Dina Recommends: Astro City

Pity the name Astro City is taken.

In the honour of my soon-to-be-released series of erotic superhero stories, Project ERYSS, I thought I’d take some time to mention and recommend one of the best (non-erotic) superhero comic series ever made: Astro City. 

Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Brent Anderson, and with character designs and beautiful painted covers by the incomparable Alex Ross, Astro City is  kind of an answer to all the grim and gritty superhero deconstructions out there. It takes place mostly in the titular Astro City, which is probably best described as “part DC’s Metropolis and part Marvel’s version of New York, with aspects of Gotham City thrown in for good measure.” In other words, a large American city where you find lots of superheroes and people in colourful costumes around. 

When I a few years ago announced my fatigue with superhero comics, I mentioned that at the time I was even tired of Astro City. But while I still have problems reading any Marvel or DC comic without getting fed up or downright depressed, my love for Astro City has resurfaced. Probably because Astro City doesn’t have five hundred different writers and editors arguing about what the most “iconic” versions of these characters are, nor has it had to endure any pointless “shock effect” storylines to “shake up the status quo” and boost sales. In Astro City, characters are allowed to develop and change without eventually resetting to the version the current editor remember reading about as a kid. The result being that Marvel and DC comics often come across as ultimately bleak and pointless.

Astro City doesn’t.  And I can read Astro City and remember why I started liking superheroes to begin with. Because this comic is a gigantic love letter to the superhero genre, with all its tropes, trends and character archetypes. 

Most of the heroes you find in Astro City are pastiches of famous heroes from Marvel or DC, though usually with a twist. Samaritan, probably the most iconic character of the comic, is clearly a Superman stand-in, though he’s a time-traveler from an alternate future rather than an alien. Jack-in-the-Box who dresses like a clown and uses confetti to wrap up criminals while making bad jokes is mostly Spider-Man, but with aspects of other Steve Ditko street-level heroes like Creeper or Blue Beetle. The Confessor and Altar Boy are essentially Batman and Robin, with a more religious theme… oh, and Confessor isn’t actually human. They’re distinct enough to be their own characters, but familiar enough that you can read snippets of their adventures and kinda “fill in the blanks” because you know approximately how these characters would be.

Usually I’m not a huge fan of alternate superhero universes where every hero and villain is a recognizable pastiche of a Marvel or DC hero, but in some cases it really works and Astro City is one of those cases.

The stories  vary a lot when it comes to character focus. There’s no one main character in Astro City… Samaritan is probably the one with the most spotlight moments, but the individual stories can featute pretty much any character in the spotlight. They usually have an introspective and often melancholy tone to them, with the focus character getting a lot of inner dialogue and presenting their thoughts and feelings about the events around them. It’s a pretty neat take on the superheroic genre… because instead of the “what is superheroes existed in the real world” type stories that a lot of “adult” superhero stores have tried to ask… Astro City instead asks “what would it be like to live in a superhero world?”  What’s it like for a superhero who discovers he’s about to become a father? What’s it like for a supervillain trying to go straight? What’s it like for a normal person living among superheroes and who accidentally found out the secret identity of one of them? What’s it like for someone who has superpowers but isn’t actually interested in putting on a costume to fight/commit crimes?

The introspective nature of the series means that we get character focused stories rather than big plot-driven cosmic adventures and wild battles. Oh, the big plot-driven cosmic adventures and wild battles happen, but we’re more likely to just see glimpses of them; again the “fill in the blanks” nature of the series works to the series’s advantage because the tropes and plot beats are similar to those we already know from other superhero stories. Things that would be huge crossover events in Marvel or DC are here backdrops, B-plots or brief flashback sequences in character-focused stories… and it WORKS.

Another greast thing about the series is that the stories can be read as standalone. You’ll get more out of them if you’re familiar with classic superhero tropes, and even more if you know Astro City and the characters, you don’t actually need to know them to get the story you’re reading. Sure, the characters will reference tons of other adventures, and sometimes those adventures ARE elaborated upon in other issues… but sometimes they’re not.

And that’s okay. It paints a picture of a big and thriving superhero universe, and if we don’t get to see all of it, or know all the details, we do get to know the people who live there. Some of them we only know briefly (Looney Leo was only ever in one issue), some of them we mainly know through what we’re told by other people (The Confessor is only ever presented from Altar Boy’s point of view), and some we get to know a little more closely (Steeljack, the ex-supervillain-turned-detective, who stars in one of the BEST Astro City storylines, “The Tarnished Angel”). But all of them, the ones we get to know and the ones we don’t get to know, have their own stories and lives.

Astro City isn’t always the easiest comic to get ahold of, but if you come across one of the TPBs, no matter which one, I wholeheartedly recommend picking it up. Some story lines are better than others… I didn’t like the “Dark Age” storyline, which dragged on for much too long (16 issues and four TPBs… honestly, that story should have been four issues, six at most!), but “The Tasnished Angel” is an absolute masterpiece, and “Confessions” is a great story that mixes Batman and Robin-style noir detective with an alien invation and a “superhero recistration” story, all tald from the POV of Altar Boy. Most of the shorter story collections are worth a read, too… I especially liked the “Family Album” TPB and the “Samaritan” special.  

And, of course, the most famous Astro City story, the very first one, about Samaritan and how he never gets to enjoy his ability to fly because there’s always some crisis or villain attack to rush to… but every night he dreams about flying just for the fun of it, with no cares or responsibilities. (Or clothes.)

astro city

Astro City‘s great. It deserves all the recognition it can get. There’s talk of turning it into a TV series, which would probably help it get more recognition, but even if that does fall through, the comic is still there… as good as ever.

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