Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Astro City #13. Written by Kurt Busiek (Marvels, Superman: Secret Identity) with art by Brent Anderson (Phantom Stranger, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills) and Alex Sinclair (Batman, Superman Unchained), this experimental issue shows why Astro City is essential reading. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
When it comes to creator-owned superhero comics, Astro City is king. Over the course of nearly 20 years, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson have created a rich mythology around their titular metropolis, paying tribute to the work of superhero comic pioneers by showing how these extraordinary characters impact regular people. Primarily sticking to short self-contained stories, Busiek has made Astro City one of the best-developed settings in comics by showing all its different sides, and Anderson’s detailed linework grounds events in reality, while his layouts and Alex Ross’ character designs provide the grandeur associated with the superhero genre.
Anderson and Ross juggle the mundane and fantastic in a way that makes them Busiek’s ideal collaborators, and that juggling act is a big reason why Astro City #13 makes such a huge impression. Detailing 24 hours in Astro City with each page spotlighting one hour, the issue pushes the fantasy into psychedelic, reality-bending territory while keeping the plot rooted in relatable personal relationships, and it’s all out of chronological order. It’s a lot to absorb in one 24-page comic, but Busiek structures the story to build suspense and mystery while doling out just enough information to give the reader solid footing in the whirlwind plot.
Centered on the arrival of Dancing Master, an extra-dimensional being that represents free love and unbridled merriment, Astro City #13 is an ingenious take on a romance comic that looks at the Dancing Master’s impact on the lives of two men: Zvi, an overworked engineer, and Gundog, a disenchanted costumed criminal. There’s plenty of superhero spectacle in this issue, but in the end it’s about the relationships these two men have with their lovers. Zvi and his partner have conflicting schedules that are pulling them apart, and Dancing Master helps Zvi see that his work isn’t as important as maintaining a strong bond with his boyfriend. Gundog doesn’t find any more pleasure in a life of robbing banks in black leather, and Dancing Master helps him find a woman that could lead him to a happier future.
Busiek rotates through these different threads and checks in on each at a different point in the timeline, making for a slightly disorienting experience that mimics the confusion of Astro City’s unsuspecting citizens. The issue begins at 8 a.m. with the silhouette of Dancing Master floating above the sidewalks full of people on their way to work, a silent sequence that starts with frustrated commuters and tired pedestrians but ends with happy people square-dancing in the streets. Busiek begins by asking questions: Who is that silhouette? Why is everyone dancing?
Before giving any answers, the story jumps three hours later to a page of action showing Gundog fighting Jack-In-The-Box, speeding up the pacing after that atmospheric opening and using narration to delve into the existential ennui that motivates the bank robber. The next page leaps back eight hours for a meticulously illustrated splash page showing Dancing Master enter this dimension, a beautiful image paired with prose narration that breaks down the character’s past and purpose. Each jump in time introduces a new piece of the puzzle, and as the issue moves toward its finale, the whole picture comes into focus. The first half primarily deals with the morning hours while the second half is mostly evening, which helps create a sense of beginning and end for a story that jumps all around the timeline, but the chronological tinkering fills the issue with surprises even though it details a fairly conventional narrative.
Rearranging the pages of #13 in chronological order reveals a story that follows a much more traditional narrative path: An unnamed scientist (Zvi’s partner) falls asleep while monitoring a device that is trying to break through “dimensional pinholes,” and the machine, combined with the scientist’s overwhelming desire for love, allows Dancing Master to return to Earth after years away. As Dancing Master unleashes his “romantic plague” on Astro City, Zvi tries to fix the transmission of signals to a robot Rover that’s orbiting Jupiter and Gundog is robbing banks; Dancing Master’s influence eventually reaches them both, and they live happy lives full of love with their partners.
Both versions of the story end at midnight with the Rover on Io, yearning for the music it heard when Dancing Master visited the Earth. It’s a bittersweet example of the huge range of these characters’ influence, looking at how the romantic plague impacts the affections of a robot that’s exposed to it via a transmission originating planets away. It may sound absurd, but it’s all part of this issue’s overarching theme on the importance of love.
That alone sets Astro City apart from the majority of superhero titles today. This title may be published as part of DC’s mature readers imprint, but it tells stories that aren’t just appropriate for younger readers, they’re essential. Busiek’s scripts regularly explore the importance of moral values, personal responsibility, and understanding the consequences of actions, and Brent Anderson’s artwork depicts a familiar world full of diverse characters that readers will recognize from their own lives.
Astro City had its very first fill-in artist when Graham Nolan joined the team for last month’s #12, and Anderson’s outstanding work this week shows why. This is some of the best material Anderson has ever put on the page, embracing different art styles to give Dancing Master an unforgettable introduction. Alex Ross’ vibrant cover teases the variety of styles within, painting a photorealistic Jack-In-The-Box and Gundog against a highly stylized Dancing Master background influenced by the work of psychedelic artists like Peter Max.
Anderson does psychedelic in this issue, but he shows off his massive skill by providing a spectrum of different visual interpretations for Dancing Master, ranging from pre-Raphaelite to Cubist. These style shifts give Alex Sinclair the opportunity to switch up his coloring technique, and he makes adjustments to accentuate Anderson’s varied linework. For an Art Deco-inspired shot of Dancing Master hovering above Astro City, Sinclair uses dull shades that call attention to the balance of light and dark in Anderson’s inks, then outlines the streets and skyline with bright streams of color to spice up the final image.
Sinclair’s work on this series has primarily aimed for realism, but this issue reveals that a more stylized approach may be a better fit for Anderson’s art, which provides plenty of dimension and detail in the linework. And his layouts are just as remarkable as his rendering. This issue is titled “Waltz Of The Hours,” so it’s fitting that one of the most clever moments in the issue is a dance sequence. At noon, Dancing Master’s power is in full force, and the wave of affection overtaking the city is captured in twelve panels that border the page; the layout mimics a waltz step, moving in a different direction after every three panels.
Since returning as a Vertigo ongoing series last year, Astro City has been better than ever, consistently delivering captivating stories about everyday life in an extraordinary city. Busiek and Anderson are always finding surprising angles to approach the standard superhero story, and this week’s #13 is another rousing success for one of the most reliable creative teams in comics. Astro City is king of creator-owned comics, and its reign doesn’t look to be ending any time soon.