A Universe in one Comic: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 3


Issue 3 of the new Astro City series completes the story begun last month, in exactly the same way that Alex Ross’s still-fussy, still-crowded cover completes last month art: the two covers form a dyptich for a larger image that still doesn’t work,for the reasons I cited last time out.

Some parts of this issue are pretty much as I expected from the first half: Marella Cowper, a call centre operative for Honor Guard, whose  primary task is to filter incoming calls by their degree of seriousness, does indeed react with shame and self-disgust at her ‘failure’ to assess a call from a girl whose mother is being struck by a man as requiring more than Social Workers.

No matter that she has acted correctly, no matter that she is blaming herself for not seeing the unseeable, the outcome is death and destruction, the turning of a remote Ecuadorian village into a war zone as Honor Guard battle it out with “Slaughter” Shaw and the Skullcrushers. It’s Mrella’s failure in her own eyes, a failure made all the greater by the with-hindsight discovery of additional clues, clues that are only clues because of the retrospective significance they have gained.

The whole issue is about Marella’s obsession with doing something to appease her irrational guilt. Most of it is practical, thankfully, and the actually bemoaning of her poor judgement is actually kept to a thankful minimum. You have no idea how many comics I have read that have featured self-berating heroes, tearing their bleeding hearts out over what they have done or allowed to have done, and Marella doesn’t stint on that in the early part of this issue, but to my relief, after an initial bout of locking herself in her room and misery-surfing the news reports, Ms Cowper sneaks off to Ecuador, using her Honor Guard card to teleport her as close as possible to the disaster area, bringing supplies (especially toilet rolls) and, under the pretense of being a vacationing student, volunteering aid.

No-one knows where she is. She hasn’t told her family, she’s absent from her job, she’s going to get fired (which she’s convinced she deserves) and yet she can still teleport for more supplies anytime she wants and she’s shutting her mind to the implications of why her Honor Guard card hasn’t been shut down.

What Marella wants most of all is to find Esme, the girl she ignored, and her mother Maria. Only then can she, even in part, redeem herself. And in this she succeeds: a burned man, of whom she is suspicious, is brought into the makeshift hospital, a man who, with Toni’s clandestine help, she identifies as an uncaptured Skullcrusher. She follows him back to the mountain, discovering a hidden entrance, and the surviving Esme and Maria, but only at the cost of capture and imminent death.

Which is when the deus ex machina turns up, on cue: an Honor Guard quartet who’ve been carefully watching what employee Marella Cowper has been doing, via the tracker in her card. They clear up the last of the crooks, Marella gets the surviving mother and daughter to safety, and gets a shock as Cleopatra tells her to be back for duty on Monday.

For one thing, she did not make a mistake, except in her own mind. Everybody makes mistakes: Marella will make others. Some can’t handle it, crack and leave. Some shrug them off too easily. The ones that Honor Guard want the most are those who, like Marella, set out to try to fix mistakes. Though very few go to her length…

It’s a well-made story, though it is, in the end, something of a predictable one. Apart from the unnecessary melodrama of having Esme fall from a high gantry and Marella physically save her, which is a little too much of an indulgence of the latter’s guilty conscience, the story is smooth and enjoyable. Personally, I found the first half of the tale to be the more original and imaginative, even as it lacked a storyline. Once Marella goes into action, whilst the context is less cliched, the actual psychological journey and the redemption is a little too formulaic to completely satisfy me.

You’ll note that I’m not buying any other super-comics though.

As for future issues, Busiek confirms inside that issue 1’s the Broken Man reappears in issue 5, and Ben Pullam and the Ambassador in no 6, but for next month we have a non-hero, non-villain super-powered character named Mattie front and centre: undoubtedly the same Mattie as in the Crimson Cougar story in Family Album.

I’m looking forward to that.

A Universe in one Comic: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 2


After the mild disappointment of issue 1 of the new series, this is more like the Astro City I’ve been awaiting for three years.

Welcome to Humano General, first half of a two-parter, is an object lesson of the strengths Kurt Busiek brings to Astro City, namely the ability to look at the real-life mechanisms of a world in which super-powered beings dress up in funny costumes and do devastating things, to see not only that ripples spread from such things but that they spread into all sort of logical corners that, in love with the costumes and the violence and the bright, primary colours of conflict, the other writers both ignore and wish to ignore, and the skill to incarnate these things into an intriguing, entertaining and illuminating story.

Meet Marella Cowper, a nice, reasonably attractive post-College girl in need of a job. She wants to work in computing, something close to programming, but to tide her over until she finds a real job, she’s applied for a job in a call centre (my current role in life – getting personal here, Mr Busiek). Only, this being Astro City, this is no ordinary call centre: it’s Honor Guard’s call centre (Honor Guard being Busiek’s analog for the Avengers or the Justice League). Marella’s job is to handle the incoming streams of calls for help, reported suspicions, useful and useless information, and to filter these so that the important calls get through to Honor Guard as quickly as possible.

