Astro City #1
“Through Open Doors, Part One”
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent Anderson
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Cover artist: Alex Ross
Editor: Kristy Quinn
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price $3.99 US
The 1990s wasn’t a good time in the world of comics — and to be specific, in super-hero comics. It was an era that emphasized style over substance. It was an era that celebrated dazzle over storytelling. It was an era of gimmick covers, countless crossovers and a bunch of new publishers and imprints, all chasing the speculator craze. A lot of money was made from short-term gains leading to long-term losses of readers and black marks on an entire genre. On the other hand, the 1990s also gave rise to Astro City (or as it was originally and appropriately known, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City). Busiek’s title was and remains a celebration of comics and the people who crafted icons for us. It’s also a deconstruction of super-hero archetypes, and it offers some strong social commentary. But ultimately, what makes Astro City work, what makes it such an engaging read and what’s allowed it to last for almost two decades (yes, you read that right) is the strong character work Busiek brings to each and every issue.
And it’s back. That’s awesome.
It’s been 17 years since Ben Pullam moved to Astro City. His two daughters are grown, accomplished women, and his heart soars when they travel back the city for visits. Ben is nearing the age of retirement, but he’s not ready to sit idle. When a set of giant, glowing, alien doors appears by the city’s bay, Pullam and his visiting daughters are drawn to the scene like throngs of other residents, as are a number of Astro City’s costumed champions, notably Samaritan and the powerful but impulsive new heroine known as American Chibi. When the doors open, Ben will soon be presented with an opportunity for adventure and a new direction.
When DC launched its new Phantom Stranger title a few months ago, the biggest draw for me was the art of Brent Anderson, but clunky writing drove me away in short order. When it comes to Astro City, I know there’s no risk of that. Anderson’s line art for the interiors here is, as always, impressive and immersive. His realistic style emphasizes the human aspect of the story and allows the reader to become a part of the populace. The most unusual visual aspect of the book visually is the design for American Chibi, and one might worry Anderson’s style would be incompatible with the exaggerated, manga look of the character. But as Anderson has demonstrated time and time again in the past, he’s able to incorporate more cartoony elements into the more realistic, grounded look of Astro City.
I love how Busiek finds room for some great humor, juxtaposing a cosmic, seemingly omnipotent entity with the mundane notion of fiddling with the controls of a handheld piece of technology. At first, I wondered if it might be a hint at the true nature of Telseth, but regardless, I then came to enjoy the moment, as a seemingly second-coming-like, awe-inspiring event of worldwide significance is momentarily detailed by technical difficulties. It, along with the more casual tone of the character’s dialogue, also serves to make Telseth seem less threatening and even likable. It could be a trick to lull the reader, and it makes me even more eager to learn what he’s all about.
As an aside completely unrelated to the quality of this particular comic book, that DC is publishing it under its Vertigo banner serves as a clear sign the imprint is completely different entity today than it was in its heyday. It’s not surprising, with the exodus of founding Vertigo Karen Berger, and the writing was on the wall with the ending of Hellblazer and the absorption of John Constantine (back) into the DC super-hero universe. It’s odd and perhaps fitting this latest Vertigo “launch” embraces a genre to which Vertigo had been established as a strong and viable alternative. The good news is this new entry to the Vertigo stable is still a creator-owned property, though many worry that will be an aberration rather than the norm we’ve come to expect from the mature-readers imprint.
For this relaunch, Busiek brings back his everyman protagonist from the second Astro City series published by Image Comics back in 1996. Ben Pullam served as our standin, allowing the reader to walk the streets of Astro City and to look up and see the impossible unfolding above them. Now, Busiek is taking Ben in a different direction. He’s no longer the everyman, the witness. Now he’s becoming part of the mythic world that’s been overhead for so many years. I like how Busiek is bringing the series full circle by using Ben as the central figure in this latest story, which also allows him to demonstrate things in Astro City are unfolding in real time instead of the frozen hourglass that allow Superman and Spider-Man to remain eternally young. 9/10
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