?In an effort to break into the lucrative kids’ comics market dominated by Archie and Harvey Comics, Marvel decided to start their own child-friendly imprint in 1984. With this dubious goal in their sights, Star Comics was born. For four years Star printed a mix of original works and licensed properties of the era — including Silverhawks, Thundercats, Muppet Babies, Popples, and The Flintstone Kids. Following a huge marketing push, the Star Comics releases stuck around until the imprint folded in 1988. As for the remaining titles, they were either folded back into Marvel’s main line of books or canceled outright.
Recently, there has been something of a renaissance for these underappreciated (and, in some cases, downright forgotten) works that has culminated in the release of three Star Comics: All Star Collection trade paperbacks. Legal issues resulted in the licensed properties not being included in these volumes, which is really a shame because many of the line’s best offerings were spin-offs of popular properties. Today’s Daily List pays tribute to the magic — and mistakes — of the imprint by checking out the five best (and five worst) Star Comics titles. For some of you this will be a trip down memory lane. For the rest, it’s a look at a very strange period in Marvel’s existence… a time filled with many awesome animal puns.
?If you were a kid in 1988, there would be two things you would want from an Alf comic: cat-eating jokes and gags about what a jerk Willie Tanner is. In that respect, Alf was a huge success. It also outlasted the show it was based on and ran for 50 issues, making it one of the most popular Star titles. Sure, the comics don’t hold up to scrutiny from a snark-loving 2012 standpoint, but it was never meant to be anything other than a fun diversion for those who worshipped at the altar of Gordon Shumway. If there’s a complaint to be found here, it’s that the writing staff never got around to crafting a meta-reality tale about Willie’s love for crack and random homeless person sex.
?At the risk of having this list devolve into some sort of low-rent Quentin Tarantino diatribe, I have to wonder if Heathcliff people and Garfield people despise each other. In the battle for pop culture supremacy amongst orange cartoon cats, Garfield is the clear victor. Yet off to the sidelines remains his silently superior rival, underappreciated and ignored by the same kinds of people who make Mike & Molly a hit while Bored to Death gets canceled for low ratings. The closest this feline from the funny papers came to grasping the brass ring away from his Monday-loathing contemporary came in the mid-1980s with the arrival of his syndicated cartoon series and its subsequent Star Comics title (which in turn inspired the spin-off Heathcliff’s Funhouse). All of these entities allowed the character to break free from the confines of his newspaper strip to have the sort of big adventures that Marmaduke dreams of each night. When Star Comics finally gave up the ghost, the entertaining Heathcliff comic was incorporated into the main line of Marvel releases. Because even more than chilling with Iggy or stealing fish what Heathcliff does most is persevere. And he does so without having to rely on goofy memes that remove him from his own comic. So put that in your lasagna and choke on it, you Odie-torturing asshole.
3) Wally the Wizard
?In the pre-Harry Potter world of the 1980s, the best place for readers to get their adolescent wizard fix was in the pages of this short-lived comic. When we first meet Wally, he is a well-intentioned kid whose yearning for adventure is extinguished by such daily tasks as having to conjure up the king’s gout medicine. That may not sound too thrilling, but what makes this worth revisiting is that Wally the Wizard was created and initially written/illustrated by Bob Bolling — the man whose Little Archie output of the 1950s and ’60s remains some of the most whimsical comics ever printed. Bolling’ embedded the comic with a sense of wonder that was noticeably absent from the other Star Comics. Alas, this pursuit of excitement lasted 12 issues. This is unsurprising given that kids of the era would much rather play He-Man than read about some young peasant’s attempts to master magic. And speaking of He-Man…
2) Masters of the Universe
?The history of He-Man’s comic adventures is somewhat complex — or, if you prefer, ridiculously convoluted –so for the purpose of this list, let’s keep things simple by saying that the Star Comics’ Masters of the Universe run is noteworthy for attempting to be more than just a rehash of the cartoon series. Readers who bought this found themselves with more ambitious He-Man stories in the vein of Paul Kupperberg’s work on DC’s previous Masters of the Universe comic. This is still Star Comics we are talking about here, so there was still plenty of kid appeal and stories never approached the heights of maturity that Marvel’s Epic brand was releasing at the time (which frankly would have been amazing). After a shaky start, it began to really find its niche by creating elaborate stories that touched upon human nature more than simply rehashing the usual He-Man vs. Skeletor trope. Things got really interesting towards the end- especially the mindfucking last two issues which awesomely have the feel of what a Terry Gilliam-directed MOTU flick would have been like. Of course after that highpoint, the comic was cancelled. Even the power of Grayskull can’t defeat shitty sales and audience disinterest.
1) Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham
?When John Cleese declared that his three rules for comedy are “no puns, no puns and no puns,” clearly he had never read an issue of Peter Porker: The Spectacular Spider-Ham. Even if the character’s adventures were too lowbrow for the Fawlty Towers mastermind, Spider-Ham still found an audience amongst children and regular Marvel readers who just got a kick out of seeing their beloved wallcrawler given a porcine makeover. You can chalk up Spider-Ham’s success to reasons ranging from how animal comics have been a staple of the industry since the early days to the — sorry, Cleese — undeniable appeal of a good pun (the King-Pig? C’mon, that’s just good comedy). We may never figure out why Spider-Ham is so appealing, but it is comforting to know that Marvel still trots out the character out from time to time. So why doesn’t he have an ongoing series? I suppose because with great Porker comes great responsibility.
Hit the jump for the worst Star Comics titles.
