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!
Last week: lookit this cute doggie and this guy who wants to become the person his dog thinks he is, this is so heartwarming oh my God
This week: hey, guess what? Pets die.
Bit of a tonal shift, there.
I’ve talked a lot in this column about how the characters in Astro City age, and how that’s a good thing for the kinds of stories it wants to tell. The main character of the series is the setting itself, and how it can flit in and out of the lives of any character involved in it, lives that mark the passage of time.
So it is with Hank, who is an adorable little corgi but also, he’s twelve years old, and he doesn’t have that much time left. And so this is, in part, a story about grief.
Grief, being such a powerful emotional state, is a difficult one to approach in media; it’s so powerful that a writer can’t help but be tempted to depict the mourning process, but in order for there to be grief, there needs to be death, and that means that a beloved character is no more. And that can feel cheap at best and insulting at worst – just look at the parade of dead queers on TV – and that goes double for superhero comics where death can turn into a revolving door, to the point where death in that universe isn’t the same as death in ours at all.
But the nature of Astro City is such that it can decide that when a character’s story is coming to an end: that it will end. There’s no chance of another writer coming along and bringing back Hank… even though I want Hank to live, because I am not made of stone.
Neither is Andy, though he’s acquired a bunch of other powers, and he gets some answers as to why – as he returns to the scene of the crime, so long ago, and chats with the woman he robbed. It turns out that this woman is the widow of Stormhawk, who was honored in Astro City #17 for the tiny universe he saved. He was an “oh yeah, I had that action figure” hero – but not to the people he saved, or who loved him. Stormhawk bonded with his pet hawk, and it’s hinted that this connection – between person and pet – is what fuels the amulet. That it thrives on how much people love their pets.
And people do love their pets, and so a story about a dog facing his last days can’t help but feel like it’s skirting up to the line of blatant emotional manipulation. But it works, because you want this to be a story about last minute rescues and successful triumphs, like how Astro City #3 shocked me with a successful rescue precisely because so much of superheroics these days is grounded in failure.
But the thing about that last minute rescue is that its emotional impact is in the subversion of expectation, and expectations shift over time; after nearly a year of stories in which the future looks like it’ll be just fine, suddenly we get a story where for one man and one dog, it won’t.
And thus: Andy starts to come to terms with it.
It’s not easy to watch, but it’s compelling, and reading this – reading Andy’s slow resolve in coming to terms with the inevitable, and how hard his grief hits when the day finally comes, I think a lot about the notion of whether grief is a worthwhile story to begin with.
I feel it is, but there is pushback – not undeserved, see the aforementioned parade of dead queers – from people who say that the real world is miserable enough, and that it doesn’t need to cross over into our fiction too. That fiction can and should be a brighter space where pandemics do not rage, where billionaires and the state do not harm millions, where the air is cleaner and the sun brighter. That there’s enough dead dogs in the real world that we don’t need one in the pages of a comic book about a flying dog furry with lightning powers.
I get that. But that’s not all fiction can do.
Fiction can provide us an escape from the grief and pain of our world, but grief and pain are isolating things; when you’re drowning in them, you can feel so alone. And you are alone, because there’s one less person you can talk to, one less warm and comforting presence in your life. You are a little more alone than you were before.
And what a story about grief can do is tell you, “you’re not alone. Other people feel this way too. Other people cry and get upset when they lose someone they love, even when that someone is a pet. It’s not silly of you to be upset that it was a dog and not a person – your love is real and valid, and the pain you feel in its absence is real as well.”
A story can give you more than one kind of release; it can give you a world without your pains, but it can also let you process your pain through that most unlikely of lenses, a man who loved being a superhero alongside his magic dog.
And Hank passes, and Andy mourns, and I cry my eyes out, because who can’t relate.
There have been a lot of superheroes, posing as a lot of metaphors, throughout the pages of Astro City. G-Dog was, in the end, the story about how much we love our pets, how being around them makes our lives brighter, and how it hurts – it genuinely, earnestly hurts – when they leave us, as more often than not we outlive them. Hank won’t be coming back next summer in the next universe-erasing crossover. But we’ll always remember him.
Next time: probably the wildest concept for a superhero that Astro City’s come up with yet.
Astro City #48
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Mike Norton
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt