The nineties get a lot of flack nowadays from comic fans, and some of it is very well deserved. Many things happened in the nineties that made it a very dark decade for the comic industry, many things we would like to forget happened at all, and some things we just can’t seem to let go of. And pouches, so very many pouches.
For as many reasons as there are to speak in hushed tones when referring to comics in that rather fateful decade, there are many more reasons to shout at the sky in praise. Each Tuesday I discuss the many things that made that decade truly a great time to be a fan. This week, I bring you another reason the nineties weren’t all bad.
Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross’ amazing Astro City.
Ever since August of 1995 this trio of creators has been bringing us the story of the citizens, heroes, and villains of the self-titled city, a story that has grown massively in scope over the years. Each issue, written and drawn by Busiek and Anderson with character designs and covers by Ross, has brought us closer to the denizens of this city, from the man on the street to the superman in the sky, and everyone in between. Its compelling and complex mythology growing with every new tale, the evolution of Astro City has been slow and calculated, never forced, but flowing organically due to Busiek’s seemingly deft ability to plan the scope and entirety of the story from the beginning, leaving few things to chance. And it has been a blast watching everything unfold, the smallest actions having consequences down the line affecting the titular city and its residents.
And those residents are really the heart of the series. We’ve read tales of warring brothers on opposite sides of the law, a mysterious yet admirable vampire vigilante, an animate life-sized doll, and an enigmatic floating apparition, but the most interesting stories were those of it’s citizenry and the often simple lives they led despite the amazing things going on around them. Using ideas similar to those in his previous series Marvels years earlier, and expanding upon them greatly, makes Astro City so much more than any other superhero series. There is always more going on than what’s on the surface in a Busiek comic, and Astro City is no exception.
With familiar superhero tropes Busiek and co. have been telling tales both epic and intimate, with a fresh voice and much deeper themes than your typical capes and tights book. You could tell from page one that these creators have a love for the medium, an affection that is deep and passionate, as well as a knowledge and understanding of the medium that runs even deeper.
Few writers share the level of inventiveness Busiek possesses, his ability to create characters that are new, yet feel so familiar, and he does it with every new story. Astro City is one of the few superhero books in recent years to not be published by Marvel or DC, yet find a level of success and longevity, and that is due to how simply brilliant it is, and how great and well written the characters are.
The series is full of nods to comic history and its greatest creators and creations. The Mount Kirby Observatory is a touching tribute to one of the giants of comics, a creator who was bigger than life and known for his cosmic stories. The villain Bridwell is an homage to writer and comic historian E. Nelson Bridwell, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of comics. Jack-In-The-Box is an obvious tribute to the unique and quirky characters of Steve Ditko. The First Family is a sincere tribute to Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, but Busiek uses those tropes to delve deeper into the characters without having to deal with Marvel continuity. The Hanged Man, one of my favorite characters, is a Spectre/Phantom Stranger analog, shrouded in mystery. The whole series is a love letter to comics, especially those of the silver age, with an obvious example in The Silver Agent.
The world the stories take place in is so well fleshed out, with its own rules and idiosyncrasies, so much so that it feels as if it is every city yet no city at the same time. The creative team has expanded upon every nook and cranny through the years, exposing every dark alley and greasy spoon diner, every neighborhood and borough, each brick and streetlight and gutter, as if they share a vacation home in the city. For a world filled with flying men and super-science it still seems as if it’s in our own backyard, as if we’ve been there. The city itself is a main character in the series, not just a mere background where the stories take place.
Brent Anderson is a long time comic artist, and Astro City is his masterpiece. With each issue he expands upon what it means to be a comic artist, playing around with page design and panel placement, using all of the tools in his impressive arsenal. One of the best visual storytellers in this medium, I can’t think of a better artist to bring Busiek’s stories to life. Anderson has a classic comic style that suits the stories perfectly, especially the ones taking place in past decades. His layouts are dynamic yet not distracting, exciting yet easy to follow, the story coming first and foremost.
The character designs by Ross and Anderson are quite genius too, from the simple yet classically heroic Samaritan costume, to the whimsical, Ditko-esque Jack-in-the-Box. They take their cues from the past, using classic comic characters and themes as a springboard, and then do something quite unique with them. I don’t mean to say these characters are derivative, oh no, they are inspired, archetypal, and timeless. Just like those of the golden and silver ages, these characters are created to stand the test of time, and they still do almost twenty years later.
The multiple award winning series has long been a cult favorite, not quite selling in the numbers of X-Men or Batman, yet popular enough to have spawned spin-offs, t-shirts, and even a small line of action figures. There is just something inherent in this series that speaks to its audience, and keeps them coming back for more. The Astro City collections remain in print to this day, and still sell well as new readers continue to discover, and fall in love with, these clever, compelling, and very human stories of life in the big city.
There is a new series out from Vertigo right now, and it is of the same high standard I’ve come to expect from these creators, but August 1995 is where it all started, and that first issue and everything that followed is one more reason it was great being a comic fan in the nineties. Next week I’ll bring you another.