A Universe in one Comic: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 3

Issue 3 of the new Astro City series completes the story begun last month, in exactly the same way that Alex Ross’s still-fussy, still-crowded cover completes last month art: the two covers form a dyptich for a larger image that still doesn’t work,for the reasons I cited last time out.

Some parts of this issue are pretty much as I expected from the first half: Marella Cowper, a call centre operative for Honor Guard, whose  primary task is to filter incoming calls by their degree of seriousness, does indeed react with shame and self-disgust at her ‘failure’ to assess a call from a girl whose mother is being struck by a man as requiring more than Social Workers.

No matter that she has acted correctly, no matter that she is blaming herself for not seeing the unseeable, the outcome is death and destruction, the turning of a remote Ecuadorian village into a war zone as Honor Guard battle it out with “Slaughter” Shaw and the Skullcrushers. It’s Mrella’s failure in her own eyes, a failure made all the greater by the with-hindsight discovery of additional clues, clues that are only clues because of the retrospective significance they have gained.

The whole issue is about Marella’s obsession with doing something to appease her irrational guilt. Most of it is practical, thankfully, and the actually bemoaning of her poor judgement is actually kept to a thankful minimum. You have no idea how many comics I have read that have featured self-berating heroes, tearing their bleeding hearts out over what they have done or allowed to have done, and Marella doesn’t stint on that in the early part of this issue, but to my relief, after an initial bout of locking herself in her room and misery-surfing the news reports, Ms Cowper sneaks off to Ecuador, using her Honor Guard card to teleport her as close as possible to the disaster area, bringing supplies (especially toilet rolls) and, under the pretense of being a vacationing student, volunteering aid.

No-one knows where she is. She hasn’t told her family, she’s absent from her job, she’s going to get fired (which she’s convinced she deserves) and yet she can still teleport for more supplies anytime she wants and she’s shutting her mind to the implications of why her Honor Guard card hasn’t been shut down.

What Marella wants most of all is to find Esme, the girl she ignored, and her mother Maria. Only then can she, even in part, redeem herself. And in this she succeeds: a burned man, of whom she is suspicious, is brought into the makeshift hospital, a man who, with Toni’s clandestine help, she identifies as an uncaptured Skullcrusher. She follows him back to the mountain, discovering a hidden entrance, and the surviving Esme and Maria, but only at the cost of capture and imminent death.

Which is when the deus ex machina turns up, on cue: an Honor Guard quartet who’ve been carefully watching what employee Marella Cowper has been doing, via the tracker in her card. They clear up the last of the crooks, Marella gets the surviving mother and daughter to safety, and gets a shock as Cleopatra tells her to be back for duty on Monday.

For one thing, she did not make a mistake, except in her own mind. Everybody makes mistakes: Marella will make others. Some can’t handle it, crack and leave. Some shrug them off too easily. The ones that Honor Guard want the most are those who, like Marella, set out to try to fix mistakes. Though very few go to her length…

It’s a well-made story, though it is, in the end, something of a predictable one. Apart from the unnecessary melodrama of having Esme fall from a high gantry and Marella physically save her, which is a little too much of an indulgence of the latter’s guilty conscience, the story is smooth and enjoyable. Personally, I found the first half of the tale to be the more original and imaginative, even as it lacked a storyline. Once Marella goes into action, whilst the context is less cliched, the actual psychological journey and the redemption is a little too formulaic to completely satisfy me.

You’ll note that I’m not buying any other super-comics though.

As for future issues, Busiek confirms inside that issue 1’s the Broken Man reappears in issue 5, and Ben Pullam and the Ambassador in no 6, but for next month we have a non-hero, non-villain super-powered character named Mattie front and centre: undoubtedly the same Mattie as in the Crimson Cougar story in Family Album.

I’m looking forward to that.

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