom: life-size Barbie Dream House, by Jonathan Adler, 2009
Barbie, then and now:
STARSTRUCK perpetually makes fun of gender stereotypes. One aspect of this is in how the 'man's man' Harry Palmer and 'womanly woman' Erotica Ann look like pulp-era pin-ups. Naturally they are lovers.
Top: artist Zoe Mozert posing for her own pin-ups (1,2); Betty Grable (3)
Bottom: George Petty (2); Tom of Finland (4)
Erotica Ann is in permanent cheesecake mode, striking 'come hither' postures like a George Petty or Alberto Vargas model.
Harry Palmer, the tough sailor, is all beefcake, with the slender hips and broad shoulders of a Tom of Finland fantasy.
The Bettie Page revival was almost entirely ignited by Dave Stevens' homage character of her in his 1980's "The Rocketeer" comics. Michael did a playful nudge at his good friend by flipping the script with Brucilla.
Mary Medea and the rest of the Medea family grew up on the Barkly Ranch in New Wyoming's desert plains. This is a wink at the Barkley family from the western TV series, "The Big Valley" (1965-69), which was headed by bold Barbara Stanwyck.
One of the most popular pulp magazines of all time was "Ranch Romances", which lasted until the early 70's, twenty years after all others gave up the ghost. In "Rangeland Romance" and "Western Romance", tough cowgals could rope a bronco, brand a steer, bullwhip a gun out of your hand, and smooch a cowpoke faster than a greasefire. 50's comics like "Women Outlaws" turned the prairie prose into two-fisted toons. That tornado unwinds through films like "Outlaw Women" (1952), "The Dalton Girls" (1957), "Hannie Caulder" (1971), "The Legend of Frenchie King" (1971), "The Quick and the Dead" (1995), "Hooded Angels" (2004), "Gang of Roses" (2004), and "Bandidas" (2006).
The Medeas; Brucilla; and Galatia
And what better ancestor for Brucilla the Muscle could there be than Calamity Jane on "Deadwood"? (@#%&ing language alert...)
SCI-FI WOMEN: Where Women Should've Gone Boldy Beside, The 60's and 70's
"Star Trek" embarked boldly in its 1965 pilot episode by having a female second in command, Number 1 (Majel Barrett). A studio suit, in all their eternal wisdom, told Gene Roddenbury "to lose the girl, and that guy with the pointed ears". Gene instead retooled it so Spock was second in command, and Majel sidestepped to a lesser, blonder role. Evidently the Romulans weren't threatened by women, as proven by the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) in "The Enterprise Incident" (1968). But sadly, even in the final episode "Turnabout Intruder" (1969), women aren't allowed to be Federation starship captains, provoking rejected Janice Lester to take revenge on James Kirk.
But in the UK, they could be Moonbase Commander, and wear it with brilliant flair and purple hair, like Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) on "UFO" (1970-71).
"Star Wars" (1977) hit the film industry like The Beatles hit music, and with it came no-nonsense Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) from the planet Los Angeles. She shot, she smirked, she strangled your ass with a chain. The television knock-off "Battlestar Galactica" (1978) featured female Viper pilots and bridge crew in her wake.
Madge Sinclair, "Star Trek IV"
But no one was prepared for Ellen Ripley. The hellion from "Alien" (1979) played by Sigourney Weaver was the real badass who never stops, the anti-'scream queen' who takes control and saves the day. "Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?" she snaps at the greedy suits in "Aliens" (1986), and who doesn't cheer? That year also saw the first glimpsed female Federation captain in the movie "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," played by Madge Sinclair.
Elaine Lee is heartened by the escalating trend. "One thing that has really changed since we were first published is that people are used to seeing strong female characters in adventure stories. When STARSTRUCK first came out, there was no Buffy, no Xena, no Sarah Conner, no River Tam."
"There were no shows like "Heroes" or "Firefly" or "Farscape"," she continues, "with a good number of very different female characters. Of course, there were some female characters in comics, but they were in the minority and (other than a few characters like Wonder Woman) tended to take a backseat to the men in the group. Because we had many female characters, and they tended to be movers and shakers, readers found it surprising. These days, no one would even lift an eyebrow."
It's in this company that Elaine Lee became a starship captain in 1980. But a much rowdier, funnier, friskier one.
LUST IN SPACE
"Heaven is in your eyes, bright as the stars we're under,
Oh, is it any wonder, I'm in the mood for love." -Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields, 1935
Hot rockets, black holes, horsehead nebulas, heavenly bodies, celestial spheres, out-of-body experiences, astral projections, comet tails, otherworldly vibrations, first contacts, transcendental portals, planets colliding, digital interfaces, wormholes, silvery moons, docking bays, unexplored spaces, and big bangs. C'mon now. Science Fiction has always been sexy, with scantily clad explorers like Princess Aura in "Flash Gordon", The Martian Manhunter, and Hawkman and Hawkgirl; or the group love of "Stranger In a Strange Land" (1961)...
All fiction is role-playing, but sci-fi has more liberty by being in the future, on other worlds, or in new cultures. Because it has the widest context of any storytelling, it exposes any of our limits for the imposed restrictions they are. SF is particularly alarming to a repressive status quo because it questions all social controls and the mass delusion of a 'natural order'. It does so by simply showing another alternative. (The same could be said of Rock'n'Roll.) It's no coincidence that anyone who felt marginalized by their gender, sexual orientation, physicality, or skin color found a haven there from the 50's onward. Science Fiction was where you could let it all hang out.
