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 – Family Album

After Confession had been extracted to appear as a complete story, there’s an unavoidable rag-bag undertone to the third Astro City collection, Family Album, which brings together volume 2, nos 1-3 and 10-13.
This is another batch of short stories, though two of the tales reprinted in here are two-parters.
Curiously, the stories available here are heavily weighted towards the superhero (or, in one memorable case, supervillain) experience, with only the opening story really portraying the observer’s experience.
This is the opening episode, re-starting Astro City with an issue that re-delineates the purpose and the metier of the series.
It’s narrated by Ben Pullam*, father of two daughters, new arrival in Astro City, and who’s very conflicted about what he should be doing. Pullam’s marriage has broken down, in circumstances unrevealed but painful: his wife has a new partner, and he basically fears that he is running away from something too hard for him to bear. More than that, he fears he may be teaching his daughters to run away from hard situations instead of confront them.
The story explores Astro City physically, nodding to such things as the ongoing mystery of the Silver Agent’s fate, but the biggest lesson that Pullam faces comes when the city is attacked by a Thundergod, determined upon razing it to the ground if his kidnapped bride is not returned to him.
The heroes turn out in force, and the city turns out in its own kind of force: the entire block gathers on the rooftop to watch, except for one kid who’s inside doing his homework: if the city’s going to be destroyed, what does it matter? asks Pullam, aghast: and if it’s saved, he still needs to have his homework in on time, his pragmatic and much more experienced neighbour replies.
Disaster is averted, but Pullam is already planning to leave; the city is too dangerous to bring up his daughters. But in the morning, the clear-ups crews are out, the neighbours are getting together a pot-luck for the workers, and he gets to see a different side of things, a sense of community that doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s a question of which lessons he feels his girls should learn – and his eventual decision is to stay.
(*Yes, the Ben Pullam of Volume 3, issue 1).

A few Fursts – Astra is in the middle

Busiek followed this by a two-parter, centring on Astra Furst, of the First family. Astra is a rarity: she’s a ten year old girl, of genius level intelligence, whose body is composed of energy, and she’s a fully-fledged member of the team, which now stretches across three generations. Busiek approaches things carefully, introducing the readers to Astra via a TV appearance which actually demonstrates her ignorance of the common things of the world, and of childhood.
This leads to a degree of dissatisfaction for Astra herself, furthered when she catches sight of a hopscotch grid in a nearby schoolyard, and wants to know more about it. When she can’t get a satisfactory explanation from either her mother or her robot tutor, Astra decides to go off on an ‘adventure’, joining the school as a new transfer and learning how to play hopscotch against the school bully.
There’s a quite brilliant sequence in the second part where, against the counterpoint of Astra’s affairs at school her distraught family, who’ve assumed she’s been kidnapped, descend on several of their enemies, demanding to know what they’ve done with Astra. It’s a very effective demonstration of the breadth and height of the First Family’s world, the details of which take place entirely in the reader’s imagination where they are so much more fun.
That the First Family are, as I’ve said, analogs of the Fantastic Four, lends an additional reality to those imaginings.
What’s more, when Astra reveals herself, on winning her hopscotch game, it earns her a place at the school and the chance to mix with kids her age on a regular basis.
After the intervention of Confession, the series resumed with my single favourite Astro City story, “Show ‘Em All”, featured in volume 2 no 10, and starring the villain The Junkman.

Would you recommend having your Astrobank robbed by this man?

