The end of a era

One of the minor inconveniences caused by the current lockdown has been the disruption to my comics collecting. The companies aren’t publishing, the distributors aren’t delivering them, the shops aren’t open and I can’t go into the centre of Manchester to buy them, since I’m not Dominic Cummings.

That this is only a minor inconvenience is largely down to the fact that, after Tom King’s Batman series ended twenty issues prematurely, I’ve been reduced to only two series, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Moonshine from Image comics, and DC’s unashamedly fun Fantastic Four rip-off, The Terrifics.

But now the industry is tentatively poking its nose out from under the blankets, and it appears that Moonshine 18 and The Terrifics 27 should be appearing very shortly, maybe as early as this week. Which is good in one way, but not in another.

Although Moonshine is telling an ongoing story, it only comes out in mini-series of six issues. No 18 will therefore be the last in this ‘series’ with nothing else due until much later this year, at best.

And to my dismay, I have learned that DC has cancelled The Terrifics from no 30, but that only issue 27 will appear as a paper comic. The last three issues will only be published digitally, and will not appear in print until collected as part of Graphic Novel no 5. GN Vol 3. is not due to appear until September this year, so you can imagine how long that’s going to take.

So the return to publishing is, for me, only a false renaissance. The larger point is that after these two issues have come out, I will have no new comics to buy. The last time that happened to me was a very long time ago. In fact, it was before the landmark purchase of Justice League of America 107, in January 1974, that kick-started the whole thing for me. I haven’t given up on comics after all this time. They are giving up on me.

Not forever. There will be Moonshine ‘season 4’, and Tom King is sequelling his Batman run with a 12 issue Batman and Catwoman series, if that ever appears, given that his successor on Batman appears to be doing the usual overturning of everything King had set up, leaving Batman/Catwoman as a likely  contravener of the new continuity.

It’s been 46 years, and the sudden expectation of an absence is a bit of a shock. Of course I still have those DVD-Roms I’ve been exploring for the last couple of years, but that’s not the same. The wavefront is stopping: I am far from sure where that will leave me.

Mage III: The Hero Denied (and an apology deserved)

Just over three years ago, and as part of the series on Uncompleted Stories, comic book series that have never seen their full intentions come to fruition, I commented on Matt Wagner and what we had all, in the beginning, was going to be his most significant work, Mage.

Mage was conceived as three series, each of fifteen issues (the last of which being double-sized), representing different stages in the life of everyman, Kevin Matchstick (a metaphor for Wagner himself), who learns that he is the modern incarnation of the Pendragon: of King Arthur.

The first series, ‘The Hero Discovered’, appeared between 1984 and 1986, from Comico. The second, ‘The Hero Defined’, did not arrive until 1997, a delay engendered in large part by Wagner’s struggle to regain the rights to his work after Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990.

And after that a long silence, still prevailing in 2014 when I wrote. I had anticipated/resigned myself to another decade, but we were well beyond that period, and so I categorized Mage as Uncompleted, and that was that. Thankfully, I am not a prophet.

About four or five months ago, Wagner announced the appearance of ‘The Hero Denied’, to the same fifteen issue format, again to be published by Image Comics, who brought us the second series. And today, my visit to Forbidden Planet in Manchester has seen me bring back issues 1 and 2 of the final story.

It’s far too soon to pronounce. Wagner is still drawing in the same style he used for ‘The Hero Defined’, with his son Brendan as colourist. A decade has passed since the events of that story: Kevin may still go in for the same black-and-white Captain Marvel influenced t-shirts, but he’s bald on top. He’s also married, to Magda, witch and one of the Weird Sisters of Mage II, and they have two children, Hugo, aged about eight or nine, and Miranda, about two. They’ve been in hiding from the nasties, but chance has exposed Kevin, less than a week before Magda’s potion of pure protection will be ready, after eight years preparation.

The Umbra-Sprite is once again moving, as are the Sprite’s spawn, but these are now Grackle-thorns, and all six are female. They still hunt for the Fisher King, who was absent from series 2, but they still seek revenge upon the Pendragon, and especially now his children, of whom Hugo, by the end of issue 2, has learned that neither the world nor his Dad are what he’s so far been let to believe.

No sign yet of the Third Mage, he who will follow Mirth and Wally Ut, nor yet a glimpse of anyone who may be that Third representative of Magic, and no attempt yet to come to even a premature verdict on what I have read, nor will there be until Mage, but in this year when Twin Peaks came back, and when I took a thirty year old manuscript and made it something on the verge of publication, here’s another moment of unexpectedness, and resignation refuted, to make this world, at least momentarily, less of one where faiths fail, possibilities close and stories go without endings.

To Matt Wagner, my profound thanks.


