Never let it be said that I am not right on the ball when it comes to my knowledge of comics. It is only slightly over a decade after publication that I read some of Kurt Busiek’s legendary Astro City stories. There is always the danger that something that has been buzzing around in my mind as a must-read for so long will disappoint. When I finally read some Cerebus, I just could not understand the cult following around it. In its defense, I have this thing about wanting to follow a story from the beginning, so I started with the oldest stuff, where Dave Sim might just not have hit his stride yet. One day I will give it a second look. Also lingering in the partly-read pile are Preacher, Jeff Smith’s Bone and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. These I really want to marathon-read at some point when time and money allow. From what I read so far, they will be worth the investment.
Astro City has an interesting narrative set-up; first Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross thought up a city bustling with superfolk and a long and complex history. Then they started telling short, fairly self-contained stories, showing the place and the characters from interesting viewpoints. They are like snapshots, each story combining with the others to form a bigger picture. Though it seems like you could just start with about any issue, there is a build-up. In the first issue, the major hero gets introduced: Samaritan, basically Superman remixed. The powers and costume are not that original and that goes for pretty much the whole roster of Astro City superfolk, both heroes and villains. They often só closely resemble Marvel or DC characters that it’s a wonder no one got sued: First Family? Fantastic Four anyone? And Winged Victory and Wonder Woman must be bosom buddies in some alternate reality.
These old chestnuts have been given very interesting twists though, an introspective take that makes them feel more ‘real’. For instance, you might wonder how Superman can live with himself, wasting hours a day lounging with Lois Lane, when at any given second, he could be saving someone’s life somewhere from a crime or calamity. To have a life of his own, he is in effect letting a lot of people die. Maybe he reasons that you can’t save all of the people all of the time, but Samaritan feels he can’t stop trying. He zooms around from place to place without stopping, not able to have a moment’s rest. You start to feel that maybe all that responsibility might not be such fun after all, just a lot of hard work. By the end of the first issue, you understand completely why, on the first page, he dreamt of flying. Just aimlessly, blissfully flying. And so it goes in following issues: well-written short stories from the perspective of superfolk or civilians from Astro City, leading up to a satisfying twist at the end of them.
By the age of thirty, most comic readers will have matured beyond a lot of the monthly fare out there. Beyond the brainless battles between people in spandex, who occasionally die and get resurrected when it suits the publisher. The same plots, alternate realities, intergalactic wars, ‘final’ confrontations, crossovers and events and stories after which the characters ‘will never be the same’. As the years roll by, the past is forgotten, characters get complete personality overhauls and the neverending soaps rumble onwards and onwards. Thankfully, there still are talented writers out there that can spin stories that stand on their own and have a unique feel and mood to them. Kurt Busiek is one of those writers.