A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #24


Having celebrated Astro City‘s previous issue for demonstrating the series’ long overdue longevity, it fels incumbent to review the second half of the story, just to record how disappointing it was.

The set-up, if you don’t recall, was that Sticks, a soldier from the secretive Gorilla Mountain, had escaped and come to Astro City to pursue his dream of becoming a drummer in a band, but found this impossible due to the hassle of people wanting/expecting him to use his ‘powers’ as a superhero.

How does Busiek square this circle for his forlorn talking gorilla? Initially, Sticks succumbs to the inevitable and joins the hip, young team, Reflex 6, but after six months he leaves: it isn’t what he wants, it’s not what he is. He tries to go back to his human friends and their band, but it’s just the same as before. Moping on a rooftop, he meets Samaritan, who offers help: there is always a way. At which point, Sticks gets an idea.

This is a familiar moment in an Astro City comic, when this month’s central character is struck by inspiration and comes up with an ingenious plan, and mentally we sit back, waiting for Busiek to dazzle or amuse us with the lucidity of his idea. Except that the great idea of Sticks of how to live his life and pursue his dreams without everybody on his back, trying to force him to become a superhero and fight is… to become a superhero and fight.

Granted it’s as Tuxedo Gorilla, an immaculately dressed gorilla in a tuxedo, complete with anti-gravity spats, and Sticks is working solo, off his own beats, but it’s still a very disappointing conclusion if the only way you can prevent being a round peg stuffed into a square hole is to become a square peg. I mean, Martha Sullivan (who’s mentioned in passing) has superpowers but hasn’t had to take up superheroing.

As for the music side, that conclusion is also pretty banal: Sticks forms a band with other superhumans who are interested in music. I hope they’re happy.

What depresses me about this issue, whether Busiek intends it or not, is that it’s message is that being superhuman trumps everything, that all your choices in life are suborned into being a superhero, that all individuality is overridden. I’m not happy with that.

 

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #23


A year ago, I swore off blogging the new volume of Astro City. I was sick of writing blogs that amounted, in different ways, to saying that there’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t do for me what it used to and I don’t know why. And I really didn’t like writing blogs that said ‘this one is shite’.

That didn’t mean I was giving Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross up. I’ve continued to enjoy the series, even if it still hasn’t given me any highs to compare with those of earlier years. It’s by far and away the best superhero series I’m following, and I’m not saying that just because it’s the only superhero series I’m following. Even with both eyes shut, I can still see that there isn’t anything at DC, or Marvel, that I want to share house space with.

But I couldn’t resist blogging this issue, for one very simple reason that absolutely deserves celebration, and that is that although we are only months away from Astro‘s twentieth anniversary, this is the very first issue 23 the series has ever had!

And this is definitely one for the deep fans here, the veterans who can go back to John Broome issues of The Flash in the early to mid-Sixties, the ones who hide inside the kid they once were but who still respond to the sheer goofy glee of a talking gorilla!

This is Busiek’s affectionate tribute to The Flash of the Silver Age, to Barry Allen and his battles with Gorilla Grodd, and hidden Gorilla City and wise King Solovar. It’s a subject that’s pure comic books in a way Astro City never has been so far before. It’s a bouncy, absurd, fun idea that will be kicking back and refusing to lend itself to any kind of co-option into a world where such things can believably exist.

For Gorilla City, see Gorilla Mountain. For hidden in deepest Africa, see a cloud-covered Savage Land type zone in Antarctica. For discovery by The Flash see discovery by the elder generation of the First Family (the only false note in my mind, a Marvel archetype discovering a DC trope). But whilst Gorilla Mountain remains defiantly insular, a military society, highly trained, there’s the one outsider: for Grodd, see Steek. But Steek doesn’t want to take over the world with the force of his mind, he’s just a kid who’s into the music, a cool cat… er, silverback ape who wants to throw down with the kids and beat the hell out of a drumkit. That’s why he wants to be called Sticks.

(I should just mention that at this point I am energetically suppressing any thought of any previous passionately drumming gorillas because, like all right-minded folk, I cannot stand Ph*l C*ll*ns.)

