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May 1998 | Updated Monthly

Astro City

by Busiek/Anderson/Ross
Image Comics

Astro City is a fantastic fucking comic book. Go read it.

That's the review, really; the rest is just filler so James doesn't send this back. Well, ok, I have to elaborate a little. I mean, I love Astro City (it's the first comic book I've actually looked forward to since early-mid Sandman), but I can imagine why some wouldn't. Last time I was in Pic-A-Book, buying one of the Astro City trade paperbacks, I overheard a conversation between the clerk and his friend.

"That's a great comic," the clerk said.

"I just don't care about the characters," his friend said.

"That's not the point." the clerk said.

Well, then, what is the point? Like Sandman, Astro City wanders from one story to the next, from one set of characters to the next, not quite giving us the chance to grow too attached. But just as Morpheus watched all of the Sandman's tales, there is something that binds together Astro City's narratives: Astro City itself -- a superhero universe so astonishingly conjured out of thin air that it manages to simultaneously deconstruct and glorify the genre.

You know those old Twilight Zone/Outer Limits episodes where some square jawed stiff goes up in space/on a date/out for a walk, but when he comes back the world is somehow... different? Like his house was still there, but the white picket fence was gone, and his dog responded to the name Patches instead of Rocky, and his wife was from California instead of Nebraska, but things were pretty much the same unless you looked real close? That's what the Astro City universe is like; it all feels so familiar, yet it's all new. Astro City itself is New York, filtered through the Gernsback Continuum (the city's symbol is an old school sci-fi rocket within the electron paths of a model atom -- iconography just doesn't get more 50's sci-fi than that). Most of the superheroes are built on the archetypes of the Marvel & DC universes: There's the Samaritan, who's sort of like Superman but from the future instead of Krypton; Winged Victory, sort of like Wonder Woman but with a better haircut and taste in clothes; the First Family, like the Fantastic Four with an extra member or two; The Confessor, a shadowy, caped crusader for justice who sort of looks like, all together now, Batman, but has his own secrets. And I bet you crayons to kryptonite that the oft-mentioned but never seen "Experimentals" will bear a striking resemblance to certain uncanny students of one Professor Charles Xavier.

In the wrong hands, of course, this could be a disaster; but Busiek pulls it off. Props here must go to the artists -- Alex Ross handles the covers, and Brent Anderson the interiors. The art doesn't jump off the page at you like, say, Todd McFarlane, but Anderson has created a distinctive look and feel for dozens of heroes that keeps one foot firmly in homage and the other kicking in originality. He also recreates Golden Age scenes (of course, Busiek fleshes out Astro City with a coherent history -- anyone who can create a plausible hero called 'The Bouncing Beatnik" deserves respect) convincingly enough that I expected the pages to be yellow. Ross brings the same stunning virtuosity he brought to Kingdome Come and Marvels (also penned by Busiek), _painting_ each of the covers.

The result of this is that you feel like you know the characters, like you used to have a box full of their comics under your bed until your mom found it freshman year at college and threw it out. Our seeming familiarity with the characters means that Busiek is spared the effort of getting us to know the characters -- we feel that we already know them -- but he has the freedom to surprise us, to take the characters in unexpected directions. When, in "Dinner at Eight", Winged Victory and Samaritan get set up by mutual friends to go out on a date, we expect Samaritan's secret identity to be mild-mannered (he even works for a newspaper!) and Winged Victory to be proud and confident; we don't expect them to almost get into a violent fight over the ideologies that motivate them (Fear not, romance fans; things head up from there).

This brings me to the other cool thing about Astro City: the stories. They're so... mundane, in the best sense of the world. They involve superheroes, and sometimes even superheroic fights. But they're not about that; they're about people, in a way that traditional superhero comics never are. "Dinner at Eight" is a story about a date. With very few modifications, it could be about a lawyer and an accountant. But it's not. It's about arguably the two most powerful superheroes around. It's about how pathetically, brilliantly, amazingly human they are. And that's part of why it's so cool. But there's another part of it too, the part that makes it essential that it's about superheroes.

Samaritan's sense of duty is intense; literally superheroic. But while transcending that of any mortal, in Busiek's hands it also represents it, standing as an example -- a bright, shining, noonday sun on bare retina example -- of the desire we all have to do right and make the world a better place. As Neil Gaiman himself says in the introduction to "Confession", the second AC trade paperback, "There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean." Busiek takes superhero conceits, relieves them of their traditional duties as adolescent wish-fulfillment, and presses them into duty as powerful champions of universal human concerns. In "In Dreams", the first ever Astro City comic, we follow Samaritan, both in dreams and in reality, as he battles evil and soars through the sky. He is a man devoted to duty, so devoted he has little left for any sort of private life. Every man who has stared at a beeping alarm clock at 5 AM, who has dreamed of finally being able to sleep in but who stil gets up anyways, because someone, somewhere is depending on him will see his story writ large in Samaritan's battles and hurried rescues. Similarly, in "Dinner at Eight" Samaritan's nervousness and awkwardness -- despite being the most powerful being on earth -- mirrors the feelings of every man who's felt his life's work melt into irrelevance in the face and strong will of a beautiful woman.

If I'm making Astro City sound dull and lifeless, more like an essay than a good comic book, I apologize-- Astro City's genre bending brings out the closet literary critic in me. Stephen King once split fiction into two classes: that which transforms genre conventions, and that which works within said conventions to just plain tell a good story. Critics always seem to like the former better, maybe because it's easier to write about -- which explains part of Astro City's phenomenal critical response. But not all of it. Astro City works on the level of good story as well -- on top of the novelty, on top of unusual perspective, on top of the critical acclaim, it's fun to read, and Busiek tells good stories. And that's the highest praise of all.

-- Kyle Thornton


Copyright 1998
James D Thomas