After the ‘failure’ of Astro City at Image comics, the series transferred to Homage, the personal imprint run by Jim Lee, one of the Image founders, where it’s remained ever since, until this month, and the first issue of the series from DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Astro City volume 2 would run for a total of 22 issues from 1995 to 1998, its schedule growing increasingly sporadic to to illness on the part of Busiek, which was eventually traced to mercury poisoning, causing bouts of extreme fatigue during which the writer, having a wife and family to support, concentrated his limited writing time on the better-paid work available to him at various times from Marvel and DC.
The second volume featured a mixture of short stories a la Life in the Big City, and novel length stories. The first of these was ‘Confession’, running in issues 4 – 9, and collected as the second trade paperback.
In his introduction to the Graphic Novel, Busiek discusses Robert Heinlein’s theories as to the very limited nature of stories. One of Heinlein’s categories is ‘A Boy becomes a Man’, and this is the ultimate basis of this novel.
The boy is Brian Kinney, who narrates the story from beginning to end. Originally, Kinney comes from outside Astro, from the small community of Buchanan Corners where his Dad, now deceased, was the Town Doctor. Kinney senior was a better doctor than businessman, more concerned with the treatment of illness than the collection of fees. Unsurprisingly, he was mercilessly exploited by the neighbours he served, and when he died destitute, was stigmatised by them as a deadbeat, and Brian as a chip off the same block. Brian runs away to the Big City, to seek his fortune.
Brian, like many a boy or girl in their late teens, is ambitious: he wants to become a superhero. the best way of doing this is to get taken on by an existing hero as a side-kick, and Astro City has the greatest concentration of costumes in the world. The first thing to do is to get to meet them.
He achieves this by initially getting a position at Bruisers, a down-market Bar and Grill, run by K. O. Carson, who used to be the Black Badge before he retired. Bruisers is the bar of choice for the more boisterous, rough and ready heroes, and Brian is actually a cut above that as waiter/busboy, so Carson recommends him uptown to a very exclusive, very unadvertised club, populated with the more creme de la creme of the community, a place where masks and costumes can be forgotten, where they can meet and mingle and relax.
Except, of course, that the crass Crackerjack turns up in costume, horribly embarrassing his girlfriend, Jessica Taggart (aka Quarrel (II)), and blowing the club’s security so that, a couple of nights later, the place is invaded by cheap gimmick crook, Glue-Gun.
In order not to be set upon by a couple of dozen heroes, Glue-Gun grabs a busboy as hostage, threatening to shoot him a skull-ful of epoxy. But the busboy he’s seized is Brian, who takes the opportunity to use his own martial arts training and knock Glue-Gun for a loop, to the mass approval of the guests.
Unfortunately, Brian’s acted out of turn. All the other waitresses/waiters/busboys and girls have been here for a number of years, looking for that shot, that chance to impress and be picked out, the one that, as far as they’re concerned, Brian’s stolen from them. They’re going to beat the shit out of him in the yard. That is, until a voice intervenes, that of the mysterious, black-clad hero, of whom no photo has ever been taken: the Confessor. And the Confessor wants to speak to Brian…
So Brian gets his wish, albeit under the rather unfortunate name of Altar Boy, undergoing training with the Confessor (whose real name is Jeremiah Parrish, and whose home/base is in an abandoned crypt in the sprawling, unfinished Grandenetti Cathedral). The Confessor is a mystery, but they’re supposed to be detectives, aren’t they? If Altar Boy wants answers, he has to do what they do with villains: find them for himself.
All of which is set-up for the second phase of the story. It’s a hot, dry, increasingly strained summer in Astro. The heat is driving people crazy, and they have something to be crazy about, because there’s a killer striking in Shadow Hill. He’s been killing for some time, but the public only starts to take notice, and demand action, after the first white victim, a smiling, beautiful, but above all white teenager.
It awakens something in the city, something that always underlies a world where figures of immense power, who are simultaneously protectors and ostensible oppressors (how could you stop them doing anything they decided to do?) have such incredible visibility. Gradually, public opinion, fed in many ways by the growing aggression of a City Mayor who seems determined to stand up for the ordinary people of America, the ones who seem to be beneath the notice of the arrogant supers, starts to turn nasty.
And it’s not just the city that’s disturbed, but Brian too, a new figure in transit between two worlds who can’t help sympathising with some of the citizen’s opinions, and wondering why he, and the Confessor, aren’t doing more to directly pursue this killer. That they’re not seems to have something to do with Shadow Hill’s antipathy to the Confessor himself, their obvious fear of him, the one time he crosses its boundaries. So much for Brian to think about, so many patterns to look at, trying each time to find what doesn’t fit, what is out of place, what inescapable conclusion it leads to.