But there’s a problem. Even in Astro City, a talking gorilla can’t just go around minding his own business, People assume he’s a superhero. The Press want to interview him as a superhero. Villains want to kidnap him for his superheroic powers. Even Reflex 6, who are currently down to five members, want him to tryout to bring their numbers up to scratch.

But Sticks doesn’t want to audition to join a superhero team, he wants to audition to join a band and play music. Can he do that if nobody will leave him alone?

This is the first part of an as-yet undefined multiparter, so we’re a long way from whatever answer Busiek has in mind, but I had fun with it, and I’d love for one of those good old-fashioned completely unexpected but unexpectedly obvious solutions to hit this one out of the park. But it’s the best issue 23 Astro City has ever had, and it gives you a good feeling that issue 24 won’t let the standard lapse.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #15


Last month, I excoriated issue 14 of Astro City as being well below the standard of invention and innovation Kurt Busiek has displayed in the two decades it has existed. I also accused the issue of making its second part, issue 15, entirely predictable.

These were my exact words with regard to that:

“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.”

So here’s the crunch: was I right or have I made a complete fool of myself?

And the answer is that I wasn’t right, not on every single point, and not on the major one, but then again I called so much of what appears in issue 15 that I think I’m entitled to call it a high-scoring draw.

What I definitely missed out on was that Ellie was never a supervillain, and wasn’t Vivi Viktor. No, Ellie was a scientific genius and every bit as much an idyllist as her modern persona suggests, but it’s her genius that has gone into all these robots, and it’s her robots what do break her out of jail so she can escape the programming she’s suffered under for decades, programming instilled in her by the aforementioned Vivi Viktor (a real name), who is the villain behind all this.

And once Ellie allows her memories to return – in a manner that suggests she could have let them return any time she wanted, which of itself raises moral complications that simply do not get considered in this story – she quickly and easily exposes Vivi because, as Ellie has been pointing out since the beginning, the Robots – ALL of them – are her friends (I may barf).

So where does Vivi Viktor come in to all of these? Why, she’s Ellie’s old room-mate, friend and scientific partner, except that where Ellie is open hearted and sunny and believes in everything being good and nice, and all fluffy bunnies, Vivi was insecure, defensive, self-directed and badly traumatised due to an horrific childhood incident. Which is why she nicked all Ellie’s designs, and Ellie’s brain.

So, I missed out on the major point, but got everything else right as filtered through the fact of Busiek having displaced the culprit into a rather thin and cliched technological villain, complete with cardboard dialogue. It’s still not good enough to live with Astro City‘s past. The whole point of Astro is and always has been that you don’t know how it’s going to work out, that you’re presented with the outline of a familiar scenario and then Busiek opens it up to show you glorious alternatives that you’d never imagined for yourself. That’s not what happened here.

There’s not much else in the story, and what there is is mostly echoes of existing stories. Ellie’s brainwashing into a dumber person has Identity Crisis and why-Dr-Light-became-a-moron smeared all over it, whilst the final scene, of heroes coming out of the woodwork to praise the genius Eleanor Jennerson and bring her into their world with a vengeance is a replay of Samaritan and Sully the ‘Sideliner’ in issue 4. The only original of itself element is Ellie telling nephew Fred not to be such a weak, easy way out nebbish any more.

And that really is it. As you may be able to tell, I can and do enjoy ripping the piss out of certain things that are crap dressed in tinfoil (like 24 – Live Another Day), but I don’t like doing it to something I respect and like, and which I desperately want to see doing well. So in future I’m going to keep my opinion of Astro City to myself. I’d like to think that at some point I’ll find the series restored to its proper glories and that I can honestly praise it in the way I want but, having regard to the preview of issue 16, I don’t think that will be happening in October of this year.

Thanks to to Astrozac, for his comments in recent months, which have enlivened this increasingly burdensome series of blogs: hope you stay enjoying this more than I do, buddy.

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.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #13


I might have known.

After a year of blogging the new series of Astro City, I gave up last month, tired of continually saying one or other variation of ‘it’s good – bit it’s not satisfying’. I promised not to blog the series again unless the gang came out with something worth talking about.

