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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

But that’s for next month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one looks very interesting.

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.