This really heated up during the Free Love of the counterculture. While "Lost In Space" still seemed like "The Donna Reed Show", shirtless Kirk or Spock were melting the screen weekly with every hottie under any sun. Evil Uhura with bare midriff and a knife in a kinky mirror universe, anyone? Android lovers? Mind melds? Festival, the Red Hour? A virus that frees all inhibitions? Orion Slave Girls with green skin? (Later, on "Enterprise" in 2004, the secret reveal was that they were the masters all along.) Many chide Roddenbury for the mini-dresses Uhura and Rand wore, without knowing that Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney personally designed them 'to show off our great legs'.
In these hedonistically heady times, french artist Jean-Claude Forest let loose his adult comics heroine Barbarella upon a randy universe, a cross between Fanny Hill and Buck Rogers. It became an equally infamous movie (1968) starring Jane Fonda as the devil-may-care deviant, John Phillip Law as the nearly-naked angel, and Anita Pallenberg as the devouring-all-comers Black Queen. Belgian artist Guy Peellaert responded with the startling pop art comic "Pravda", a biker hellcat in a sexy psychedelic universe where anything goes. Pravda wore only boots, a vest, and a belt, which somehow seemed to magically hide the happy stuff.
This, combined with the gleeful debauchery and hyper hatching of San Francisco's underground comix, inspired the collective of Moebius, Druillet, and Bilal to expand the palette with Metal Hurlant magazine in the mid 70's. It was adult in all its subject matter but got noticed because of all the naked women. Kaluta was a fan of feminist american undergrounds like Wimmens Comix, which featured luminaries like Melinda Gebbie, Trina Robbins, and Aline Kominsky who included mature sex and sexuality in their work. The french response was "Ah! Nana", a female-created Metal Hurlant that was so scandelous it got itself censored out of business. (Surprise! double-standard.) It launched the careers of Annie Goetzinger ("Felina"), Chantal Montellier, Nicole Claveloux, and Florence Cestac.
So where does an american duo go when they want to make sophisticated, sexy sci-fi comics? Why, to Heavy Metal, the domestic version of Metal Hurlant who first published all of the first STARSTRUCK stories in 1982-83.
Bottom: Brucilla as a Krabian Slave (Susan Norfleet Lee, with Dale Place)
In the STARSTRUCK play, Brucilla poses as a Krabian Slave Girl to infiltrate Verloona's ship. This is an homage to the Orion Slave Girls of Star Trek, who are themselves a continuation of the harem fantasies of the Orientalism period. During the Napoleonic years, french fantasies constructed an imaginary Far East, a blinkered blur of the Middle East and Asia where kept women danced for any lucky Imperialist master's desire. In the Star Trek pilot, Vina dances to a melody reminiscent of Duke Ellington's "Caravan", a reflection of this fantasy.
Of course, women have always been sexy in stories. But the outlook that this was all they are had become the timeworn limitation. From the 70s onward, sci-fi often reflected the social move toward a wider individuality. The women of Wimmens Comix, Ah! Nana, and STARSTRUCK were people who expressed their sensuality as another facet of their being. For all its advances, Heavy Metal magazine's popularity among teen boys with old gender attitudes started to pin it in. Writers like Elaine Lee with her galactic gal'livanters helped reopen their horizons.
But who says sexy has to mean sexism? It's easy to sort out that sexism is evil, but sensuality is essential. 'Sex' is a synonym for gender and also intimacy. Often people confuse inequity and desire without speaking well to either; not much chance of an "Us" when you're always angry at "Them". Where does that stalemate leave the full range of personal expression for anyone?
"When we were first doing the play," Lee recalls, "Kaluta was in the lobby during intermission. On one side of him, two sort of macho guys were talking and one said, '... bitches must hate men.' On the other side there were two women talking and one said, 'Skimpy costumes for a feminist play!' We couldn't win! We managed to piss off the feminists and the macho guys. And both groups missed that we were joking about everything. When Galatia 9 recites one of her feminist rhymes, we're making fun of both the old-style sci-fi man-hating amazons ("Botchino!"), and the humorless 1970s feminist variety. Geeze, Louise! Can't women be both strong and sexy at the same time?!!!"
Later, Elaine Lee put the SF in sex with her two graphic novels for Amerotica, "Skin Tight Orbit, vol. I" and "Skin Tight Orbit, vol. II" (1995). Concurrently, artist Sandra Chang reimagined herself as a bawdy SF buccaneer in her "Sin Metal Sirens" comixxx ('95). Female authors have always expressed sensuality in SF and Fantasy, and that tradition continues with publishers like Circlet Press. And then there's the women on "Farscape"('99-'03)...
STARSTRUCK is a very layered story with very textural art. "They're not buildings in the background," Kaluta explained about his philosophy toward detail, "they're buildings in a city, with people living in them, or people who have lived in them and died. And there's one on top of another, and there's conduit pipes, there's bathrooms, there's pictures on the wall..."
Science Fiction reflects the architecture, technology, and outlooks of its times. In STARSTRUCK, Kaluta often recalls parts of all the SF styles of the five decades that preceded it:
-The art deco grandeur of "Metropolis" (1927) and "Buck Rogers". Their new outlook was the sky is no longer the limit.
-The Expressionist use of lighting and the coils-and-tubes labs in 1930's and 40's action, suspense, sci-fi, and horror movies. By then, machines were a marvel or a menace to an age struggling to grasp them.
-The big machines of WWII influenced the portrayal of 50's rockets, all tubular rooms with fuseboxes, switchboards, and piping like submarines and planes. You see them in "Forbidden Planet", "Tom Corbett", and the great sci-fi EC Comics by masters like Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, and Al Williamson. Outer Space was there just for military reconnaissance.
