Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #116: Astro City: The Dark Age, Vol. 1: Brothers & Other Strangers by Kurt Busiek and Brent Eric Anderson

I did this before.

Halfway through this book, it started to feel awfully familiar, and so I committed the sin we all do these days: I googled myself.

And so I found that I covered this book with a mouthful of a title, Astro City: The Dark Age, Vol. 1: Brothers & Other Strangers, in my Book-a-Day run back in 2010, where I was not entirely positive.

I'll try to say different things about this superheroes-done-right comic this time out, though I find that I'm less and less in sympathy with the idea of doing superheroes right every year. Kurt Busiek is a skillful writer who knows superhero universes inside and out, and Brent Eric Anderson is a great artist with superb page layouts and great action. But why do they waste those obvious talents on this third-hand tripe?

Now, it's reductive and wrong to turn Astro City into a game of who-is-this-really? -- The First Family is not actually the Fantastic Four, the Apollo Eleven are only vaguely X-Men-ish, and the Honor Guard are neither the JLA nor the Avengers -- but they're all generic and dull in their own ways, all standard superhero furniture under new names and with costumes designed with far too much care to look authentic to the era Busiek and Anderson want to religiously recreate.

The whole point of Astro City is to validate and nurture the nostalgic identification far too many comics fans have with the childish entertainments of their youth (or, even more these days, other people's youth), by creating a unified, not-as-embarrassing version of those stories to be loved. If it didn't rhyme with the real comic-book 1970s -- if it didn't make comic readers want to play this "who is this really" game -- then it would have failed at what it set out to do. Even worse, this is explicitly the story about the era when "normal people" lost faith in superheroes -- which they were totally wrong to do, since superheroes are by definition better and smarter than normal people, and thus the natural lords of all creation -- and how mopey they were for a while until they just let the Ubermenschen do whatever they want again. (This is barely subtext: it's right there on the surface.)

I've never read the second half of the Dark Age story: I probably never will. But, from the hints here, I think there's some Reaganite bullshit "morning in America" where we all let superheroes be awesome and perfect again coming for the climax of that story. I'm sure Busiek and Anderson made it plausible. I don't want to know.

Everything I said eight years ago is still true: this is a world ostensibly about normal people, but where only superheroes matter. Only what superheroes does affect anything. Only superheroes change the world. Everything important has a super-person behind it, every time. Everyone else are just sheep, usually with a wrong-headed view of things and always three steps behind.

There are no Astro City stories about Joe Schlabotnik, who helped foil the Counter-Earth invasion of the Solarians. Katie Random did not give vital aid to the Superior Heroes when Lord Evilocity brought hell to earth. Astro City is about what being a mere human is like in a world where mere humans don't matter. All human beings do is run away, hide, and get in the way. Oh, and get killed -- probably in vast numbers. Let's not forget that.

If real superbeings actually existed in our world, we would all be on the side of whatever draconian Registration Act was proposed: they're violent, uncontrolled, compulsive law-breakers who destroy nearly everything they touch. Their only positive feature is that the "villains" are even worse. All superhero universes are crapsack universes; we just like to ignore that because we focus on the aristocrats. Astro City pretends otherwise, but it really shows how horrible a life in such a universe must be.

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