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!
I hate renumbering on comic books!!
“Okay, so to read this run on this series, it’s probably best if you start with #1. No, not #1 from the 60s, #1 from four years ago, which is the fifth number one it’s had since 1998. Then you’ll need to read all eight issues of that and then start over with the sixth #1, which is out that same year. Then there’s a couple of .1 issues and then they renumber the book again back to the original numbering so that you know that it’s actually the 500th comic of this series, then they switch to legacy numbering on the next relaunch with the seventh #1 which is actually issue #506 and why are you trying to leap out the window without opening it first?”
I hate renumbering!! There are a lot of things you can point to as proof that the direct comics market isn’t in the best of shape, but my personal favorite is that the above paragraph is completely understandable to a reader of monthly direct market comics and utterly incomprehensible to anyone else.
Anyways: Astro City #41-slash-#100! Earlier I marked the 20th anniversary and how that was a momentous occasion, but 100 issues of any story is a pretty big deal too – creator owned titles tend to peter out in the 60s, because that is a long time to be sticking with one comic. And this comic delivers a story deserving of the anniversary issue conceit of “it’s time for a real important story” – how Astro City got its name.
We’re introduced to Joseph Greenwald, civic politician of Romeyn Falls, and through him we meet Roy Virgil, who has the exact same “dream big, kiddo” can-do American exceptionalism persona as exemplified by Howard Hughes – not the man, but the myth, the stentorian-voiced daredevil millionaire inventor who never met a problem he couldn’t lick, by gum.
He’s viewed through the eyes of a city councilman who sees him as a worthwhile public relations investment, and as time goes on and the city struggles out of the Great Depression, Roy – called “the Astro-Naut” – begins to bridge the divide between pulp action against gangsters with names like Johnny Homicide to far-out space travel against the Lightning Pirates of Andromeda.
Roy’s recounting of his exploits are soaked in folky charm, as his inventions are based not on copying alien technology, but observing it and concluding that if it’s possible, then he’ll figure out how to imitate it. And he in turn inspires a wave of imitators, in that charming Golden Age way of “let’s throw whatever we can against the wall. Football? Trumpets? Lamps? All fair game!”
As the narrative goes on, however, a light begins to leave Roy’s eyes, just as the bright and shiny nature of the superheroes doesn’t erase the problems of 1940s America – of murders, white supremacy and the inevitable byproducts of superpowered brawls. The midpoint of the story features one of the cleverest page-turn reveals I’ve ever seen, as the latest incarnation of Jazzbaby/Mister Cakewalk fights a pair of snake cultists, and then you flip the page…
A genuinely outstanding use of the stillness of comics, as the Broken Man shows up in the white space to implore you to pay a little bit closer attention to what you just saw, even as the main narrative chugs along, that of the city beginning to turn on Roy – and you can ponder both of these things as much or as little as you’d like.
The interesting thing about the narrative in this comic is how bright and shiny American optimism turns out to be wedded to not so bright and shiny American militarism – as the federal government puts more and more pressure on Joe to reveal Roy’s secrets. They have the stated agenda of “shortening the war,” but the hidden agenda is obvious: to secure American military dominance.
Roy is sitting in Earth orbit when Joe finds him through a teleportal, and he talks or what caused the fire in his eyes to dim a little; seeing great stellar empires ruled by their weapons. He talks about a popular sci-fi conceit, the idea that a species needs to reach a level of social advancement before it is ready to handle weapons of great destructive power. All more than a little colonialist and paternalistic, of course, often used as an excuse for inaction, but – that does fit the character, someone disillusioned by American exceptionalism but still raised on it and in part embodying it.
And in the end, Roy’s star fades as the war goes on – he is featured here and there, but other heroes rise. But not long after that, something happens…
… the city is attacked by the beings that Roy said he lived in fear of, and he reveals that they were brought here by American scientists experimenting with his designs. Roy fights them off, but is, in the end, as mortally wounded as the American exceptionalism that he embodied. He destroys the last of his work, and leaves Earth, never to return; Joe elects to rename the city in his honor.
There’s a lot to examine here. There’s the old notion that alien invasion stories such as War of the Worlds are externalized expressions of colonialist guilt, which is embodied in American exceptionalism and in turn, in Roy. There’s the interesting detail that the city is attacked after the war, signaling that in this universe, the superheroics of the Golden Age are not going to fade away with the end of hostilities in Europe. There’s the parallels to the real-life Howard Hughes, who echoes through the genre of superheroes and how in the real world his persona was larger than his own life. And of course, there’s the snake people the Broken Man told us to pay attention to.
What sticks with me is, there’s a recurring theme in Astro City that the worst in humanity is never gone, and neither is the best in humanity. There is an undercurrent of sadness, embodied by dark many-angled things slithering underneath the panels; there’s transcendent joy shaped by music that can never be expressed on panel; and in between are the stories of people whose lives are like anyone’s, with some days that are rainbows and others that are rain.
Life in Astro City is like the life of the person it’s named after; putting on a good front that covers up a lot of darkness, struggling with how unfair and confusing life can be, being the inevitable product of the fictions that shaped it, and still – because this is a heroic universe – finding the strength for one last noble deed even if it comes at great cost.
The story concludes with an elderly Joe seeing the state of Astro City in the present, and hoping as we all do: that we’re ready for the challenges that await us and can meet them with some measure of grace, because life in Astro City is a lot like life anywhere else.
Next week: what happens when a minor supervillain winds up shipwrecked and has a lot of time to kill?
Astro City #41
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis and Alex Sinclair
Lettered by Jimmy Betancourt
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