RETRO REVIEW: Kurt Busiek’s Astro City #1/2 (1996)

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Or – “This One Is In My “Stuff That Makes Me Cry” Shortbox…”

There’s a certain magic to comics books that is seldom found in other media, a combination of the written word and a pictoral image that often amplifies both to a higher level.  Sure, you can watch a movie over and over, but you can’t pore over each lavish image for as long as you want, and it’s nigh-impossible to catch every nuance of language.  Likewise, prose novels may have epic language and story potential, but sometimes the author has to labor to try and explain to you what a particular image looked like in his or her mind, dragging you out of the enjoyment of their lovely words. 

And every once in a while, a comic comes along that is so perfectly crafted, so intricately formed, that you just sit in awed silence and absorb every page in stunned silence.  It’s a rare comic that moves me to emotional displays, but I’m a big enough man to say that I can’t read this one without getting a little misty-eyed, Faithful Spoilerites…  Books like this are why Retro Reviews exist.

KURT BUSIEK’S ASTRO CITY #1/2
Script: Kurt Busiek
Pencils: Brent Anderson
Inks: Will Blyberg
Colors: Wildstorm FX/Alex Sinclair
Letters: John Roshell
Publisher:  Wizard/Homage Comics

Price: Mail-Away With Coupon From Wizard #62, Currently $7.00 to $15.00 in NM Condition

Previously, on Kurt Busiek’s Astro City:  The denizens of Astro City (formerly Romeyn Falls) live side-by-side with the one of the largest superhuman populations anywhere in the multiverse.  From the First Family’s headquarters on Mount Kirby to the mysterious Shadow Hill, home of The Hanged Man, nearly every block of Astro City has it’s own protector, each struggling with truth and justice and like that, while also dealing with the problems of a real, fully realized character.  In the hundred-plus years that Astro City and it’s heroes have been around, there have been many utterly life-threatening crises.  Invasions from space, creatures from beneath the ID, super-villains in search of power, profits and glory, even a few nickel-and-dime thieves looking to get their cut of the big time…  This is the story of one of those life-threatening extinction-level crisis events.

Sort of. 

We begin with an utterly ordinary man.  His name is Michael Tenicek, and like many of us, he has inexplicable dreams…

Dreams of a woman he’s never known, a perfect woman that he is absolutely certain does not exist.  It’s a recurring pattern for Michael: Go to bed, dream of Miranda, wake up perplexed and unable to get back to sleep.  Every aspect of his life suffers as he finds his thoughts completely monopolized by the strange ongoing dream, not a nightmare, but completely inexplicable and completely inescapable.  Mike tries everything to figure out where he knows her from, alienating his friends, his coworkers, and eventually resorting to medication to get any sort of rest at all.  At his lowest point, Michael even considers taking ALL his pills to finally rid himself of his “dream girl.”  That’s when he comes face to face with the OTHER side of Astro City…

The Hanged Man shows him a day long past, a minor battle between the All-American and his nemesis the Time-Keeper, two simple costumed mystery men of years past.  Thwarted over and over again by the heroes of Astro City, the Time-Keeper finally tried to go back in time and keep the heroes from every having existed, and causing a massive temporal disturbance.  The heroes of all times finally come together in a massive effort to rebuild the damaged timestream.  Worlds lived, worlds died, and lives were changed blah blah blah fishcakes.  It’s the Astro City version of Crisis On Infinite Earths, or the Infinity Gauntlet, or one of the half-dozen world-changing Image Comics events.  And, awesomely, we only see glimpses of it in a two-page spread, beautifully rendered by Brent Anderson.  I look and imagine the 24-issue maxi-series that never was, even gasping at the appearance of the long-lost Bouncing Beatnik… 

But that’s not important right now.  Because this is the story of Michael Tenicek and his wife Miranda, whose grandparents met after the Astro-Naut fought the Barnstormers on a Monday.  Miranda, whose grandparents never met, since the rewoven timestream had that battle taking place on a Sunday, instead.  Miranda, who was never born in the repaired reality.  The Hanged Man offers Michael a boon:  Since his memories could destabilize the timestream again, The Hanged Man can help Michael to forget her, to finally escape his recurring dreams and return to a normal life… 

“No one forgets…  No one.”  Still gets me, EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.  Kurt Busiek has a knack for choosing the perfect language, for staging the most affecting moments in comics, and this is no exception.  The notion that this perfectly average woman not existing could create an imbalance that could destroy the universe is a wonderful one, underlining my firm belief that everyone matters in the greater scheme of things, that everyone is important, if only to the people who loved them the most.  As for Michael, his life hasn’t changed at all, but the “sense of understanding” Hanged Man promises stays with him…

And I’m tearing up, yet again.  DAMN YOOOU, KURT BUSIEK!!!  This issue was originally sold by coupon as a Wizard Magazine #1/2 issue, a scam that I never had any stomach for.  (Wizard’s tendency to create collectibles is one of the major factors that led to the industry’s near-collapse in the 90′s, if you ask me.)  I didn’t send away for this issue initially, which led to me having to pay nearly twenty dollars for it when I finally found one (the silvery logo variant, which may explain the elevated price point) but I don’t regret it for one second.  This issue is a masterpiece, and stands as the simplest explanation I could ever come up with for anyone who asks what’s so special about Astro City.  I am fascinated by the fact that the huge universal crossover event takes place in between panels here, putting the focus instead on its effect on one man.  That’s the magic of Astro City, and it’s the main reason with Astro City #1/2 is simply perfect, earning 5 out of 5 stars overall.  If you’ve never read this story, you should.  (I believe it’s collected in the “Confession” trade paperback, and I happen to have a couple in the back issue bins at Gatekeeper Hobbies, Huntoon & Gage, Topeka!)

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Which stories have emotionally affected you the most?