Since its debut in 1995, Astro City has excelled at telling down-to-earth, optimistic superhero stories. Creator and scribe Kurt Busiek continually undercuts expectations by featuring Superman analogue Samaritan having dreams about flying, by highlighting a little-known supervillain's quest for fame, and by exploring the lives of non-powered citizens, whose daily routines are continually thrown off by superhero battles near the office. Coupled with emotionally charged interiors by Brent Anderson, and engrossing painted covers by Alex Ross, the series indulges the whimsy that fuels hero fantasies, while threading human stakes through Busiek's action-packed hijinks. As a result, I've yet to find an issue of Astro City that's emotionally uninvolving. And the series has been running for ALMOST TWENTY YEARS.
To be fair, Astro City has been on hiatus for a while, due to Kurt Busiek's health concerns. But this past June, it returned, clad in the glory of a new number one, and boy, how I rejoiced after reading that first issue! Not only has Busiek's scripting kept its smarts, not only has Ross' cover work remained top-notch, not only has Anderson's art retained its idiosyncratic nature despite his switch to digital -- but the book itself remains humane to its core. There will be no casting off history in the fake Astro City; the book proceeds in real time, so characters can age and mature. There will be no over-involved crossovers with hidden universes to goose sales; Astro City stands alone. And there will be no sacrifices of female characters, just to inflate stakes; Busiek is far more interested in watching characters grow, rather than be torn down.
Take, for example, last week's issue. In it, telekinetic stunt supervisor Maddie (previously introduced in Astro City: Family Album) is abducted and enslaved by the Majordomo, for the purpose of using her gift to nefariously rule the world. Sounds like a recipe for a kidnapping fantasy disaster, right? That would be true in a lot of other comics, but not Astro City, which allows Maddie to fool us all! From the moment of her capture, she knows more than the Majordomo. Having discovered at an early age that the masked vigilante life wasn't for her, she's since formed a community of like-minded super-powered folks, who hold everyday jobs and help each other when situations such as kidnapping arise. A friend who can talk to machines handily releases Maddie and her fellow captives, and they all work to bring down the villain's airship, wrapping up their trouble before Honor Guard (Astro City's Justice League) has a chance to step in, while leaving Maddie a minute to decline an offer to join Samaritan in his quest for justice.
Busiek takes a captive tale and turns it on its head, making a choice to work from the sidelines seem like the strongest one possible. Maddie is expected to be a hero, to be a certain type of person within her society. But she refused to work from the mold set for her simply because of who she is; she would rather find joy and companionship in everyday life, while helping when she can. She works within her skill set, same as Samaritan, but she values her personal life more than he does (he's the guy who literally counts the seconds he's wasting between disasters). Because she's built a life, she knows how to protect it, using her own methods. Seeing just how she goes about her business is a pleasure, and it proves that superhero stories can both be light and matter-of-fact about their ultimate silliness, like great short stories.
Furthermore, three of Busiek's first four return issues have focused on women as something other than sex objects or victims. This shouldn't really be trailblazing, but when you look over the rest of DC's offering, and see Wonder Woman only has a second book after seventy years because she has an all-powerful boyfriend, Busiek's choices are refreshing, to say the least. Of particular interest to me was the two-part tale of a female first call responder for Honor Guard, whose miffed advice resulted in an international incident she immediately teleported to, in an effort to rescue the girl who called her in the first place. The responder was SURROUNDED by women in both issues, and got advice from none other than Cleopatra herself. Busiek's women are full-fledged heroes in their own right, and he celebrates that every chance he gets. For those who aren't reading Astro City yet, this new number one is a great place to get started. You'll never find a friendlier town, with all sorts of people lending a hand.
Astro City #4: Alex Ross, Cover Artist.