The Tarnished Angel, the fourth Astro City collection, was also the series’ second novel-length story, originally published in Volume 2, 14 – 20. It is, needless to say, an excellent story, though I have some criticisms of it. At seven issues worth, it’s the second longest Astro City story of them all, and between this and the future Dark Age, an argument could be made that Busiek’s forte in this series is in the short, tightly composed, self-contained story.
We’ll come back to that thought after discussing the story in more detail. The Tarnished Angel also marks an unwanted landmark for the series overall: it was midway through this story that publication began to slow, as Busiek began the lengthy period of medical problems that affect him to this day, causing long periods of fatigue. Not long after The Tarnished Angel was completed, Busiek ended Volume 2, with the series converting to mini-series and specials.
The story is told by Carl Donewicz, a supervillain in his mid-fifties, originally known as The Steel-Jacketed Man or, less of a mouthful, Steeljack. Donewicz is an Astro City native, coming from the Kiefer Square area, which is more or less populated by the lower end of the criminal fraternity.
Originally, Carl wanted to get out, make something of himself, and studied hard, but after being forced to kill another teenager, in self-defence, in a gang-fight, he lost heart and drifted into crime. After paying a criminal scientist for superpowers, he wound up with nearly-impenetrable steel skin.
Steeljack’s career was relatively limited: years ago, Donewicz decided to simply serve his time. The story starts after twenty years of this, with Donewicz going out on parole, wanting nothing more than a place to live, a straight job and enough money to eat. But even if his reputation didn’t precede him, nobody’s eager to hire a big, heavy guy with polished steel skin – except for the kind of job that would get Carl back inside with his parole revoked in jig time.
Kiefer Square is a place of memories for Carl, and for a growing sense of reflection about the way he’s wasted his life and how much hurt he caused his late mother. It’s also a place that’s not safe. People are dying. Heavies, washed-up muscleguys, small-time Black Masks. Someone’s getting to these people and killing them. The heroes don’t care, nor do the Police: who gives a damn about crooks being wasted?
The residents of the Square do, and through the offices of the local ‘fixer’, Ferguson Donnelly, they hire Steeljack to investigate it for them. Carl knows he’s no detective, and he tells them straight. He’s also risking his parole even talking with them.
But they still want him to do the job. And he needs the job (and the money). And he’s big enough, and tough enough to need a lot of killing: if he can somehow get on the trail of who is behind this, he stands the best chance of staying alive long enough to do something about it.
Which, in the final chapter, is precisely what tips it in Steeljack’s favour, though it would do him an injustice to suggest that’s all he had. It’s true: Donewicz is no detective, no deep thinker, and for the first half of the story he has to be led around by the nose to get anywhere. But his persistence and, at the very last, his sense of what ultimately is right and what is not (in a manner not entirely removed from John Dortmunder in the novels in which he finds himself pursuing revenge) pushes him to be where only he can salvage the day.
I’m torn about how much of the story to directly discuss. Even in the review of material that is fifteen years old, I hate revealing things that should be allowed to come to you as the author intended, but to be so reticent is to tie my hands behind my back in terms of very important points.
All that’s happened so far is in the first chapter. In a way that doesn’t come through in either Confession or (to a lesser degree) The Dark Age, the story feels somewhat schematic, with each issue dealing with a different phase or level, lacking in the sense of an ongoing, organically developing narrative.
In chapter 2, Carl tours Kiefer Square, quizzing all the surviving spouses and partners about all the dead guys and girls, it becoming clearer and clearer as one follows another that they – and Carl – are the same person, to within a fixed degree. Villain after villain, power or gimmick, each of whom who could have exploited their abilities in a legitimate manner, and probably have been well paid for it, but who were seduced by ‘the big one’, the one that would take them and their loved one out of it for good. But each time ploughing so much of the profits back into preparing for the next job, which would indeed be ‘the big one’.
It’s too much for Carl, too suffocating, too near to his growing understanding of what he must have done to his mother. And it’s emphasised when he’s approached by Yolanda, the fifteen year old daughter of Goldengloves, planning to use her Dad’s tools to do what he did, only she expects to escape, to get out, to do it. When Carl won’t cooperate, she attacks him, already fixated on her ‘chance’ and that she’s not a loser like all the rest: of course she is no different.
Chapter 3 moves up a level. Donnelly (and it’s really confusing as to whether this guy is Ferguson Donnelly or Donnelly Ferguson: both versions are used and both names are used interchangeably, and as they’re bloody Americans, both could be first names), seeing Carl at a loss, takes him to meet a friend from a different social circle, a man with a story.
He’s like Carl too, only from the other side of the fence. He used to be a superhero, dashing, vibrant, effective. But he was too much enamoured of the thrill, of what being a hero meant by way of worship, and when he found his ‘popularity’ waning, he engineered a situation whereby he would restore his prominence by shutting down a killer robot designed to resist other heroes but succumb to him. Only the villain double-crossed him: hundreds died and he was exposed.
Or rather his heroic identity was exposed. Since then he has lived in seclusion, a broken man, untouched. And still haunted by the knowledge that if it had only worked…
Thus, in a story that we are anticipating will demonstrate the good in a villain, ahead of his weakness, we are shown the mirror image of the evil in a hero, his weakness.
