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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

These were my exact words with regard to that:

“Yeesh, it’s an awful story, and so is issue 15, which anyone who has read more than half a dozen mainstream comics already knows will go like this: Fred and Ellie will be betrayed by whoever’s pulling Fred’s strings: Ellie’s ‘Friends’ will break her out of jail: they will release her from her conditioning that has concealed from her that she actually used to be a genius-type super-villain (almost certainly the ‘Vivi Viktor’ who, in the Seventies, was taken out by Mirage and The Point Man) and her robots actually buried those memories: that Ellie and her now potentially lethal ‘friends’ will wreak vengeance upon the manipulator, saving Fred into the bargain: and that Ellie’s conscience and her love for her mis-treated friends will win out, and she will not go back to her villainous past.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I might have known.

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

So, here we are with issue 13…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (vol 3) #12


As I predicted last month, this is going to be my last blog on the new Astro City series for the time being. I like the series too much, want so much out of it, that I can’t go on damning it with faint praise month after month. Thanks to everybody who’s been reading, but until there’s an issue that I can either genuinely celebrate, or I can (interestingly) excoriate, this series is suspended.

If I were asked to summon up what I consider the essential element of Astro City in a single sentence, I would describe it as a gigantic What If? What if we really lived in a world of superbeings with superpowers, of monsters, ghosts, aliens and mad scientists? What shape would that world take? How would we adapt, as individuals and as a society? What really happens in the heads of people who have these powers, who do these things? What stories can we tell about superhumans when you take out the 75% devoted to hitting people: what takes it’s place?

That’s what I’ve always celebrated Astro City for: Busiek’s gift for seeing through the endless superficiality into what, realistically, has to lie behind, and to write about that. That spark of realisation, of insight, that re-shapes your understanding of this strange, improbable, adolescent world that so many of us still find appealling. That’s what I’ve missed in volume 3. The spark is weak, mundane or, as in issue 12, simply not there.

I don’t even get to damn this latest issue with faint praise. It’s a landmark in two senses, firstly in that it completes a whole year of on-schedule, regular publication, and that hasn’t been the case for such a long time that it is worth celebrating. The other reason is more fundamental: it’s the first ever Astro City story not to be drawn by Brent Anderson, with Graham Nolan subbing.

No disrespect to Nolan, but it’s not an experiment I’d like to see repeated. Brent Anderson is what Astro City looks like, and whilst Nolan bases his vision on a Crafttint board to give it some solidity, his approach is simply too much of a cartoon to satisfy. No, thanks. If Anderson needs to be relieved from time to time, sobeit and it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. If you can’t simply bring back Willie Blyberg, or have somebody else ink his pencils, please choose someone with a much more photo-realistic approach next time.

As for the story, it’s so slight as to be almost negligible, but worst of all, it’s mundane. It’s narrated by long-term villain Ned Carroway who, have been brought up dirt-poor and spat on, developed a taste for fine clothing and immaculate taste after robbing his first rich snob. He’s inspired by, of all things, Little Red Riding Hood, in which he identifies with the Wolf, the dangerous predator in the deep, dark woods.

So he becomes the Gentleman Bandit, educating himself along the way, exposing himself to more and finer ways of life, his one ‘failure’ being to fall in love with the woman he sets out to seduce, and to marry her. The relationship holds, even after he’s taken in by Jack-in-the-Box, and after serving his time, Carroway, having promised, goes straight. But straight is like being back at dirt poor and worthless, and when Ned is contacted by some old prison buddies (who, like him, are heavily into fashion, style and great tailoring), he’s back in the business, fitting in with a host of different themed gangs, culminating in the Sweet Adelines.

We’ve seen these jokers in passing. The Adelines’ motif is being a Barber-Shop Quartet with tommy guns and immaculate harmonies. The problem is, they are a joke. Everything about Carroway is plausible, real,  understandable, even down to his being motivated more by wearing classy clothes than the loot (Busiek is still a good enough writer to sell you that), but the Adelines cross the line into that nebulous hinterland where you cannot believe that anyone in their right mind – and Carroway is nowhere even hinted at being crazy – would do that. Added to a couple of his earlier gangs, such as The Mount Rushmore Four, who are even more headshakingly stupid, and this holes the plot beneath the waterline.

