Astro City: Life in the Big City

(Includes issues 1-6 of Astro City Volume 1, published by Image in 1995)

In Dreams: A day in the life of the world’s premier super hero.

 

The Scoop: A newspaper editor reminisces about what could have been his first big story.

 

A Little Knowledge: A smalltime crook’s world is turned upside down when he discovers a super hero’s secret.

 

Safeguards: A woman must decide whether or not to leave behind her magical neighbourhood for the modern life of downtown Astro City.

 

Reconnaissance: An alien gets a feel for humanity while watching and evaluating the world’s super heroes.

 

Dinner at Eight: The world’s most famous hero and heroine take a night off to go on a date.

******

I don’t know if everyone’s going to want to look at each issue individually or address the trade as a whole, but here are some general questions I thought might be interesting to think about.

 

1. Which story did you enjoy most?

 

2. Is there anything gained (or lost) by reading the stories as part of a trade instead of in their original format?

 

3. Do you feel any of the stories would have worked better if Busiek had the “real” characters to play with?  Would any have been improved with more original characters?

 

4. Which characters are analogous to which other characters?

 

5. How much of the familiar elements in the stories are homage vs. world building?

 

6. In what way(s) is the world building done?

 

7. How many other characters are referenced in the background?  Of these references, how many stories will we actually see?

 

8. Could the Marvel and/or DC universes ever integrate this well?

 

9. Is Astro City a trend leader?  Is “reconstruction” an actual trend?

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Figserello said:

The whole story is about how Samaritan has given up so much to alleviate his guilt over his part in the disappearance of his family and friends from the future.

I finally made the time to re-read "In Dreams" and "Dinner at Eight". Samaritan implies nothing about guilt over the change to the future creating a "they-were-never-born" situation. He expected this would happen and his actions saved the future human race. What is said is that the disaster he averted* would have ended the human race so he is concerned that some other disaster or individual death could also cause future destruction. He wants to "keep things as safe as I can." Winged Victory is the one who says he destroyed his world and is trying to make up for it.

*Which happened in our world, so I guess we're toast.

Wracked. With. Guilt.

In terms of "wimpy," unless it's used to refer to J. Wellington Wimpy, I don't use that word. I had an abusive P.E. teacher in high school--who said things to me when there were no witnesses, for which he ought to have been fired--so that term brings up all kinds of traumatic memories.

Yes, Percy Blakeney puts on a mask of submissive timidity, but when you read how he suffers for this disguise (without giving away spoilers), then I think it makes the strongest case for what a writer can do with the double identity.

It's been some years since I dipped into that book, but I remember being bowled over by some of the scenes that Orczy describes. This is the advantage of a prose novel. There are nuances of character that a writer can elucidate through prose that comic books too often miss for being external rather than internal narratives.

Figserello said:

The whole story is about how Samaritan has given up so much to alleviate his guilt over his part in the disappearance of his family and friends from the future.  He’s guilt-wracked and damaged, whereas Superman is a more rounded and relaxed and easier to warm to, because he allows himself time for friends and family.  Samaritan probably spends more time actually helping people and probably helps more people than Superman, but it’s at the cost of his humanity.  I don’t blame Superman at all for allowing himself time to have a life.

While I think there's a compelling case for guilt being Samaritan's prime motivator, I don't think it's the only option.  He comes from a very collective society that is marshaling all its resources into him.  He basically gave up his life years prior to being sent back.  His society might have shaped him into a truly self sacrificing individual.  

Basically, Samaritan could be the communist sucker, bowing down to societal needs due to his greater abilities.  In comparison, Superman would be the true objectivist, using his powers only on his own inclination while building his brand.  Ayn Rand's champion... Superman! :)  

While it doesn't really work for Superman, one could follow this train of thought for Samaritan, after all, he did change his behaviour to attend dinners with lesser people so that he wouldn't be seen to be standing above them.  On a slightly higher scale, he feels the need to fight petty crooks with Honor Guard, again, so he won't stand above them.  Samaritan constantly puts the needs of others before himself.  

So, while crushing guilt is one option, I think societal shaping is another.  I even see a third option where he keeps himself so busy because his life is empty, which leads of course to, his life is empty because he keeps himself so busy, a self-fulfilling loop.  A few possibilities for his motivation. 

