Or – “The 1970’s Never Looked So Good.”

KBAC10.jpgreviewbubble.jpgThe arrival of an issue of Astro City is one of those rare treats, like a Peanut Buster Parfait, or perhaps seeing your favorite movie on cable on a Saturday night when you’re up anyway, and there’s nothing else on but Skinemax.  It’s quite sad that this kind of quality requires long-term slaving by master-level comic industry craftsmen to create, making the wait between issues much longer than the norm.  Busiek and Anderson’s masterpiece is knee-deep in history, dealing with one of the darkest periods in Astro City’s past, an era of superfreaks, backstabbers, and convoys truckin’ through the night.  Like my friend Bruce says, it’s always darkest before it gets completely *$(&ing black…

KBAC1.jpgAs mentioned during my review of issue #1, the plot of this story originally germinated as a pitch for “Marvels II,” a sequel to the mini-series that put Kurt and Alex Ross on the map.  I’m really glad that it didn’t end up there, as ten years later, the “sense of wonder” that was Marvel created with that series is completely gone, used up by years of senseless crossovers, cheap cameo appearances, retcons, Civil and Secret Wars, Houses of M, and the apparent belief that “adult” stories mean convolution, contrivance, condescenscion, and change for change’s sake.  In the world of Astro City, these events will be allowed to have consequences.  Indeed, part of this story (The Silver Agent’s story, seen in Book I) is one of the enduring mysteries of Astro City, referenced since the earliest issues.  This one kicks off with a different kind of mystery, as Royal Williams remembers where he was on the morning of January 19, 1977.  Why would anyone remember a random winter morning, you ask?


The colossal figure, just hovering above the city might have had something to do with it…  Government agents of LASER (a better acronym than SHIELD, but roughly the same thing, really) scan the creature, the superheroes of the First Family use all their mystical and techological wonders to analyze the apparition, the new age loonies chant and sing and beg the creature to take them along on it’s journey to the next level of consciousness.  Brother Charles, as a police officer, is part of the cordon to keep people away, in case something bad happens, but this *IS* Astro City after all.  When nothing much seems to be occurring, the citizens don’t dwell on it…


Heh.  With that many superhumans, and a monthly alien invasion, you have to figure these people have learned to deal with the unexpected.  Royal’s “job” is getting harder by the day, as his gang, led by Joe the Platypus, is still at war with rival mob, The Braintrust.  Being Astro City, there are costumed idiots on both sides, and Royal stuck in the middle.  Things aren’t any better for brother Charles, as his “friends” on the force are still on the take, and the people upstairs are starting to catch on.


Even though he’s not happy with partner Lannie for accepting the payoffs (as well as for putting him in an untenable situation), Charles isn’t going to turn snitch.  No matter how snotty the IA guy is, I have to question this decision on Charles’ part.  If there’s really this much corruption on the force, you’d think that he’d want to put a stop to it?  Maybe his loyalty for fellow cops is slowing him down, or maybe he’s just shell-shocked.  After all, the last time he tried to do the right thing, it apparently didn’t go that well…


Oh, that plainly sucks.  As the days go by, and life gets bleaker for the Brothers Williams, “Big Joe” starts growing nerves, blood vessels and a brain, and the citizens of Astro City go about their business.  For Royal, the one-upmanship continues, as his boss The Platypus calls in some old favors from the good folks at Pyramid (they’re an evil coalition of somebody-or-others, vaguely reminiscent of AIM or Kobra) for a little bit of insurance.  With all the superhumans running about, Pyramid is going to help the Platypus up the ante, supervillain style…


That is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.  It looks like Duke and Spirit from G.I. Joe had a Star Trek transporter accident, and it’s easily as creepy as the name-check last issue would have us believe. Jitterjack goes ballistic, and kills one of the Platypus’ minor mooks before the Pyramid agent yanks his leash, with a smarmy apology. 


The Platypus’ face is just a scream, ridiculous yet somehow still believable.  Talking of faces, Royal finds Aubrey’s eerily familiar, and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up straight at his creepy Bud Collyer features.  At precisely that moment, all hell breaks loose in the streets of AC.  Big Joe has suddenly started pulling in matter, using the detritus of Astro’s streets to make itself a body.  The forces of EAGLE are out in force, as the figure suddenly glows, then… bursts?  Not with a bang, but a whimper, the big guy disappears, and in his place are left the Apollo Eleven, a local superteam with an alien/astronaut motif, one not entirely approved of upon by the government.  The Eleven are obviously disoriented, and the EAGLE agents swoop in to take them all into custody.


I so love the Apollo Eleven.  The name, the costumes, everything.  I’m constantly amazed at the ideas and concepts of Astro City,  simultaneously archetypical and recognizable while being unique and different, each one more inventive than the last.  Both Williams brothers find themselves in bars that night, with Charles having a second conversation (one no less unpleasant) with Saaf from Internal Affairs, and coming to the realization that his fellow cops aren’t his friends, and never were.  The realization may be both frightening and sad, but it’s nowhere near as earth-shattering as Royal’s evening.  He ends up in a tavern with Aubrey Jason, still finding the Pyramid agent naggingly familiar.  As Jason talks about his first command, and how Royal has such potential for evil, a memory clicks into place…


Suddenly, it all clicks into place.  I knew something was up, I did NOT see that one coming.  The murder of their parents is the initial stressor that really put the brothers on their divergent life paths, and I’m hoping it’s not too late for them to rebuild their lives.  The conundrum of “Big Joe” is obviously not resolved yet, and I hope for more Apollo Eleven next time.  Part of me is afraid that Royal (who, you may recall, was given an enormous hand cannon last month) is going to do something stupid, and that Charles will have to bring him in, or even worse, help cover it up.

The look of this book is uniformly beautiful, and Brent Anderson’s art is quirky, yet consistent.  There aren’t a lot of comic guys out there who could do both the big sci-fi cluster-schmozz with the Eleven escaping and the Williams brothers street-level lives with equal brilliance.  I cannot say enough good things about Kurt’s stories, all the way back to the first issue of this title.  Astro City always manages to add a human element to standard-issue comic book melodrama, taking things like alien invasions, time distortions, and giant energy beings and making the consequences REAL.  I also have to say I love the cover designs for this run of the series, feeling very modern while evoking a real 70’s vibe.  This issue was as excellent as the last, earning another five-star ranking.  Here’s hoping Astro City goes monthly again…


The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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