A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Volume 3) no. 5


I’ve wondered how best to put this, but it seems the best approach to take is the straightforward one: I don’t particularly like this issue, and I find it very disappointing.

Part of that is down to misdirected anticipations caused by Alex Ross’s cover, ironically so in that it’s by far and away the best cover to date in Volume 3. From the first time I saw it, it set my expectations for a truly historical tale, the oldest tale yet in Astro City‘s existence. I anticipated, indeed relished, the prospect of Busiek and Co’s take on pre-First World War superheroing. Dame Progress. Mr. Cakewalk. Strange names, intriguing adversaries, a fresh perspective

Which made the opening page, revisiting the Broken Man from issue 1, a total let-down.

I’d also better admit that I’m a long way from accepting the Broken Man yet. I can see what Kurt’s shooting for, ‘a riddle wrapped up in an enigma’ (re-demonstrating my point about our predeliction for making aphoristic phrases out of a distortion of original words, here Winston Churchill’s 1939 comment on Soviet Russia that ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’). But there’s something I really don’t like about the Broken Man, and after much thought I’ve defined it as the excessive breach of the Fourth Wall.

That’s not something that bothers me in principle, but the Broken Man raises this to a fetish, purportedly incorporating me in the story as an ally or, given how determined he is to be mysterious and not actually give away anything concrete, as an underling of neither consequence nor use.

Because that’s what this story is: it’s a continuation of no 1 but on a wider scale (I refuse at this point to say ‘greater’). It’s this thing about the Oubor again and about they won’t notice readers of certain issues of Astro City, but we’re being a total danger to everything by reading the first two fragments of story that sneak through due to our failure of concentration. On the other hand, we are allowed the Dame Progress/Mr Cakewalk sequence as a freebie, even though there’s this great mystery drummed up around it about how we can’t possibly be expected to understand it.

What Busiek is doing is building a very large and long story but, unlike The Dark Age, he seems intent on doing it a fraction at a time. Issue 5 is a come-on issue: we get three fragmentary tales in different Twentieth Century times, interspersed with all manner of images that are also relevant to the story, but which we can’t expect to understand. Now I love a good parcelling out of information in judiciously calculated instalments as much as the next reader (I am a worshipper of 100 Bullets, remember?), but this is too much. Instead of getting to grips with the story, trying to find a connection between enigmatic incidents, it’s being thrown in our face as being deliberately incomprehensible. I don’t know about anyone else but being told I can’t possibly cope with a story gets my back up.

No doubt all will become clearer over whatever extended timescale Busiek plots, and I hope that the clues and links can be forged without the Broken Man pointing to them with his purple fingers, shouting ‘Here’s a clue!’, because that’s what this month’s episode has me dreading.

The three fragments are interesting in themselves, although I’d like to have gotten deeper into any one of them, rather than this whistle-stop tour, deliberately interrupted in the first two instances. Fragment 1 focusses on Special Agent Cal Tarrant, leader of the Working Group On Unsettling Anomalies, Classification and Confinement, or WGOUACC (no, actually they’re known as the Blasphemy Boys). They’re a sort of Untouchables of the paranormal and it’s about a case that decimates the team in Baltimore in 1931.

Fragment 2 isn’t even a story, it’s a set-up. It’s set in India, in 1947, where a US Army Paratroop Sergeant deserter has, in undescribed circumstances, become a Kobra-style leader of a religious cult, about to carry out a political assassination. The context for this fragment, in the Broken Man’s workshop places it in juxtaposition to the unjust execution of the Silver Agent, suggesting that this tiny Indian statelet may be connected to Maga-Dhor.

The only ‘complete’ tale brings us at last to Dame Progress and Mr. Cakewalk, and it’s interestingly noticeable that their hero/villain chase through Romeyn Falls is undated. I’d attribute it to turn-of-the-century, with about a ten year leeway either way. Dame Progress is the heroine, Mr. Cakewalk an annoyingly acrobatic villain, but he’s maybe more than that since he helps the Dame expose the dastardly plans of Dr Aegyptus, and gives his loot back.

But this is still a tale of fragments and not-even-hints, because we still have no idea what this story is about, and no context for our multiple historical moments. And we’re invited to take each and every element of this issue as a ‘clue’. This apparently includes the 45rpm single by The Kloo, “Outside Reaching In”. The label is oscured, but not by so much that I can’t recognise it as Warner Brothers’ Records, but there’s no year on it, the songwriting credits are partially blocked (second writer Berryhill) , as are the Publishing company (Great Nameless ?), and I can’t find the Kloo on either YouTube or Google, whilst the only “Outside Reaching In” on YouTube is by a 1980s band, and the Kloo’s name is pure mid/late-Sixties.

