A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – The Dark Age


Brothers and Other Strangers

The Dark Age is Astro City‘s longest and most ambitious story, and as such needed two graphic novels to collect it, Brothers and Other Strangers and Brothers in Arms. Nevertheless, it’s a single, if wide-ranging and sprawling story, and I’m going to review it as a single entity.
The story covers a period of about ten years, from 1974 to 1984. In view of Kurt Busiek’s ongoing health issues, it was originally planned as three four-issue mini-series, though in the telling the story extended to four such.
The Dark Age was originally conceived as a project for Marvel, as Marvels 2, a sequel to the landmark 1994 series that had made Alex Ross’s name. Where Marvels had laced together the Marvel Universe from 1940 to 1970, the company’s Golden and Silver Ages, the sequel would have covered the next fifteen year period which, because of the nature of the comic books published in that era, would have been a darker, less innocent story than the original: the Bronze Age.
The novel centres upon, and is narrated, turn and turn about, by two brothers, Charles and Royal Williams. Busiek introduces them in a prequel set in 1959, when the brothers are aged ten and under. Charles, the elder, is a livewire and a handful, already snatching fruit from street stalls, whilst Royal, nervous and shy, is a good kid. The prelude is a teaser for the initially unseen event that transforms both their lives and drives them for the whole story. We don’t know what it is, but it seems to involve the best and the brightest, the Silver Agent.
By the time of Book 1, things have changed. Charles is Police, honest, serious, committed and Royal is a small-time crook. They meet irregularly, and do not publicly acknowledge themselves to be brothers, not even to Charles’ fiancée, Darnice (who Royal, correctly, diagnoses as a gold-digger, much to Charles’ fury). Neither has time for heroes, and especially not the Silver Agent.
Over Book 1, we finally learn the Agent’s fate, a mystery that Busiek has been hinting at since Volume 1 issue 2: in Paris the Silver Agent shoots down a super-powered madman attending the Vietnam peace talks. He is arrested, tried, convicted and, by the end of book 1, executed. Shortly thereafter, the ‘victim’ reveals he is still alive, and that the Agent was being mentally controlled.
This is the background to the growing squabbles between the brothers, which is further complicated when the Blue Knight targets Royal, leaving an indelible sight on him that renders him vulnerable every time he comes above ground.
There’s a third element to this first section of the tale, and that’s the revelation of what marked the Williams’ in childhood: their parents callously and casually killed, their home set on fire by a Pyramid agent, and the Silver Agent tracking the killer, coming through without even noticing the hidden boys, and leaving them behind.
The story develops further in Book 2. The rift between Charles and Royal has grown wider. Charles is under pressure from his colleagues, who are taking graft: he won’t join them but he won’t betray them, despite Internal Affairs threatening to drag him in. Meanwhile, Royal is going up in the criminal world, unwillingly, as part of the Platypus’s gang.
Royal’s increasingly deep involvement in crime is mirrored by the increasing pressure Charles faces to join Lannie and the rest of his squad in accepting graft: they are unable to trust an honest cop without having the lever of his own dishonesty to use against him. Charles becomes increasingly isolated, especially after Darnice leaves him over his refusal to accepts money that she could further spend.
This takes place against the background of a growing gangwar, as the Platypus tries to increase his stake in the city against his rivals. The gangs are being stirred up by new heroes, more aggressive heroes, like Hellhound, the Jade Dragons, Street Angel and Black Velvet. The Platypus sends for help from Pyramid, who send a high-ranking officer, Aubrey Jason, to mind Jitterjack, the Divided Man.
It’s a time of confusion, a time of hard options and changing morals, and yet it’s a time for the Silver Agent, travelling backwards to his death in Book 1, yet popping up to help end the worst of it, for a time at least.
And Royal recognises Jason as the man who killed their parents.
As the gang war, orchestrated in secrecy by the Platypus’ lieutenant Deke (who takes over as The Deacon, still in charge in the Nineties, if not later), reaches its peak, Charles is gunned down by his so-called friends. Royal surrenders his freedom to save Charles, but does the most of all to save his brother by giving him purpose – the man who killed their parents.