The next chapter is surreal. It concerns the somewhat naïve, albeit a bit of a genius, British supervillain, the Mock Turtle, and his life. As an Astro City single issue, it’s fine, and amusing to us Brits (thank you Kurt for not being so bloody ignorant/patronising as so many of your peers have been, although could you break it to Brent that Battersea Power Station isn’t actually in the Thames?).
But what the hell has this to do with our series? Where’s Astro City gone? Ah, but in the last couple of pages, being harried mercilessly by a pursuing gang out to kill him, the Turtle turns up in Keifer Square, and he bumps into Steeljack. Who immediately solicits the entire Square to blow the assailants out of the air. Hurrah! Menace over! Steeljack’s a hero! I’m sitting here wondering if Busiek really is trying to palm this off as the end of the story.
But of course he’s not. The significance of the Mock Turtle to the story is so great that Chapter 5 opens with his chalk outline on the pavement: back to the story. This next stage sees a desperate Carl pretending to want to go ‘underground’, try to locate the bad guy that way, though really he just needs the money and has gotten too desperate to care. So Donnelly (whoever) connects him to The Conquistador, who’s hiring muscle a-plenty for a massive, city-wide scheme.
Only Carl recognises who the Conquistador really is. He tries to investigate it himself, turning over rocks, stirring up trouble, but all it gets him is trouble, ending in his clashing with Yolanda on her first job and, in keeping her from getting killed by the killer, getting himself captured and arrested, with a one-way ticket back to prison and no means of getting out a warning that the job is wrong, that it’s a trap.
Next phase is escape and flight, from the Police. But by now, flight’s not good enough. The warning has to be given, and this time given to the top, to the heroes, the Angels themselves, as Carlie’s mother taught him to think of them so long ago. But they won’t listen, not believe him. All they’ll do is ship him back to prison. Quarrel, the sharpshooter, she’s the one who takes him: Quarrel, the one who did get out of Keifer Square: Quarrel, whose Dad was the first Quarrel, was a black mask, used to be a partner with the Steel-Jacketed Man. Carlie gets away, again. He has to: he has to stop it.
And finally, the last chapter,in which it all plays out, and in which Carl Donewicz wins by being, at the very last, too tough to kill.
It ends with the sense that Carl may, after all, make it in the straight life, may even reconcile himself to what he was and what he’s now free to be. Is he the Tarnished Angel, the man who might still grow wings, dirty though they are? Or is the Tarnished Angel the man who will now spend the rest of his life in an institution,where he will be kept from ever doing anything like this again?
I don’t know who we’re meant to think that this story is about, and I suspect that Busiek intends us to form our own opinions on that.
As I say, the plot feels a bit schematic in how its phases are split so neatly into six ascending levels (for this purpose I am going to exclude the aberrant issue 17). Emotionally, in his depiction of the varying moral aspects of the story and its players, Busiek doesn’t strike a false note, except in the very end. The Villain, for all that he has done for the side of the Angels, has conceived of a plan based entirely in his wounded vanity, has killed cold-bloodedly, and intended to kill more.
Yet he escapes untouched, bound for a private, and no doubt luxuriously appointed sanatorium. He is not even exposed publicly. Nothing is done by way of punishment for his crimes, both actual and intended. He’s even taken away, by the heroes, before the law gets there, by his own side. They take him away before they even show a microsecond’s concern for the flattened Steeljack who was right all along, and who sacrificed his freedom to do the right thing, and who is abandoned, injured, alone.
I’m not a right wing, hang ’em and flog ’em merchant, far from it. I believe that the mentally ill should be in hospital, not prison. But on a moral level, I’m afraid this stinks to me, stinks of corporatist indifference to the law, of vigilantes closing ranks to protect their own with no more thought of justice than Ku Klux Klan members circling the one with the petrol on his hands to keep his hidden.
And I can’t for one second share in Carl’s ‘recognition’ that the bad guy used to mean something. It’s an area where the carefully circled moral relativity doesn’t work on me.
But this is still a very fine book, and it’s a long look into a world where we are used to being presented either with moral blacks and whites, or else carefully manipulated and too formally designed simple shades of grey, and if I’m vehement about a place where I think it slips, it’s because the book is so damned good in other respects.
I’m hoping that Volume 3 will prove to have retained that capability.
The next volume will, again, be a collection of short stories, single issues (with one, glorious, two-part exception). Through this angle of attack, Busiek makes numerous, well-thought-out points. Through The Tarnished Angel, he makes some very thoughtful points, causes for thought, none of which are the point of the story, because they’re subsumed to the larger arc of the narrative.
I’m not saying that Busiek is inept at the longer form story: Confession is excellent, showcasing a plot that is much more organically developed than here. The Dark Age would also suffer from schematic elements, although these are inbuilt, given the story’s format.
And that Mock Turtle thing is truly bizarre.
But the effects Busiek is seeking to create, the insight derived from looking round the back to see the reverse of the story, are diminished by being put at the mercy of an incomplete narrative, whose climax steers a little too close again to standard comics territory – not to mention my galloping reservations about the moral quality of the outcome.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.