More will be revealed, and I’m perfectly prepared to revise my opinion of this issue when I know a bit more of what it’s referencing, but Kurt and Co. will have to do a lot more yet to have me change my opinion of the Broken Man (I gather that a handful of astute fans have correctly identified who he is ‘in real life’, but not me).

So, a disappointment. To come is another one-off in issue 6, then a four-parter centring on Winged Victory, Samaritan and The Confessor in issues 7-10.  I’m sure I will have better things to say about those forthcoming issues.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3) No. 4


I have to say that I’ve been disappointed with all the Alex Ross covers on the new Astro City series so far, and issue 4’s the same, showing central character Martha (“Sully”) Sullivan, enjoying a quiet coffee in a roadside cafe whilst a horde of superheroes race by, and she casually waves them away: idea brilliant, execution undistinguished. The colour palette’s too shallow, there’s a washed out look to it, Sully doesn’t really project enough from the background. There’s isn’t the kind of distinctive image to or in it to make it stand out.

Inside, the story’s another entertaining perspective on the super-powered in the manner that only Kurt Busiek seems able to portray. Long-term readers have met Sully before, in the penultimate issue of volume 2, the Crimson Cougar story (collected in Local Heroes). Sully’s a telekinetic, an experienced woman in her late forties/early fifties, squarely built but comfortable with herself. We met her doing special effects for the television soap that featured the Cougar, when she referenced having once thought of being a superhero (as “Mind-over-Mattie”) before realising it wasn’t for her.

Now we get to see her at more length. The story is ingenious, and Busiek makes sure there’s plenty of time in it for Sully to recount her life-history, showing how Sully discovered the simple fact that, despite her superhuman powers, she simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed life: too stressed and scared to be a hero scrapping with villains, too honest to be a villain, taking what she wants (and all she did was to gimmick a fruit machine to give her the jackpot!).

No, Sully found her niche in special effects, a sort of human CGI. And she found a whole bunch of others like her: super-powered in various ways, not the stuff of heroes (the story, in this aspect, is a gentle reminder to us, from the back, of the extreme personality required to do that), but useful and highly effective in the entertainment business.

Not that that stops idiots with grandiose ideas of conquest and power from trying to take over their lives, trying to make these people (who call themselves Sideliners) use their abilities as they ‘should’, and for the benefit of would-be criminal despots like – the Majordomo!

Yes, Sully turns down an approach along just such lines, tells her agent not to book any jobs for her for a week and settles down to the by-now expected kidnap and removal to a place of slavery where she and a dozen of her friends and fellow Sideliners will be coerced into feeding the Majordomo’s fantasies (Sully will be renamed Telecaster!). But they’ve all been through this before, and they’re ready for it (just because they don’t want to fight doesn’t mean that they can’t) and the hapless Majordomo is not only brought down with ease, but given a major ticking-off too.

All without the need to involve ‘real’ superheroes too.

There’s a neat little coda when Samaritan – who’s getting real exposure in this new series – drops in on Sully at her cafe to gently remind her that the heroes value the Sideliners and would have been eager to help, which ties the strings of Astro City‘s universe together that bit further, but it’s also a reminder of the differences between heroes and those who, for whatever reason, have not so much not got ‘it’, but who merely have something else that they use fulfillingly.

Overall, it’s another illustration of what I’ve long since described as Busiek’s ability to write a series consisting entirely of definitive stories. We know Martha Sullivan now, we have seen her world and her life, seen how distinct and differenmt, yet wholly logical, it is from yours or mine or any common or garden superhero. In the Universe of a comic book company, we would return over and again, seeing Sully doing endless versions of what she does here, and maybe in thoroughly entertaining fashion, but this single story defines her.

Every ongoing series has the defining stry(ies) and the ones that come out to fill a monthly schedule. Astro City has nothing but the defining stories, and doesn’t waste time of repetition. Like the title says, it’s a Universe in one Comic Book.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m looking forward to that.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Shining Stars