George Beylerian, Barbara D'Arcy
-In the 1960's, Italian futurism rounded everything into pop plastic modularity, like "The Prisoner" and "2001: A Space Odyssey". The future was hip, immediate, prefab, and oddly perfect.
-The 70's is the hangover where cynicism seeps in. The lonely decay of "Solaris", the 'lived-in look' of Tattooine in "Star Wars", the existential deconstruction of the 60's modularity in Metal Hurlant art.
Middle: "Alien" illustrated adaption by Walt Simonson
Bottom: Ronnie Lee Ellis' pad by Kaluta
-By the 80's, that funkiness mutates into seedy overload as seen in "Alien", "Outland", and "Blade Runner", before coming all apart in the "Mad Max" films. The weariness then of living with nuclear annihilation over your shoulder and a mad leader on the trigger.
Right top: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
Right bottom: Brucilla the valkyrie
Director Ridley Scott brought in a gang of conflicting art talents for designing "Alien", including H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Moebius. Though Moebius only had a short spell on the production, his astronaut and crew clothing designs became essential to the film. That style echoes in Amercadian ship interiors, flight suits, and architecture in STARSTRUCK.
The design styles of "2001", "Solaris", "Alien", and "Outland" have come back around in recent films like "Sunshine" (2007) and "Moon" (2009).
Science fiction and hardboiled detective stories invented themselves through pulp short stories at the same time. It was inevitable that futureshock and postwar dread would envelope them together.
Bottom: the 'Blade Runner', Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford); Harry Palmer
William S. Burroughs grew up on Universal horror films, pulp detectives, film noir, comic strips, and literature. There is a strong mix of Raymond Chandler, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jean-Paul Sartre in his story narrators. This laconic observer haunts books like "Naked Lunch" and the more sci-fi 'Nova trilogy' in the early 60's, which he called "a new mythology for the space age".
In the french film "Alphaville" (1965), Eddie Constantine inverts his usual secret agent routine by playing Lemmy Caution, a trenchcoat misanthrope up against the technocracy. This synthesis of noir and sci-fi became a pivotal classic. It paved the way for SF films fusing expressionist lighting, existential angst, dystopian futures, surrealist delirium, and jaded rebels.
"Blade Runner" (1982) is essentially a 30's detective story in 2019. It is "The Big Sleep" in a "Metropolis" society that has gone very wrong. Though it was based on Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", it's significant that the name Blade Runner was borrowed from William Burroughs. The film's intense style, featuring design work influenced directly by Metal Hurlant, inspired the genre term Tech Noir. Later films in the future noir vein include "The Element Of Crime" ('84), "Ghost In the Shell" ('95), "Dark City" ('98), "Children of Men" ('06), and the bold animated "Renaissance" ('06).
STARSTRUCK is a prism and various narrators wrangle its angles. At one point, Harry Palmer the bartender/sailor/detective takes over in a classic noir investigation of political intrigue, convoluted lost love, a calloused soft heart, and lurking betrayals. It ends badly and really well.
It's tempting to think the sailor was named for Harry Palmer, the everyman agent played by Michael Caine ("The Ipcress File"), or as a masturbation pun. But actually, Lee explains, "Harry Palmer was named for two bartenders at the place Kaluta and I liked to hang out, The Library - Billy Palmer and Harry. And Ike Garuda was drawn to look like a third bartender from the same place."
The future noir fusion was still new when Lee did her take in '84. Later she amplified this in the cult classic "The Transmutation of Ike Garuda" (1991), an adult mini-series featuring a Parker-esque ("The Hunter") gumshoe in the slippery future. Featuring a hardbitten antihero ricocheting between murder and desire, it's like "Chinatown" meets "Magnus, Robot Fighter", all excellently rendered by Jim Sherman. And lately she is excited about "beginning work on comics based on Honey West, a female pulp detective from the 50s and 60s." These will be published by Moonstone.
In "Casablanca" (1942), Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the owner of a gambling den/nightclub in the international zone where war refugees look for safe passage. Rick becomes part of love triangle in which he has to make some hard choices and play some slippery moves.
In STARSTRUCK, Randall Factor is a former lover of Mary Medea's who runs an upscale gambling club on the recreation space station. As Harry Palmer investigates, it's unclear what moves his former romantic rival Randall is making and for what motive. Visually, Randall is an homage to Herb Briton, another friend of Lee and Kaluta's from the play days who hung with them at The Library bar. "Randall Factor was named right after an argument I had with a pal who believed 'everything happens for a reason'," Lee remembers. Enter the random factor.
Also, in the STARSTRUCK play, a couple of lines from Rick Blaine are quoted by the villains' computer.
There is a nautical current running through the series. The Sea Scout manual gets quoted. Harry Palmer is seen as a sailor, with white hat, hairy arms, and tattoos. He charters the Sailor's Grave, a bar in the labyrinthine levels that comprise the infamous Recreation Station 97. This international zone in space is like the Barbary Coast, where everyone docks at their peril for reasons no one should ask about. Galatia is a captain putting to port who ends up scramming on the lam.
"The name of the Sailor's Grave was a nod to Thomas Pynchon," says Lee. "There is a bar of the same name in his novel 'V'." The reclusive writer is a former Navy man and the only known photos of him show him in uniform from that period.
Harry Palmer; Galatia 9 at The Sailor's Grave
By the time of the play (for which all the comic stories are a prequel) we meet the psychic fishgirl Eeeeeeeeeluh. Her people once triggered the psychic abilities of Sister Bronwyn, another later character, when she fell in their aquarium. They may be a funny take on the Sea Monkey family from the classic comic ads.
