I promised I wasn’t going to do this anymore. I wasn’t going to comment on Astro City unless I had something important to say about it. So issue 13 forced me into it by being so good, and now here’s issue 14 and I have to open my mouth again. Because this just isn’t good enough, not good enough at all, and it has to be said.
“Ellie’s Friends” is the first of a two-parter. It is set in the New Mexico desert where the title character, an elderly and slightly unworldly women, has established a robot museum. The thing is, all the robots are criminal robots, machines built to commit thefts, cause damage, kill and rule, by supervillains. Robots that have been damaged or destroyed, and left abandoned by superheroes, but which have been salvaged by kindly Ellie, repaired and reprogrammed to be good and friendly, doing things according to their conscience.
Ellie’s been doing this longer than she can remember, which is something she doesn’t like to do because there’s something she mustn’t remember.
At which point I’m already growling. Busiek is foreshadowing something that will be revealed in the second part of the story, only instead of subtelty, he’s doing it with flares and rockets, since it’s already obvious what the bloody revelation’s going to be.
Which is the whole problem with issue 14: that it’s not merely predictable as far as it goes but it’s utterly predictable as to issue 15 itself.
You see, Ellie has a good-for-nothing nephew, Fred, a nebbish fleeing another divorce and busted business that was everybody else’s fault but his own. You can practically see the wheels in his head as he encourages Ellie to leave the business side to him as she takes longer and longer field trips to retrieve busted robots. The money starts flooding in, although Ellie isn’t seeing many paying customers on the days she’s back home, because, yes, Fred is using the robots to carry out robberies etc. Not personally, because he isn’t anything like bright enough, though he’s got doddery Ellie taken in.
Even when robberies and violence featuring robots – oh, gosh, wow! – of the same kinds as she has, Ellie doesn’t twig. Not until Fred is stupid enough to use a unique robot, one that nobody but Ellie’s got. It’s enough to bring her rushing back, into the hands of the Sheriff’s Department, who have also twigged. So unhappy Ellie is hauled off to clink and poor Fred starts blaming whoever it is has actually been running the machines, who’ll gladly help clear Ellie’s name in return for her notes and schematics… and Fred believes him. Fortunately, one of Ellie’s Friends is watching him…
Yeesh, it’s an awful story, and so is issue 15, which anyone who has read more than half a dozen mainstream comics already knows will go like this: Fred and Ellie will be betrayed by whoever’s pulling Fred’s strings: Ellie’s ‘Friends’ will break her out of jail: they will release her from her conditioning that has concealed from her that she actually used to be a genius-type super-villain (almost certainly the ‘Vivi Viktor’ who, in the Seventies, was taken out by Mirage and The Point Man) and her robots actually buried those memories: that Ellie and her now potentially lethal ‘friends’ will wreak vengeance upon the manipulator, saving Fred into the bargain: and that Ellie’s conscience and her love for her mis-treated friends will win out, and she will not go back to her villainous past.
There, I’ve said it. That, more or less, is issue 15 in its entirety. And this time next month, I will come back to say so.
Of course, I may just have set myself up for a great big fall, in which case I will come back and apologise profusely. Embarrassing though that might be, I’d kinda prefer that, because if issue 15 is what I say it will be, I’m going to have to take very seriously the idea of giving up on Astro City completely.
But this is not the only sign that the series may be in trouble. Vertigo insisted on skipping a month in the schedule to enable to keep the book on track, yet this issue is the single worst job Brent Anderson has ever done on the series. Some pages are awfully rough and scratchy, and the double-page spread of the entrance to the robot museum (which is duplicated in reduced form a few pages later) is an eyesore. And after issue 12 became the first fill-in issue in Astro‘s long and proud history, there’s another one scheduled for issue 17.
I didn’t like the Atomika story in Local Heroes issue 2, and I’ve never understood the great enthusiasm other fans have shown towards it, but this issue is worse than that. Yes, I’m in the minority again, as reviews elsewhere on the net are gushing already. Let’s see if Busiek can pull anything out of his locker to astound, enlighten, and make me look a prize pillock.