I’m cheating slightly, in that I don’t actually own the Shining Stars GN: it was published in hardback but, probably due to Wildstorm Comics being enfolded into DC, was never put out as a Trade Paperback, and I’ve enough of the collector’s anally retentive mentality in me to want a uniform collection.
However, I do have the original issues from which the last collection to date has been compiled, these being the respective Character Specials issues featuring Samaritan (1 part), Beautie (1 part), Astra Furst (2 parts) and the Silver Agent (2 parts), and I’m assuming they’re collected in that order.
The Character Specials were designed to bridge the gap between the increasingly widely spaced books of The Dark Age, to give Astro City’s readers something to follow, and as a little contemporary relief from such a long story set so resolutely in the past.
The Samaritan story is the best of this collection, and another of my favourite stories. It’s the first story to directly feature Samaritan since Volume 1 issue 6, but though it’s supposedly his story, Samaritan is firmly second fiddle to his implacable foe, his Lex Luthor, Infidel.
It’s Infidel’s voice that guides us through “The Eagle and the Mountain”, which begins with the ancient parable that gives the story its title. Each year, Father Eagle flies to the Great Mountain to sharpen his beak. When he says he will miss the Mountain when it is gone, it replies that that will never happen, for he is the Great Mountain and Father Eagle is but a single bird. But the Mountain and the Age went, as did a Second Age, and now Father Eagle sharpens his beak upon the Third Great Mountain.
This is a parable that Infidel learned in his childhood, in Africa, in a land now long lost. The child craved knowledge and endured hardship and slavery to gain it, before he was transformed by the fundamental energies of the Universe, i.e., Samaritan’s Empyrean Fire.
Infidel was self-regarding, dictatorial, tyrannical and, to escape the continual disturbances of common folk seeking to burn the wizard, removed his empire to the distance, destroyed, desolate future. Until the day that Samaritan saved the Space Shuttle Challenger, destroying that future utterly.
Since then, the two have fought each other to restore and re-restore their differing versions of that future. Until the day that Infidel destroyed the world entirely.
Forced to work together, the enemies restored the world, in Samaritan’s version. Since then, Infidel has retired to a self-created Citadel in another dimension, where he runs things as he chooses. Each year, alternating as hosts, the two meet, seemingly cordially, checking on one another.
The story is their latest meeting, and Infidel’s careful description of his history is interspersed with their dinner conversation. Busiek and Anderson use the comics form to highlight discrepancies between Infidel’s calm, philosophical narration, and certain realities, but he accuses Samaritan of being more brutal and direct in his use of the Empyrean Fire, where he is more subtle and measured, and it is clear from the conversation that he is far more sophisticated than Samaritan.
The whole set-up obviously recalls Superman and Lex Luthor, though it’s not an exact parallel, nor a commentary on that relationship, given that Infidel’s only resemblance to Luthor is in being an enemy.
Once the dinner ends, Samaritan returns home with advanced scientific ideas that, to Infidel, are trifles, but which exceed our understanding (though they’re still going to have to be checked for traps!)
For Infidel, it is straight to his version of surveillance tapes, focussing on the moment when, in the conversation, he drew Samaritan to considering a more dictatorial role himself, to make his world easier to deal with. And he finds what he thought he detected: the faintest sub-vocalisation of a passing ‘If Only…’.
Infidel is happy. He believes Samaritan can be turned. But he again remembers the fable of the Eagle and the Mountain. And wonders whether he is the Eagle, or is he perhaps the Mountain?

Beautie

The Beautie Special was a much overdue examination of a strange figure who had cropped up as part of Honor Guard enough times to intrigue. It was clear that ‘she’ was some form of robot, and now Busiek was read to reveal the full story.
Beautie is indeed a highly sophisticated robot, a life-sized version of the famous Beautie (i.e., Barbie) doll. She’s been around since the late Sixties, is a hero, is even a living symbol for the toy company that makes the doll, But not even Beautie knows her origins, and now she’s beginning to wonder. rather haphazardly, as it happens, in fits and quickly forgotten starts as we follow her out-of-superhero-hours.
In one form or other, all of Astro City’s stories have been narrated by someone, the voice of the central character narrating their tale. Busiek breaks with this approach: there is still a narrative voice, but not the Omniscient Narrator of old. The story is told in a kind of third person personal, and the detached tone and slight distance this creates serves to illustrate Beautie’s strangeness and continuing inability to fully understand things around her.
Slowly, her wondering gets more intensive and the few facts Beautie discovers begin to stick, until she finally finds her way to her creator, a middle-aged woman doing some gardening in a suburb. Who, frustratedly, curses Beautie’s faulty programming and sends her away again, telling her to forget. Which she does.
It’s happened before, several times over, but this time MPH, Beautie’s Honor Guard colleague, has followed, and he learns the full story. The middle-aged woman was the daughter of a supervillain, Dr Gearbox. She inherited his genius – indeed, even at eight, she was better than him – and built Beautie because she wanted to show that she could help him. Unfortunately, she unveiled Beautie just as he returned from a heavy defeat and between that frustration, hid inherent chauvinism, and even jealousy, he rejected the girl’s efforts and told her to get rid of Beautie. Traumatised, she had told Beautie to get lost and forget everything, but at intervals Beautie returns and she has to do it all over again.
We’re left with a hint that next time, maybe, it will be different: MPH points out that she can be proud of what she’s achieved with Beautie, and that the lady is a good and vital person. In the meantime, Beautie looks at her tiny, inanimate sisters, without wondering. Yet.


