Local Heroes marks the point at which Astro City began to run into serious difficulties. A glance at the original publication data in the credits reveals that the stories contained herein come from a mixture of the ongoing series, a mini-series and a one-off special. Kurt Busiek’s increasingly severe medical difficulties, undiagnosed for most if not all of the period covered in this book, forced drastic changes on the series.
After The Tarnished Angel, Busiek had announced a sequence of short stories, focussing on the people who live outside the superhero world but are affected by it in differing ways. Unfortunately, it took so long to get the first two of these out that, out of a sense of obligation to his readers, Busiek decided to suspend Volume 2 and, for the foreseeable future, continue Astro City via short-run mini-series, scheduled to appear only when enough issues were compiled to ensure reliable publication.
The first of these was Local Heroes. Consisting of five issues, it was intended to complete Busiek’s sequence of short stories begun in Volume 2. However, one of these got out of hand and insisted (rightly and gloriously) on stretching to two issues. The story forced out then appeared,in extended form, in a one-off special that brings up the rear of this volume.
Unusually, this is the only volume of the series not to print its stories in publication order, with “Newcomers” from Local Heroes 1 appearing first, ahead of the two remaining Volume 2 issues. It’s a broadbrush story, of the kind Busiek does so well, narrated by Pete Donacek, main doorman at a major Astro City Hotel. Donacek, who first came to Astro after a busted knee ended his pro hockey career, has knocked around the town twenty years or so and knows it well. He can relate the city to us even as we watch the differing experiences – and reactions! – of several visitors to the hospital.
It’s the kind of story that doesn’t have a plot, just a string of illustrative vignettes, but Busiek knows better than to leave us without a wrap up: early in the story, Donacek watches a group of teenagers go by, paying particularly attention to a blonde girl. Late in the issue, he flashes back to a street battle involving giant robots or statues, in which he saved a baby from being crushed: the final page brings the teenager back past the hotel, and she is the baby. Donacek doesn’t know her name and never will, but the responsibility still sits on him and he watches out for her, every day. Like the more famous denizens of Astro City, he too wears a uniform.
Following this is another of my favourite Astro City stories (there are two such in this volume), featuring Sally Twinings. Sally is a writer,of comic books, learning her craft at Bulldog Comics under veteran editor Manny Manning. Despite the fact that they’re supposed to be writing factual accounts of actual superhero stories (and you were wondering how superhero comics would work in a superhero world?), Manny wants everything hyped up, Marvel-style. He wants thrills, excitement, drama, especially where there are none.
It’s a sharp two-hander, between Sally’s attempts to reconcile her own instincts with the lies and exaggeration Manny demands, and that he brings to all his encounters, even the one with the villain Glowworm, who’s mightily offended at being painted as a racist in one of Manny and Sally’s comics (“How does (your mother) feel about you robbing banks?”).
Manny comes out of that with three broken limbs and an idea for a new range about cosmic heroes and interstellar stories, characters who “don’t give a gnat’s fart” about what happens on Earth. Turns out Sally is pretty good at these and the new line is a massive success – until six months later the Bulldog Comics building, with Manny in it, vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a strange odour that Sally compares to a gnat’s fart…
The final issue of Volume 2 takes another sidelong look at what it’s like to be on the fringe of superherodom, with Mitch Goodman, stuntman turned actor, playing a bit part role as a superhero on a TV soap, actually prevents a robbery in real life. The result is massive publicity and the opportunity to jump his career up another level. The problem is that the publicity attracts people who don’t want more heroes around and who would like to make Mitch into the kind of example no-one wants to be.
Back at the mini-series, we come to a story in which I appear to differ from the overwhelming majority of my fellow fans: they love it and I think it’s the worst story to date. It’s set in the early Sixties and features a major, but hitherto unmentioned hero named Atomicus. Or rather, it features Atomicus’s girl-friend Irene Meriweather, a career girl in an era inimical to career girls.
The story is simple: Irene falls in love with Atomicus, is challenged by him to prove herself worthy of sharing his life, spends the whole story trying and failing to prove he is Adam Peterson. You recognise this? Of course you do: it’s Lois Lane and Superman, twenty-odd years of psychologically disturbing, pathologically insane stories of obsession, instability and superhero dickishness, given a ‘serious’ twist in Busiek’s tale by making Atomicus not a grown man, in possession of full understanding, but a naïve child.
The story ends in tragedy: one Atomicus manoeuvre too many causes Irene to snap and simply rip off Peterson’s clothes in public: he, in turn, screams how much he’s hated her constantly pressuring him and he leaves Earth, never to return. Irene is publicly fired and humiliated and, though she spends the rest of her life well and worthily, she blames herself ever after.
Why don’t I like this? In part, it’s because, unlike so many other past-set stories, Busiek produces Atomicus like a rabbit out of a hat: he hasn’t even been named since, which feels wrong for such a major, powerful figure, clearly meant to be another Superman-analog. It feels detached and unreal. It’s also a story whose comic book antecedent is simultaneously too blatant and yet insufficiently related for this story to properly work as a commentary on those old Lois Lane tales.
