In an age when most independent comics creators are trying to distance themselves from the medium's supermen-in-Spandex roots, writer Kurt Busiek is one of the superhero genre's most fervent champions. For the past two decades, Busiek has scripted company-owned stock characters such as Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Vampirella, but his ability to breathe new life into those characters with unique series like 1993's Marvels (which revisited the highlights of Marvel Comics history from the viewpoint of an ordinary man in the street) has made him a fan favorite. Busiek still regularly writes for Marvel, and last year he and a collective of writers and artists founded Gorilla Comics, which has published several of his independent works. But his most widely lauded series is the creator-owned Astro City, an unrepentantly adventure-oriented superhero comic that functions as an astute exploration of superhero-comic tropes. Busiek recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about superhero deconstruction, reconstruction, metaphors, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.
The Onion: In the introduction to the first Astro City collection, you write about superheroes' mythic and metaphoric versatility, their ability to represent anything. But why devote yourself specifically to superheroes, as opposed to any other form of metaphor?
Kurt Busiek: Probably because that's where I started. I wanted to be a writer, but the idea of writing novels or movies seemed really intimidating. I never got more than a few pages into one. When I realized that people actually wrote comics, that it was a job people could do, I thought, "Gee, these things are only 17 pages long! I could probably finish one of those and find out whether I suck before I've spent five years of my life on it." In stumbling into comics that way, I discovered that I loved the form. I loved the visual aspect of it, and superheroes are a very visual metaphor. Certainly you can find that kind of metaphor in a Western, or in a romance, or in science fiction. My argument for it in superheroes isn't so much an answer to the question, "Why superheroes?" It's positing the question, "Why not superheroes? Why should superheroes be limited to commercial formulas?"
O: Most of the recent comics pioneers would probably answer that the genre is inherently limited because of its focus on adolescent power fantasies. You're one of the few creators to reconstruct pulp characters instead of deconstructing and modernizing them.
KB: Well, as I mentioned in that introduction, I think the purpose of deconstruction is to take something apart and see how it works. If you're not going to put it back together again and watch it go, what's the point? Superhero creators who engage in deconstruction fall into two categories: There are the guys who do it because it's easy, because it gets an audience reaction if you point out that superheroes must be a bunch of psychotic nuts. And there are the guys who do it because they're actually interested, and they're trying to get at what's going on underneath. They're interested in the process and the results. I was interested in deconstruction as a spectator, in watching them do it. But I've always been positive about superheroes. I like superheroes. I like the drama of it, the stirring, larger-than-life aspect. So people like me and Mark Waid and Karl Kesel, we sort of went straight into reconstruction without doing the deconstruction in the first place. Somebody else had already done that for us, and we were looking for what we could do next.
O: Having seen the deconstruction process, what would you say are the essential elements of a superhero?
KB: At one point, I worked up a list of five requirements for a superhero: superpowers, a costume, a code name, a mission, and a milieu. If the character had three out of the five, they were a superhero. But that's just my definition. There are a lot of discussions where people will decide that James Bond is a superhero, because he's a larger-than-life hero who beats the bad guys by doing larger-than-life things. And I don't think that's a useful definition. I think James Bond is a spy. He's not superhuman. Calling him a superhero is like calling James Bond movies "comic-book movies." What they mean by "comic-book movies" is that they're big and they're larger than life and they're loud and they're action-filled and they're dumb. Which comic books aren't necessarily, but it's an easy shorthand for them to say it. And "superhero" is a term that's been borrowed in order to say "big and larger than life and loud and active and dumb." And I don't think that's a useful definition. That's more a dismissal.
O: Being superhuman isn't necessarily critical. Part of the deconstruction movement involved taking characters who were traditionally better-than-average humans and exposing the ways in which they were worse than humans.
KB: They seemed to find character flaws. They certainly didn't make Batman physically inferior, although again, Batman has no superpowers. Of the characters in Watchmen, only one is superhuman. The others are all costumed adventurers, and Alan [Moore] explored human failings among them. But every single one could still kick my ass up and down the street. They were certainly physically superior to me.
O: Even Nite Owl?
KB: [Laughs.] Ah, you haven't met me. But I think that the superhero-as-metaphor involves a superhero being some sort of intellectual, emotional, or other such concept writ large. But I don't know that it's a necessary part of the appeal that the superhero be superior. The superhero-as-adolescent metaphor, the one we're familiar with because it's brought up all the time, that does depend on the superhero being powerful, because that's a power fantasy for people who feel powerless. I think the Hulk has always appealed very strongly to much younger readers than Spider-Man, because Spider-Man is an adolescent character, and the Hulk is a very childlike character. The Hulk is rage personified, just, "I don't like something. Break it." And that's a great concept for a seven- or eight-year-old.
O: Do your characters in Astro City serve as adult metaphors?
KB: I'm not building each one character around one metaphor, so much as trying to build a heroic archetype that can be used to express the kind of metaphors that I find in each story. I look for the metaphors that arise in the Astro City stories so I'm aware of them as I'm writing the stories. But the metaphors exist for the stories. The characters are, by their nature, archetypes that can serve different metaphors. If there's ever a character who can only serve one metaphor, I'll probably tell one story with that character and be done with it. The metaphor is the story, not the character.
O: All of your most critically acclaimed projects are based around exploring the limits of superhero archetypes or expectations. Is it possible that superheroes appeal to you because they have such well-defined archetypes to begin with?
KB: Huh. Could be. I seem to like playing with form, and the superhero genre has an awful lot of formula to it. It has a lot of formula to it that I don't think it should be limited to. So it's fun to take a piece of formula and go someplace else with it and see what happens.
O: Do you have a preference between creating original characters and working with familiar characters with established histories?
KB: No, I guess I have a preference for doing both. I think I'm probably at my best when I'm challenged to take something and do something with it, which may be why Astro City plays around with genre conventions so much. "What can I do differently with this hoary old chestnut?" In that case, I'm building the challenges for myself. But wherever the challenge comes from, it's finding the way to meet it that's the real fun in writing this stuff.
O: Which superhero would you most like to be?
KB: I don't want to be any of them. I like being me. If I won the lottery tomorrow—which would be a real trick, since I haven't entered—and was independently wealthy for the rest of my life, I'd write comic books, because it's what I like doing. So which superhero writes comic books? [Laughs.] That particular aspect of superhero wish-fulfillment, that's one I've never really clicked into. I could name you a dozen superheroes whose powers I'd like to have. But if I could have any power in the world, it would be the power to read or watch a creative work and absorb the technical skill of the people who made it. Because then I could have even more fun writing. That's my core identity. I'm a writer. I just love telling stories.