She’s far from alone: there are 3,412 first line agents dealing directly with the public, and decidedly smaller specialist teams who take over what gets put through, and so forth. It’s the job of Marella and her team-mates – Jeremy, Mikika and Toni – to take, assess and field calls. On their decisions, the superhero jobs are identified from those the Police or FBI could handle. And at intervals, just like a standard comic, the account stops for action as Honor Guard – now seemingly with Winged Victory and The Gentleman on the team, and officially adding Australia’s diminutive hero, The Wolfspider (see the cover above) – deal with the menaces outside.

But this is story is about behind the scenes, and Astro City is not about wasting pages on extended fight scenes, so these are just tableaux, and we stick with Marella, and her growing ease and eagerness about the job. Despite initial overenthusiasm, she is already looking on this as a lifetime profession, and she has an understandable urge to be one who gets a crisis, red alert call – as do both Jeremy and Toni. Instead, she gets the opposite.

This is a two-parter, and Busiek is using a line of approach he has used a number of times before: the first half is all set-up, leading to the true central point of the story as the cliffhanger (he did this with the Jack-in-the-Box two-parter in Family Album and the Blue Knight two-parter in the as-yet-undiscussed Local Heroes). We focus on Marella throughout, her hopes, her wishes, her desire to help. We appreciate the detail of imagination Busiek puts into creating this unconsidered aspect of superheroics (do the JLA still rely on the radio for crime alerts in the second decade of the 21st century?). And he slips something past us.

Marella handles a call from a child in a foreign country, upset that his Mom’s partner is beating her. Naturally, she sends in Social Workers, not superheroes. But on the final page, a major crisis blows-up, a crisis that’s gotten past all Honor Guard’s complex organisation to prevent them being blindsided. And it’s Marella’s call. It’s the Social Workers. It’s her failure.

Next month round, Busiek will play out his set-up, and we’ll see how this affects Marella. It’s easy to anticipate shame, self-disgust and either intended resignation with efforts being made to convince Marella she did not drop the ball, or supervisor investigation in which she is blamed. But Busiek does not design his two-parters to be so predictable, so I’m perfectly confident that he’s got a surprise up his sleeve for us: tune in next month for my thoughts on where he takes us.

As per usual, Brent Anderson is excellent on the inside of the comics. I hope he’ll forgive me if I don’t say much more. Not being an artist, or having an artist’s eye, I have rarely been able to offer much by way of insightful comment on how comics are drawn. Brent is in the grand tradition of photorealistic art, and he does an excellent job of depicting scenes realistically. Unlike many modern artists (we have been saying this for thirty years now) he can draw ordinary people as well as costumed characters, and he has the liberty, and the skill, to make the ordinary: neither mind-bogglingly gorgeous nor symbolically ugly. Marella herself is an ideal example, fresh, attractive, red hair and some freckles, good looking enough to divert glances on the street, and all the better for it. Her breasts are certainly nowhere near as big as her head.

I’m a little less enamoured of Alex Ross’s covers, both this and the previous issue, and I say that with regret because I think he is brilliant. He is, for me, the only artist to make painted art work in comics, and his single images are usually striking for their cleanness and solidity. His characters have heft and weight and an overwhelming reality.

This cover is, to me, too crowded, too fussy. It emphasises, as it is meant to, The Wolfspider, whose role in the story is minimal – he’s introduced rather for the sake of it than any integral element of this issue: mind you, now I’ve said that, you watch, he’ll be absolutely vital in the second half – but he’s placed against a background of other Honor Guard members, looming immensely but standing around a bit haphazardly, and lit differently. This diminishes their reality, and I assume it’s meant to highlight The Wolfspider by distinguishing him from his background, but even Ross can’t full work the trick of bringing him forward: painted art can be oddly less three-dimensional that traditional comics art with its black defining outlines.

The same thing goes for the previewed cover of issue 4, which we’ll discuss come September.

Until next month…

Astro City: A Universe in one Comic book – The Tarnished Angel


The Tarnished Angel, the fourth Astro City collection, was also the series’ second novel-length story, originally published in Volume 2, 14 – 20. It is, needless to say, an excellent story, though I have some criticisms of it. At seven issues worth, it’s the second longest Astro City story of them all, and between this and the future Dark Age, an argument could be made that Busiek’s forte in this series is in the short, tightly composed, self-contained story.
We’ll come back to that thought after discussing the story in more detail. The Tarnished Angel also marks an unwanted landmark for the series overall: it was midway through this story that publication began to slow, as Busiek began the lengthy period of medical problems that affect him to this day, causing long periods of fatigue. Not long after The Tarnished Angel was completed, Busiek ended Volume 2, with the series converting to mini-series and specials.
The story is told by Carl Donewicz, a supervillain in his mid-fifties, originally known as The Steel-Jacketed Man or, less of a mouthful, Steeljack. Donewicz is an Astro City native, coming from the Kiefer Square area, which is more or less populated by the lower end of the criminal fraternity.
Originally, Carl wanted to get out, make something of himself, and studied hard, but after being forced to kill another teenager, in self-defence, in a gang-fight, he lost heart and drifted into crime. After paying a criminal scientist for superpowers, he wound up with nearly-impenetrable steel skin.

