For 17 years, across multiple miniseries and a variety of publishers, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson have come up with a generally can’t-miss formula: create a city that has neighborhoods that match up to the Marvel, DC, and even EC horror comics universes and populate them with a mix of existing superhero and villain pastiches and some original characters. Then throw in a general population of people more fully realized than the average running, screaming, goggle-eyed cannon fodder that’s normally trampled underfoot in a world of superpowers. And then not only turn them loose, but tell us what some of them, from the strongest hero to the worst villain to the average schmuck on the street, are thinking about the whole experience.
That formula has allowed the creators to examine some of the biggest eras and characters in comics, from DC’s Justice League (Samaritan, Winged Victory and the rest of The Honor Guard) to Spider-Man (If Jack-In-The-Box isn’t supposed to be Spidey, then please call 911, because this massive stroke is impinging upon my critical faculties) to the 80s darkening of comics in The Dark Age. And the use of pastiches has allowed Busiek and Anderson to really dig into some of these old stories and eras without having to worry about servicing any trademarks, or pesky editorial interference like being fired from the book after it’s solicited.
And now Astro City is at Vertigo, and Busiek seems to have decided to take that opportunity to, well riff on Vertigo comics. Specifically those early, proto-Vertigo books, where the characters still lived in the DC Universe and bumped into superheroes every now and again. Because this time around, the pastiche is pretty clearly Psycho-Pirate from Grant Morrison’s 80s run on Animal Man (with what seems to be a Galactus story brewing), and while that parallel all but screams from the page and colors your expectations, it is actually very, very compelling.
Because Busiek isn’t just acknowledging the reader… he’s involving us.
A set of massive doors has appeared over Astro City – doors that can’t be opened, despite the efforts of the military, Samaritan or American Chibi (a big-headed, giantly round-eyed walking manga cherub who can fly and who is entirely too enthusiastic about, well, everything). Eventually the doors open, and a giant dude named Talseth, who clearly shops at the same men’s wear shop as Galactus, walks out, tells everyone that he has come in peace, and he needs an ambassador to explain the human race to him. Enter Ben Pullam: a regular joe with two grown daughters, who volunteers to enter Talseth’s doorway (enjoy yer surfboard and dickless silver skin, Benny!). And we know all this thanks to the narration of The Broken Man… and when I say “narration,” I mean that he’s talking to you. The dude holding the comic book. The Broken Man has a plan and he needs an accomplice… and that’s you, bubba.
Okay: there is no getting around the fact that The Broken Man, who is committed to an asylum and not only knows that he’s in a comic book, but can see and talk to the reader, is straight from Psycho-Pirate in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. And that story was groundbreaking and psychedelic back in the 80s, so Busiek, by using the same gimmick, really runs the risk of veering from pastiche into ripoff… but that doesn’t happen here. And it doesn’t happen because Busiek doesn’t just double down on the concept of a character who can see the reader, he goes all in. The Broken Man’s first words are to the reader. And he doesn’t just see us, he claims he wants to use us as co-conspirators against something called Oubor, that monitors TV and radio, and means some kind of harm to, well, somebody. So by taking the direct approach in talking to the reader, Busiek takes us past Morrison’s winking, “I can see you!” inclusion of the reader into the outskirts of the story, and instead makes the reader a direct part of the story. And the conceit really sucked me in.
And there are indications here that we readers might become even bigger parts of the story. Toward the end of the book, The Broken Man makes the comment, “He’s made a choice. He’s having an adventure.” And at the end of that same page, he “commands” the reader to skip the next page. And when we inevitably don’t skip the page, he says, “You’ll learn.” That choice of words and the command to skip pages will remind any red-blooded American who was a pre-adolescent in the early 80s of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, where you were presented with a series of choices and told what page to skip to to see what your decision caused. The implication here is that Busiek might be conspiring to really make the reader a driving force in the story, or at least kinda simulate it, with our inevitable insistence on reading every page causing God knows what kind of havoc. And considering we are shown someone who, if he isn’t Astro City’s version of Galactus, he makes beer money impersonating him in Times Square, it seems Busiek might have designs on making the reader a player in a story where the very Earth hangs in the balance.
And that is exciting. This was a strange book, in that Busiek does yeoman’s work in the characterizations of The Broken Man and his paranoid mania, and regular joe Ben Pullam, who has put himself into the care and feeding of someone any comic fan knows is probably setting himself up to eat Baltimore and pick his teeth with Cape Cod. And normally that would be enough to make me want to see the second issue to see how things play out… but here, I want to come back to see the mechanics behind what Busiek has in mind. With the cards that Busiek has put on the table in this issue, it seems to be shaping up into as experimental a comic story as I’ve seen in recent memory. And the combination of good characterization and something really different in the storytelling techniques make this issue as exciting a first issue as I’ve seen in a long damned time.
Anderson’s art has always been a good match for Astro City, and that continues here. In this story, Anderson is called on to draw everything from a regular schmuck having coffee with his daughters to superheroes to giant robots to a Goddamned anime girl with a giant head, and it all works together and seems to occupy the same space and world… although one panel of Samaritan talking to American Chibi looks disturbingly like George Clooney offering emotional support to a beaming child suffering from hydrocephalus. Anderson’s panel layout is simple to track, and I had no trouble following his storytelling – he used a neat gimmick a few times where he racks the camera in from high angles when The Broken Man is introducing people to the reader, to give the illusion of the omniscience provided by a narrator. All in all, I can’t really imagine anyone other than Anderson drawing Astro City.
Astro City #1 is one hell of an introduction for the book to Vertigo. As a book that historically has been riffs on standard superhero comics, it wouldn’t seem like a solid fit for the imprint, but Busiek is implying some bold and interesting storytelling choices here. If I’m reading this issue right, we are in for a story where our very decisions as readers might impact the fate of the entire world, and that’s not like any comic I’ve ever read before. And if that’s the case, even if he botches it terribly, we’re at least in for a nice nostalgia trip for the books we ordered from the Scholastic Book Club back in sixth grade. Either way: it’s putting Astro City #2 at the top of my reading stack next month. Check this one out.