In contrast, the Astra two-parter is a sweeter, brighter affair altogether, and contains a brilliant SF concept that could form the spine of an entire series of books or comics but which is, in Astro City terms, a throwaway.
It’s also a useful demonstration of one of the principles behind the series that’s been implicit in everything I’ve talked about, which has not to this point been openly stated: unlike every major comic book universe, Events Occur In Real Time. We focussed on Astra in Volume 2, issues 2-3 (collected in Family Album), when she was ten. That was eleven years ago: in this story, Astra is now 21, and has just graduated from college.
The story takes place on Graduation Night, starting out at a club where Astra has gone with her two BFFs and her boyfriend Matt. All three are ordinary folk, not super in any way. The whole world wants her, she’s an amazing celebrity, the paparazzi magazines are trying continually to get stuff about her (and the kind of devices they use are exponentially more subtle than those we have).
But Astra, having grown up in a world where she is *Astra Furst!*, where everybody wants her for her name and not who she is, is considering her future and how it can be more the way it is with Matt, who didn’t even recognise her when he first approaches her.
Matt’s ordinary, decent, kind, all the things Astra wants him for, but she the evening progresses, everybody’s wish to congratulate her only goes to emphasise how far out of place he is. Invites to join a new superhero team, a delegation from her grandmother, Madame Majestrix, installing her officially in the succession, even her own family. And still she’s dogged by “The Inside Scoop”, wanting watercooler dirt on her, uninterested in any of the interesting things.
She takes Matt out into space, to a party planet, where they can relax and just be (though even there Astra ends up acting the hero). And Busiek introduces his throwaway concept, the Gordian Knot, a fantastic tangle of universes wound into an incredible, multi-dimensional crush. There’s work to be done here, knowledge that makes Augustus Furst look like a kindergarten teacher, universes to be slowly, ultra-carefully unwound and freed.
And Astra can’t take behaving as if everything’s normal any longer. Matt’s the one who’s feeding “The Inside Scoop” and it’s destroying her but she has to know why he’s betraying her.
And it’s simple, sordid, stupid and obvious, and it raises the question about how the super-powered can really integrate into the world. Because Matt sees himself as a nobody – an impression the parade of colourful contacts so far has done nothing to dispel – but as Astra’s boyfriend he’s been something of a somebody, and now it’s going to end, and he’s decided to cash-in now she’s going to leave him.
Except that she wasn’t. Astra wanted him to come with her, and his feelings of inadequacy – which at least one person in the readership understands fully – have destroyed that future.
Incidentally, this is the only story in the entire series to forego narration by anyone.
The Silver Agent two-part Special was, until the series resumed with Volume 3, the last Astro City to date. It followed the completion of The Dark Age, and was an epilogue to it, finally spelling out who and what and why the Silver Agent was, and explaining his journeying through time.
In Book 1, Alan Craig disappears from his condemned cell, only to reappear, eight minutes later, in uniform. In between, he has been drawn into the 43rd century, in part to save him from his death, in part to fight for freedom against an implacable enemy. Now victory has finally been achieved and, against the protests of everyone, the Agent insists on returning to 1974 and his execution.
It’s an obligation, it’s duty, it’s about serving others, which is what Alan Craig has always been about. Because the records available to the 43rd century show that he was executed. So, to safeguard the future, to ensure that time runs as time must, the Agent must go back.
We learn from his Journals rather than direct narration: who he was, what transformed him, what he believes. We see many other stops in time, moving backwards, private as well as public meetings, until he returns to his cell, and his sacrifice.
One thing about this volume is the stories, given their additional length, are more detailed, more complex than the ‘standard’ Astro City tale, and it would be nice if Busiek could work to this depth on a regular basis.
And that brings Astro City up to date to Volume 3, which I’ll continue reviewing on a monthly basis.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – The Dark Age