Steeljack

Steeljack’s career was relatively limited: years ago, Donewicz decided to simply serve his time. The story starts after twenty years of this, with Donewicz going out on parole, wanting nothing more than a place to live, a straight job and enough money to eat. But even if his reputation didn’t precede him, nobody’s eager to hire a big, heavy guy with polished steel skin – except for the kind of job that would get Carl back inside with his parole revoked in jig time.
Kiefer Square is a place of memories for Carl, and for a growing sense of reflection about the way he’s wasted his life and how much hurt he caused his late mother. It’s also a place that’s not safe. People are dying. Heavies, washed-up muscleguys, small-time Black Masks. Someone’s getting to these people and killing them. The heroes don’t care, nor do the Police: who gives a damn about crooks being wasted?
The residents of the Square do, and through the offices of the local ‘fixer’, Ferguson Donnelly, they hire Steeljack to investigate it for them. Carl knows he’s no detective, and he tells them straight. He’s also risking his parole even talking with them.
But they still want him to do the job. And he needs the job (and the money). And he’s big enough, and tough enough to need a lot of killing: if he can somehow get on the trail of who is behind this, he stands the best chance of staying alive long enough to do something about it.
Which, in the final chapter, is precisely what tips it in Steeljack’s favour, though it would do him an injustice to suggest that’s all he had. It’s true: Donewicz is no detective, no deep thinker, and for the first half of the story he has to be led around by the nose to get anywhere. But his persistence and, at the very last, his sense of what ultimately is right and what is not (in a manner not entirely removed from John Dortmunder in the novels in which he finds himself pursuing revenge) pushes him to be where only he can salvage the day.
I’m torn about how much of the story to directly discuss. Even in the review of material that is fifteen years old, I hate revealing things that should be allowed to come to you as the author intended, but to be so reticent is to tie my hands behind my back in terms of very important points.
All that’s happened so far is in the first chapter. In a way that doesn’t come through in either Confession or (to a lesser degree) The Dark Age, the story feels somewhat schematic, with each issue dealing with a different phase or level, lacking in the sense of an ongoing, organically developing narrative.
In chapter 2, Carl tours Kiefer Square, quizzing all the surviving spouses and partners about all the dead guys and girls, it becoming clearer and clearer as one follows another that they – and Carl – are the same person, to within a fixed degree. Villain after villain, power or gimmick, each of whom who could have exploited their abilities in a legitimate manner, and probably have been well paid for it, but who were seduced by ‘the big one’, the one that would take them and their loved one out of it for good. But each time ploughing so much of the profits back into preparing for the next job, which would indeed be ‘the big one’.
It’s too much for Carl, too suffocating, too near to his growing understanding of what he must have done to his mother. And it’s emphasised when he’s approached by Yolanda, the fifteen year old daughter of Goldengloves, planning to use her Dad’s tools to do what he did, only she expects to escape, to get out, to do it. When Carl won’t cooperate, she attacks him, already fixated on her ‘chance’ and that she’s not a loser like all the rest: of course she is no different.

