The PopCult Bookshelf
Star Reach was a bit of an anomoly when it hit the scene in the 1970s. It was distributed through a combination of the Underground Comics pipeline of head shops or alternative newsstands, and the just-beginning direct-sales comic book market, then dominated by Bud Plant and Phil Seuling. The creators came from the ranks of seasoned mainstream comics professionals and up-and-coming talent. The content was more mature than mainstream comics, with adult language and nudity, but it wasn’t tied to the counter-culture or drug scene like underground comics were. The book featured top-notch writing and some of the finest comic book art ever. Richard Arndt takes a long-overdue look at this remarkable comic book.
Star reach publisher and editor, Mike Friedrich, coined the term “Ground-Level Comics” to denote that the book was neither mainstream nor “underground.” You may never have heard of Star Reach, but arguably it was the most influential publication in the modern comics era.
The creators retained the rights to their work. They were not restricted or censored. The book allowed mainstream comics pros to experience the freedoms typically enjoyed only by underground cartoonists.
Arndt takes an in-depth look at Star Reach, interviewing many of the key players, providing a checklist of the books and relating the history of Star Reach publishing, which didn’t so much go out of business, as it evolved into an agency, representing talent and placing work with different publishers.
Star Reach was the brainchild of Mike Friedrich, who broke into comics in the late 1960s at DC Comics, where he wrote The Justice League of America and other titles before jumping to Marvel, where he wrote Iron Man among many other books. After moving to the West Coast in 1974, he began publishing Star Reach, which ran for 18 issues. Originally Star Reach presented creator-owned, uncensored work by mainstream comics pros like Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Frank Brunner, Steve Skeates, Dick Giordano and P. Craig Russell. Covers were contributed by Neal Adams, Barry Windsor Smith and Jeff Jones, among others.
Star Reach also was among the first to publish work by artists who would go on to greater things: Walt Simonson, Dave Sim (Cerebus), Michael T. Gilbert, Joe Staton, Ken Steacy, Gene Day, John Workman, Bob Smith and many others had early work published in Star Reach.
Arndt examines the legacy of Star Reach and does a great job of providing context by also looking at some of the other “ground-level” magazines of the 1970s. There was a real revolution in terms of creator’s rights, as mainstream cartoonists learned from the example of the underground cartoonists that you could own your own work without signing away everything you created just to get published. Star Reach Companion provides a nice snapshot of the infancy of the self-publishing and direct-market movements in comics. Arndt also provides a generous sampling of art from the Star Reach books.
There is another reason for the added material, which also includes over fifty pages of some of the best stories that Star Reach published. While the legacy of Star Reach is fascinating and important, there’s not really enough information there to fill an entire book on its own. Friedrich was ethical and above-board, so there’s no behind-the-scenes drama or controversy to explore. Nobody really got screwed. This was just a guy who published some great comics.
The interviews are terrific, and including the samples of art, and complete stories is a great way to bring back fond memories, but unlike the recent histories of Marvel and DC Comics, there are no bodies buried here. The worst thing to happen to Star Reach was a few printing errors.
What we do get are insights into the creative processes of artists who were allowed to cut loose after being freed from the mainstream comics plantation. Craig Russell talks about being able to adapt opera into comics after working Dr. Strange and Killraven for Marvel. Mike Vosburg explains what it was like to combine H.P. Lovecraft with Linda Lovelace.
Star Reach didn’t exactly grind to a halt. It basically became a victim of its own success. The rise of magazines like Heavy Metal and Epic ate into its audience, and also drained away talent. Friedrich shifted into agent mode, placing his client’s work with different publishers and negotiating better deals for them than they would have gotten before Star Reach changed the game. In a way Star Reach proved that it was possible to do mature creator-owned comics with any publisher, so they didn’t need to keep going.
This is great stuff. Arndt has done a fine job assembling the material. He does slip in a couple of areas. I would’ve liked to see more interviews with some of the key players like Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin and John Workman, but the fact that Star Reach was such a small part of their careers, almost forty years ago might make that a little tricky. Artist Gray Lyda is misidentified as “Gary Lyda,” which is a minor error, but one that might keep people from exploring his amazing career as a technical illustrator for the aerospace industry and his recent fantasy art.
There are a couple of questionable choices for the art. At one point, Arndt prints two versions of of a page of Craig Russell’s “Parsifal” side by side, to show how they corrected the coloring mistakes in a second printing. Unfortunately, that page is printed in black-and-white (the digital edition is in full-color, so this was an easy mistake to make). Some of the artwork seems to come from censored reprints.
Which brings me to another point. My connection to Star Reach is that, somehow, beginning as a pre-teen in West Virginia, I was able to collect every issue of Star Reach as they were published. Between Pepperland (a head shop in Charleston), Comic Book Kingdom in South Charleston and Bud Plant’s mail-order, I managed to snag every issue and all of their spin-off magazines, Quack and Imagine. Looking back, I still can’t quite figure out how I did that, but the motivation probably had a lot to do with the Stephanie Starr feature from the second issue. Written by Friedrich and drawn by Dick Giordano, one of the artists for “Green Lantern/Green Arrow,” this was the story of of a lovely young lady running around on the moon wearing only panties or something. This was about when puberty was kicking in, so I was hooked.
And that’s why I was a little grumpy to see a page of that story reprinted with a top drawn onto the young lady. That’s pretty close to blasphemy in my book. Boobs had a lot to do with comic books busting free of the mainstream.
Still, this in an indispensible book for anyone interested in 1970s comics or the rise of the creator’s rights movement. It would be fair to say that Star Reach paved the way for the explosion of remarkable comics in the 1980s. Everything from The Dark Knight Returns to Nexus to Watchmen to Cerebus owes a debt to Star Reach.
You could also claim that, today, all comic books are “ground-level.” Sales are nowhere near what they used to be, and several Marvel and DC titles, and almost all independent titles, sell fewer copies per issue than Star Reach did at its peak.
Star Reach Companion is a great reminder for those of us who followed the book back in the day, and it’s a real eye-opener for younger comics fans who don’t remember what it was like when mainstream comics were basically rated “G” due to the Comics Code Authority.