So, here we are with issue 13…

It’s called ‘Waltz of the Hours’ and it covers twenty hours in the life of Astro City, one hour for each of twenty four pages. And those hours are all jumbled up, chronologically, so that we experience this day is a disconcerting, kaleidosopic manner, effect preceding cause. And this deliberate fracturing of the story is not some desperate gimmick on the part of Busiek, but rather an intentional turning of the story inside out. We cut from hour to hour, back and forth, between the seven principal characters, three civilians, four super-characters.

That the story is about time is apt for our three civilians, Zvi, Laura and an un-named man, who we eventually learn is the unintentional precipitator of events. I’ve named them (so to speak) in the order in which we are introduced to them: Zvi a part of an NRGistics project, working through the N-field to operate a robot on the surface of Io, a moon of Jupiter, Laura a bank clerk in a humdrum, dead-end job, frustrated that she never gets to see her so-called boyfriend because his job/career is so demanding on his time, and the unknown man, also committed to a time-consuming scientific project at Fox-Broome University. Zvi and the unknown man also feel guilty and deprived at not spending enough time with their partner.

Three people, civilians all, with the common problem of time.

And the unknown man falls asleep, monitoring a carefully calibrated experiment, as a result of which an ancient, puissant being finds a way into this world. He has had many names in many times and places, but the one he holds for himself is The Dancing Master, and he it is who begins the dance, the dance that lies in everybody. The dance of life, of possibility, of love, of romance.

And for most of a day, the Dancing Master turns Astro City into an unpredictable, unstable stew of different possibilities, lighting flames, until he is confronted by the Hanged Man. For the first time, we see a glimpse into who and what the Hanged Man might be or have been (whether Busiek should reveal the origin/nature of this mysterious protector has been debated for several months, the majority opinion being that he should not).

The Hanged Man persuades the Dancing Master that this is not his place or time, and that he should return to the Older Lands, despite their emptiness and coldness. But the Dancing Master must perform the task for which he was summoned before he leaves, knowing the way to return.

There are three civilians in need and two more superhumans. The first of these is Jack-in-the-Box, fighting to bring down Gundog. The villain traps the Harlequin Hero in a Ryman Sphere, that slows down time, and continues on his self-imposed task of robbing five banks in a day. But he’s bored: bored of the black leather and the fake southern accent and the whole thing. His second bank is the one where Laura works, by which time the Dancing Master’s influence is starting to take effect. The two fall for each other across a bank counter.

So much so that, after robbing the branch, he leaves Laura with the guns to cover everyone, and she, giddy and delighted, does so. But after the third bank, he comes back, chucks down all the money, tells them to tell the Police he’s retired, and he sweeps Laura off to Maine, where his Great-Uncle’s been wanting him to come in on this lobster joint. Laura’s from Iowa, but she’s always wanted to live by the sea.

It’s greatly improbable, but in a few short words and smiles (thanks, Brent), Busiek persuades you that this giddy liaison will work.

Where does that leave Laura’s so-called boyfriend, we wonder, with his demanding career and conflicting schedules. Mr unknown gets home to an empty apartment, cooking for himself again, but Busiek’s kaleidoscopic handling has concealed what at least one reader with his heterosexual assumptions hadn’t twigged – that the un-named man’s partner is Zvi, not Laura. A Zvi who’s home earl;y despite his brilliant, intuitively successful day at NRGistics, when abruptly he lost his concentration. At the interference of the Dancing Master.

A beautifully told, compulsively woven tale, and a genuine reminder that Astro City can still be as good as it used to be. There’s even a magical final page, as the robot dog continues its collection of samples on distant Io. Only it too remembers the dance. It knows itself as Rover, and it is lonely for the voices of Zvi and his fellow operatives…

Lovely, intriguing, individual story. I am so glad to have ‘my’ Astro City back.

Two final points: I’m intrigued that Busiek so resolutely keeps the unknown man’s name out of it. It’s uncharacteristic, and therefore significant, at least to me. I mean, I can see the plot point notion of initial anonimity, so that we may think of him as Laura’s unnamed boyfriend, even as we are also offered the possibility that the boyfriend may be Zvi. But the revelation that Zvi and the man are partners comes after Laura’s flying car elopement with the former – and equally unnamed – Gundog, and it would have been entirely natural for Zvi to call his man by name at some point. Interesting, and I wonder/hope there may be more to this.

