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Star Brand and The Pitt

on Mon, 01/05/2015 - 00:00

In 1961, the first issue of The Fantastic Four hit the stands, introducing comic book readers around the country to a new type of superhero—more human than their predecessors and struggling with both their new-found powers and the tribulations of everyday life. The Fantastic Four likewise marked the beginnings of the Marvel Universe, with Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor joining the fray shortly thereafter.

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Fantastic Four in 1986, meanwhile, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decided the time was right to launch a new Marvel Universe that existed outside the realm of the original, a New Universe that was more closely modeled after our own.

Eight monthly comic books were crafted as part of the New Universe, with Jim Shooter himself creating the characters of Star Brand while doing the writing chores on the title as well. Being a native of Pittsburgh, Shooter used the Steel City as the hometown for car mechanic Kenneth Connell, the hero of Star Brand.

While bike riding through the Laurel Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, Connell stumbled upon an unnaturally formed clearing in the woods and an Old Man who places him into a hypnotic trance. The Old Man has a tattoo on his arm that he refers to as the “Star Brand,” a source of unlimited power, and bequeaths the Star Brand to Connell. Kenneth Connell awakens the next morning to not only find the Old Man dead but also discovers that he now has super-human strength and the ability to fly.

Although no recognizable landmarks are featured within the pages of the first issue of Star Brand, it is revealed nonetheless that Kenneth Connell lives “at the Westgate Village Apartments in a southwest suburb of Pittsburgh” and works at McMullen and Zayre VW in Dormont. His psychiatrist friend Myron Feldman resides in West Mifflin, meanwhile, and love interest Debbie “the Duck” Fix in Whitehall. Debbie likewise speaks a form of Pittsburghese, with “what’cha doin’,” “dint” and “shoont” all coming out of her mouth in word balloons.

The inaugural issue of Star Brand also established that Connell’s newfound powers are both a blessing and a curse as he fights an alien intent on stealing the Star Brand from him.

“The Old Man deceived you,” the alien tells him. “He is not dead. You have been duped into playing a role in an intrigue you cannot begin to comprehend. A role that will bring pain, suffering and death to you.”

The words prove prophetic as Kenneth Connell struggles with how best to use his new abilities—first by fighting terrorists around the globe and later by attempting to be a bona fide superhero to a dying boy—but the results are mixed. Connell not only has difficulty controlling his powers but is uncertain about their limitations as well. Then there’s his personal life, which likewise becomes complicated when Connell begins a sexual relationship with Debbie the Duck despite already being in a long-term relationship with steady girlfriend Barbara Petrovic.

To add to the mayhem, meanwhile, the Old Man is not dead after all and soon decides that he wants the Star Brand and all of its inherent powers back. Connell refuses, leading to numerous confrontations between to the two adversaries.

Jim Shooter’s intentions was to build a New Universe that was more grounded in reality with heroes even more reluctant than those of the original Marvel Universe created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. With Kenneth Connell and Star Brand, he succeeded—but only briefly.

Although Shooter brought stability to the position of editor-in-chief after Stan Lee was elevated to publisher, his nine years at the helm of Marvel was also filled with controversy. Jim Shooter wielded his authority in a totalitarian fashion that alienated many of the artists and writers that worked for him, leading to his eventual ouster as editor-in-chief in 1987 after only seven issues of Star Brand. The comic, which was never one of Marvel’s top performers, was reduced to bi-monthly issues containing filler narratives for the next six months.

John Byrne, the illustrator who reinvigorated The X-Men with writer Chris Claremont, took over the reins of Star Brand beginning with issue number eleven. Byrne was arguably the most outspoken opponent of Jim Shooter’s term as editor-in-chief, and the chance to put his own mark on the character of Kenneth Connell—who was loosely based on Shooter—was an opportunity that he relished.

“After knowing you for as long as I have, I can pin your personality to a tee,” Myron Feldman tells Connell in the early pages of Byrne’s first script. “You’re a loser!” Unfortunately the narrative that Byrne crafted for Star Brand went beyond merely ridiculing Connell but included the destruction of Jim Shooter’s hometown of Pittsburgh as well.

The twelfth issue of Star Brand is subtitled “Farewell, Pittsburgh.” Kenneth Connell has finally revealed himself as a superhero, although he still manages to keep his true identity secret, and attends a comic book convention in the Steel City wearing his Star Brand costume. John Byrne further merges the real world with that of the New Universe by having himself and other Marvel artists in attendance, as well as a group of cosplayers dressed as The Uncanny X-Men.

The Marvel dignitaries get into a debate with Star Brand about the inherent defects of masked comic book superheroes when the Old Man suddenly makes a reappearance into the life of Kenneth Connell—this time with the intent of killing him once and for all. The resulting fight leads to an explosion, and while Connell survives, over 5,000 attendees at the comic book convention meet their deaths nonetheless.

The Old Man elaborated on the power of the Star Brand during their battle, however, and explained that he has been trying to rid himself of that power for over 500 years. Attempts to transfer the Star Brand into inanimate objects still leaves him with ten percent of the original energy and likewise results in an explosion akin to a nuclear blast.

Psychiatrist friend Myron Feldman is convinced that Kenneth Connell now needs to rid himself of the Star Brand, and with the deaths of 5,000 people on his hands, Connell agrees. Feldman gives Connell a dumbbell and tells him to fly to the far side of the Moon before dispersing his power into the object. Kenneth Connell sets off, but decides that the Moon would leave him too far away from medical attention following the explosion. It is thus ten miles above Pittsburgh that Connell transfers his energy into the dumbbell, and issue number twelve of Star Brand ends with the Steel City engulfed in a half globe of light.

The one-shot comic book The Pitt tells the story of the aftermath. Kenneth Connell released the power of the Star Brand at 6:06 pm on December 22, 1987, leaving a literal pit over fifty miles wide and fifteen miles deep where Pittsburgh once resided, filled with the waters of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. High winds with the force of a tornado blew through the region for hours afterwards, adding to the destruction and death toll.

The event marked not only the end of the Steel City but the beginning of the end of the New Universe as well. Star Brand itself was cancelled after issue number nineteen, while the four-part miniseries The War brought closure to the overall New Universe narrative. The United States inevitably blamed the Soviet Union for the destruction of Pittsburgh, and the Star Child—the son of Kenneth Connell and Debbie “the Duck” Fix that was born with the inherent power of the Star Brand—intervened in the resulting war, bringing world peace to the New Universe in the process.

The New Universe of Jim Shooter gave the Steel City its own superhero in the form of Kenneth Connell and Star Brand, albeit a dysfunctional one at best. Jim Shooter’s controversial rein as editor-in-chief and eventual dismissal likewise led to John Byrne using Shooter’s creation as the weapon that ultimately transforms Pittsburgh into The Pitt.

Fortunately, that last event occurred on what is known as Earth-148611, one of the many alternate realities that have existed within Marvel Comics through the years. In terms of the real world, as well as the Marvel Universe of Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Iron Man, Pittsburgh still exists—and will no doubt continue to do so for a very long time to come.

Anthony Letizia

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