December 1, 2008

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Astro City Volume 1 Life in the Big City

Written by Kurt Busiek
Illustrated by Brent Anderson

So yeah. This is probably number one on the "He didn't read this yet? And he's read almost all of the House of M? What kind of a comics fan is he?"

A bad one, because I didn't read this until a year ago.

Now that I have said that, let's get on with it. Busiek is at his best when he's incorporating the past or finding a new wrinkle on an older idea. (Think Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Marvels, the first part of his Avengers run.) That means that Astro City, a world where heroes have been a part of life for generations and the populace lives in and among them, is right up his alley.

In this six single issues (another thing that makes this series great, these are comics written to stand alone, not part of a bloated arc), we learn about Astro city from the edges--a superhero's dreams, a newsman's tale, a criminals' fear, a woman's safety, the Tinkerer through the prism of an Eisner story, and even a superhero's first date.

If none of the above interests you, then just go ahead and leave now. But I'm betting that paragraph alone is enough to hook you. Each of these stories is given just enough room to breathe and tell us so very much while claiming to tell so little. Take the first story, for instance. Our Superman-like figure wants us to know that no matter how powerful he is, he only wants to be free to fly wherever he'd like, without the responsibilities of his charge. But we learn about a laboratory, the Honor Guard, how the Guard fights, and even a tragic figure that flips between hero and villain as we go along. Busiek's skill as a storyteller shines through because we're getting all kinds of info in this and the other issues, but it never feels like we are. It's showing not telling at its highest point.

There are so many cool things here, like Jack-in-the-Box, who may be my favorite character in the book even though his role is only to serve as the shadow haunting our criminal protagonist. But there's also little stuff (the Bouncing Beatnik anyone?) so carefully tossed about yet making for a complete world. As Busiek explains in the sketches, a lot of things in here are/where setups for future ideas. You can see that this is a labor of love for him, as well as Anderson.

I don't think there would be a more appropriate artist for this series, at least stylistically. Giving the art an Alan Davis/Stuart Immoden-like blur that seems to grant a sense of timelessness, the whole series feels as though it could fit into a late 60s comic book or any other high Silver Age period. His heroes are heroic, his criminals given worry lines, and the angle of the panels give just the right emphasis to just the right things. (Think for a moment of this in the hands of an Ian Churchill, and shudder the shudder of those who like their comic characters to at least pretend to have proportions.) This is probably best shown in the third and fifth installments, particularly on the first page of the Tinkerer story. It's an homage to Eisner's Spirit splash pages, and it is a beauty. (I can't help but dip back to the writing style here, with Busiek playing historian of his own new creations by doing a few panels of Handbook of the Marvel Universe style information during this story.) I understand Alex Ross helped with the character designs, but Anderson should get a lot of credit for drawing this amazingly well.

This has been an unusually long comic review but that's because there's just so much to love about it. I can't leave this one, however, without noting that Busiek has quite a few words to say about trying to make a realistic comic book and how the whole idea fails miserably. Reading that and thinking of what Marvel and DC have done lately in the name of realism is a rather sobering thought for where the medium is headed today.