A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #14

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.

6 thoughts on “A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #14

  1. Hmmm. You may be right on what will happen in issue 15, it makes sense. My first thought was that Vivi Viktor would be the one pulling Fred’s strings, but yours makes more sense. Especially looking over that early scene where Ellie gets the first robot parts, she is all clothed up where we don’t get a good look at her age. Other than Ellie might be being too old…
    I didn’t mind the issue. It wasn’t spectacular, but I enjoyed it as much or more than issue 6 and 11, the weakest links for me. I’m just curious to see reasoning behind Ellie’s actions and her not wanting to stir the pot…

    One knock on Anderson is that he’s inconsistent. One panel will be fantastic with great facial expressions and the next will be average. He’s a great artist, but I always liked him better with an inker. The volume two issues let him give so much detail into backgrounds and characters alike. With him switching to digital drawing, it’s probably a moot point.
    But I’m happy with Tom Grummett being the guest artist for 17. He’s been an artist that I’ve considered one of my favorites and has pretty solid style.

    1. I’m just so desperately sorry to be thinking this way. I’d love to have made a complete fool of myself over #15, to find a completely different outcome, AND one that sill makes complete sense in terms of what #14 has established.

      It’s the predictability I hate. Astro City’s always been the place to surprise us, to make us see the world in different terms, to watch people – superpeople – being even more human in what they do than we are normally allowed to see. I hate the idea of it being obviousw what’s to come: if I know what to expect, why read it in the first place?

      I agree with you re Volume Two so far as Anderson’s art is concerned, but this is still the first issue I’ve reacted to as being ugly. I have nothing against Tom Grummett whatsoever, and I hope he’ll do a better job than Grahan Nolan, but it’s the scheduling of a second fill-in so soon after the first that worries me.

      I’ve no real desire to see Astro City through any other eyes than Busiek, Anderson and Ross. The intellectual and emotional consistency of the work is very important to me, the fact that it’s always been a series where the interchangability of standard comics, the blurred-at-the-edges effect of compromised realities and minds tugging in different directions has never penetrated.

      It’s starting to waver a bit now, and I don’t likes it mun, I don’t likes it at all.

  2. I still think the book is playing with concepts that haven’t been totally looked at, the magicians assistant, people without powers, etc. While the stories haven’t been knocking them out of the park every single time as the first 20 some issues, they’ve been solid for the most part. And the perspective might have something to do with it, as it’s playing more to what it’s like living in a world of superheroes/superhuman and the thoughts and emotions of those, rather than hero perspective. We’re just seeing more of the regular people….

    I’ve went back and forth on other artists. Early on, if it meant more Astro City stories I was all for it, but slowly found out that a huge part of the initial draw for me was almost realism of Brent’s art (The first issue I picked up was vol. 2 #4, a perfect starting point). I’ve always thought the best way for a guest artist(s) would be to tell a non-Astro City Astro tale. Basically a story that for the most part takes place outside of the city, but still in world. That way Kurt could explore other planets, dimensions, etc, or even a hero in another city.

  3. You’re correct to say that Busiek is still writing stories on themes that other comics series wouldn’t dream of touching, I don’t deny that. The problem, for me at least, is that he’s not really saying anything in them.

    The beauty of Astro City has always been that it’s been about the experience of living in a superhero Universe, as much if not more for the ordinary man and women that lives and works alongside fantastic creatures. It’s strength has been the insight into what that reality might be (as a former lawyer myself, I have never laughed so hard at a comic than in the two-parter in ‘Loca Heroes’ where the lawyer starts introducing super-power defences into the courtroom.)

    My problem is that I’m not ‘learning’ anything from this volume’s perspectives, not discovering anything I can’t think of myself, which is what’s so disappointing.

    Or maybe I’m being too harsh, expecting too much, given that I have only the one series to follow?

  4. Maybe a little too harsh. I think the stories are still very good to solid. Even the worst Astro tales are better than 98% of everything else out there. But as we’ve talked before, it has lost some of the magical or almost transcendence quality. Though issue 4 was a great issue and I loved the change of pace of issue 5. And during the Winged Victory arc, I got the giddy feeling reading through those issues like when I was first starting on the series. Even rereading some of the ones I didn’t like as much, like the first issue which I saw as just a setup/introduction issue, I saw a lot more depth to it than I first thought.

    The other factor is maybe the previous stories, have made us think more about what it would be like living in superhero world. The one-two punch for me starting off with the Confession storyline and then the Junkman story, set the bar for Astro City stories for me. But I also over time realized that not every story will be the big mystery, secret plot of the Confessor as a vampire and the Enelsian Invasion. Also other comic stories over the last 15 years, have likely been influenced some by Busiek’s storytelling.

  5. A lot of valid points there. But I can only go by my own responses: an objective review is nevertheless projected from a subjective mind. And in this debate it does boil down to the ‘fact’ that after reading #14, I actually contemplated stopping reading Astro City since the first time I discovered it, in the first GN. And if #15 proves to be the outcome I’ve predicted, that will only grow in momentum.

    Astro City volume 3 is good in comparison to what surrounds it. But I want it to be good in comparison to Astro City before it, which is a whole different standard. And which, for me, it’s well short of doing so far.

    There’s a lot riding on this…

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