Mar 15, 2021
Top 10 Astro City tales (part 1 of 2)
I love Astro City. I love the concept of Astro City, a sprawling anthology series about the heroes and normal people living in what is arguably the most amazing metropolis ever seen in comics. That sounds like hyperbole. It is not. And if you read as much Astro City as I have, you would know. I’m not going to claim the series is wholly unique, because it isn’t. It’s obvious Kurt Busiek has drawn inspiration from a vast spectrum of comics. The metropolis of Astro City borrows traits from the likes of Gotham City and Metropolis, and the heroes are familiar archetypes crafted by writers and artists over the decades. But somehow Kurt and artists Brent Anderson and Alex Ross give these characters something a little… extra.
Somehow, their Samaritan rises just a tiny bit higher as a Superman analog than the likes of Hyperion, Supreme, or—and call me biased, because I think he’s grossly overrated—Sentry. It also helps that unlike a vast majority of comic properties, Astro City ages in real time, giving us a more unique environment to enjoy. And due to the nature of the series, we’re exposed to a wide array of characters, with the tone of their stories shifting from the mundane to the cosmic.
When I came up with the idea of doing a top ten Astro City list, I figured it would be a simple matter to decide which stories to put on it. I had five immediately in mind. But then I started to look at the various series and specials, and to say this list was hard to compile is something of an understatement. Fans of Astro City might notice how none of the stories from the first limited series made the list. Please don’t assume I didn’t like it. I love those first six stories and they’re strong; if they weren’t, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the concept of Astro City in the first place. Heck, Kurt Busiek signed my copy of the trade paperback. If I had made this a top fifteen, then likely two or three stories from the limited series would be on this list.
Now, let’s look at what made the cut:
Steeljack is a career super criminal who’s been released from prison. He’s a thug for hire who’s netted far more losses than wins. Trying to go straight, he stumbles on a criminal conspiracy that only he can solve and prevent. Can a supervillain become a selfless hero? Or does he succumb to his old ways?
As a huge fan of film noir and actor Robert Mitchum, whom Steeljack is obviously modeled after, “The Tarnished Angel” was always going to make any list of best Astro City stories. It’s a dark, gritty tale of a lovable loser who, having reached middle age, has finally come to realize that he’s made a complete hash of his life and now wants to at the very least break even. It’s also a nice look at the seedier side of Astro City, and this world as seen through the eyes of hardened career criminals. Kurt does a credible job of making Steeljack into a protagonist you can root for, as a man who has all the odds stacked against him yet struggles against his basest instincts to do the right thing.
As always, Kurt peppers his stories with a collection of interesting and colorful characters. Some may seem to be his take on memorable and not so memorable characters, but others, like Kid Gloves, feels a bit more original. Hm, a non-white teenage girl with giant hands; I wonder if Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and/or Adrian Alphona ever cracked open an issue of Astro City before they were coming up with Kamala Khan?
I would love to rank this higher on the list, but there are a couple of flaws. The payoff is very reminiscent of a landmark Avengers issue (I won’t say which one, but fans of the ’80s Avengers would recognize the event immediately if they read the story). In fact, it’s so reminiscent it almost feels like plagiarism. I get the series is supposed to be inspired by the comics that have come before, but man, this is a little on the nose. Also, at seven issues, the story seemed to run a bit long to me. In Kurt Busiek’s defense, it was revealed later that his health was suffering around this time (it turned out to be mercury poisoning [!], the source of which I don’t think he ever discovered), so I think maybe he was a little off his game.
There was a point in DC Comics history, sometime during the Silver Age, where intelligent gorillas were all the rage. There was Congorilla, Gorilla Grodd, the Ultra-Humanite (I know, he was a human brain in a gorilla body, but close enough), and believe it or not, a lot more. So it was probably an inevitability that Kurt Busiek would jump at the chance to tell his own highly sapient simian tale. And it does not disappoint.
“Sticks” is an intelligent silverback gorilla from Gorilla Mountain (hey, it’s a Silver Age inspired tale; just go with it), a martial society by necessity due to their numerous dangerous and exotic enemies. Initially just an ape who was part of the pack, Sticks picked up some rock ‘n roll transmissions and decided to ditch that Squaresville popsicle stand to come to the big city to play drums!
Sticks is a sympathetic character, who if he had been born a human could have simply pursued his dreams just like any other aspiring musician. Oh, there would have been no guarantee of success; he’s good, but the world is full of good drummers. What makes his story stand out is that he is who he is, and the wild and unpredictable world of Astro City simply can’t leave him alone. If the supervillains don’t want to capture him and dissect him, brainwash him, or torture him for the location of Gorilla Mountain, the superheroes are trying to recruit him to join their team. But the dude just wants to play drums, man.
One of Kurt’s strengths… usually… is to know how many issues to devote to a story. And in many cases Mr. Busiek can tell a tight, well fleshed-out tale in just two 25-page installments, providing us with colorful heroes, outrageous villains, and protagonists we can get behind. Kurt is a master of giving us fun and exciting stories without having to be grim and dark, with main characters that are both heroic and conflicted without being deconstructed to the point where you wonder why you’re reading about them in the first place. Don’t get me wrong; a little heroic deconstruction can be a good thing, but only when it’s the exception, not the norm. Now excuse me, I need to find the latest Powerchord album on Amazon.
