In this space last week, I recommended the comic book series Planetary, the deconstruction of the superhero genre and pulp literature in general.
This week, I’m going to recommend a book that comes from the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to taking a serious look at the superhero genre, namely Astro City.
I’ve always felt that Planetary and Astro City stand as stark opposites. Planetary is the work of British writer Warren Ellis, a longtime critic of the superhero genre. He’s just not a fan. By contrast, Astro City comes from Kurt Busiek, an American writer who often shows a great deal of affection for the superhero genre. The differences between the two works are easily reflected in the styles of the two works. Superhumans in Planetary are often rude, violent, and the ones modeled after recognizable DC or Marvel heroes are often twisted and evil. Astro City is a bright, shining place that just so happens to be overrun by various superheroes, the kind that might be more at-home in a pleasant Silver Age comic. The people live side-by-side with superhuman weirdness on a regular basis, but no one seems particularly scared of the heroes. Heck, the heroes are largely adored and honored by the public.
As an aside, an even better example of how the two writers approach similar concepts, look at Busiek’s fantastic Marvels series, and be aware that Ellis did his own twisted take on it in a mini-series from Marvel called Ruins. Ruins follows a similar story structure as Marvels with Phil Sheldon as he goes through the Marvel Universe and looks around…only this time, everything went wrong in the worst way possible. Most of the familiar heroes are dead, insane, sick, evil, or worse. And that’s putting it gently.
But getting back to Astro City…
The series works as an anthology of sorts. Each issue is written by Busiek with artwork by Brent Anderson. Alex Ross, Busiek’s Marvels collaborator, does the covers. Stories range from one-shots to extended runs, but each individual story isn’t there for superhero thrills (though those can happen too), but to tell a personal story from a resident of Astro City. Sometimes it’s the superheroes, sometimes it’s a sidekick or girlfriend, and sometimes it’s just a person on the street.
The first story dealt with the Samaritan, a Superman-like flying hero. Samaritan gives his backstory: he’s a man from the future, who was granted great power when a one-way time travel trip went wrong. He spends a lot of his time saving lives, but mostly he just wishes he had enough spare time to fly and enjoy himself. He can’t, though, since so many people need his help, so he can only fly for himself in his dreams.
Many of the heroes of Astro City are something of a stand-in for a more recognizable character, or at least a character type. It’s not necessary, though. The characters here are often more archetype than exact type. That doesn’t mean I didn’t see a lot of Batman in the Confessor, featured in one of my personal favorite storylines. Confessor was a Catholic priest who seemed to live alone in an abandoned church, fought crime by night, and worked mostly as a detective. His storyarc is actually more of his sidekick’s, the Altar Boy, so the story can be read as a deep character study of a kid who came to Astro City to become a superhero, or just a good Robin story on how he met Batman.
As a series, Astro City often acts as a tribute to past comic genres and styles. Flashbacks and time travel stories often show characters designed to look like a figure created in that time. Story style try to reflect this as well.
But really, Astro City is a comic depicting the human condition in a place where the fantastic occurs on a regular basis, and the residents still sometimes feel that awe of seeing people do things that violate various laws of physics and biology. Other times, the citizens might just complain about the hero’s personal politics or behaviors that make them late for work. It’s more about being human than having an adventure. It’s about the awe of seeing superheroes, while still having them be regular people. It’s just fun, and well worth a trip to the big city.