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 time, we rejoin Jack-In-The-Box and friends on a search for answers from the past…
It’s Inside Astro City #35!
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 #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.”
MAJOR SPOILERS: We return once again to the world of Jack-In-The-Box, one of the earliest heroes we ever met in Astro City. It seems that every time Zach Johnson and company take the spotlight, the theme is one of family and legacy. What makes that theme so compelling with respect to these characters?
KURT BUSIEK: It’s pretty much what they’re built around. Zack is driven by family issues — an admiration of his father and a determination not to let his son grow up fatherless, like he did — and they affect everything in his life. So that’s certain to affect his family, and seeing what it’s been like for his son struck me as an interesting story.
Besides, family and legacy are pretty powerful themes, even for characters who weren’t built around them!
At some point, we should do a story seen through the eyes of Tamra, who’s a pretty interesting character who’s largely gotten to play the roles of “famous face,” “wife” and “mother,” due to the stories we’ve told so far. Seeing what all this is like from her POV, and how it’s affected her life and career and such, as someone who didn’t grow up in a family overshadowed by superhero issues — that could be engaging, too.
MS: Jack and his villains seem to be clear love-letters to the 60s work of Steve Ditko on Spider-Man, Blue Beetle and the like, especially the design work on Mister Drama. Is he a favorite creator or just the most appropriate reference for the story and the character?
KB: Ditko’s certainly a favorite, but it probably comes out more in Jack-in-the-Box stuff, since we set out to create a Ditko-esque hero when we created him, without duplicating any existing Ditko character. And Alex certainly thinks about Ditko when designing characters like Mister Drama.
Actually, Mister Drama got created because we were trying to design The Underlord, and Alex wanted something Ditko-esque. I was playing around with the idea that he’s a character who walks two worlds, both the darkness of the criminal underworld and the light of day, and suggested the idea of the split-color suit and a split-mask like the comedy/drama mask, but without the comedy/drama faces, just the color split. Alex did a design with the comedy/drama face, because he liked the look of it, and my response was, “This looks awesome, but there’s no way this guy would be called The Underlord. He looks like his name should be Johnny Drama.”
Alex pointed out that there was a Johnny Drama on ENTOURAGE, so I said, “Okay, Mister Drama, then.” And bam, we had a whole new character. But then we still needed a design for The Underlord. Ron ended up designing him.
Secrets of the comics revealed.
MS: This issue features a less-then-successful attempt by Ike at being a kid sidekick, ending with a serious injury, and making me realize that Astro City doesn’t really feature a lot of Robin-style kid heroes. What’s your take on the kid sidekick? Do you think they ever work, dramatically?
KB: I think Altar Boy worked pretty well. And we’ve currently got the Choirboys, too. We’ve also mentioned or seen various others, like Sunbird, Quark, Slugger, the Young Gentleman and a few others, here and there.
I’ve got no particular problem with the idea of kid sidekicks, and at some point I want to do a whole arc about teen heroes, some of whom are sidekicks, some are ex-sidekicks, and some never were sidekicks. But since we did a major story about a sidekick in CONFESSION, I’ve been exploring other things. We’ll get to it in time!
MS: Obligatory comic-nerd question: How can Roscoe (and the previous Jacks before him) still have use of his extremities with the arms/legs at full extension?
(I’ve been wondering that since about 1997. Sorry.)
KB: Robotics. more specifically, some kind of waldo technology. When fully retracted, the hands and feet function and gloves and boots, but when extended, they’re armatures controlled remotely by the real hands and feet, still in the extendable tubes. It makes it tricky to learn how to fire them out and bring them back, so they slip on and off the real hands and feet right, but superheroes are nothing if not resourceful. Wolverine had to learn how to hold his wrist at the right angle to retract his claws into his forearms too, I imagine.
But it’s like riding a bike. Once you get the hang of it, you do it without thinking.
MS: The first time we saw Ike Johnson in Volume 2, we… actually didn’t see him at all, even though he was a key part of the ‘Father’s Day’ story. But in the space of a few pages, we get to know him as a thoughtful young man, making it feel like we know what has happened in the ensuing years. How do you approach that kind of character writing?
KB: We actually saw three versions of him in that story, though none of them are the version we see here.
But it’s a matter of story structure and narration, I’d say. I want to reveal various things about the character, his thoughts, his view of the world, so I build the story to do that. A lot of modern comics shy away from using captions, which makes it harder to do that sort of thing, but luckily I don’t care. I like narration, I like prose, and I like seeing the story through someone’s eyes. It’s partly about using the techniques of prose, but it’s also just about telling and showing the reader the right things — that first SPIDER-MAN story is less than half the length of an issue of ASTRO CITY, but Ditko and Lee introduce Peter Parker right up front, showing you everything you need to know to set up the story.
I hope we do it a little less bluntly, but if we’re telling a story about Ike’s life and thoughts and choices, it just makes sense to bring you into his world and give you the foundation you need to know and care about this stuff. Glad it worked!
MS: What can we look forward to in #36?
KB: More Weirdies! Secret history, the story of Mister Drama and the rise of the Drama Queen, the truth about Ike’s college major, some Shakespeare, a clever plan featuring a blimp that you never get to see and the answers Zack Johnson’s been seeking for decades.
And some other stuff.
Astro City #36: “When the original Jack-in-the-Box died, it shattered two families and gave rise to new heroes…and new villains. Now, the true secrets of that day are revealed-and they may end the Jack-in-the-Box dynasty forever. Also featuring: The Drama Queen, Chekov’s Gun, the Weirdies, the Trouble Boys and more. Part 2 of a 2-part look into one of Astro City’s most popular heroes, illustrated by guest artist Ron Randall.”