A mysterious, monstrous scheme is discovered beneath the streets of Gotham City. A machine has been assembled that could wipe out not only our planet, but trigger a chain reaction that will engulf the universe as we know it. An odd team of heroes and antiheroes are assembled by the leaders of New Genesis and Apokolips to announce a deadly revelation: the Anti-Life Equation, long believed to be one of the highest powers in the universe, is in fact a sentient being aware of our universe’s existence. It has gained some covert influence on different planets across the galaxy, but there is still time to prevent the Anti-Life Aspect from completing its utter takeover.

Ten-hut! The Anti-Life Aspect has planted world-destroying bombs on several planets, and our protagonists, including Superman, Batman, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Etrigan, Starfire, Martian Manhunter, Dr. Fate, Orion, Lightray, Forager, Darkseid, and Highfather form teams to save each world. That may sound like an afternoon’s worth of wiki-searching to keep straight in one’s head, but Starlin allows for each character’s distinct personality traits to shine through, and the art team’s rendition of each character’s design makes them stand out visually, too.

The universe never truly ends in comics like this, and Starlin & Co. don’t play that angle any further than necessary. Once the stakes are set, each team’s mettle is tested to varying levels of success. For example, Superman wishes to dismantle his assigned bomb without causing a ruckus among the alien population, while his teammate Orion itches for a fight. Martian Manhunter is impressed by John Stewart’s Green Lantern ring, but Stewart invests too much confidence in its powers. Lightray’s pride as a warrior has him scrapping with one of the Aspect’s minions, but Starfire’s observant eyes are their true key to victory. Everyone is leery of Darkseid, whom everyone is sure wants to gain power from the Aspect in some way (everyone is right). Etrigan the demon speaks in rhymes, which always entertains. Batman and Forager…are blatantly outclassed, all things considered, but they try their best.

The story ends with massive doses of reflection and mourning, whether for a destroyed planet or fallen teammate. Consider Superman: his rebuttal to Orion over killing a town’s worth of brainwashed soldiers is an outright rejection of the ends justifying the means. “There are no innocent victims in war, Kryptonian. Only survivors and the dead,” Orion explains. “You’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?” Superman replies. “Savage platitudes sprinkled over the slaughtered. A warrior’s honor excuses all, right? Wrong! We could have beaten the Aspect without this senseless massacre!” Superman then clocks Orion out of his flying gear over a background of fire and corpses.

If any of that came across as gibberish, don’t worry, this comic’s pleasures come more from character moments as well as the art of penciller Mike Mignola, inker Carlos Garzon, colorist Steve Oliff, and letterer John Workman. This hardcover edition collects all four issues of the 1988 miniseries written by Jim Starlin and acts as DC’s rival piece to Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet, also written by Starlin and published in 1991. Either way, lots of superheroes and some villains will team up to take on a universe-level threat that transforms colorful capes and tights into cosmic knights of Camelot. Anyone still skeptical of this comic’s weight should take note of the cover featuring the main cast presenting a solid line of crossed arms and frowns. I’m partial to the original trade edition’s cover art, included in the back of the hardcover, with everyone bounding across space beneath Darkseid and Highfather’s supervision, but your mileage may vary.

It’s grim stuff, but again, Mignola, Garzon, Oliff, and Workman make it all sing. Batman almost looks like Hellboy in black, resigned to punishing battles and skin-of-his-teeth escapes. Bold lines and shadows serve a strong contrast to the bright yellows and blues in many sequences. The weird cosmic bits look confusing yet inviting, taking on something of a Lovecraftian dimension. The Anti-Life Aspect looks like a mountainous shadow with a burning eye perched to grab and absorb you where you stand. Action scenes explode off the page. Bomb timers count down their seconds  in dramatic fashion. A number of wordless sequences portray mood and internal struggle better than Starlin’s prose. Without spoiling anything, I can testify to having a greater appreciation of Martian Manhunter and John Stewart after this story, owing in large part to facial expressions and body language. Starfire, the only female character present, is in a bikini and boots yet isn’t relegated to a cheesecake supermodel role. Workman’s lettering turns up the volume on shouting and threads narration through the comic’s many beautiful layouts.

Cosmic Odyssey lives up to its title: everyone leaves their usual confines to embark on a cosmic-level adventure and returns somewhat changed. Fans of Mignola’s Dark Horse series’ Hellboy and Baltimore will appreciate seeing a team of optimists take on a seemingly doomed mission against forces from the great beyond. Fans of Starlin’s other science fiction comics will find familiar tropes aplenty (again, much like Infinity Gauntlet, which is a compliment). DC fans fresh off of recent fare like Justice League: Darkseid War or Green Lantern: Godhead will recognize several names used here. Aside from a couple of mutilated bodies at the beginning and end, there’s no reason this couldn’t be read by a general audience, but I’d start with readers old enough to parse all the lore and cast.

Cosmic Odyssey: The Deluxe Edition
by Jim Starlin
Art by Mike Mignola
ISBN: 9781401268152
DC Comics, 2017

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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