The world building references I came across for In Dreams included:

a newspaper headline - Jack-In-The-Box captures Brass Monkey (I think this happens off panel)

Famous "Firsts" article - Harold Jordan Memorial High School (more of an Easter Egg, but not of creators)

Honor Guard meeting:

- gnomes massing in the mountains (this off panel adventure builds over a few issues)

- the Deacon's up to something (I'm not sure this references anything specific but he does come up in later trades)

- alien detector's been malfunctioning since the Zonn attacks (this is important for Reconnaissance and later the Confessor storyline)

Samaritan mentally complains about the Tourist - (I don't think this'll affect anything specific)

"Our Brightest Stars" headshots - among the headshots of the women Samaritan "doesn't have time for" is Winged Victory    

microspore buildup in "the closet" - (I don't remember this coming up again, does anyone else?)

The text doesn't say directly that he's wracked with guilt, but that's where the clues led me.  Also it's more dramatic than that he's decided to do as much as possible to help people, or was conditioned to do so.

But there's room for other interpretations, I'll grant you.

The Autobiographical Reading...

Speaking of interpretations, there's a bit of scope for seeing some autobiography in these stories.  Busiek is one of the few writers I follow on Facebook, and whereas he's obviously found a career doing something he loves, he sometimes talks about deadlines and the steady head-down graft that his work involves.

I think 'In Dreams' speaks to this aspect of Busiek's life.  Busiek has a job many of us would envy. It involves continuing to live in a field of imagination and fantasy long after we are supposed to leave these things aside and become adults, yet like Samaritan, Busiek finds himself harassed by shortage of time and the responsibilities on his shoulders.  The 'twist' in this story is quite powerful - that someone who seems to be living the most enviable life is actually weighed down by it.  I'd posit that there's something heartfelt and personal in this portrayal of Samaritan.

Likewise, I think there is a commentary on Busiek's profession buried in 'The Scoop'.

On one level it's a fun superhero story with one outlandish, preposterous thing after another happening, and a great world-threatening evil being vanquished.  Par for the course, really.  It even has the little twist at the end where the heroes travails seem to have been all for nothing.

On a deeper level, it's a very sober look at one of the cornerstones of any working representative democracy, ie the Fourth Estate, ie Journalism.  We see that the young journalist slowly learns that you can't print just anything, and just have it stand on your say-so.  Rather each and every statement you make has to be backed up by some authority or other, hopefully several at the one time.  So that what initially looks like the scoop of the year is whittled down to a rather inconsequential little story buried on an inside page.

Busiek is making a very serious point with 'The Scoop', about how journalism works, and what it can do (and can't do).  Having read this story again, after watching the final season of The Wire, where some of those responsible for getting the news to the masses let their standards slip, I have a better understanding of what Busiek is using the story to say.

He's using a superhero story to make a very sober, responsible and worthwhile point.  I've been reading his new Astro- City series and have found that there, he's also presenting us with very level-headed, responsible, self-effacing grown-up characters.  I'd presumed this was Busiek's years and maturity coming through, but having reread this first collection, I have to say that Busiek has been making those qualities central to his work for a very long time.  One of the reasons he's a keeper!

But there is possibly a third, deeper autobiographical level to 'The Scoop'.  I think the exchanges between the young reporter and the wise old editor have parallels with lessons Busiek learned from his better editors as a young man.  The story he presents us with here, of sharks on the underground, sharkmen stooges, ancient priesthoods and dark rites, and a great team-up of unlikely superheroes, is just the sort of far-fetched thing a young writer would want to do. 

It seems to be a great story at first, but I think the best old editors told the young turks to reign these things in.  To find the point of the story - its lesson or moral purpose, or the human angle  - and work towards that, even if it means cutting out a lot of stuff that you want to put in there.  Astro City itself shows that Busiek has learned this lesson somewhere, and I think The Scoop is nodding towards where...

It's more of a stretch, but there might be a little personal writerly stuff in the remaining stories. In Reconnasaince, Busiek gets to study and survey his heroes and their world and judge it, whereas in 'A Little Knowledge' one of those heroes being observed gets to look back at the writer and instills a heck of a lot of self-doubt in someone given to flights of vainglorious fancy.  (Astro City was a hugely ambitious undertaking for Busiek to embark on at this point.)

