Welcome to Inside Astro City, a column focusing on the Vertigo Comics series Astro City from Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross! Each month, we’ll take a look at the current issue of the series, and ask series writer Kurt Busiek questions about the book. This month, Steeljack’s story wraps up, but is it a happy ending?
It’s Inside Astro City #34!
This is a spoiler-filled column, so if you have not yet read the issue you might want to come back later. You can find the issue at your local comic book shop or you can download it from Comixology here.
Astro City #34: “Steeljack goes up against Death Itself to save Cutlass. And that’s just for starters. But even if he survives, is he being set up to be the fall guy? A climactic tale of money, nostalgia, alibis, collecting, jail time and pure indestructible stubbornness.”
MAJOR SPOILERS: You’ve talked a little bit about the collected editions, i.e. assembling the Honor Guard solo stories all in one volume. Steeljack’s story is three issues long, which somehow seems weird in the era of “six issues to a trade paperback.” Was it just a matter of how much space you needed to tell this story, or are there other factors that affect the length of particular A.C. arcs?
KURT BUSIEK: We take the amount of space we need for ASTRO CITY stories — how long does the story need to be? So that’s why, for instance, our first collection is six one-issue stories, our second is one 6-issue story plus a bonus story, the third is two two-issue stories and three one-issue stories, and like that. We’re not “writing for the trade” in the sense of making sure every story is six issues long or whatever. The stories vary in length depending on what they need.
That said, we do “write for the trade” in the sense of keeping the trade collections in mind. When I realized we’d done two guest-artist issues about Honor Guard characters, I figured it made sense to do another four, and have that be a collection, so I chose to write stories about Honor Guard characters and picked stories I knew could be one-issue stories. And here, I’m aware that the next book collection is going to need to be about six issues long, so when we have the 20th anniversary Samaritan issue and the two-part First Family story, I know we’ve got about three issues left. I could do three one-issue stories, a two-issue story and a singleton, or a three-issue story, and this Steeljack story fit the bill.
If it had needed to be 5 issues long, we wouldn’t have squeezed it into a smaller space, we’d have done some other story, and waited for this one until we had the right amount of room for it. We’ve got lots of stories to tell, of many lengths, so it’s usually not hard to pick stories (or come up with new ideas) for stories of the length we need.
MS: This issue’s brief reference to Commando K reminds me of how many bits of Astro City history we, the readers, haven’t seen fully explained. Do you have any type of hypothetical endgame in place, in the unlikely event that you decided to wrap up the world of Astro City? Would you leave those messy bits and mysteries unexamined?
KB: We do have something of a possible endgame in mind, and we’re slooowly working toward it, but as we get closer we’ll decide whether it’s the ending or we want to keep going. We could have ended the series with the Silver Agent two-parter, and I think that would have worked well. But we had more to explore, so we’re still rolling, and we’ll see how it goes when the background arcs we’re playing with now play out.
And whenever we end, there will be plenty of mysteries and references left. ASTRO CITY is a series of stories about people, not specifically about the heroes. So if we never tell the story of, say, Starpower, who’s appeared on a cover and in one panel, I’m not going to be any more worried about it than if we never tell the story of Marissa Cowper’s little sister. At the moment, they’re both background characters, supporting players in the other stories we were telling at the time. If they ever become leads in a story, great, but if they don’t, that’s cool too. It’s great to have all this texture, implying a larger, complete world, but we’re never going to do a story about every single character in a costume.
Sometimes a background character stays a background character. Or a reference to an adventure that happened off-panel is important to a character, but we don’t then need to spend six issues playing it out. It’s a side-reference, a may be nothing more.
Then again, if I get the right story idea, who knows?
MS: Sometimes, it’s really easy to take the most subtle bits for granted, but I really like the realistic corroded red of Traktor’s armor and the cool grille design in the back. It’s those sort of details that make even minor players of Astro City fascinating. Was this your design, Alex’s or Brent’s?
KB: Traktor was all Brent. Plus Peter Pantazis, helping realize it through color.
It’s great to be able to toss a character like that into a script, and have Brent be able to realize a visual that looks and feels like “super-villain” but also looks and feels like “tractor,” and comes off as a character with a history, someone you know fought various heroes over the years. We don’t need to see all those adventures, but the characters need to feel like they’ve had those lives, and Traktor is a great example of that.
ATACC is, too, to my mind — he really came alive on the page, and I don’t remember whether it was Pete’s or Brent’s idea to color him in faded camo paint, but it really says a lot.
MS: Steeljack gets his happy ending this time around, some well-deserved pleasant surprises for a man whose life has been pretty rough. Is it ever difficult create these wonderful, deeply human characters and then set off torturing them with insult and injury?
KB: It’s the torturing part that lets them show who they are. So no, not really — it’s a part of telling stories, and I wouldn’t like the characters so much if I didn’t have these stories that make them sympathetic. They work on us as well as they do on the readers.
In Steeljack’s case, we knew from the start that he’d eventually become a very low-rent PI, but that was too big a step to end the first story on — it worked better to show him making just one small step toward a settled, positive life back then, rather than such a big one. So we always knew we’d come back and see him again later, having made progress but still struggling. I like that we get to do that.
MS: Is it naive of me to hope that Ismiri and Carl get to spend their twilight years together?
KB: Probably. Ismiri likes a different kind of life than Carl does, and she’s more willing to skate on the edge, so she’s probably dangerous for him to be around, like a recovering alcoholic hanging out with a brewery owner. I tend to think she sticks around for a few days, and then heads back home and he heads back to work, with a lot of nice memories. And maybe they’ll look each other up again in the future, you never know.
But I think they don’t have the makings of a long-term couple. Maybe he’ll find someone else. Maybe he won’t. Maybe Cutlass will wind up ruining his life without meaning to. There’s a whole world of possibilities, and it’s always possible that they’ll find true romance, even if they feel more like old colleagues than ongoing lovers.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with being naive.
MS: Tell us what to expect from next time around, please?
KB: Three generations of Jack-In-The-Box! The attack of the Weirdies! The Underlord, Mister Drama and others! The Trouble Boys! The secret of Torres Island! And a teenage boy looks at the summer after high school graduation and has to figure out what to do with his life…
Astro City #35: “A spotlight on three generations of Jack-in-the-Box, as the second Jack-in-the-Box’s son must decide whether to follow in the family footsteps or take another path. Also featuring the Trouble Boys, Mister Drama, the Weirdies and more. And featuring guest artist Ron Randall (CONVERGENCE: CATWOMAN, Trekker).”