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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

The Art of Being Jim Starlin The Veteran Comic Book Illustrator Chooses Fact Over Fantasy in his New Memoirby Jay Blotcher

This Friday morning in mid-October, Saugerties resident Jim Starlin is watching a suit-and-tie executive being dragged into an office bathroom and beaten. Actually, he is not the impassive bystander in this horrific scenario; he is its creator. Veteran comic book writer-illustrator Starlin is working today on the third issue of his comic book creation, Breed, who is half-man and half-demon. Based on these panels, the demon evidently holds sway right now.

Starlin has been a fixture in the business since 1970, working on titles as varied as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Thanos and Spider-Man at Marvel Comics and Justice League of America, Green Lantern and Batman at DC Comics. Along the way, he won a handful of awards for his work. But Starlin is still maligned by some fans for writing the 1988 DC book A Death in the Family, in which Batman’s sidekick Robin was killed off.

From superheroes to wizards, from horror tales to space-age epics, Starlin has written and illustrated all genres. For years, colleagues in the industry have approached the iconoclast with the idea of hunkering down to pen his memoirs. A modest man—he steers clear of most fan conventions—Starlin usually has dismissed the suggestions. But as he closed in on four decades in the business, his attitude changed. It was time to take stock. “I figure,” he said, “no matter what happens at this point, after 40 years of making a living as an artist, I beat the game basically.”

The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words &Pictures (Desperado, $49.99) is a perceptive self-examination of the artist’s career, told with exquisite detail, irreverent humor and an honesty that sometimes verges on the brutal. (The candor is double-edged, slicing through industry colleagues, but also the author.) Yet the word “pictures” in the book title is misleading; the comic book illustrations, rendered in lavish color reproductions, are more oil paintings than mere pictures. More accurately, they are mind-blowing intergalactic worlds, widescreen cinematic moments and intense character studies.

While the project began as a memoir, and serves as a useful primer for aspiring comic book artists, it ended up, Starlin said, as “a cautionary tale” about the industry.

“Publishing’s a tough business at times and there’s a whole bunch of kids coming into it now who think they’re going to get rich, and things have changed,” he said. “Publishing has always been tough and comic book publishing is always made even dirtier.” Starlin cites industry legends Jack Kirby and Superman co-creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who fell on hard times despite their renowned output. “Right from the start they’ve been screwing their creators.” Nor did Starlin escape the downside of industry machinations; story failures and job dismissals continued to happen to Starlin several years into the business. As he observes wryly in the book, “I’ve been up to the mountaintop and fallen off the summit many a time.”

Unlike most memoirs, where the writer humbly exalts himself, Starlin is hardly the superhero of this tale. He emerged from Navy service, by his own admission, as a drug-addled, battle-scarred mess, short on diplomacy and quick to anger. (Starlin admitted his character Warlock, a paranoid schizophrenic, best exemplified his mindset at the time.) The author utilized comic book illustrating as therapy, most notably after his father succumbed to cancer. When Marvel Comics asked him to bring the curtain down on Captain Marvel, rather than concoct some final blaze of glory, Starlin gave the superhero the same terminal ailment. “That saved me thousands on psychological visits,” he said.

Starlin remained resourceful; he channeled personal dysfunctions into his work, creating vulnerable characters in story plots that brim with emotion and violence. Later titles feature solitary figures determinedly traveling a difficult road to enlightenment. Starlin does not dissemble about the role of marijuana in the creative process. “I came up with some of my best ideas after having a couple of tokes and walking out into the woods.”

In his memoirs, Starlin recognized when candor bordered on the unsavory. The last chapter deals with DC Comics. With every draft, Starlin unloaded more venom onto the page, until he finally decided, “This is just coming out too angry.” His final revision chooses facts over personal vendetta. Still, The Art of Jim Starlin offers a hearty slap to the corporate comic book business that favors bottom-line profits over sparking young imaginations with fresh stories. (The business itself is in trouble; comic books like Superman sold millions at their peak during World War II; now a top single title sells less than 5,000 copies.)

Working currently for an independent graphic novel company, Starlin no longer has the reach that he did in the past. But neither does he wear artistic shackles. If he were still toiling for DC or Marvel, Starlin said, he would have to submit a complete plot in advance of the project, and the suits would green-light the story arc and hold him to it. As the sole person behind Breed, however, he can develop the storyline with each issue and make changes as he wishes. “Spontaneity gives you access to creativity more than nailing yourself down to a proposition.”

The artist has developed a sturdy work ethic over the years; he’s awake by 7 AM and spends the day working on a comic book, leaving his second-floor desk only for a morning juice and chat with his wife Sonny Lan, and a brief lunch before knocking off around 6:30 PM. On his shelves are premier inspirations: the works of 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré, comic book pioneer Will Eisner, 20th-century illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, and even film books on Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. But Starlin’s chief passion is summer boating, which compels him to clear his desk of projects between May and August. He and Lan take photos of blue herons and eagles from their kayaks.

“I’m not the best artist in the world,” he said. “I’m not a Michelangelo. I do adequate art to tell the story. My specialty is telling the story more than it is being a writer or being an artist. It’s the combination that I bring to the table that is my strong suit, rather than either discipline by itself.”

Despite the self-described limitations, Starlin has amassed some rabid fans in 40 years of storytelling. “I’m getting close to 4,000 friends on Facebook,” he said with a self-conscious laugh, “and I’ve only been doing it about six months now.”Despite the adulation, Starlin remains clear-eyed when assessing his legacy.

“Being an artist is sort of like being a con man,” he said. “You are telling false stories. These are not real things: we’re talking about demons and cosmic characters. So, basically, I’m a professional liar, just the same way as a con man is. And the reason you go for a con man is because there’s a certain amount of charm involved.”

If so, then 4,000 charmed Facebook friends—and fans across the galaxy—wait breathlessly for Starlin’s next con.

To order The Art of Jim Stalin, visit

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