I’m cheating slightly, in that I don’t actually own the Shining Stars GN: it was published in hardback but, probably due to Wildstorm Comics being enfolded into DC, was never put out as a Trade Paperback, and I’ve enough of the collector’s anally retentive mentality in me to want a uniform collection.
However, I do have the original issues from which the last collection to date has been compiled, these being the respective Character Specials issues featuring Samaritan (1 part), Beautie (1 part), Astra Furst (2 parts) and the Silver Agent (2 parts), and I’m assuming they’re collected in that order.
The Character Specials were designed to bridge the gap between the increasingly widely spaced books of The Dark Age, to give Astro City’s readers something to follow, and as a little contemporary relief from such a long story set so resolutely in the past.
The Samaritan story is the best of this collection, and another of my favourite stories. It’s the first story to directly feature Samaritan since Volume 1 issue 6, but though it’s supposedly his story, Samaritan is firmly second fiddle to his implacable foe, his Lex Luthor, Infidel.
It’s Infidel’s voice that guides us through “The Eagle and the Mountain”, which begins with the ancient parable that gives the story its title. Each year, Father Eagle flies to the Great Mountain to sharpen his beak. When he says he will miss the Mountain when it is gone, it replies that that will never happen, for he is the Great Mountain and Father Eagle is but a single bird. But the Mountain and the Age went, as did a Second Age, and now Father Eagle sharpens his beak upon the Third Great Mountain.
This is a parable that Infidel learned in his childhood, in Africa, in a land now long lost. The child craved knowledge and endured hardship and slavery to gain it, before he was transformed by the fundamental energies of the Universe, i.e., Samaritan’s Empyrean Fire.
Infidel was self-regarding, dictatorial, tyrannical and, to escape the continual disturbances of common folk seeking to burn the wizard, removed his empire to the distance, destroyed, desolate future. Until the day that Samaritan saved the Space Shuttle Challenger, destroying that future utterly.
Since then, the two have fought each other to restore and re-restore their differing versions of that future. Until the day that Infidel destroyed the world entirely.
Forced to work together, the enemies restored the world, in Samaritan’s version. Since then, Infidel has retired to a self-created Citadel in another dimension, where he runs things as he chooses. Each year, alternating as hosts, the two meet, seemingly cordially, checking on one another.
The story is their latest meeting, and Infidel’s careful description of his history is interspersed with their dinner conversation. Busiek and Anderson use the comics form to highlight discrepancies between Infidel’s calm, philosophical narration, and certain realities, but he accuses Samaritan of being more brutal and direct in his use of the Empyrean Fire, where he is more subtle and measured, and it is clear from the conversation that he is far more sophisticated than Samaritan.
The whole set-up obviously recalls Superman and Lex Luthor, though it’s not an exact parallel, nor a commentary on that relationship, given that Infidel’s only resemblance to Luthor is in being an enemy.
Once the dinner ends, Samaritan returns home with advanced scientific ideas that, to Infidel, are trifles, but which exceed our understanding (though they’re still going to have to be checked for traps!)
For Infidel, it is straight to his version of surveillance tapes, focussing on the moment when, in the conversation, he drew Samaritan to considering a more dictatorial role himself, to make his world easier to deal with. And he finds what he thought he detected: the faintest sub-vocalisation of a passing ‘If Only…’.
Infidel is happy. He believes Samaritan can be turned. But he again remembers the fable of the Eagle and the Mountain. And wonders whether he is the Eagle, or is he perhaps the Mountain?
The Beautie Special was a much overdue examination of a strange figure who had cropped up as part of Honor Guard enough times to intrigue. It was clear that ‘she’ was some form of robot, and now Busiek was read to reveal the full story.
Beautie is indeed a highly sophisticated robot, a life-sized version of the famous Beautie (i.e., Barbie) doll. She’s been around since the late Sixties, is a hero, is even a living symbol for the toy company that makes the doll, But not even Beautie knows her origins, and now she’s beginning to wonder. rather haphazardly, as it happens, in fits and quickly forgotten starts as we follow her out-of-superhero-hours.
In one form or other, all of Astro City’s stories have been narrated by someone, the voice of the central character narrating their tale. Busiek breaks with this approach: there is still a narrative voice, but not the Omniscient Narrator of old. The story is told in a kind of third person personal, and the detached tone and slight distance this creates serves to illustrate Beautie’s strangeness and continuing inability to fully understand things around her.
Slowly, her wondering gets more intensive and the few facts Beautie discovers begin to stick, until she finally finds her way to her creator, a middle-aged woman doing some gardening in a suburb. Who, frustratedly, curses Beautie’s faulty programming and sends her away again, telling her to forget. Which she does.
