A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Introduction

Welcome to Astro City

It probably seems by now that I have totally fallen out of love with the superhero. That’s not entirely accurate, though: it’s more of a case that I am not willing to follow modern day superheroes into the places where they congregate. Time, circumstance and an increasingly jaded set of creators and audience have closed off all possibilities outside an ever-narrower band, in which pain, terror, destruction and degradation are the only applicable sensations.
It isn’t that I think these things should be expunged, be brushed under the carpet as unacceptable, morally unclean, beyond representation. These are perfectly valid areas of exploration. But these are, or properly should be, part of a spectrum, and instead they are the whole of what may be permitted.
It’s like comics and superheroes have become a species of pornography that can only remain stimulating by becoming ever more hardcore.
Thankfully, even now, it’s not totally like that. There is an alternative, and by great good fortune, it’s actually due to come back in June 2013, after a wait of three years.
Astro City (formerly known as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City) has been around since 1995, although for various reasons, mostly to do with the health issues Busiek has been facing for the last decade and a bit) there have only been just over fifty issues published so far. The complete Astro City can be read in a series of eight graphic novels.
Through all its time, the series has had a consistent team of creators. It was originally an idea of  Kurt Busiek, who has written every issue to date, it is drawn by Brent Anderson (for a time Anderson did only pencils, during which time he was complemented by Willie Blyberg on inks) , and all the series’ covers are painted by Alex Ross, who works in close collaboration with the other two creators on developing not only the characters, heroes and villains, but also Astro City itself.
What, then, is Astro City? Who is it about? What distinguishes it from other series?
The first answer is Kurt Busiek. Born in Boston in 1960, Busiek didn’t get into comics until he was 14 but immediately became fascinated with the intricate continuity and plethora of series interlinks that characterised Marvel Comics. He made his first professional sale to DC in 1983 and, after a decade on the margins, was catapulted to prominence with the 1994 four-part series, Marvels, on which he collaborated with Ross to produce what was, effectively, a history of the Marvel Universe from 1940 to 1974, seen through the eyes of a bystander, news photographer Phil Sheldon.
With Ross’s stunning artwork, demonstrating that it was, after all, possible for a highly realistic painted series to actually function as a comics story, Marvels was a massive success, and Busiek has been a popular writer ever since, working extensively at both Marvel and DC.
He’s been described as something of a schematic writer, and it’s true that, like Marvels, much of his mainstream work utilises existing elements in continuity to build interesting and entertaining stories, many of which effectively evoke the joys of older-style series.
But Astro City has always been the place where Busiek can operate without the demands of others’ continuity or editorial requirements, where he can take the opportunity to write the kind of superhero stories that the big Two won’t publish. In mainstream comics, the fight is the thing that the story is about: in Astro City, it is the last and least thing of importance.
Because Busiek loves superheroes, remains fascinated by them, and believes that they are considerably more flexible than the mainstream industry gives them credit for. At Marvel and DC, the superhero symbolises adolescent, male, power-fantasy: in Astro City, the superhero – indeed, not just the hero, but the villain as well – can stand for almost any kind of story.
The choice of Anderson as artist is also an inspired one. He’s been working professionally on both superhero and independent comics since the early Eighties, and uses a detailed photorealistic style that exactly suits the down-to-Earth nature of Astro City. He is flexible and thoughtful with layouts, a better-than-capable depictor of superheroes in action, and yet principally concerned with expression and character in amongst the occasional bombast.
He and Ross work closely together to develop both the City itself, with its varying districts and moods, and its colourful – and not so colourful – inhabitants.
The series has sometimes been described as “everyday life in a superhero universe”, and indeed that is what it is. The series has no star. Stories move from character to character, from time period to time period. Sometimes, as introduced in Marvels, the story is seen from the bystander’s eyes, dealing with the reality of life in a City that attracts colourful costumed characters. At others, the hero or villain is the centre of the story, but the story is still about the reality of the life they live, the effect that life has on others, on the world around it.
Many of the characters are analogues of famous figures. Samaritan, to whom we are introduced in the first issue, is an immensely powerful, flying hero. He comes from a future which his own actions wiped out, saving the world but stranding himself in the here-and-now, in which he uses his vast powers to protect as many as he can. He is, and is not, Superman, in the same way that the First Family – a multi-generational family of scientific and super-powered adventurers – is and is not the Fantastic Four.
Other characters are less analogues, allowing for stories to be told that comment upon the sources, but rather other aspects of the archetypes from which heroes are created. M.P.H. Is the speedster: his powers apparently derive from a 15% alien overlay. He’s neither The Flash nor Quicksilver, and indeed his only appearance of any great substance is in a Special Edition devoted to the crime-fighting android doll, Beautie (I don’t need to tip you off to that one, I hope).
The thing is that, one day, there’ll be a story about M.P.H. The world of Astro City is large, it contains many characters, and it’s been around since the First World War and Busiek’s happy to explore all of it. Some stories, like that of the fate of the Silver Agent, hang around in the background, for years (first hinted at, obliquely, in issue 2, in 1995, the story was not wrapped up until 2010).
What Astro City does is to tell the iconic stories, the ones that define characters, or times, or settings. Once we see The Blue Knight, we understand him, who he is, what he does, by what he is driven. Thereafter, though he may appear as a part of others’ stories, we are not staled by repetition, by monthly reappearances in which he does what he does over and again, some inspired, some written to simply give us something this month.
It’s a Comic Book Universe, as big and complicated, as wide and far-reaching as Marvel’s or DC’s, in one single comic.
And it’s back, from Vertigo Comics, in 2013.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to reread and blog about Astro City’s history, and I’m going to review the new issues as they come out. You’re invited to join me.

You are now leaving Astro City. Safe driving.

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