Also, Elaine enjoyed "Where the Boys Are" (1960) as a kid. Check out the pool scenes at 2:28 and 2:43 for a possible genesis for Bronwyn's dunk and Eeeeeeeeeeluh's ascent. "'Where the Boys Are' was half teen Spring Break movie and half a preachy movie warning girls not to have sex. I don't think I got the message. I just wanted to be one of those mermaid girls."
Bottom: Bronwyn and the fish family; Eeeeeeeeeluh
Brucilla is an excellent pilot from her days in the Amercadian Space Brigade. Gunning away in her force-field cockpit, she soars from a long history.
Flight had jolted the world's imagination and aviators like Lindbergh and Earhart became international heroes. The new action hero had to have wings, and 1930's pulps like "Aces", "War Birds", and "Bull Barnes, Air Adventurer" immortalized the lone pilot in the open cockpit machine-gunning biplanes in aerial dogfights. Some pulps even merged this into sci-fi with futuristic planes, like "Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds". WWII brought in carrier planes with crews and gun turrets and formation bombing runs. In comics, women got their wings when Harvey Kurtzman created Black Venus, an aviatrix all in black leather who ruled the winds. And there was Airboy's nemesis and later ally, The Valkyrie. (The air pulp era was later lushly homaged in "The Rocketeer" comics and movie ('90), and in the underrated "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" (2004).)
Bottom: Cookie Fabre, STARSTRUCK;
1978 Viper pilots;
Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, 2005
George Lucas patterned his X-Wings on the early solo fighters, and the Death Star sequence was mapped out by cutting together WWII bomber footage as a guide. This immediately went into the SF lexicon, from the first "Battlestar Galactica" to the latest. And how about that recent video game, "Gratuitous Space Battles"?
"My Dad used to take me to science fiction and horror movies," says Lee. "Every Friday night, I watched "The Twilight Zone" and every Saturday morning, I watched old horror and sci-fi on 'Sunrise Theatre'." She remembers seeing such classic films as Buck Rogers serials, "The House of Wax" (1953), "The Queen of Outer Space" (1958), "The Flesh Eaters" (1964), "Barbarella" (1968), and "Journey To the Far Side of the Sun" (1969). And TV shows like "Lost In Space", "The Outer Limits", "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet", and of course "My Living Doll".
"Don't know if I would call myself a fan of the movies I saw when I was a kid," Lee says. "I just saw them and something about them stuck with me." She refracted these celluloid flashes into strobing semaphores all her own.
Bottom: Norris Rex waxes before waning
In "House of Wax", Vincent Price runs a wax museum where the waxworks seem eerily lifelike. This gets an homage in STARSTRUCK, with Norris Rex's wax museum, next to Harry's bar. Rex forgoes Price's Marie Antionette in favor of, ironically, using Erotica Ann to homage Glorianna. In "Queen of Outer Space" a world of amazons just needs a few pushy louts to show them who wears the pants. (Anyone know any valiant blond archers?)
"Anyone who reads STARSTRUCK who doesn't think that we're trying to point out science-fiction cliches and have fun with them just isn't reading it," Kaluta laughs.
Lee says, "We lifted themes, archetypes and settings from classic sci-fi and tried to drop into them flawed characters with real human problems."
Emerald gems called krystals shine glimmers of connection throughout STARSTRUCK.
"Molly (Medea)’s daughter, Margaret, is also a very successful businesswoman, but a more benign type," Lee says. "She is the owner of Krystals ‘n’ Things, a company that trades in Borinyum Krystals, which are both a source of energy and capable of storing vast amounts of information." Her daughter, Glorianna of Phoebus, now mines the green krystals which have a peculiar reaction to a specific sequence of soundwaves. These emeralds also seem to run through the players in her grand scheme.
"My Dad was a big science fiction fan," Lee explains, "and I used to read books he left around waaaaaaaay before I was old enough to understand them. I still have lots of images floating around in my head from those old books from the fifties and early sixties. I remember both a book and an episode of a TV show that had do with living crystals and I'm certain that's where the krystals came from, but can't remember titles." She recalls that one book "involved a red crystal that somehow made a copy of a boy. A Doppelganger. It was really creepy."
Middle: Brucilla mining on Phoebus; baby Galatia
Bottom: Krystals and things...
By coincidence, the Tom Corbett radio show had an episode called "The Living Crystals of Titan", but 1952 was too early for her to hear it. In 1957, there was "The Monolith Monsters" flick where crystal meteors grow into prism forests and absorb the desert townfolk. And J.G. Ballard ("Crash", "Empire of the Sun") had a 1966 book called "The Crystal World", where a crystal forest in Africa seems to grow and spread infection.
The energy source aspect of the krystals is also reminiscent of the dilithium crystals that drive Federation starships. And coincidentally the Adegan crystals that power Jedi lightsabers, an aspect which came to the fore well after the STARSTRUCK play.
In a funny synchronicity there's a late 40s comics cover of Tara the Pirate Queen, who's a bit of a precursor to Galatia 9, holding up a glowing emerald!
GALACTIC GIRL GUIDES
"First, I was a girl scout," admits Lee. "Sold the cookies. Went camping. Got in trouble."
In the Anarchera, everyone fends for themselves including little girls. It's a tough universe and these scrappy urchins take it on. So you often see street-lethal girl scouts running around the stories who can charm, con, rob, and ditch anyone before they can blink. Brucilla and her co-pilot "Cookie" Fabre used to be Guides, and in back-up stories we flashback to their manic misadventures.
