Astro City vs. Planetary: Superhero reconstruction vs. deconstruction

Astro City vs. Planetary: Superhero reconstruction vs. deconstruction

In the summer of 2005, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson’s comic book series Astro City launched a new storyline, “The Dark Age,” promising a run of 16 issues (divided into four 4-issue miniseries) that would cover over a decade in the life of Busiek’s superhero-strewn metropolis, as seen through the eyes of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Earlier this month, “The Dark Age” finally came to an end after five years, with minimal fanfare. For complicated reasons, I’d stopped reading Astro City somewhere in the middle of “The Dark Age: Book Two,” so I wasn’t even aware the story was wrapping up until I saw it listed in a checklist at the back of another Wildstorm comic. I thought I might gear up for the end by re-reading the whole story, but by the time I finished Marc Guggenheim’s introduction to the first trade paperback, I got so excited about Astro City again that I decided to re-read the whole series. 

Then while I was pulling all my Astro City books off the shelf, I remembered that I’d just received the fourth and final volume of the Warren Ellis/John Cassaday series Planetary, which seemed like the perfect excuse to give that comic a full re-read as well. So for about a month (all of April and into May) I had Astro City and Planetary collections stacked up around the house, to read at bedtime, lunchtime… anytime I had a few spare minutes to knock out a chapter. 

It was one of the happiest months of my life.

Reading both series in tandem was also an instructive exercise. The first issue of Astro City was released in 1995; the first Planetary in 1998. Both have been representative of two sometimes-similar/sometimes-divergent trends in comics. Busiek was one of a small group of writers—along with Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Keith Giffen and a few others—who grew up in the Silver Age and made a conscious effort in the ‘90s to move superhero comics out of the grim ‘n’ gritty era and towards brighter stories that drew on the best of the past. Ellis, meanwhile, was a fellow traveler with Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and other writers working to maintain the edge of the grim ‘n’ gritty era while working in elements of postmodernism and the epic storytelling they dubbed “widescreen.” From the outset, Astro City and Planetary were more ambitious than their contemporaries, serving almost as thesis statements about heroic fiction in comic book form: how it works, why it works, and what Busiek and Ellis believe can still be done with the genre.

Planetary is, on the surface, the more challenging book. Ellis tells a winding, century-spanning story about a covert organization of super-powered “archaeologists” digging deeper into freaky events around the world, and how those events relate to an old rivalry with a malevolent mob that resembles Marvel’s Fantastic Four. While advancing the masterplot of Planetary’s war with The Four, Ellis examines the artifacts of old pulp stories—the rusting Superman spaceships, the bones of giant monsters, the ghosts of HK action heroes, et cetera—with Cassaday’s detailed, page-filling art evoking the necessary awe. 

Planetary eventually develops into one of those mind-bending hard-science-y comic books that British writers like Ellis and Morrison do so well, where parallel universes and reality-threatening fictional constructs are more of a looming threat than a gun or a fist. But I find that I come back to Planetary more for the evocations of old comics than for the sophisticated sci-fi. When Ellis explicates the post-Alan Moore mindset in the poignant story “To Be In England, In The Summertime,” or Cassaday draws his version of Thor’s hammer, those little moments generate a spark of sentiment, and drive home one of Planetary’s main themes: that once upon a time, writers and artists crafted amazing visions of how the world could be, and too many of the people who followed in their footsteps either misused what they left behind, or just let it fall into dusty disrepair.

Astro City serves as an unintentional counter to Planetary, in that Busiek and Anderson do put the ideas from old comics to good use. Like Planetary, Astro City uses the plots and characters from DC and Marvel’s respective heydays (with the names changed, of course) as set dressing for new stories that are primarily about those old comics and what they mean. The difference is that Busiek is simultaneously trying to write stories that stand up to and even improve on the classics of the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages. There’s a higher degree of difficulty on Busiek’s part, as he’s writing a comic that’s not so challenging for the audience, but is complicated for the author.

