The DC Universe is that: a universe. Most of the company’s most beloved characters originate from– or are at least somehow connected to– the planet Earth, yet their adventures can often take them beyond the stars. There’s New Genesis and Apokolips, caught in perpetual conflict; Oa and now Mogo, headquarters of the Green Lantern Corps and center of the universe; and of course Superman, the one who started it all, is the last son of fallen Krypton.
There have been many cosmos-spanning stories over the years, some of which are even published weekly. One of the most noteworthy and beloved is Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola’s Cosmic Odyssey, which stretches from Earth to Rann and back. Originally published in 1988 as a four-part prestige format series, Cosmic Odyssey has recently been reprinted in a brand new edition for a new generation of fans and readers.
But as in all nightmares, there are survivors. There must always be survivors. Someone has to remain behind to tell the tales of warning. Someone has to endure so that they can relive the horror for the rest of their days.
The word “epic” gets thrown around an awful lot when describing just about anything these days. In the case of Cosmic Odyssey, it certainly fits: this is a story that spans the Milky Way galaxy, going from one side to the other and back again. Its major players consist of New Gods, magical beings, and some of the most powerful superheroes on Earth.
And also Batman, because of course it does.
And what is so urgent that heroes like Batman, Martian Manhunter, Starfire, and Orion would need to be brought together? It seems that Darkseid has discovered a threat that worries even him: the Anti-Life Equation itself. What the ruler of Apokolips long thought of as a force is, in fact, a living being from another dimension, seeking entry into the main universe so that it may destroy everything in its path. Darkseid despot that he is, wants none of that, for if there is nothing left alive, what is there for him to rule?
So, after forging a very fragile alliance with Highfather, the two gods of the Fourth World call together a group of Earth’s heroes to assist in subduing the threat.
Even early on, Mike Mignola’s style shines. While his work is not derivative of Jack Kirby’s by any means, as the two artists have very distinct styles, Mignola still breathes a grandiose life into New Genesis that does Kirby proud. It’s big, vibrant, and kind of loud, just as it should be. Though the story itself isn’t always inspired, the visuals most definitely are.
With Batman, Superman, Martian Manhunter, Starfire, Green Lantern, and Jason Blood spirited away to New Genesis, they are briefed on their mission: the Anti-Life has sent out different “aspects” into our universe. These aspects have set up bombs on four different planets throughout the galaxy. Each team will be dispatched to one of these worlds with the goal of destroying the bombs and capturing the aspects.
This is the first snag that the story hits, as it quickly becomes very repetitive. The bulk of the four issues consist of the teams arriving on their assigned worlds, encountering one obstacle or another, and either succeeding or failing. It’s very beholden to the formula it sets out for itself, so there are long stretches of the story that tend to drag.
The side-plot with Jason Blood is pretty much dead in the water too, leading to a late-in-the-game diversion with Doctor Fate that feels like it’s part of a completely different story. It may be that I’m not a big fan of Etrigan, but having Fate take the demon, Darkseid, Highfather, and Orion into the Anti-life’s dimension to form a magic pentagram that pew-pews the equation to the point of destruction just isn’t my bag. It’s remarkably silly and played without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness.
Starlin does inject some intentional levity into the story, though, typically through dry asides and sarcastic remarks. There’s one scene in particular that takes the cake, though, made even better by the fact that I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or not:
“Fantastic! Say hi to your mother, and don’t forget the potato salad at the picnic next week!”
I’m not much of one to talk, as I’m perfectly fine with a Batman who is more personable and loose in his interactions with fellow heroes, but that just made me laugh. The very idea of Batman going to a pay phone and talking that way to who it ends up being* is hysterical.
The saving grace for the story comes in how some of these heroes interact with one another. Starfire and Lightray together don’t do much that’s memorable, as she mostly comments on how arrogant the New God is, but the other teams are at least interesting to read together. Superman and Orion are dispatched to Thanagar where they succeed in capturing the aspect and preventing disaster, but come to a head over their moral stance toward taking lives. It’s also one of two instances where Orion gets punched in the face so hard, so if you want to see that jerk get what’s coming to him you’re in for a treat.
John Stewart and J’onn J’onnz have the most affecting mission, as the Green Lantern makes a fatal error that dooms an entire world. Their chemistry together is strained at best, yet constantly interesting. Stewart feels like he can complete the mission himself and takes every opportunity he can to tell the Martian as much, showing a cockiness that modern fans of John may not be used to. It gets so bad that Stewart locks J’onzz in a containment field before heading off to dismantle the bomb himself, only to find out that the device has been painted yellow. Immune to the effects of his ring, the bomb goes off, destroying Xanshi and all of its inhabitants.
Refreshingly, J’onn doesn’t immediately forgive Stewart. No, he’s angry with him, as he should be. Their plot provides some much needed emotional depth to the relatively cold proceedings around them, resulting in one of two emotional payoffs that elevate the story.
The other comes from Forager, who accompanies Batman to Earth.
I don’t know if it’s personal bias or if Mignola was intentional in it, but man his work on Batman is top-notch. That close-up shot of his face there is magnificent. Garzon’s heavy, moody inks make the Gotham portions of the book the best looking this side of New Genesis.
But back to Forager. By his very nature, he’s an outcast. His nickname is Bug. He’s a New God, but seen as a lesser specimen, a prejudice that Orion is none too quick to voice. Because of that, seeing him play the hero and save the universe is remarkably affecting. His story is just now continuing in the excellent Bug! from the Allreds, but for three decades he was well and truly dead, even by comics standards. His modern resurrection doesn’t effect the impact of his sacrifice here, though, as it still rings true and gives Cosmic Odyssey some of its most moving moments.
And Batman punches Orion this time.
Totally deserved it.
I’m not sure if Stalin is just more comfortable telling smaller, more intimate stories or if the magnitude of a Cosmic Odyssey exceeded his grasp, but this story is at its best when it focuses on the individuals rather than the big picture. It’s a big story that’s at its best when it’s small. Fitting, then, that its best character is a Bug.
Bonus features: A very small art gallery, containing a couple of covers and a promotional poster. Besides that, nothing.
Value: Physical or digital, it can be had for under $20. Not a bad deal by any means, but with limited re-readability, I don’t see this as one that is absolutely necessary for every fan. It’s well worth checking out, so I’d say get it on sale. Ten bucks, maybe twelve at the most.
Overall: For a story that stretches across the entire universe, Cosmic Odyssey feels strangely small. With a focus on such a small group of characters, most of whom are left beyond arms length, there isn’t much to get emotionally invested in. Even the threat, which threatens not just Earth but countless other worlds, never feels as urgent as it should. Mike Mignola’s pencils and Carlos Garzon’s inks carry a lot of the weight, and there are a few emotional payoffs at the end that are actually very affecting. I respect Cosmic Odyssey for what it is and what it tries to do without ever loving it.