I'll admit it: I'm a serious latecomer to Opal City. Being on a tight budget back in the mid-1990s, I never plunked down one red cent on a Starman book. I'd hear rumblings, of course, but my comics diet consisted mainly of Bat-books and dusty old Jonah Hex appearances, so my blinders were set pretty firmly in place. It wasn't until the last couple of years - when my cash flow increased and I'd finally acquired all of the back issues that I'd been searching for since high school - that I began to consider buying books that I always heard were good but had never tried. Starman was one of them. So last summer, while at a con, I happened on a booth that was not only selling comics for roughly half-off cover, but had almost every Starman trade (pre-Omnibus) in stock. I plunked down over $60, walked away with an armful of new reads, and soon kicked myself for waiting so dang long to try this book out.
Don't worry, kids, I've made up for lost time, buying up all the other parts of the series that I didn't get that day. Though I'm still missing a few of the single "Times Past" issues, I'd like to think that I've gotten a fairly good picture of Jack Knight's world, and it's probably one of the richest, most complete worlds I've ever seen in all of the DCU...and the fact that it manages to be part of that universe yet still stand on its own is a real testament to James Robinson's writing. You read this stuff and you get jealous of how good it is, or at least I do. It was possibly that jealously that led me to conjure up a Jack Knight story for the annual DC2 Holiday Special.
Yeah, I said Jack Knight, not Starman. Y'see, in DC2's continuity (and courtesy of David Charlton's imagination), Ted Knight died saving the world, and David Knight, Jack's brother, not only took up the costume and cosmic rod, but became a member of the JSA and succeeded at becoming a great hero, while Jack...stayed Jack. The dreamer and junk dealer, not Opal City's favorite son. Aside of this story and one fleeting appearance at his father's funeral, Jack's life has never even been explored to any degree in the DC2niverse - all eyes are focused on his brother. So think of this story as what it might have been like if an assassin's bullet hadn't ended David's career so soon after it began, and dear ol' Jack had kept his feet on the ground physically as well as mentally. A Jack Knight who still possessed all the potential to be a hero, but expressed it in more subtle ways.
Go ahead and picture him in that same leather jacket, though, 'cause that's what I did when I wrote it. ;)
Disclaimer: All characters in this story are owned by DC Comics. I don't even pretend to handle these guys as deftly as James Robinson did, but dangit, I had to try.
Continuity: Originally posted on the DC2 fanfiction site as part of the DC2 Holiday Special #6. For a link, please click on the homepage listed under my profile.
A (K)NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
"Davey boy! How's life in the Mighty Met?"
"Oh, hey, Jack...it's good. Life's good. Still unpacking, still getting to know my way around."
"You mean Superman didn't give you a guided tour?"
"You're a real card, Jackie boy."
"That's why the women love me. But enough about my studliness...you given any thought to the holidays yet?"
"What do you...oh, crap, it snuck up on me. I've been so busy with the move and the new job...crap."
"Watch your language, you're a superhero now."
"'Crap' isn't swearing."
"That's not what Mom used to say."
"Yeah, and Mom would faint if she heard the things they let people get away with on TV these days."
"True enough...now quit evading the question. Holidays. Specifically Christmas. You coming home, or are you gonna hang out the Junior JSA?"
"That's the Young All-Stars...and yeah, I think I can make it home."
"Well, that's a whole week from now, so you never know. We could get invaded by giant Nazi robots. Again."
"Riiiight...you think I'm gonna fall for that gag twice?"
"Damn, I already used that one?"
"Oh, yeah. Davey boy needs some new material...and you're swearing again!"
"Shut up. You gonna make tourtiere?"
"Of course. I'll even buy an extra-large bottle of ketchup."
"Okay, okay, twist my arm!"
"So you'll be here?"
"Yeah, I will. Christmas Eve sound good? Say...four o'clock?"
"Four o'clock, Christmas Eve. Perfect."
"Great. Look, Jack, I've gotta let you go now. I'm on my way to a meeting at STAR Labs. I'll see you next week, okay?"
"Sure thing. You stay safe until then...no Nazi robots."
