A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Family Album

After Confession had been extracted to appear as a complete story, there’s an unavoidable rag-bag undertone to the third Astro City collection, Family Album, which brings together volume 2, nos 1-3 and 10-13.
This is another batch of short stories, though two of the tales reprinted in here are two-parters.
Curiously, the stories available here are heavily weighted towards the superhero (or, in one memorable case, supervillain) experience, with only the opening story really portraying the observer’s experience.
This is the opening episode, re-starting Astro City with an issue that re-delineates the purpose and the metier of the series.
It’s narrated by Ben Pullam*, father of two daughters, new arrival in Astro City, and who’s very conflicted about what he should be doing. Pullam’s marriage has broken down, in circumstances unrevealed but painful: his wife has a new partner, and he basically fears that he is running away from something too hard for him to bear. More than that, he fears he may be teaching his daughters to run away from hard situations instead of confront them.
The story explores Astro City physically, nodding to such things as the ongoing mystery of the Silver Agent’s fate, but the biggest lesson that Pullam faces comes when the city is attacked by a Thundergod, determined upon razing it to the ground if his kidnapped bride is not returned to him.
The heroes turn out in force, and the city turns out in its own kind of force: the entire block gathers on the rooftop to watch, except for one kid who’s inside doing his homework: if the city’s going to be destroyed, what does it matter? asks Pullam, aghast: and if it’s saved, he still needs to have his homework in on time, his pragmatic and much more experienced neighbour replies.
Disaster is averted, but Pullam is already planning to leave; the city is too dangerous to bring up his daughters. But in the morning, the clear-ups crews are out, the neighbours are getting together a pot-luck for the workers, and he gets to see a different side of things, a sense of community that doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s a question of which lessons he feels his girls should learn – and his eventual decision is to stay.
(*Yes, the Ben Pullam of Volume 3, issue 1).

A few Fursts – Astra is in the middle

Busiek followed this by a two-parter, centring on Astra Furst, of the First family. Astra is a rarity: she’s a ten year old girl, of genius level intelligence, whose body is composed of energy, and she’s a fully-fledged member of the team, which now stretches across three generations. Busiek approaches things carefully, introducing the readers to Astra via a TV appearance which actually demonstrates her ignorance of the common things of the world, and of childhood.
This leads to a degree of dissatisfaction for Astra herself, furthered when she catches sight of a hopscotch grid in a nearby schoolyard, and wants to know more about it. When she can’t get a satisfactory explanation from either her mother or her robot tutor, Astra decides to go off on an ‘adventure’, joining the school as a new transfer and learning how to play hopscotch against the school bully.
There’s a quite brilliant sequence in the second part where, against the counterpoint of Astra’s affairs at school her distraught family, who’ve assumed she’s been kidnapped, descend on several of their enemies, demanding to know what they’ve done with Astra. It’s a very effective demonstration of the breadth and height of the First Family’s world, the details of which take place entirely in the reader’s imagination where they are so much more fun.
That the First Family are, as I’ve said, analogs of the Fantastic Four, lends an additional reality to those imaginings.
What’s more, when Astra reveals herself, on winning her hopscotch game, it earns her a place at the school and the chance to mix with kids her age on a regular basis.
After the intervention of Confession, the series resumed with my single favourite Astro City story, “Show ‘Em All”, featured in volume 2 no 10, and starring the villain The Junkman.

Would you recommend having your Astrobank robbed by this man?

