By: Kurt Busiek (story), Brent Eric Anderson (art), Alex Sinclair (colors)

The Story: If you’re gonna get fired, you might as well put your employee benefits to good use.

The Review: I won’t go into the cringing specifics, but I’ve made some doozies of mistakes in my time.  Some affected only me, but a few had rippling ramifications for lots of other people and those were by far the most humiliating moments of my life.  It’s impossible, at these times, to not take your mistakes personally.  No matter how much others might insist that you did your best and there’s nothing to feel ashamed about, the weight of your screw-up lingers on.

I’m sure most of us have felt this anguish before, which makes it that much easier to sympathize with Marella’s deep, crippling self-loathing in this issue.  It’s a very human sort of experience she’s going through; no other species so readily punishes itself even when the mistake is made with the most innocent intentions.  No matter how details about the disaster in Equador come to light, you can’t see how Marella can blame herself for what happened, yet she is deeply convinced otherwise and won’t stop at finding any detail to tack onto her guilt.

Part of this comes from how carefully Busiek has constructed the scenario so you can’t help seeing the path from Marella’s actions to the explosive, furious battle taking place in this little mountain village.  So long as the chain of events remains that clear, Marella’s conscience won’t let her escape with any kind of excuse, no matter how justified.

The situation in itself is easy to relate to, but Busiek makes it even easier by giving Marcella’s voice throughout the issue the incredible urgency of a confession.  Even though she fulfills her narrative duty admirably, giving you every detail you need precisely where you need it, she does it in a distracted, stream-of consciousness way.  You get the sense she’s telling you all this not for your benefit, but for her own, as if you’re the therapist listening patiently to her anxious ramblings on a couch.  The whole time you wish you could, like her friends, assure her that she’s not at fault, but as a reader, you have to let her work out her inner conflict on her own.

And, as it often is in real life, letting her figure out her own course of action turns out for the best.  Convinced as she is that she has shot herself in the foot, Marella sets herself apart by limpin on to see what she can do to make things right.  Her means are very much grounded in the down-and-dirty level of aid—sleeping in tents, assisting in clinics, procuring toilet paper—the kind of thing superheroes rarely humble themselves to do, quite honestly.

But it’s her very ordinariness that makes her seem all the more courageous and noble.  As someone without any battle-ready powers or skills whatsoever, every action she takes in the superhero world is a major risk.  Even taking a camera-pic of a supervillain out of costume, covered with war wounds, and doped up on painkillers is enough to make you break out in a sweat on Marella’s behalf.  Of course, the story starts pushing just a tad once our heroine starts grabbing falling little girls in midair while dangling from a broken stairwell, but perhaps she deserves an extra-special moment of glory after all the disappointments she’s had so far.

One of the brilliant parts of Astro City’s focus on the average citizen is that it forces the folks in costume to come down to ground level every now and then.  In order to ingratiate themselves with the everyday people, our superheroes have to tap into their own humanity and they look all the better for it.  Cleopatra’s advice to Marella, for instance, is sensible and salty, completely without judgment or sugarcoating: “But people make mistakes, at every level.  We all do.  If you stay, you’ll make more…  The people who look for ways to fix mistakes…those are the people we most want to keep.”  Very credible words from someone in the position of having to make a lot of life-and-death judgment calls herself.

Anderson balances the human drama with the superhero spectacle as well as can hope for.  In that regard, he resembles George Pérez more than ever, although that includes some of Pérez’s less admirable qualities.  I’ve never much liked melodrama in a comic—it calls too much attention to their fantasy—and Anderson occasionally pushes the characters’ reactions a little more than they need to.  Still, they never get to the soap opera levels Pérez frequently treads.

Conclusion: A little preachy and obvious with its message, but otherwise another terrific glimpse into an oft-ignored area of the superhero genre.

Grade: A-

-Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Can I just say that last issue, the little Quevachi girl Marella spoke to was named Graciela, but here she’s consistently referred to as Esmerelda.  Well, no one’s perfect.

– You can only hope to have as good a friend as Toni.  Even with her career on the line, she refuses to sell Marella out to their boss.