Or – “Real 1970’s Comics Were Pretty Much This Weird, Too…”


In the “Me Decade,” there was a lot of cultural shifting going on: the civil rights movement was in full swing, a related women’s rights movement got it’s start, and countries around the globe didn’t even realize that they were beginning to create a world culture and economy.  This upheaval was reflected in the comics of the time, unsurely trying to stake out new territory as a medium for “adults.”  We saw Clark Kent become a newscaster and finally give up his blue pinstripe suit, we saw unusual concepts and characters, from Howard The Duck to the Headmen to Man-Bat, the first gay superhero (though Northstar didn’t come out until years later) and we even saw a black solo hero in his own title (Luke Cage, though Dell Comics’ cowboy Lobo had a short-lived series of his own 8 years earlier.)  The 1970’s was a very schizophrenic decade, and it was a strange, dark time for comics.  Since Astro City is as much a story about comics and comic archetypes as it is about soopaheeeroes, The Dark Age reflects that…

Previously on AC:TDA BII: Brothers Charles and Royal Williams were traumatized by the death of their parents, a side-effect of a battle between classic superhero The Silver Agent (a hero from the Captain America/Guardian school) and agents of AC1.jpgPYRAMID, a HYDRA-like group of villains known for scientific and technical breakthroughs in crime.  This childhood horror set them on wildly divergent paths, Charles becoming a police officer, and Royal descending into petty crime.  Now both adults, the Williams brothers find themselves in roughly the same boat:  Charles’ partner is a dirty cop, and insists that Williams either climb aboard the gravy train or bad things start happening.  His refusal to take graft has cost him his marriage and alienated him from the department, most of whom are taking bribes as well.  Royal has fallen in with a worse crowd than normal, and the new head of the crime family has him pegged as “a smart one.”  Worse than that, Royal has been given a gun and told that he’ll be expected to use it, something that he has no interest in doing, criminal history or not.  Meanwhile, the gangs are fighting in the streets, and the dark vigilantes opposing them are only barely less brutal than they are…  The man floating up there is Simon Magus, a groovy tantric spellslinger who draws power (through sex magic, apparently) from his assistant, a woman named Grimoire whose very skin is tattooed with eldritch spells.  While they get their freak on, the street-level heroes are stuck doing the two-fisted Hustle.  Get down tonight!


That’s Hellhound in the collar, and the harlequin is (the original) Jack-In-The-Box, father of the Jack we’ve already seen in this series.  He’s a pretty awesome character, especially the visual of the arm and leg springs, and his electric clown-nose device.  Jack and ‘Hound keep fighting the Shaders, only to be interrupted by a man who gives even them the creeps:  Jitterjack, The Divided Man.  Jack takes out the Shaders, tosses Hellhound like a ragdoll (singsonging “Hound dog!  Hound dog!  Puppy Dog!”) before seeing Jack-In-The-Box and mistaking him for a clown.


Jitterjack has officially taken the gang war up a notch, killing the cannon fodder agents on BOTH sides of the equation, and nearly taking out the two heroes as well.  From the look of things, he’s either barely functional, or has the mind of a child.  His remark upon first seeing Jack (“Oooh!  Clown!”) makes me wonder if it’s not a little of both.  He sort of reminds me of the old “5-Year-Old-With-Enormous-Power” version of the Hulk seen in early ’70’s Defenders comics, and I wonder if it’s intentiona.  Things aren’t looking any better for Charles Williams, as the tug-of-war between his partner and the other corrupt cop and the Internal Affairs weasel who wants Charles to turn on them makes his whole life a horror.  An attempt to date goes horribly wrong, and the woman lambastes him for barely saying two words all night.  Royal is just as stuck, working for The Deuce himself, desperately searching for a way out.  Jitterjack has sparked what may be an all-out war, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it for Royal, as The Platypus is livid that his role in setting up the other gangsters may be exposed…


Royal’s world gets even more complicated, but he wants to stick around to keep his eye on Aubrey Jason (the gray-haired man with the scar) as he’s the Pyramid agent who killed their parents so many years ago.  Charles, too, is in a terrible position, as his partner Lannie wants to finally hash it out with him, and discover for sure whether he’s in or out.