It begins with a very skilful and completely successful robbery at the Astrobank: the Junkman’s devices – ingenious, highly advanced technology housed in broken toys and appliances thrown out – work perfectly, and over the course of the night, the 85 year old villain removes $7,000,000 in gold bullion, so smoothly that the only evidence there is that a robbery has even taken place is that the gold’s gone.
It’s the crowning glory of the Junkman’s career, his revenge on Society for rejecting him, as Engineer Hiram Potterstone, when he reached mandatory retirement age twenty years earlier.
So Potterstone heads off to Rio, to enjoy the fruits of his endeavours and generally bask a bit. But his basking turns sour when his young… companion can’t be persuaded that Los Superios aren’t the best things on Earth, smarter than every villain there could be. Potterstone’s dissatisfaction multiplies, wherever he goes: everybody praises the heroes, but he’s beaten them all, beaten them so much that nobody knows he’s done it…
The Junkman returns to America and starts a new crime wave. In Detroit, he attempts to repeat the Astrobank crime, only this time something goes wrong. He’s prepared for M.P.H. and gets away with some of the loot, but the talk is starting. Then he tries the jewellery stores in New Orleans, but the Black Rapier is more of a detective and gets there first: even so, the Junkman is ready for him.
But he’s not prepared for Jack-in-the-Box when he tries to repeat the Astrobank robbery, and this time his brain doesn’t prevail over Jack’s brawn, Potterstone is taken, identified, his hideout is discovered, all his devices. Everything’s revealed (except the whereabouts of the money). And he’s going in to trial, faced by one of the greatest trial lawyers in the land, with the eyes of the press on him as every detail of his ingenious plans are exposed.
Curiously, the Junkman does not appear concerned. Because, taped inside the chandelier in the courtroom, is another one of his little devices, planted weeks ago. Soon, he’ll put the second part of his plan into operation…

The Harlequin Hero

The remaining stories in this volume do rather represent a falling-off in standard. A two-parter based on Jack-in-the-Box does answer some questions about the hero’s past, especially the fact that Zachary Johnson is the second Jack, having taken over the role in 1987, after discovering that the original Jack-in-the-Box was his father, Jack.
The point of this story is the confused feelings that Zach Johnson has within about his father’s role as a costumed hero who, in the end, lost his life fighting crime, when Zach was only twelve. Though he’s rationalised his feelings of abandonment after discovering his father’s secrets, and has gone on to succeed him, Zach is still conflicted, and this is brought out when he is forced to face two incredible parodies of himself: one a biomechanical travesty, the other a biologically enhanced travesty.
Zach’s horror is to learn that both are his son, from different potential futures. Both have disastrously misunderstood his legacy, and both react homicidally at his ‘apostasy’ from their separate but parallel images.
That alone is bad enough, but the worst of it is that both ‘Jackson’s were born without a father, Zach having died before they were born. The problem becomes acute because, after capturing both Jacksons, Zach returns home to Tamra’s ‘good news’ that she is pregnant.
Zach is torn between the instinct to use his abilities to defend others, and his desire not to subject his unborn child to the same trauma he faced. It’s a conflict that’s intensified by the appearance of a third putative son – this time refreshingly un-selfmutilated, indeed utterly normal – but still haunted by the loss of a father he never knew.
The problem with this story is that, the first part especially, it’s entirely too conventional, and the solution is equally conventional and foreseeable. Just as Zach is Jack-in-the-Box (2), what’s needed is Jack-in-the-Box (3), a street kid already known to Jack, on the cusp of that dangerous point where the only feasible future is to throw in with the gangs. Instead, with Zach monitoring and training, Roscoe James takes over the harlequin costume, and Zach and Tamra are free to have their baby in faith and confidence.
It’s well-written, and the art is, as usual, excellent, but it’s a mark of the expectations Astro City had set for itself that it falls down for being too superhero for far too much of its length.
The last story in this collection is a truly oddball one, as goofy in its way as some of the classic Silver Age tales. It’s the story of Loony Leo, a cartoon character who once walked off the silver screen and into real life, an unintended side-effect of a machine a villain was using against the unfailingly polite, immaculately dressed hero The Gentleman. Think of it as being a ‘real-life’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if the Rabbit had walked off the screen into the audience and then had to cope with being alive.
It’s a neat idea, presented in a downbeat way, and with the underlying moral that some people can’t be protected from themselves, not when it comes to show business, but it lacks a point that attaches it to Astro City‘s real-life grounding, and as the last story in this volume, it leaves a bit of an inconsequential feeling at the end.
Next, in both Volume 2, and the Graphic Novel sequence, would come the second novel-length story.

You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.

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