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!
What is the superhero?
It’s a question we endlessly debate; it’s a question at the heart of Astro City itself. What is the superhero? What is the superhero genre? What are its rules? And how can those rules be rewritten – if they can be rewritten? Is it crossovers and the perpetual second act for all eternity, or is there something else? And if so: what else is there?
“What Else Is There” is the question asked by Kurt Busiek in the introduction to the very first trade paperback of Astro City, way back in 1995, collecting its first six issues. The whole introduction is worth a read (as is the trade paperback itself) but I’ve reproduced the most relevant portion here, with a few edits for length.
The complaint, which never fails to charm me, is that superheroes are limited. They’re inherently juvenile, I’m told. They’re simplistic. They’re just an adolescent male power fantasy, a crypto-fascist presentation of status quo values, elevated over anything strange or alien…
… however, what charms me about that objection to the superhero is the way it points out, in the guise of criticism, what to me is the greatest strength of the superhero genre – the ease with which superheroes can be use as metaphor, as symbol, whether for the psychological transformation of adolescence, the self-image of a nation, or something else. A genre that can do something like that – is that really a limitation? I don’t think so.
If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around mid-life crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America’s self-image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America’s self-image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a non-national culture, like drug culture, or the “greed-is-good” business culture of the go-go Eighties? Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others.
What strikes me, all these years later, is how much the superhero as metaphor for something else has basically become the paradigm of criticism and how we look at the genre – at least, in the circles I live in. From metaphors for the War on Terror to fantasies about a nation untouchable by colonialism, from explorations of celebrity culture to metaphors for oppression, the superhero-as-metaphor has bloomed in the decades since those words were penned – and indeed, the notion that there was more to the genre than just its most widely derided shortcomings was there long before Astro City.
Astro City has given us many such uses of the superhero as metaphor: from a metaphor for coming out as transgender to the pain of losing a dog to staring down the frailties of the ageing process. And that brings us, at long last, to this issue, which is about Lu Garneau, a reporter who’s stumbled across a new superheroic phenomenon: activists getting powers and finding purpose at random, whenever they are threatened.
The first of these manifestations that Lu is present for is a group of alien refugees stuck in a political nowhere zone, who are attacked by black-clad Nazis in American flags – and that’s a statement and a half – called “Earthpride”. Several of the people welcoming the refugees manifest as the Resistors, defending those who need help – and in the midst of the melee, Lu gets a psychic impression of her father, a professional protestor and researcher into what he calls “ethichronization,” which as made-up comic science goes, is a new one on me.
He fails to be there for when his wife and Lu’s mother dies, and spends the subsequent years working on a secret project while growing distant from his daughter. Throughout the story, Lu deals with complicated feelings about her father, who was a good man, but a flawed man, who wanted to save everyone but was never able to just be there for them. He could be a superhero, as we conventionally understand it. But he creates one – or the idea of one – instead.
Over the course of the story, the nature of the Resistors is explained – that they arise whenever people are in need of protecting, that they never act with lethal force, that they manifest out of people who describe it as attaining a oneness with something larger than yourself. They are a lot like the Marvel character, Captain Universe, the superhero anyone could become – but instead of battling cosmic threats, the struggles of the Resistors ranges from relevant metaphors for our present struggles (such as governments disregarding Indigenous treaties to research harmful artefacts) to our actual struggles (they manifest at a Black Lives Matter protest).
As Lu finally cracks the case and realises that the Resistors are her father’s legacy, the Resistors become possibly the most unusual answer to the question, “what else is there” – a take on what a superhero could be that feels relevant and timeless and inevitable, a story that had to be told.
There are a lot of consistent criticisms levied at superheroes, moreso now than ever now that they have leapt beyond the often overlooked medium of comics onto television and the movies where they all but took over the world. That they glorify an individual’s actions, feeding into Great Man theory; that they support the status quo; that they’re violent; that they have nothing to say about any real relevant concerns; that they entrap us all in perpetual adolescence. I’ve grappled with each of these concerns, conceding some points and rebuking others. And I look at this story that flies in the face of nearly all of them.
The Resistors could be anybody who stands up and does the right thing; they’re explicitly not an individual, and can manifest multiple times in one place. In this story, they stand up for righteous causes even if that puts them into conflict with the enforcers of the status quo. They’re explicitly pacifistic. They speak to the notion that terrible things do have to be fought against, which is the most relevant 2020 concern you can think of. Now, all of this is rooted in a difficult childhood, so I can’t award the full spread, but Astro City’s told enough stories about superheroism outside of adolescence that it’s a laurel I can let the story rest on.
The genre is what we want it to be. It’s all drawings and words, made with human hands instead of handed down from on high by divine forces. If it were meant to be written in stone, it would actually be written in stone, and my longboxes would somehow weigh even more than they currently do. Everything can be rethought; different approaches can be tried.
The answer to “what else is there” in the superhero genre is the same answer to the question of “what can the world be, besides what it is.” That answer is, “anything that we can imagine.”
This comic is a compelling story, but it’s also a mission statement; a declaration that yes, the genre can do this. Yes, it can be like this. It’s not the best Astro City story, but when it comes to reaffirming that central thesis laid out 25 years ago, it might be the most Astro City story.
Next week: there actually is an agreed-upon best Astro City story, and part one of its sequel kicks off.
Astro City #49
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt
Charlotte Finn has written for several sites, including ComicsAlliance. She’s now writing primarily for her own site. You can find her on Twitter here!