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Kurt Busiek’s superhero masterwork continues with Astro City #1

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Astro City #1. Written by Kurt Busiek (Marvels, Superman: Secret Identity) and drawn by Brent Anderson (Phantom Stranger, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills), it’s the much-anticipated return of one of the great works of modern superhero comics. 

Unlike most superhero comics, Astro City is named after a location instead of a specific person or group. Devoting equal time to both the heroes in the sky and the civilians in the street, Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross’ long-running series is primarily concerned with creating an immersive environment and history that transports the reader to another world. Each issue ends with a road sign that reads, “You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully,” emphasizing the idea that opening an issue of Astro City means taking a brief but exhilarating voyage to a metropolis that is inviting and familiar, but also incredibly fantastic. The “please drive carefully” is especially notable, ending each issue with a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the compassionate yet cheeky tone of the title. Please be careful when you leave Astro City, or you won’t be able to make it back for another visit. 

Created in 1995 for Image Comics, Astro City hasn’t lost any steam in almost 20 years of publication, with each new story revealing a different aspect of the book’s expansive universe. When asked to explain the concept of Astro City on Formspring,  Busiek replied, “It’s about what it’s like to live in a world of superheroes, villains, mad scientists, monsters, innocent bystanders, and more, from a variety of perspectives. Or possibly: It’s about being human among the superhuman.” His first answer shows the massive scope of the title, while his second shows how deeply personal and intimate the stories are. The very first issue of Astro City showed the human within the superhuman, examining a day in the life of Superman archetype The Samaritan, and the stress of not being able to waste a second because it could cost lives. 

Over the course of three volumes of the main Astro City title and multiple miniseries and one-shots, the focus has bounced back and forth between the heroes and civilians, but that application of relatable drama in spectacular circumstances has kept it one of the most nuanced superhero books on the stands. Add in Busiek’s commentary on the superhero-comics industry and some spectacular art and the result is one of the masterpieces of the medium, showing the vast potential of superhero stories that is far beyond groups of brightly costumed figures smacking each other around. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time between visits to Astro City. The last miniseries, The Dark Age, concluded in 2010, and the collapse of DC imprint Wildstorm and Busiek’s health problems led to a three-year hiatus. The Dark Age also took place 30 years in the city’s past, so it’s been even longer since readers have seen what is happening in the present-day Astro City. 

After so long away, it’s wonderful to see a new Astro City #1, now an ongoing series at Vertigo. DC’s mature readers imprint has fallen on dark times following the exit of former executive editor Karen Berger, but the summer looks to be a time of rejuvenation for Vertigo, ignited by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s horror miniseries The Wake and the triumphant return of Astro City. Busiek began writing new issues of the series back when The Dark Age ended so it’s unclear if he knew the transition to Vertigo would be happening, but the prevalence of a new character, The Broken Man, suggests that he had a good idea where the book was headed. 

With a design that combines elements of The Sandman’s Morpheus, Hellblazer’s John Constantine, Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, and Shade The Changing Man, The Broken Man is a psychedelic figure who serves as the narrator for this new #1. Levitating cross-legged in a web of strings connecting various newspaper clippings, the green-haired, purple-skinned Broken Man is the type of mentally unstable, strikingly designed character that dominated early Vertigo comics. Taking a cue from Grant Morrison’s work for the imprint, Busiek uses The Broken Man to give this new Astro City #1 a very meta start. He acknowledges that there are people on the other side of the page and directly addresses the readers, making them active players in the story that can operate without being detected by threats within the comic. The reader is expected to be The Broken Man’s eyes and ears as the narrative moves to places he can’t reach, and it’s a clever way for Busiek to give this first issue a different feel from previous Astro City debuts.

Every first issue of an Astro City series is accessible to new readers, and while long-time fans will have more appreciation for in-jokes and callbacks in the new #1, Busiek makes sure his story isn’t too insular. He does this by introducing new characters in the form of The Broken Man and American Chibi, an adorable young superheroine with giant eyes and a head that is far too large for her body. She’s a new face in town, and Busiek uses her to provide a quick glimpse of the modern Astro City before moving to a character from the book’s past. Ben Pullam first appeared in Astro City Vol. 2 #1, a transplant from the East Coast who moved to Astro City with his two daughters after his divorce. Years later, Ben’s daughters Maggie and Faith (a Love And Rockets shout-out, perhaps?) are grown adults, and Ben is approaching retirement, but the arrival of an ornate, miles-high doorway above the city is about to take Ben on the greatest adventure of his life. 

Astro City may be published under DC’s mature readers imprint, but nothing about this first issue is inappropriate for children, and it’s actually more kid-friendly than a large percentage of DC’s New 52 titles. After the bleak subject matter of The Dark Age, this new #1 works hard to bring a sense of fun and wonder back to the title. Busiek’s sense of humor isn’t afraid to poke fun at superhero comics; American Chibi is a tongue-in-cheek response to the growing manga influence on superheroes in the ’00s, and there’s a great moment when interstellar ambassador Telseth emerges from the giant doorway and addresses the city’s heroes, speaking in huge bubble letters before taking a moment to adjust the volume on his communicator. It’s like Galactus turning off his iPod before announcing his intent to eat the planet, although Telseth appears to have better intentions for visiting the Earth. That little moment of comedy helps make the ominous presence immediately more friendly, which could very well be Telseth’s plan to get Astro City’s heroes to let their guard down.

Busiek has found the ideal artistic collaborators in Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, who are equally adept at capturing the gritty reality of urban life and the dazzling splendor of the city’s heroes and villains. Cover artist and character designer Ross has a photorealistic style that combines iconic imagery with a sense of practicality to balance form and function beautifully in his designs. His covers have the detail of a Norman Rockwell painting and the energy of a Jack Kirby splash page, immediately establishing the tone of the interior contents with a single dramatic image. The use of negative space on the cover of this new #1 highlights the bright, exciting world on the other side of those celestial doors, and Astro City truly is a beacon of light in an industry that loves the darkness. 

The world of Astro City wouldn’t feel as real without Brent Anderson’s artwork, which incorporates a slew of classic superhero artist influences, from Neal Adams to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but remains grounded in a world that is recognizable and not overly exaggerated. There’s plenty of embellishment during the superhero action, but he understands when to rein in his layouts and linework and focus on capturing the subtler characters moments. The relationship between Ross and Anderson’s work is like the relationship between a movie poster and the finished film: The poster captures the spirit of the film in one grand evocative image that grabs attention, but the actual movie is where that spirit truly blossoms. 

This new Astro City lands on the same week DC announces its newest month-long gimmick, celebrating the two-year anniversary of the New 52 with Villains’ Month. Last year’s #0 issues interrupted the flow of many comics, but it’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling strategy DC has planned for Villains’ Month. Rather than having each title simply spotlight one its major bad guys and keep the same numbering, DC is releasing multiple issues of high-selling titles like Batman, Action Comics, Justice League, and Green Lantern, and numbering them #23.1, #23.2, etc. Some of these books have creative teams that are working on other titles, and some appear to be completely random. 

The problem with those random creative teams is that DC has recently proven that the names they announce and the people that are actually working on the finished product are often incongruous. That’s a huge gamble for retailers when each book comes with a 3-D lenticular cover that jumps the price up to $3.99. (The variant covers are what really push this event from frivolous to ludicrous.) Astro City is a book that has never had to rely on gimmicks to create interest, and DC could take a few lessons from Busiek and company. DC needs to build a strong core universe before shaking things up, and these types of editorially mandated events stifle that growth. Luckily, there are 10 issues of Astro City already in the can to satisfy the superhero needs of any disgruntled readers.