A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Volume 3) no. 5

I’ve wondered how best to put this, but it seems the best approach to take is the straightforward one: I don’t particularly like this issue, and I find it very disappointing.

Part of that is down to misdirected anticipations caused by Alex Ross’s cover, ironically so in that it’s by far and away the best cover to date in Volume 3. From the first time I saw it, it set my expectations for a truly historical tale, the oldest tale yet in Astro City‘s existence. I anticipated, indeed relished, the prospect of Busiek and Co’s take on pre-First World War superheroing. Dame Progress. Mr. Cakewalk. Strange names, intriguing adversaries, a fresh perspective

Which made the opening page, revisiting the Broken Man from issue 1, a total let-down.

I’d also better admit that I’m a long way from accepting the Broken Man yet. I can see what Kurt’s shooting for, ‘a riddle wrapped up in an enigma’ (re-demonstrating my point about our predeliction for making aphoristic phrases out of a distortion of original words, here Winston Churchill’s 1939 comment on Soviet Russia that ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’). But there’s something I really don’t like about the Broken Man, and after much thought I’ve defined it as the excessive breach of the Fourth Wall.

That’s not something that bothers me in principle, but the Broken Man raises this to a fetish, purportedly incorporating me in the story as an ally or, given how determined he is to be mysterious and not actually give away anything concrete, as an underling of neither consequence nor use.

Because that’s what this story is: it’s a continuation of no 1 but on a wider scale (I refuse at this point to say ‘greater’). It’s this thing about the Oubor again and about they won’t notice readers of certain issues of Astro City, but we’re being a total danger to everything by reading the first two fragments of story that sneak through due to our failure of concentration. On the other hand, we are allowed the Dame Progress/Mr Cakewalk sequence as a freebie, even though there’s this great mystery drummed up around it about how we can’t possibly be expected to understand it.

What Busiek is doing is building a very large and long story but, unlike The Dark Age, he seems intent on doing it a fraction at a time. Issue 5 is a come-on issue: we get three fragmentary tales in different Twentieth Century times, interspersed with all manner of images that are also relevant to the story, but which we can’t expect to understand. Now I love a good parcelling out of information in judiciously calculated instalments as much as the next reader (I am a worshipper of 100 Bullets, remember?), but this is too much. Instead of getting to grips with the story, trying to find a connection between enigmatic incidents, it’s being thrown in our face as being deliberately incomprehensible. I don’t know about anyone else but being told I can’t possibly cope with a story gets my back up.

No doubt all will become clearer over whatever extended timescale Busiek plots, and I hope that the clues and links can be forged without the Broken Man pointing to them with his purple fingers, shouting ‘Here’s a clue!’, because that’s what this month’s episode has me dreading.

The three fragments are interesting in themselves, although I’d like to have gotten deeper into any one of them, rather than this whistle-stop tour, deliberately interrupted in the first two instances. Fragment 1 focusses on Special Agent Cal Tarrant, leader of the Working Group On Unsettling Anomalies, Classification and Confinement, or WGOUACC (no, actually they’re known as the Blasphemy Boys). They’re a sort of Untouchables of the paranormal and it’s about a case that decimates the team in Baltimore in 1931.

Fragment 2 isn’t even a story, it’s a set-up. It’s set in India, in 1947, where a US Army Paratroop Sergeant deserter has, in undescribed circumstances, become a Kobra-style leader of a religious cult, about to carry out a political assassination. The context for this fragment, in the Broken Man’s workshop places it in juxtaposition to the unjust execution of the Silver Agent, suggesting that this tiny Indian statelet may be connected to Maga-Dhor.

The only ‘complete’ tale brings us at last to Dame Progress and Mr. Cakewalk, and it’s interestingly noticeable that their hero/villain chase through Romeyn Falls is undated. I’d attribute it to turn-of-the-century, with about a ten year leeway either way. Dame Progress is the heroine, Mr. Cakewalk an annoyingly acrobatic villain, but he’s maybe more than that since he helps the Dame expose the dastardly plans of Dr Aegyptus, and gives his loot back.

But this is still a tale of fragments and not-even-hints, because we still have no idea what this story is about, and no context for our multiple historical moments. And we’re invited to take each and every element of this issue as a ‘clue’. This apparently includes the 45rpm single by The Kloo, “Outside Reaching In”. The label is oscured, but not by so much that I can’t recognise it as Warner Brothers’ Records, but there’s no year on it, the songwriting credits are partially blocked (second writer Berryhill) , as are the Publishing company (Great Nameless ?), and I can’t find the Kloo on either YouTube or Google, whilst the only “Outside Reaching In” on YouTube is by a 1980s band, and the Kloo’s name is pure mid/late-Sixties.

More will be revealed, and I’m perfectly prepared to revise my opinion of this issue when I know a bit more of what it’s referencing, but Kurt and Co. will have to do a lot more yet to have me change my opinion of the Broken Man (I gather that a handful of astute fans have correctly identified who he is ‘in real life’, but not me).

So, a disappointment. To come is another one-off in issue 6, then a four-parter centring on Winged Victory, Samaritan and The Confessor in issues 7-10.  I’m sure I will have better things to say about those forthcoming issues.

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