Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two, by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
Sometimes the unqualified successes are less rewarding to think or write about than the interesting failures and the near misses. That's probably why I've devoted so much space to Grant Morrison's Batman (which finally clicked with the right artist), and it's probably why I keep coming back to Astro City. But with its latest issue, the final chapter of the long-delayed Book Two of The Dark Age, Astro City may have finally crossed that invisible but all-important line that separates the interesting failures from the merely frustrating ones.
The final issue of Book Two doesn't devote nearly enough space to the bitter falling out between Street Angel and Black Velvet. It's the plotline that rose to the highest emotional pitch, received the most buildup in Book Two, and most fulfilled its tone of corruption and betrayal. It also had the best antecedent, owing more than a little to the classic Daredevil/Elektra story but not limiting itself to a replay of the original. This image certainly seems designed to evoke that climactic scene in which Bullseye stabs Elektra (it would evoke it better if the villain character weren't such an awful design, and the dialogue so atrociously stagy, but more on those later):
Book Two could have built to a climax that captured some of Miller's pathos instead of just trading on our recognition of his iconic scenes, but the comic is continually hijacked by discordant elements of the supernatural--an artificially induced riot (when the previous issue had already set up a wave of crime and looting through perfectly normal causes), a giant demon, a mystical artifact, and a supercharged time traveler who literally wanders in from another storyline. Street Angel becomes a bystander in his own story, his apperance reduced to just four panels. But then, Astro City has always been too invested in its bystanders.
The Dark Age has been torn between the kind of comics Busiek clearly loved to read in the 1970s and wants to honor, and the kind of stories he's been most lauded for writing. The narrative is always breaking out into other dimensions or outer space, yearning to tell stories in the Gerber/Englehart/Starlin mold, and then drifting back to the mundane concerns of its mortal protagonists, Charles and Royal Williams, or the slightly less mundane problems of the street-level vigilantes who have filled most of the backgrounds in Book Two. Seventies Marvel could manage these contrasts by distributing them across an entire line of comics; Astro City tries to cram them all into one title. The result is a book that cannot satisfy any of its conflicting impulses.
Virtually all of the dialogue is expository, as if Busiek doesn't have time to show us anything, yet most of it exposits things we don't really need to know, like the backstory of the utterly superfluous character Hellhound: "Hold it in, soldier! The old man taught you! Use the trapping spell! Hold it in, hold it --" That comes awfully close to being another entry in this list, but it isn't nearly as bad as the next panel, in which a news helicopter reporter describes Hellhound's transformation into a demonic giant. Perhaps Mr. Busiek forgets that we, unlike the reporter's listeners, can actually see the panel he is describing. His top dramatic priorities are always telling us what we're reading and giving us information about the backwaters of Astro City continuity, no matter what they edge out.
This has often been a problem in Busiek's comics. Sometimes his Avengers run was more interested in codifying Marvel continuity than adding to it, and his Superman run has been so preoccupied with showing us characters' reactions to a world-ending threat that he hasn't gotten around to starting the threat yet. He routinely neglects his plotting in the interest of showing us lots of fragments of a bigger picture, the better to situate his stories within a larger universe. But this tendency is most frustrating in Astro City, where Busiek controls the entire universe and doesn't need to dole out all the pieces at once. I wonder if The Dark Age would have been more effective if he'd separated out its constituent genres into different arcs, given us one fully-developed cosmic adventure story, one tale of gang violence and urban vigilantes, one cynical, politically relevant journey to the heart of America, and, because I'm writing this sentence, one story in which an ensemble cast of jive-speaking ethnic stereotypes unites to foil the epic machinations of a late Victorian supervillain. Busiek tries to combine all these story types (except the last one, damn him) not just in the same arcs but in the same issues, producing comics so desperate to replicate all the tropes of 1970s Marvel Comics that they don't have time to do anything with them.
The genre mix can be effective at times. Busiek crafts a visually appealing end to Black Velvet's tale--not coincidentally in one of the few pages where he zips it and lets the art tell the story--by wheeling in the magically empowered Silver Agent to stop her, not with sais and billy clubs, but with some nicely rendered pyrotechnics. But he pays for it by bumping the Street Angel down to a weepy spectator who can only gape at the deus ex machina ending. Busiek gains an incremental advancement in the protracted Silver Agent plot (now running for nearly two and a half years) at the expense of any payoff for the hero we've been following the last three issues (which ran over a comparatively sprightly ten months).
Also, I don't know if the depiction of the people of Astro City, who are overjoyed when a nostalgized hero from the past saves them and fixes all their problems, is meant to suggest something about the politics of the late seventies--it would be clever if it were, the first time the series has said something less than wholly obvious about its setting. But I get the feeling we're supposed to take the Silver Agent's reassurances only at face value, as proof of his valor and the citizens' rediscovered loyalty and the book's long-running nostalgicore thematics. For a book that's all about the past, The Dark Age doesn't have much of a sense of period or place; except for a couple of characters with sideburns, nothing in Book Two locates the story in the seventies. Even the riot and the final issue's title, "Saturday Night Fever," feel wasted, like the comic is just going through the motions.
Brent Anderson's art remains a huge problem. Except for the aforementioned page with the Silver Agent and Black Velvet, his action scenes are lifeless; anatomies are stiff or contorted; character designs are overwrought or uninspired, or both; backgrounds are under-rendered, if they're present at all. This fight scene looks like it was composed with Colorforms. (Or would that be Cray-o-forms? And what happened to the bar's interior?)
I can't speculate on the reasons for the long delays between issues of Astro City, but if it's Anderson's art, the end result is no longer worth the wait.
Character design is still one of the book's greatest deficiencies. You can immediately spot the Alex Ross-designed characters because they possess a trace of the mystery or grandeur of the iconic characters they're meant to evoke. The others just muddle through the background, hoping we won't notice they're all composed from the same limited repetoire of quirks. Somebody, either Busiek or Anderson, has a weird predilection for mashup characters who fuse two aspects into one body. This issue alone sports Umbra, the Astro City Irregular who's partially bathed in shadow, and Jitterjack, the handsome customer up above who teaches us that combining two boring character designs does not yield one interesting one. Not to mention all the characters like Black Velvet or Hellhound who contain internal dualisms, less graphic but equally cliched--Jitterjack even points out the similarity in his broken dialogue, because, again, why would Busiek show us something when he can tell us?
Maybe all these dualistic characters are meant to draw on venerable superhero conventions, or maybe they're supposed to convey some signal theme for this arc. But as I read the latest issue I could only interpret them as unintended but all too appropriate symbols for The Dark Age: they try to compress too much into one figure, and end up with nothing.