Busiek has said that when he writes an Astro City story, he thinks both about how to make it entertaining and how to get across why he’s telling it in the first place. Often the themes are blatant; sometimes they’re more subtle. Either way, Busiek’s used Astro City as a vehicle to comment on nostalgia, superstition, vanity, fatherhood, pride, maturation, alienation, redemption, and whatever else he’s found buried in the subtext of old comics. Frequently Astro City’s greatest subject is how comics themselves have evolved with and reflected their times, and with “The Dark Age,” Busiek and Anderson have riffed on the grim, “relevant” ‘70s and ‘80s comics as a way of exploring one of the fundamental contradictions of the superhero genre: that the more its creators try to introduce elements of realism, the more they leech away the essence of what makes superhero stories work.

Two-thirds of the way through, I was ready to make the case that “The Dark Age” was Busiek’s best work yet, and in the same league as Watchmen in terms of the way it pulls superheroes apart in order to understand and explain them better. In fact, I was willing to argue that “The Dark Age” was superior to Watchmen in ways related—perversely, I guess—to its conventionality. Watchmen applies the techniques of great literature to superheroes, while Astro City applies the techniques of great comics. “The Dark Age” recreates the feeling of being 10 years old in the mid-‘70s and reading a particularly good run of X-Men or Detective Comics, yet with a story that’s been more artfully shaped, away from the “What do you got for us this month?” demands of comics-on-deadline. (In that way, it’s more like what Mark Gruenwald’s pre-Watchman revisionist superhero epic Squadron Supreme wanted to be.)

But I don’t think Busiek and Anderson nail the ending. “The Dark Age” predates Astro City, in that its basic premise was originally intended to be Busiek’s sequel to Marvels, the mini-series where he first introduced his “musings of an everyman” approach to superheroes. When the Marvel version fizzled, Busiek brought the story with him to his creator-owned Astro City, but decided he needed to build up the universe of KBAC before he attempted a story so grand, set in that universe. As a result, Busiek’s been sowing the seeds of “The Dark Age” in Astro City from the very beginning of the series, dropping hints about a terrible fate for the Captain America-like hero The Silver Agent, and teasing his readers with what promised to be a tale for the ages. And as often happens with stories that have been gestating for a long time in the minds of artists and their fans, the outcome doesn’t quite match the anticipation. “The Dark Age” is a stunningly imaginative piece of work, weaving together the disparate strands of ‘70s and ‘80s superhero comics: the cosmic, the mystical, the street-savvy, the disillusioned, the countercultural, the conspiratorial, and even the puckish. But the core of the story is about two brothers becoming what they loathe—callous, destructive men on a single-minded mission—and Busiek oversells that story with blunt ironies and pat revelations. 

The real problem with “The Dark Age” is that Busiek has become a much better writer in the 15 years since he first conceived it. Even over the past five years, Astro City has set aside “The Dark Age” storyline periodically for short little character stories that have been some of the best issues of the comic to date: a one-off in which the Superman-like hero The Samaritan has his soul-searching annual dinner with his arch-nemesis; a one-off exploring the pathetic preoccupations of an android; and a two-parter about an all-powerful teenage girl weighing her options after graduation. These issues are structurally sophisticated and finely shaded, digging into complex emotions and motivations. “The Dark Age” hits those kinds of highs sporadically, but it’s ultimately more straightforward in its approach and intent.

That said, it’s disappointing that such a long-running and significant storyline in one of the most consistently excellent contemporary comic book series didn’t draw more notice when it ended last month. Perhaps “The Dark Age” ran too long. Or perhaps people who write about comics have begun taking for granted how good Astro City is. Re-reading the whole run of the series, I was surprised by how consistently moving the book can ve. Even stories I’ve read multiple times—like the novel-length noir homage “The Tarnished Angel,” or the alternately scathing and compassionate Lois Lane critique “Shining Armor”—were more  poignant than I’d remembered, such that I’d find even the little “You Are Now Leaving Astro City” sign on the stories’ final panels sort of heartbreaking.

I like Planetary a lot. I think it’s some of Warren Ellis’ and John Cassaday’s best work, and when I read it, I definitely feel their affection for the characters and concepts they’re subjecting to deeper scrutiny. But Planetary feels more like a memorial—a eulogy. Planetary exhumes old bones, while Astro City leads its readers through a living, thriving community, populated by improved versions of what came before. Planetary makes me sad for what might’ve been; Astro City makes me appreciate what is.

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