Brothers in Arms

Books 3 and 4, collected in the second volume, move the story into the Eighties, or at least the first half of it. Charles has recovered, Royal has done his time. One works for the Government garrison, E.A.G.L.E., the other as his undercover contact in Pyramid. On the surface they’re acting against Pyramid, but they’re really after Aubrey Jason.
Unfortunately, E.A.G.L.E. gets what it wants, crippling (though not destroying) Pyramid, but the Williams’, who are both undercover by this time, are deprived of their kill, and wounded. In the background, the continued darkening of the superhero world continues apace as heroes get further and further from the ideal of helping others and, in their brutal approaches to villains, get closer to becoming indistinguishable from them.
This point is emphasised in Book 4, by when Charles and Royal have become brutalist super-characters in their own right, obsessively pursuing Jason from hide-out to hide-out, using all manner of superweapons. Both have filled out, especially the ordinarily skinny Royal. True, both have gone through extensive physical training, but I see the (unstated) effects of steroid abuse on top.
And the brothers’ pursuit of Jason forces him into seeking superpowers, and proclaiming himself with the utterly Eighties title, Lord Sovereign (even Royal comments on that so I don’t need to). Jason’s assumption of these powers leads finally to the merger with the external storyline, which has shown the era of darkness leading finally to the Pale Horseman.
And, led by Royal, who has been troubled by a sense of something he can’t fully realise throughout book 4, the Williams’ finally halt themselves in their tracks when the darkness bursts and the Dark Age starts to turn towards its end.
And to an epilogue, in which we learn that all the previous narration has taken place some twenty years later, by an ageing pair of fishermen in Biloxi, who are helping Elliott Mills prepare a feature on the times. Instead of being background, the brothers’ story becomes the spine of Mills’ piece, under the pseudonyms of Charles and Royal Williams. And it’s in the epilogue that the Dark Age really ends, in a moment that ushers in a new era – the space shuttle Challenger is rescued by a mysterious newcomer who gains the name Samaritan.
The Dark Age is, as I’ve said, by far the longest Astro City story to date, but that has the regrettable side-effect of making it the most badly affected, on original publication, by Busiek’s health-related productivity. Each mini-series ran to schedule but the wait between them was punitive, and the decision to publish Character Specials between, whilst with the best of intentions, only served to emphasise how slowly progress was being made towards resolution.
The Graphic Novels don’t suffer from that, but I am unable yet to read The Dark Age without being affected by the sag between segments.
Each ‘Book’ tells a discrete chunk of the story, intended to be complete in itself, which doesn’t help the overall flow, and which makes it harder to adjust to the inter-book transitions the Williams’ goes through: that from Book 3 to 4 is especially hard to process, and threatens to derail the story at that point.
But the greater weakness, for me, is the disjunct between what I’ve called the internal story and the external story. Busiek indulges in some metafictional editorialising in the Epilogue in setting their story as the ‘spine’ of a comprehensive overview, but that’s not what comes over to me.
Theirs is the only consistent strand in the whole story, whilst a whole bunch of things go on in the distance. The Silver Agent is clearly intended as a spinal element too, but his story is being told in reverse as he travels back in time, popping up like a deus ex machina in each subsequent Book. His is a disjointed presence, working at odds to the development of the story, and, given that he’s hitting flashpoints, high crises, on a level unrelated to the Williams’, he becomes unavoidably a Messiah figure, too remote.
Besides which, the external story has nothing to do with the Williams’. Until the final issue, they are irrelevant to the story of the dark decade, and it is no more than a background to it, the development of which is pertinent but never fundamental to their story.
And for me, that external story is too sketchy, too bitty, too under-developed to really satisfy me. It’s an impressionistic survey of a comic book era I read through, but far from disappearing in 1985, as it does in Astro City, that dark-edged, brutalist, amoral era only got stronger and stronger, and the mood and milieu on the Dark Age is more appropriate to later years than to 1974 – 1984.
What we learn is a brief, incomplete overview of a period, in which intriguing characters come and go, without explanation or development, leaving the impression that we do not understand or ‘know’ any of these people.
The closest we come to understanding is the Street Angel, who starts out, in flashback, as an athletic Spider-Man-manque, but grows steadily more grim and violent, until he realises what he has done, acts underground to redeem his sins and sacrifices himself confronting the Pale Horseman. But despite all this evidence of his life-arc, I don’t feel as if I ‘know’ the character as I do the Blue Knight of the same period.
And that’s because the Angel’s story is told piece-meal, a bit in each book, and from a distance, where the Knight, even as a secondary character to Vince Oleck, is seen close-up, in focus, in a single, tightly drawn story.
This applies to the entire era. We have ten years of onrushing history, featuring characters who come and go, in darkness, and no understanding. It may be appropriate to a Dark Age, but I find it very frustrating. It’s the wrong depth: too much for an impressionistic sweep, too shallow for real knowledge.
Don’t let that put you off. Coming to these books without the experience of delay, or the dislocating shifts accompanying each long-awaited no. 1, will enable you to better approach this as an integrated whole. I am yet unable to do so.

“To our Eternal Shame”

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