Irene’s daughter (herself a new superheroine) tries to make her mother see how badly she was treated by the superjerk, which is a very pertinent comment on Superman in the Lois Lane stories, but the truth is that Busiek has removed Atomicus too far from Superman for this to pertain to him. To be frank, the Superman/Lois Lane stories feature two unpleasant people continually humiliating themselves and each other: try to impress that template on a couple where both are more sympathetic but caught up in a tragic misunderstanding of each other, and the commentary fails completely.
No such comments about the next story, featuring a smart, slightly snooty Astro teenager forced to spend the summer in the country with her cousins, who spends most of her time being politely dismissive of what they see as cool – especially in respect of the neighbourhood hero, Roustabout – only to learn her lesson in time. Nice, if slight.
Which leads neatly to that two-parter that took over the end of the mini-series, which is the other of my favourite stories in this volume. That’s because it’s about the Law, and I was a lawyer for thirty years so this is on my home turf, and I understand the sheer enormity of it from the inside.
It’s about rising trial lawyer, Vince Oleck, who’s been handed the case from hell. It couldn’t be simpler: Richie Forgionne, mobster’s son, bludgeoned his date to death in a restaurant in front of 41 witnesses. Open and shut. The world’s greatest lawyer couldn’t defend that, let alone Vince. But Forgionne’s dad expects his boy to walk, and Vince has a wife and young son…
And it’s 1974, when things have begun to go bad. Busiek’s hinted at a bad era, of suspicion, doubt and fear, and it will be the subject of the next extended saga. Here we are: the Silver Agent is dead, Nixon is fighting Watergate, the clouds are gathering. There’s a new ‘hero’ on the streets, the Blue Knight, and the difference is that he kills criminals.
Alone at the sharp end, with no argument, and no defence, Vince Oleck starts to feel the stirrings himself, the stirrings of something more primitive, something older, demanding that he act for himself, protect himself and his family. His friend Josh is a cop, a cop who’s concerned for him. But Josh lost his young son a couple of months ago, killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by (check).
And that’s when an offhand, jokey comment by Vince’s wife, triggers the moment of inspiration.
It’s absolutely hilarious because it’s not merely absurd beyond belief but also completely and coldly logical in a world where superheroes really exist, but Vince starts to recall all the prosecution witnesses, who were so absolutely certain that their evidence pointed only at Richie Forgionne, and starts to question them on past cases.
Like the one where the Doppel Gang robed banks looking like Lyndon Johnson, Elizabeth Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, down to blood samples and fingerprints.
Like the time Julius Furst of the First family was arrested for treason, only it was his other-dimensional counterpart from the Worst Family.
Like when Supersonic died, but came back to life on the morgue table when the MO was about to start the autopsy…
It’s outrageous, it’s unbelievable, the shock and the concept cause howls of laughter. But within Astro City it is inevitable, and it is correct. Richie Forgionne walks. His dad wants Vince inhouse as their mouthpiece. And Vince runs.
It’s not the Law that protects him, but the Blue Knight, for the simplest of reasons.
At the end, the fact that a vigilante who kills, driven by some sort of primeval urge, undermines Oleck’s attempts to reassure himself that the world makes sense and the Law is a structure that works. He doesn’t continue long as a trial lawyer, but thirty years later he is a Professor of Law, teaching the trial lawyers – defence and prosecution – of tomorrow.
The story squeezed out of the mini-series appears last, released as a Character special, in expanded form, and I’m sorry to say that it makes for a disappointing ending. It features the afore-mentioned hero, Supersonic, Dale Enright, a bright, breezy, endlessly inventive hero in the Sixties who now, at the start of the 21st century, is an old man, a widower living in retirement near Astro City. But he’s dragged back into costume by his old Police contact, Captain Robbins, who knew his identity all along.
A giant killer robot is threatening the neighbourhood, and Robbins wants him to stop it. All the younger, more active heroes are otherwise engaged (though the real reason Robins has come to Dale is that he wants to prove that the old warhorses still function, having recently been retired against his will).
Reluctantly, Dale suits up and roars into battle, powers still intact, but his inventive mind, his gift for stratagems, his endless bag of tricks is empty now. All he can offer is brute force, and whilst this prevails, it’s only at the expense of massive property damage, and severe bruising to Enright’s ego.
It’s another story about ageing, but this time about realising when to step down. It’s a less interesting motif that the Junkman’s, in “Show ‘Em All”, and it’s delivered via what is Astro City‘s longest superhero battle, which combines to reduce the ambit of the story and manoeuvre the story to the conventional, which is always a disappointment.
I said that’s the end, but it isn’t. There’s a six page short, entirely free of superheroes (well, I say free: the superheroes are talked of and Winged Victory can be seen in the deep background, but they are beside the point). A young boy visits the Fire Station to thank a fireman who entered a burning building to get him out: the fireman lost a leg. The boy and his Dad drive him to his next appointment, visiting the guys who entered a burning building to get him out: it’s a graveyard.
Put like that, it sounds sentimental, almost manipulative, and if you are too dyed a cynic, you will think that after reading the story, in which Busiek says some important things but, most of all, gives the characters an open, honest life. It was created for a second volume of stories, dedicated to, and sold to raise money for the emergency workers who entered the Twin Towers on 9/11. If it’s emotionally simple, it has the right to be.