I saw a couple of posts on Facebook this week as various comic book friends alerted the world that Astro City ½ was now available electronically. Every single friend mentioned the same thing- “this is the comic book that made me cry.”
Well, Kurt Busiek got me again. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried at Astro City 3.
Before I tell you about that, I should probably back up and fill in a few details. Fresh off of their triumphant mini-series Marvels, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross launched Astro City in 1995. Ross provided covers and character designs while Brent Anderson provided the interior art. Astro City was well written, beautifully drawn, occasionally poignant and always fun. It featured entirely new characters living in a city full of superheroes- kind of like DC’s Metropolis. Yet these new superheroes felt somewhat familiar as they tapped into core comic conventions.
Astro City focused on slice-of-life stories: a superhero dreaming of a day off, a local woman commuting from the haunted section of town, superheroes going on a date, a divorced dad moving to a new city with his daughters. The world-changing events and titanic battles mostly happened in the background. Yet, by moving the focus away from the superhero stuff, Astro City managed to restore the sense of joy, awe and wonder that accompany the best superhero stories. It came to be part of what I call comic book’s reconstruction period- building superheroes back up after they were knocked off their pedestal over the previous ten years.
After a 6-issue mini-series, Astro City returned as an ongoing series in 1996. I came aboard as a reader and a fan in 1997 with the second arc, “Confession.” For several years, Astro City was the most acclaimed title in comics, winning fan and industry awards alike. Astro City ½ came out in 1998, featuring the short story “Nearness of You.” It’s the tale of a man who vaguely remembers falling in love and getting married, except nobody knows what he’s talking about. And it’s the story of a huge cosmic battle that changed the space-time continuum. The resolution, as attested by numerous readers, is emotionally powerful and liable to make grown men cry.
Astro City was never the most regular comic book in terms of schedule. But after Kurt Busiek began suffering serious health problems around the year 2000, an issue of Astro City became a rare occurrence. There would be a mini-series one year, a one-shot the next but it was a sporadic, infrequent event. Even so, Busiek, Anderson and Ross maintained the high quality of the book with stories about a lawyer using the “evil twin” defense and a superhero having dinner with his greatest nemesis.
Earlier this year, Busiek and company announced that Astro City would be coming back after a nearly three-year hiatus. And it wouldn’t be with a one-shot or short series either. Astro City was coming back with a brand new ongoing. Old fans like me were understandably excited. Yet I was also a little trepidatious. The quality of Astro City had seemed to suffer in recent years. The epic “Dark Age” had dragged on– and not simply due to the scheduling delays. I wanted Astro City to return, but I also wanted it to be great.
The new first issue was a colossal disappointment. I understood that Kurt Busiek had to introduce his world all over again for readers who haven’t been around since 1995. Busiek had written multiple brilliant introductory issues over the years including 2003’s Local Heroes #1, with a friendly doorman serving as the point-of-view character. But this time around, Busiek chose a mystical character as his narrator, the strange and off-putting Broken Man. Furthermore, Busiek forgot the old writing axiom “show, don’t tell” and gave us a ham-handed overview instead of an actual narrative.
Astro City #2 seemed to get back on track. Busiek told the story of a young woman named Marella who got a job with an answering service. But this wasn’t any old call center. This was the organization that handled calls for the premier superhero term in the galaxy, the Honor Guard. Their job was to weed out the calls that could be tackled by local authorities- your basic cat stuck in a tree scenario- from the real emergencies that could only be handled by superheroes.
[WARNING- SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW]
One day, Marella fielded a call from a young girl in Central America who complained that her mommy’s boyfriend was hitting her mommy. Marella’s heart went out to the girl but she figured that local social workers could handle the case as well as any superhero. A few days later, the world learned of a huge battle in Central America. The social workers had stumbled into the secret base of the Skullcrushers. Superheroes were required after all.
In Astro City #3, Marella is distraught. She blames herself for the escalating conflagration. She can’t show her face at work. And she can’t stay home. So she buys emergency supplies and uses the Honor Guard’s teleporter system to bring them to those displaced by the superhero battle. She stays in Central America- skipping work and making only one brief call to her sister to say that she was okay. After several days, a man is brought into the makeshift medical center with strange burns. Marella discovers that he’s one of the Skullcrushers and follows him back to the secret base. She plans to help the little girl and her mother escape but the plan backfires when the Skullcrushers discover her instead. They’re about to kill her when the Honor Guard suddenly appears and saves the day. The base had been undetectable due to some sort of cloaking device, but the Honor Guard was able to trace the GPS on Marella’s employee card.
When the battle is over, Marella offers her resignation to Cleopatra. And this is when I started to tear up. Cleopatra refused the resignation. Instead, she tells Marella what a wonderful job she had done. Even if she had made a mistake- and Cleopatra wasn’t convinced that she had- Marella had attempted to fix it. She may have used Honor Guard technology without permission, but she used it to help people. Far from chastising her, Cleopatra told Marella that she was exactly the kind of person they wanted to work with.
I guess we all long to hear that kind of affirmation. Busiek managed to get me emotionally invested in Marella- even if I didn’t agree with all of the choices she made so that I heard those words as if I was Marella. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I heard that affirmation as if was meant for me. And yeah, it brought tears to my eyes.
I can’t guarantee that everyone will have the same reaction to this story that I did. But I can guarantee that Astro City is back- telling human stories in a superhero world that are positive, poignant, joy-filled and awe-inspiring. In other words, it’s just as good as it ever was.
several months ago I decided to re-read my whole Astro City collection. Its impossible to pick one issue or storyline that stands out more then any other. The whole run is packed with timeless characters and breathtaking art. The 1/2 issue got to me like the it did the first time....choked up. The first 3 issues so far have not let me down and I hope that they can keep up with the monthly schedule. Best comic out today!!