Comic-Book Copycats: Did Jim Starlin Plagiarize Peter David?

Today I’m writing about an instance of what appears to be blatant plagiarism that happened in a comic-book. And not just any comic-book, but a rather high profile one.

I was a young boy when this happened, and I read the comic-book at the time and immediately recognized the plagiarized sequence, and was surprised that this got published. But this was pre-internet so I couldn’t post about this anywhere nor really look into it any further. And I eventually mostly forgot about it. I still remembered it, but the details got fuzzy in mind over the ensuing decades, like although I remembered the two comic-books I couldn’t remember which one came first, so I was no longer sure who plagiarised who. When I was just recently reminded of one of the books, that’s what sparked my memory of the incident and I had to look the two comics up to refresh my memory and I was actually surprised to see who did that apparent plagiarising.

In August 1988 DC Comics published BATMAN: THE CULT, a 4-issue miniseries written by Jim Starlin and drawn by The Late Bernie Wrightson. In this story, a mysterious tall and muscular man calling himself Deacon Blackfire appears in Gotham City, where he quickly established a religious movement with himself as a messiah-like figure among the city’s poor and homeless. At first Batman, along with the police and local city government, think the Deacon is a good guy, helping clean up the streets. Eventually, he turns his followers into a standing army that manages to take over the city. He even manages to capture Batman and tortures and drugs him until Batman becomes a believer in him.

A fuller review can be found here: https://earth9dc.com/2020/04/07/batman-the-cult/

And a less-positive review here: https://them0vieblog.com/2014/07/16/batman-the-cult-reviewretrospective/

But what stood out to me at the time was the dramatic climax

Batman, mostly recovered, is now prepared to face Deacon Blackfire in a one on one fight in front of all of the Deacon’s followers. Batman realized that the Deacon actually wants Batman to kill him, so that the Deacon can then become the Christ-like martyr that he truly believes himself to be. But we all know Batman doesn’t kill (well, all of us except for Zak Synder and his fans), so how is he going to defeat a man who won’t give up until he’s dead?

Why, he just beats the holy crap out of him until he’s begging for mercy, of course.

This was Batman’s plan, by seeing their “messiah” broken and begging for mercy, it broke his followers’ faith in him.


Deacon Blackfire now orders his followers to kill Batman for him. But now that they’ve lost faith in him, they target him instead:

OUCH.

Brutal ending, but I recall when I read it I immediately recognized it from another comic that I’d read earlier that same year.

JUSTICE was a series that launched in 1986 as part of Marvel Comics’ NEW UNIVERSE imprint. The New Universe was a set of interconnected titles taking place outside of the regular Marvel Universe. The premise was that the Earth of the New Universe was basically our world, the “real world,” with no known superhuman/supernatural/extraterrestrial entities of any kind. All that changed one night in 1986 when the sky all across the world flashed white for a split-second. This became known as “The White Event.” And in the aftermath of the White Event, random human beings began developing all sorts of various superpowers. These humans would later become referred to as “paranormals.”

For further info on the concept of the New Universe (along with speculation as to why it ultimately failed), I recommend these articles:

https://www.avclub.com/how-marvel-s-new-universe-holds-up-or-not-three-decades-1798241948

https://www.youdontreadcomics.com/articles/2019/7/11/marvel-at-80-the-new-universe

https://www.cbr.com/11-reasons-marvels-new-universe-failed/

John Tensen, dubbed “Justice” was one such paranormal. He had the power to fire lethal energy blasts from his right hand and create impenetrable force fields with his left hand, in addition to possessing a sort of E.S.P. that could detect other paranormals and determine their mental states. He took himself to become a sort paranormal Punisher, he traveled the country seeking out other paranormals and if he discovered that they were abusing their powers (as in one example where he met a man who gained the ability to temporarily mind control others and was using it to make women have sex with him) he would kill them. Then comes the events in Justice #19…

Written by Peter David and drawn by Lee Weeks, in this issue Justice travels to Philadelphia, where a mysterious tall and muscular man known only as “The Savior” has started a religious movement with himself as the messiah-like leader…

Yeah, it’s already sounding familiar, isn’t it?

The Savior has his followers rob and kill people and turn over their possessions to him. Justice comes into conflict with some of his followers and confronts The Savior in his headquarters. The Savior admits to being a paranormal, and says the White Event tripled his strength, but he points out that he has not technically used his powers to gain his followers, they all chose to follow him of their own free well. So, based on this little technicality, he says he doesn’t fit Justice’s standards for judgment and execution.

