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!
Last week, I talked about “Language Of Its Time” as something that I’d talk about another day…
… and it looks like today’s the day.
It’s hard to argue that the language of white America in the 1920s wasn’t holy-hell racist, because it was; it’s also hard to argue that the comics of the early days of the superhero were not holy-hell racist as well. As I said when covering Winged Victory’s story arc, the recent reminders that Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw are lauded, but we sure don’t like to talk about the racist caricatures of Japanese people he was beating up within a year.
Astro City is playing within the Consensus Superhero Universe even as it adds its own distinct spins on all of its concepts; so having a superhero called Yankee Sheikh who fights with a scimitar because of course he does, and Asian brothers who know martial arts… it all feels inevitable.
But: is it though? Is it inevitable? The history of the universe can be whatever it wants to be, so does it need to comment on racist concepts – and in so doing, cause every person who’s had to struggle with the legacy of these words and concepts to wince at them for the two hundredth time? But is it really better to paper over the language and concepts of those times – thus giving the past a veneer of respectability it may not fully deserve, making it all Cap-versus-Hitler and eliding those aforementioned racist caricatures?
Essentially, I feel that LOIT is a problem with no easy solution, because the real problem is bigger than the language – it’s what the language represents, the continual stain of white supremacy that refuses to wash out. I don’t know if Astro City’s approach does anything worthwhile to dismantle it. I don’t know if a comic about a character named Jazzbaby even could.
Anyways: here’s Jazzbaby.
Jazzbaby, the reborn manifestation of the force that gave birth to Mr. Cakewalk, is a product of eternal recurrence, and she has a conversation in this issue with Cal Turrant – last seen in issue #5 as one of the Blasphemy Boys. Cal lost loved ones to a war and a global pandemic, things that have of course not been on my mind! Ha ha!
Also a forthcoming stock market crash and great depression. Ha ha.
The loss of this era – that everyone carries with them a sense that they’re not fully complete, that a part of them had been cut away or been lost somewhere, that the future they were supposed to have is gone – it would resonate at any time, since it is eternal to the human condition. But goodness, does it resonate right now, as 2020 appears to be the year we attempt to complete the 1920s speedrun. (“If you leave your mask in your inventory you can bring around the second wave of a pandemic way earlier than it’s supposed to!”)
Her strange background aside, this is actually a pretty straightforward superhero story; shenanigans with secret identities, flirtations with a civilian partner (one of the Blasphemy Boys!) and a mastermind who intends to exploit the grief of this age to summon a cosmic god. Destine fights Jazzbaby, Jazzbaby fights off his henchmen, the other superheroes show up as reinforcements, and Jazzbaby steps into another reality to fight that which lies within…
… which looks a lot like the monster that the Hanged Man was grappling with at the end of the classic “Confessions” story in issue #9 of Astro City’s previous volume. That’s a long walk for a payoff, in a series that’s been full of them.
What this thing represents interests me, because it’s essentially, nihilism – the notion that nothing matters, that the universe is empty. But this is an emptiness that stirs and hungers and has agency – it’s a nothing that wants something, and what it wants will ruin us all, and worse, we invite it in. All very Lovecraftian, really, and come to think of it, his writing career would have been taking off around the time this story was set.
The fight with Jazzbaby is represented with stark black inks suspended in white space, the raw stuff of comics, the limitations and substance of the form itself – and what saves her is something outside of that form. The music, and what the music represents: that we have to go on, for its own sake.
That the day is saved by something the form of comics can’t express, and that the monstrous threat is something that almost seems to be lurking behind each panel, all in a series that is very metafictional… well, it’s all open to interpretation, of course. So here is mine.
We know that superhero comics are almost never fully what we want them to be. The tales of divine agents of goodness are rendered by very human hands, with very human failings – failings that, at the time of this writing, loom as large as they ever have. The direct market superhero comic exists in an industry that seems malicious on the days it’s not being actively incompetent. Most of the time, we know that a death we found meaning in will be undone, that a status quo we love will give way, that the illusion of change will persist.
But only most of the time – sometimes, the superhero comic transcends, and you get something that touches you and won’t let go. Maybe the status quo does stick. Maybe they let that character stay who they are now. Or maybe you just read an incredible comic that changes nothing but seems to leap off the page and into your heart like kaleidoscopic shrapnel, that you think of in times of trouble and go “that was amazing.”
Maybe the drabness and the darkness is what the medium too often is – just the illusion of change and the empty promise of a journey. And the song, being something we can’t represent, is something we can’t replicate – it’s something we have to bring in from ourselves, from outside the comic. And at the right time, when we’re in the right place, and read just the right comic, the notes all line up, and the art lifts us off our feet, and we go “oh, yeah. Superheroes are awesome.”
The day is saved; Jazzbaby’s secret ID is revealed to her paramour. Bad things are on the horizon as the stock market is about to implode, and whatever darkness lurks, lurks underneath us still. Life goes on, bittersweet but vital. Sometimes hope isn’t a divine moment of transcendence, but the art of persisting day to day.
Next week: the origin of the Hanged Man, and a return to Shadow Hill – and an examination of how they both fit into Astro City in a very meta sense.
Astro City #38
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
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