Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Astro City: The Dark Age, Book One

We don't bring it flowers. We don't sing it love songs. We hardly talk about it anymore when we blog thru the door at the end of the day.

One of the great things about taking this 6 year break from comics is that I can simultaneously play "new kid on the block" and "crotchety old man who's seen it all". Well the crotchety old man part occasionally waxes nostalgic about what served as the Comics Blogosphere before there was a Comics Blogosphere: rec.arts.comics.*. This was the golden days of USENET, before the proliferation of individual message boards and when blogs were just a glimmer in the eye of the 'net. And back in those halcyon days, the darling of the cognoscenti was Astro City. It was praised constantly, as Busiek and Anderson showed us a superhero world that was deeply human and real. It was the classic "buzz" title that spread by word of mouth and gained praise with each new reader converted.

And now, years later, a major new story arc starts and where's the love? Now after readin' it late at night, when it's good for us and we're feelin' alright .. well, we just roll over and turn out the light.

(And that's the end of the Neil Diamond. I promise.)

Astro City: The Dark Age is a planned 16 issue miniseries, and the first four issues stand as a complete Book One. This is the story of the darkening of Astro City throughout the turbulent Seventies, the time of Nixon and Vietnam and American Doubt. In comics, this is the age of relevancy, of Hard Traveling Heroes and the Secret Empire and the first signs of grim 'n' gritty as The Punisher and Ghost Rider appear.

Kurt Busiek is juggling a lot here: a commentary and history of comics trends through the Seventies, a detailed reconstruction of the history of Astro City itself, and a small human story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law who live through it. It's not an easy balance, and I don't know that Busiek manages at all the time. Sometimes the story sways too much to the intimate tale of the Royal brothers and leaves the heroes behind, sometimes it gets held hostage by the plot demands of the story of the Silver Agent's decline and fall. For years, the secret of what happened to the Silver Agent has been dangled, and while we find out the events in these issues, the Agent himself still remains an enigma. The wonder of Astro City is the characterization, and it's there aplenty in The Dark Age ... but there's just too much going on to get a real sense of who the Agent is, of how he acts. Many other heroes, from Jack-In-The-Box to Rex get character moments, so perhaps it's intentional ... but I hold out hope that we'll see the Silver Agent again, and get a real sense of who he is. I am shown what Astro City did to him and how they feel, but I don't experience that loss with them because I only know him as a plot point, not a person killed by those he tried to save.

One of the perils of the kind of work Busiek is tackling here is the analogues. Frankly, I am tired of seeing thinly disguised heroes used as shorthand. From Planetary to Authority to the Maximums, it seems like they crop up more and more. Design a new costume and name, then skip the characterization as you allow the work of other writers do your heavy lifting. Make your metafictional comment, take your shot, and move on. What's always amazed me in Astro City is Busiek's boundless imagination, as he's created characters that fill an archetype without resorting to bald plagiarism. Is Samaritan an Superman analogue? Of course, but he's also a character on his own that is much more than an in-joke. In The Dark Age, it would be terribly easy to use shorthand to let readers fill in the blanks, but Busiek puts enough twist on characters like The Blue Knight and the Maharajah that they work on multiple levels. The Dark Age is wonderful commentary on a decisive age in comics by one of it's great historians, but easily stands on it's own if you don;t know the history and don't care to.

Frankly, it's hard to know what to say about Brent Anderson at this point. His work here is so fluid, so effortless, so subtle that it steps out of the way and simply does it's job: storytelling. He shifts so easily from a conversation between brothers to grand moments if high superhero drama that neither feels out of place, and it all feels part of a single story. In a tale steeped in a specific era, it's important that it look like a period piece, and that's where Anderson really shines. Not only do all the details feel right and remain consistent, but his style has always reminded me of Marvel in the Seventies - Gene Colan in particular. He's the perfect artist to conjure the era. While there are a handful of artists that could capture modern-day Astro City, this arc couldn't be done my anyone other than Anderson. It's a writer and artist playing to each other's strengths, and building a perfect synergy.

Astro City. Bring it some flowers.

(OK. Sue me. One last Neil Diamond.)


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