The first Astro City series ran for six issues from Image Comics in 1995. It was meant to be open-ended, but the ongoing chaos at Image led to the series being cancelled (or more appropriately, abandoned), and retrospectively declared a mini-series. This first run was collected as the first trade paperback, Life in the Big City.
The collection is a perfect introduction to Astro City‘s themes and approaches. The first and last episodes are seen from the point of view of Samaritan, Busiek’s Superman-analog character, who is the only character to recur in this volume. In between, the other four episodes are seen from the point of view of civilians, bystanders, observers – in short, the ordinary folk who live in a superhero world and who have learned to adapt to it as they would to any environment.
The first episode doesn’t really have a plot: it’s a ‘Day in the Life’, beginning and ending with Samaritan’s dreams of flying, the significance of which we don’t fully appreciate until the end of the day.
Samaritan swoops and glides in his dreams until disturbed by the alarm: not the alarm clock, which hasn’t had the chance to wake him for years, but the alarm from his personal computer, the Zyxometer, alerting him to the first of many crises – natural disasters, impending accidents, criminal activity – affecting the world. And that’s what follows. Samaritan races here and there, at top speed, counting seconds in a corner of his mind, dealing with the above as they are notified to him by the Zyxometer.
At intervals, he drops in on his ‘real’ life as Asa Martin, fact-checker with Current magazine: at the start of the day, at the start and end of lunch, on leaving. He’s their best fact-checker so he’s allowed to work in solitude, behind a locked door, enabling him to leave the Zyxometer doing the work, whilst Samaritan forges ceaselessly on.
In the afternoon, he meets with Honor Guard, the world’s main superhero team: professional and social matters, jokes about setting him up for a date with Winged Victory, then off to interrupt a gang hitting a bank. In the evening, he attends a memorial dinner in his honour, continually excusing himself to do his job. And at night, he hits the pillow, exhausted, slipping directly into sleep. In the final instant, he tots up the day – fifty-six seconds, the best since March. That’s the sum total of the time that, between all those cases he’s handled, he’s spent in flight – the flight that dominates his sleep, free and untrammelled.
I described Samaritan earlier as a Superman-analog. What this means is that whilst Samaritan is not Superman, and certainly not within any actionable limits, he is recognisably of the same cloth as the first ever Superhero. Superman is the last survivor of a destroyed planet, to which he can never return. Samaritan is the last survivor of a destroyed future, to which he can never return. Superman has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled to Earth, where his alien body absorbs energy from sunlight. Samaritan has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled through time, his body having absorbed the primal energy of space and time, which he calls Empyrean Fire. Both made their debut rescuing the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger.
It’s like The Prisoner, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six is not John Drake of Danger Man, but carries about him the shadow of the latter’s past, providing his character in the later series with an instant, recognisable history. Samaritan is fleshed out by the reader’s recognition of Superman: we instantly understand Samaritan’s place in this new Universe, as we do with those other characters who we recognise as analogs.
And we also understand that the connection is two-sided: that whilst Captain America lends an air of recognisability to the Silver Agent, we know that a story centred upon the First Family is at the same time a commentary upon the Fantastic Four.
Samaritan’s return in the final story is equally thought-provoking. It takes its cue from that throwaway line about fixing him up with Winged Victory (think Wonder Woman), and goes on to take a closer look at what that might entail.
The pair discuss something of their backgrounds during an evening where they end up eating out in both of their guises, comparing and contrasting their separate experiences, yet though both have a repressed desire for companionship, they’re as awkward as two 14 year old virgins sharing a milk-shake! Neither of them can escape their self-imposed missions long enough to truly relax and forget that, all over the world, every other superhero is engaged in filling in for them so that they can try to act like the human beings they are too obsessed to be. (Crackerjack is typically self-centred about it).
Samaritan gets to relate his origin, though we don’t get to hear Winged Victory’s. Instead, the couple debate their respective lives, with Victory allowed to expound upon her admirably feminist principles (about which Samaritan is unusually obtuse).
The interplay is fascinating, and if Busiek doesn’t provide us with more than the most fleeting hints as to Winged Victory’s origins, it’s telling that it’s not until the unremarkable woman she really is changes into her other self that she starts to relax more about this whole affair, and yet it is she who ends the date on an argument when she’s back in her ‘civilian’ state. It’s an interesting commentary – and role reversal from the originals – that Samaritan is the same person as Samaritan or Asa, whilst it is Winged Victory who is ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’.
The other stories take external viewpoints, though it’s stretching things to call all of them as ‘civilians’, as we shall shortly see. The range of stories is intriguing.
Episode 2 allows Busiek to delve into Astro City’s history, in a story set in 1960. It contains one of the series’ few extended fights, as the earliest incarnation of Honor Guard, at their more Avengers-esque, battle an interdimensional menace. Busiek frames his story as a tale told by newspaper editor Elliot Mills to a junior reporter about his early days in the business, and his first by-line. The story ‘punch-lines’ upon what actually got into the paper, an utterly trivial and meaningless couple of paragraphs. Every bit of superheroics is cut out.