Not that the plot is a boat, or if it is, it’s a canoe. This time round, Ned is duffed up by not only the Confessor but his sometime sidekick (since when?), Stray. The latter slashes and scars his face, and this time his wife divorces him. Now Ned’s back on the outside, trying to go straight, struggling with menial jobs that don’t bring him anywhere near a tuxedo, whilst one of his old jail-mates keep trying to tempt him back to themed gangs in well-cut tailoring. Ned’s having none of it – until his temptor gives him a pair of handmade shoes, and that’s Ned tied up until his next prison term.

Between Nolan’s cartooning, and the underlying silliness – no, call it unseriousness – of this fine clothing lark, the story doesn’t stand much chance but, like last month’s Executive-Secretary-but-to-a-magician, it’s essentially banal. We are once again behind the scenes, on the inside, but what we see offers no revelation, nothing we had never thought of before but immediately recognise as true. It’s not like the Junkman’s need for his cleverness to be seen and acknowleded by others, or Vince Oleck introducing superhero tropes into a Criminal Court because they exist. No Oh. Oh, I see, I get the picture. It’s like Dorian Gray looking exactly like his picture.

I don’t want to be saying such things, so I’m signing off. I’m still collecting the series, and if an issue appears on which I think I have something valid to say, I’ll post on Astro City again. If that’s so, hope to see you again.

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


I dunno.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you, Mr Busiek.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

But that’s for next month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3), #8


The cover is quite an effective symbol for the second of this Winged Victory-focussed four-parter: Wonder Woman, her bracelets chained together, is in a symbolic pose, removed both physically and by Alex Ross’s pastel colours into the background, whilst the normally-lit men on the cover, Superman and Batman, do the actual fighting. That pretty much sums up what goes on inside this issue.

Oh, and I do know that that is actually Samaritan and the Confessor going at it, inside and outside, whilst that’s Winged Victory receding further and further into the background, but this is one of those cases where the analogue wears exceptionally thin. Though I have never read it, I am put very much in mind of Kurt Busiek’s weekly series, Trinity, devoted expressly to DC’s holy three. The cover, especially the chains, just screams of the original characters.

This second episode is devoted in large part to building up the Confessor as Batman-manque, which was not the primary aspect we witnessed in the Confessions graphic novel. But then that was the original Confessor, and this is a very-much-changed Brian Kinney: the disconnect is massive. The Confessor has broken in to Samothrace One, and Vic’s systems, to carry out his own investigation. Both Vic and Samaritan jump to the initial conclusion that he’s involved, but the Confessor is there to assist: he knows Winged Victory is being framed.

The encounter is very funny: Samaritan forces what, in normal circumstances, would be a Marvelesque unnecessary fight thatthe Confessor prolongs for a serious point, two, in fact. One he states, that at his end of the business you have to handle yourself against anyone, and the other being a demonstration that he can handle himself against Samaritan. It’s neatly done, and I laugh each time at Samaritan’s twice-pained acceptance, “Oh, don’t think t-twice about it — Just a little spot of exercise on a n-nice day –”

Even then, the banter, the exact relationship is too exact, too much Superman/Batman.

The fact that Busiek specifically acknowledges Winged Victory’s position in having to rely on assistance – upon an almost takeover – by men, highly competent, very fair men, but men nevertheless, plus the fact that this is only part two of four, keeps me from being negative about this aspect of the comic. I trust in Busiek, and in what he has planned,not to mention that whilst Vic has to slip away, her example devalued, her mission seemingly disrupted terminally, it’s only to bring her in contact with her foe. The man behind this is Karnazon, leading the Iron Legion, of whom we will learn more next month. But it’s Winged Victory who will go alone into the spotlight’s glare.