The real Girl Guides were started in 1907 when scouting took off. Sometimes they mixed with the boys, sometimes not, depending on era or place. Their regimen included learning survival skills, which the Galactic orphans have taken to all extremes. This is both charming, seeing funny kids in unexpected places, and alarming, in that it's quiet code for the survival course women have to run physically and emotionally throughout their lives just for being female.
Bottom: Li'l Brucilla, Puddyface Johnson,
and Cookie Fabre
The GGG are descendants of the "Our Gang" film comedies (later repackaged for TV as "The Little Rascals") which blitzed theaters from the 30's to the 50's. These raucous brats did everything wrong perfectly right. They're also the only example on film in this period of male and female, 'black and white', running around freely as friends. It hit some bum notes on race and gender, but that's a good one. They were just kids and they were hilarious. Our Gang inspired film bratpacks like The East Side Kids, The Bowery Boys, The Dead End Kids, and The Little Tough Guys; and comics like Simon and Kirby's Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos. Recently there's been Bart Simpson, "Malcolm In the Middle", and "Everybody Hates Chris".
Galactic Girl Guides; 1952 pulp space scouts
Bottom: Astro Boy;
"See all evil, hear all evil, speak all evil"
There's also a bit of a parallel in Huey, Duey, and Louie, nephews to Donald Duck who starred as Junior Woodchuck scouts in 60's comics. Another influence may be Astro Boy. In a costume design sketch for Verloona, Kaluta noted her corkscrew headpiece being akin to Astro Boy's head. These swirl-bladed motifs are also in GGG hats.
One of the funniest parts of STARSTRUCK is its use of sound effects, which punctuate and pile-up everywhere. On the "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio show (1935-59), Fibber would always absently fetch something from the hall closet, where eveything ever made would avalanche out until one final handbell clang. That Burlesque tradition also happened in comics, like MAD magazine's crazy clusterfonts or the human trainwrecks of "Tintin".
Bottom: Brucilla + Girl Guides= chaos
"...and it's very like our own passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond." -Alice, "Through The Looking Glass"
There's a running theme of twins in STARSTRUCK. Mary Medea has a few: her Erotica Ann droids, the version of her that seemed to die in a rebel battle, her reinvention as Glorianna, and, perversely, posing as an Ann. Her grandmother, Molly Medea, is reborn as the clone Galatia 9, whose youth is an echo of Mary's own past at the Barkly ranch. The heirs to the corrupt Bajar empire are fraternal twins, seemingly.
"The Parent Trap", Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills
"For some reason, I loved stories about identical twins when I was a kid", Lee explains. One favored film from her youth is Disney's "The Parent Trap", starring Hayley Mills as two girls who meet at summer camp and find out they are twin sisters.
Mary Medea; Molly Meda II
Middle/Bottom: Harry Palmer sings the Clone Song
"In Starstruck #2 (2009), Harry and Mary talk about a show about Clones. I was thinking of the Patty Duke Show, of course. They even sing a similar theme song."
This extends to the metaphorical bad twin, too. Ronnie Lee Ellis is part of two variants of this. Her whole catalyst has been her frustrated hate for her twin brother receiving divine birthright by way of his winkie. But later she sees Glorianna's galactic scheme unfolding and resolves to be "the anti-Annie". Where Glorianna leads her followers toward a goal where any duality will be transcended, Ronnie invents a passive nun sisterhood where conflicted dualism "is the law".
Galatia 9 is likewise stalemated by her evil stepsister, Verloona Ti. This reaches its fruition in the STARSTRUCK play.
Right: Galatia 9 vs. Verloona Ti
2: THE MIRROR
There is a mirror theme, as well. Ronnie Lee Ellis hides her neutralized nuns in a nebulous pocket called the Neutral Zone, where she watches Phoebus to learn Glorianna's plan. The surface of this zone is called Deadman's Mirror because hitting it wrong will destroy you. Brucilla has a bizarre episode flying into it, inverting somehow, and then projecting back outward which makes you wonder what it means to go through the looking glass.
Fun fact: In "Journey To the Far Side of the Sun" (1969), two astronauts find an alternate earth, a reversed twin, always hidden in orbit by the sun. The original british title was "Doppelganger". It is similar to a 1963 Twilight Zone called "The Parallel". Fans of TV's "Fringe", take note.
Bottom: Galatia reflects on the face of things
Actual mirrors are also seen as a motif at different times, such as in Erotica Ann's Dream House. At one point, Galatia 9 gazes into a mirror with a funny intuition; behind the two-way glass are her 'sisters' Glorianna and Erotica Ann looking back at her.
"To you do we send up our sighs, mounting and weeping in this vale of tears." -the prayer Salve Regina
The Sailor's Grave bar is nooked in the labyrinthine levels of sin and perdition on Rec Station 97 called the Vale of Tiers. New visitors are given a pin-on button saying "Have a heart" to vainly dissuade the scamming residents from taking them for everything they own.
L. Ron Hubbard was a writer for pulp magazines in the 40's. He wrote all genres, basing much of it on an adventurous life around the world. But when his editor handed him a sci-fi assignment, something must have clicked. Ray Bradbury often writes as if in a poetic revelation. Hubbard wrote like he was Ayn Rand reinventing God. With "Dianetics" he pulled off a trick no other SF writer could beat: inventing his own religion. The name of which escapes me. I'll look on Wookiepedia or something...
In STARSTRUCK, Ronnie Lee (hmmm) Ellis writes sci-fi best sellers with pulp titles like "The Prince and the Pleasure Droid", "Old Sailors Never Die", and "Wax Zombies of the Noh Zone". But with "Mind Spiders of the Planet Xenon", she invents her own real religion: the passive sisters in the neutral zone known as the Cosmic Veil, Cloistered Order of the Goddess Uncaring.
