Monday, March 10, 2014

My Dinner with Superheroes



Astro City Volume 8: Shining Stars: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2007-2011; Collected 2012): The eighth volume of Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and Brent Anderson's warm, complex, and intensely metafictional superhero saga visits with heroes major and minor, supplies the powerful Samaritan with a worthy arch-nemesis, and fills in some (but not all) of the blanks surrounding the mystery of the Silver Agent's time-jumping that's been a recurrent plot point throughout the Astro City saga.

Astro City is, of course, every superhero city rolled into one, with Mount Kirby looming over it and various town districts paying homage to some of the major American comic-book genres from across the decades. Busiek's brilliance in the Astro City stories has come with a focus on what the Man (and Woman) on the Street feels like during various superhero shenanigans, what people with relatively ordinary wants and needs do with their lives when they find themselves with powers, and how heroes and villains actually feel about things.

Most of this volume is dedicated to stories in the third category, albeit with major nods to the other two. A two-parter about the graduation of superheroine Astra from college also explores what it's like being the non-powered boyfriend of a super-celebrity; an exploration of the life of somewhat bizarre, life-sized super-Barbie Beautie also delves into the family lives of supervillains and superheroes.

We also get a two-parter that finally explains the origin and (possibly) final fate of the Silver Agent, Astro City's tragic, time-hopping hero -- the story also offers a fairly dense bit of metafiction that riffs on Captain America, the Legion of Super-heroes, and the Green Lantern Corps, though one doesn't need to know any of that to follow the story.

The opening story is also a dandy, as it gives Astro City's Superman-analogue Samaritan a suitably obsessed and suitably powered arch-nemesis, the Infidel, an immortal alchemist/magician whose powers stem from the same source as the Samaritan. This story also has its metafictional pleasures, with its homage to the Arch-Frenemy relationship of Lex Luthor and Superman during the so-called late Silver and Bronze Ages of Superman's history, but it remains its own story, with its themes and plot fully capable of standing independent from any need for a knowledge of the history of comic books.

Brent Anderson brings a solid artistic presence as usual, balancing super-heroics, the cosmic, and the ordinary with his usual somewhat understated elan; while Anderson started off looking a lot like Neal Adams, he now seems to be the logical successor to long-time Superman artist Curt Swan, who always manage to ground Superman in some sense of the normative regardless of the cosmic scale of the action being depicted. Alex Ross' covers and character designs are, as usual, superb. Recommended.

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