So let’s take it that Busiek knows what he’s doing and that whilst the male/female tightrope might seem to be balanced in stereotypical fashion just now, there is more ahead. We’ll return to this particular current after issue 10, when we have everything before us.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol.3) #7


For the first time since Astro City‘s return this summer, Kurt Busiek and his partners are concentrating directly upon one of his Universe’s costumed characters, as opposed to the ‘ordinary’ folks living their lives in the light of a world in which suspended disbelief is a way of life. And after twenty years of the series, we come at last to the explaining of one of Astro‘s major, if perhaps remote, figures, Winged Victory who, from the outset, has been a very plain Wonder Woman-analogue.

It’s long overdue by my reckoning: Winged Victory was seen at close quarters in Volume 1, # 6 (see Life in the Big City), ostensibly as a possible girl-friend for Samaritan, but primarily in contrast to him in terms of their roles and how they approach what they do. Despite Busiek’s efforts to portray the two charactrs equally, Winged Victory still came off as subordinate, and she has remained very much a background figure ever since. Not so in this story.

“The Earth Below Us” being the first part of four, what we get this month is almost wholly set-up, fleshed out by the surprisingly early explanation of WV’s origin (I’m not sure how I feel about the revelation that her ‘boyfriend’ and closest supporters call her Vic…). It makes a welcome change: usually, such thing get revealed in episode 3, but the full nature of what WV is and how she is powered is essential to the various elements being brought forward.

First of these is Mike, a mysterious beaten-up kid crawling towards WV’s Astro City home, Samothrace, in search of the same kind of training, of mind and body WV has always provided to women, to enable them to stand up for themselves, be independent and strong, and masters (well, you know what i mean) of their own fates. Mike, however, is a man.

This cuts into a lovely, and lovingly nostalgic, scene of Winged Victory and Samaritan, both naked, flying together in the night sky: it’s a deliberate reflection of Samaritan’s dreams from the very first scene of Astro City, save that he was alone then but is accompanied now. It is but a dream, though a dream dreamt in WV’s arms and bed,and things haven’t changed that much, as Samaritan is woken and taken away by another disaster.

What follows is equally familiar. We have long been exposed to WV being a controversial figure, because of her overt feminism, and it is rearing its ugly head again: three super-villainesses suddenly claiming to be in WV’s pay, Vic being the puppet-master, their showdowns acted out fakes. The detractors who continually seek to tear her and her message down are immediately out in force, but this time it’s different. They’re too organised, too ready, and worryingly, too effective.

This is where WV’s origin comes in: as Lauren Freed, she was a nothing, a nobody, who let her life be dominated by a callous, self-centred man, who was broken down and left with nothing when he dumped her. But Lauren was chosen by the Council of Nike, to become Winged Victory, to become a symbol of strength, and a mentor/tutor for women. And what is most interesting is that her power comes from women the world over, strength that is chennelled into her, channelled by her. We’re not yet told on what basis this is, whether mystic or scientific – the outline we are given of this origin delicately avoids committing in either direction, thus far – but within twenty four hours of this latest scandal breaking, WV’s strength is already diminished, and she is summoned before the Council.

So, the threat is not just to the reputation and the example of Winged Victory but to the person of Lauren Freed within. The whole of the story makes it clear, throughout, that Winged Victory is Winged Victory on a permanent basis – the scenario established in her first appearance. Lauren Freed does not appear in this issue, outside her flashback: though Samaritan is Asa Martin in her bed, it is Winged Victory with whom he flies and makes love. After twenty years, we are led to believe that Lauren Freed is still the broken woman she once was, scared and helpless.

So: who is Mike, what is he running from, and what effect will he have? Who is behind this sudden undermining attack? Will Lauren be replaced as Winged Victory and how will she respond? And, as hinted on the cover, and made explicit on the final page, why is the Confessor sneaking around Samothrace, spying on her?

Good question, and remember, this is the second Confessor, the human one, Brian. Or shall we call him Busiek’s Batman-analogue? Between Winged Victory on the one hand, Samaritan on the other (agreeing to keep out of this, understanding how important it is for WV not to prevail with male help) and the Confessor’s undisclosed involvement, it’s a re-enactment of DC’s Trinity – and remember that Busiek wrote a 52 week series under that title, featuring the originals…

This one looks very interesting.