We all have gaps in our pop culture knowledge, those omissions that elicit gasps from our fellow funnybook connoisseurs. For me, those gaps are vast and constitute anything outside of DC Comics proper. I’m on a mission to rectify my comics knowledge shortcomings and to provide a fresh take on classic stories that others have known for years. The comics may be old but my mind is still pure, wrapped in plastic and sitting on the shelf, waiting to be opened. Welcome to Mint Condition!
This time: We visit the world-famous Astro City.
The skinny: Astro City is a fictional city in a world not too different than ours, where superhero sightings are an everyday thing.
Issues read: All of them, which is just over 100 issues. So far.
Published by: This 1995 alternative to the larger comic companies’ shared universes started, predictably, at Image Comics. A second volume then began under Jim Lee’s Homage Comics imprint for writer-driven projects, which was soon after acquired by DC Comics in 1999. I know, ironic or something. DC Comics has been running the book under the imprints of Wildstorm Signature Series and Vertigo.
If you’re wondering — no, the Astro City universe was never merged with DC’s wider universe. That would be gross.
Publication dates: Issues have been trickling out from 1995 to very recently. It’s fair to expect there will be more.
Creators: Kurt Busiek is the writer and driving force behind Astro City (published in the early years as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City). He is joined by fellow architects Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, who created the vast majority of art for the project (Brent on interiors and Alex on covers). If you read the story in trade format, you’ll find a fascinating look at the collaborative process between these three men in the back pages. Other contributors of note are John Roshell, who has lettered or co-lettered every page of Astro City, and Alex Sinclair who’s colored over half of them.
My previous experience: I’d dipped a toe in these waters several years back, with the Tarnished Angel storyline. Once I grasped the scope and depth of the series, I knew I’d have to wait until I had a chance to really dive in and explore it.
Significance: Astro City is a genius idea, and a complex one.
One thing that Busiek, Anderson, and Ross have accomplished is to faithfully capture the essence of mainstream “Big Two” comics. I’d go so far as to call it an impersonation. Through imitating the various tics and wrinkles that are only found in a serial, interconnected world, each issue of Astro City convincingly behaves as if it operates in a corner of a shared universe from one of the longstanding publishers.
This is quite a feat!
Astro City was built from scratch. The creative team didn’t have access to a backlog of detailed characters with eight decades’ worth of history from countless creative minds. There were no familiar landmarks such as the Daily Planet building or the kingdom of Wakanda around which to build a scene. Supporting characters needed to be worked out, as did economic and political structures, a myriad of antagonists with detailed motivations, public attitudes, collective experiences, and everything that we take for granted in an established book like Daredevil or Green Lantern. As an artform this book is probably categorized somewhere between homage and pastiche, but it’s something new as well. In a sense, Astro City is a brilliantly rendered facade — a desert town built of false storefronts that’s so convincing you’ll instinctively head for the saloon.
Right out of the box, there are legacy heroes and reformed villains, failed sidekicks and old enmities. The characters will drop references to Earth-shattering events that happened previously off-panel, as if in an earlier issue that’s missing from your collection. Sometimes a hero will encounter a crime and reflexively rattle off a list of probable culprits from his robust rogues gallery. The origin stories are vaguely familiar and comforting. Superteams already have rotating rosters and statues of fallen heroes, as if they’ve been here all along. Each page immediately conveys the familiarity and gravitas of a large and well-explored shared universe.
Astro City is the DC and Marvel worlds, in a mask. But it’s so much more.
On top of craftily mimicking them, it also (somehow) manages to be a deeper dive into the workings of such a universe, thinking the story implications all the way through from different vantages. What would happen to the partner of someone who was erased from existence in a cosmic meta-event? What do aspiring young sidekicks do while they are waiting for a slot to open? How do you date when your skin is solid steel? Brilliant idea after brilliant idea fly from the page.
Ultimately, Astro City feels like a flex on the mainstream comics world. The creative team has managed to reverse engineer the specific magic that keeps us coming back to those old familiar haunts, and it didn’t take them tens of thousands of published issues to do it. They found a way to leverage all of the strengths and built-in emotional impact of a shared universe while avoiding the chains of rigid continuity and editorial tampering that usually come with it.
