Astro City: The Dark Age, by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
Astro City has always been most effective at implying stories it never has to tell.
By that standard, a double-page spread in Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #2 is the purest Astro City storytelling we've seen in a while, as a desk covered with police reports brings us up to speed on the city's heroes and villains of the seventies. Busiek's knack for conjuring fully-grown comic book continuities from an economy of detail is on full display. Take for instance the character of Bamboo, who combines a vintage Dragon Lady stereotype with a strong dose of Talia, right down to her supervillain father and her rumored romance with the Black Rapier. Any reader who knows the comics Busiek is referencing can immediately fill in the character's entire publication history (the Black Rapier's bare-chested duel with Bamboo's father on the steppes of Central Asia in 1971, her brief flirtation with the side of good in the early eighties, her sudden relapse after a brutal brainwashing at the hands of one of her father's lieutenants, the child she bears the Black Rapier in an out-of-continuity prestige format graphic novel in 1987, recently brought back into the regular title by a hot writer following a bloody and self-righteous universe-wide continuity reset)--therein lies Astro City's genius and its greatest flaw. Because the histories we tell ourselves, poor patchworks of comics past though they are, will almost always be more satisfying than the rare ones Astro City chooses to show us.
That may be what's holding back Astro City: The Dark Age, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's exploration of the Astro City and, by extension, the superhero comics of the 1970s. Since the second Astro City issue was released back in 1995, the franchise has invested no story with more significance than the fate of the "poor, doomed Silver Agent," betrayed by the people he served to their eternal shame. When Busiek and Anderson finally revealed that fate in the first book of The Dark Age, the anticipation had been building for a decade. Maybe any story would have been hard-pressed to live up to those expectations, but the one they provided fell far short.
The early stages of the plot were an unusually faithful point-by-point retelling of a single story, Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich's Captain America/Committee to Regain America's Principles/Secret Empire/Richard Nixon shoots himself in the head extravaganza. The narrowing of inspiration worked against Astro City's normal pastiche of comic book continuity--if you can even have a pastiche when you're working from a single source. When it was faithful to that source, the Silver Agent's tragedy was nothing more, could be nothing more, than a replay of one of the mustier stories from the seventies; when it finally deviated from that script, it ended up as something far less. Busiek presented a Silver Agent who passively accepted his fate, who went to his execution without complaint even though he had to know he'd been manipulated. Yet Busiek allowed us no access to his motivations--the real story--because The Dark Age was filtered through the worm's-eye bystander viewpoint that has been Busiek's specialty since Marvels. (It's worth noting that The Dark Age's focus on two brothers, one a cop and one a criminal, had its origins in a projected Marvels sequel.) Charles' and Royal's story is not without interest--by Book Two they seem to have stepped into a seventies cinema of mob wars and crooked cops--but Book One's focus on their grudges with superheroes felt like a distraction from the greater dramatic potential of the Silver Agent story.
(I should add that The Dark Age is scheduled to run through four books of four issues apiece and it's only halfway through the second one. It's possible that later books will address this glaring omission and clue us into the Silver Agent's final hours. Then again, Book One of The Dark Age wrapped up a year and a half ago and we've only seen three issues of Astro City since then. We won't see for the next one for at least two months. If the series keeps to its present schedule we'll be lucky if The Dark Age wraps up before 2010. That tests the limits of reader patience and trust; if the book is going to come out at such a sluggish pace then it has to offer closure in smaller doses, and each book has to tell a complete story on its own.)
To its credit, The Dark Age aspires to be more than just another self-aware comic book, connecting its genre commentary to the larger cultural malaise of the seventies. Astro City's superheroes change from friendly authority figures and wisecracking daredevils into angry outlaws and grim vigilantes at the very moment when the American people lose faith in their leaders after Vietnam and Watergate. These trends complement each other beautifully, yet the book merely connects them without attempting any further exploration: neither one says anything all that new or perceptive about the seventies. The result is a story whose meaning feels as predetermined as its end.