The leaving home story in Safeguards is too wonderfully universal* not to be autobiographical to some extent.  (Any ponderings on my part about whether someone with an East European name and maybe background felt in any way excluded from the mainstream of his American hometown, as Marta does here, would be extremely idle and probably daft!)

Finally writing 'Dinner at Eight' might have felt like a night off after the obvoius hard work and craft that went into the prevoius 5 issues!  (I know - a bit of a stretch here  :-)  )

* James Joyce had a stab at a similar theme, with a similar resolution, in Eveline.

The world building references I came across for The Scoop included:

newspaper - Samaritan checks Nightmare rampage (this happened in "In Dreams")

wall newspapers:

- Rex and Natalie "It's a girl" (the first mention of the First Family's Astra)

- Unmasked

- Aliens routed by Honor Guard

- Who are the Experimentals?

- First Family to city "Goodbye"

- Final Frontier

- Flying Samaritan saves Challenger (we'll get this story in "Dinner at Eight")

billboard add - Frontiersman advertising cigarettes

editor sets the stage:

- a dozen years since the city was rebuilt and renamed

- the Lamplighter and the All-American had just announced their retirement

- the poor, doomed Silver Agent (we'll finally learn what happened to the Silver Agent in the Shining Stars trade)

- Max O' Millions had rallied the world's greatest heroes, old and new, against the Legions of Midnight

- the Old Soldier had been thought dead before

- Honor Guard had no headquarters or press secretary then

wall newspapers:

- Astro-Naut exposes fifth columnists

- Commando K lost near Pyongyang

new guy reminisces:

- the Devourer 5 years early

- the Old Soldier returning before the fall of Saigon

- a dozen years since the city was rebuilt and renamed

I missed this line in the caption on the story's third page. I don't remember any other references to this before of since.

- a dozen years since the city was rebuilt and renamed

missed this line in the caption on the story's third page. I don't remember any other references to this before of since.

I want to say the Supersonic story fleshed it out a bit more, but it could be I'm remembering wrong.  

A Little Knowledge

An interesting little tale about paranoia and the lack of honour among thieves, although really, the only character actually shown to be untrustworthy was the protagonist.  Eyes sees what he expects to see, showing us that our view of the world is very much coloured by what we bring to it.

 

The world building references I came across for A Little Knowledge included:

The Sweatshop is introduced (this'll be a big location in the Tarnished Angel trade)

newspaper timescape

- Bizarre clown saves hostages

- Dr. Furst battles space spiders

- Jack-In-The-Box exposes Whammo corruption (this'll be detailed in the Family Album trade)

- Silver Agent quells riot in Bakerville, joins vigil for Reverend King (Bakerville will be important in the Dark Age)

- Mob War becomes surprise party

- Experimentals after __ toxin

- Jack-In-The-Box trapped in fiery explosion (also fleshed out in the Family Album trade)

- Blue Knight implicated in slayings (I believe this comes up in the Local Heroes trade)

- Jack's back, MIA hero returns

Craig Avenue Bar & Grill is introduced (we'll come back here in the Tarnished Angel trade)

The Cairo Club is introduced

bar chatter - Boilermaker oughtta fight the Confessor

Samaritan busted up a Pyramid base in Turkey and some weapons "fell off a truck" (we heard about this in In Dreams)

Honor Guard's tied up with the Disastroids

The world building references I came across for In Dreams included:

a newspaper headline - Jack-In-The-Box captures Brass Monkey (I think this happens off panel)

This might actually be the battle that's detailed in the news reports in Serpent's Teeth, in the Family Album trade.

Safeguards really delved into the "world" section of world building, introducing a number of locations that will be important throughout the series.

The world building references I came across for Safeguards included:

Shadow Hill is introduced -  below Mount Kirby, where night falls first in Astro City

Binderbeck Plaza is introduced - once the Dutch section of town, became the heart of the city

Grandenetti Avenue / Fass Gardens / Rensie Avenue / Derbyfield are all mentioned (Grandenetti is an important place in the Confessor storyline)

bus chatterings - Winged Victory "nothing but a cult leader" (this'll be brought up again in Dinner at Eight)

TV news report - info on the AstroBank Tower and the "rocket beacon" 

Marta's ponderings:

- Ms. Conroy was the DA who first put Demolitia away

- Glowworm blamed the city for the accident that transformed him

- Spice claimed the police had murdered her ex-partner, Sugar

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