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!
As long as there are ocean-based heroes, there are gonna be ocean-based villains. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)
We all know the jokes about Aquaman by now, but they only really make sense in the context of the Justice League; to people who rightly fear the sea, who cross it in boats and know how dangerous it can be, the idea of a hero looking out for you in the middle of all that water and all the beautiful ways it can kill you is very appealing. On their own, an aquatic superhero makes perfect sense, and that’s what this comic is about: being on your own.
This issue we are introduced to Mister Manta, who graduated from the School of Proper Supervillainy – right down to the moustache, his boastfulness in battle, and his single-minded dedication to a theme. If he’s gonna be committing ocean related crimes, he is damn well gonna dress like a manta ray, and if he’s going to go through the trouble of explaining his evil death-trap, the least the hero can do is reply with a “you’ll never get away with this!”
He’s chatty. Right up until he isn’t, because at one point he winds up shipwrecked and trying to survive, caught between two impulses: escape, and survival, and asking himself what he truly wants.
This is a pretty standard issue of Astro City; it doesn’t sink but it doesn’t soar. (Look at that clever joke I made.) The art is handled by the guest art team of Matthew Clark and Sean Parsons, who’ve done many, many comics over the years and bring to this a style with a lot of fine lines and inks, and a world to match; the island that Mister Manta is shipwrecked on has a tactile feel, the vein of every leaf implied by the inks, the panel borders having a rough-cut feeling informed by years spent building things by hand.
There is plenty of space to enjoy this art, because life on the island is quiet, the way that Astro City isn’t always, geared towards the 22 page format where get-to-the-point storytelling is the order of the day. Narration grows a little sparser on the island; our protagonist has even stopped talking to himself.
This sense of quiet and peace is central to the story, because Mister Manta does find a way back to civilization; a passing cruise ship is attacked by pirates, and he springs into action, flying out in a leaf-derived battlesuit that works on pure comic-book science, and here is where the second pair of MVPs for this story step up: John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt of Comicraft, who sell how big a shock it is to be in a world full of talking and noise and conversation again.
In the end, Mister Manta returns to his island, where he has everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t. A pretty simple story, all told; even the brief aside about Mermaid and her proteges being trained to take her place in Honor Guard is by now, par for the course in Astro City.
But how the story is told sticks with me; the shift in the art style, the chaotic and unclear word balloons that speak to autistic overload even if I’m not about to claim it as representation. It’s a nice done-in-one about a supervillain who got what he wanted and didn’t realize it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially as a palette cleanser after a landmark story like finding out how Astro City got its name – or the next issue, which finally digs into the origin of the Gentleman, which I’ll cover in a week’s time!
Astro City #42
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Matthew Clark and Sean Parsons
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
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