Brothers and Other Strangers

The Dark Age is Astro City‘s longest and most ambitious story, and as such needed two graphic novels to collect it, Brothers and Other Strangers and Brothers in Arms. Nevertheless, it’s a single, if wide-ranging and sprawling story, and I’m going to review it as a single entity.
The story covers a period of about ten years, from 1974 to 1984. In view of Kurt Busiek’s ongoing health issues, it was originally planned as three four-issue mini-series, though in the telling the story extended to four such.
The Dark Age was originally conceived as a project for Marvel, as Marvels 2, a sequel to the landmark 1994 series that had made Alex Ross’s name. Where Marvels had laced together the Marvel Universe from 1940 to 1970, the company’s Golden and Silver Ages, the sequel would have covered the next fifteen year period which, because of the nature of the comic books published in that era, would have been a darker, less innocent story than the original: the Bronze Age.
The novel centres upon, and is narrated, turn and turn about, by two brothers, Charles and Royal Williams. Busiek introduces them in a prequel set in 1959, when the brothers are aged ten and under. Charles, the elder, is a livewire and a handful, already snatching fruit from street stalls, whilst Royal, nervous and shy, is a good kid. The prelude is a teaser for the initially unseen event that transforms both their lives and drives them for the whole story. We don’t know what it is, but it seems to involve the best and the brightest, the Silver Agent.
By the time of Book 1, things have changed. Charles is Police, honest, serious, committed and Royal is a small-time crook. They meet irregularly, and do not publicly acknowledge themselves to be brothers, not even to Charles’ fiancée, Darnice (who Royal, correctly, diagnoses as a gold-digger, much to Charles’ fury). Neither has time for heroes, and especially not the Silver Agent.
Over Book 1, we finally learn the Agent’s fate, a mystery that Busiek has been hinting at since Volume 1 issue 2: in Paris the Silver Agent shoots down a super-powered madman attending the Vietnam peace talks. He is arrested, tried, convicted and, by the end of book 1, executed. Shortly thereafter, the ‘victim’ reveals he is still alive, and that the Agent was being mentally controlled.
This is the background to the growing squabbles between the brothers, which is further complicated when the Blue Knight targets Royal, leaving an indelible sight on him that renders him vulnerable every time he comes above ground.
There’s a third element to this first section of the tale, and that’s the revelation of what marked the Williams’ in childhood: their parents callously and casually killed, their home set on fire by a Pyramid agent, and the Silver Agent tracking the killer, coming through without even noticing the hidden boys, and leaving them behind.
The story develops further in Book 2. The rift between Charles and Royal has grown wider. Charles is under pressure from his colleagues, who are taking graft: he won’t join them but he won’t betray them, despite Internal Affairs threatening to drag him in. Meanwhile, Royal is going up in the criminal world, unwillingly, as part of the Platypus’s gang.
Royal’s increasingly deep involvement in crime is mirrored by the increasing pressure Charles faces to join Lannie and the rest of his squad in accepting graft: they are unable to trust an honest cop without having the lever of his own dishonesty to use against him. Charles becomes increasingly isolated, especially after Darnice leaves him over his refusal to accepts money that she could further spend.
This takes place against the background of a growing gangwar, as the Platypus tries to increase his stake in the city against his rivals. The gangs are being stirred up by new heroes, more aggressive heroes, like Hellhound, the Jade Dragons, Street Angel and Black Velvet. The Platypus sends for help from Pyramid, who send a high-ranking officer, Aubrey Jason, to mind Jitterjack, the Divided Man.
It’s a time of confusion, a time of hard options and changing morals, and yet it’s a time for the Silver Agent, travelling backwards to his death in Book 1, yet popping up to help end the worst of it, for a time at least.
And Royal recognises Jason as the man who killed their parents.
As the gang war, orchestrated in secrecy by the Platypus’ lieutenant Deke (who takes over as The Deacon, still in charge in the Nineties, if not later), reaches its peak, Charles is gunned down by his so-called friends. Royal surrenders his freedom to save Charles, but does the most of all to save his brother by giving him purpose – the man who killed their parents.

