By Armaan Babu
I want to like Darkstar.
Or, at least, understand the appeal.
Marvel has hundreds and hundreds of unique characters filling up its shared universe, and every one of them is someone’s favourite. Obscure favourites lead to a unique kind of passion – a sense of ownership, almost, for a character that the majority of comics culture completely ignores. When you like an obscure favourite, you’re part of a very tiny club – you don’t even necessarily know who its members are, but you know you’re a rare breed – and, it goes without saying, you all have excellent taste that the rest of the world just doesn’t understand.
As many people who know me would attest, I have terrible tastes. That is probably the reason why, after reading through Marvel’s Darkstar and the Winter Guard miniseries, I still am baffled as to why the character is anyone’s favourite. The other reason being that, despite the title of the comic, Darkstar and the Winter Guard isn’t actually about Darkstar at all. While it’s clear that there are some things it would like to say about the character… there’s very little here for me to actually discuss.
On the other hand, it does feature a hammer-wielding bear jumping out of a plane to fight alien pteranodons with his bear [surely bare? – Ed] hands in the red moonlight while roaring out a Superman movie reference, so I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy it.
The three issue miniseries manages to cram in a lot of complicated continuity, but let me see if I can focus on the main points. The first, and most well known Darkstar was Laynia Petrovna, a mutant with control of the Darkforce (yes, the same force wielded by Cloak of Cloak & Dagger fame). She spent a lot of her superhero career alternating between various government-sponsored Russian teams and American superhero teams like the Champions and X-Corps — and it was while working with the last of those that she was killed.
However, the Russian government (aware of the PR nightmare if the public found out that one of their major superheroes had died) was able to harness her powers via a gem that held a part of her. The legacy of Darkstar was passed on to new faces, and by the time we get to Darkstar and the Winter Guard, the power, name and costume is in the possession of one Reena Stanicoff, a rookie who is very aware that she has big shoes to fill.
The first issue of the series brings up what I thought would be the main hook for the series: the concept of replaceability. See, the public isn’t told that the Darkstar of the current Winter Guard is just a replacement for someone else. In fact, nearly everyone on the team is a replacement. Besides Darkstar, there have been about a half-dozen Red Guardians and a full dozen Crimson Dynamos. Only the shape-shifting mutant man-bear, Ursa Major, lacks a replacement — though it hasn’t been for lack of trying on the Russian government’s part.
It’s been implied that the replacement Darkstars not only live under the shadow of Laynia Petrovna but that the gem that gives them their powers has enough of Laynia’s essence to possibly rewrite their personalities completely with hers. The current Darkstar, Reena, has just joined a team where the mask and the legacy matters more than one’s own identity, and that was an idea I was excited to see explored.
We see glimpses of that exploration. In #2, we learn that Reena didn’t just get new powers when she became Darkstar — she got a whole new body as well. There are some backwards ideas about women’s bodies featured in a short scene; Reena has a lot of contempt for her old “fat, ugly and unloved” self, while slut-shaming the (absurdly) revealing costume of one of the series’ villains, Fantasma. We also know that Reena is trying her best to live up to Laynia’s legacy, and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine that Reena would love nothing more than to become Laynia. It’s certainly a temptation — and with the powers involved, a distinct possibility.
Also featured in this comic are Vanguard, her older brother, and her biological father, the supervillain known as The Presence. Both of them see Reena as a poor replacement for the family member they lost, and an insult to Laynia’s memory, but that… is about as far as that goes.
Whatever themes the book wished to explore is swallowed up by a messy plot that pops up soon after. Old teammates return from alternate dimensions, on assignment from time-manipulating warlords. A hive of shapeshifting aliens known as the Dire Wraiths is set loose upon the world. Everyone is given a moment of superheroic badassery (though none so much as the bear) and Reena? Before she can come to any sort of grips with her story, or even have a moment of self-sacrifice, she is unceremoniously killed by one of the Wraiths.
To add insult to injury, the alien who kills Reena takes the Darkstar powers and shapeshifts into a monstrous version of her — but this is then apparently enough for the original Laynia to finally make her return, as her personality rewrites the mind of the alien. Reena is quickly forgotten, but even the return of the original Darkstar is overshadowed by the book’s epilogue… teasing another plot point entirely.
This comic is chaotic.
It barely holds up under the weight of all the continuity it brings into its scant three issues. The art is the only thing that keeps it from being utterly exhausting once the action kicks in — the Bagley-esque pencils from Steve Ellis make the action feel alive, especially combined with blockbuster colour choices. As a mindless superhero romp, the pages are a lot of fun to skim through, a delightful showcase of artistic talent for things uniquely comics. You can have a lot of fun with it if you manage to turn your brain off.
Which is why the first issue bothers me. It implied that there was something worth paying attention to. This series is packaged with the prelude Hulk: Winter Guard special, which set up the Winter Guard team we see here and featured another legacy Darkstar who died: Sasha Roerich. There is the promise of something exciting here. The promise that Darkstar is at the center of something important, a tale worth remembering and getting excited for. I knew nothing about Darkstar before this limited series, and I can’t honestly say I know a lot about her now. All I know is that there are several versions of her who deserved better than what they got.
As a comic about the Winter Guard, however, I am intrigued. The appeal of comics has always been jumping into the middle and then piecing together the larger story from there, and there were enough glimpses of interesting things in these comics for me to want more. In that, the comic was a success — and I’m certainly going to be paying a lot closer attention to these characters whenever it is I might see them again. For a limited series, there’s very little payoff… but in the chaos of a comic book universe, sometimes that just works.
Darkstar & The Winter Guard #3
Writer: David Gallaher
Artist: Steve Ellis
Inker: Scott Hanna
Colourist: Val Staples
Letterer: Scott O. Brown
Armaan Babu is a freelance writer obsessed with the (mostly nerdy) ways stories can be told. You can find him on Twitter here and keep track of his work here!
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