“You are now entering Astro City” – Prepping for the return of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s masterpiece

AC Confession HC dustjacket_wpsmDC has made some odd choices as far as new content. Whether they’re regularly canceling series before they hit 10 issues, starting up poorly thought out series solely to tie into upcoming events or constantly changing creative teams, the company feels like it’s stagnating.

But all that feels like it could change with last week’s announcement of the return of Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross’ exceptional comic book homage, Astro City. I’ve long put Astro City in the very top of my favorite comics with Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing and David Mack’s Kabuki. It’s a series obsessed with the passing of time, the way the years change us, harden us, ease our burdens and physically wear on a city. With a rich, totally independent history of characters, battles, teams, rivalries and betrayals that span hundreds of years, Astro City is dense but that focus on detail makes the experience much richer. For many readers who’ve come to DC thanks to the attention-grabbing New 52, Astro City is a pretty unfamiliar property, one the company came into after the purchase of Wildstorm, but there’s plenty of fun, easy and fascinating stories to sink into as you walk from Shadow Hill all the way to Mount Kirby.

1-2. “Everyday Life” and “Adventures in Other Worlds”77940_s0The first multi-issue story of the series gives a proper introduction to the First Family, Astro City’s version of the Fantastic Four, but focuses primarily on Astra, the youngest member of the team who has never experienced being a child. Craving the civilian life she dreams of, Astra runs away, leaving the family to deal with her adoptive dinosaur father, Rex, a lecherous lupine adversary, intergalactic threats and a cartoony lecturer. It’s one of the most low-key Astro City stories, focused on the way the young and older members in the family react to threats to their structure but it’s a good peek at how Busiek tries less to deconstruct teams then to humanize them.

3-4. “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Day”jack-in-the-box-14Another early, excellent two-parter, “Serpent’s Teeth” and “Father’s Today” demand characters and creators to consider their legacies. When Daredevil-meets-Spider-Man medley Jack-In-The-Box finds out his wife is pregnant, he’s forced to consider what his continued battle against crime could mean and whether he will be able to put on the mask with his wife and child at home. Running parallel to his internal conflict is a hysterical external threat in which a half-robot clown from the future and a fleshy, homicidal fanged being, both claiming to be his child from the future and resembling Cable and Venom respectively, show up to show the effects of an unknown disaster that could befall Jack’s child. It’s an issue where the hero has to make hard choices or risk falling into the dark hole of forced, violent edginess that Busiek clearly abhors.

5. “The Scoop”astrocitypanoramaOne of the things most apparent in the early issues of Astro City is Busiek’s focus on the non-super-powered inhabitants of the city. They deal with the trauma, danger and complicated surreal activities that are everyday life in the metropolis. In the excellent “The Scoop,” one journalist tell the story that would have made his career as a cult, shark-men, the Honor Guard and interdimensional intrusions all rub up against AP style and the need for proper citations. It’s one of the funnier issues and is sure to be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who’s made a living on the crime beat.

6. “Dark Age”astro-city-the-dark-ageIn the final series published before Busiek left the series in 2010, readers are finally treated to the secrets that have hung over the city since the very first issue. In the epic 16 issue arc, two brothers survive the twisted gang violence of the ’70s only to get involved in something much darker as the ’80s begin and The Pale Horsemen comes to Astro City. While the plight of a pair of brothers, both forced into difficult choices by the changing times, provide a clear audience surrogate, the main story is a history lesson in the way the Silver Age changed into the darker, ethical complexities of the Bronze Age. There are so many great touches, between the fall of the Silver Agent, the arrival of the visually similar Blue Knight, the transformation of Simon Magus into the Swamp Thing-esque Green Man, the marginalization of the First Family and many characters having to make a choice in how they’re going to survive as the times change. It’s a must read, although it’s incredibly dense, requiring readers know the motivations and secrets of many of the city’s colorful characters.

7. “Show ‘Em All”astro-city-life-in-the-big-city-jack-in-the-boxAn Eisner award winner, “Show ‘Em All” is essentially a perfect document of what Astro City’s goals. When the Trashman pulls off the perfect heist, he feels empty with no one knowing who jacked over $7 million without getting caught. It prompts a series of robberies more about getting the attention of the super-hero community than making a profit. It’s an issue that suggests the need for fame, the way even the villains need adoration in a city which worships its heroes.

8. “Dinner at Eight”10061_Astro-City-e1352501858457When DC made headlines with the Superman/Wonder Woman cover of Justice League #12, I was confused. Despite the passionate kiss on the cover, the two didn’t seem to have any chemistry. They’re both orphans and apparently Geoff Johns thought that was all it takes to throw the characters together and so far, there hasn’t been a crack in their non-existent chemistry. Astro City did a much more realistic job, hooking up Samaritan and Winged Justice for a dinner date which shows two of the world’s most powerful characters almost coming to blows. Icons become what they are because their actions are backed up by beliefs. Winged Justice’s defense of women and passion for the oppressed doesn’t match up with Samaritan’s self-imposed martyrdom and despite the physical attraction and similar morals, the two aren’t perfect for each other. Even  the kiss at issue’s end is little more than a promise of hope between two people, not one of everlasting affection. It’s the intelligence of Busiek’s script and Anderson’s realistic lines which let these characters stand up for themselves when questioned rather than fall under the sway of overarching plot.

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