Brothers in Arms

Books 3 and 4, collected in the second volume, move the story into the Eighties, or at least the first half of it. Charles has recovered, Royal has done his time. One works for the Government garrison, E.A.G.L.E., the other as his undercover contact in Pyramid. On the surface they’re acting against Pyramid, but they’re really after Aubrey Jason.
Unfortunately, E.A.G.L.E. gets what it wants, crippling (though not destroying) Pyramid, but the Williams’, who are both undercover by this time, are deprived of their kill, and wounded. In the background, the continued darkening of the superhero world continues apace as heroes get further and further from the ideal of helping others and, in their brutal approaches to villains, get closer to becoming indistinguishable from them.
This point is emphasised in Book 4, by when Charles and Royal have become brutalist super-characters in their own right, obsessively pursuing Jason from hide-out to hide-out, using all manner of superweapons. Both have filled out, especially the ordinarily skinny Royal. True, both have gone through extensive physical training, but I see the (unstated) effects of steroid abuse on top.
And the brothers’ pursuit of Jason forces him into seeking superpowers, and proclaiming himself with the utterly Eighties title, Lord Sovereign (even Royal comments on that so I don’t need to). Jason’s assumption of these powers leads finally to the merger with the external storyline, which has shown the era of darkness leading finally to the Pale Horseman.
And, led by Royal, who has been troubled by a sense of something he can’t fully realise throughout book 4, the Williams’ finally halt themselves in their tracks when the darkness bursts and the Dark Age starts to turn towards its end.
And to an epilogue, in which we learn that all the previous narration has taken place some twenty years later, by an ageing pair of fishermen in Biloxi, who are helping Elliott Mills prepare a feature on the times. Instead of being background, the brothers’ story becomes the spine of Mills’ piece, under the pseudonyms of Charles and Royal Williams. And it’s in the epilogue that the Dark Age really ends, in a moment that ushers in a new era – the space shuttle Challenger is rescued by a mysterious newcomer who gains the name Samaritan.
The Dark Age is, as I’ve said, by far the longest Astro City story to date, but that has the regrettable side-effect of making it the most badly affected, on original publication, by Busiek’s health-related productivity. Each mini-series ran to schedule but the wait between them was punitive, and the decision to publish Character Specials between, whilst with the best of intentions, only served to emphasise how slowly progress was being made towards resolution.
The Graphic Novels don’t suffer from that, but I am unable yet to read The Dark Age without being affected by the sag between segments.
Each ‘Book’ tells a discrete chunk of the story, intended to be complete in itself, which doesn’t help the overall flow, and which makes it harder to adjust to the inter-book transitions the Williams’ goes through: that from Book 3 to 4 is especially hard to process, and threatens to derail the story at that point.
But the greater weakness, for me, is the disjunct between what I’ve called the internal story and the external story. Busiek indulges in some metafictional editorialising in the Epilogue in setting their story as the ‘spine’ of a comprehensive overview, but that’s not what comes over to me.
Theirs is the only consistent strand in the whole story, whilst a whole bunch of things go on in the distance. The Silver Agent is clearly intended as a spinal element too, but his story is being told in reverse as he travels back in time, popping up like a deus ex machina in each subsequent Book. His is a disjointed presence, working at odds to the development of the story, and, given that he’s hitting flashpoints, high crises, on a level unrelated to the Williams’, he becomes unavoidably a Messiah figure, too remote.
Besides which, the external story has nothing to do with the Williams’. Until the final issue, they are irrelevant to the story of the dark decade, and it is no more than a background to it, the development of which is pertinent but never fundamental to their story.
And for me, that external story is too sketchy, too bitty, too under-developed to really satisfy me. It’s an impressionistic survey of a comic book era I read through, but far from disappearing in 1985, as it does in Astro City, that dark-edged, brutalist, amoral era only got stronger and stronger, and the mood and milieu on the Dark Age is more appropriate to later years than to 1974 – 1984.
What we learn is a brief, incomplete overview of a period, in which intriguing characters come and go, without explanation or development, leaving the impression that we do not understand or ‘know’ any of these people.
The closest we come to understanding is the Street Angel, who starts out, in flashback, as an athletic Spider-Man-manque, but grows steadily more grim and violent, until he realises what he has done, acts underground to redeem his sins and sacrifices himself confronting the Pale Horseman. But despite all this evidence of his life-arc, I don’t feel as if I ‘know’ the character as I do the Blue Knight of the same period.
And that’s because the Angel’s story is told piece-meal, a bit in each book, and from a distance, where the Knight, even as a secondary character to Vince Oleck, is seen close-up, in focus, in a single, tightly drawn story.
This applies to the entire era. We have ten years of onrushing history, featuring characters who come and go, in darkness, and no understanding. It may be appropriate to a Dark Age, but I find it very frustrating. It’s the wrong depth: too much for an impressionistic sweep, too shallow for real knowledge.
Don’t let that put you off. Coming to these books without the experience of delay, or the dislocating shifts accompanying each long-awaited no. 1, will enable you to better approach this as an integrated whole. I am yet unable to do so.

“To our Eternal Shame”

