Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 25 (2/28) -- Astro City: The Dark Age Book 1 by Busiek and Anderson

Astro City has been, for the past fifteen years, the premier "superheroes in a realistic world" comic, telling stories set in a world vaguely like a Platonic version of the DC Universe, where one writer guided everything forever and all of the stories worked and made sense. It's a deeply artificial secondary creation -- it exists primarily to "do it right," that is, to tell stories very much like the ones its audience imprinted on when they were young (and their favorite stories from later in their lives), smoothing out all of the rough edges of continuity and characterization. It was created by and has always been written by Kurt Busiek, with art always by Brent Anderson (here sporting the middle name Eric in the internal credits, possibly for page-design reasons) and covers always by Alex Ross. In short, Astro City has been the best example of superheroes classing it up available for the past decade, and the thing a thousand overgrown fourteen-year-olds have given to their Aunt Sallys to show that superheroes can be just as good as those Jacqueline Mitchard novels she reads.

For that reason, Astro City has attracted laudatory comments far beyond its actual merits. Yes, the Astro City stories have consistently shown a very high level of professionalism, and evinced all of the strengths of modern costumed-hero comics -- a sense of living, continuous history and possibility; a deep, textured world with caricatured versions of real-world concerns; a love of high adventure; and a bedrock assumption that Good will always triumph over Evil (and that it's always possible to know what those two abstractions are) -- but they are entirely hermetic stories, which make sense and are impressive only within the circle of mainstream superhero comics. (Somewhere out there, I know there's a Noh play creator who is the Kurt Busiek of his form, and all of us are about as interested in those works as most readers would be in Astro City.)

The Dark Age is planned to be the magnum opus of Astro City, the masterwork of the epitome of contemporary superheroes. And this book collects the first half of the story, the first two (of four) four-issue series, along with a short introduction from a teaser comic. (The second half of the story is still unfinished, two years after this book was published; the penultimate issue is scheduled to be released in about a month.) So this is big stuff, right?

But Astro City only intermittently focuses directly on the superheroes themselves, as if they were like the sun, too bright to look at directly. More often, Astro City ostensibly looks at "ordinary" people in this superhero world. (Unlike Brian Michael Bendis's Powers, which I looked at yesterday, Busiek knows enough to keep his ordinary people and his super people distinct and separate.) So this story is about two brothers, Charles and Royal Williams. It runs through the '70s and into the '80s, when the two men are in their twenties and thirties, with flashbacks to their youth. And the two men are black -- which feels more important and distinctive than it really should be.

Charles is a mediocre cop; Royal is a mediocre thief. [1] Both just want to get by without making any waves, without leaving any real impression on the world. Busiek's structure tries to contrast the worldviews of the two of them, but, really, they're nearly identical; the only real difference is that Charles thinks following the rules is more likely to lead to an easy, uncomplicated life. In the early parts of this story, they bounce off each other whenever they meet, arguing the way brothers do.

But they meet primarily in a bar -- a particular bar -- as if they were TV characters. They don't meet for dinner, or help each other move, or catch a movie on an afternoon off, or do anything else actual "ordinary" people do.

What they do do is talk about superheroes, all the time. The Dark Ages is not the story of Charles and Royal Williams; they're just a smokescreen. They're the frame through which Busiek tells yet another standard superhero tale -- the great hero (Silver Agent, the guy on the cover) is arrested for murdering a foreign leader, and tried in the shadow of Watergate. And there are a few invasions (alien and aquatic) along the way, plus the usual post-Silver Age plethora of costumed weirdos flying and leaping about, each of whom has to have at least a moment of fame here. All of the major events in Dark Age are caused by superpowered characters; the Williams brothers just get to react to things and stand around as people in skin-tight costumes throw four-color sparks at each other in the sky. Anything that happens to them -- and a few things do happen, here and there -- may look like the main plot, but it's really just a sideshow. Busiek knows what his audience wants, and it's not the closely-examined lives of two black brothers in the '70s.

For example, one major reveal concerns the death of their parents, back in 1959 when they were tweens. But what happened to them after that? Who raised these two boys to men? What aunt or cousin or grandmother fed and clothed and housed them for the second half of their childhood? You'll look in vain to find out; that's ordinary-people thinking, and it gets muscled out of Astro City to have more cutaway scenes of the First Family battling a dragon from the earth's core, or Street Angel moping about how emo he's gotten lately.

Astro City is a superhero Trojan Horse: it pretends to celebrate the lives of normal people in a superhero world, but it actually hammers home one lesson over and over: only power matters. Only colorful costumes make you interesting. Only the big and flashy and superhuman is worth looking at. And the thinness of the Williams brothers' lives proves that point over and over.

If you like superhero comics, and have been reading them for twenty years, Astro City is likely to be right up your alley. But if you're in the habit of reading anything else, you might find it leaves you unsatisfied, luring you into that alley with the promise of depth and revealing only a pretty mural of two men in funny suits punching each other.

[1] I'd planned to have the iconic Edmund Burke quote here -- you know, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" -- to emphasize how much of a lazy cop Charles was, but I've come to believe the problem isn't that he's unwilling to take a stand, it's that, in Busiek's world, only the things that superheroes do actually matter. (And, yes, I know that quote is only attributed to Burke and has not been found in his writings.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Melnyk - Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) (feat. Sara Berg) (Kate Bush cover)
via FoxyTunes

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