"Heh...you bet. Bye."
There's a click on the line, and my brother is gone back to his world, while I remain in mine. It's strange to think that we have separate worlds now, but then again, we've always had our own things going. My mind on the past, and his on the future. Still, at least then we were in the same city. Now he's in Metropolis, zipping around the skies as Starman, just like our father did in Opal City before him. And me...I've got Opal all to myself now.
I walk to the window of my flat and rub a clear spot on the frosty pane to see the Oldtown section of the city covered in snow. It collects in odd drifts in the Art Deco curves of the buildings and cascades along the shoulders of statues like ermine wraps. Off in the distance, I see the newer Opal, with its towers reaching upward to hold aloft the pearly-gray winter sky. Oh, David, how could you abandon a beauty such as this? Metropolis has its charms, yeah, but I doubt it wears this season with as much grace and ease as my lady Opal. I dabble in painting from time to time, and I recall once starting a canvas of this particular view, after a snow not unlike this one. Never finished it, though. You get busy, your job takes precedence over your hobby. Of course, I've got the best of both worlds in that respect.
I turn away from the window and grab my coat. I've got places to be. Not like David, more informal. That's my style. Give me a system and I'll buck it. But there are some traditions I participate in. Christmas is one...but I have to do it in my own fashion.
Down the stairs and into my shop. Knights Past. A little shrine to kitsch and curio nestled in the heart of Oldtown. Dad called it a "junk shop". So does David. They never understood, but Mom did. She was the one who taught me to love Opal and its echoes of times past. She took my tendency to never get rid of any toy or book or freebie Happy Meal plastic watch and tempered it into a real collector's eye. Everything means something to somebody, you just have to match the right item up to the right person. I'm very good at it. Right now, though, it's early morning and the shop is still closed. Best thing about owning your own business: you set the hours. I've got a few hours before I officially unlock the doors, so I hop into my car and angle towards the Rougeableu Bridge, driving over to Opal proper. Cars zoom past on slushy streets, the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers crowding the sidewalk as part-time Santas ring their bells next to little red kettles. After grabbing the last open parking spot in town, I head into the local Social Services office. I know a girl who works there. Beatrice. She runs a program called Helping Hands, for folks that can't pay their bills due to job loss or illness or whatever. She's the sort of person who makes you believe the system works simply because she's a part of it. We dated for a while, and we're still friends...yes, she's really that nice.
The warmth of the office washes over me as I open the door, and I stomp my feet to knock off the snow before entering. "Hiya, Bea."
"Hi, Jack. Goodness, don't you own a warmer coat for this weather?"
"Not one this stylish." I blow into my hands as I stand in front of her desk.
"Some gloves might be prudent as well." She opens a drawer and pulls out a sheet of paper. "Got your target picked out for you," Beatrice says, passing it to me. "They're new to the program, but I've met with them a few times already."
There's an address printed at the top of the paper, with the name of a woman and her child beneath, various notations made next to each. "And they don't know this is coming?"
"Of course not. You've always told me you like to keep it a secret." She smiles at me in a way that makes me wish we hadn't broken up. "You really don't want people to know how sweet you can be, do you?"
"Aw shucks," I answer in my best Mortimer Snerd voice, then say, "You have a Merry Christmas, Bea," and depart.
Two days pass, and business picks up around the shop as the last-minute folk scramble to find that perfect something. Mainly hipsters who want to out-cool their friends by giving them some throwback like a vintage metal lunchbox or a Mad Scientist Kit with all the parts intact, but occasionally you get someone searching for a lost piece of their childhood that they want to bestow upon their own children, or those same kids, now grown, who want to restore that sense of Christmas wonder to their elderly parents by finding some rare item that only seems to exist in a bent-up black-and-white photo. I do my best with all of them, and while some go away unsatisfied, others leave with perma-grins as they clutch their newfound treasures.