From Uncompletion to Completion: welcome back Mage

A few years back, I did a series on Uncompleted Stories (of which one post remains unwritten, though I will get to it one of these days), about comic book series/stories which were never ended and which, by implication, would remain forever without an ending.

One such was Matt Wagner’s Mage: intended to comprise three series of fifteen issues, of which only two have appeared, then and now. Fifteen years had passed at that point since Mage II – The Hero Defined. It’s eighteen years now, but you may officially now laugh and point at me, and cry jeers about my lack of faith but, starting in May, we will finally have Mage III – The Hero Denied.

Like the second series, it will be published by Image Comics, in four blocks of four monthly issues, each block separated by a skip month in which the Graphic Novel compilation of each block will appear, which at least settles one question for me: I will forego my curiosity, my eagerness for the story, and I will wait for the books.

So: one more thing to anticipate. 2017 is rapidly becoming a year of unexpected comebacks: Twin Peaks, Mage, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books final book (when, oh when, will that be translated and published in English?) and even my thirty year old novel.

And Mage is going to take me into 2018 as well.

Now, all we need is another Play (or a dozen) from the Sandman Mystery Theatre and I’m almost going to be a happy bunny…

The Magic Words: Azzarello, Risso, Buy

In these latter days, given my ever-growing distance from what purports to be modern entertainment, and exacerbated by my current issues with depression, it’s very hard to find new things to be interested in.

This applies especially to my lifelong love of comics, which for some time has left me with only one monthly title, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, supplemented with the occasional Graphic Novel, and those mostly when they supplant a bunch of the original comics.

But there are certain magic words, the effective of which is to add up to a mathematical formula: Brian Azzarello + Eduardo Risso = Buy.

In the middle of the week, I learned of the forthcoming publication of Moonshine 2, from the much-derided but increasingly influential Image Comics. It’s written by Azarello, and both drawn and coloured by Risso: the 100 Bullets crew back together, and even though I didn’t have a clue what Moonshine is about, and whether it’s an ongoing series or a limited one, and if so, how many issues it’s planned to run, these were matters that didn’t matter. Did we wait to find out who starred in the new Pratchett, what was its theme, how many pages before we bought it? No, we did not. And when Azz and Eduardo get together I ask no such questions, I just buy it and put the series on my pull-list at Forbidden Planet in Manchester.

That was this afternoon, the furthest I’ve been outside in the last couple of weeks: Planet and Pizza Hut and home again.

So what is Moonshine, and is it any good? The two answers are: I’ve no idea yet and of course it fucking is.

Moonshine is set in 1929, and Risso’s art is perfect for the era. The story’s hero appears to be one Lou Pirlo, a tough customer looking to make a name and a position for himself under Joe ‘The Boss’ Masserio, a bootlegger. Masserio has found a supply of illegal hooch being made up in the mountains of West Virginia by a hillbilly named Hiram Holt. It’s good hooch, in fact it’s the best, and Masserio wants it for his organisation.

So Lou is sent out to Spine Ridge to do a deal with Holt. The figures ain’t entirely to Holt’s advantage, but this is Joe Masserio we’re talking about, and this is the bootlegging business. Unfortunately, Holt isn’t interested in playing – Pirlo is shown a still, and three mutilated bodies, three G-Men, hunting down the illicit still in the opening sequence, finding it, and also finding hillbillies with axes: oh yes, this is Azz and Eduardo – and is sent back with a message: Holt doesn’t take to having others mess with his business.

Halfway down the mountain road, Lou’s car pops a tyre. He hears music, follows iit to a negro camp, watches the singing, a girl dancing. When he enters the firelight, they stop to watch him. When one of them asks what he wants, he replies, “A drink.” Looking at the girl, he adds, “For starters.”

And that’s issue 1. Not much going on, mostly passive, mostly a beginning of a set-up. No massive surprises. Yet.

But this is Azzarello and Risso, and they don’t ever lay all their cards on the table, not at once, and sometimes you don’t get to see the hand even after they’ve won it. I just know that the magic words were magic again and I’m in, and I’ll be at the table for as many months as Moonshine lasts.

And if they want to keep this one going as long as 100 Bullets, I’m in. Pass the hooch.

