By: Kurt Busiek (story), Brent Eric Anderson (art), Alex Sinclair (colors)
The Story: There are worse retirement gigs than being an extradimensional diplomat.
The Review: The last time I read an issue of Astro City was so long ago that I don’t even recall what it was about. All I remember is something about the issue really resonated with me and left me contentedly thoughtful long afterward, and this was one of the few times that had ever happened to me outside of reading a proper book. A lot of comic book writers try to be introspective and deep, but few succeed so easily and naturally as that issue did so long ago.
Since then, I’ve always held Busiek’s name in high regard, one that only grew after reading the quietly powerful Superman: Secret Identity. So you might guess that the idea of reading Astro City on an ongoing basis again fills me with a lot of excitement. Still, it’s been a long time since Busiek wrote the series or anything noteworthy; a part of you can’t help wondering if he can revive the magic without working through some painful rust first.
You’ll be happy to hear that on his first return issue, Busiek doesn’t waste any time getting his sea legs back. Instead, he goes for as ambitious a story as he can start off with, breaking the fourth wall and piling on the metafiction from page one. The Broken Man declares haughtily that we the readers “work for me, now,” serving as his only means of communication that won’t alert the attention of “Oubor.” He refuses to explain much of anything—by the end of the issue, we don’t even know what Oubor is or what kind of danger it poses or if it’s even related to anything that actually happens in the story—but he stresses that explaining too much, even to us, would risk too much.
So you’d think that whatever information he does reveal to us ought to be crucial, something we must know at that given moment. If so, then it seems he’s communicating by code on top of withholding his knowledge, because the events of the issue, intriguing as they are, reveal nothing that helps us understand what’s got Broken Man so on edge.
Most significantly, we don’t even have much of an overt conflict in this issue. Although the gargantuan size and seeming invulnerability of “Telseth, of the star-spanning Kvurri, ambassador plenipotentiary to Earth and its peoples,” are imposing, it never results in an actual fight. That’s not to say one might not come down the line, and that it’ll be related to this Oubor somehow, but for the time being, Telseth’s intentions seem as sincerely peaceful as you can hope from a superior alien race.*
In fact, our superheroes get to do very little in this issue, which plays right into Busiek’s interests (and Telseth’s, too, for that matter) in exploring the essence of humanity rather than its extraordinariness. Icons like Samaritan and Winged Victory merely stand by helplessly as average citizen, Ben Pullam, chooses to leap into adventure in their stead. It’s a choice not unlike that made by the Spectre in choosing ordinary pastor Norman McCay to pass judgment on the world in Kingdom Come. It signifies that in Busiek’s vision, it won’t be the demigods and prodigies who will decide Earth’s fate, but rather the common man.
Astro City is a funny sort of title from an artistic perspective because while its subject matter is superheroes, its tone and themes have little to do with the raucous and frenetic activities you usually associate with that genre. Anderson balances these competing needs fairly well. You can see traces of George Pérez in his approach to the characters, and of course the awesome geometric patterns on Telseth is a callback to Jack Kirby. At the same time, Anderson brings a punk-rock sensibility to Broken Man’s monologues that feels distinctly Vertigo. You also can’t get a more qualified colorist than Sinclair, whose ability to switch between human warmth and cinematic spectacle works perfectly for this series.
Conclusion: From the moment you start reading, it’s clear Busiek gives you a story quite unlike anything else on the stands right now, but we know too little to know whether this is a masterpiece in the making.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: * Then again, when was the last time—since the Vulcans—that the arrival of an extraterrestrial didn’t end in interplanetary war?
– I do love that Telseth gets embarrassed over the excess volume of his initial arrival: “People of Earth! Hear now my words! Hear now…wait. Hold on a… Ah. That’s better.”
– I have always found chibi characters creepy and American Chibi seems to epitomize the reasons for my slight phobia.