The other is that this is still a one-off. Don’t assume that in four week’s time you’ll be reading me blog about Astro City 14. That’s entirely down to Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross.

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.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3)# 11


I dunno.

Astro City‘s been back for almost a year now, and I’ve been waiting/wanting to catch fire over it, like I used to do, and it just isn’t happening. And issues like this aren’t going to do it for me, in fact they act as quite the opposite.

“The Sorceror’s Assistant” (giveaway reference to Dukas and Mickey Mouse) introduces the Silver Adept, greatest Good magician in all the Conjoined Worlds: strongest, busiest, most in demand and most disorganised. Her name’s Kim, by the way, and she’s a bit of a party girl on the sly. The Silver Adept used to base herself on Vancouver Island but, attracted by a ‘Silver Harmonic’ in Astro City, a ‘void’ to be filled, she’s moved to Astro City (if she’s talking about the Silver Agent, she’s not reacted that fast, given that he was executed forty years ago).

But, hey, the story’s not about the Silver Adept, or her world, or her magics, or about anything she does, or how she copes, of course it’s not about her. It’s about Raitha McCann instead. And who is Raitha when she’s at home? Why, she’s the Adept’s Executive Assistant, her PA, her Secretary.

Now there isn’t another superhero comic series would give us a story about this behind-the-scenes, what-it’s-really-like-to-live-in-a-superhero’s- world story. Only Astro City, which is an integral part of why we love the series. Only we don’t really need another one, and especially one that has no new insight, no unthought of corner, no new perspective on the effect the existence of superpowered characters has upon the world about them. Because this story adds nothing we haven’t already read.

Basically, Raitha McCann acts like a good PA to her over-committed boss. And that’s it. She answers e-mails, collects the post, packs her boss off where she should be going and juggles her schedule. Just when this day-in-the-life is well-established, there’s a crisis, at exactly the moment you expect Busiek to throw in a crisis to liven up the story, and Raitha solves this too. I’m sorry, Kurt, you’re still the only one doing this kind of thing, but now they’re starting to turn into a cliche in themselves.

There’s lots of interesting things in this issue, but the problem is that they’re all part of the background colour, not so much Kim the magic girl herself, but the realms in which she operates, but they’re the very things Busiek won’t expand upon. We’re only allowed to read a story about a glorified secretary, who is so resolutely blase about all the fantastic things going on about her that her major concern is getting off on time with her friends to go to their group Pottery Exhibition.

I’m sorry, this one’s a clunker, from start to finish. Which leaves me with a conundrum. I do not want to go around bad-mouthing Astro City month in, month out. I want to like it, I want to praise it, but I’m nowhere near getting out of it what I want to praise. Next month marks a year back in action. It also marks the first story not to be drawn by Brent Anderson, as Graham Nolan pencils and inks a non-fill-in. I’ll blog that, but afterwards I’m suspending this feature, unless and until I see the series meeting my expectations at last. It’s not like Salamander, I’m not enjoying ripping into this, and anyway Busiek’s not producing anything remotely so piss-takeworthy where I can have fun.

Over to you, Mr Busiek.