Even the craftsmanship fails to meet the usual Astro City standard, especially in the area of character design. Meet the Apollo Eleven:
They have a great name, but it commits their designer to about four characters too many; several of the Eleven would simply never be superheroes as they are rendered here. The little green guy with the big head might make a corny Mxyzptlk-type pest, and the furball could be a comic relief animal sidekick from a particularly dismal Saturday morning cartoon, but the brain-and-tentacles thing couldn't be anything more than a villain--and a quickly forgotten one at that--while the tall, stretchy Gray is too Whitley Streiber, an invader from another genre and medium entirely. If this seems like a minor complaint, consider that the aesthetic keystone of Astro City has always been its posture as a comic book from a real, decades-old continuity you never read until now. The Apollo Eleven are too weird and inhuman to achieve even the fleeting career of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and their appearances only remind us that the pastiches of Astro City aren't quite as spot-on as they used to be.
Other characters don't even get the cool names. I suppose "Energy" Brown could be trying for a Cleopatra Jones vibe, if it were trying at all; it doesn't help that as Anderson's drawn her, you can barely tell she's female--I had to check against her police dossier. Meanwhile, small-time crook Joey Platypus wouldn't even make the grade as a Dick Tracy villain. This is probably deliberate, the weak design suggesting their low position in the hierarchy of comics characters: they have about as much visual distinction as Boss Morgan or Cockroach Hamilton, and about as much import. But there's something trivial and pointless about a comic filled with characters that advertise their own irrelevance--and not as comedy, a la the hilarious "Buck Wild" parody in Milestone's Icon, but as some elegiac letter to the comics of the author's youth.
And not, I'm surprised to say, a love letter. Unlike Buck Wild or the Silver Age pastiches of Alan Moore's Supreme, The Dark Age hasn't yet shown us why its source material is worth reproducing. The Bronze Age of the 1970s is a fascinating stage in the history of superhero comics, when the mad rush of invention and reinvigoration of the Silver Age gave way to a consolidation of what came before, when industry changes put the fans in charge of the comics, when market changes sent the companies running to new genres, when the turbulent politics of the times appeared directly on the comics page. It's the period that laid the building blocks for the artistic revolutions of the eighties and beyond. It's the period that produced some of my favorite comics, not just the ones I remember from the cozy, unreflective fog of childhood but the ones I discovered or rediscovered as an adult, and obviously it produced some of Kurt Busiek's favorites too. But the Dark Age has yet to capture most of that.
It has replicated one feature of the early Bronze Age: the way its much-referenced superhero epics will often disappoint you when you finally read them. I have spent most of my life reading Marvel comics that alluded to the Captain America/Committee to Regain America's Principles/Secret Empire/Richard Nixon shoots himself in the head extravaganza, but I'd never read the story until last month. That was when I realized all those tantalizing flashbacks and footnotes had the luxury of pointing right to the money shot, Nixon blowing his brains out, and its aftermath, Cap's obligatory 1970s Journey to Find Himself, not the eight months of maundering plotlines and wild coincidences and utterly absurd master plans that preceded them. References to the Celestial Madonna story always showed the sublimely bizarre double wedding at its finale, not the tedious origin of the Vision or the weak Don Heck art. These are quintessentially seventies stories, rooted in the mythology of the Marvel universe yet lacking both the wild energy of what came before and technical polish of what came after. They are the awkward adolescence of a genre, which perhaps explains why they make such excellent objects for nostalgia, but adolescence is something you only want to live through once.
The seventies won't always let you down. Jim Starlin's Thanos stuff holds up surprisingly well, and the ensemble-cast comics like Tomb of Dracula or, especially, The Deadly Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu are some of the high points of the decade. But these tend to be the comics that strayed farthest from Silver Age superheroics. The Dark Age nods towards the seventies' forays into science fiction with its two-page recaps of cosmic epics, transparent stand-ins for the work of Starlin, Englehart, and Steve Gerber, but it never quite embraces the decade's genre diversity--Astro City's gallery of urban vigilantes extends only so far as Luke Cage and the Punisher. Busiek's retelling of the Bronze Age hasn't strayed far from superheroes or from Marvel continuity and it's that age's lumbering continuity behemoths that disappoint most, bound to a past they can neither escape nor equal.
Busiek, a writer of considerable talent and craft, is all too able to recreate the past that inspires him, but he looks back to a time that was already looking backwards. The Dark Age, like Bronze Age it simulates and emulates, has high ambitions but gets dragged down by the weight of its antecedents. The copy is too perfect.