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Local Heroes


Local Heroes marks the point at which Astro City began to run into serious difficulties. A glance at the original publication data in the credits reveals that the stories contained herein come from a mixture of the ongoing series, a mini-series and a one-off special. Kurt Busiek’s increasingly severe medical difficulties, undiagnosed for most if not all of the period covered in this book, forced drastic changes on the series.
After The Tarnished Angel, Busiek had announced a sequence of short stories, focussing on the people who live outside the superhero world but are affected by it in differing ways. Unfortunately, it took so long to get the first two of these out that, out of a sense of obligation to his readers, Busiek decided to suspend Volume 2 and, for the foreseeable future, continue Astro City via short-run mini-series, scheduled to appear only when enough issues were compiled to ensure reliable publication.
The first of these was Local Heroes. Consisting of five issues, it was intended to complete Busiek’s sequence of short stories begun in Volume 2. However, one of these got out of hand and insisted (rightly and gloriously) on stretching to two issues. The story forced out then appeared,in extended form, in a one-off special that brings up the rear of this volume.
Unusually, this is the only volume of the series not to print its stories in publication order, with “Newcomers” from Local Heroes 1 appearing first, ahead of the two remaining Volume 2 issues. It’s a broadbrush story, of the kind Busiek does so well, narrated by Pete Donacek, main doorman at a major Astro City Hotel. Donacek, who first came to Astro after a busted knee ended his pro hockey career, has knocked around the town twenty years or so and knows it well. He can relate the city to us even as we watch the differing experiences – and reactions! – of several visitors to the hospital.
It’s the kind of story that doesn’t have a plot, just a string of illustrative vignettes, but Busiek knows better than to leave us without a wrap up: early in the story, Donacek watches a group of teenagers go by, paying particularly attention to a blonde girl. Late in the issue, he flashes back to a street battle involving giant robots or statues, in which he saved a baby from being crushed: the final page brings the teenager back past the hotel, and she is the baby. Donacek doesn’t know her name and never will, but the responsibility still sits on him and he watches out for her, every day. Like the more famous denizens of Astro City, he too wears a uniform.
Following this is another of my favourite Astro City stories (there are two such in this volume), featuring Sally Twinings. Sally is a writer,of comic books, learning her craft at Bulldog Comics under veteran editor Manny Manning. Despite the fact that they’re supposed to be writing factual accounts of actual superhero stories (and you were wondering how superhero comics would work in a superhero world?), Manny wants everything hyped up, Marvel-style. He wants thrills, excitement, drama, especially where there are none.
It’s a sharp two-hander, between Sally’s attempts to reconcile her own instincts with the lies and exaggeration Manny demands, and that he brings to all his encounters, even the one with the villain Glowworm, who’s mightily offended at being painted as a racist in one of Manny and Sally’s comics (“How does (your mother) feel about you robbing banks?”).
Manny comes out of that with three broken limbs and an idea for a new range about cosmic heroes and interstellar stories, characters who “don’t give a gnat’s fart” about what happens on Earth. Turns out Sally is pretty good at these and the new line is a massive success – until six months later the Bulldog Comics building, with Manny in it, vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a strange odour that Sally compares to a gnat’s fart…
The final issue of Volume 2 takes another sidelong look at what it’s like to be on the fringe of superherodom, with Mitch Goodman, stuntman turned actor, playing a bit part role as a superhero on a TV soap, actually prevents a robbery in real life. The result is massive publicity and the opportunity to jump his career up another level. The problem is that the publicity attracts people who don’t want more heroes around and who would like to make Mitch into the kind of example no-one wants to be.

Irene Meriweather

Back at the mini-series, we come to a story in which I appear to differ from the overwhelming majority of my fellow fans: they love it and I think it’s the worst story to date. It’s set in the early Sixties and features a major, but hitherto unmentioned hero named Atomicus. Or rather, it features Atomicus’s girl-friend Irene Meriweather, a career girl in an era inimical to career girls.
The story is simple: Irene falls in love with Atomicus, is challenged by him to prove herself worthy of sharing his life, spends the whole story trying and failing to prove he is Adam Peterson. You recognise this? Of course you do: it’s Lois Lane and Superman, twenty-odd years of psychologically disturbing, pathologically insane stories of obsession, instability and superhero dickishness, given a ‘serious’ twist in Busiek’s tale by making Atomicus not a grown man, in possession of full understanding, but a naïve child.
The story ends in tragedy: one Atomicus manoeuvre too many causes Irene to snap and simply rip off Peterson’s clothes in public: he, in turn, screams how much he’s hated her constantly pressuring him and he leaves Earth, never to return. Irene is publicly fired and humiliated and, though she spends the rest of her life well and worthily, she blames herself ever after.
Why don’t I like this? In part, it’s because, unlike so many other past-set stories, Busiek produces Atomicus like a rabbit out of a hat: he hasn’t even been named since, which feels wrong for such a major, powerful figure, clearly meant to be another Superman-analog. It feels detached and unreal. It’s also a story whose comic book antecedent is simultaneously too blatant and yet insufficiently related for this story to properly work as a commentary on those old Lois Lane tales.
Irene’s daughter (herself a new superheroine) tries to make her mother see how badly she was treated by the superjerk, which is a very pertinent comment on Superman in the Lois Lane stories, but the truth is that Busiek has removed Atomicus too far from Superman for this to pertain to him. To be frank, the Superman/Lois Lane stories feature two unpleasant people continually humiliating themselves and each other: try to impress that template on a couple where both are more sympathetic but caught up in a tragic misunderstanding of each other, and the commentary fails completely.
No such comments about the next story, featuring a smart, slightly snooty Astro teenager forced to spend the summer in the country with her cousins, who spends most of her time being politely dismissive of what they see as cool – especially in respect of the neighbourhood hero, Roustabout – only to learn her lesson in time. Nice, if slight.