?In a carefully calculated attempt to bring in young female readers, Marvel hired writer Trina Robbins to come up with a character to would appeal to the Jem set. The result was the unsuccessful mini-series Misty, which chronicled the Up with People-esque cheery adventures of the titular teen. Unlike a certain businesswoman who became a rock star with the help of an awesome supercomputer, Misty was utterly forgettable. The only interesting aspect of the Misty debacle is how the character was the niece of Millie the Model — who starred in her own popular teen-oriented humor series a la Betty and Veronica from the 1940s through to the ’70s. Marvel was clearly going for some brand recognition here, with hopes that adults who grew up reading Millie the Model would give their kids (or more likely, grandkids) Misty. Why they didn’t jettison Misty altogether and just reboot the Millie book is anybody’s guess. While this book may have tanked, Marvel did finally have success with their intended focus group when they licensed Barbie for her own long-running comic a few years later.
?Following the end of Star Wars’ lengthy run, Marvel once again got into the George Lucas business with their spin-offs of the Droids and Ewoks cartoons. If only they hadn’t. As lame as those shows were, at least they had fluid motion and familiar sound effects and voice work to fall back on given their complete lack of anything actually exciting going on. What did the Droids and Ewoks comics have? A bizarre day-glo color scheme for R2-D2, Ewoks with the ability to speak English — I realize the cartoon had this as well, but it’s still annoying — and substandard artwork from industry legends like John Romita. Of the two, Droids is the more disappointing as the idea of seeing Artoo and Threepio’s adventures outside of established Star Wars continuity had actual potential (see Dark Horse’s subsequent Droids comic for an example of this concept done right). Worst of all is that Droids actually seemed to try to get better during its run. The final three issues present the events of Star Wars as related from the droids’ perspective. It’s an interesting idea that echoed George Lucas’ one-time declaration that the original trilogy was presented from the pair’s POV. Unfortunately, the resulting comics gave us prequel-level humor that condescended to its audiences. Anyone who has read The Little Prince or The Hobbit or anything ever written by Daniel Manus Pinkwater can tell you that children’s literature doesn’t have to be dumb. Same goes for comics — Little Nemo in Slumberland is a classic because of its unique style and wit. Meanwhile, an interesting premise quickly mutates into Artoo shooting an alien droid dealer in the ass after he and Threepio get kicked out of the Cantina. Sigh.
3) Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos
?Before the comments section explodes with angry comments from Chuck Norris meme lovers who can’t comprehend how I could possibly say a bad thing about the once and future Walker, Texas Ranger, let me make one thing absolutely clear: this is only here because of the talent involved in drawing this book. The person responsible? Steve Ditko, better known as the man who co-created Spider-Man. Ditko’s widely publicized struggles within the comic industry are the stuff of legend, so much so that British journalist/fan boy Jonathan Ross created an excellent documentary about them a few years back. You know that scene in Donnie Darko where the one kid dresses up like Hulk Hogan for Halloween? Now add some laser tag gear to that outfit for no good reason and that’s how Ditko draws Norris in the comic’s four issues. The stories themselves are fairy innocuous: Chuck Norris encounters bad guys, beats them up, saves the day. For his part, Ditko makes the most of this job by throwing in the occasional Objectivist message (dude LOVES that Ayn Rand!) and illustrating Norris’ various ass-kicking moments with balletic flourishes never before seen on the comic page. In 1970, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Joe DeRita gathered for Kook’s Tour, a travelogue that would become The Three Stooges’ final project. In the film, the guys appeared withered by age and an industry that has left them behind. It is depressing to experience, with only slight hints at their former greatness. That’s the same emotional response I had while checking out Ditko’s work on Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos. When the mighty fall so far, there’s no other way to feel really.
2) Royal Roy
?Star Comics was formed shortly after Harvey Comics went belly up. So it makes perfect sense that Marvel would scoop up some of Harvey’s talent for their fledgling imprint. They went straight to the top and brought in Warren Kremer, the writer and illustrated who co-created Richie Rich and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. Approaching his new gig with gusto, he created the Star books Top Dog, Planet Terry (which is actually quite fun) and Royal Roy, while also serving as a utility player for other titles during the line’s brief history. Of all of these duties it was Royal Roy that immediately gained the most attention as the character was nothing more than a clone of Richie Rich. A lawsuit from Harvey soon followed, and the comic was quietly dropped. Given the economic downturn we are all living through right now, to know that the unapologetically wealthy Royal Roy had his life so unceremoniously snuffed out fills me up with a bit of schadenfreude. As for that spoiled twat Richie Rich, if anyone wants to start an Occupy Richville movement I’m totally with you.
1) Hugga Bunch
?Truth be told, I’ve never ever read an issue of Hugga Bunch. I’m not planning to either. However, I can honestly saw it is the worst Star Comics title ever based on the cover alone. Just look at it. Here we have potential Law & Order: SVU guest star Captain Snake harassing Alfalfa from The Little Rascals and two Monchicis. Why are the words “Captain Snake” and “Licked” in bold? And what exactly is the Hugga Bunch anyway? In order to find out, I turned to YouTube to check out their 1985 telefilm and solve the mystery of their existence. See for yourself:
OH DEAR GOD WHO ARE THESE MONSTERS AND WHY DO THEY WANT TO HUG ME? Honestly, I’ve seen shit on Rotten.com that isn’t nearly as disturbing as this. Okay, I’m going to go vomit now so let’s wrap things up here. Thanks for reading, and sorry about the nightmares.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.