Not to be undone, Glorianna wrote "Of Mice and Movers: Ripples In the Cosmic Pond", in which she parodies Ellis and implies that she has manipulated her into action all along.
"There is no ruler of the universe making other people dance," Kaluta notes. "But there's lots of people in the comic who think they're making other people dance. And that's where the fun is, to watch the characters delude themselves."
"Dune" (1965) by Frank Herbert had a lot of influence, both on George Lucas (Tatooine, spice mines), and Elaine Lee: in STARSTRUCK it's the struggle between noble houses, the sandy Bajar planet, and perhaps the strange nun sisterhood. The Bene Gesserit sisters in the Dune books are far creepier and more focused than the sheepish sloths of the Veil, though, who are played for comic effect. The Cloister is both like a sleepy cult and a spiritual front for a political shell game. Oh. Scientology, I just remembered.
Erotica Ann, Sister Bronwyn (Kathy Gerber), and Brucilla onstage
Bottom: Bronwyn is enveloped in the Veil
Sister Bronwyn of the Veil is a character who becomes important in the STARSTRUCK play. She has psychic abilities from falling into a pool of telepathic fishpeople as a little girl. Somewhat akin to this is the multi-talented Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an abbess of a German cloister who invented opera, wrote plays, mastered various sciences, and drew illustrations of visions she had when God possessed her. Being cloistered away from men gave her time to think without any meddling foolishness.
Elaine Pagels wrote "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979), a scholarly treatise on the disparate views colliding in early Christianity, including how women initially found an unusually open opportunity to express their spirituality through it. "I was reading lots of women theologians, including Elaine Pagels," Lee says, "who certainly influenced the part of Galatia's story that featured the Troikani actors." A trio of actors with the same mind, these characters share the blame for the catastrophically bad play "Archeorganaapocolypsia" that they were part of. As they morph through their parts as the Holy Trinity, Galatia eyerolls, "Yeah...sucked meat! I thought they shot you guys."
STARSTRUCK has a few other explorations of religion and spirituality:
-The March Baptists preach the word of 'Zed, the Dangling' in their Brand New Testament: from their 27 Amendments to the 10 Commandments; "3) Thou shalt talk louder than anyone else in the room." They are fundamentalist zealots allied with the space military and a corrupt, would-be dictator. (Hmmm, let me try to think of an historical precedent for that.)
-There's Brzzt Oomph Burble "Call me Bob" Griivarr, whose "Simple Recipe For Happiness" book was such a huge smash that he owns eight planets. (The recipe tenets were inspired by the homilies that Robert Brault wrote for The National Inquirer.)
-And there's Soul Sharing, the revelation among androids that each series shares a collective consciousness. This spooks them into contemplation about mortality and sentience. In Ronnie Lee Ellis' book based on Erotica Ann, "The Prince and the Pleasure Droid", the robot heroine "is made leader of a powerful religious movement, and has a hand in deciding the Fate of the Free Universe." (This kind of portends aspects of the play, but could infer events in its aftermath.)
Lee was also a fan of "The Trouble With Angels" (1966), where a pair of boisterous girls are prey to bad habits. This film is an heir to the four St. Trinians films of the 50s, about a catholic school undone by wild young girls. Another antecedent for the Galactic Girl Guides, these films have recently been remade.
"If you can't sing Seigfried, at least you can carry a spear." -Thomas Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow"
The original STARSTRUCK graphic novel was dedicated to filmmaker Robert Altman and author Thomas Pynchon. Both are known for complex stories where events seem to happen spontaneously and even simultaneously. Their work is layered, challenging, innovative, serpentine, farcical, ambiguous, satirical, dream-like. Things that seem trivial later become crucial. Every visit to the material rewards you with new nuances. The glowing 'Aha!'
Joe McCulloch writes in his blog, "I suspect the STARSTRUCK graphic novel was probably tough reading for a lot of people at the time. It's still kind of tricky today, until you realize that the book isn't trying to tell (the) whole story, just a story, rich with incident and cross-reference and sheer joyous worldbuilding."
Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973) is an eclectic narrative that tells itself from angles that add up oddly. It was almost awarded the Pulitzer, but was rejected by the nervous conservative wing as "unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene." Now it is routinely in every top list of best novels ever written.
This flat-earther reaction pattern has dogged other innovative writers who stretched the form like William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kathy Acker. Burroughs scandalized the literary world with "Naked Lunch", which was held up in courts for years as being too obscene to publish. When he wrote a sci-fi trilogy -"The Ticket That Exploded", "The Soft Machine", "The Nova Express"- using his cut-up method, he overloaded everyone's volt. Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse 5" (1969) got notoriety as much for its pinball narrative as for its anti-war message. And Acker hit academia like punk rock with her spritzer of social taboos, positive sexuality, and narrative anarchy in books like "Pussy, King of the Pirates" (1996).
A still photograph is one story but a collage is another. In fact it is many stories, all subjective to the viewer. Like these books, the approach is used on film in Fellini's "8 1/2", Lynch's "Mulholland Drive", Nolan's "Memento", and TV's "LOST".
Speaking about untangling the angles, Lee says,"That’s something we tried to do throughout STARSTRUCK. A character like Brucilla may exaggerate, others will outright lie and still others may be misinformed. Like life. When you’re looking through the eyes of any one character, you’ll only get a fraction of the picture."