Justice agrees, and therefore instead of simply blowing The Savior away, he proceeds to fight him one-on-one with his bare hands (and feet).

Despite The Savior’s superior physical strength, after several pages of fighting, Justice manages to turn the tables and begins deliberately hurting The Savior.

Eventually, Justice has battered The Savior so severely that the Savior is left begging his followers to kill Justice for him…

Instead, having now lost faith him, the group rushes to kill The Savior, while Justice stands by and watches.

OUCH.

So…there you go. This isn’t just me reaching, is it? These are very similar sequences, aren’t they? And not just the ending-sequence fights, but the basic story of Justice #19, the hero confronting a physically imposing religious leader who has his followers commit murders for him, that is the story of Batman: The Cult, just told in one issue instead of four.

Now, being a young lad at the time I read these two stories, I figured that this was an obvious case of plagiarism. The writer of Batman: The Cult obviously read that story in Justice and ripped it off. I mean, what other explanation could there be? Looking back at this now as a slightly more knowledgable adult, I’m not sure what to think.

At the time neither of the names of either writer meant anything to me, as I mostly bought comics back then for the characters, not the creators. Now I know Jim Starlin is a bonified legend in the business. Let me put it this way, if you’re a non-comics fan but have enjoyed the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you know THANOS? That big purple dude who wiped out half the universe before all the heroes had to join together to defeat him? Jim Starlin created him.

And that barely scratches the surface of Starlin’s creations in the comic-book industry, and the many classic stories he’s written. By the time he wrote Batman: The Cult he’d already been in the business for 16 years, and had written major titles for both Marvel and DC (he is also an artist, and has drawn many comics, but is primarily known more as a writer). It’s hard to imagine that he would need to rip off any other writers, especially from some little title like Justice, written by a relative newbie. While Peter David has gone on to have quite an accomplished, some would say legendary, comics career himself, at the time that issue of Justice came out he’d only been writing professionally for a little under three years, the first of which he was still working his main job as a member of Marvel’s Sales Department, only writing comics part-time.

And then you have the timeline. Back then I didn’t know the behind the scenes mechanics of how comics were made. Justice #19 was cover-dated May 1988. The first issue of Batman: The Cult was cover-dated August 1988, with the 4th issue dated November 1988. IIRC back then cover-dates tended to be 2 or 3 months in advance, so it’s likely that Justice #19 came in February or March, and that Batman: The Cult started in May or June. In any case, the point is that there were only 3 months in between Justice #19 and Batman: The Cult #1. It’s highly unlikely that Starlin could have pitched this miniseries, gotten it approved, written it, and then had it drawn and published in just 3 months. Especially considering that this series was launched as part of DC’s new “prestige format” (which generally meant thicker paper-stock and higher cover-price) books, following Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE earlier that year. So this had to be in the planning stages for a while.

Of course, it’s likewise likely that Peter David wrote the script for Justice #19 at least a couple of months before it was published. Could it be possible that it was actually Peter David who plagiarized the story from Jim Starlin, instead of vice versa? Could he have somehow heard of Starlin’s planned story in advance at some point and used it as the basis for his own story?

I’m thinking of something I learned not too long ago about DC and Marvel’s separate swamp monsters, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing:

These two characters also debuted just a couple of months apart, Man-Thing in May 1971 and Swamp Thing in June 1971. How do we explain the similarities? Well, one of the original co-creators of Man-Thing is Gerry Conway. After Stan Lee and Roy Thomas came up with the name and basic premise for the character, they hired Conway to write the script for the first story. Conway, at the time, was living with a roommate named Len Wein who was also a comic-book writer. Wein at the time was working for DC Comics, and he and Bernie Wrightson co-created Swamp Thing. So, although I don’t believe Wein has ever confirmed it directly, he clearly was inspired by Conway’s work in creating Man-Thing to create his own Swamp-Thing around that same time, which is how both characters debuted in public so close to each other (and over the years both men also wrote the other character, with Wein actually writing the very second Man-Thing story and Conway later taking over the writing of the first Swamp Thing ongoing series after Wein left that title). Apparently, the reason Marvel never pressed the issue with DC about Swamp-Thing’s similarity to Man-Thing is because everyone involved with the characters knew that both characters were basically a rip off of the much older and now public domain swamp monster comic-book character THE HEAP.

