Top 10 Astro City tales (part 2 of 2)

Read part one of this list.

I knew when I was compiling this list and going back through the Astro City library that there were going to be stories that almost made the cut but didn’t. Such is the strength and consistency of Kurt Busiek’s writing that it’s pretty damn hard to put together a list like this without leaving off some real treasures, and I’m sure there’s going to be more than one story that readers will insist belongs here and I missed. To those readers, all I can say is sorry; I probably loved that story too, just not as much as you did. Because honestly, I can’t say there was an Astro City story that I disliked.

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Among the ones that missed the cut were: Astro City 2013 #32-34 (the sequel to the Tarnished Angel story), Astro City 2013 #22 (the story of Busiek’s answer to Captain Marvel, Starfighter), Astro City 2013 #29-30 (which told the story of the First Family’s conflicts with an alien race from the aliens’ perspective), Astro City 2013 #41 (the origin of the Astro-Naut, the guy they named the city after), and Astro City 2013 #43 (the origin of the Gentleman). Also, every issue of the 1995 Astro City limited series was strong. Again, if I missed your favorites, apologies. Hopefully, you won’t find my taste in comics lacking. Now onto the second part of the list!

5. “The Nearness of You” (Astro City 1996, issue #½)

Each night, Mike dreams of a woman named Miranda. He remembers everything about her; how she liked her neck rubbed, her throaty laugh, and how she has a capped tooth due to a bicycle accident when she was a young girl. In every way Miranda is his soul mate. And yet, when he awakens, despite the clarity of the memories, Miranda doesn’t exist. Is Mike going insane or is there another answer, one that only Shadow Hill’s Hanged Man can answer?

Issue ½ is another heartbreaking tale about the collateral damage inflicted by villains who think they’re gods and toy with powers beyond their understanding. Mike, like so many others, lost someone they loved because time was tweaked just the tiniest bit, and now his wife only exists as memories that surface in his dreams. It’s only through the Hanged Man explaining things to Mike that he understands what happened, and that he and his wife weren’t the only victims. There were many others whose loved ones were lost in a similar manner, and it’s the Hanged Man’s duty to give what solace he can to the survivors.

There’s nothing special about Mike; he’s a decent man who loved a good woman and is now haunted by the ghost of her memory. But rather than take the easy way out and have the Hanged Man erase those memories, he instead opts to let them remain. It’s not a groundbreaking story, and not one of cosmic import. It’s just about a man and his horrific loss and how he handles the grief. Nonetheless, Kurt still gives us some tremendous new characters in the ’40s heroes the All-American and his sidekick the Slugger, and the villainous Time-Keeper and his Tempus Fugitives. Even Eterneon, the master of time, has this charming Silver Age feel to him.

There a wonderful splash page showing the effects of Time-Keeper and Eterneon’s battle, and how its after effects echo through time itself. It’s the sort of thing that could have been seen in a Marvel or DC twelve-issue maxi-series, and if someone like Busiek and Anderson had delivered it I would have been reading that in a second (and in a way, I did years later with Avengers Forever). But the point here was to show how the aftermath of such conflicts have consequences on normal, everyday people. It’s a powerful tale told in a scant fifteen pages, which is a feat few modern writers could accomplish.

4. The origin of G-Dog (Astro City 2013, issues #47-48)

Small time thief Andy winds up with Hank, a Corgi that was stolen from a breeder. Later our (ahem) hero winds up stealing a magical amulet that allows him to fuse with the dog to become, well, a pretty damn silly looking being. Initially deciding to use his new powers for crime, Andy discovers becoming one with Hank actually makes him a better person. And so, the hero G-Dog is born.

Damn you, Kurt Busiek, you sonofabitch! You made me cry! Sweet Jesus Christ, did this story kick me in the gut in the end. Movies and TV shows seldom have any emotional impact on me. Oh sure, there have been exceptions; Old Yeller? I sobbed. Where the Red Fern Grows? A tearjerker. But comics? I can’t say there have been a lot of times when I was emotionally sucker-punched the way this story did to me, but anyone who’s a dog lover will understand if they read it.

