One of the more overlooked pioneers of what would come to be called the Direct Sales comic book market was Mike Friedrich. He’d started his career as a writer for DC and Marvel, among others, and eventually became first Marvel’s first executive in charge of Direct Sales and thereafter an artists representative. But in-between, he started a small self-publishing empire, one that is well remembered and regarded by those who experienced it firsthand. This was Star Reach, named after the company’s first release.
Inspired by the underground publishers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Friedrich set out to create a similar magazine, with color covers and black and white interiors, which could be sold through the same network of head shops and early comic book stores. The difference would be that his book would be put together using mainstream comic book talent, who would all retain all rights to their work. The fact that the new publication, STAR REACH, would bypass the traditional newsstand distribution outlets meant that it would also avoid the censorship of the Comics Code. So contributors could not only do whatever they wanted in its pages (provided that Friedrich had no objections to the material) but they’d also get to own and benefit from their efforts. Friedrich nicknamed his efforts “ground level publishing”, the midpoint between the mainstream and the undergrounds.
For his inaugural offering, Friedrich mainly tapped his friends, such as Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin. But nobody contributed as much to this first issue as Jim Starlin. This book was released in 1974, when Starlin had only started to make a name for himself drawing and plotting CAPTAIN MARVEL. But STAR REACH gave him a place to try out more experimental and trippy material–as well as to exorcise some of his own demons along the way. Starlin produced three stories for the first issue of STAR REACH: “The Origin of Death”, “The Origin of God” and this one, “Death Building”.
“Death Building” was a typical psychedelic Starlin story, influenced as much of his output was in these years by the work of Michael Moorcock. But it also has a semi-autobiographical aspect to it. Not only does Starlin name his main character, Steve Apollo, after a pseudonym that he would occasionally use when a particular bit of work had been tampered with past his liking, he also himself makes a cameo appearance at the end of the story under his own name. The “Death Building” in question was the building that in real life headquartered Marvel Comics in those days, so there was a secondary aspect to the entire tale, one that presaged Starlin’s later “1000 Clowns” story in WARLOCK or “Dynamo City” in SILVER SURFER.
Outside of Starlin’s three stories, the first issue also included a pair of two-page stories written and illustrated by Steve Skeates, an abstract sword and sorcery adventure drawn by a relatively young Walt Simonson, and the full-length debut of Howard Chaykin’s space adventurer Cody Starbuck. It was Chaykin’s work on the Starbuck stories that prompted George Lucas to ask for him as the artist on the original STAR WARS comic book adaptation. (If Chaykin had been making royalties on the sales of that book, he would have come into quite a windfall, given how frequently it was reprinted and repackaged.)
Because he treated STAR REACH more like underground publishing, Friedrich did multiple printings of the issues over the years–and chose in certain instances to shuffle around both the cover images and the sequence of the contents. There are at least four printings of STAR REACH #1, some which feature Cody Starbuck on the cover and as the lead story, others of which have the green Space Babes on teh cover and Starlin’s “Death Building” up first.
STAR REACH lasted for 18 irregularly-published anthology issues through 1979, each one containing a different mix of stories and contributors. Additionally, Friedrich launched a number of other titles under the Star Reach imprint: QUACK!, which attempted to get on board the shirt-lived funny animal boom set off by HOWARD THE DUCK, and IMAGINE, among others. But as the 1970s wore on, the network for distribution of underground comics grew oversaturated then crumbled, and the Direct Sales market wasn’t yet in a position to make STAR REACH a going concern on a regular basis. Friedrich did license out reprints of some of the material to Pacific Comics and Eclipse in the 1980s
But along with ELFQUEST, THE FIRST KINGDOM, CEREBUS and a few others, STAR REACH was an important step towards the world of comics that we know today.