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 time around, we return to the mysterious Broken Man, and discover more about the past of the Astro City universe with Inside Astro City #37!
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 #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.”
MAJOR SPOILERS: This issue returns The Broken Man back to the spotlight, with his disconcerting habit of speaking directly to the reader, a technique that makes him stand out even among the unusual characters we encounter in Astro City. What led you to have the character break the fourth wall?
KURT BUSIEK: It was an idea I’d come up for a different character, years ago, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to have a character whose perceptions of the world are scrambled, but there are advantages to it — it gives him a new method of communicating and a way to make the audience his agents, to make their thoughts part of the story.
So when I realized it would fit well into ASTRO CITY, I immediately teleported it over and attached it to the Broken Man. He’s got a mission, and he’s going to need our help, so I hope it all works out!
MS: The Broken Man’s earlier appearance was full of hints and portents, some of which seem to have been recurring in the issues. Should we have been watching closely for hints of this larger story?
KB: Always! Some of the stuff we salt into the background of stories is there for a purpose, so it’s part of building things that’ll pay off later. Some of it’s just us having fun with worldbuilding — and then some of that becomes something we can play off of later, and it looks like we planned it all from the beginning. So you never know. Best to assume we’re geniuses, manipulating you at every turn. Watch the skies, man, watch the skies.
MS: I really like the technique involved in showing-but-never-quite-showing Silverstring’s appearance, in keeping with his mythic status. Was the blocking of that sequence in the script or was it all Brent’s work?
KB: The idea that we’d never quite see him clearly, so you’d never know if he’s black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, whatever, that was in the script. How it was shown was largely Brent’s doing — he liked the idea and had fun playing with it. And then Pete Pantazis got to join in, coloring that sequence in a sepia/silver combo that kept Silverstring’s secrets.
It was a way of keeping his story a legend. Mister Cakewalk’s story is history, and we see what happened, but with Silverstring we’re seeing what someone was told, and don’t know if it’s all true. So keeping his identity shadowed, keeping at a distance from the “truth” of it, that helps the mood of the sequence as well as hiding various facts.
MS: Much of Astro City has been about the history of the city and the world, but this issue is also about the music. With last year’s focus on Sticks and his love of rock and this issue, I have to ask: Are you musically inclined yourself?
KB: Not as a practitioner, no — I took piano lessons basically for long enough to convince my parents that I was not going to embrace a musical avocation. But I like listening to it, and I like thinking about it, and it’s a theme that’s come up in the background of ASTRO CITY stories here and there. And as the Broken Man said, it was time to tell you some things, and the music is a part of that, to see something that’s been going on for the last century-plus in ASTRO CITY…
MS: This issue’s history lesson was fascinating, delving into some very difficult territory with regards to race relations. Mister Cakewalk’s speech pattern, for instance, made for fun reading, but was a little disconcerting with its echoes of minstrel show dialect. Was the writing process more difficult with such a sensitive subject?
KB: Oh yeah. Mister Cakewalk is thought to be a villain, but we know he’s not, and he talks like a stereotype, but we get to see that he’s doing it in a mocking, sarcastic way… at the same time, I need to show you the face he presents to the public and show you the attitude behind that face, so the reader doesn’t get the same view of him that a Romeyn Falls citizen of 1908 would have.
It’s a tricky line to walk, but it’s necessary for the character.
MS: What can we expect next time around in part two?
KB: Well, it’s already out, thanks to me being so late answering this interview, so I don’t know that I’m giving anything away by saying it’s not exactly Part 2, but more Story 2. This is a cycle of stories examining Astro City history (or certain parts of it) through shifting eyes, but a particular viewpoint. By the time the cycle is over, that’ll make a lot more sense. But in the meantime, if anyone hasn’t picked it up yet, you’ll see Jazzybaby, the Cloak of Night, the Five Fists and others, you’ll see the return of the never-actually-glimped-before Doc Aegyptus, and some revelations about one of the villains lurking in Astro City’s shadows. You’ll see the Blasphemy Boys, too, and get to experience more in the way of music — both up-tempo and happy, and downbeat and dangerous.
And there’s more beyond that to come…
Astro City #38: “A look at 1930s Astro City, featuring Jazzbaby, the Cloak of Night, the Blasphemy Boys and more, as we delve into the secrets of the Oubor and the Broken Man’s decades-long war against it. Pulp action, serpent cults and speakeasies! Hot jazz meets cold lead, as our historical arc continues.”