El Hombre

Chapter 3 moves up a level. Donnelly (and it’s really confusing as to whether this guy is Ferguson Donnelly or Donnelly Ferguson: both versions are used and both names are used interchangeably, and as they’re bloody Americans, both could be first names), seeing Carl at a loss, takes him to meet a friend from a different social circle, a man with a story.
He’s like Carl too, only from the other side of the fence. He used to be a superhero, dashing, vibrant, effective. But he was too much enamoured of the thrill, of what being a hero meant by way of worship, and when he found his ‘popularity’ waning, he engineered a situation whereby he would restore his prominence by shutting down a killer robot designed to resist other heroes but succumb to him. Only the villain double-crossed him: hundreds died and he was exposed.
Or rather his heroic identity was exposed. Since then he has lived in seclusion, a broken man, untouched. And still haunted by the knowledge that if it had only worked…
Thus, in a story that we are anticipating will demonstrate the good in a villain, ahead of his weakness, we are shown the mirror image of the evil in a hero, his weakness.
The next chapter is surreal. It concerns the somewhat naïve, albeit a bit of a genius, British supervillain, the Mock Turtle, and his life. As an Astro City single issue, it’s fine, and amusing to us Brits (thank you Kurt for not being so bloody ignorant/patronising as so many of your peers have been, although could you break it to Brent that Battersea Power Station isn’t actually in the Thames?).
But what the hell has this to do with our series? Where’s Astro City gone? Ah, but in the last couple of pages, being harried mercilessly by a pursuing gang out to kill him, the Turtle turns up in Keifer Square, and he bumps into Steeljack. Who immediately solicits the entire Square to blow the assailants out of the air. Hurrah! Menace over! Steeljack’s a hero! I’m sitting here wondering if Busiek really is trying to palm this off as the end of the story.
But of course he’s not. The significance of the Mock Turtle to the story is so great that Chapter 5 opens with his chalk outline on the pavement: back to the story. This next stage sees a desperate Carl pretending to want to go ‘underground’, try to locate the bad guy that way, though really he just needs the money and has gotten too desperate to care. So Donnelly (whoever) connects him to The Conquistador, who’s hiring muscle a-plenty for a massive, city-wide scheme.
Only Carl recognises who the Conquistador really is. He tries to investigate it himself, turning over rocks, stirring up trouble, but all it gets him is trouble, ending in his clashing with Yolanda on her first job and, in keeping her from getting killed by the killer, getting himself captured and arrested, with a one-way ticket back to prison and no means of getting out a warning that the job is wrong, that it’s a trap.
Next phase is escape and flight, from the Police. But by now, flight’s not good enough. The warning has to be given, and this time given to the top, to the heroes, the Angels themselves, as Carlie’s mother taught him to think of them so long ago. But they won’t listen, not believe him. All they’ll do is ship him back to prison. Quarrel, the sharpshooter, she’s the one who takes him: Quarrel, the one who did get out of Keifer Square: Quarrel, whose Dad was the first Quarrel, was a black mask, used to be a partner with the Steel-Jacketed Man. Carlie gets away, again. He has to: he has to stop it.

Honor Guard

And finally, the last chapter,in which it all plays out, and in which Carl Donewicz wins by being, at the very last, too tough to kill.
It ends with the sense that Carl may, after all, make it in the straight life, may even reconcile himself to what he was and what he’s now free to be. Is he the Tarnished Angel, the man who might still grow wings, dirty though they are? Or is the Tarnished Angel the man who will now spend the rest of his life in an institution,where he will be kept from ever doing anything like this again?
I don’t know who we’re meant to think that this story is about, and I suspect that Busiek intends us to form our own opinions on that.
As I say, the plot feels a bit schematic in how its phases are split so neatly into six ascending levels (for this purpose I am going to exclude the aberrant issue 17). Emotionally, in his depiction of the varying moral aspects of the story and its players, Busiek doesn’t strike a false note, except in the very end. The Villain, for all that he has done for the side of the Angels, has conceived of a plan based entirely in his wounded vanity, has killed cold-bloodedly, and intended to kill more.
Yet he escapes untouched, bound for a private, and no doubt luxuriously appointed sanatorium. He is not even exposed publicly. Nothing is done by way of punishment for his crimes, both actual and intended. He’s even taken away, by the heroes, before the law gets there, by his own side. They take him away before they even show a microsecond’s concern for the flattened Steeljack who was right all along, and who sacrificed his freedom to do the right thing, and who is abandoned, injured, alone.
I’m not a right wing, hang ’em and flog ’em merchant, far from it. I believe that the mentally ill should be in hospital, not prison. But on a moral level, I’m afraid this stinks to me, stinks of corporatist indifference to the law, of vigilantes closing ranks to protect their own with no more thought of justice than Ku Klux Klan members circling the one with the petrol on his hands to keep his hidden.
And I can’t for one second share in Carl’s ‘recognition’ that the bad guy used to mean something. It’s an area where the carefully circled moral relativity doesn’t work on me.
But this is still a very fine book, and it’s a long look into a world where we are used to being presented either with moral blacks and whites, or else carefully manipulated and too formally designed simple shades of grey, and if I’m vehement about a place where I think it slips, it’s because the book is so damned good in other respects.
I’m hoping that Volume 3 will prove to have retained that capability.
The next volume will, again, be a collection of short stories, single issues (with one, glorious, two-part exception). Through this angle of attack, Busiek makes numerous, well-thought-out points. Through The Tarnished Angel, he makes some very thoughtful points, causes for thought, none of which are the point of the story, because they’re subsumed to the larger arc of the narrative.
I’m not saying that Busiek is inept at the longer form story: Confession is excellent, showcasing a  plot that is much more organically developed than here. The Dark Age would also suffer from schematic elements, although these are inbuilt, given the story’s format.
And that Mock Turtle thing is truly bizarre.
But the effects Busiek is seeking to create, the insight derived from looking round the back to see the reverse of the story, are diminished by being put at the mercy of an incomplete narrative, whose climax steers a little too close again to standard comics territory – not to mention my galloping reservations about the moral quality of the outcome.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.

You’re only going to complain if I don’t show you the Mock Turtle, aren’t you?

