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 – 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…

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Confession


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

The Confessor

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

Altar Boy

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

The Hanged Man

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

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 1


By my reckoning (and Kurt Busiek’s), this comic is three years overdue. It was plugged as coming out in 2010, but such minor matters as WildStorm Press being wound up once Jim Lee went in as Co-Publisher at DC, and Busiek’s ongoing debilitating health problems that have played hob with Astro City‘s publication schedule this last decade and a half, have forced a postponement until now. But Astro City is finally back,now from DC’s creator-owned imprint, Vertigo Comics, with a third volume of stories. Busiek assures us that by this time, either 11 or 12 issues will be ‘in the can’, so we’ve got at least a year of new stories to look forward to.

So what of Astro City (volume 3) issue 1, “Open the Door (Part One)”?

To be frank, my intial reaction is disappointment. What we have here is very different to the Astro City we long-timers have come to love. It’s deliberately so. This might be issue 60, if you tot them all up together, but it’s very much a relaunch issue, aimed in large part towards the nascent Vertigo audience, and Busiek has aimed so determinedly at not shutting them out with the expectations of the old audience that he’s gone to the other extreme by pushing anything too familiar out.

Whilst there’s a handful of existing figures, and our old buddy Samaritan gets seeral panels of dialogue as the unofficial but acknowledhed leader of the heroes assembled, Busiek’s emphasis is upoin two strange, new, deliberately unfamiliar characters, American Chiba – a Japanese anime superheroine figure to whom we are deliberately refused access and explanation – and The Broken Man. This latter narrates the whole issue in the biggest and most overt exercise in metafiction the series has ever run, making reading of this book a conspiracy against some shadowy, unimaginable, infiltrative threat. The Broken Man offers no clues as to himself, although the final page features a limp lapse into cliche when he’s revealed as a strait-jacketed patient in an asylum.

This is no more than the first part, which adds to my sense of deflation. All it is is set-up, and the trappings are extremely comic-booky, so much so that it has already built up the onus on Busiek to surprise us, to come up with what is new, fresh, unpredictable about this framework: set of doors mysteriously appears in the sky, heroes try to open them but fail, out steps emissary from star-spanning organisation, here to negotiate with Earth over irs admission, yawn, snore.

The one twist so far is that Earth’s representative to go through those doors is Ben Pullam: that’s right, the anxious divorced father of Astro City (volume 2) issue 1, newly-divorced, newly-arrived in Astro City with two young daughters in tow and massive concerns over what to do for their best. That was seventeen years ago (inside and outside the comic): he’s done not to bad for himself, the girls are women, with promising and exciting lives, He’s the one that the Broken Man manipulates (with our assistance) into volunteering as emissary for the ordinariness of Earth.

Thus ends part one, with very little having happened.

Now having expressed my disappointment at the thinness of this gruel, let me immediately qualify that by ponting out very specifically that this is Part 1. We don’t now how long this story is (if it were a conventional comic, I would sniff the wind of what Busiek has hinted at so far and put the month’s rent money on six issues, though I’d like to see Busiek and Co. bring this in at three, tops: they don’t do bloated in Astro City), and we won’t be able to make a proper judgement until we’ve read all the story, by which time I could be eating my words.

Oh,the nostalgia of it! It’s not just having this series back, it’s the going into Forbidden Planet and buying a contemporary single comic book, and I haven’t done that since Dave Sim abruptly shut down Glamorpuss.

But the best thing of all was this full-page add, just before the end of this issue, for another return series that will have me buying single issues again, and which came as a total surprise on every single level: 100 Bullets: Brother Lono issue 1, due out next week. Sorry, Busiek, Anderson and Ross, I mean no disrespect but if Azarello and Risso are doing 100 Bullets again, that sweeps every other comic off the table.

I’ll be blogging that series as well, by the way, but for now, and the return of Astro City, despite the disappointment of this initial offering, I’m glad to have it back. Roll on the next episode.

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


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

Winged Victory

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

‘The poor, doomed, Silver Agent’