In the universe of Astro City, the First Family are the world’s foremost adventurers, having spent decades performing such daring acts as solving cosmic mysteries and taking on world-conquering villains. They’re a true family, and the youngest member is Astrid, who is in many ways a normal girl… but having grown up in such an unusual environment with some of the world’s greatest heroes being her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and what have you, what does she know about normal life? And what happens with a precocious preteen decides to run away from home to have some adventures of her own?
This story is really entertaining. Astrid is one of the most likeable protagonists in Astro City; she just wants friends her own age, and after being raised in a world of the bizarre and the fantastic, she sees the normal life of children as an adventure to be undertaken. Astrid’s exploits take place largely in a school and involve a lot of hopscotch, which you’d think would be boring compared to the parallel story of her family desperately searching for her, trotting the globe, and beating the living hell out of old villains in an attempt to find the culprits responsible for “kidnapping” her. And don’t get me wrong; I loved the glimpses of the wider world of Astro City inhabits and a peek into the history of the First Family (who are an obvious riff on the Fantastic Four). But I found Astrid’s quest to beat Matrice at hopscotch to be weirdly compelling. Some of the hardest characters to write are children, but Kurt does a great job here.
I also appreciate how the real “villains” of the story, for lack of a better term, are Astrid’s parents. And no, they aren’t cruel or abusive, and in fact it’s obvious the rest of the family loves the girl with complete selflessness. But what they failed to do was provide her with a fundamental need in kids: companionship with those their own age. Fortunately, the parents, realizing Astrid’s adventure wasn’t inspired by a rebellious streak, but from a need to discover what she was missing, become determined to somehow satisfy their daughter’s desire for friends her own age. Overall, it’s a fun and touching tale.
Hey, remember an animated series called Batman Beyond, which was about a young man taking on the mantle of the Dark Knight, with an aged Bruce Wayne acting as his mentor, and keeping in touch with him while in the field? Did you like that series? Didja? Yeah, allow me to mention the story that maybe might have been the inspiration for that.
Jack-in-the-Box, which is more or less Kurt’s answer to Spider-Man (and if it seems easy for me to associate existing characters with every superhero Kurt and artist Brent Anderson created, that’s probably because after some 85 years of superhero comics, it’s very, very difficult to come up with something truly original), has been around a long, long time. Is he an immortal? A robot? Or is the Jack-in-the-Box we see now even the original? Kurt gives us the answer in this story. As an aside, the first page opens with a report about the Brass Monkey. I had the Beastie Boys song running through my head for days after that. But I digress.
The first part of the story is an interesting tale about a twisted legacy, where Jack has to contend with two knock-off versions of himself who find that the source of their inspiration is sadly lacking. It’s a fun, action packed tale. But it’s the second half that I think is far stronger, when it’s discovered that the current Jack is the son of the first, and a man who in some ways never felt quite comfortable standing in his father’s red and green shoes. And then when it’s discovered his wife is pregnant, the very idea of risking life and limb and leaving his child fatherless the way it happened to him now just seems selfish.
But does Jack have to be put back in the box, or is there another solution? Well, like I said, to fans of Batman Beyond, the answer might seem a bit familiar.
Bear in mind, this comic came out at least a year before Batman Beyond, so one does have to question who copied who, or did the same stroke of genius strike twice? Then again, if you know what might have inspired both the producers of Beyond and Busiek, feel free to let me know.
Kurt as always gives us some great characterizations here. The current Jack, named Zack, feels fully realized in just two issues; in a short time, Kurt effectively gives us a compelling origin, realistic motivations, and a person who questions his life’s decisions and ponders his future without feeling weak or directionless. All in all, it’s just a great story.
I remember one of the reasons I hated The Force Awakens so much was because they brought back Han Solo. After seeing Harrison Ford in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I realized I didn’t need to see my heroes as old men; they should be allowed to age gracefully then ride off into the sunset, I say. The reason being not just because they are, well, old and unable to perform the heroic feats we’re used to, but because there’s always the real danger they’ll live long enough to become an embarrassment.
Which brings me to the story of Supersonic, a hero who retired twenty years ago because he knew damn well it was time to hang it up. But necessity forces him back into a costume he’s not even sure fits any more, to fight a foe no one else can stop. The result?
It goes about as well as you can expect. Kurt does a tremendous job at writing a person who’s well aware of his limitations, who realizes that once he was one of the world’s greatest heroes, but old age has robbed him of his vitality and one concussion too many has impaired what was once a genius mind and brilliant tactician. And what makes it so good is how Supersonic is well aware of his shortcomings, and it’s not cowardice that caused him to quit and take up gardening, but plain old common sense: his suit is a lethal weapon and all it takes is one horrific miscalculation to cause the worst of possible outcomes. Kurt gives us some great flashbacks in this story, but all it does it make me wish we could have seen some complete Supersonic tales; that’s how much I liked him.
Next time: My top five Astro City stories!