It’s happened before, several times over, but this time MPH, Beautie’s Honor Guard colleague, has followed, and he learns the full story. The middle-aged woman was the daughter of a supervillain, Dr Gearbox. She inherited his genius – indeed, even at eight, she was better than him – and built Beautie because she wanted to show that she could help him. Unfortunately, she unveiled Beautie just as he returned from a heavy defeat and between that frustration, hid inherent chauvinism, and even jealousy, he rejected the girl’s efforts and told her to get rid of Beautie. Traumatised, she had told Beautie to get lost and forget everything, but at intervals Beautie returns and she has to do it all over again.
We’re left with a hint that next time, maybe, it will be different: MPH points out that she can be proud of what she’s achieved with Beautie, and that the lady is a good and vital person. In the meantime, Beautie looks at her tiny, inanimate sisters, without wondering. Yet.
In contrast, the Astra two-parter is a sweeter, brighter affair altogether, and contains a brilliant SF concept that could form the spine of an entire series of books or comics but which is, in Astro City terms, a throwaway.
It’s also a useful demonstration of one of the principles behind the series that’s been implicit in everything I’ve talked about, which has not to this point been openly stated: unlike every major comic book universe, Events Occur In Real Time. We focussed on Astra in Volume 2, issues 2-3 (collected in Family Album), when she was ten. That was eleven years ago: in this story, Astra is now 21, and has just graduated from college.
The story takes place on Graduation Night, starting out at a club where Astra has gone with her two BFFs and her boyfriend Matt. All three are ordinary folk, not super in any way. The whole world wants her, she’s an amazing celebrity, the paparazzi magazines are trying continually to get stuff about her (and the kind of devices they use are exponentially more subtle than those we have).
But Astra, having grown up in a world where she is *Astra Furst!*, where everybody wants her for her name and not who she is, is considering her future and how it can be more the way it is with Matt, who didn’t even recognise her when he first approaches her.
Matt’s ordinary, decent, kind, all the things Astra wants him for, but she the evening progresses, everybody’s wish to congratulate her only goes to emphasise how far out of place he is. Invites to join a new superhero team, a delegation from her grandmother, Madame Majestrix, installing her officially in the succession, even her own family. And still she’s dogged by “The Inside Scoop”, wanting watercooler dirt on her, uninterested in any of the interesting things.
She takes Matt out into space, to a party planet, where they can relax and just be (though even there Astra ends up acting the hero). And Busiek introduces his throwaway concept, the Gordian Knot, a fantastic tangle of universes wound into an incredible, multi-dimensional crush. There’s work to be done here, knowledge that makes Augustus Furst look like a kindergarten teacher, universes to be slowly, ultra-carefully unwound and freed.
And Astra can’t take behaving as if everything’s normal any longer. Matt’s the one who’s feeding “The Inside Scoop” and it’s destroying her but she has to know why he’s betraying her.
And it’s simple, sordid, stupid and obvious, and it raises the question about how the super-powered can really integrate into the world. Because Matt sees himself as a nobody – an impression the parade of colourful contacts so far has done nothing to dispel – but as Astra’s boyfriend he’s been something of a somebody, and now it’s going to end, and he’s decided to cash-in now she’s going to leave him.
Except that she wasn’t. Astra wanted him to come with her, and his feelings of inadequacy – which at least one person in the readership understands fully – have destroyed that future.
Incidentally, this is the only story in the entire series to forego narration by anyone.
The Silver Agent two-part Special was, until the series resumed with Volume 3, the last Astro City to date. It followed the completion of The Dark Age, and was an epilogue to it, finally spelling out who and what and why the Silver Agent was, and explaining his journeying through time.
In Book 1, Alan Craig disappears from his condemned cell, only to reappear, eight minutes later, in uniform. In between, he has been drawn into the 43rd century, in part to save him from his death, in part to fight for freedom against an implacable enemy. Now victory has finally been achieved and, against the protests of everyone, the Agent insists on returning to 1974 and his execution.
It’s an obligation, it’s duty, it’s about serving others, which is what Alan Craig has always been about. Because the records available to the 43rd century show that he was executed. So, to safeguard the future, to ensure that time runs as time must, the Agent must go back.
We learn from his Journals rather than direct narration: who he was, what transformed him, what he believes. We see many other stops in time, moving backwards, private as well as public meetings, until he returns to his cell, and his sacrifice.
One thing about this volume is the stories, given their additional length, are more detailed, more complex than the ‘standard’ Astro City tale, and it would be nice if Busiek could work to this depth on a regular basis.
And that brings Astro City up to date to Volume 3, which I’ll continue reviewing on a monthly basis.