Monday, May 25, 2009

Belated Comics Reviews: Astro City: The Dark Age: Book 3: Volume One

Or, "Attack of the colons!"

(A brief note here: I write reviews for Thor's Comic Column at; out of neccessity, those are where any current, up-to-the-moment comic reviews are going to be. That particular link features my review of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, for instance. I'm going to use this blog to post later reviews of comics that have been kicking around for a while, ones that are hopefully a little more thought out. Fat chance.)

It seems kind of petty to make a books' release schedule a factor in judging it, but the fact is, it's unavoidable when reviewing Astro City, which is currently one of the most frustrating books on the stands for reasons owing almost entirely to the publication aspects.

Here's the thing: Kurt Busiek is a weirdly schizophrenic writer, quality-wise. Like a lot of comic scribes with indie series, he cranks out mainstream stuff for DC and Marvel on the side, and said mainstream stuff often comes off as kind of perfunctory. Which isn't all that surprising, given the state of the superhero market these days--it's not exactly an environment in which creativity and individuality are nurtured. But unlike a lot of those writers, Busiek probably isn't writing superhero comics just to pay the bills; he seems to genuinely love Big Two superheroics. I base this on the fact that when he has free rein to create his own (semi-)independent work of heartfelt truth, he basically uses it as an excuse to retell stories from the Marvel and DC comics he loved as a kid.

I snark. Astro City is, of course, a lot more than that--it's an attempt to take a new look at superheroes, one that, rather surprisingly, succeeds handily. The grand, epic superhero pastiches work brilliantly when they're not the focus of the narrative but are instead pushed to the background, presented in only the broadest strokes, with the details left to our imaginations; it's the classic Princess Bride "Good Parts" version of a story that would probably be a lot less interesting if it was presented more straightforwardly. (It's also one of the rare superhero books that has a chance to present superheroes whose identities are just as mysterious to us, the readers, as to the other characters, a simple trick that really does make them a lot more compelling.) The real stories of Astro City are those of the fifth business: the regular inhabitants, the low-level thugs and sidekicks, and occasionally the superheroes--but only in dealing with the more mundane or casual aspects of their lives. The superheroics are marginal, presented as backdrop, as metaphor, as furniture--and this grants a whole new perspective on them.

So Busiek's got himself a great little comic going here, one with a devoted following, critical respect, and financial success.

And, mystifyingly, he's flushing it down the toilet.

Well, mostly. It does need to be said that Astro City lay fallow for years due partly to Busiek's health problems. But the momentum seemed to resume pretty effectively where it left off when the book returned with "Local Heroes". And yet, no sooner had Busiek gotten our attention again then the book was once again hit with delays. And this is particularly frustrating for a couple of reasons.

One is that, when Astro City first launched, it was meant to have a constantly-revolving art team, but all the artists dropped out except for Brent Anderson, who has ever since been the sole artist on the book (aside from Alex Ross on covers and character designs). One problem: Mr. Anderson is...well, he's not really very good. Serviceable, sure, and with a satisfying level of detail, but his characters often appear to be melting or spastic, and the character designs he comes up without Ross's help are incredibly bland. Marc Singer (who wants you to know that he's not the Beastmaster) summarizes it nicely: if the art is what's causing the delays, then it's simply not worth it. Getting a new artist or new artists might not just help the book be on time, it would likely improve the book, period.

The other problem is that, since 2007, Astro City has been retelling an epic, 16-issue story whose events span the 70s and 80s: that would be the titular Dark Age. The problem here is that Busiek has mentioned that events in Astro City happen in "real time"--so all these months spent on the 70s are months in which the "regular" cast of Astro City (inasmuch as there is one) is aging and having adventures which we just aren't privy to. Busiek's mentioned that we are going to get a story about Astra Furst, scion of the First Family, going to college...this being the same character who was ten years old back in the third issue of the regular series. A series which hasn't broken 50 issues in the nearly 15 years it's been around.

So you see what I'm saying.

Of course, all this could be forgiven if The Dark Age really kicked ass, but...well, if you've read Mr. Singer's post above, you probably get a sense that it doesn't. I don't agree with Singer entirely, but it's hard to ignore most of his points, especially the fact that this storyline seems built around a lot of crazy happenings that we simply don't get enough time to explore, and the fact that there's an incredibly interesting parallel between the politics and the pop culture of the 70s, as viewed through the comics, which are summarily shoved aside so that we can have more of the story of Charles and Royal Williams.

Ah, Charles and Royal. They're the protagonists of The Dark Age, a pair of brothers, the former a cop, the latter a criminal, who have spent years searching for the man who killed their father. This story is meant to recall a 70s-era crime epic, somewhat in the Martin Scorsese mode, but set in a superhero universe. The fact that, so far, it hasn't been anywhere near as awesome as that summary suggests is one of the key reasons myself and a lot of fans are getting frustrated with the story's lethargic pacing. If the 8 issues so far had come out over the course of year or a year and a half, it would all be a lot more digestible; the narrative threads would be easier to follow, too.

Which is why, after nine paragraphs of kvetching, I'm going to give a tentative thumbs up to this latest issue. And for a very simple reason: the plot has finally kicked into gear. Royal has gone undercover at a training facility for Pyramid, the Astro City equivalent of HYDRA, and is gleaning the information to bring them closer to their nemesis (along with a few hints of larger plot threads which, as always, will probably pay off in the final pages of issue 4). The base is raided by E.A.G.L.E. (a mashup of S.H.I.E.L.D. and various other superhero-oriented government agencies) which, in an amusing twist, we find has also been infiltrated by Charles. So now the Williams brothers have gone beyond being on opposite sides of the law; they've crossed over into the world of the capes and cowls, if only peripherally (as redshirts, you might say). On the one hand, this has the potential to distance them from us, becoming less real people and more part of the comic book landscape. But for now, it's a welcome acceleration of the story. Ironic that a series that focuses on the little people gains traction and interest by nudging them more towards superhero-dom.

Busiek also claims that the book is going to be moving forward on a consistent schedule from here on out. Yeah...let's just see how THAT works out...

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