Astro City is a superhero comic book for people that hate superhero comic books. It’s also a superhero comic book for people who love superhero comic books. Basically, I could not find a way to describe Astro City without dipping into nonsensical cliches. Thankfully, Kurt Busiek does not have that problem.
Busiek is the author and architect of Astro City- a city that is home to an eclectic band of costumed crusaders. Even the novice comic reader will spot heroes that resemble Superman, Batman and the Fantastic Four. Like any comic, they battle aliens and mad scientists. But unlike other comics, Astro City’s greatness lies not in what these heroes do, but in how we see them.
Every Astro City story has a different lead character. In one story arc, we may have the point of view of a rookie “Robin”-type sidekick. The next story may be told by the doorman of a downtown hotel. My favorite Astro City yarn centers around an animated lion who was accidentally brought to life by an insane super-villain. Each tale has the prerequisite superhero battles and pyro-technics, but those elements fill one or two pages at the most. The story’s focal point is the effect of these fantastic situations on living, breathing characters.
One Astro City story is a perfect example of this formula: A young man who lives in Astro City keeps dreaming about a beautiful girl. He doesn’t know who she is, but he feels a connection to her- an unconditional love for a woman that he has never met. Then one night, he is visited by “The Hanged Man”, an apparition that seems to walk between the worlds of the dead and the living. The Hanged Man tells the story of a battle with a super-villain called “Time Keeper”- a battle that alters the time-space continuum. The superheroes prevail, but are forced to reconstruct reality by merging different dimensions (think DC’s Crisis of Infinite Earths). It turns out the woman the man was dreaming of was his wife from another reality- a reality that was erased by these time-altering events. Because of the time-war, the girl’s parents never met and she was never born. Despite this, her memory escaped the void and penetrated her husband’s dreams. The Hanged Man offers to erase the memory of her, but the young man refuses- and for the rest of his life, dreams of the wife he will never meet.
Ultimately, Astro City’s excellence lies in showing how the fantastic affects the ordinary. Busiek has created an incredible cast of heroes and rogues that are colorful, powerful and real (well, as real as a crime-fighting vampire priest can be). Their heroism, humor, courage and cowardice reflect and refine their city’s collective soul. You don’t need to know the difference between Deadpool and Daredevil to appreciate Astro City- you just need to appreciate the humanity we all share.
This month, Busiek wrapped up an incredible maxi-series set within the Astro City universe. “The Dark Age” followed two ordinary brothers through the turbulent 1970s and 80s, where they came face to face with the most powerful forces in the universe. Along the way, we learn the story of the Silver Agent, perhaps the greatest of all Astro City’s heroes. The paragon of self-sacrifice, he travels back through time to be executed and preserve a future of freedom and peace.
Busiek has said this story marks the end of Astro City’s “first stage”, which makes now a great time to jump into this incredible world. You can check out previous Astro City stories, which have been collected in trade form (I highly recommend “Confession” and “The Tarnished Angel”). Just keep your eyes peeled for Loony Leo and The Hanged Man.
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