Has it really been twenty years since the very first Astro City story? As the text in the back reads, artist Brent Anderson’s son has gone from birth to college in the meantime. I myself have never picked up issue one from the stands, being introduced to Astro City in the trade paperbacks, but the meantime has seen me through at least two careers on three countries amid two continents, which actually feels normal until I look back and go “whoa.” (By the way, the same year also saw Marvel’s Clone Saga, the original Age of Apocalypse, and a relaunch of the former Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse, so there’s that.)
It all started with a man dreaming of flying through the clouds and the surprise twist that it’s actually the Samaritan, Astro City’s super-man. We return to that dream and the superhero, but the twist here is that there is no twist. The hero has been fighting evil through twenty years of continuity and is a bit weary of it all, so his dreams might be suffering for it.
As with any of the best of Astro City’s stories, it’s both deconstruction and reconstruction of familiar superhero tropes. We’ve heard the Five for Fighting song; we know it’s not easy being him. The story is more than just what makes a hero; it’s about how a hero can *keep going.* Turns out, heroes aren’t just god-like figures who help the masses of people. They’re just as “human,” who need the help of one another.
The actual villainous plot that is attacking the Samaritan isn’t really that consequential at all. Instead, it’s just the MacGuffin that allows us to explore the Samaritan’s fears, the worry about not being able to do enough. Of course, it’s also a good way to tell the story and to also name-drop or cameo various kinds of heroes that have graced the pages of Astro City. It allows the framing device of the familiar scene that started it all twenty years ago while also featuring the currently on-going mystery of the alien Ambassador’s gateway.
It’s a sad commentary that the real world, like that of Astro City’s, continues to be just as much in need of heroes these days as we all have been twenty years ago. Perhaps that, too, can make us feel cynical and ineffective. The message that we all need each other in order to be our best and heal the world is tempered by the fact that the battle is on-going.
“The darkness is there, but far off. It has no way through.” Where once was darkness and chaos with no pattern or order, the ending gives way to brightness in spiraling, ordered patterns. A tinged hopefulness.
Accordingly, the art is important to capture the feelings and metaphor for the story. There’s dream sequences that feature powerful bodies moving through color and space, and the expressions for Samaritan are key. Most of the time he’s wearing a weary, concerned face, until the end as he is free, with the company of Winged Victory, and blissfully dreaming. It’s perhaps not appropriate for an ageless character like the Samaritan, but some depiction of age on his face could have helped reinforce the passage of time instead of being so close to the original cloud-dream that I wondered for a moment if the comic I purchased was a reprint.
In twenty years, it will be 2035. Who can say if we’ll have an Astro City at that point or not, but it will be a fun ride to get there to be sure.
A quiet but resonant issue of Astro City; it’s both nostalgic and forward-looking. The Samaritan can stand in for any of us who feel tired of fighting a good fight or simply nervous that a big Something might be around the corner. The themes as well as the artwork are rendered realistically enough to be a great example of what superheroes are to all of us.