Astro City Volume 1: Life in the Big City: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (1995-96): The first Astro City collection immediately sets the template for the entire series, in which meta-commentary on the history of American superhero comics helps structure tales of Astro City, the New York of another world where super-heroes have been kicking around for decades.
Astro City stands apart from most such ‘adult’ examinations of superhero comics because it’s not deconstructionist, it’s not satiric, and it’s not a ‘realistically’ hyper-violent reimagining of children’s characters. Superheroes are, for the most part, good in the way they once were, but that doesn’t mean they’re uncomplicated.
And while annotations on the various homages and references herein could fill their own book, the ‘meta’ can safely be ignored in order to enjoy a good story. One doesn’t need to know that Busiek has used a Who’s Who of comic-book-creator names for the streets, subdivisions, and locations of his imaginary world. Or that characters and situations homage famous comic-book characters and situations, not to mention historical publication eras.
Busiek manages the tricky feat of filling an intensely meta-fictional book with sympathetic characters, cosmic moments, and pointed bits of commentary that stay just this side of satire. And he jumps right into the two-fold narrative approach that will dominate the book for its existence. The stories of Astro City will sometimes center on what ordinary, non-powered people feel like given that they live in a world teeming with super-powered beings. And the stories will sometimes focus upon what those super-heroes and super-villains are like not only behind the masks, but in the mundane aspects of their private lives. These two approaches made Astro City unique at the time it started, as did its lack of cynicism and hyper-violence.
The twinned artists of Astro City — cover artist and designed Alex Ross and interior artist and designer Brent Anderson — form a fascinating study in contrasts. Anderson still fits roughly into the Neal Adams school of hyperrealism, but he’s tempered his approach over the years to become a fine renderer of the mundane and the commonplace. The faces of his characters are distinctive and unique, a necessity for this sort of book, and while he can portray freaky cosmic battles with some alacrity, he keeps the characters involved in those moments rooted in the real.
Ross, on the other hand, may model his photorealistic painted figures on real people, and he may obsess over how a costume would actually look if it were made from real-world materials, but he’s nonetheless at his best setting these sometimes discomfortingly ‘real’ looking characters against gigantic, earth-shattering situations. He can do the small moments, but it’s the uncanny effect of photo-realistic characters in the middle of events that couldn’t possibly have been photographed that’s his strongest suit. They are both in rare form here. Highly recommended.
Astro City Volume 3: Family Album: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Willie Blyberg, and Alex Ross (1997-98): One- and two-issue stories flesh out some of the world of Astro City. The mystery of what happened to good-guy The Silver Agent in the 1970’s begins to deepen, but this occurs in the background for the most part.
We instead focus on the travails of generational superhero Jack-in-the-Box (partially a nifty homage to Steve Ditko-designed crime-fighters Spider-man, the 1960’s Blue Beetle, and The Creeper, but with a distinctive personality and look all his own); the attempts of third-generation super-heroine Astra to find out what normal pre-teen girls do at school and in play; and the weird life of Loony Leo, a Humphrey-Bogart-like animated lion brought to life by a super-villain and then stuck living in the ‘real’ world for decades. In all, a perfect gateway book to the Astro City universe. Highly recommended.
Astro City Volume 6: The Dark Age, Part One: Brothers & Other Strangers: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2007-2008): Charles and Royal Williams were just kids when they lost their parents in 1959 to a murderous henchmen of the super-villain organization Pyramid. They’ve had a grudge against that henchman, and against good guy Silver Agent for not saving their parents the way heroes are supposed to, ever since.
Careers as a cop and as a minor criminal, respectively, parallel the descent of Astro City into what residents would later call the Dark Age, a period spanning the 1970’s and early 1980’s when heroes, villains, and the general population became increasingly violent and disaffected. And while we follow the Williams brothers as they gradually formulate a plan to find that henchman, we also finally begin to learn the tragic story of the Silver Agent himself, hinted at pretty much since the beginning of the Astro City series. Highly recommended.
Astro City Volume 7: The Dark Age, Part Two: Brothers in Arms: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2008-2010): The quest of the Williams brothers for vengeance against the man who murdered their parents builds to an apocalyptic climax, with their personal revenge drama interweaving with the increasingly dire state of Astro City itself. New vigilantes stalk the streets as the 1980’s begin, happy to maim and kill criminals, while the older heroes either retire or seem to become irrelevant.
But the time-hopping Silver Agent has promised that everything will get better, even though he may need the help of the grudge-holding Williams brothers, who believe him to be a failure for not saving the lives of their parents twenty-five years earlier, to secure that better tomorrow. This volume probably marks the most pointed commentary of the entire Astro City series when it comes to 1980’s and early 1990’s trends in superhero comics — the names get goofier and sometimes redundant (‘Lord Sovereign’), the costumes get fussily complicated, and the heroes become ultra-violent.
The meta-commentary, and the complicated plot, both sometimes undercut the more under-stated strengths of the Astro City series, but Busiek and company nonetheless manage to satisfyingly conclude the 16-issue storyline. Recommended.