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Confession


After the ‘failure’ of Astro City at Image comics, the series transferred to Homage, the personal imprint run by Jim Lee, one of the Image founders, where it’s remained ever since, until this month, and the first issue of the series from DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Astro City volume 2 would run for a total of 22 issues from 1995 to 1998, its schedule growing increasingly sporadic to to illness on the part of Busiek, which was eventually traced to mercury poisoning, causing bouts of extreme fatigue during which the writer, having a wife and family to support, concentrated his limited writing time on the better-paid work available to him at various times from Marvel and DC.
The second volume featured a mixture of short stories a la Life in the Big City, and novel length stories. The first of these was ‘Confession’, running in issues 4 – 9, and collected as the second trade paperback.
In his introduction to the Graphic Novel, Busiek discusses Robert Heinlein’s theories as to the very limited nature of stories. One of Heinlein’s categories is ‘A Boy becomes a Man’, and this is the ultimate basis of this novel.
The boy is Brian Kinney, who narrates the story from beginning to end. Originally, Kinney comes from outside Astro, from the small community of Buchanan Corners where his Dad, now deceased, was the Town Doctor. Kinney senior was a better doctor than businessman, more concerned with the treatment of illness than the collection of fees. Unsurprisingly, he was mercilessly exploited by the neighbours he served, and when he died destitute, was stigmatised by them as a deadbeat, and Brian as a chip off the same block. Brian runs away to the Big City, to seek his fortune.
Brian, like many a boy or girl in their late teens, is ambitious: he wants to become a superhero. the best way of doing this is to get taken on by an existing hero as a side-kick, and Astro City has the greatest concentration of costumes in the world. The first thing to do is to get to meet them.
He achieves this by initially getting a position at Bruisers, a down-market Bar and Grill, run by K. O. Carson, who used to be the Black Badge before he retired. Bruisers is the bar of choice for the more boisterous, rough and ready heroes, and Brian is actually a cut above that as waiter/busboy, so Carson recommends him uptown to a very exclusive, very unadvertised club, populated with the more creme de la creme of the community, a place where masks and costumes can be forgotten, where they can meet and mingle and relax.
Except, of course, that the crass Crackerjack turns up in costume, horribly embarrassing his girlfriend, Jessica Taggart (aka Quarrel (II)), and blowing the club’s security so that, a couple of nights later, the place is invaded by cheap gimmick crook, Glue-Gun.
In order not to be set upon by a couple of dozen heroes, Glue-Gun grabs a busboy as hostage, threatening to shoot him a skull-ful of epoxy. But the busboy he’s seized is Brian, who takes the opportunity to use his own martial arts training and knock Glue-Gun for a loop, to the mass approval of the guests.
Unfortunately, Brian’s acted out of turn. All the other waitresses/waiters/busboys and girls have been here for a number of years, looking for that shot, that chance to impress and be picked out, the one that, as far as they’re concerned, Brian’s stolen from them. They’re going to beat the shit out of him in the yard. That is, until a voice intervenes, that of the mysterious, black-clad hero, of whom no photo has ever been taken: the Confessor. And the Confessor wants to speak to Brian…

The Confessor

So Brian gets his wish, albeit under the rather unfortunate name of Altar Boy, undergoing training with the Confessor (whose real name is Jeremiah Parrish, and whose home/base is in an abandoned crypt in the sprawling, unfinished Grandenetti Cathedral). The Confessor is a mystery, but they’re supposed to be detectives, aren’t they? If Altar Boy wants answers, he has to do what they do with villains: find them for himself.
All of which is set-up for the second phase of the story. It’s a hot, dry, increasingly strained summer in Astro. The heat is driving people crazy, and they have something to be crazy about, because there’s a killer striking in Shadow Hill. He’s been killing for some time, but the public only starts to take notice, and demand action, after the first white victim, a smiling, beautiful, but above all white teenager.
It awakens something in the city, something that always underlies a world where figures of immense power, who are simultaneously protectors and ostensible oppressors (how could you stop them doing anything they decided to do?) have such incredible visibility. Gradually, public opinion, fed in many ways by the growing aggression of a City Mayor who seems determined to stand up for the ordinary people of America, the ones who seem to be beneath the notice of the arrogant supers, starts to turn nasty.
And it’s not just the city that’s disturbed, but Brian too, a new figure in transit between two worlds who can’t help sympathising with some of the citizen’s opinions, and wondering why he, and the Confessor, aren’t doing more to directly pursue this killer. That they’re not seems to have something to do with Shadow Hill’s antipathy to the Confessor himself, their obvious fear of him, the one time he crosses its boundaries. So much for Brian to think about, so many patterns to look at, trying each time to find what doesn’t fit, what is out of place, what inescapable conclusion it leads to.
The first revelation is the Confessor’s secret, one that, despite Brian’s trust for the man, disturbs him and leaves him in deep doubt about his role, and whether he should continue as Altar Boy. Meanwhile, the tensions continue to rise, and Astro City’s administration eventually declares virtual war upon its masked community, heading towards a massive quasi-military presence, to support legitimate law and order.
And it’s at that stage that the Confessor sees the flaw in the pattern, and leads Brian to the second, and ultimate revelation, of the other secret that has underpinned all the events of this story. And Altar Boy learns more than just one lesson from more than just one teacher as the hidden currents run through into the open and a resolution.

