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!
At a certain point, comics characters stopped talking to us as much as they did.
Maybe it was the universe requiring its own internal consistency that would be undone if Squirrel Girl kept introducing the segments or if Archie kept shrugging at the camera at the end; maybe we became too self-conscious to admit that it’s all comics and we should just chill out. But the meta-character is now far more of an exception, to the point they need special narrative rules built around them, and that leads us to the Broken Man – and to the person he spends this issue talking to.
Matilda talks to the reader, exceeds the panel frequently, and seems locked in the era of childhood where we just accepted that comics characters talked to us sometimes, so it fits that she can converse with the Broken Man. And her superpower is that she can summon her Dad – who is Superman but also Captain Marvel.
There have been a lot, and I mean a lot, of takes on Superman; he’s the load-bearing wall of the genre, a powerful idea you can’t help but want to play with just a little. There have been quite a number of takes on Captain Marvel/Billy Batson as well; everyone from Thor to the genre of tokusatsu play with the idea of “here is a magic word that turns you into a capital-S Superhero.”
It’s not a huge surprise once you find out that all that Superman stuff from the Silver Age, that we alternate between being profoundly embarrassed by and utterly enamoured with, came from Otto Binder, the co-creator of Billy Batson as Captain Marvel. The two characters cross-pollinated to such a degree that you could make a whole new series of heroes just by examining how those two ideas interact. And that brings us to the Gentleman.
The wish fulfilment idea of Captain Marvel, as Chris Sims and Matt Wilson put it, is “okay, you know Superman. Now here is a magic word that can make you into Superman.” The Gentleman is a similar idea, the idea of “okay, you know Superman. Now what if he was your Dad?”
Superman has, over time, evolved towards being the ur-dad, the big reassuring presence who exemplifies the traditionally masculine; sometimes negatively but overall a positive masculinity, one that is strong and tough but reassuring and gentle, one that can knock down a wall but not harm a single hair on a single person’s head should they be standing on the other side. Someone who can fix cars, cook meals, and who is Strong but in a way that protects the good and discourages the bad. What the Gentleman is, is that idea distilled down to its very essence; the Dad, a good Dad, the best Dad, forever viewed through the eyes of a little girl.
But there is a bittersweetness to the Gentleman, because he could only ever have come into being when a little girl lost her father in a traumatic fashion that affected the manifestation of her psychic abilities, him frozen at his best – strong and kind and able to do anything, rather than succumbing to the frailties of age – and with Matilda frozen at the age where that’s how she saw him. The Gentleman is the Dad of a girl who never grew up; growing up means growing away from your parents a little, after all.
I can’t help but think about the fact that while Astro City lets its characters grow older, the universes it’s drawing inspiration from typically do not; the ten year rule may get expanded to the twelve year rule or the fifteen year rule, but it still stands. And nowhere is this reflected more than in characters that are young; they are forced to stay young, rarely getting a chance to grow up – or if they do, it’s undone by a universe-rearranging retcon.
And I feel this most of all with Billy Batson, the ultimate good kid who can instantly become an adult, but will never fully have the option to slowly become an adult, save for alternate universes and just-kidding moments. He is, in some ways, considered the first martyr of superhero comics, due to the legal suits that forced him out of publication, and consequently there is a reluctance to change the character away from his core premise of “a kid who can become Superman.” He’s an eternal youth, just like Matilda – except Matilda is even moreso, because if the fantasy of certain takes on Captain Marvel is “you can grow up instantly,” the fantasy of the Gentleman is “you’ll never have to, because your Dad is perfect and he’ll never leave you.”
In more ways than that, this evokes the feeling of a Binder/Beck Captain Marvel story, right down to children working a grown-up job and everything have a soft layer of whimsey (an all-girl pickpocket ring! An evil scientist who brings movies to life but slept through knot-tying day at Supervillain School! The Young Gentleman shows up!) And it eventually ties into the larger metaplot, with the latest form of the living music – the Bouncing Beatnik – teaming up with the straight-laced Gentleman to fight a servant of the Orbour.
But the Bouncing Beatnik’s story was hijacked by Matilda talking about her Dad, and so we end with the Broken Man confounded by the short length of the monthly superhero comic – and so, the story of the Bouncing Beatnik, everything he’s been, and everything he’ll one day become, will have to wait ’til later.
Next week: what if a cat had superpowers? Well, we’d all die. But what if a cat had superpowers and that didn’t happen?
Astro City #43
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
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