The Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum in London has original artwork from one of the most fondly beloved heroes from the 70s: Janus Stark. Currently on display in the Comic Art Gallery, this blog post offers additional information on this comic character.
The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark made its first appearance on March 15th, 1969, in the pages of Smash! Brought to life by creator Jack Legrand, writer Tom Tully and artist Francisco Solano Lopez, it narrated the exploits of an escapologist turned detective in Victorian London.
The comic ran in syndication from 1969 until 1971. And it was one of the few strips that survived the merger of Smash! into Valiant in 1971. Solano continued to work on this strip until 1973, with a few other artists filling in occasionally.
Janus Stark was very popular in France, where he became the star of his own magazine from July 1973 to March 1990. Although it began as a quarterly publication, up to no. 34, in October 1981 the magazine came out monthly until its 135th and final issue. During its run, there were 125 numbers with Janus Stark, although there were only 89 different episodes in total-the others being re-issues starting with no. 90.
Many new adventures were created for the French market including the death of the character when the series ended. We know that the Scottish Angus Peter Allen and Marcus Scott Goodall wrote for the French Janus Stark. Unfortunately, many of the artists that worked on this strip remain anonymous, with the exception of a few like J. G. Quiros or Francisco Fuentes Man.
More recently, Janus Stark has featured in Alan Moore’s Albion, a six-issue comic book limited series written by his daughter Leah Moore and her husband John Reppion in 2005. The covers were created by Dave Gibbons with art by Shane Oakley and George Freeman. This series was meant to revive classic characters owned by IPC such as Captain Hurricane, Robot Archie, The Steel Claw, the Spider, and Janus Stark among others. This series was published through DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint.
A tie-in volume titled Albion Origins with a cover by Brian Bolland, was released by Titan Books in November 2007 where it showcased the characters featured in Albion as they appeared originally in IPC and Fleetway. This volume featured reprints from the original strips which included several stories from Cursitor Doom, Kelly’s Eye, Janus Stark and The House of Dolmann, as well as newly written articles exploring the history of these characters’ comics. In this case, Janus Stark made it to Bolland’s cover.
Finally, in 2011, Cliff Robinson created a fantastic illustration titled “Judge Dredd vs the Seveties” also featuring Janus Stark for the challenge Someone Old, Someone New.
Janus Stark: A Biography
Born Jonas Clarke in 1840, he spent his childhood in the Victorian orphanage of Hemlock Hall that was ran by the ruthless Simon Tragg. Tragg spent most of his time drinking and embezzling the orphanage funds. As a result, the children lived in infra-human conditions and many were in the brink of starvation. Tired of this treatment, a very young Jonas Clarke with two of his friends tried to break into the pantry to steal some food. This was Jonas’s first attempt at real pick-locking, but Tragg discovered them and threw Clarke into an rat-infested cellar. As he was closing the door, he told him that he was going to flog him in the morning as an example to the rest of the children. Little did he know that Clarke had a special ability: his bones had a strange rubbery quality that allowed him to stretch, under some discomfort and pain, and fit in the smallest places and get out of the most unlikely nooks and crevices. Knowing full well that this was the end of his stay in the orphanage, he used this ability to escape from the cellar through the barred windows.
Unfortunately, his escape was discovered by the police who started chasing him through the streets of London. Just when he was about to get caught, a hand came out of nowhere and hid the lad. The man that saved Clarke was Blind Largo, a beggar and a thief. He took Clarke under his wing and taught him the art of fingered trickery and lock-picking. When he grew up, like a Victorian Robin Hood, he started to use his new found thieving abilities to steal from rich gentlemen and give the money to the poor children that were roaming the streets. Meanwhile, Clarke had learned to control the elasticity of his body and he and Blind Largo were putting on street shows where Clarke tried to wriggle out of very tight binds. His daring escapes caught the eye of a theatrical impresario and he offered him a job. This meant that his days in the streets were over and that he had to leave Blind Largo behind.
Clarke changed his name to Janus Stark claiming that he was Master of Illusion, son of the unknown! No lock could fetter him! No rope or chains could bind his limbs! He became an immediate success in Victorian society performing all sorts of daring escapes and accepting all challenges that were thrown his way. During one of his performances, the governor of Newgate prison asked him to try his new security and see if he could escape the prison. Janus accepted the challenge with an ulterior motive in mind. He realized that from the prison he could sneak into Hemlock Hall. It was pay back time! He then wriggled himself through a drain in the cell and reached Simon Tragg’s office through an underground tunnel. He found Tragg stealing the money from the orphans and Janus Stark terrorized him! Scared Tragg went to the prison to denounce Stark, but the escapologist had a very solid alibi. Then the governor found what Tragg had done and imprisoned him. This was Janus Stark’s revenge on his childhood arch-nemesis!
After that, Janus Stark started to lead a double life. During the day he was a showman, master illusionist, and escapologist, but during the night he used his stretching abilities to fight social injustices and evil. In many occasions he teamed up with Inspector Bryant from Scotland Yard to solve mysteries, but they had an uneasy relationship. Bryant did not believe that Stark was completely innocent from the crimes that they were investigating.
Besides his stretching abilities, Janus Stark discovered with the help of a group of scientists (Untitled, Smash Annual, 1972) that his body generated a great amount of heat when he contorted. After finding this information out, Janus Stark was asked to check the security of a wealthy client’s new vault and while he was there a robbery attempt was made. The criminal in charge had a great plan that involved a freezing device to crack the impenetrable vault, which ended up freezing Janus Stark. Nevertheless, the ice did not deter him since he started to increase his body heat by contorting, making a fabulous use of his recently acquired knowledge.
After many adventures and misadventures, the life of Janus Stark drew to an end. In the final chapter (“The Voice from Beyond the Grave,” found in Janus Stark no. 89 of the French magazine) the rubbery hero lost his life trying to save that of Toby Fletcher, the nephew of his surrogate father, Blind Largo. Toby got stuck in the ruins of a factory that collapsed. Janus managed to reach the lad, but as they were making their escape the ceiling started to collapse. Janus tried to hold the weight of the rubble, giving Toby enough time to flee. Unfortunately, a collapsing building was more than the escapologist could handle and he was finally crushed by it. It was the one thing that he could not escape: his own death. The date was 1880.
In the last issue the story then fast forwards to the future where Janus’s descendant, John Stark (son of his brother Ben and Anne-Marie Stark) who had been living in the US the whole time, discovered that he had inherited the same powers as his ancestor. In a strange turn of events, he even managed to communicate with Janus Stark mentally. This could have opened the door for a new generation of escapologist-detective stories, but it was not to be.
The most touching goodbye to Janus Stark was given by Queen Victoria herself (Janus Stark Special no. 2) who attended his funeral in 1880. In a ghostly form, Janus Stark remarked what an honored it was to have the Queen herself come to witness his last rites.
We would like to thank Studio77, An International Catalogue of Superheroes, Alain Decayeux, Dominik Vallet, and Wikipedia, for providing some of the information used to create this post.We would also like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work.
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