We live in the age of the pop culture revival, and the arrival of the eternal film and movie franchises, all born or borrowing from the model of superhero comics storytelling. Astro City, one of the most storied and beloved superhero comics of all time, went through a revival of its own in 2013, and that it came back as strong as ever was a miracle in and of itself. Over the course of a year, Charlotte Finn will be examining this miracle – all 52 issues – as she spends A Year in the Big City. This feature was originally published on her site and now continues on Shelfdust!
Comics and music don’t often go well together, do they?
Movies and comics, sure; there’s been good to great adaptations of movies, the Archie Goodwin/Walt Simonson adaptation of Alien coming to mind. Animation and comics, they’re practically joined at the hip. But music and comics? There’s been one or two good ones, like The Wicked + The Divine, and that’s about it.
Comics have a strong visual component, and so do movies and animation; comics has no auditory component, and music is nothing but. Perhaps, despite the efforts of playlists shared on Twitter and
threats of attempts at the occasional film, they are destined to be strangers.
Which makes music a weird choice to base the series’ key character around!
But based around it, it is; and so, we come to a story told by the Broken Man.
The Broken Man, as I’ve gone into before, is the ‘meta’ character; the one who talks to the reader. He’s equal parts Harley Quinn, Deadpool, the Cryptkeeper, and the second-person narrator of so many Silver and Bronze Age superhero comics.
In this, he sings us a song, and through that song, tells us a story, of a superhero before the superheroes…
… the ancient musician, Silverstring, described with some… let’s be charitable and call it “language of its time,” or LOIT. My feelings on LOIT are rather complicated and would be a vast aside, so let’s leave it be and move on.
Silverstring is not a superhero, but he fills the same hole a superhero does; he has outlandish talents, and helps those in need, and has a cool nickname. He’s less a rough draft and more a root word; what will one day become something else, but right now, is not fully that thing.
Immediately, the word ‘silver’ conjures up much, but the #1 thing it conjures up is the Silver Agent, whose origin – and eventual death – is all but certainly related to the dying place of Silverstring, and the silver flame that burns at the spot where his magic guitar broke. As recounted in Astro City Special: Silver Agent #1 and #2, the Silver Agent’s final adventures went beyond space and time as we know them.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the Broken Man exceeds and breaks the format of comics as well; if he is unfathomable and a misfit within the comics universe, then maybe it’s natural to signify that via a medium comics can’t easily handle.
The story shifts forward a few decades, to the birth of ragtime and its eventual appropriation by clueless white people, who innocently just want to enjoy some music…
… and innocence means they’re not mindful of the dangers of what they’re doing, and hell comes to pay, as whiteness does its work.
This is surprisingly dark material for a comic book that last issue featured a villain called the Drama Queen, but Astro City has grappled with this sort of thing in the past, sometimes well and sometimes not. With the caveat that I’m white, I’m inclined to think that this handles it well, as before too long, the supernatural gadfly known as Mister Cakewalk shows up…
… where he is fighting cops, robbing a concert hall dedicated to the appropriation of ragtime, and repurposing a racist caricature as a robbery bag turned prank.
Way back when I wrote about issue #5 I wrote about Mister Cakewalk; I’m more favorably inclined towards the character in this issue, and part of it is the context of the story.
The POV in issue #5 is that of Dame Progress, where Mister Cakewalk is a nemesis who is more than he appears to be, but still a nemesis of a sort; he’s there to illuminate Dame Progress and aid her character arc, but it’s still her arc. In this issue, Mister Cakewalk’s story is told by an anonymous resident of Bakerville, where Mister Cakewalk is a folk hero and well loved.
He’s the same character, but the angle has shifted; now it’s Dame Progress who has a walk-on role in his story, mentioned in passing along with his other exploits. And that makes a lot of difference; now the arc is his, or more accurately, the arc is Bakerville’s, as the residents of Bakerville love, protect, and eventually move on as the times change and different notions of how Black America should handle the problem of White America wind up on the rise.
And for a new era, rebooted as surely as any other hero, comes the music in a different form… but the story of Jazzbaby will have to wait until next week.
Astro City #37
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell
Charlotte Finn has written for several sites, including ComicsAlliance. She’s now writing primarily for her own site. You can find her on Twitter here!
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