Jim Starlin’s long-running creator owned series Dreadstar originated within The Metamorphosis Odyssey, which began life serialised within Epic Illustrated, Marvel’s early 1980s attempt to create an equivalent to the successful Heavy Metal anthology.

Starlin was an ideal contributor, familiar to Marvel readers via his 1970s space operas Warlock and Captain Marvel, material that attracted an older and more literate audience, and with a broad fantasy streak to his writing. He throws us straight into the middle of a war that’s lasted millennia, but is nearing the closing stages. A race ancient when humanity was evolving watched with horror as the universe was scourged by the Zygoteans, whose methods were to enslave a planet’s population to strip mine the resources, leaving a husk unable to sustain life. The Osirosians become aware they cannot win a war with the Zygoteans, but they can occupy them for an awful long time, time during which the genetic seeds the Osiriosians sowed on Earth and other planets can evolve.

In keeping with the desperate stakes, this is a dark meditation with no humour, different in tone from the work it later prompted, and in keeping with its original serialised presentation it’s very episodic. This novelty isn’t to the story’s detriment as each successive chapter may take a leap, but they build on what’s come before. Ankaton, the last surviving Osirosian, first gathers his forces, and they’re informed about the bigger picture, which could result in the destruction of the galaxy.

It’s for the introduction of Vanth Dreadstar that The Metamorphosis Odyssey is best known, and Starlin provides him with a great build-up: “The man I seek is most likely a great warrior who carries cold death in the form of a glowing sword”, relates Ankaton, “he is the last link in a chain I need to crush the Zygoteans”. Part Han Solo, part Jim Starlin, Dreadstar is an intense warrior, although at this stage lacking charisma.

Depression and the dark night of the soul had been upfront in Starlin’s previous works, and they recur here, with an actual suicide and the possibility of more. Starlin’s also fond of allegory, and if Dreadstar is considered to be the saviour, his temptation occurs in a particularly glum chapter. The mood switches, although never into the light, even with an optimistic conclusion, and The Metamorphosis Odyssey is a finely constructed meditation on mortality. Also feeding in are Starlin’s experiences as a soldier who saw service in Vietnam, and his consequent loss of faith in political solutions to war.

Starlin’s art reaches its apogee here. Guaranteed good printing he pulled out all the stops, and created some glorious montages throughout, mixing symbolism and space views, heroism and decay. There is, however, a major problem. The chapters within began as black and white, but progressed to full colour, and the removal of that colour is to the overall detriment, most unfortunately in a well designed scene in which Ankaton meets Ra. In places the pages turn very muddy indeed.

When published, this was the only way of obtaining a long out of print serialisation never previously collected, so had some value, but it’s no longer the way to sample The Metamorphosis Oydssey. Thankfully it’s been restored for IDW’s Dreadstar: Beginnings, which collects this along with two sequels The Price (also published by Slave Labor), and Dreadstar.