Uncompleted Stories: Mage

The Mage gang(s): l-r, Sean Knight, Edsel, Mirth, Kevin Matchstick, Wally Ut, Joe Phatt, Kirby Hero

If anything were to happen to him tonight, which we fervently hope it won’t, artist/writer Matt Wagner would undoubtedly be best known for his character Grendel: monster, crimelord, force of evil.
Indeed, Grendel was Wagner’s first creation, a very primitive and sloppy version of him appearing in black and white in an anthology published by the long-gone independent publishers, Comico. But this Grendel was poor and primitive, and Wagner turned to another character for his first series, Mage, a fifteen part colour series which began with art and story-telling that, whilst a cut above the Comico Primer was still that of an artist feeling his way, but which, over the full series, grew increasingly polished and attractive.
Partway through the series, Wagner reintroduced Grendel as a back-up: a gorgeous, stylish, art-deco influenced illustrated story as opposed to an orthodox comic, laying out Grendel – Hunter Rose, novelist, Olympic Fencing Champion, philanthropist, ruthless and implacable crime-lord – in his prime and until his death.
After Mage finished, Wagner returned to Grendel as a concept and a series, primarily as writer for other artists, occasionally drawing stories, as Grendel developed as a force, possessing others, destroying their lives with the attraction of its evil. By the end, Wagner had established a long continuity extending all the way to the fortieth century and the robotic Grendel Prime.
Yet Hunter Rose still exercised the greatest fascination, and Wagner has returned time and again to his prime Grendel, in stories that precede and sometimes foreshadow that too-early established death, including a memorable and excellent two-part team-up with Batman.
But thirty years ago, when Mage was eagerly awaited every other month, that would have seemed unlikely. Grendel was only its back-up, not even a comic as I’ve already said. It was Mage that would be the masterpiece of Matt Wagner’s career.
That series from Comico was subtitled The Hero Discovered, and it was published between 1984 and 1986. It was to be the first of three limited series, each of fifteen issues duration, set to tell the complete story of Kevin Matchstick – visually Wagner himself – and Mirth, the Worldmage. After its completion, it was republished in three Graphic Novels by Starblaze, the then book publisher of the collected Elfquest, in the same format.
If you want to read Mage –  The Hero Discovered now, you need to find those rare volumes.
Because the reason Mage is not going to be the primary work of Matt Wagner’s career is that thirty years later it remains Uncompleted.
In the beginning, the story seemed to be as crude as the artwork: Kevin Matchstick, an everyman, isolated figure, without ties or relationships, encounters a punky, perky street tramp who, we soon learn is a Mage: not just any Mage, but the Worldmage. Kevin resists believing, though he is quickly forced to accept that magic exists given Mirth’s display of it.
It also takes him some time to believe what Mirth has said about power being awoken in him: Kevin has great strength and is practically invulnerable, although this latter functions only when he is in serious danger. Indeed, despite the ever-increasing evidence, Kevin doesn’t merely have difficulties in believing that he now has a destiny, he actively resists believing, the more so the longer Mirth refuses to tell him all he needs to know.
There is, of course, an adversary, an incarnation of evil, the Umbra Sprite, with his five identical sons, the Grackleflints. They are in search of the Fisher King, which gave many people a great big stonking clue as to where exactly Wagner was going: that Kevin has started to come into his power gives them increasing problems and requires ever more serious menaces, drawn from Celtic myth, to try to overcome him.
But Kevin has servitors: the teenage girl, Edsel, who takes her own name from her favourite car, and who wields a mean baseball bat, and Sean Knight (another clue), the ghost of a Public Defender: they recognise Kevin for what he is and work for him, and sacrifice themselves when the time comes, for his defence.
At the end of issue 5, Wagner’s art took a leap in sophistication, and his control of the airbrush meant an increasing subtlety in colouring. Mage grew ever more complex and intriguing, until the final revelation that stuns Kevin into near inertia.
For Mirth is Myrthin, or Merlin, Edsel’s baseball bat is the current form of Excalibur and Kevin is the leader, the Pendragon, heir to the legend of Arthur.
Having accepted his role, Kevin mounts an attack on the home base of the Umbra Sprite, only to find him dead, killed by his son Emil, whose distinguishing characteristic among the Grackleflints is initiative. Kevin confronts the Wild Hunter, the horned God of the Pack, with antlered forehead, mounted on a motorbike and surrounded by dogs that bear the faces of those who have died for Kevin and the Pendragon. He brings down the house, literally, ending this phase of the menace.
The sequel was promised ‘soon’.
Apart from the Starblaze reprints, Wagner put Mage aside in favour of Grendel at that time. He did write and draw a short, four-part backup in Grendel 16-19 as a bridge to the second series, but plans along those lines were disrupted when the struggling Comico went into bankruptcy in 1990, leaving Wagner struggling for several years to regain the publishing rights to his two characters.
Because of this, it was 1997 before Wagner was able to publish Mage II – The Hero Defined, which appeared from Image Comics both as a fifteen part series and, subsequently, a four-part republication in Graphic Novel format, in comic book size.