So I wonder if something like that could have happened between Peter David and Jim Starlin? Could Starlin have had the basic idea for Batman: The Cult in his head for a while, and maybe talked about some of his ideas with Peter David who then took that premise of a phony religious leader who rallies poor people to commit murder for him and has to be defeated by the hero in front of his followers and used it in Justice #19 (a title which he’d only been assigned to write 4 months earlier, and which he’d had to completely revamp from its original premise), not knowing that Starlin was in the process of writing his story for the special Batman miniseries?

Or, back to my original presumption of Starlin as the “culprit”, could David have mentioned to him about a story idea he had about a phony religious leader, and Starlin took that and expanded into the premise for Batman: The Cult, not realizing that David was going to be using it in Justice?

I’ve tried to look up what I can of both men’s careers, wanting to see if there was any connection between the two around this time. I couldn’t find exact dates, but it looks like Peter David began working in Marvel’s Sales Department in 1981 or 1982, selling his first comic-scrip in 1985,  and Starlin was still writing for Marvel during that time. Of course I have no idea if the two men met or interacted at all, much less became close enough to discuss story ideas with each other during those years. And I haven’t been able find any info regarding the exact details of how Starlin came up with the idea for Batman: The Cult, if it had indeed been something he’d been kicking around in his head for several years prior to its release. I did find an interview where he said it’s his favorite Batman story that he’s written.

There’s even less info out there regarding Peter David’s time writing Justice (even though it’s said that he sneakily brought the character back, under a different name, in his later Spider-Man 2099 series, and in 2006 wrote an “untold tale” of Justice so he clearly liked writing that character). I find no evidence of any public bad blood between the two writers. Certainly, Peter David would have been aware of Batman: The Cult, thanks to all the acclaim it got, if he’d seen that Starlin had ripped him off with that ending, he would have likely raised a stink about it. Jim Starlin on the other is likely to be completely unaware of David’s work on Justice, as it was not a major title.

In fact, the two men have been connected art-wise in this years since these two comics. Peter David has written Dreadstar, a comic originally created by Jim Starlin, and the two men collaborated directly on two issues of a Captain Marvel series that Peter David wrote, where Jim Starlin did the art, in a story featuring Thanos, in Captain Marvel #17 and #18.

So I’m still left with this mystery. It certainly looks like a case of one story directly copying another, but I can’t prove for sure that it is, or if it is who is the copier. Of course, it also possible, however slight, that this is just one big cosmic coincidence. I’m sure stranger things have happened…

I’ll end this post by adding a couple of things, first I’ll say that I like this little extra bit that Peter David added to his story.


The idea that the Savior’s followers would now turn to Justice as their new messiah is a natural reaction, I’m almost a little surprised that Jim Starlin didn’t have Deacon Blackfire’s followers do the same to Batman. Maybe he thought that would be too similar to the subplot in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where after Batman defeats the Mutants gang-leader in one-on-one combat in front of them, they rebrand themselves as “Sons of The Bat”?

Still, gotta love Justice’s reaction.

And I also just learned that Jim Starlin actually pitched a sequel to Batman: The Cult, which for some reason DC passed on. So instead, Jim Starlin he took the basis of what that story would have been, reworked it a bit and used at Marvel for a 4-part Punisher miniseries he wrote in 1991 called The Punisher: P.O.V., which was also drawn by Bernie Wrightson. You can read all about that here: https://ohdannyboy.blogspot.com/2018/04/when-batman-became-punisher.html

I’m curious to read that story now, but it’s not available for sale digitally, so it may be a while until I get to it.

2 comments

  1. Hmmmmm… Perhaps it’s a remarkable case of synchronicity?

    As for myself, looking at these two sequences in 2020, the question now becomes: is this realistic? If someone got into a fist fight with Donald Trump and beat him up in front of his followers would they turn on him? Or would they still stick with him, and kill the person who threatened to expose their “savior” as a fraud? As the last few years have demonstrated, there are a lot of people who, when faced with evidence they have been scammed, rather than turning on the con artist instead double down on their faith because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they’ve been played for suckers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a good point. Especially when you consider that in many religions. Including Christianity, the “messiah” suffering is part of the faith. Jesus was tortured to death and even though it was supposed to be necessary to redeem “our” sins, he did at one point cry out to His father for forsaking him. Yet that’s not looked at as a sign of weakness.

      So you’re right, I could see plenty of Deacon Blackfire and The Savior’s followers seeing him bloodied and begging for mercy and instead of losing faith they would consider that a test of their faith, and would resolve to remain faithful. And try to kill Batman/Justice as representatives of Satan.

      Liked by 1 person

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