STARSTRUCK has always been in the same space with those writers, telling layered and startling stories; it is its true strength, but is often held against it as a weakness. Since the beginning it has been rotely termed as "esoteric" whenever someone doesn't get it. That limitation is simply theirs. Basically, STARSTRUCK believes that you are smart, that you want to have fun, and that these can happen at the same time.
"If you don't take the time to read them, you can just look at the pictures, and if you don't understand them, it's your own damn fault," Kaluta scoffs. "Who said that comics were supposed to be easy to read?" Kaluta points happily at an early letter from an irate reader taking them to task for making him spend more than his customary twenty minutes to read a superhero comic.
The stories can be read straight on as a slapstick space opera, with a penchant for cool dialogue. They also add up to a novelistic mystery that is carefully unfolding itself. More subtly, it is a nuanced work where re-readings reveal multiple meanings, sly satire, and thematic connections. While WATCHMEN was subsequently hailed for these qualities, STARSTRUCK did them first and funner. And the ancillary pieces, like the Glossary, add crucial context to everything for the sharp reader. In fact, like Alan Moore's text pieces for "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," they are another essential dimension of the story. They're also a nice parallel to the hilarious work of former Monty Python writer Douglas Adams and his "Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy" series.
The initial STARSTRUCK play was a fun romp pinballing through the tropes of Sci-Fi. That sense of humor is the spine of all the prequel comics stories also, even with the added depths of darkness, surreality, destiny, and ambivalence they branched into. Lee has stated that, big ideas and crafty telling aside, STARSTRUCK is always meant to be fun first. The Ha-Ha's hit first with the A-Ha's as a chaser.
Kaluta says, "(Epic Comics enjoyed but kiboshed it)...but I wanted an ad that said, 'Readers of The World, Unite! You Have Nothing To Use But Your Brains!'"
"Love & Rockets", Los Brothers Hernandez; "RAW", Spiegelman, Burns, etc.;
"A Child's Life", Phoebe Gloeckner:
"League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", Alan Moore
"For every answer we give away, we try to include another couple of questions" Lee says now about their story method. "This way of storytelling was sometimes a problem for us in previous incarnations of the book. When we were first published, people were used to comics with linear stories about a main character. But now, with an audience used to shows like "Heroes" and "LOST", with large casts and non-linear storylines, we’re hoping that STARSTRUCK will find an even larger readership."
Close on the heels of the "esoteric" tsk is that old yawn "written from a feminine point of view", a backhanded description which comes up overly often. But it's never qualified what this means exactly. That she writes from a 'softer, girly' perspective? Or a man-hater's? Or not butch enough for teen boys? It's probable it means they saw her first name is Elaine and not Alan or Neal, since "Promethea" and "Coraline" don't seem to get this treatment.
"(With STARSTRUCK) we got quite a reaction," she remembered in 1997, "to the fact that there were so many female characters in the story. (Is the writer lesbian? Does she have a political agenda? Is the artist gay? Do they both hate men?) We had to wonder why everyone was so concerned about our sexuality when no one was wondering what the Hernandez Brothers meant by putting all those women in 'Love and Rockets'."
An important early chapter is titled "The Spear Carrier". This alludes to Pynchon's quote, but also to the acting slang for 'the peripheral role'. The story is about Mary Medea and Harry Palmer, both of whom then become stealth players in the unfolding epic but prove the phrase ironic later. And Mary's father happens to be Siegfried Siegfreidsen, completing the Pynchon link.
A kindred spirit to Lee and Kaluta's STARSTRUCK is artist Pedro Bell. Through the 70's he created incredibly elaborate artwork for the album covers of acid-funkers Funkadelic. The gatefold LPs were twined in his cosmic cartoonery like rampant ivy, bursting with freeform psychedelia, social commentary, sexual mutations, freeform slang and puns. Inside he often blasted brains with his dense and lurid narratives that twisted SF conventions like mobius strips. His sci-fi cosmology was as crucial to the band's image as anything they put on wax. It created a subculture of deviant SF street art for an underground of the funk faithful, and was an inspiration for graffiti and indie comics artists later. There is a likeminded correlation of cerebral slapstick and galactic graffix between Pedro's 'scartoons' and STARSTRUCK's funkyverse.
Pinky Rose: "I had a bad dream."
Millie Lammoreaux: "Dreams can't hurt ya." -Robert Altman's "Three Women"
Robert Altman bucked the Hollywood system making movies in a naturalistic style. He used general outlines as a script and had actors improv their way. Character was forced forward and dialogue overlapped, happenstance became magic, and ambiguity was an asset. On the set of "M*A*S*H*", stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland thought he was insane and petitioned to have him fired, then halfway through realized he was an instinctive genius and rolled with it. That film's success gave Altman the clout to do a run of really groundbreaking films with challenging stories, rich characters, and trenchant satire like "Nashville", "The Player," and "Gosford Park". Always the outsider and better for it, Altman's style is lately reflected in "The Wire", "Arrested Development", "The Office", and "Curb Your Enthusiasm".
Altman had a strange dream about three women and blurred identity, which became the film "Three Women," (1977) starring Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, and Janice Rule. True to Altman's form, it is less about plot than simply being in a moment and letting the odd mystery of living happen. The film is another variant on reflected selves. "Not about women who look alike, but who act alike...steal each others' personalities," Lee remembers. "Saw it a bunch of times and was fascinated. Weirdly the character I played on the soap opera was 'lifted' from Sissy Spacek's character in 'Three Women'."
In 1979, Lee had a pivotal role on "The Doctors", a long-running soap opera on NBC that also gave breaks to Tina Louise, Ellen Burstyn, and Kathleen Turner. Lee was nominated for a 1980 Daytime Emmy Award for her role as Mildred Trumble. At the same time she was co-founder and artistic director of the Wild Hair Productions troupe, whose third play became STARSTRUCK. All of this led to the Troikani, a trio of shared-mind actors that Galatia and then Brucilla run into.
