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!
Why did the Broken Man break?
I know the in-story reason; the snake cultists won, and in a way that is unusually grim for an Astro City story. They cause Glamorax to vanish in a violent explosion, with no rebirth; they die rather than be captured by Jack-In-The-Box; they erase all evidence that Glamorax even existed, wipe an entire house from existence, and psychically drive him off to Europe and towards alcoholism. Evil wins, full-stop.
We don’t even know how long it takes the Broken Man to reappear – and when he does, he’s confronted by the birth of the human flame and the Orbour’s reaction to humanity, for a brief moment, casting aside its fears of the dark.
A while back I wrote about the value in Astro City letting the heroes and its protagonists pull off a win occasionally; this is, in part, the payoff for that. Because if you’re used to the heroes always losing, it’s an unexpected joy to see them win; and conversely, if they usually win, it’s a body blow to see them lose. This is one of the benefits of a superhero universe that is run by a handful of people; they know how to pace out the wins and the loses and make sure they’re keenly felt. That’s how this feels; like a genuine, true loss.
I also speculated, “why music?” with regards to the recurrence of the Bouncing Beatnix, Glamorax, Jazzbaby, Mister Cakewalk, Zootsuit, the Halcyon Hippie and so forth; I concluded that in comics, the represented something ineffable, something the medium couldn’t capture. And it turns out that people outside the medium – the readers of this comic – are fundamental to the Broken Man’s plan, because being outside the reality, we can observe it, and being active participants in the pacing of the story as all comics readers are, we can affect its progression.
But the question I keep turning over in my head is, why did the Broken Man break that specific way, in that specific time – going from the avatar of music to being trapped outside reality, dependent on strangers and conspiracy theorists and random walk-on characters (Astro City’s stock-in-trade.) What is important about the transition from glam to punk, and the Broken Man’s later speculations about rap and death metal avatars – which were and are rebellious art forms, but it feels a little strange to think of them as the last truly rebellious forms of music.
But again: comics is a medium without music, and the Broken Man is, down to his roots, a comics character – a meta comics character (he even dresses like Grant Morrison.) And while it’s a bad idea to treat comics as the only thing that can inform comics, I think it’s a good idea here, because the metaphor “a snake eating its own tail” is what is used to describe that kind of limited inspiration, and it was, fittingly, a snake cult that did in the Broken Man.
Snakes have a lot of meanings; the twin snakes of Caduceus represent everything from messengers to transformation (with the fabled myth of Tiresias being how I got introduced to the concept, surprising no one.) They are bringers of forbidden knowledge – or welcomed knowledge. And of course, in the pulps, and in the superhero comics that came out of the pulps, snake people were often cults worshipping horrifying cosmic intelligences, hiding out of sight and subverting people’s wills.
This is the most popular interpretation in pulps and the one that Astro City plays with the most, but there are a lot of meanings to the symbolism of the snake as there are stars in the sky. And maybe that’s just it; the mythology of the snake keeps changing, never fully defined or pinned down. And for a while, superheroes did too.
But starting in the 1970s – the era of the rise and fall of glam rock – there came a need to nail it all down, to make sure the continuity made sense despite that being a fool’s errand from the word go. The JSA makes its return from occasional guest-stars to starring in their own revived comic in the 1970s, giving us two Earths (and many more besides.) The rise of the dedicated comics fan leads to the rise of the dedicated fan creator, someone who wants to make it all fit together – just like the Broken Man does.
And the consequence of this is that all the old stuff sticks around – there’s the occasional reboot, but things come back; there’s the occasional death, but c’mon, it’s comics. And that’s anathema to the recurring avatar of music in Astro City; for Jazzbaby to be born, Mister Cakewalk’s time has to end.
And so the Broken Man represents a dead end; he begets no one, stuck as the Broken Man forever. He’s unable to change, unable to even admit that he is this avatar of music. He represents fannish behavior in good ways and bad, able to stitch together the threads in his universe but unable to see past the blind spots in his own life and accept that change begins at home.
And the Orbour, of course, would especially hate Astro City because it’s a universe that does nothing but change. New heroes rise; old ones retire. People get old and must retire; new ones rise up with their own takes on heroism. If it wants to go back and revisit a prior era, it does just that, traveling back through time with complete and utter ease. It’s anything but static, and the Orbour, representing nothing, also represents uniformity – because nothing is the ultimate uniformity.
So the Broken Man broke the way he did because the Orbour made the avatar of music a little bit more like itself – and, the Broken Man’s salvation lies in characters who are a little offbeat and overlooked, the kind that thrive in a comic like Astro City. It all makes sense, until the next story that comes along to invalidate my theory.
Next week: it’s the story of the best superhero. No, I’m not exaggerating.
(Special thanks to pal Phillip Rice for some research assistance; check out their Twitter!)
Astro City #46
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
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