When closing time comes, I pull the shade and begin my own little scavenger hunt with the paper Beatrice gave me in hand. It's her nature to learn a lot about the people she helps in her social work, and she makes sure to pass along to me anything that might be pertinent when I do my little good deed for the season. First up is the woman, Dorothy Redmond. Twenty-two years old. Wears same navy-blue dress every visit, according to Bea's notes. Might be best thing she owns. Well, I'm not about to insult a lady by guessing her dress size, so I'll do the next best thing. I walk over to a long glass case where I keep vintage jewelry and pick out a faux-ivory necklace with gold accents, plus a matching set of earrings, something that'll look nice next to all that blue. If she can't afford a new dress, at least she can give the old one a different look.
Now something for her child. Callie, age 4. Man, my heart always breaks for the really young ones. The notation Bea made doesn't make me feel much better: Very quiet, doesn't interact much. Always heads straight for the dolls I keep in the office. Hmm...maybe she needs something to draw her out? I head to the back room, where I keep some items that aren't totally shop-ready yet. Incomplete board games, vintage suits with small tears or stains that have to be taken care of by experts. On a shelf sits a lonely Chatty Cathy doll. Voice box in perfect order, rooted hair in great shape, but her original clothes are long gone, replaced by a generic pink dress with white shoes and socks. Might have been worn by an actual child at some time. A lot of collectors turn their noses up at something that isn't mint-in-box, but a four-year-old girl simply sees a beautiful doll that smiles and speaks, and that might make her do the same.
With the treasures chosen, I head upstairs. As I pass near the window, I can see more snow falling outside, and it makes me think of that painting again. I also think that I haven't gotten a present for David yet. It takes a couple of hours to locate the canvas amongst all my other stuff, but I do unearth it, and it's soon next to the window, sitting on my easel. I have to touch up some of the paint I already laid down, but once I start working, I don't stop until my growly stomach forces me to dig up some leftover Chinese from the fridge.
Days drift by like snowflakes on the wind. The painting fleshes out in spurts: the facade across the street takes shape around breakfast-time, tiny dots representing the lights on the top of the bridge appear on the canvas as I sip Irish coffee at twilight. In between, I'm running around the shop. Then, suddenly, it's the evening of the twenty-third, and I realize I need to go to the grocery store. I curse my stupidity as I go up and down the crowded aisles. Answers on a postcard why so many people always forget that Christmas comes on the same day every year. Luckily, the ingredients for tourtiere aren't exactly seasonal items. There's a lot of French influence all throughout Opal, and my Mom's old Christmas specialty is just one manifestation of that. Ground beef and pork with diced potatoes and onions and various spices mixed in, all baked in a flaky pie crust. Put a dollop of ketchup on the plate next to a slice of that...ohhhh Lord, I'm drooling already.
Once I'm back at home base with a full pantry, I get to work wrapping the gifts. Cartoon elves and reindeer cavort across the paper. Sticky-backed bows are applied to the finished product. For fun, I slap one on the Hawaiian shirt I'm wearing like a garish boutonniere. Only one more thing left to prepare, but that will have to wait until morning.
And morning comes far too soon. The alarm goes off at eight, and I roll out of bed and shuffle to the kitchen. Coffee, lots of it. Shop's closed today, but I've got a full schedule ahead of me. After a long soak in the shower, it's back to the kitchen where I prepare for war. I'm not exactly a wizard at cooking, but after Mom died, I taught myself how to make tourtiere, because I couldn't bear the thought of Christmas without it. The first few attempts were godawful, even with Dad and David helping, but we'd eat it anyways, drowning it in ketchup until it became edible. And slowly, with great determination, I improved. I only make it at Christmas, though. It just wouldn't be as special if I made it on any of the other 364 days.
A couple of hours after I start, two perfect pies emerge from the oven. One is set aside for later, while the other is wrapped securely in tinfoil. It's just turned noon, more than enough time to finish my appointed task. I carefully balance the wrapped pie on top of a cardboard box containing the gifts and a few other food staples I picked up, like macaroni noodles and soup and cereal, then toss on my coat and lug the stuff downstairs to my car.
