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?
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?)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.