Altar Boy

There’s an interesting macro-coda to the story in that, after all the dust has settled, the Shadow Hill Killer strikes again, but this time the culprit is apprehended and defeated by the area’s most unusual protector, the Hanged Man. The Killer had nothing to do with anything. It was just a coincidence, an unrelated story, seized upon and exploited as a smokescreen. And there’s an even more interesting micro-coda, four years on from the events of the story, demonstrating just how Brian responds to the lessons he has learned, and the Man he has become.
Overall, Confession is an intriguing, thoughtful, well-constructed story that shows a very different side to Astro City and to how ordinary people respond to heroes at different times. It also illustrates one of the advantages Busiek has created for himself in this series, in that, just like Marvel and DC, his Universe has a past. But unlike them, it’s a genuine past, not an ever-mutable construct that shifts according to the temper of the times, and it has a depth that isn’t available to either of the big companies’ insistence that all their stories have taken place over a fixed period of time, constantly shifting forward.
Astro’s history, as we’ll go on to see, is linked to the history of the comic book industry, to the mood of various eras influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the comics of that time. It lends an extra level of fascination, especially as Busiek’s trick is to refer to historical things in the way that we would do in real life: as history that everyone knows and recalls, needing no more than a brief reference. We are warned that the mood of suspicion and paranoia in this story is not new, that it was prevalent in the Seventies too. Names such as the Blue Knight and the Pale Horseman are dropped, piquing our curiosity.
In time, we will be satisfied as to those two characters, and the temper of the times in which they appeared, but the beauty of Astro City is that its history is long, and, given the publishing difficulties that would arise as a consequence of Busiek’s health issues, much of it is still the mystery in which it begins.
As for Confession, it is rounded off with “The Nearness of You”, a one-off story not published in either of the Astro City series, but instead in a promo issue of the then-successful Comics magazine, Wizard.
Just as Astro City presents a Universe in one comic book, this tale has Busiek presenting a Universe-wide, time and reality shattering event a la Crisis on Infinite Earths in a sixteen page story – or, to be more accurate, in three pages of that story, which is only right and proper given that it’s really only a MacGuffin. Only Busiek, only Astro City…
“The Nearness of You” focusses on Michael Tenicek, an ordinary guy being driven slowly demented by his memories. His days and nights are filled with memories of Miranda, a woman he knows, in intimate detail. But he doesn’t know who she is, or why he knows her, or where he met her. His friends and family have no idea who he’s talking about. He’s unable to think about anything else, and it’s destroying his life.

The Hanged Man

Until, one night, the Hanged Man comes to him in a ‘dream’. Tenicek’s ‘memories’ are dangerous: they are weakening reality. There was an event in which all of reality, all time and space was destroyed, but then it was reformed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect match. All sorts of little details were changed: Air Ace fought the Barnstormers on a Sunday, not a Monday.
Miranda was Tenicek’s wife, but because of that changed detail, her grandparents never met. But his love for her is too strong. He has a choice: to give up those memories, forget Miranda utterly, or to retain them, and with that a sense of understanding that won’t explain but will relieve. Tenicek is one of many who have to make this choice.
The story is simple and affecting. In a universe of superheroes, of vast cosmic beings and cosmic wars in which reality is uncreated and recreated to serve a company’s continuity reboot, these are the unconsidered side-effects, the changes that beak hearts into impossible shapes that no-one cares about, except in this short moment of recognition of a risk everybody takes for granted.
Tenicek chose to remember and understand. Everybody does. The heart in all of us rises to that choice.
And next time DC rewrites its entire continuity, keep a thought for all the people who get fucked over by it. Even if it’s only the ‘real’ Justice Society of America.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Life in the Big City