Traffic is awful, not surprisingly. The fact that I've never been to where I'm going doesn't help. I eventually reach my destination: an apartment building in a less-than-glamorous section of Opal. The architecture still reflects the city's uniqueness, but it's in disrepair, with cracked cornices and dingy windows. I pass into a dim lobby and walk up four flights of stairs, the heavenly smell of the tourtiere tickling my nose. Midway down a hall with threadbare carpet lies the door I seek. I set my burden down before it, rap hard upon the door, then make like Jesse Owens back to the stairwell. I can hear the door open just as I duck out of sight upon the stairs. Boris Karloff's voice, in all its Grinchy glory, drifts out of the apartment. I peek my head up just enough to see a woman in a sweatshirt and jeans kneeling down to pick up the pie. A faint "Ohmigod" comes from her when she peels back some of the foil, then she sets it aside to open the cardboard box, the contents of which she greets with a much louder "Ohmigod!" I drop back out of sight, grinning like an idiot as I make my way out of the building.
I get back home in enough time to do some cleaning up around the place. The table's set, Burl Ives is playing, and around half-past four the phone rings. "Hello?"
"Hey, Jack, it's David."
"Davey! What's the matter, you get lost?"
"No...look, there's some trouble here in Metropolis. Toyman's going nuts. I've barely got time to make this call."
"Are you okay? Where's Superman? Can't he handle it?" I flick on the TV and start scrolling to see if any of the news channels are picking it up.
"He's getting his butt whipped. I'm on my way over there right now to back him up."
"Geez, if Supes can't handle freaking Toyman..." I begin to say, then I catch something red and green hanging in the sky not far from my window, and it ain't Santa. I walk over to the window and wave my fist in mock fury. "David, get your butt in here!"
"Psyche!" My big brother's voice cackles over the phone as I watch him fly towards the roof of my building. I meet him up there, giving him a good punch on the arm for fooling me, then we head inside. David's brought a set of civilian clothes with him, and as he changes in the other room, I place his gift in plain view. "What's that?" he says when he comes out.
"Open it and find out." I stand to the side as David rips away the paper to reveal the newly-finished painting. "Now you and I can still share the same view, even though we're in different cities," I tell him.
"Oh wow...this is great, Jack. Thanks." He lifts up the canvas for a better look. "You really should do this for a living."
"Nah. Doing it for money would take a lot of the fun out of it."
"Just saying. Okay, now it's your turn." He pulls out a tiny gift-wrapped box. "Found this in a place like yours in Metropolis...hope you don't have it already."
I open it to find a vintage Cracker Jack toy, specifically a sheriff's badge. Just a simple five-pointed star in a circle, but it makes me smile. "Actually, I've never seen this one. Very cool. This'll look good with the rest of my collection."
"Yeah, they had a lot to choose from, but I figured 'a star for a Starman', y'know?"
"I am not Starman."
"No, but you could have been. After Dad died, you could have just as easily picked up the rod as me. I'm surprised you didn't, after all the times you pretended when we were kids."
"Yeah, but that was kid's stuff. You're a little more aware of the consequences when you're an adult. I like my life here. I like my shop. And you...Dad would be proud of what you're doing with the name. I don't think my take on it would impress him so much." I pin the badge to my shirt, saying, "This is as close as I'm ever going to get to being Starman."
David grins. "It looks good on you, Jackie boy."
"Everything looks good on me, Davey boy," I reply. "You, however, have a bad case of 'cowl-head'." I muss up his matted hair, then we adjourn to the kitchen to partake of the promised tourtiere. In between mouthfuls of food and squirting each other with ketchup, he tells me tales of his new life out in the world. Living in Metropolis, fighting alongside the JSA...it's obvious how much he loves it. This eventually leads to talk of Dad, and of Mom, and of Christmases long long ago, as the song says. As for myself, I tell him about some recent finds and deals I've made, and the general goings-on around Opal. I don't mention Dorothy Redmond and her daughter Callie, though I think of them as we talk. I hope they enjoy the gifts I laid at their doorstep. I know it won't fix all their problems, but if it makes things look a little brighter for at least one day out of the year, then I'm glad I could give that to them.
I am not Starman, but I like to be a hero in my own fashion.