A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3) No. 4

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed with all the Alex Ross covers on the new Astro City series so far, and issue 4’s the same, showing central character Martha (“Sully”) Sullivan, enjoying a quiet coffee in a roadside cafe whilst a horde of superheroes race by, and she casually waves them away: idea brilliant, execution undistinguished. The colour palette’s too shallow, there’s a washed out look to it, Sully doesn’t really project enough from the background. There’s isn’t the kind of distinctive image to or in it to make it stand out.

Inside, the story’s another entertaining perspective on the super-powered in the manner that only Kurt Busiek seems able to portray. Long-term readers have met Sully before, in the penultimate issue of volume 2, the Crimson Cougar story (collected in Local Heroes). Sully’s a telekinetic, an experienced woman in her late forties/early fifties, squarely built but comfortable with herself. We met her doing special effects for the television soap that featured the Cougar, when she referenced having once thought of being a superhero (as “Mind-over-Mattie”) before realising it wasn’t for her.

Now we get to see her at more length. The story is ingenious, and Busiek makes sure there’s plenty of time in it for Sully to recount her life-history, showing how Sully discovered the simple fact that, despite her superhuman powers, she simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed life: too stressed and scared to be a hero scrapping with villains, too honest to be a villain, taking what she wants (and all she did was to gimmick a fruit machine to give her the jackpot!).

No, Sully found her niche in special effects, a sort of human CGI. And she found a whole bunch of others like her: super-powered in various ways, not the stuff of heroes (the story, in this aspect, is a gentle reminder to us, from the back, of the extreme personality required to do that), but useful and highly effective in the entertainment business.

Not that that stops idiots with grandiose ideas of conquest and power from trying to take over their lives, trying to make these people (who call themselves Sideliners) use their abilities as they ‘should’, and for the benefit of would-be criminal despots like – the Majordomo!

Yes, Sully turns down an approach along just such lines, tells her agent not to book any jobs for her for a week and settles down to the by-now expected kidnap and removal to a place of slavery where she and a dozen of her friends and fellow Sideliners will be coerced into feeding the Majordomo’s fantasies (Sully will be renamed Telecaster!). But they’ve all been through this before, and they’re ready for it (just because they don’t want to fight doesn’t mean that they can’t) and the hapless Majordomo is not only brought down with ease, but given a major ticking-off too.

All without the need to involve ‘real’ superheroes too.

There’s a neat little coda when Samaritan – who’s getting real exposure in this new series – drops in on Sully at her cafe to gently remind her that the heroes value the Sideliners and would have been eager to help, which ties the strings of Astro City‘s universe together that bit further, but it’s also a reminder of the differences between heroes and those who, for whatever reason, have not so much not got ‘it’, but who merely have something else that they use fulfillingly.

Overall, it’s another illustration of what I’ve long since described as Busiek’s ability to write a series consisting entirely of definitive stories. We know Martha Sullivan now, we have seen her world and her life, seen how distinct and differenmt, yet wholly logical, it is from yours or mine or any common or garden superhero. In the Universe of a comic book company, we would return over and again, seeing Sully doing endless versions of what she does here, and maybe in thoroughly entertaining fashion, but this single story defines her.

Every ongoing series has the defining stry(ies) and the ones that come out to fill a monthly schedule. Astro City has nothing but the defining stories, and doesn’t waste time of repetition. Like the title says, it’s a Universe in one Comic Book.

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