With that, the officers hit the streets looking for the two heroes.  Street Angel, originally a happy-go-lucky wisecracking acrobat, has lately become a darker and more brutal hero, changing from gimmicked haloes like Green Arrow’s old quiver to steel-cored bludgeoning weapons.  Now that his association with his new lady friend has officially made him a criminal, he panics, trying to take Black Velvet into custody (as she’s the only one who has actually KILLED anyone.)  She scoffs at his change of heart, saying that they both fight for justice OUTSIDE the law, but Street Angel reminds her once again that he doesn’t kill…  But her response chills his blood.


Street Angel may have a point, but Velvet turns it on him, mocking his assertions that he was pure and good until she corrupted his light (it’s a very Dave Sim argument, really.)  She flies away to kill some more, as Charles and the ACPD arrive on the scene.  Street Angel gets away, chasing Velvet across the rooftops, but Charles knows it isn’t over.   “Dispatch told us to stay on the clock…  said it felt like it was going to be a big night.  Like something was going to break.”  More than one something, I think, as Lannie tries, one final time to get through to Charles.  Part of me even thinks that Lannie wanted to give him a warning, but to no avail…


And with that, Charles seals his fate.  Elsewhere in the world, missing heroes are returning, only to find the climate much different than it had been.  The Apollo Eleven are still feared and misunderstood after last issue’s “Big Joe” incident, and even revered superteam The First Family finds their welcome home a cold one.  While investigating on a remote island, Dr. Furst bumps into a strange device hidden in an underground temple…  but before he can examine, a mental voice bids him return to the surface.  Why, it’s Simon Magus!  But what the heck is going on here?


Hmm…  The world is acting crazy, and someone has unleashed demons from their lair?  Why, these two events certainly CAN’T be in any way connected, eh?  It must be a startling coincidence.  Yes, that must be it.  Black Velvet’s killing spree continues, taking out the men responsible for her “death” (the events that made her what she is, and there’s a very clear “Wrath of The Spectre” feel to her rampage), and preparing to kill her own boss, as his assignment of her assassination targets makes him evil as well.  Strange, then, that her own CARRYING OUT of the murders doesn’t mark her?  Oh, well, double-standards are everywhere, yes?  The night of madness affects criminal as well as hero, and Royal finally tries to get out of the employ of The Deacon…


The Deacon insists (with a very subtle menace) that things will calm down quite nicely in the coming days, and that Royal need only ride the storm out.  The implication, of course, is that leaving will mean his death, but Royal isn’t happy with either option.  He knows that staying with the organization now means he may quickly become “important enough to kill,” and this may be his last chance to get out.  As he leaves the office, something strange happens in a nearby alley…


HOLY CANNOLI!  It’s the Silver Agent!  Why is that shocking?  Well, long-time readers saw the Agent wrongfully executed in Book 1 of this saga, framed for the murder of a foreign potentate, only to suddenly (and mysteriously) appear in the skies over Astro City moments afterwards, battling a giant creature.  Before his death, he somehow left the timestream, and apparently this is where he ended up…  I strongly suspect that the aforementioned “Innocent Gun” may have something to do with his appearance.  We know, kinda, where he’ll end up, and that his statue reads “To Our Eternal Shame,” but the backstory on what truly happened is fascinating.  In another dark alley, Lannie and other cops follow Charles into action, only to show him why he should have worked with them…


Oh, no…  Charles is such a good character!  Hmmph…  It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the brothers (though I hold out hope for a reunion) and exactly what the Silver Agent is doing at this point in the timestream.  There are a lot of threads running through this book (and, honestly, the delay between issues doesn’t help with comprehension), including references to 70’s iconic stories like “Captain America vs. The Secret Empire,” “The Kree-Skrull War,” even the classic “Warlock” stories by Starlin.  Each ‘Astro City’ issue is a fascinating take on the “superhero” story, even though it isn’t really about the superheroes.  Busiek’s human characters are what drive the book, and the superhumans are reflective of that, attaining a sort-of celebrity status where they’re not always the center of attention.  Even so, the heroes of this world are unique (while evocative of superhuman archetypes), drawing the fine line between “homage” and “never seen THAT before.” 

My only complaint is the length of time between issues, as this was initially solicited for (I believe) January, and the first part of this story having come out in April of 2004.  The issues are certainly worth the wait, but I suspect that a vast majority of the sales are to hard-core Astro Citians like myself.  I’m looking forward to the climax of Book II, and if memory serves, The Dark Age is set to run either 12 or 16 issues total, and hopefully those issues will be out before my daughter makes it to grade school.  Whining aside, Busiek and Anderson’s work is excellent, and this issue nets an almost-perfect 4.5 out of 5 stars, marred only by my desire for a montly dose of AC.



About Author

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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