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 issue. This issue, Jack-In-The-Box finally finds the answers he has been seeking. It’s Inside Astro City #36!
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 #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.”
MAJOR SPOILERS: The issue’s story feels less like a continuation of #35 than a separate, bookended story, with the Johnson family and Darman family bits held together by Ike as POV character. Was that an intentional Shakespearian parallel, i.e. Capulet/Montague family conflict?
KURT BUSIEK: I’m not sure what that means — ROMEO & JULIET doesn’t work that way. But while it wasn’t intended as any sort of Shakespearean parallel, it did crop up when I was outlining the two-parter. At first, I’d intended to do it was one interwoven narrative, but I knew that the first part had to end with the arrival of the Drama Queen, and there was so much stuff to establish before that could happen that I was struggling with it, and on top of that, the splashy appearance of the Drama Queen didn’t work so well if you’d just gotten a whole history of who she was.
So I started thinking about ways to have her make her appearance before the reader knew who she was, and that turned out to be a very rewarding structure, and it felt like something that’d work out well for my narrator, 17-year-old Ike. He’s telling this whole story, and then at one point he realizes, “Whoops! I forgot to tell you a bunch of other stuff!” so he backs up and starts over. It added to his character to tell it that way.
I just wish I’d had about 40 pages per issue, for all that history…
MS: You talked about what Gary Chaloner and Jesus Merino brought to their guest-issues, how were the last two issues influenced by Ron Randall? Would the story have been different if drawn by Brent Anderson?
KB: I don’t think it would have been all that different — Ron and Brent are different artists, but they have a similar, classic and solid approach to storytelling, so I’d probably have developed the story much the same way. But it was also a plus that I’ve worked with Ron before, on WHAT IF stories at Marvel, so while it’s been a good many years, we had a collaborative foundation to bring to it all. It also helps that Ron is local, so we were able to go out for pizza and talk over the story before I started writing it, which always feels better than collaborating purely by phone and e-mail.
But I certainly took advantage of Ron’s ability to tell a lot of story in a small amount of space, and still make the page look open and energetic, and his deft touch for human interaction. Some of the strongest moments weren’t superhero moments at all — I’m thinking of the audition scene, and Frankie’s mother’s funeral — where he just brought them to life in a graphically-inviting and emotionally compelling way.
MS: I found myself really satisfied with Ike Johnson’s decision to pursue psychiatry as a career, especially in an extraordinary setting like Astro City. What led you to lead him to that decision?
KB: It kind of spun out of things organically. My original plan was that he’d become a doctor, a healer rather than a warrior — but as the story developed, that felt kind of obvious and pat. So having him have planned to become a doctor, and then realize, due to his interaction with Frankie, that it’s not just bodies than need repair, seemed to fit better.
But overall, it allowed him to take a step into the human world, away from superhero dreams, but toward something valuable, constructive and heroic in its own way. He can’t follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute, can’t do something valuable for people who need it. And who knows, maybe his approach is more valuable, long-term, than the punching and the fighting.
MS: I spent some time trying to discern whether or not the Weirdies dialogue had any hidden significance or meaning, but couldn’t find any. Is there a pattern to their seeming gibberish?
KB: I’m sure there is, but if so, it only makes sense to them.
MS: Now that Zack Johnson’s discovered the truth of his father’s demise, what long-standing Astro City mysteries do you want to tackle next?
KB: Well, it’s not like I’m on a crusade to solve the mysteries, but as it happens…
We’re launching an arc next issue where we’re looking at the secrets of Astro City history through the eyes of the Broken Man, a set of stories that span about a century and will answer a number of questions, including how Astro City got it’s name, how the Gentleman came to be, who the hell Mister Cakewalk is and why the Broken Man is broken. And more.
And in and along with that, you’ll see a glimpse of the Hanged Man’s past, and a few more treats…
MS: Anything you want to prepare us for in issue #37?
KB: The weirdest garage band on Earth. The dream house. The mystery of Silverstring. The rise of Mister Cakewalk, and his end, as well. A look at Bakerville in its youth, some killer music, and one panel of extradimensional travelers riding cassowaries. And more.
Astro City #37: “The Broken Man returns, revealing secrets that will draw you deep into his broken life, and into turn-of-the-century Astro City, when it was still Romeyn Falls, Dame Progress patrolled the skies, and a rebellious power was growing, seething to break free. Featuring Mister Cakewalk, Jazzbaby and a very strange home called the Dream House. Beginning a whole arc of revelations about Astro City’s past, and a dire threat to its future.”