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!
We don’t just live in the age of the pop culture revival. We live in an era where the superhero is more ascendant than ever.
The general consensus until mid-2019 was “this bubble will burst any second,” but now it seems that we’ve collectively accepted that – the occasional year off due to once-in-a-century pandemics aside – the superhero genre has leapt beyond comics and is going to be a part of our cultural landscape from now on. We don’t live in a world where superheroes are actually fighting in our streets, but they are never far from view. And, well: we’ve just gotten used to it. Pop culture is like this now. Even my mother knew who Rocket Raccoon was before her passing and even my sister has opinions on who the best actor to play Spider-Man is.
Contrast this with the environment that Astro City came out of – the late 1990s, where the future of comics and the future of the superhero genre was anyone’s guess. Having lived through the bubble’s pop, the alarmism was justified; no one knew what the future would bring, if there even was one. Two decades and change later and the superhero is culturally ubiquitous – and so are comics, thanks to manga, original graphic novels and the web – in fact, the only comics not doing super hot right now are direct market superhero comics.
So naturally, I’m writing about one! Charlotte “Widest Possible Audience” Finn, that’s my name.
There’s been a lot of physical and digital ink spilled on how people would adapt to a world where the superhero was real, and if there is any story that is Astro City’s stock-in-trade, it would be that one. There are countless answers, but the one that keeps coming up is: we do what we’ve done in the real world. We’d go on.
We’d live with it and it’d be part of our lives. Maybe we’ll talk about what if life didn’t have them around, but by and large, we have accepted that they’re not going anywhere and we’d ask what that means, and how we’re going to respond to that reality.
In other words, we have collectively accepted the premise of Astro City – that the genre is legitimate. Or at least, that it’s not going away. And so we ask: if it’s going to stick around, then maybe it should be explored. Maybe we should all ask, “what else is there?”
This revival’s final answer to “what else is there?” gives us Michael in his role as one step below a first responder; a designated helper, making sure that the people caught up in calamity are safe and looked after. But he’s still haunted by Rose’s words, because that’s how trauma works – it doesn’t just come for your darkest moments. It comes for all of them, whenever it pleases.
Michael thinks back over his life, asking where it all went – familiar territory to anyone who’s old enough, or has dealt with circumstances so traumatic that your sense of time is altered. He’s wondering where it all went. And then, he meets the Hanged Man once more – and once more, the offer of easy relief is made. Michael is tempted, but for now, heads back to Miranda’s Friends, to tell them all as best as he can, what he’s gone through and how he wound up where he was.
And he’s asked: why choose to remember?
Way back in Astro City ½, the Hanged Man offered Michael a choice to forget, and then, when Michael said he didn’t want to, he asked if anyone chose to forget. The Hanged Man’s response was that no one ever chose to forget. The other side of that coin is that a trauma is something you can’t choose to forget; something that comes back to haunt you. Not just in your darkest moments, but all your moments.
Of all the mental health ailments out there, trauma might be the one most closely intertwined with superheroics – with a lot of heroic fiction, really. I think of the generational trauma of the severed heritage of Superman, or the shock at the pointless cruelty of murder of Batman, or the guilt over personal failings of Spider-Man. Or, in this comic, the traumas of discovering you’re trans, or of losing a dog, or of having the veil of propaganda lifted from your eyes, or the heartache of a badly injured loved one. (There are, of course, many such people in Astro City and our world who are good and heroic without personal trauma; I’m speaking about those that are motivated by it to a degree.)
For them, and for Michael, there is that element of tragedy, of a life you could have had but didn’t, and a little wistful wondering of what might have been. And often the hero asks what Michael winds up asking: would I be a good person, if I hadn’t gone through all this?
It’s an unanswerable question, because it is essentially asking us why we suffer, or where goodness comes from. But I think that in Michael’s case, the answer is less important than the question: am I happy enough with who I am, that I wouldn’t want to give it up? And that’s the heart of this story, because in the end, they all chose the memories of the ones they love, even if they come with such heartache.
Michael asks: what else is there? And he has concluded: there is something else, but it’s not my tale (and thanks to the format of the comic, it doesn’t need to be his story.) And Michael, and the rest of his support group, make the choice we all make every day, the most relatable choice of all.
They go on.
But now, it’s time for this column to conclude. There will be other Astro City stories, past and present, but this’ll be the last I write about them for a little while yet. It’s a wonderful place, though. I won’t be away for long. At the very least, I want to see where this is going.
This has been “A Year in the Big City.” Longer than a year – I had traumas of my own – but let’s use the sliding timeline trick, just this once, and pretend it was a year. Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.
Astro City #52
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Brent Anderson
Coloured by Pete Pantazis
Lettered by John G. Roshell