The first Astro City series ran for six issues from Image Comics in 1995. It was meant to be open-ended, but the ongoing chaos at Image led to the series being cancelled (or more appropriately, abandoned), and retrospectively declared a mini-series. This first run was collected as the first trade paperback, Life in the Big City.
The collection is a perfect introduction to Astro City‘s themes and approaches. The first and last episodes are seen from the point of view of Samaritan, Busiek’s Superman-analog character, who is the only character to recur in this volume. In between, the other four episodes are seen from the point of view of civilians, bystanders, observers – in short, the ordinary folk who live in a superhero world and who have learned to adapt to it as they would to any environment.
The first episode doesn’t really have a plot: it’s a ‘Day in the Life’, beginning and ending with Samaritan’s dreams of flying, the significance of which we don’t fully appreciate until the end of the day.
Samaritan swoops and glides in his dreams until disturbed by the alarm: not the alarm clock, which hasn’t had the chance to wake him for years, but the alarm from his personal computer, the Zyxometer, alerting him to the first of many crises – natural disasters, impending accidents, criminal activity – affecting the world. And that’s what follows. Samaritan races here and there, at top speed, counting seconds in a corner of his mind, dealing with the above as they are notified to him by the Zyxometer.
At intervals, he drops in on his ‘real’ life as Asa Martin, fact-checker with Current magazine: at the start of the day, at the start and end of lunch, on leaving. He’s their best fact-checker so he’s allowed to work in solitude, behind a locked door, enabling him to leave the Zyxometer doing the work, whilst Samaritan forges ceaselessly on.
In the afternoon, he meets with Honor Guard, the world’s main superhero team: professional and social matters, jokes about setting him up for a date with Winged Victory, then off to interrupt a gang hitting a bank. In the evening, he attends a memorial dinner in his honour, continually excusing himself to do his job. And at night, he hits the pillow, exhausted, slipping directly into sleep. In the final instant, he tots up the day – fifty-six seconds, the best since March. That’s the sum total of the time that, between all those cases he’s handled, he’s spent in flight – the flight that dominates his sleep, free and untrammelled.
I described Samaritan earlier as a Superman-analog. What this means is that whilst Samaritan is not Superman, and certainly not within any actionable limits, he is recognisably of the same cloth as the first ever Superhero. Superman is the last survivor of a destroyed planet, to which he can never return. Samaritan is the last survivor of a destroyed future, to which he can never return. Superman has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled to Earth, where his alien body absorbs energy from sunlight. Samaritan has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled through time, his body having absorbed the primal energy of space and time, which he calls Empyrean Fire. Both made their debut rescuing the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger.
It’s like The Prisoner, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six is not John Drake of Danger Man, but carries about him the shadow of the latter’s past, providing his character in the later series with an instant, recognisable history. Samaritan is fleshed out by the reader’s recognition of Superman: we instantly understand Samaritan’s place in this new Universe, as we do with those other characters who we recognise as analogs.
And we also understand that the connection is two-sided: that whilst Captain America lends an air of recognisability to the Silver Agent, we know that a story centred upon the First Family is at the same time a commentary upon the Fantastic Four.
Samaritan’s return in the final story is equally thought-provoking. It takes its cue from that throwaway line about fixing him up with Winged Victory (think Wonder Woman), and goes on to take a closer look at what that might entail.

Winged Victory

The pair discuss something of their backgrounds during an evening where they end up eating out in both of their guises, comparing and contrasting their separate experiences, yet though both have a repressed desire for companionship, they’re as awkward as two 14 year old virgins sharing a milk-shake! Neither of them can escape their self-imposed missions long enough to truly relax and forget that, all over the world, every other superhero is engaged in filling in for them so that they can try to act like the human beings they are too obsessed to be. (Crackerjack is typically self-centred about it).
Samaritan gets to relate his origin, though we don’t get to hear Winged Victory’s. Instead, the couple debate their respective lives, with Victory allowed to expound upon her admirably feminist principles (about which Samaritan is unusually obtuse).
The interplay is fascinating, and if Busiek doesn’t provide us with more than the most fleeting hints as to Winged Victory’s origins, it’s telling that it’s not until the unremarkable woman she really is changes into her other self that she starts to relax more about this whole affair, and yet it is she who ends the date on an argument when she’s back in her ‘civilian’ state. It’s an interesting commentary – and role reversal from the originals – that Samaritan is the same person as Samaritan or Asa, whilst it is Winged Victory who is ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’.
The other stories take external viewpoints, though it’s stretching things to call all of them as ‘civilians’, as we shall shortly see. The range of stories is intriguing.
Episode 2 allows Busiek to delve into Astro City’s history, in a story set in 1960. It contains one of the series’ few extended fights, as the earliest incarnation of Honor Guard, at their more Avengers-esque, battle an interdimensional menace. Busiek frames his story as a tale told by newspaper editor Elliot Mills to a junior reporter about his early days in the business, and his first by-line. The story ‘punch-lines’ upon what actually got into the paper, an utterly trivial and meaningless couple of paragraphs. Every bit of superheroics is cut out.
Busiek’s point is in support of a journalistic ideal that was already getting tenuous in the mid-Nineties, being the Press’s responsibility to tell the public the truth, and only the reliable truth that can be sourced, confirmed, proved. What Mills witnessed, no matter how fantastic, was true, but he was its sole witness.
It’s a ‘moral’ that’s grown sadly archaic, and after digesting it, most of the reader’s attention will turn back to the heroes revealed in this issue. It’s perhaps typical of Astro City that, almost twenty years on, we know almost nothing more of them than we learn in this story, with the exception of the Silver Agent – ‘the poor, doomed, Silver Agent’ – whose mystery took over a decade to unravel. Each character represents a story: it’s just the getting round to everyone.