STARSTRUCK is a canny series that talks like a smartass. Like Altman's "Nashville", even the creative world can't escape unskewered, actors, writers, and artists alike. "It takes the hearts, minds, and souls of AT LEAST three Troikani to make up one respectable psyche," reports the Glossary. "(On its deathbed) it will call the actor's union every marbec on the marbec to complain about everything in the known universe until the union sends someone to put it out of its misery." The Troikani trio share shame over the literary crimes of a wretched playwright, who is rumored to have been killed as a performance piece by the aesthetic assassins, the Guernican Art Squad.
STARSTRUCK employs the Altman sensibility of eccentricity, farce, coincidence, and savvy smarts in ways that have not been well-recognized by the comics community in its three print runs across the decades. Altman went for R-ratings because he felt kids didn't have the patience to appreciate their depth. (Hmmm, should I make a mean jibe at fanboys here...? Nah, let's let the hip voices lead the way...)
Comics critic and long-time fan Johnny Bacardi writes, "The intricacies and the imagination employed to build this universe amazes me just as much in 2009 as it did in 1982. The Altman-esque dialogue style is also a joy to parse out- as confusing and disorienting as it sometimes can be, it's always witty and clever." He urges, "You'll have to work a little to follow along, but believe me, it's worth it, especially if you enjoy experiencing the unique. A+"
New initiate and critic Greg McElhatton opines "STARSTRUCK is a truly strange comic, but I think it was worth the wait. For the main story, it’s definitely one where a slow burn is going to pay off. As those pieces slowly come together, though, the Galactic Girl Guides stories will certainly function well as short-term entertainment value for each issue. STARSTRUCK isn’t quite like anything else out there, but I think that’s part of the attraction. I look forward to seeing more."
Leroy Douresseaux writes, "Lee’s story and script are complicated and challenging, but fans of space opera will want to dig through this intricate and exotic concept. Of course, having Mike Kaluta, with his decorative, illustrative style, as the artist to visualize Lee’s concepts into comics art is serendipity. Her oblique and outlandish storytelling and his intricate, Pre-Raphaelite graphic scenarios were meant to be together." He adds, "I must call attention to painter Lee Moyer’s glorious new coloring for this rebirth of Starstruck. A-"
The New Inquiry hails, "Starstruck could be both silly and smart, was progressive but unpretentious, and clever but not so impressed with itself that it ever forgot to entertain. IDW’s reprint of the series is a service to fans of science fiction, aficionados of comics as an art form, and anyone who loves a good story."
The Comics Journal urges, ""pick up this book, because not having read it is sort of like not having read Pogo, or listened to Trout Mask Replica, or seen a Hayao Miyazaki film."
"There is a story, and by the third and fourth issue, lots of pieces have fallen together," Kaluta emphasized in 1986. "If someone's curious enough, they will have gone back and forth and I have met those people and they are delighted with the story. And they don't think we're being too clever. They know what's going on."
ALLUSION: I could be right.
ILLUSION: I could be wrong.
In 1985, Kaluta was asked about mainstream readers missing out on the radical and innovative independent comics of the time. "But they might, years later, pick up (Love & Rockets)...," he replied with ironic prescience, "and go, 'Damn it, why didn't I read these things back then?' Because they weren't ready for it, right? They weren't ready to be entertained in that sphere of their life."
As STARSTRUCK is reborn for today, Lee feels its time has come with the expanded, repainted version. "Our fans should find things in the story that they may have missed before. New, young readers will see a story that, though exciting and complex, is structured like many of the stories they are used to seeing. After the run of the series, it will be thrilling for me to see the STARSTRUCK stories collected into their own graphic novel and the Galactic Girls Guides collected into theirs. Hopefully, we’ll find a whole new readership for these collections in mainstream bookstores."
Now that we've caught up with the past, let's catch up with the future. Act like you know and buy STARSTRUCK today!
UPDATE: The entire new series is now collected at larger size in the STARSTRUCK Deluxe Edition, available since March, 2011.
Buy STARSTRUCK at a Comic Book Shop near you!
Buy the new Audio Recording available on a double-CD or for download!
STARSTRUCK back issues:
The play (1980)
The graphic novel (1984)
The first comic series (1985) #1-6
The expanded comic series (1990) #1-4
-STARLOG #41, Dec. 1980
-HEAVY METAL magazine, May 1983
-AMAZING HEROES #57, Oct. 15, 1985
-THE COMICS JOURNAL #103, Nov. 1985
-"Brainbanx"#1, March 1997, Helix Comics
-correspondence with Elaine Lee
-interviews with Michael Kaluta
STARSTRUCK: The Play
Heavy Metal, Nov.'82-July '83
STARSTRUCK graphic novel (Marvel,'84)
STARSTRUCK #1-6 (Epic Comics, '85)
STARSTRUCK: The Expanding Universe #1-4 (Dark Horse, 1990)
STARSTRUCK #1-13 (IDW, 2009)
Michael Wm. Kaluta's website
-all STARSTRUCK play photos by Sean Smith
I want to especially thank Elaine Lee, whose gracious time and enthusiastic input made this at all possible.
And Michael Kaluta for his generous encouragement of my own art in recent years.
And Lee Moyer for bringing it all back home.
painter Lee Moyer
(middle photo, © Kyle Cassidy)
(Also, a shout-out to
illustrious letterer Todd Klein!)
-Tym Stevens, semi-infamous historian, 2009