Theatre Nights: The Annual


Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual 1. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist) The Eyewitness, David Lloyd (artist) The Butler, John Bolton (artist), The Stakeout, Stefano Guadino (artist) The Body, George Pratt (artist) The Cop, Alex Ross (artist) The D.A., Peter Snejberg (artist) The Mugger, Dean Ormston (artist) The Bystanders, Guy Davis (artist) The Solution.
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Sandman Mystery Theatre‘s first and only Annual has to be treated here. It was published contemporaneously with issue 19, the third act of The Scorpion, but it poses the greatest difficulty in finding its true spot in the continuity of the Theatre’s productions. It portrays a carefree and happy Wesley and Dian, a Dian still ignorant of Wesley’s other identity and his activities, and unless we go all the way back to that interregnum between The Brute and The Vamp, it is almost impossible to find an emotionally plausible moment for it to happen.
But in his chapter, Larry Belmont mentions not having seen much of Dian since the Buster Calhoun concert, putting the album exactly contemporaneous with The Scorpion, inside as well as out. Improbable as it may seem, between Dian’s preoccupation with Wesley and the Sandman’s preoccupation with his dream-driven pursuit of the Scorpion, the Annual must take place in the early part of the last play. Given that the events of the Annual cover several nights, perhaps as much as a week, that’s difficult to do, but it’s got to be imagined.
The Annual has no overall title, but it might best be known as The Park. It’s a simple story, divided into nine chapters, spread amongst eight set designers, each chapter set in or around Central Park, which Wesley, in the opening chapter, by Guy Davis, thinks of as the heart of New York City. As such, it escapes the proscenium arch, and is like an open-air performance, with scenes taking place against different landscapes: a refreshing variation.
It begins with a Sunday afternoon date with Dian, for walking, talking and kissing, during the latter of which Wesley sees, but cannot act upon, a terrifying mugger rob a young couple. The Mugger dresses like a monster, with tin hat, goggles, bandanna across his face: bulky in appalling mismatched clothes, wielding a gun and a spiked stick. What disturbs Wesley most is that this apparition has sprung to life without passing through his dreams.
Over the course of the next eight chapters, the Sandman investigates, the Police investigate (at one point identifying the Sandman himself via a sketch, though not even Burke believes he’s the mugger). Some scenes skate around the park: we see how Humphries came to be Wesley’s butler, and learn his secret, we see Larry Belmont trying to handle the demands of this job, we here from a body buried in the Park, accidental victim of an early intervention by the proto-Sandman, sans gas mask and gas-gun, spraying his sleep gas from an aerosol can. We see small boys listening to horror serials on the radio.
And the Sandman unmasks the mugger as a quasi-illiterate immigrant, without a job, with five children and a heavily pregnant wife to deed, with no money, desperate to provide for them.
He’s dealt with with mercy: the mugger’s outfit is left to be found by the Police, the immigrant wakes in his own bed with $300 donated by the Sandman and a warning to use this chance wisely.
It’s theatre in the round, a large part of the fascination being in how different artists treat the New York in 1938.
David Lloyd turns in another immaculate eight-pager as Humphries loyally watched Wesley’s back in the park, whilst musing on his role in life as a servant, and his introduction to the peculiarity of Master Dodds’ service. Lloyd’s art is a modified version of his V for Vendetta style, less heavily chiaroscuro (the chapter is drawn to be coloured and V/Lloyd were at their very best in black and white). On this evidence, Lloyd should certainly have been hired to design a complete play, and it was the Theatre’s loss that the engagement was never made.
In contrast, John Bolton contributes a surprisingly ragged and simple three pager covering the Sandman’s first, fruitless stake-out in the Park. It’s a very long way from, indeed almost unrecognisable against his work in the Seventies and Eighties that made him so much in demand.
Indeed, several of the designers turn in sloppy-looking, almost amateurish, as if they are trying to blur their lack of familiarity with the 1938 setting.
George Pratt, in particular, and Dean Ormston are the worst examples of this syndrome, with Pratt’s ragged, amateurish approach to figures and faces a tremendous disappointment from so talented an artist.
Of course, the star is Alex Ross, then at the peak of his early popularity, here contributing an eight page black and white chapter centred upon Larry Belmont and including Burke. In many ways, Ross is the complete antithesis of a Mystery Theatre designer, his photo-realistic style being worlds away from the impressionistic approach that suits the world of the Theatre, but by drenching his interiors in Forties shadows, Ross beautifully captures the noir aspect of the chapter: one might almost expect Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe entering through a door, gun drawn.
In some ways the least effective chapter is that drawn by Peter Snejberg, in which Dian walks home through the park, after visiting the cinema, unaware that the mugger is following and being thwarted by a series of coincidences.
Snejberg, years before his successful stint on Starman, produces a three page sequence in that style. It’s light and attractive, but his portrayal of Dian is almost unrecognisable. She’s presented as being much slimmer than Davis draws here, and dressed in blouse and skirt that is calf-length, as opposed to the smothering, figure de-emphasising dresses more appropriate to the time. Indeed, the final panel hikes her skirt up to almost knee-length, making her look more like someone from the late Fifties, a teenager from the advent of the Rock’n’Roll era than the Dian we recognise.
Overall, the Annual is a highly enjoyable effort, one that was not repeated, more’s the pity, though a couple of short Mystery Theatre tales of similar length to these chapters appeared in a couple of Vertigo anthologies to remind us of the effectiveness of a short story.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled Dr Death.
Break a leg.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Volume 3, #10