‘The poor, doomed, Silver Agent’

This was followed by something of a slighter, more amusing tale, centred upon small-time crook Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein. Eyes has the luck to be in the right position when harlequin hero Jack-in-the-Box is changing out of his costume, and sees his real face. By some astute digging, he identifies the guy’s name and address. This is pure gold to Eyes: there are people who would kill to have that knowledge. Unfortunately, as Eyes works through how best to exploit his knowledge, it becomes all the more obvious that the person they’d kill for that knowledge is none other than Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein: he ends up fleeing Astro City.
Episode 4 has a more serious, and rather disturbing point to it. It centres upon Marta, a young woman in her early twenties working in the accounts department of one of Astro’s biggest law firms, right in the heart of downtown. one of the firm’s partners, Darcy Conroy, is not only an assistant DA, and a renowned trial lawyer, but she’s the fiancée of Nick Furst, of the First Family.
Marta, in contrast, comes from Shadow Hill, Astro’s most backwards district, a region that centres upon the Eastern European immigrants who built most of the old city, in the days when it was still known as Romeyn Falls. Shadow Hill is, emotionally, still tied to ‘the old country’, where ritual and mysticism, and the supernatural reign. It frightens the rest of the city, but Matra is completely comfortable. She has grown up within its environs, she knows and understands its rituals, its talismans, She can cope.
But she’s also young, bright and ambitious. Like so many of her generation, like the immigrant experience for decades, she is exposed to the wider world. She wants to be part of it, to experience more than the enclosed, limited, confined world of Shadow Hill, despite the conflict this causes in her family.
Then the firm’s skyscraper offices are attacked by the Unholy Alliance, a team of destructively powerful villains. Ms Connor summons the First Family, they come and sort the villains out, Nick Furst personally saves Marta from rape. Everybody takes it in their stride: in a world of super-characters, they’ve learned to. Marta, however, sees it in terms of Talismans: just like those she has in Shadow Hill, the people downtown have their own equivalents, which they know and understand, and she doesn’t.
It’s an interesting perception, but the disturbing aspect of the story is that Marta’s response is to abandon her job downtown, take a (by inference) much lesser job keeping the books for a local butcher, who is older than her and ‘not bad looking’, with the further inference that she will end up marrying him, as her family want. In short, save for the urge to get an apartment of her own in Shadow Hill, Marta’s decision is to give up every one of her ambitions, to turn her back upon a wider world, and sink herself within the traditions, but most of all the insularity of her heritage.
It’s an odd outcome, and I have problems with Busiek’s endorsement of so negative a reaction, especially in a writer who usually embraces an outgoing viewpoint, a willingness to absorb change and explore possibility.
It also flies in the face of the American dream, of the melting-pot, of the forging of Amercanism from all the disparate cultures of the world.
The final story in this volume is out-and-out the most comic-booky of them all. It features an elderly man, retired, living in a cheap boarding house, with a gaggle of elderly, gossiping, bitchy women and a feckless young struggling actor. However, the old man is not an old man but an alien, planted on Earth to reconnoitre the planet, and its profusion of super-beings, on behalf of an aggressor race considering the planet for conquest. The ‘old man’ is torn; Earth and its people disgusts him, but at the same time fascinates him, and he has long postponed the decision as to whether to signal invasion, or to warn his race off, that Earth would be too much trouble.

Crackerjack – another successful night out

The story centres upon his final decision, when, almost on a whim, he decides to base his decision on one night in the life of athletic, acrobatic hero Crackerjack. ‘Jack, however, is a blowhard: flamboyant, vain, arrogant, a glory-stealer, overly consumed with himself. Busiek paints an interesting portrait of a superhero who, despite his outward, flashy, heroic, Errol Flynn-esque persona, is inside a pretty disgusting human being. In the end, the signal is sent: we are left to presume which way the verdict went.
So that’s Life in the Big City. It opened a door upon a not merely a city, not merely a world, but an entire Comic Book Universe, no less rich and widespread than those of DC or Marvel, but differing from both in that only a narrow window, illuminating small areas each time is visible. It’s a Universe in a single comic, one in which we only see the stories that count, and not the ‘day-to-day’, fight of the moth stories that sustain whole series. That you can get elsewhere, in spades and at boring length: Busiek is writing the stories everybody else ignores, and when change comes to Astro City‘s Universe, that change is permanent.
One last note: I’ve refrained from using the names, but the world of Astro City is also a multifarious tribute to the writers and artists who forged comic books in the first place: buildings, places, areas, streets, businesses etc. are all named after creators, and Astro City itself lies under the shadow of Mount Kirby, as indeed does the comic book industry and Jack Kirby.

You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.