Astro City debuted over 15 years ago, with the idea that the comic industry had been deconstructing super-heroes for some time now, and that it was time to put them back together. Astro City: Life in the Big City collects the first six issues of the original series, and serves as an introduction to scenic Astro City, a place of adventure and fantasy.
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent E. Anderson
Age: All Ages
Astro City is a series that features original super-heroes, what is meant by that statement is that no well-known heroes pop up in the streets or skies of Astro City. Many of the characters can be considered continuations of well-explored archetypes. The most obvious is Samaritan, a demi-god who is a mash-up of Superman and Captain Marvel, and inspired by the dreams of flying from the head a young Kurt Busiek. He is all powerful, and spends his day saving lives in between fractions of seconds. With such power comes the fact that he rarely gets to sleep or socialize, knowing that any delay could be the difference between life and death for people around the world. Samaritan is the only character to be featured in more than one of the six insightful stories that take place in Life in the Big City.
The first story explores Samaritan’s fleeting dreams. He does not get to dream often, but when he does, it’s of flying. Busiek makes the important contrast between flying and getting from point A to B. For most of Samaritan’s waking life, he is merely trying to get from one crisis to another, not able to enjoy the wondrous gifts that he has. For example, he is able to make it from Astro City to the Phillipines in 6.2 seconds. This is in order to prevent a natural disaster, and at no point during that flight is there any occasion to “soar unfettered and serene.” The effect of this is that Busiek has us peering into the inner thoughts of his heroes in face of their overwhelming duties. If storytelling like this feels fresh now, the intrigue of Astro City 15 years ago must have been staggering.
The second tale is one that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it years ago. It revolves around a young newspaper reporter and a conversation with the newspaper’s chief editor. This is certainly well tread territory, with Perry White and J. Jonah Jameson being notable examples from comicdom. The editor-in-chief is explaining his first big published story, and it takes place in 1959. This means that by the end of two issues, Kurt Busiek had introduced us to at least two generations of super-heroes, all with astonishingly detailed back-stories. The issue becomes a meditation on truth and the necessity of incomplete narration in journalism when facts can’t be proven. What starts as a simple issue reveals deeper human truths all in the accompaniment of Silver Age comic book tropes. It’s rare that a comic book writer flirts with the notions of authorship, hypertext, and the unreliability of historical documentation. These are comics that would make Jorge Luis Borges proud.
There’s no need to go through each issue and pick out what is great about it. It’s far easier to just rest assured that at least once per story there will be a familiar comic book idea that gets changed and unpacked, so that we can see it in a new light. The best advice one can offer is to pick up an Astro City book and to start reading it. At the end of the day, it isn’t necessary to over-intellectualize Kurt Busiek’s work, because these are basically fun stories. Despite their intricacies, there is a simplicity in the way that he tells a story. Brent E. Anderson’s art helps immensely by being steady, elegant and even kitschy in its reverent sentimentality of the super-hero genre.
Astro City: Life in the Big City is the easiest launch point for someone looking to explore the world that Kurt Busiek has been creating since 1995. For a comic book fan looking to get inside the heads of super-heroes and to walk the streets of a city inhabited by an incredibly detailed and inter-connected community, there is not better series than Astro City. The fact that this is the first of eight collected Astro City trades, means that there is plenty of depth for new and returning readers to explore. Despite the costumes, these are characters with human motivations, faults and successes. Astro City is highly recommended.