A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (vol 3) #12


As I predicted last month, this is going to be my last blog on the new Astro City series for the time being. I like the series too much, want so much out of it, that I can’t go on damning it with faint praise month after month. Thanks to everybody who’s been reading, but until there’s an issue that I can either genuinely celebrate, or I can (interestingly) excoriate, this series is suspended.

If I were asked to summon up what I consider the essential element of Astro City in a single sentence, I would describe it as a gigantic What If? What if we really lived in a world of superbeings with superpowers, of monsters, ghosts, aliens and mad scientists? What shape would that world take? How would we adapt, as individuals and as a society? What really happens in the heads of people who have these powers, who do these things? What stories can we tell about superhumans when you take out the 75% devoted to hitting people: what takes it’s place?

That’s what I’ve always celebrated Astro City for: Busiek’s gift for seeing through the endless superficiality into what, realistically, has to lie behind, and to write about that. That spark of realisation, of insight, that re-shapes your understanding of this strange, improbable, adolescent world that so many of us still find appealling. That’s what I’ve missed in volume 3. The spark is weak, mundane or, as in issue 12, simply not there.

I don’t even get to damn this latest issue with faint praise. It’s a landmark in two senses, firstly in that it completes a whole year of on-schedule, regular publication, and that hasn’t been the case for such a long time that it is worth celebrating. The other reason is more fundamental: it’s the first ever Astro City story not to be drawn by Brent Anderson, with Graham Nolan subbing.

No disrespect to Nolan, but it’s not an experiment I’d like to see repeated. Brent Anderson is what Astro City looks like, and whilst Nolan bases his vision on a Crafttint board to give it some solidity, his approach is simply too much of a cartoon to satisfy. No, thanks. If Anderson needs to be relieved from time to time, sobeit and it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. If you can’t simply bring back Willie Blyberg, or have somebody else ink his pencils, please choose someone with a much more photo-realistic approach next time.

As for the story, it’s so slight as to be almost negligible, but worst of all, it’s mundane. It’s narrated by long-term villain Ned Carroway who, have been brought up dirt-poor and spat on, developed a taste for fine clothing and immaculate taste after robbing his first rich snob. He’s inspired by, of all things, Little Red Riding Hood, in which he identifies with the Wolf, the dangerous predator in the deep, dark woods.

So he becomes the Gentleman Bandit, educating himself along the way, exposing himself to more and finer ways of life, his one ‘failure’ being to fall in love with the woman he sets out to seduce, and to marry her. The relationship holds, even after he’s taken in by Jack-in-the-Box, and after serving his time, Carroway, having promised, goes straight. But straight is like being back at dirt poor and worthless, and when Ned is contacted by some old prison buddies (who, like him, are heavily into fashion, style and great tailoring), he’s back in the business, fitting in with a host of different themed gangs, culminating in the Sweet Adelines.

We’ve seen these jokers in passing. The Adelines’ motif is being a Barber-Shop Quartet with tommy guns and immaculate harmonies. The problem is, they are a joke. Everything about Carroway is plausible, real,  understandable, even down to his being motivated more by wearing classy clothes than the loot (Busiek is still a good enough writer to sell you that), but the Adelines cross the line into that nebulous hinterland where you cannot believe that anyone in their right mind – and Carroway is nowhere even hinted at being crazy – would do that. Added to a couple of his earlier gangs, such as The Mount Rushmore Four, who are even more headshakingly stupid, and this holes the plot beneath the waterline.

Not that the plot is a boat, or if it is, it’s a canoe. This time round, Ned is duffed up by not only the Confessor but his sometime sidekick (since when?), Stray. The latter slashes and scars his face, and this time his wife divorces him. Now Ned’s back on the outside, trying to go straight, struggling with menial jobs that don’t bring him anywhere near a tuxedo, whilst one of his old jail-mates keep trying to tempt him back to themed gangs in well-cut tailoring. Ned’s having none of it – until his temptor gives him a pair of handmade shoes, and that’s Ned tied up until his next prison term.

Between Nolan’s cartooning, and the underlying silliness – no, call it unseriousness – of this fine clothing lark, the story doesn’t stand much chance but, like last month’s Executive-Secretary-but-to-a-magician, it’s essentially banal. We are once again behind the scenes, on the inside, but what we see offers no revelation, nothing we had never thought of before but immediately recognise as true. It’s not like the Junkman’s need for his cleverness to be seen and acknowleded by others, or Vince Oleck introducing superhero tropes into a Criminal Court because they exist. No Oh. Oh, I see, I get the picture. It’s like Dorian Gray looking exactly like his picture.

I don’t want to be saying such things, so I’m signing off. I’m still collecting the series, and if an issue appears on which I think I have something valid to say, I’ll post on Astro City again. If that’s so, hope to see you again.

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