Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Astro City!

100 Issues of Astro City!  (1995-2017): written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Alex Ross, and others: 100 issues of Astro City over 22 years and at least three publishers. That's quite a milestone in today's rapid cancellation comics marketplace. 

Writer Kurt Busiek helped implement a sort of 'soft' revisionism in superhero comic books with Astro City. The series has always paid fond homage to the super-heroes and pulp heroes of a hundred years (and more!) of publishing. But it's done so with character-driven stories and a meticulously worked-out history.

The basic set-up for Astro City was that the eponymous city, near the slopes of Mount Kirby, held within it super-heroes who paid homage to the super-heroes of American comic-book history without simply being slavish pastiches of those super-heroes. Samaritan, for example, is Astro City's nod to Superman -- but as established early in Astro City's run, he's his own man, with his own origins and his own dreams, day-time and otherwise. Nonetheless, he fights evil just like Superman: there's nothing cynical or calculated about Samaritan.

Other characters who hew close to their sources include the Silver Agent (Captain America) and Winged Victory (Wonder Woman). But both get to have finely observed, multi-issue stories about them over the course of Astro City's run. Indeed, the Silver Agent's fate is the thread that unites the entire year-long The Dark Age storyline. 

Astro City give us heroes with problems, but it also shines a sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant light on a world in which not everyone with super-powers or super-technology wants to be a super-hero (or super-villain). It travels to small towns to check out the hero life there. It tracks super-hero families over the course of generations. It examines how life in the different boroughs of Astro City works -- things differ, especially in the borough that's home to supernatural beings and watched over by the mysterious hero dubbed The Hanged Man. One of its most poignant characters is Steeljack, a small-time super-villain who basically fell into super-villainry and then spends a couple of storylines (and 20 years or so) trying to claw his way out of it.

It's been a great ride, one I hope continues. Busiek and primary Astro City artists Brent Anderson (interiors) and Alex Ross (covers) have created something that now looms, like Mount Kirby, as a testament to what good writing and artwork can do with super-heroes. One never feels cheated by Astro City on the writing or artistic fronts. Anderson, who started his career very much in the vein of Neal Adams, has become an artist now more in the role of long-time Superman artist Curt Swan, an artist who can comfortably depict both the mundane and the cosmic, sometimes within the same panel. 

And Busiek gives full textual value: unlike the vast majority of modern super-hero comics, an issue of Astro City takes more than three minutes to read. That isn't to say that Astro City is text-heavy -- instead, its text/art balance is more in keeping in line with mainstream superhero comics prior to the oughts, when 'decompression' became first the superhero buzz-word and then the stranglehold.

The richness of Astro City also lies in the way it comments on super-hero stories while presenting super-hero stories that work on a prima facie level. The Samaritan's arrival in 1986 corresponds to the year DC Comics hired writer-artist John Byrne to reboot Superman. The lengthy Dark Age storyline comments on the periodic veers of mainstream super-hero comics into grim and gritty territory. Various place names, including that looming Mount Kirby, celebrate comics creators. Nonetheless, Busiek's characters are their own people even as they also evoke famous super-heroes and super-villains.

Perhaps the greatest subversiveness of Astro City is that it presents hope (or perhaps Hope) and goodness as being valid concepts, no matter how bad things may seem. It's the finest long-form super-hero comic ever presented. Long may it run! Highly recommended.

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