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 around, we learn the long-awaited origin of The Gentleman with Inside Astro City #43!
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 #43
“At long last, it’s the origin of the Gentleman! Lord Saampa and his Serpent Cult strike in the U.S.…but are they here to serve their scaly god, or to save a soul? And either way, can the Gentleman stop them? Plus: Another incarnation of Astro City’s counterculture champions—this time, one you’ve seen before!”
MAJOR SPOILERS: This is an unusual issue, even for a book as… unpredictable? As eclectic? I don’t wanna say weird… But even for Astro City, this issue stands out, and you mentioned on Twitter the lack of narrative captions. Did that make it more difficult to complete than the average issue?
KURT BUSIEK: That was #44, where I said there weren’t any narrative captions. Here, the narrative is presented as overvoice, since the Broken Man is our primary narrator, and he shows up like a horror-comics host. And then, of course, Tillie Armstrong has her own narrative voice and keeps hijacking the story.
Once I say that, I realize there are bits of #44 that have flashback scenes narrated by one of the characters. But the main story has no narrative captions, at least.
Anyway, I don’t think this issue was harder to write than most — it’s not even the first time we’ve had two narrative voices in an issue, though it’s the first time one of those voices surprised the other. But while there was a fair amount of odd stuff to work out, the writing of it was fun. It was a treat for me to be able to have that back-and-forth between characters in such disparate settings.
MS: If my Google-Fu recalls correctly, The Gentleman first appeared in Volume 2 #1, back in 1996, but we’ve seen nothing of how his eternal Fred MacMurray-ness works until now.. How much, if any, of this story was there from the beginning?
KB: I don’t remember how long ago we figured it all out, but it was quite early. Alex designed and named The Gentleman, and offered him to me as a character, and I figured out his background and rationale. If you check the scenes with him, you can spot Tillie in the background, here and there.
ED NOTE: This image, from The Gentleman’s very first appearance, stands as proof:
KB: Anyway, I think I had the general outline of it when he first appeared, but it might have been by his second appearance. I remember being nervous about it, because after we’d decided all this, I read the first appearances of Chris Claremont’s Huntsman character, and thought “Gee, maybe this is the same idea!” I had no idea if it was or not, but it could have been. So here I had this secret about the character, and wanted to get it into print, and the opportunity wasn’t coming up — we had a lot of other stories we wanted to tell, too — and I worried that someone else would introduce the same idea, and we’d be stuck.
But I don’t think anyone did. And let’s face it, if Chris’s Huntsman does have the same basic idea, he’d do it so differently that it’d amount to a whole different thing. Whatever Huntsman is, I hope it gets done someday.
But to get back to the question — we knew about the Gentleman’s origins and powers and relationship with Tillie from very early on, but there was still a lot to work out about Tillie’s history to flesh it out for this story.
MS: In certain panels, Tilly looks like ‘Wizard Of Oz’ era Judy Garland, which represents some excellent work on Brent’s part. Given the themes of hope, imagination and childlike wonder in this issue, I presume that was intentional?
KB: Judy Garland was one of the touchstones we used in coming up with Tillie, but I don’t think we were specifically thinking about Dorothy Gale. I just wanted her, when she cropped up in the background, to look like a girl from the 1940s, so I suggested Judy Garland as an appropriate inspiration. I was thinking about her Andy Hardy movies and other such appearances.
Brent, of course, may have riffed off of Dorothy Gale, or maybe not. But the original idea was just to anchor her into a 40s sensibility by building her visual around a wholesome-looking teen of the era.
MS: So, to get our Counterculture Heroic timeline straight: We have Mister Cakewalk circa the 1900s, Jazzbaby active in the 30s, Zootsuit in the 1940s, The Bouncing Beatnik in the 50s, The Halcyon Hippie in the 1970s. Have I missed anyone already revealed? (Obviously, the questions about whether we count Silverstring and The Broken Man himself are probably “Wait and see!” queries…)
KB: Jazzbaby started up in the 1920s, I think, and the Halcyon Hippie was a creature of the 1960s.
Beyond that, well, I hate to say “Wait and see,” but you’ll have to wait and see. Although not for long.
MS: There are obviously still some possible gaps for additional faces of our Eternal Counterculture Champion. Should we expect to see more of them? (I’m still crossing fingers for a neon, New Wave 80s take, but that’s almost certainly a function of having my teenage years in that decade.)
KB: You’ll see more of them in #45! And you’ll learn what happened to their lineage in #46!
MS: Is the Young Gentleman’s face based on Elvis, or do I have my 50s pop culture haircuts wrong?
KB: Since Alex was inspired by the fact that the original Captain Marvel was based on Fred MacMurray in creating the Gentleman, we thought it only logical — or maybe the better word is “poetic” — that the Young Gentleman, be inspired to a degree by Elvis, since Elvis’s stage outfits were themselves inspired by Mac Raboy’s Captain Marvel Junior.
But just as the Gentleman clearly isn’t Captain Marvel, we made sure that the Young G isn’t Elvis — among other things, Elvis didn’t have freckles!
But we takes our inspiration where we finds it!
MS: What should we expect to see in #44?
KB: A lack of narrative captions! Plus, the crimefighting duo of Sunshrike and Nightingale in a 1980s adventure, the menace of both Stovepipe Johnny and the Popinjay, the appearance of a character who’s been mentioned before but not seen, and a character who may or may not be called Kittyhawk. And some gorgeous guest artwork from Rick Leonardi and Ande Parks.
Astro City #44: “A tale of murder, mystery…and a cat. Starring Nightingale, Sunhawk…and their cat. Did we mention the cat?
The cat’s the lead character.”