The first revelation is the Confessor’s secret, one that, despite Brian’s trust for the man, disturbs him and leaves him in deep doubt about his role, and whether he should continue as Altar Boy. Meanwhile, the tensions continue to rise, and Astro City’s administration eventually declares virtual war upon its masked community, heading towards a massive quasi-military presence, to support legitimate law and order.
And it’s at that stage that the Confessor sees the flaw in the pattern, and leads Brian to the second, and ultimate revelation, of the other secret that has underpinned all the events of this story. And Altar Boy learns more than just one lesson from more than just one teacher as the hidden currents run through into the open and a resolution.
There’s an interesting macro-coda to the story in that, after all the dust has settled, the Shadow Hill Killer strikes again, but this time the culprit is apprehended and defeated by the area’s most unusual protector, the Hanged Man. The Killer had nothing to do with anything. It was just a coincidence, an unrelated story, seized upon and exploited as a smokescreen. And there’s an even more interesting micro-coda, four years on from the events of the story, demonstrating just how Brian responds to the lessons he has learned, and the Man he has become.
Overall, Confession is an intriguing, thoughtful, well-constructed story that shows a very different side to Astro City and to how ordinary people respond to heroes at different times. It also illustrates one of the advantages Busiek has created for himself in this series, in that, just like Marvel and DC, his Universe has a past. But unlike them, it’s a genuine past, not an ever-mutable construct that shifts according to the temper of the times, and it has a depth that isn’t available to either of the big companies’ insistence that all their stories have taken place over a fixed period of time, constantly shifting forward.
Astro’s history, as we’ll go on to see, is linked to the history of the comic book industry, to the mood of various eras influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the comics of that time. It lends an extra level of fascination, especially as Busiek’s trick is to refer to historical things in the way that we would do in real life: as history that everyone knows and recalls, needing no more than a brief reference. We are warned that the mood of suspicion and paranoia in this story is not new, that it was prevalent in the Seventies too. Names such as the Blue Knight and the Pale Horseman are dropped, piquing our curiosity.
In time, we will be satisfied as to those two characters, and the temper of the times in which they appeared, but the beauty of Astro City is that its history is long, and, given the publishing difficulties that would arise as a consequence of Busiek’s health issues, much of it is still the mystery in which it begins.
As for Confession, it is rounded off with “The Nearness of You”, a one-off story not published in either of the Astro City series, but instead in a promo issue of the then-successful Comics magazine, Wizard.
Just as Astro City presents a Universe in one comic book, this tale has Busiek presenting a Universe-wide, time and reality shattering event a la Crisis on Infinite Earths in a sixteen page story – or, to be more accurate, in three pages of that story, which is only right and proper given that it’s really only a MacGuffin. Only Busiek, only Astro City…
“The Nearness of You” focusses on Michael Tenicek, an ordinary guy being driven slowly demented by his memories. His days and nights are filled with memories of Miranda, a woman he knows, in intimate detail. But he doesn’t know who she is, or why he knows her, or where he met her. His friends and family have no idea who he’s talking about. He’s unable to think about anything else, and it’s destroying his life.
Until, one night, the Hanged Man comes to him in a ‘dream’. Tenicek’s ‘memories’ are dangerous: they are weakening reality. There was an event in which all of reality, all time and space was destroyed, but then it was reformed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect match. All sorts of little details were changed: Air Ace fought the Barnstormers on a Sunday, not a Monday.
Miranda was Tenicek’s wife, but because of that changed detail, her grandparents never met. But his love for her is too strong. He has a choice: to give up those memories, forget Miranda utterly, or to retain them, and with that a sense of understanding that won’t explain but will relieve. Tenicek is one of many who have to make this choice.
The story is simple and affecting. In a universe of superheroes, of vast cosmic beings and cosmic wars in which reality is uncreated and recreated to serve a company’s continuity reboot, these are the unconsidered side-effects, the changes that beak hearts into impossible shapes that no-one cares about, except in this short moment of recognition of a risk everybody takes for granted.
Tenicek chose to remember and understand. Everybody does. The heart in all of us rises to that choice.
And next time DC rewrites its entire continuity, keep a thought for all the people who get fucked over by it. Even if it’s only the ‘real’ Justice Society of America.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.