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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Panel Vision - Astro City #24

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: apes on comics sell comics.  This week we take our first look at the strange comic staple that is Astro City.  Astro City is the product of the combined might of comic powerhouses Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross.  The trio came up together in the mid-90s with Astro City as their breakthrough title before Busiek and Ross went on to produce the groundbreaking Marvels mini-series.  Astro-City is a weird comic in that it doesn’t really rely on a solid cast of characters to tell its stories.  Instead the emphasis is on the location, as the name implies, and using it as sort of a loose canon pastiche of superhero tropes.  The book mainly draws from the bronze age for inspiration but is essentially a free for all grab bag of ideas thrown together to tell stories with superheroes in a superhero universe where fighting crime and brawling aren’t necessarily the focus. 

In the case of issue #24 the focus is on Sticks, a talking sentient Gorilla with enhanced strength who immigrated to Astro City from Gorilla Mountain.   Gorilla Mountain perfectly embodies Astro City’s approach to melding together different comic book influences and styles.  The idea is introduced early on amid a flurry of exposition and tiny details.  Nothing about Gorilla Mountain’s history or existence is explained, just enough detail is afforded us so that the place feels real.  It’s a difficult tight rope to walk but Busiek is such a pro he can do this kind of work in his sleep, even using the opening narration as a chance to imbue Sticks’ with a unique voice that helps to form his character from panel 1.  The overall tone is perfectly emblematic of Astro City’s overall approach, taking an old school comic book weirdness and viewing it through a grounded and human lens.  In this case Busiek turns his humanizing gaze upon an aerial ambush by jet-powered sentient gorillas against an invading race of Dino-men.  The idea is pure silver age comic craziness but the execution is much darker than the inspiring source, focusing on the fact that despite the zaniness of the situation living sentient people are still being slaughtered during this sequence.  It’s a great example of how Busiek manages to embrace and elevate one of the most misunderstood concepts of ‘90s comics: that superhero characters and concepts don’t need to fit into superhero stories. 

In the ‘90s, specifically as part of Image Comics rise to power, there was a general effort to shift what superheroes were about.  A big part of this was the fallout from Watchmen and people trying to emulate various aspects of that comic.  One major aspect that transferred over into the very popular Youngblood comic, Image’s flagship book at the time, was the idea of superheroes as celebrities.  The idea actually goes all the way back to Dan Jurgens’ Booster Gold comic but this was the first time it had ever come to public attention.  Youngblood used the idea pretty haphazardly, basically just throwing it in occasionally without any real emphasis or ideas behind it.  In Astro City Busiek latches onto that idea with a vengeance but expands it in a really interesting way.  Rather than simply saying “what if superheroes were celebrities” his approach is to say “what if superheroes were anything?  What if they were musicians, soldiers, bodyguards, lawyers, anything?”  The entire ethos of Astro City is examining the overlap between the worlds of the mundane and the worlds of the superheroic.  However, unlike similar explorers of this realm like The Tick Astro City keeps its emphasis on telling serious stories, usually about trying to find that balance between real world roles and desires and superhero level worlds and reality. 

In the case of Astro City #24 the big emphasis is about Sticks’ desire to be a drummer and to leave behind his life as a soldier.  There’s an interesting parallel drawn initially during Sticks’ time working for a corporate superhero group about how his role as a fulltime superhero renders him no different than the life he left behind.  His whole world is training, tracking down enemies, tactics, etc., it’s all he is.  It’s an interesting commentary on the idea of what superheroes are, especially when countenanced against Sticks’ later work as an independent hero, roaming the streets on patrol to stop random criminals.  Ultimately Sticks does find a solution to his conundrum in that overlap point I mentioned earlier, where the limitless nature of superhero reality overlaps with the needs and desires of real world people. 
Astro City #24 is a great entry point to a series that’s been around for a decade now.  It’s a delightful one and done narrative that acts as a perfect microcosm of everything great about Astro City as a comic.  If you can tune your brain to its frequency and just accept things like secret Gorilla cities and alien speak easies as brute fact without demanding more elaboration you’ll really enjoy this comic.  It’s a book more focused on ideas and themes than mechanics, narrative, or characters, that’s something sorely missing in the current comics landscape. 

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