That’s not to say the story is all heartbreak; it’s funny and touching and entertaining. It’s enjoyable watching career small-time criminal Andy go from being a waste of space to a genuinely good and selfless human being. It talks about how arguably every person has it in them to transform into something better if they just get the right inspiration and motivation. In this case, it’s a dog. I think here Kurt was also saying something about feelings of positivity and self-worth; at one point, Andy meets Esme (with a little assist from Hank) and the two hit it off. By this point in the story, Andy has become a more positive person, more confident, and overall nicer. Would Esme have been in any way attracted to the old Andy? Probably not. Andy gets a real job, goes to school, gets the girl, and earns the respect of his fellow superheroes. But nothing lasts forever and that includes dogs. Especially dogs. And thus, we get the real heartbreak as Andy is forced to confront his best friend’s mortality.

For anyone who’s ever been fortunate to belong to a pet that left this world, you can imagine the emotional punch to the gut the last act of this tale affords. How does a writer deliver what’s in many ways a silly story and yet is able to infuse it with such heartache and not make it feel at all out of place? And do so with such effortless style? I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that when I re-read this story, I cried again. That’s how good it is.

3. The story of the Blue Knight (Astro City: Local Heroes, issues #4-5)

Astro City, 1974. The town’s seen better days. So has Vincent Oleck, an attorney with an impossible case. His client is most assuredly guilty, with a preponderance of evidence stacked against him. Vince has no chance. Or… does he? In a world of mind-controlling telepaths, shape-changing aliens, and evil duplicates from other dimensions, can anyone truly be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? And what role does Astro City’s most ruthless vigilante have to play in all this?

I won’t lie, I loved the hell out of this story. How would a criminal court handle cases in a super-heroic setting, where magic and incredible technology exist, and the weird and wonderful and horrific are everyday occurrences? Does Kurt answer these questions? Well, uh, no, he doesn’t. Not really. But the first issue is so damn entertaining as our protagonist delivers up enough reasonable doubt to get just about anyone off. The story is well suited to the times; the early 1970s was a period of great cynicism and mistrust, with the war in Vietnam winding down and all those lives being lost for nothing, the Watergate scandal, the Munich massacre, and oil prices skyrocketing. It was a horrible time in a lot of ways. Kurt captures the tone of this era well in court cases where even the most reprehensible of people can literally get away with murder.

On top of this, it seems that Astro City is in need of a new breed of hero; no longer do they require the likes of the Silver Agent. They now need the Blue Knight, a killer vigilante with a grudge. But who or what is he? Well, he’s Josh, Vincent’s friend, and a police officer whose son was lost to a stray bullet on the street. But we don’t know his alter ego, and perhaps we’ll never know, and that’s part of what makes him so intriguing.

I remember decades ago when Wolverine’s past was a mystery and that made him cool, yet I wanted to find out more. And then we got his entire backstory and suddenly Wolverine wasn’t so cool anymore. I learned then that a little unknown in our lives is a good thing. So ladies, when your man comes home late, don’t ask him where he’s been; just imagine he was out fighting crime. But seriously, Kurt is a master at focusing in on the lives of normal people living in this extraordinary world. You’d think their stories would be boring, but in the hands of the master they’re anything but.

2. The end of Quarrel and Crackerjack (Astro City 2013, issues #18-21)

For some years, the heroes Quarrel and Crackerjack have been stalwart heroes of Astro City. The former is even a member of the legendary Honor Guard. But both are unlike NRG or Samaritan in that they’re mere mortals and time is finally catching up to them. And while Quarrel contemplates retirement, it seems her lover and partner Crackerjack refuses to age gracefully. To what lengths will Crackerjack go to continue being a superhero, and what consequences will his reckless quest have for those closest to him?