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

Crackerjack – another successful night out

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

You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Introduction


Welcome to Astro City

It probably seems by now that I have totally fallen out of love with the superhero. That’s not entirely accurate, though: it’s more of a case that I am not willing to follow modern day superheroes into the places where they congregate. Time, circumstance and an increasingly jaded set of creators and audience have closed off all possibilities outside an ever-narrower band, in which pain, terror, destruction and degradation are the only applicable sensations.
It isn’t that I think these things should be expunged, be brushed under the carpet as unacceptable, morally unclean, beyond representation. These are perfectly valid areas of exploration. But these are, or properly should be, part of a spectrum, and instead they are the whole of what may be permitted.
It’s like comics and superheroes have become a species of pornography that can only remain stimulating by becoming ever more hardcore.
Thankfully, even now, it’s not totally like that. There is an alternative, and by great good fortune, it’s actually due to come back in June 2013, after a wait of three years.
Astro City (formerly known as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City) has been around since 1995, although for various reasons, mostly to do with the health issues Busiek has been facing for the last decade and a bit) there have only been just over fifty issues published so far. The complete Astro City can be read in a series of eight graphic novels.
Through all its time, the series has had a consistent team of creators. It was originally an idea of  Kurt Busiek, who has written every issue to date, it is drawn by Brent Anderson (for a time Anderson did only pencils, during which time he was complemented by Willie Blyberg on inks) , and all the series’ covers are painted by Alex Ross, who works in close collaboration with the other two creators on developing not only the characters, heroes and villains, but also Astro City itself.
What, then, is Astro City? Who is it about? What distinguishes it from other series?
The first answer is Kurt Busiek. Born in Boston in 1960, Busiek didn’t get into comics until he was 14 but immediately became fascinated with the intricate continuity and plethora of series interlinks that characterised Marvel Comics. He made his first professional sale to DC in 1983 and, after a decade on the margins, was catapulted to prominence with the 1994 four-part series, Marvels, on which he collaborated with Ross to produce what was, effectively, a history of the Marvel Universe from 1940 to 1974, seen through the eyes of a bystander, news photographer Phil Sheldon.
With Ross’s stunning artwork, demonstrating that it was, after all, possible for a highly realistic painted series to actually function as a comics story, Marvels was a massive success, and Busiek has been a popular writer ever since, working extensively at both Marvel and DC.
He’s been described as something of a schematic writer, and it’s true that, like Marvels, much of his mainstream work utilises existing elements in continuity to build interesting and entertaining stories, many of which effectively evoke the joys of older-style series.
But Astro City has always been the place where Busiek can operate without the demands of others’ continuity or editorial requirements, where he can take the opportunity to write the kind of superhero stories that the big Two won’t publish. In mainstream comics, the fight is the thing that the story is about: in Astro City, it is the last and least thing of importance.
Because Busiek loves superheroes, remains fascinated by them, and believes that they are considerably more flexible than the mainstream industry gives them credit for. At Marvel and DC, the superhero symbolises adolescent, male, power-fantasy: in Astro City, the superhero – indeed, not just the hero, but the villain as well – can stand for almost any kind of story.
The choice of Anderson as artist is also an inspired one. He’s been working professionally on both superhero and independent comics since the early Eighties, and uses a detailed photorealistic style that exactly suits the down-to-Earth nature of Astro City. He is flexible and thoughtful with layouts, a better-than-capable depictor of superheroes in action, and yet principally concerned with expression and character in amongst the occasional bombast.
He and Ross work closely together to develop both the City itself, with its varying districts and moods, and its colourful – and not so colourful – inhabitants.
The series has sometimes been described as “everyday life in a superhero universe”, and indeed that is what it is. The series has no star. Stories move from character to character, from time period to time period. Sometimes, as introduced in Marvels, the story is seen from the bystander’s eyes, dealing with the reality of life in a City that attracts colourful costumed characters. At others, the hero or villain is the centre of the story, but the story is still about the reality of the life they live, the effect that life has on others, on the world around it.
Many of the characters are analogues of famous figures. Samaritan, to whom we are introduced in the first issue, is an immensely powerful, flying hero. He comes from a future which his own actions wiped out, saving the world but stranding himself in the here-and-now, in which he uses his vast powers to protect as many as he can. He is, and is not, Superman, in the same way that the First Family – a multi-generational family of scientific and super-powered adventurers – is and is not the Fantastic Four.
Other characters are less analogues, allowing for stories to be told that comment upon the sources, but rather other aspects of the archetypes from which heroes are created. M.P.H. Is the speedster: his powers apparently derive from a 15% alien overlay. He’s neither The Flash nor Quicksilver, and indeed his only appearance of any great substance is in a Special Edition devoted to the crime-fighting android doll, Beautie (I don’t need to tip you off to that one, I hope).
The thing is that, one day, there’ll be a story about M.P.H. The world of Astro City is large, it contains many characters, and it’s been around since the First World War and Busiek’s happy to explore all of it. Some stories, like that of the fate of the Silver Agent, hang around in the background, for years (first hinted at, obliquely, in issue 2, in 1995, the story was not wrapped up until 2010).
What Astro City does is to tell the iconic stories, the ones that define characters, or times, or settings. Once we see The Blue Knight, we understand him, who he is, what he does, by what he is driven. Thereafter, though he may appear as a part of others’ stories, we are not staled by repetition, by monthly reappearances in which he does what he does over and again, some inspired, some written to simply give us something this month.
It’s a Comic Book Universe, as big and complicated, as wide and far-reaching as Marvel’s or DC’s, in one single comic.
And it’s back, from Vertigo Comics, in 2013.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to reread and blog about Astro City’s history, and I’m going to review the new issues as they come out. You’re invited to join me.

You are now leaving Astro City. Safe driving.