I’m going to be very honest. I’ve loved Astro City for years now, re-read it a dozen times, and been frustrated through the long periods it’s been out of circulation. It’s now been back for ten issues from Vertigo, featuring worked that was planned and executed back in 2010 or so, when it was expected to be a more-or-less direct continuation from the last couple of Specials. This issue concludes the four-parter centring on Winged Victory, and it does so in a manner that’s typically Busiekian, where the climax lies not in the thundering blows of superhero/superficial battle, but rather in the insight and change of heart that is a consequence of the fight, or realisation of the deeper issues that underlie the present danger.

And I’m still not moved, still not thrilled, still not convinced the way I used to be and absolutely want to be. There’s something missing. I don’t know what it is – if I did I’d up and say it in front: this is a review, not a mystery – nor do I know whether it’s in Astro or in me.

As for the actual issue, it’s good, in its way, though one of the problems with this story is, I think, that throughout it has been too close to mainstream superheroics. This being the climactic issue, it begins with Victory, Samaritan and the Confessor charging into action together, though that point in the issue doesn’t come until over halfway through. It’s a splash page scene done to show the equivalent of DC’s Trinity in action, when the real meat of the story are the two scenes between Voctory and the Council of Nike, the women who collectively invest Vic with her power, over whether she is to remain Winged Victory.

(Look, I know Nike the Goddess, the feminist figure, came a long way first but that is not helping the overwhelming tendency whenever they come up to start thinking of sports shoes).

The above may be half a joke, but it is a real issue, and it dovetails with the other serious problem underpinning this story, which is exacerbated by that splash page. I’ve never had any problem before telling that Vic isn’t Wonder Woman, any more than Samaritan is Superman, but now that Batman’s been thrown into the mix – and the new Confessor is so Batman in exactly the way the old one wasn’t – the shadow of the Trinity hangs too heavy over the Astro City analogs and I cannot quite perform the essential trick of splitting my inner sight between them.

Anyway, the big bad is indeed Karnazon, of the Iron Legion, and a right muffin he looks,Anderson and Ross’s designs having, for once, toppled over into risibility when it comes to portrayimg a quasi-beast like masculine superiorist, and thankfuly Vic makes punching his lights out the perfunctory thing you want it to be the moment you see him, so the status quo can be (mostly) reset, with most people glad to hear it’s all been a frame, and those who welcomed it with open arms remaining unconvinced. So, what was it all for? (The Weather, or the battle of Agincourt? Excuse me, I’m just this minute listening to Billy Bragg).

What this four parter has been about has been defining Winged Victory. As I’ve had occasion to comment about earlier issues, she exists as a symbol. I won’t say ‘feminist’ since that is currently an excuse for deliberate misunderstanding and straw woman arguments, but Winged Victory is empowered by women, for women. To be on their side, to save and protect them, to be their specific hero but, far more important, to be their symbol. To show them, by teaching, training and sheer example that they can be strong, that they can rely upon themselves, that they do not need to depend on men to do things for them.

It’s a simple statement, in intention and symbolism, simplistic enough perhaps that it can only be effective in a superhero story (even if it’s one that comes with Astro‘s levels and shades). That simplicity is its power. William Moulton Marston saw Wonder Woman as a symbol of female power (with some dark undercurrents but we won’t go into those) and Winged Victory is, if anything, a more conscious/conscientious application of that theme.

But it’s during this last issue, when Vic stands in fear of losing her role, and thus her entire life, that she begins to see the limitations of that symbol. If she can only ever stand alone, not to have the love and comfort of a partner, not to have assistance from those who will help, yet still be supposed to give assistance to them, as a way of demonstrating women’s power, if anything except the pure symbol is disgrace, defeat and diminishment, is what she has been created worth it?

Vic expresses it very simply to herself: once, Karnazon did things. He was still just as evil, still just as violent, but he did it for selfish reasons, to knock over banks, take over countries. For far too long, he’s sunk back into being Winged Victory’s opposite,the masculinist to her feminist, seeing himself only in the symbolic light of the desire to prove men are better than women.