Busiek’s point is in support of a journalistic ideal that was already getting tenuous in the mid-Nineties, being the Press’s responsibility to tell the public the truth, and only the reliable truth that can be sourced, confirmed, proved. What Mills witnessed, no matter how fantastic, was true, but he was its sole witness.
It’s a ‘moral’ that’s grown sadly archaic, and after digesting it, most of the reader’s attention will turn back to the heroes revealed in this issue. It’s perhaps typical of Astro City that, almost twenty years on, we know almost nothing more of them than we learn in this story, with the exception of the Silver Agent – ‘the poor, doomed, Silver Agent’ – whose mystery took over a decade to unravel. Each character represents a story: it’s just the getting round to everyone.
This was followed by something of a slighter, more amusing tale, centred upon small-time crook Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein. Eyes has the luck to be in the right position when harlequin hero Jack-in-the-Box is changing out of his costume, and sees his real face. By some astute digging, he identifies the guy’s name and address. This is pure gold to Eyes: there are people who would kill to have that knowledge. Unfortunately, as Eyes works through how best to exploit his knowledge, it becomes all the more obvious that the person they’d kill for that knowledge is none other than Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein: he ends up fleeing Astro City.
Episode 4 has a more serious, and rather disturbing point to it. It centres upon Marta, a young woman in her early twenties working in the accounts department of one of Astro’s biggest law firms, right in the heart of downtown. one of the firm’s partners, Darcy Conroy, is not only an assistant DA, and a renowned trial lawyer, but she’s the fiancée of Nick Furst, of the First Family.
Marta, in contrast, comes from Shadow Hill, Astro’s most backwards district, a region that centres upon the Eastern European immigrants who built most of the old city, in the days when it was still known as Romeyn Falls. Shadow Hill is, emotionally, still tied to ‘the old country’, where ritual and mysticism, and the supernatural reign. It frightens the rest of the city, but Matra is completely comfortable. She has grown up within its environs, she knows and understands its rituals, its talismans, She can cope.
But she’s also young, bright and ambitious. Like so many of her generation, like the immigrant experience for decades, she is exposed to the wider world. She wants to be part of it, to experience more than the enclosed, limited, confined world of Shadow Hill, despite the conflict this causes in her family.
Then the firm’s skyscraper offices are attacked by the Unholy Alliance, a team of destructively powerful villains. Ms Connor summons the First Family, they come and sort the villains out, Nick Furst personally saves Marta from rape. Everybody takes it in their stride: in a world of super-characters, they’ve learned to. Marta, however, sees it in terms of Talismans: just like those she has in Shadow Hill, the people downtown have their own equivalents, which they know and understand, and she doesn’t.
It’s an interesting perception, but the disturbing aspect of the story is that Marta’s response is to abandon her job downtown, take a (by inference) much lesser job keeping the books for a local butcher, who is older than her and ‘not bad looking’, with the further inference that she will end up marrying him, as her family want. In short, save for the urge to get an apartment of her own in Shadow Hill, Marta’s decision is to give up every one of her ambitions, to turn her back upon a wider world, and sink herself within the traditions, but most of all the insularity of her heritage.
It’s an odd outcome, and I have problems with Busiek’s endorsement of so negative a reaction, especially in a writer who usually embraces an outgoing viewpoint, a willingness to absorb change and explore possibility.
It also flies in the face of the American dream, of the melting-pot, of the forging of Amercanism from all the disparate cultures of the world.
The final story in this volume is out-and-out the most comic-booky of them all. It features an elderly man, retired, living in a cheap boarding house, with a gaggle of elderly, gossiping, bitchy women and a feckless young struggling actor. However, the old man is not an old man but an alien, planted on Earth to reconnoitre the planet, and its profusion of super-beings, on behalf of an aggressor race considering the planet for conquest. The ‘old man’ is torn; Earth and its people disgusts him, but at the same time fascinates him, and he has long postponed the decision as to whether to signal invasion, or to warn his race off, that Earth would be too much trouble.
The story centres upon his final decision, when, almost on a whim, he decides to base his decision on one night in the life of athletic, acrobatic hero Crackerjack. ‘Jack, however, is a blowhard: flamboyant, vain, arrogant, a glory-stealer, overly consumed with himself. Busiek paints an interesting portrait of a superhero who, despite his outward, flashy, heroic, Errol Flynn-esque persona, is inside a pretty disgusting human being. In the end, the signal is sent: we are left to presume which way the verdict went.
So that’s Life in the Big City. It opened a door upon a not merely a city, not merely a world, but an entire Comic Book Universe, no less rich and widespread than those of DC or Marvel, but differing from both in that only a narrow window, illuminating small areas each time is visible. It’s a Universe in a single comic, one in which we only see the stories that count, and not the ‘day-to-day’, fight of the moth stories that sustain whole series. That you can get elsewhere, in spades and at boring length: Busiek is writing the stories everybody else ignores, and when change comes to Astro City‘s Universe, that change is permanent.
One last note: I’ve refrained from using the names, but the world of Astro City is also a multifarious tribute to the writers and artists who forged comic books in the first place: buildings, places, areas, streets, businesses etc. are all named after creators, and Astro City itself lies under the shadow of Mount Kirby, as indeed does the comic book industry and Jack Kirby.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.