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!
Can a superhero be too powerful?
I lean towards no – but they might be too powerful to be popular, especially if the genre goes through a period where beating up muggers in an alleyway is the chosen default mode of action. You can always increment X by 1; you can always make a bigger threat.
But there’s ways to make a character seem too powerful, and that is a failure to fully define X in the first place; if you fail to solve what X means, then the problem is not that the character is too powerful, but that their power is ill-defined. And that leads us to this story, where Marta takes on a new client…
The Silver Adept, living guardian of all realities and in dire need of a vacation, has wound up part of Marta’s story, needing a legal expert to look over mystical contracts or else the fate of all reality will come undone.
The Silver Adept is in the same space as Doctor Strange, another character who is often described as too powerful but really has the problem in that the value of X hasn’t been defined, so it’s hard to immediately grasp what X+1 looks like. Strange’s powers fluctuate a lot and are never that clearly defined to begin with. A lot of Doctor Strange stories are spent explaining the stakes of what’s going on, which goes against the strengths of comics as a medium where you can see the action instead of having it explained to you. In a normal Doctor Strange comic, that’s a problem, month after month.
But in a comic where the POV character is an outsider, and where it’s only a one-off, it works perfectly, and in a comic where there are only a small handful of creators (Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and in this issue, guest-artist Carmen Carnero,) you can define the rules and ensure that you can at least ensure that X has a consistent value.
The notion of the mystical favor economy intrigues me – – both for the elegance of how it explains power waxing and waning, and how it turns the somewhat incomprehensible mystical superhero story into something we can all more easily digest: a legal drama.
I don’t know the law well enough to be a lawyer, but television has trained me to know the legal dramatic genre. I know that it has a realism dial that goes from “an entire season to put one case through the legal system” to “I shout an accusation at the evil judge loud enough and everything will be super-duper.” I know how the emotional beats and payoffs work, and so, when Marta winds up pulled into the metaphysical equivalent – tricking the evil judge into calling a witness that blows the whole thing wide open! – I know how she triumphed.
Just like the Silver Adept crosses from the supernatural horror genre to the superheroic one, so to has Marta bridged the gap between a high-stakes mystical duel and a courtroom drama.
Due to the evil sorcerers speaking on behalf of a god that doesn’t particularly like it when you put words in her mouth, the day is saved and Marta is returned to her office, with a new client and the universe having not ended. It’d be a normal day in her life no matter which side of the river she lived on, which is why, in the end, this had to be her story.
Next week: it’s Astro City’s 41st issue… which is also its 100th! Ah, comics.
Astro City #40
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Carmen Carnero
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell
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