It begins with a very skilful and completely successful robbery at the Astrobank: the Junkman’s devices – ingenious, highly advanced technology housed in broken toys and appliances thrown out – work perfectly, and over the course of the night, the 85 year old villain removes $7,000,000 in gold bullion, so smoothly that the only evidence there is that a robbery has even taken place is that the gold’s gone.
It’s the crowning glory of the Junkman’s career, his revenge on Society for rejecting him, as Engineer Hiram Potterstone, when he reached mandatory retirement age twenty years earlier.
So Potterstone heads off to Rio, to enjoy the fruits of his endeavours and generally bask a bit. But his basking turns sour when his young… companion can’t be persuaded that Los Superios aren’t the best things on Earth, smarter than every villain there could be. Potterstone’s dissatisfaction multiplies, wherever he goes: everybody praises the heroes, but he’s beaten them all, beaten them so much that nobody knows he’s done it…
The Junkman returns to America and starts a new crime wave. In Detroit, he attempts to repeat the Astrobank crime, only this time something goes wrong. He’s prepared for M.P.H. and gets away with some of the loot, but the talk is starting. Then he tries the jewellery stores in New Orleans, but the Black Rapier is more of a detective and gets there first: even so, the Junkman is ready for him.
But he’s not prepared for Jack-in-the-Box when he tries to repeat the Astrobank robbery, and this time his brain doesn’t prevail over Jack’s brawn, Potterstone is taken, identified, his hideout is discovered, all his devices. Everything’s revealed (except the whereabouts of the money). And he’s going in to trial, faced by one of the greatest trial lawyers in the land, with the eyes of the press on him as every detail of his ingenious plans are exposed.
Curiously, the Junkman does not appear concerned. Because, taped inside the chandelier in the courtroom, is another one of his little devices, planted weeks ago. Soon, he’ll put the second part of his plan into operation…

The Harlequin Hero

The remaining stories in this volume do rather represent a falling-off in standard. A two-parter based on Jack-in-the-Box does answer some questions about the hero’s past, especially the fact that Zachary Johnson is the second Jack, having taken over the role in 1987, after discovering that the original Jack-in-the-Box was his father, Jack.
The point of this story is the confused feelings that Zach Johnson has within about his father’s role as a costumed hero who, in the end, lost his life fighting crime, when Zach was only twelve. Though he’s rationalised his feelings of abandonment after discovering his father’s secrets, and has gone on to succeed him, Zach is still conflicted, and this is brought out when he is forced to face two incredible parodies of himself: one a biomechanical travesty, the other a biologically enhanced travesty.
Zach’s horror is to learn that both are his son, from different potential futures. Both have disastrously misunderstood his legacy, and both react homicidally at his ‘apostasy’ from their separate but parallel images.
That alone is bad enough, but the worst of it is that both ‘Jackson’s were born without a father, Zach having died before they were born. The problem becomes acute because, after capturing both Jacksons, Zach returns home to Tamra’s ‘good news’ that she is pregnant.
Zach is torn between the instinct to use his abilities to defend others, and his desire not to subject his unborn child to the same trauma he faced. It’s a conflict that’s intensified by the appearance of a third putative son – this time refreshingly un-selfmutilated, indeed utterly normal – but still haunted by the loss of a father he never knew.
The problem with this story is that, the first part especially, it’s entirely too conventional, and the solution is equally conventional and foreseeable. Just as Zach is Jack-in-the-Box (2), what’s needed is Jack-in-the-Box (3), a street kid already known to Jack, on the cusp of that dangerous point where the only feasible future is to throw in with the gangs. Instead, with Zach monitoring and training, Roscoe James takes over the harlequin costume, and Zach and Tamra are free to have their baby in faith and confidence.
It’s well-written, and the art is, as usual, excellent, but it’s a mark of the expectations Astro City had set for itself that it falls down for being too superhero for far too much of its length.
The last story in this collection is a truly oddball one, as goofy in its way as some of the classic Silver Age tales. It’s the story of Loony Leo, a cartoon character who once walked off the silver screen and into real life, an unintended side-effect of a machine a villain was using against the unfailingly polite, immaculately dressed hero The Gentleman. Think of it as being a ‘real-life’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if the Rabbit had walked off the screen into the audience and then had to cope with being alive.
It’s a neat idea, presented in a downbeat way, and with the underlying moral that some people can’t be protected from themselves, not when it comes to show business, but it lacks a point that attaches it to Astro City‘s real-life grounding, and as the last story in this volume, it leaves a bit of an inconsequential feeling at the end.
Next, in both Volume 2, and the Graphic Novel sequence, would come the second novel-length story.

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.