Ever since he and an up-and-coming comics painter by the name of Alex Ross brought maturity to the world of Captain America, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man with Marvels, writer Kurt Busiek has been a prominent creative force in the realm of super-hero comics. Still, his profile has waned a bit as of late, but 2008 promises to be another big year for the writer. This summer, DC will launch Trinity, a new weekly series that promises to recapture the sales heat the publisher saw with 52 and lost with Countdown to Final Crisis. And Busiek will be at the helm.
He’s been writing Superman as well, and a new jumping-on point released last week is what’s sparked this focus on his recent work and my perception of a disparity in quality.
“Shadows Linger, Part One: Bright Tomorrows”
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Renato Guedes
Inks: Jose Wilson Magalhaes
Colors: David Curiel
Cover artists: Guedes & Magalhaes
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN
The solicitation copy for this particular issue proclaims that this is “a new beginning for Superman,” and it also marks Renato Guedes’s first issue as the regular artist. Along with Busiek’s name attached, that was enough for me to revisit this series to see what’s going on. It turns out my visit is going to be a short one, as there’s nothing in this issue that makes me want to read what’s coming next. Busiek brings back an obscure, one-off Justice League villain to fill a role that one of the Man of Steel’s regular rogues could have filled, and what’s more frustrating is that this “new beginning” seems more focused on addressing ongoing plotlines than exploring new ones.
As Clark Kent unveils some swanky new digs to his family and considers the problem of Phantom Zone resident Mon-El’s lead poisoning, he has no idea that Paragon, a long-forgotten villain with the power to duplicate super-powers, has escaped from prison. But an even greater threat is approaching as well, and it’s coming from deep space.
I enjoyed Renato Guedes’s artwork in the past. His detailed approach brings realism to the fantasy of super-heroes, but it’s also rather stiff. That still holds true, so his style doesn’t really work for action-oriented scenes. He’s also redesigned the Paragon costume. That’s a smart move, since his original look was definitely a product of the ’80s. But the new look is so generic and unremarkable, I think I would have preferred the original purple and yellow, campy costume.
There are so many elements in the script that strike me as ill-conceived or awkward that I don’t know where to begin. Busiek doesn’t provide the reader with any background information on Chris Kent, and since this is billed as an accessible gateway into the current in-continuity adventures of the title character, that would seem to be necessary detail. Why Busiek opts to use Paragon in a role that the Parasite, a longtime Superman villain, could have easily filled is perplexing as well. The writer also dedicates several pages to revealing the Superman family’s version of the Batcave early on in the book, and I honestly couldn’t be less interested. Mind you, I suspect that scene is the result of an editorial edict rather than the storyteller’s decision to give the Man of Tomorrow a cozier home. I don’t care for the high-tech apartment for another reason as well: it seems too cushy for Clark Kent, who’s supposed to be something of an average joe, a grounded, everyday component to the ultimate icon of power, heroism and idealism. 4/10
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this comic book is that I know that the talent involved in its creation is capable of so much more. Fortunately, there’s recent evidence that the writer of the above comic can still being a lot of intelligence, inventiveness and emotion to a super-hero story…
Astro City: Beautie #1
“Her Dark Plastic Roots”
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent Anderson
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Cover artist: Alex Ross
Editor: Scott Peterson
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm Productions
Price: $3.99 US/$4.75 CAN
Ever since Busiek launched Astro City in the mid 1990s, the Barbie-doll super-heroine Beautie has been a mystery, and not just in terms of her origins. I didn’t really see why Busiek had created such an odd character. Now, I don’t know if he had this story in mind from the start or if it just came to him over time, and I don’t really care. I’m just glad he told it, because it’s surprisingly fascinating. I say surprising, because the title character is such a cold, distant, inhuman figure that I wouldn’t think that she’d serve as the foundation for such a thoroughly human and emotional story. Busiek dresses up what could have been a typical sci-fi story about a robot in search of a soul with social commentary and some effective pathos. I never dreamed that such a seemingly superficial, gimmicky character could serve as the foundation for one of the most intriguing Astro City stories to come along yet.
Beautie, the robotic super-heroine shaped like the world’s most popular fashion doll, feels like something is missing. She and her fellow members of the Honor Guard have no idea where she came from, who built her or why she was crafted to look like a toy. She feels more and more disconnected from the society in which she’s tried to live. But her thoughts keep drifting back, and back, and back. When she stumbles upon a lead, leading her to a long-dead inventor/villain whom the Honor Guard has fought in the past, an answer seems within reach. Unfortunately, it threatens to slip through her fingers.
Brent Anderson’s artwork has always stood out as one of the strengths of Astro City, and his work on this one-shot is no exception. He conveys the title character’s creepy, immobile face and awkward form quite well; her cold, emotionless face makes for an unsettling contrast with her personal quest and muffled sense of isolation. I also appreciated the shift in style that Anderson employs for the flashback/memory scene; he adopts a seemingly cruder style that reflects the child-like nature of the character in the scene and the burgeoning consciousness of the protagonist at that moment.
I think the most interesting in the book is the one in which Beautie visits a local bar and deals with the advances of the male patrons. It’s such a disconcerting moment… not when Beautie replies inappropriately, but when one realizes that a child’s plaything represents something of a fantasy to a grown man. The guy is attracted to the purely superficial qualities of the form before him, even in light of the fact that she should be a symbol of innocence. A doll shouldn’t be a fantasy. Busiek says so much about the still-unfortunate state of gender relations in this day and age with that scene.
Ultimately, this extreme story is clearly an analogy for the experience of being an outsider in society. At first, Beautie identifies with homosexuals, who find themselves isolated culturally and socially. But the analogy fades before long, given that that isolated sector still has its own sense of community and family. What Beautie truly represents on a focused, personal level is the adopted child, desperate to find out where she came from and, more importantly, why her creator has never sought her out. She seeks an identity, and as a foundation, she needs to know her origins. Given the tone of the narration, it’s a surprisingly moving story.
I needn’t have worried about that issue of Superman. Kurt Busiek’s still got it. 9/10