I think I’ve finally figured out why Astro City vexes me so much, and why I keep coming back to it: this is a series of predictable successes and fascinating failures.
I’ve spent plenty of time talking about Astro City when it doesn’t work, from petty epiphanies and troubling subtexts to interminable homages and bloated mega-epics. Even when the series falls flat on its face, though, it tends to do so out of overreaching ambition: writer Kurt Busiek clearly had grand plans for those stories, sometimes too grand ever to fit them all onto the page. If reading them could be frustrating, thinking about how and why they fell short turned out to be highly rewarding, yielding insights into the series and the comics it modeled itself after.
When Astro City failed, it did so in a new and different way each time; but its successes all tend to work on the same register. At its best the series is a superhero procedural, taking us step by step through scenarios that the genre implies but has never gotten around to depicting. It’s always offered slice-of-life stories, but the good issues showed slices of lives that couldn’t exist anywhere outside of superhero comics. What happens when a supervillain actually makes his big score, or a petty street criminal learns a hero’s secret identity? When a hero drafts a sidekick or an agency of super-spies enlists a new recruit? The very best issues made us care, not despite these fantastic premises but because of them.
This is the mode that the current volume of Astro City works in almost without exception, and it’s a fine return to form. Busiek is playing to his strengths, showing us what it’s like to be a master mage’s personal assistant or a threat analyst for a super-team or a hero who’s aging out of her profession. That last one produced one of Astro City’s finest stories to date, as Busiek finally delved into the life of Quarrel, a highly trained athlete who appeared in the very first issue back in 1995 and who is now well past her physical prime. It’s a story of aging and mortality that could not exist in a superhero universe owned by anyone other than its creator, and Busiek takes full advantage of his opportunity. It’s also a nice reward for those of us who’ve followed Astro City since the beginning—even if it implies something troubling about our own personal calendars.
Aging and mortality loom large over this run, for reasons which are fairly obvious: it’s not just the characters who are compensating for time’s passage. Astro City has finally started using fill-in artists on a limited basis, and that seems to have allowed Busiek and regular artist Brent Anderson to maintain the quality and the schedule. Anderson’s art is typically strongest right after he takes a break, weakest right before one, and there are shortcuts aplenty. But the book has come out like clockwork, and it hasn’t been plagued by the weak character designs or slapdash layouts that marred The Dark Age.
It’s Busiek, though, who shows the greatest improvement. The stories seem much less forced now that he’s is no longer locked into a sixteen-part macro-epic that could never support the amount of space it was given. (There are periodic hints of some larger plotline in this new volume, one that Busiek has mostly ignored; no complaints here.) Each story runs to its natural length, no more, no less, and Busiek lets them stand or fall on their own merits. Mostly they stand tall. With the publication of the next issue this will become the longest continuous run of Astro City, and easily the best since those first six issues.
I realize there is something quixotic about reviewing a series twenty issues into its run—let alone twenty years. Chances are, if you ever liked Astro City you’re probably already reading this. But if not, you owe it to yourself to check it out.