Or – “Kurt Busiek Rocks, But That Title Is A Mouthful And A Half…”
My friend Bruce has been lamenting on the Major Spoilers forums that the comics industry is targeting him, seeking him out, drawing him to their flames like a slightly-drunken moth. Like Michael Corleone, just when he t’inks he’s out, dey pull him back in! First Nexus, then Madman, and today I got a (somewhat delayed) new issue of Astro City. They know you’re out there, Bruce. And they’re looking… for your disposable income!
It has, indeed, been a long time since April of 1995, but the awesome splendor that is Kurt Busiek’s greatest work has returned. This storyarc finally reveals the events that took place in Astro City in the early ’70’s, a time period that has been hinted at since very early in the series as tumultuous and unpleasant. The first arc of “The Dark Age” finally explained the story behind the end of The Silver Agent (an incredibly awesome name) and, in a way, the end of his namesake, comics’ Silver Age. Arc two has begun, and things ain’t lookin’ up…
One of the great enjoyments of Astro City is that all the characters work on multiple levels, both as interesting superhumans and as archetypes of superheroes and the history of the comic industry. You don’t have to be an over-analytical superhero freak to love this book, but many of us do. A character like Samaritan, for instance, while unique and awesome in his own right, can also work as an examination of Superman-type characters, and even take on the questions you could never ask with the ACTUAL Superman.
Does anybody else think the cover colors look a lot like when your laser printer is running low on toner? Bygones… We open our story in 1976, a time of great malaise. Our central characters, as with Book One, are the Williams brothers, Royal and Charles. Charles is an Astro City cop, Royal a petty criminal, and both boys have been forever affected by the accidental deaths of their parents in a superhero battle years ago. Astro City is a different place than it would become, and the streets aren’t always the safest place to be. Case in point, Charles and his new partner get a call to a disturbance, and find battling superhumans. Since it’s the 1970’s, they have to be one of three superhero types. They’re not monsters (a la Tomb of Dracula, Ghost Rider, or Tales of the Zombie), and they’re not streetwise black men (such as Power Man, Black Lightning, or the late Black Goliath). What does that leave?
“Ev’ybody was KUNG FOOO FIGHTIIIING!!! Them cats was fast as lightniiiing!” The Jade Dragons are a pretty awesome looking team, but as their battle spreads across the streets of Astro City, Charles ruminates on how all the superhero battles are about revenge anymore, rather than the old fight for justice. This strikes me as a statement about the changes in comics during the time period in question as much as a statement about Charles’ world. His new partner, Lannie, is the kind of cop who loves the fact that they’ll get credit for ten busts because the Dragons knocked out a bunch of their enemies. His other activities also paint him as a less-than-standup guy.
Charles maintains his relative innocence with the pretense of ignorance, but he chafes at the knowledge that Lannie is taking graft. Brother Royal, for his part, has equally pressing problems, finding that working for master criminals ain’t all beer and skittles. The turf wars are affecting his side of the law, as well, as his boss is forced to hire a psycho called Jitterjack (God, I love those Astro City names) to maintain their own little chunks of the city. When he heads to his favorite bar, ostensibly to relax, the place is rolled by a minor superhero called “The Street Angel.” As the Angel tears the place up, Royal thinks back to when he first heard of him. Angel USED to be a wise-cracking Spider-Man type, taking down crooks with a smile and a snappy line. Now?
From wise-cracking to skull-cracking, in just a few years. Astro City is becoming a dark place, indeed. The Angel busts up all the heads he can find, as Royal tries to duck out. Unfortunately, he nearly bumps into Street Angel’s partner, Black Velvet, and watches her torture and KILL a man for information. Royal is forced to retreat back into the bar, only to find utter chaos…
The next day, things get worse for both brothers. Royal has been keeping a relatively low profile within the mob he works for, keeping his hands as clean as possible, in his own way. The brothers are more alike than they know. Those days are over, according to one of his fellow capos. This means war, and you’re in all the way, or you’re dead. As for Charles, Lannie informs him that his days of “I don’t want to know” are over. The policemen are all on the take, and if Charles isn’t with ’em, he’s against them. Both brothers find themselves being shoved into a role they’ve been fighting to avoid.
The Williams brothers, as always, don’t realize how similar they’ve become, how similar they’ve always been. Astro City is never really about the superheroics, though they’re here in spades, but about the way the superheroics affect the world around them. The world is becoming a much darker place, but is it because the superheroes are changing, or are the superheroes changing because the world is… You get the picture.
This story, by all accounts, comes partly from the plans that Busiek had for a sequel to “Marvels,” set in the Marvel Universe of the 1970’s. Since this decade did produce the aforementioned monsters, as well as the sardonic social commentary of Howard The Duck, the Mack Bolan “inspired” Punisher, the clawed royalty check that is Wolverine, as well as the general sea-change that turned the X-Books into nothing more than costumed gang-wars, it makes sense that some of this inspiration came from that particular wellspring. Unfortunately for the brothers Williams, plans are for there to be three four-issue sequences in “The Dark Age,” so it’ll probably get worse before it gets any better.
And I, frankly, wouldn’t have it any other way. Busiek and Anderson on Astro City is pretty much Nirvana for me, and when the story is this complex and interesting, it’s doubly awesome. Even the worst issue of Astro City goes right on top of the reading pile for me, and this one is a compelling story. Hard to believe it’s been 13 years since this all started, but this series hasn’t so much as missed a beat. Astro City: The Dark Age II, Electric Boogaloo gets the full five stars, something I don’t intend to bestow very often, but definitely a grade well-earned.