ASTRO CITY - there's a book that not enough people read. The premise sounds done to death: A city filled with super-heroes and super-villains playing out power fantasies and morality tails. Hardly original is it?
Well thats because we are just looking at the surface of the book, if we scratch a little deeper we will see the real purpose of the book, and the pitch becomes this: Imagine you are Kurt Busiek, life-time comicbook fan and succesful longterm creator. For all your earnt respect in the industry, you are not going to get the chance to write long, defining runs on EVERY comic-book character (the way he did with Avengers for example), and even if you could pick and choose a different title every month there are some stories that the powers-that-be wouldn't - or should I say couldn't - let you do.
The solution? Create your own 'verse.
"Astro City is set in a world where superheroes have existed since at least the 19th century: the first public hero, Air Ace, appeared during World War I. Busiek, Anderson and Ross have crafted a complex world with a huge cast of characters, many of whom have extensive backstories sketched out which are revealed as the series progresses. Some characters somewhat resemble characters from DC Comics or Marvel Comics universes, though the link tends to be inspirational only, revisiting archetypes common to many characters from comics, pulp fiction and myth, rather than any one-to-one correspondence.
The series is an anthology that focuses on different characters living within Astro City and the stories are usually narrated from a first person perspective from the story's protagonist. Some issues of the series are one- or two-part stories, while others run as many as seven issues in an extended arc.
The essential hook of Astro City is that it explores the reactions that people - both ordinary people and the heroes and villains themselves - have to living in their world. For example, in the first story, the character Samaritan (who resembles Superman) reflects on his life during a typical day, in which he spends almost all of his waking hours flying around the world to help people, and never has any time to enjoy the sheer physical sensation of flight. Other stories involve a date between two high-profile heroes, the initiation of a "kid sidekick" hero, the efforts of a reformed supervillain to find a life outside of prison, a superhero being driven away from Earth by his "love's" attempts to expose him, and the life of an innocent bystander in the days after having been held hostage by a supervillain." (sourced from Wiki for expediency)
Through this universe, Kurt Busiek has an outlet for all the loose story ideas that just wouldn't fit into a Marvel or DC universe. Sometimes focusing on the big boys of the superhero universe, who are little more than metaphors of existing characters (First Family = Fantastic Four), and sometimes focusing on how the big cosmic events affect the little people (you imagien being a shop-keeper in the middle of Infinite Crisis).
Time was, this title was a multiple Harvey and Eisner award winner, so why don't we hear high praise about the title anymore?
Is the book still relevant? Is the book still needed? I sat down to read the latest 5 issues to find out (and to catch up, boy am I behind on some of my reading).
Astro city: The Dark Age Vol. 1 # 1-4
The Dark Age is a 12 or 16 issue Maxi series (Sue me, I can't remember), split up into three (or four) 4 issue arc's, purely to give the creators chance to get all the issues out on time with a regular artist and without intermitent shipping - two things that destroyed Rising Stars and stopped it being heralded a classic.
The first volume of "The Dark Ages" focuses on two brothers (racist!) who have both grown up to resent super-heroes, but while one has turned to a life of petty crime, the other one has the opposing view of "we don't need them" and has joined law enforcement as a police officer.
The story is nicely paced - with lovely art by regular artist Brent Anderson - with plenty of twists and revelations to keep the reader turning one page to the next, the cameos by established Astro City regulars help keep the story grounded and an interesting sub-plot add's to the history of the First Family, but seen through the eyes of regular folk.
The way the story is constructed in this first arc is fairly reminiscent of "Marvels", which I'm sure many of you remembered was written by Kurt Busiek. All in all this was good, solid story-telling, but didn't really show us anything we haven't seen before.
Astro city Special: Samaritan
A complete juxtapose for "The Dark Ages", this completely self-contained interlude / special focuses on two men: Superman allegory "Samaritan" and his arch-nemesis "Infidel", which is slightly akin to you or I renaming ourselves "Fucking Wanker" but roll's of the tongue better and contains a dose of irony.
Infidel hit's all the major cliff notes of being a major super villain: Self made millionaire, off the chart intelligence, a somewhat cavalier approach to life and has grown accustomed to a somewhat debonair lifestyle. And of course he wants to rule the world or destroy it, delete as appropriate.
What is unusual avbout this book is the hero and the villain have stopped fighting. After their cross purpose fighting had played out across all of time, space and reality causing the end of the world and beyond, the two realise a stalemate has been met and set about recreating the universe together (otherwise, what the hell are they fighting for).
As the story is told, the stalemate is still in place and the two characters meet up once a year to check in and keep an eye on each other, as each one hopes to convert the other to their way of thinking, so together they can change the world the way they see fit.
Intelligent, fun, crazed superheroic goodness, this is the kind of story I have come to expect from Astro City.
Is Astro city still cutting edge and relevant? Yes and no.
The thing is, when Astro city was first printed, comics were in a bad way. The speculator craze had super-inflated the industry putting valiant and Image in an elevated position of power and Marvel and DC were lagging behind. Variant covers, foil embossing, re-launchs and hot artwork were the emphasis for the entire industry, and as supply and demand has it marvel and Dc tried to match suit with the latest stupid gimmick or headline grabbing idea. Spider-man was a clone, Captain America got a metal costume, Batman was replaced by Azrael, Superman died, wolverine went feral and all the while story-telling and chaaarcter values dropped to one side, out of view of comic book professionals.
So it's no wonder when Astro City (curiously printed by Image) came along, and did what everyone else USED to do, only better and intelligently, it's no surprise that industry professionals stood up and took notice, garnering the attention of Wizard magazne and the various award commitees.
Fast forward to present day. Thanks to books like Astro city, Planetary and Authority paving the way, super-hero comics are better than they have ever been, with even the most basic super-hero premise being re-invigorated with fresh ideas and ground-breaking storylines. The emphasis in the industry - for the first time I've ever known it to be - is on the writer.
So while Astro City is no longer the cutting edge book it used to be, the final statement is simply: "Astro City, your work here is done...but feel free to stick around and enjoy the party".