One of the problems involving characters who never age is you don’t see the long-term toll that superhero-ing has on them, both in body and spirit. Oh sure, sometimes someone will come along and talk about how beat up Batman or Daredevil is, but then another writer comes onboard and pretty much ignores the fact that these men have probably suffered a dozen concussions and debilitating injuries that would make a professional athlete weep. So this story about two heroes facing mortality and how they both deal with it felt pretty original to me. It’s a heartbreaking story, but touching at the same time. I find it analogous to how difficult it must be for professional athletes to acknowledge that it’s time to quit; one wonders if Muhammad Ali’s mental health would not have deteriorated had he not fought Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, or if someone had intervened in professional wrestler Chris Benoit’s life a couple years earlier before he suffered one concussion too many that would result in the murder of his entire family and his suicide. But how do you tell a Brett Favre he shouldn’t sign with the Jets when he’s been playing football since he was ten years old? And that’s why I feel this story rings so true. People can love a thing so much that they can’t imagine being without it, like a musician continuing to perform live at the risk of losing their hearing.

Is Crackerjack a jerk? Oh, most certainly. But is his quest to gain an edge, and to stay in the game just a few more years really that unbelievable? Not when you live in the same world as Lance Armstrong. And you sympathize with Crackerjack. Being a superhero is all he has… or at least that’s how it seems. But he forgets he also has Quarrel in his life, and that’s the real tragedy of the story: he learns what’s really important a little too late. Still, while his head may be stuck up his behind, he fortunately hasn’t lost that last good thing left to him.

The story also gives us Quarrel’s origin, which was hinted way, way back in the Tarnished Angel story from 1996. We discover that Quarrel’s father was a thief and a large part of her motivation was to be as unlike him as possible. I’m always a sucker for redemption stories, and the sad thing is that Kurt fleshes out what turns out to be a great character… just as she retires. It really makes me wish we could have gotten a regular Honor Guard comic over the years or something, just to get more Quarrel stories.

1. The Confessor Arc (Astro City 1996, issues #4-9)

Having left Buchanan Corners for the bright lights of Astro City, young Brian Kinney has dreams of becoming a superhero. To do so, he knows he must become a hero’s sidekick. One night he captures the attention of the Confessor, one of Astro City’s most mysterious vigilantes, and soon becomes his partner Altar Boy. Will the Confessor make Brian the hero he’s destined to become, and do the pair have the will, skill, and luck to stop an alien invasion?

Hey, remember that Marvel event Secret Invasion, where shape-changing aliens infiltrate the Marvel universe, and Civil War, where the world came to distrust their heroes and turn on them? Yeah, I think Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar read this Astro City story and were taking notes.

Six-issue stories (and more. Sometimes much more) have increasingly become the norm over the years, but I don’t think it was quite so common when this story broke. In any case, it was an epic tale that needed all six chapters, and man, did Kurt deliver an epic tale. We get a tale of worldwide crisis and at the same time a more intimate story of redemption. The Confessor, Jeremiah Parrish, is a brilliant character, and I grew to love him in a short time. Naturally, I saw him as a typical Batman archetype at first, much like Samaritan was Kurt Busiek’s Superman and Winged Victory was his Wonder Woman. But like those two characters, Kurt infused this creation with his own unique spin. The Confessor’s origins were supernatural, and his crimes unforgiveable, and yet that doesn’t stop him from striving to redeem himself and do what’s right.

Likewise, Brian Kinney was likeable in other ways. Naturally, when you look at Altar Boy, the comparisons to Robin were inevitable. Which one was he more like? Dick Grayson? Tim Drake? Jason Todd? Honestly? I thought that Brian was his own character. Oh sure, like Tim Drake he sought out a hero, and there was some of Jason’s brashness, and like Dick he was an orphan. But Brian felt very much like his own character and that was helped by his relationship with the Confessor, which was initially based on mistrust.

I loved the subplot of growing paranoia as mystic heroes were targeted for registration. I loved how normal people who relied on said heroes could so easily be swayed by fear and paranoia to turn on them. Perhaps Kurt was being cynical here, but not by much. I don’t want to discuss this story much more because if you haven’t read it, I want you to go out and find it and experience it for yourself. In a lot of ways, it’s Busiek at his best, delivering a host of interesting characters (even in cameos they’re cool; the Birds of Paradise deserve another appearance), and telling a tale both on a grand scale and intimately, giving us what was one of Astro City’s best characters both in look and style and origin. And considering the very similar “event” comics that were published years later, Busiek’s story might be considered inspirational as well.

Next time, I return to the world of cinema as I look at a Roger Corman classic. See you then!

Tag: Top 10 Astro City tales

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