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 visit Romeyne Falls in the 1920s with Inside Astro City #38!
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 #38: “A look at 1920s 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.”
MAJOR SPOILERS: The “voices” in this issue immediately caught my attention, with the initial caption boxes clearly having a traditional newsreel announcer voice, while Jazzbaby’s dialogue evoked the distinctive vocalizations of Myrna Loy. How much more difficult is that specialized/period dialogue to create than the ‘average’ issue of Astro City (if there is such a thing)?
KURT BUSIEK: Well, every issue of ASTRO CITY has a voice — at least one and sometimes more. So it’s a matter of finding what serves the story. A lot of times, that’s organic — when writing this issue, the “newsreel announcer” voice just kind of appeared, and I knew it wasn’t the right voice for the whole story, but it was a great way to set the scene. Drifting from there into the more internal captions that got into Jazzbaby’s thoughts and feelings gave us another voice, and it was fun working out with John Roshell what those voices would look like, in terms of lettering.
Doing it as a period voice is of course more difficult than a contemporary voice, because it’s not just a matter of getting the personality and mood right, you’ve got to get the period right, too. So word choice gets an additional dimension — it’s got to suggest the period as well. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes not so much.
But it’s part of making the stories what they are.
MS: This issue follows up directly on events from issue #5 of the current volume, but I immediately responded to the appearance of Cal Tarrant like an old friend. How is it different introducing an Astro City character, knowing that they may not appear again for some time, as opposed to a hypothetical monthly supporting character for The Avengers?
KB: Actually, I think it precedes that story by a few years — this is a slightly younger Cal Tarrant, who doesn’t know fully what’s coming in the future.
But I guess the big difference is one of completeness. If you’re telling a story that’s meant to stand on its own, like #5 did, or this issue does, you can’t just introduce a character and kinda let the audience know, “Okay, pay attention to this guy, you’ll learn more next issue.” The story will need to give you enough to justify that character’s existence. That may be a lot, or it may be a little, but it’s got to work for the story. And then if you bring the character back, you do it all over again. Cal’s role in #5 requires knowing stuff about him, as leader of the Blasphemy Boys, but this issue requires knowing other things — his background, why he does what he does, his sense of loss. Take the two stories together, and you get a fuller picture of who he is, but each one has enough about the character so that he works; you don’t need to know the other story.
In doing an ongoing supporting character like, say, Duane Freeman, there’s a sense of promise, that if you meet him playing a role in one issue, it’ll be developed as it goes along. Each appearance still has to work on its own — you can’t count on readers having read the previous appearances — but there’s a different rhythm to it, a sense of the character as ongoing cast rather than as short-story character.
So it’s a different approach, but you’re still serving the story. It’s just that a serialized story and a standalone story have different needs.
MS: I am kind of in love with the character of Jazzbaby, and the slowly unfolding story behind her, Mister Cakewalk, and however many other characters are secretly part of their tale. It seems like they’re the “connective tissue” of this volume, the way the Silver Agent was for previous runs of the book. Will we continue to see those stories simmering for some time, or is that building to something more short-term? (Saaaay, an upcoming anniversary issue?)
KB: You’ll see another incarnation of that particular legacy in #41, our 100th issue, and you’ll see another one beyond that. They’re very much a linking element in this sub-arc, and they’re important to the big story going on in the background. There’s a reason the Broken Man is showing us this stuff, and a reason it involves these musical/counterculture heroes.
There’ll be payoffs along the way, but the story of the Oubor, overall, will take at least as long as the Silver Agent’s story…
MS: My mind wants to make a connection between this issue’s antagonist, Destine/Doc Aegyptus with his Star of Lahkimpur and the previously Egyptian-themed PYRAMID and their Eye Of Sekhmet. Two power stones, lots of Egyptian theming: Am I crazy?
KB: Well, the Star of Lahkimpur is from India. But whether Doc Aegyptus and PYRAMID have any connection remains to be seen.
It’s certainly worth thinking about, though. It’s a big world, so it’s not remotely impossible for multiple characters to have an Egyptian theme — there’s Cleopatra, too, and she’s powered by some jewelry as well.
Or maybe they’re all connected. You never know.
MS: They’re called the Five Fists, but there seem to be only four of them. Any hints as to the significance of that?
KB: There’s five of them, honest. Whenever they show up, I find myself counting them, to make sure Brent shows all five in at least one panel. But they’re leaping around, and there are shadows, and when the text gets added sometimes it’s hard to see them all. But when and if we get a story that focuses on them, rather than has them appear in short bursts of action, it’ll be easier to tell.
MS: What’s coming up in #39?
KB: A two-part break from the sequence we’re telling here, as guest-artist Carmen Carnero graces us for a story of Marta, the former paralegal from Shadow Hill who we met way back in vol. 1 #4. Plus the Hanged Man, legal concerns, ghosts, mothers, comfortable romance, a little superhero action and a butcher shop. But since that issue’s already out, people probably already know that!
Onward we go…!
Astro City #39: “In the 15th century, the Hanged Man made a promise. Today, he needs a lawyer. A look back in at Marta Dobrescu, and her life in Shadow Hill, Astro City’s occult enclave-a life dealing with ghosts, demons, family, romance, and other horrors. And the Hanged Man won’t be her only new client, either. Part 1 of a 2-part story drawn by guest artist Carmen Carnero (Adventures of Supergirl, Dragon Age, Cyclops)”