Mage II was met by a mixed response from its audience, which flocked eagerly to the long-awaited sequel but recoiled from it when they found it radically different from The Hero Discovered. I admit to finding it hard to accept: thin, conventional, shallow in comparison to its predecessor. This was a purely emotional response, and an objective analysis counselled patience until Wagner had what he was doing. Which was giving his readers something different.
What disappointed people at the outset were changes in both art and story. Despite the evidence we had of Wagner’s range as an artist, his experimentation on giving the reader something unexpected, and intriguing, Mage II was drawn in a very straight, comicbook cartoon realistic style. Wagner used flat lines, black outlines, and a plain colour palette. The airbrush colours of The Hero Discovered were not to be seen. Stylistically, it was very conventional, and far from being in tune with contemporary approaches.
And it was fully in keeping with the story which seemed to offer no more than a more funky, less rigid form of superhero action. Kevin is teamed up with Joe Phatt (who can run incredibly fast) and soon meets Kirby Hero (now there’s a symbolic name for you) who is incredibly strong and invulnerable.
They, like him, are incarnations of mythic figures, Coyote and Hercules respectively. Kevin and Joe are on the ‘Nasty Hunt’, tracking down nasty predator creatures and despatching them, with no greater or ulterior purpose: Kirby is doing much the same in an interval from carrying out these Twelve Labours imposed on him by his Dad.
There;’s a certain amount of jostling for command between Kevin and Kirby: Kevin’s the Pendragon, by definition a leader, and he definitely sees it as his role to lead and others to follow (whether they agree or not). Kevin sets priorities, aims and goals and cannot understand why Kirby insists that his burden is more important to him than Kevin’s exploration of a growing menace that draws them and a whole host of other ‘superhero’s to a Canadian town where the Pale Enchanter is brewing up a plot.
There’s the Prester, the Hornblower, the Dragon Twins and more: they don’t wear costumes but they each have superhuman abilities and credentials: it’s like a more serious version of the Justice League International only with less team-work. Only the Hornblower (whose Horn, in a manner typical of this slightly loopy take on superheroes, is actually a kazoo) is seriously loyal to the Pendragon, and Kevin’s discomfiture at this, and his irritation, leads him to send his most supportive ally to his death.
Is there a Mage involved? Kevin hasn’t seen Mirth in god knows how long, but he knows he’s prophesied three Mages. It’s just that he cannot believe that street tramp Wally Ut is the second Mage. Wally’s a bit of a joke, like the Hornblower, which was again a characteristic of The Hero Defined, as if Wagner found this superhero stuff to be risible and couldn’t keep from taking a rise out of it.
Nevertheless, the danger is serious. The story leads to a long underground sequence of growing seriousness. The Pale Enchanter is ultimately revealed to be Emil Grackleflint, who is disposed of by the returning Umbra Sprite. It is he who draws off the evil, for now, not Kevin who forces it away.
Because this is a very bad ending for Kevin. His insistence on having his way takes over Kirby’s next Labour, destroying it and alienating both Kirby and Joe. Wally is revealed as being indeed the Worldmage: in fact he’s Mirth, in another incarnation, yet Kevin has resolutely refused to listen to anything Wally said. And in forcing himself in his arrogance into a conflict that was not properly his to begin with, Kevin has done the unthinkable: he has destroyed Excalibur.
An astonishingly dark ending and an extraordinary set up for Mage III – The Hero Denied.
Mage II appeared from 1997 to 1999, with the initial collections appearing at intervals from 1998 to 2001. Those of use who had undergone a ten year dealt to read it were prepared to deal with another decade for the final part of the Trilogy but it is now fifteen years and the most we have on the prospect of The Hero Denied is ‘soonish’, a publication interval that does not appear in anyone’s previews.
If Mage III were to miraculously appear on the schedules in 2015, that would be thirty-one years since the story began. Matt Wagner had in his mind a clearly-defined trilogy. How detailed that vision was in respect of book 3, no-one but he will ever know, but in 2014 he is not the same man, the same artist or writer he was in 1984, learning his trade, extending his skills. Whatever the third part will be, it will, by definition, not be what he originally intended.
It might very well be better. If Mage tells the story of Kevin Matchstick, might it not be very fitting and the best thing that could happen for him to be seen at three different times by an author who has grown older and more experienced? Maybe. Or maybe, as such things have gone before, the extended scale of time, the removal from the impulse that drive the story in the beginning leads to an inability to recapture what made the story so fascinating at the outset.
Because we readers have gotten thirty years older and thirty years more experienced, at the same time as has Wagner.
As thing stand, the story of Mage is like The Lord of the Rings as if The Return of the King had never been written or filmed. It is Uncompleted. Unlike the two Swamp Thing examples, it could be completed. But a long time has passed. We may yet find that, in Harlan Ellison’s superb phrase, The Wine has been left open too long and the Memory as gone flat.
We would need the story to be completed to know whether that is so and I have given up any expectations that that will ever be so.

P.S. I got that wrong, much to my delight. Come and witness my mea culpa.

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.