I find Victory’s realisations to be a fruitful source of thought, but then I’m a man, not a woman, and so is Busiek, so we are both of us open to charges of chauvinism, and failing to check our privilege, and I ain’t going there. I’m rather more impressed by the personal element of having the story end by Vic changing back to Lauren Freed and visiting the mother she’s avoided for years.

There’s obviously a lot in this issue, this four-parter, but I’m going to circle back to the beginning again and say that, despite all this material, I still find something missing in the current Astro City volume. In part it’s that there is insufficient of a transition from beginning to end: some staff don’t come back to the centre, the media get let in, Samothrace takes on its first male trainee (which, laudable as it is in this specific context, is just asking for trouble in anything resembling this world) and Lauren visits her Mum, but it doesn’t feel like anything has truly changed, which plonks us back in mainstream territory.

Nor am I any nearer to deciding what is different about volume 3, or about myself, that is standing in the way of that click that happens when I read even The Dark Ages.

It’s not going to stand in the way of buying the comic, but it does stand in the way of being comfortable with Astro City as I used to be, and I don’t like it. Does anyone else feel the same?

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (vol. 3) #9


The third of the current Winged Victory four-parter is very good, though little happens that develops the plot. Vic fights off the Iron Legion with admirable ease, whilst Samaritan stands back, to be called upon if needed. Samothrace is closed down, and the mysterious teenage boy, unwilling to be set back to what he was running away from, escapes into hiding. Further ‘evidence’ causes a warrant to be issued on Vic, though Commander Flint lets her go before orders reach him to arrest her. The Confessor takes over the investigation from his ‘Bat-Cave’ at Grandenetti Cathedral (this is one place where the analog is just too thin: this one’s a steal), blythely telling Vic she needs to hide out in her other identity entirely – in short, drop out of the case and let everyone sort it out for fear – which she refuses to do. She’s then drawn to an aged Japanese woman, a member of the Council of Nike, the first she has met in person, who gives Vic a breather, and confidence in herself. At the end, the mysterious kid, having followed the Iron Legion through some mysterious portal, enters a compound and discovers…

But that’s for next month.

I’m not criticising this story, just saying that, for a four-parter, very little has happened overall, and very little space is left for an ending that’s being played up as monumental, with life-changing events. And very little time has passed within the story, perhaps 48 hours at most.

That alone distinguishes Astro City from every other title published for about two decades. Usually, multi-part series now have multiple viewpoints, a cascade of scenes happening simultaneously, shifts in viewpoint at least every other page, slivers of story designed to distract from the fact that the story’s probably crap to begin with: comics for the MTV, ADD generations, who are bored by lingering on any one thing for more than a couple of seconds.

The problem is that, when you get a series intent on developing its story in a more traditional manner, too much exposure to the hyper-busy, however reluctantly, can affect you to the point that you start to feel as if too little’s happening.

What does really impress me about this issue is Samaritan. He loves Winged Victory, and because he loves her, he wants to help. He also knows, with a calm certainty that is even more impressive, through being rare, that she doesn’t need help because she’s good enough without him. At the same time, he gets, where it is important to get, that the core of her being is not to want or receive help – that Winged Victory is more than a person, but rather a symbol, and that for her to cease to be that symbol is to cease to function.

All this is played out with very little direct reference to it, and in complete contrast to the Confessor, who focuses on the practical so blinkeredly as to do the very thing Winged Victory cannot allow: take over, do the job, help out the little lady who needs a man to do things for her. Sure it makes sense, and it’s completely Batman-esque, to do the job, first and foremost. No malice is intended, but the Confessor is as good as doing the hidden enemy’s job for them, and it points out Samaritan’s strength and gentility all the more.

We’re promised “two showdowns, some life decisions and a turning point or two” next issue, in the space of one issue. I have no idea where this is going: is Busiek suggesting that Lauren’s fear will be realised, that she will clear Winged Victory’s name yet still be stood down? Who is behind this? The thing about Astro City is that, once the status quo is undermined, it doesn’t go back: we have to have a new status quo. The only thing we can expect is change.

(And if it turns out to be the Confessor who’s behind this, I suspected it here first, ok?)