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Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Life in the Big City. Written by Kurt Busiek. Illustrated by Brent E. Anderson. New York: Homage Comics/DC Comics, 1996. 192p. $19.95. ISBN 1-56389-551-X.


Adults, teens, older kids; mild superhero violence

NOTE: This book collects issues #1-6 of Kurt Busiek's Astro City.

Astro City is a metropolitan area that's hard to describe. Part of it is ordinary city patrolled by superheroes; part is a sort of Olde Europe in which the citizens defend themselves from the creatures of the night; part is inhabited by gnomes and other magical creatures; and who knows what makes up the other parts? Nearly all of the named areas are named after notable comics creators, past and present, such as Mount Kirby and Goscinny's Restaurant.

What Astro City is about, mostly, is the people who inhabit it: the people who live with superheroes passing overhead and the threat of cosmic dangers from gods trying to return to prominence. But the superheroes have lives too, however different from yours or mine. In order, then:

  1. "In Dreams," the superhero Samaritan soars slow, free, and happy. In real life, he has to fly so fast to get to emergencies that all the pleasure of flight eludes him. He's so busy, in fact, that he has no time whatsoever for a personal life, though he does manage to hold down a job.
  2. "The Scoop" is what reporter Elliott Mills thinks he has when he is the sole witness of a cosmic struggle in the subway. Unfortunately, when he tries to write a story about it, he can't prove any of his facts.
  3. "A Little Knowledge" proves incredibly dangerous and frustrating when Andrew "Eyes" Eisenstein, a petty thief, sees the real face of elusive hero Jack-in-the-Box. At first imagining the riches that will flow his way once he reveals his knowledge, he quickly becomes paranoid, imagining that the hero saw him, that his mob contacts will torture him for the knowledge, that his friends will steal the knowledge and reject him.
  4. "Safeguards" are those rituals and venerated objects that keep the inhabitants of Shadow Hill safe from the dangers that lurk in the shadows. Marta, who grew up in Shadow Hill but is one of the few of its children to leave the place to work in the City, is thinking about permanent relocation. However, the City has its dangers, rituals, and objects, and Marta knows nothing about its rules at all.
  5. In "Reconnaissance," mild-seeming Mr. Bridwell is actually an insectoid alien observing Earth, cataloging its heroes, trying to decide if it's worth his people's time to invade. When he is rescued from a fire by the swell-headed hero Crackerjack, Mr. Bridwell decides to observe him and draw conclusions about the worth of humans from his rescuer's behavior.
  6. "Dinner at Eight" sees an awkward Samaritan have a date with his female equivalent, Winged Victory. At first they try to have dinner in their hero identities, but when that proves... crowded, they continue in their secret identities at a noisy burger joint. They're definitely attracted to one another. However, their contrasting hero philosophies lead to an argument.

The book includes an extensive introduction by Busiek in which he talks about his rationale for this title; "Infrastructure," which includes sketches of the city and many of the major superheroes; and a cover gallery for the six issues that made up this book.

I dunno. I've been looking for more "human" stories in superhero comics for a long time, and Astro City would seem to fit the bill. I wanted to like it... but I just can't warm up to it. Acknowledging that this book does not contain the "realistic" superhero stories that other have said it contains (and that Busiek strenuously denies), I still can't find a lot to really like about it. It seems.... cold somehow, containing too much of the old superhero sensibility of, say, DC, without the hoped-for understanding of what drives people, how they would genuinely cope with this kind of world. I mean, Busiek is not a bad writer, but as a describer of human behavior he leaves something to be desired. Samaritan, for example, comes off as a powerful, dull nonentity who doesn't seem like he should possess the drive to fix as many things as possible. He surely doesn't seem like someone who, in any identity, would be attractive to Winged Victory; consequently, their attraction and kiss at the end of their date come off as phony.

Marta of Shadow Hill is a little more realistic, but it's hard to believe that having worked in the city for at least several months (apparently), she hasn't been subjected to supervillain attack before now, or at least witnessed some. The message that the dangers of Shadow Hill are really a protection from the dangers she doesn't understand in the City--which is a good insight, actually--would have been much more powerful if she'd just come to the City a short time ago.

Maybe it would have helped if the book had focused on fewer characters--there are a lot of people to keep track of in a mere six issues, a lot of hints and teasers, and not enough meat on any one character's bones to make them more than two-dimensional. Also, I can't really determine what makes this book much different from many other superhero titles, save the lesser amount of superfighting and the admittedly interesting setting. The story format reminded me somewhat of the way the stories are presented in the vastly superior Sandman, except that Neil Gaiman had the good sense to focus on a few people (or beings) at a time rather than trying to build up a huge new universe right off the bat. (And Gaiman was far, far better at character. With the possible exception of Winged Victory, there isn't a single person I give a damn about in this title.) And I surely could have done without Busiek's self-congratulatory introduction and "Infrastructure." The art is nice but nothing to jump around about; it's standard superhero stuff, though Anderson's nod to Will Eisner at the beginning of "Reconnaissance" is pleasant.

I guess by the standards of superhero comics, Busiek is good at ordinary people. At least he makes them more believable here than he did in the incredibly disappointing Marvels. But I can't help feeling that people are over-impressed with this book. Someone in Comics Journal called it "one of the most well-crafted, life-affirming, and exhilarating superhero comics in recent memory." Maybe this statement refers to later issues, because while the stories in this book are well-crafted, they're hardly exhilarating, and I can't even begin to figure out how they're supposed to be life-affirming. Anyway, also like Marvels, this book is recommended for its reputation alone. For genuinely life-affirming graphic novels, let me direct you to The Desert Peach or Stuck Rubber Baby or Breakthrough or Bughouse or any number of titles reviewed on this website. And I continue on my quest for a superhero book with real human feeling....


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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