Aster the Celestial Knight: A re-appreciation of a comics milestone
by rick olivares
In October of 1994, Entity Comics released Aster #1 to a massive buzz. The first ever local comic book published by an international company, though by an independent, got a lot of press aided an abetted by the Jae Lee cover and its awesome ashcan edition that was released some four months before the first issue was on the racks.
The ashcan edition was powerful as then newcomer Oliver Isabedra’s black and white art reminded everyone of the fan fave artist George Perez.
Aster is the name of the last of the Celestial Knights, universal peacekeepers of which the hero was tasked with extinguishing worlds deemed too evil and malevolent for rehabilitation. In a titanic battle with the power-mad Dessa who sought the Gem of Saghal that powers the Celestial Guardians and their Knights, it takes the combined powers of both Guardians and Knights to defeat Dessa and entomb him in space debris. But victory comes at a huge cost as all the Knights, save for Aster are destroyed.
Aster is cast into a void where he drifts for thousands of years before he falls into Prison World that unknown to his is the very place where Dessa is incarcerated.
There are heroes and villains and betrayal of the highest order in this space fantasy that draws its influences from Captain Marvell, Green Lantern, Flash Gordon, and He-Man.
Behind the vision and muscle of CATS Comics head honcho Billy Lim-It, Aster was a springboard for young and new talent as led by writers Ronnie and Jun Roxas and hot artist Oliver Isabedra. Other local artists given their opportunity to be a part of an international comic book were Mark Vuycankiat, Jay Anacleto, Gerry Alanguilan, Sonny Fortich, Leinil Yu, and Toybits (more than a year earlier, the late Nick Manabat was selected by Whilce Portacio to do a story for Image Comics and that story was The Cybernary that came out as a back up story in Deathblow #1).
When Aster came out, the comics scene was awash with speculators who hoarded books. This was also the era of the gimmick covers with comic book art throughout the industry heavily influenced by Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and company. And Aster made no bones about going the same route.
Aside from Jae Lee, CATS Studios commissioned Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, and George Perez to draw covers for the book. They used chromium covers and had multiple covers to satisfy the collectors market. Talk about a push!
I remember feeling let down after rushing home to read Aster #1. In the comic’s first ever letter column, I had my letter – based on what I saw from the ashcan – published. It sure helped that I was tight with Lim-It.
In its four-color glory, the art was great. The writing on the other hand, left much to be desired.
I have to admit that the plot was interesting and had potential but the dialogue could have been written better as at times if read like something out of a “Hulk Smash” dialogue. I remember telling myself, “It reads like many of these damned indie books.” Even back then, I read and collected a number of independent comics – Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, Mike Grell’s Starslayer, Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, and Bill Willingham’s The Elementals. They were for me the standard.
However… for all its warts, Aster #1 was just that; a start and I collected each and every comic that came out from CATS Studios’ Fractal Universe – Harriers and Shaiana. I even picked up their Singapore Convention Tour Book.
Flash forward 20 years later. It wasn’t until yesterday, December 14, that I decided to pull out all my copies of Aster (the limited series and the three-issue regular series) as well as the copies of Harriers and Shaiana.
Reading it 20 years later, I came away with a that familiar feeling. I felt that familiar twinge of that young fan who picked up his copy of Aster #1 at the old CATS store at the old Virra Mall in Greenhills. I felt that wave of excitement all over again as I read through each and every issue and poured over every panel and page. Reading it as a whole now, you could see the progression in the storytelling for both prose and art with every issue. Everyone from the writers to the artists got better at their craft. And… I love it even more. Not for its place in Philippine comics history but because I loved it as only a geek like me can.
Now I remembered why I inserted these bunch of Aster comics in my longbox marked “favorites” (that includes all my signed comics as well as the books of my favorite creators).
Author’s note: Not soon after the Ashcan came out, Billy Lim-It invited me to attend one of the brainstorming sessions between the Roxas brothers and Oliver Isabedra. I will never forget what Billy said when he introduced me to “Beng” as Oliver is nicknamed: “Oh, one of two things you have in common aside from a love of comics is you are both from Ateneo.” We laughed. But about two years later, both Beng and myself were working together in the old Avellana & Associates advertising agency (although we were on different teams).
Talking to Aster artist Oliver Isabedra:
Rick: What do you remember most of that ashcan that came out to a massive buzz?
Oliver: For the Aster ashcan, I did those first 6-8 pages while still in college. I was so excited and enthusiastic and at that time, I really had no deadlines. I consider those the best pages I drew on Aster.
Rick: Your art is reminiscent of George Perez and Neal Adams. Are they your influences? Who else influenced you in your drawing style?
Oliver: I was a huge George Perez fan growing up. I was a fan of The New Teen Titans and Crisis On Infinite Earths that he worked on with Marv Wolfman. Neal Adams was also an influence, but much later on. Other influences for me include Art Adams, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, John Byrne and of course, Jim Lee.
Rick: How come you never produced any more comics after Aster? Was it because you were busy in advertising?
Oliver: One of the reasons was I got a job in Advertising. The other is I thought myself not good enough and too slow for the comic book industry.
Rick: Do you still read comics? If so what do you follow nowadays?
Oliver: I don't collect comics anymore. I still follow comic book news though just to be updated but I'm not too familiar with the current storylines.