My favourite cover

Which leads neatly to that two-parter that took over the end of the mini-series, which is the other of my favourite stories in this volume. That’s because it’s about the Law, and I was a lawyer for thirty years so this is on my home turf, and I understand the sheer enormity of it from the inside.
It’s about rising trial lawyer, Vince Oleck, who’s been handed the case from hell. It couldn’t be simpler: Richie Forgionne, mobster’s son, bludgeoned his date to death in a restaurant in front of 41 witnesses. Open and shut. The world’s greatest lawyer couldn’t defend that, let alone Vince. But Forgionne’s dad expects his boy to walk, and Vince has a wife and young son…
And it’s 1974, when things have begun to go bad. Busiek’s hinted at a bad era, of suspicion, doubt and fear, and it will be the subject of the next extended saga. Here we are: the Silver Agent is dead, Nixon is fighting Watergate, the clouds are gathering. There’s a new ‘hero’ on the streets, the Blue Knight, and the difference is that he kills criminals.
Alone at the sharp end, with no argument, and no defence, Vince Oleck starts to feel the stirrings himself, the stirrings of something more primitive, something older, demanding that he act for himself, protect himself and his family. His friend Josh is a cop, a cop who’s concerned for him. But Josh lost his young son a couple of months ago, killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by (check).
And that’s when an offhand, jokey comment by Vince’s wife, triggers the moment of inspiration.
It’s absolutely hilarious because it’s not merely absurd beyond belief but also completely and coldly logical in a world where superheroes really exist, but Vince starts to recall all the prosecution witnesses, who were so absolutely certain that their evidence pointed only at Richie Forgionne, and starts to question them on past cases.
Like the one where the Doppel Gang robed banks looking like Lyndon Johnson, Elizabeth Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, down to blood samples and fingerprints.
Like the time Julius Furst of the First family was arrested for treason, only it was his other-dimensional counterpart from the Worst Family.
Like when Supersonic died, but came back to life on the morgue table when the MO was about to start the autopsy…
It’s outrageous, it’s unbelievable, the shock and the concept cause howls of laughter. But within Astro City it is inevitable, and it is correct. Richie Forgionne walks. His dad wants Vince inhouse as their mouthpiece. And Vince runs.
It’s not the Law that protects him, but the Blue Knight, for the simplest of reasons.
At the end, the fact that a vigilante who kills, driven by some sort of primeval urge, undermines Oleck’s attempts to reassure himself that the world makes sense and the Law is a structure that works. He doesn’t continue long as a trial lawyer, but thirty years later he is a Professor of Law, teaching the trial lawyers – defence and prosecution – of tomorrow.

The Blue Knight

The story squeezed out of the mini-series appears last, released as a Character special, in expanded form, and I’m sorry to say that it makes for a disappointing ending. It features the afore-mentioned hero, Supersonic, Dale Enright, a bright, breezy, endlessly inventive hero in the Sixties who now, at the start of the 21st century, is an old man, a widower living in retirement near Astro City. But he’s dragged back into costume by his old Police contact, Captain Robbins, who knew his identity all along.
A giant killer robot is threatening the neighbourhood, and Robbins wants him to stop it. All the younger, more active heroes are otherwise engaged (though the real reason Robins has come to Dale is that he wants to prove that the old warhorses still function, having recently been retired against his will).
Reluctantly, Dale suits up and roars into battle, powers still intact, but his inventive mind, his gift for stratagems, his endless bag of tricks is empty now. All he can offer is brute force, and whilst this prevails, it’s only at the expense of massive property damage, and severe bruising to Enright’s ego.
It’s another story about ageing, but this time about realising when to step down. It’s a less interesting motif that the Junkman’s, in “Show ‘Em All”, and it’s delivered via what is Astro City‘s longest superhero battle, which combines to reduce the ambit of the story and manoeuvre the story to the conventional, which is always a disappointment.
I said that’s the end, but it isn’t. There’s a six page short, entirely free of superheroes (well, I say free: the superheroes are talked of and Winged Victory can be seen in the deep background, but they are beside the point). A young boy visits the Fire Station to thank a fireman who entered a burning building to get him out: the fireman lost a leg. The boy and his Dad drive him to his next appointment, visiting the guys who entered a burning building to get him out: it’s a graveyard.
Put like that, it sounds sentimental, almost manipulative, and if you are too dyed a cynic, you will think that after reading the story, in which Busiek says some important things but, most of all, gives the characters an open, honest life. It was created for a second volume of stories, dedicated to, and sold to raise money for the emergency workers who entered the Twin Towers on 9/11. If it’s emotionally simple, it has the right to be.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next month…

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


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

Steeljack

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

El Hombre

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

Honor Guard

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

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

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – 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 – Confession


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

The Confessor

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

Altar Boy

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

The Hanged Man

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