By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 06/06/2013 1:00 pm EST
Every Wednesday, there is one comic at the top of Graphic/Novels editor Brian Martin’s “pull list.” Whether it’s because the comic is consistently brilliant, it’s the beginning of a new series or run, or it’s purely a whimsical choice, one book must be read before all others. In this weekly column, Brian examines the book he’s anticipating most, why he’s looking forward to it, and, after reading it, whether or not the issue met his expectations. Expect mild spoilers!
The Book:Astro City #1 (DC Comics/Vertigo, $3.99)
Why is it at the top? Anyone who reads a lot of comics (or heck, maybe even just a few) considers, from time to time, a troubling hypothetical question: If I could only read one comic each month, what would it be? There was a time in my life when Astro City was that book, without question. It’s a series that delivered anything I could possibly want from a comic, with a cavalcade of entertaining, archetypal heroes and a world that was vibrant and fully-realized. Reading Astro City wasn’t escapist entertainment—it was a monthly vacation to a place where everything seemed a bit more exciting on the surface, but possessed real, relatable human emotion at its core. Gradually, due to scheduling conflicts, production studios switching ownership, and a long-term illness for writer Kurt Busiek, the appearance of new issues became more and more erratic. Finally, after over 10 years without a consistent, monthly series, Astro City is back. Really back this time. Top of the pull list? Oh, you bet.
So how was it? It’s sort of a surreal experience, coming back to this world after spending so much time away (or in the past, as readers did during the lengthy Dark Age maxi-series). Not only does this issue ease readers back into things through a new, omniscient character in the cryptic Broken Man, it also manages to make a few knowingly self-referential gags along the way. Throw in the fact that the reader becomes an active participant in the story (seriously), and you’ve got one of the most ambitious, if slightly uneven, issues of Astro City that has ever been released.
First of all, how about that cover? Alex Ross continues to provide cover pieces for the series, and this is an absolutely perfect image for the first issue, with the Samaritan opening huge double doors, flanked by Winged Victory, Cleopatra, and other heroes. It teases us to come out of the darkness, step through the doorway, and enter Astro City. Absolutely great work.
Astro City has always been a pretty even mix of superheroics and the lives of plain, ordinary folk. This issue delivers on both fronts. The first half of the comic focuses on a new character, American Chibi, a big-eyed anime-inspired super heroine that the narrator humorously questions both the sex and intention of. As the Broken Man observes, Chibi is loud, abrasive, and maybe a little insane, which, paired with her bizarre appearance, makes her a bit of a misfit for this series. She’s so absurdly unrealistic that she seems to clash (figuratively and literally) with everything around her. That said, Astro City has traditionally echoed era-specific comic trends in its pages, and its disappearance from monthly publishing corresponds pretty nicely with the rise in popularity of manga in America. So, considering this, it makes sense that an eastern-styled hero would have risen during our time away—“Spend a few years messing around with stuff that mostly happened thirty years ago, and you’re going to miss a few things,” as the Broken Man jokes, a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Dark Age.
About halfway through the issue, the focus switches from American Chibi to Ben Pullam, a civilian that longtime fans will remember from the first issue of Vol. 2, in which the recent divorcee moved to Astro City with his daughters. If you weren’t around then, don’t worry. This issue gives you all the information you need to come up to speed. That’s another hallmark of this series (and one I already discussed this week)—its ability to make past issues not required reading, but desired reading. It’s nice to see Pullam again, with his daughters grown and successful. It’s this sequence, more than the opening battle, that really embodies the typical feel of Astro City. It’s like a visit with friends we haven’t seen in far too long.
Pullam, like many of the common folk in Astro City, serves as an entry point for the (probably) non-superpowered reader. Using the same technique that made Marvels such a hit, the man-on-the-street POV that Busiek employs makes the heroes larger than life, replicating not simply the superficial look of a city teeming with adventurers, but the feeling of living among them. That said, Pullam’s role here ends up being far greater to the extended story of the new series. Without spoiling anything, to say that Ben Pullam is a “gateway character” is a far more literal statement than one might normally expect.
Busiek hasn’t missed a beat in the time this series has been gone, with this issue capturing everything that has made this comic so fantastic since its debut in 1995. And while I still think Brent Anderson’s transition to digital art makes his work look a little too crisp and not as organic and distinct as it once was, this issue still looks beautiful. Overall, Astro City #1 is a welcome return for fans of the series. Will it convert the uninitiated? I certainly hope so. I had high expectations for this comic, and the first issue, while not exceeding them, definitely met them.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.