Story: There’s a certain shorthand that the creative team is able to appropriate for the purposes of this story. When a superteam called Honor Guard shows up — with a caped strongman, a warrior woman, a rampaging monstrosity, and a speedster — we know reflexively that this is the Justice League and the Avengers, lightly stirred. It feels immediately familiar and our brains (soaked in decades of gleeful indoctrination) leap to fill in any gaps. We don’t need to be told that they operate from a flying fortress or that they hold tryouts for prospective members or that they monitor the world continuously to triage emerging threats. Of course they do. This pre-packaged worldbuilding is summoned with the slightest of mentions and frees up room to explore the good stuff.
Some of the most fun in comics is the classic “what ifs”. What if the Fantastic Four had inherited their powers from a single irradiated patriarch? What if Wonder Woman’s powers came, not from the gods, but from the collective belief of womankind? What if Doctor Strange was a teenaged girl or Batman was a…well, you’ll see. Astro City scratches that itch.
Not to say that building these stories is a simple plug-and-play. There are a mind-boggling number of new characters needed to fill out a fully-realized world: new heroes, villains, and citizens. I lost count at hundreds of each. Hundreds! Even the ones who seem initially recognizable are put into new and interesting arrangements that upend our preconceived notions in the best ways.
One of my favorite characters in Astro City is The Samaritan, a Superman who was rocketed through time, rather than space, to save us. By altering the timeline of the present, he obliterated his own and is now stranded here forever. Genius. He’s the same but different. He’s locked in a never ending battle of ideologies with a Zod/Luthor type (sporting another great twist), and the two have grown so weary of years of pointless fighting that they’ve settled into a cosmic stalemate, like a family at Thanksgiving dinner. It feels real and logical and manages to tug on the heartstrings just right.
It’s all very intentional and delightfully masterful. We always knew, deep down, that superhero comics were really about us. Astro City makes it a little easier to remember that. Great care is paid to the story behind the story. The creators aren’t just pulling old toys out of a box and rearranging them for giggles. They take their job seriously and make sure to SAY something.
Art: Half the fun of reading this book is recognizing the various nods and inspirations. It’s in everything: the font, the word bubble shapes, the technology, certain panel arrangements. A peeling panel border here, a Kirby krackle there. I get the distinct impression that the creative team knows which comics I’ve read and which I hold dear, and they’re playing me like a piano.
Astro City spans decades of time in-story, so the characters go through significant transformations as well: greying hair, updated costumes, gradual changes in attitude and posture. An elderly bartender in early issues may pop up much later in a flashback of his bombastic crimefighting glory days. We see older heroes (and villains) who start to contemplate retirement as they find themselves losing a step, and the next generation just getting started.
This artificially-injected march of time is just another masterful trick in the great illusion that is Astro City. If a particular story is set in the 1970’s, the art will look like you picked up a comic from the 1970’s. Costumes, dialogue, themes, lettering…they’ll all match the period. In the 1980’s the heroes seem suddenly grimdark and excessively violent, before undergoing a return to their former iconic status a decade later. It’s a study in comic art history.
And I think we can all agree: Alex Ross covers are bomb. He has such a gift for creating unique, distinct faces and choosing the right layouts and expressions. If Astro City is a gift to longtime comic book lovers, Alex wraps the whole series up in a nice comforting bow.
New reader accessibility: Astro City was written in such a way to mimic a stack of legacy comics pulled randomly from longboxes in your closet. That is to say, there is barely any logical reading order to be recommended. Most issues are one-shots or two-parters, with a few longer arcs scattered throughout. If it sounds like you’ve missed a big chunk of the story, chances are it all happened off-panel anyway. Just dive right in.
Desire to read more: Does the Broken Man eat pierogies? You build it, I’m buying.
Final Thoughts: The same, but different. The strength of Astro City is that it remembers that superhero comics are an allegory form of art, at heart. We see ourselves in the heroes, we see ourselves in the villains, and we’re itching to explore the corners of our familiar world in a new light.
Suggestions for future columns? Leave them in the comments. And check out the full Mint Condition archive here!