Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chronic Review: Astro City - Through Open Doors

Scripts:    Kurt Busiek
Art:         Brent Anderson
Collects issues # 1-6 of the Vertigo series

I had never read an issue of Astro City before diving into Through Open Doors, which represents the 9th volume of the series.  This comic has always worn a badge of critical acclaim, but I've dodged it to this point because I'm generally not into analogues.  Why bother with a half-assed imitation of something when I can wait for a quality creative team to tackle the real thing? 

I do find exceptions to this line of thinking.  The Authority is worthwhile, and that makes no effort to disguise the fact that it's a Justice League commentary.  I really loved Danger Unlimited, and that's not even a commentary.  That was just John Byrne doing more Fantastic Four without the rights to the original property.

So when I started hearing podcasters and pundits talking about Astro City in special reverent tones, I decided that I would test drive the first volume when it got collected.  So here we are.

My quick capsule review is that Astro City is worthy of all the special reverent tones whispered about it.  Here's how it works and why it's a cut above your standard comics fare:

Astro City is Aptly Named

Every other comic on the rack is focused on a character or a group of characters.  Nothing wrong with that, by the way, I'm just stating the facts as they lay.  Astro City is about Astro City.  There are characters that tend to recur more than others, and characters more prominent than others.  That prominence is entirely determined by their importance to Astro City the community, however.

That approaches pushes the focus out into a web of interconnections instead of funneling it all into a specific person or a group.  It's a very different different style of writing and reading, it stands out, and pleasantly so.  Astro City is populated with a host of super-powered folks, and naturally those concerns tend to drive the plots.  It's hard to talk about Metropolis without mentioning Superman, right?  At that same time, Metropolis is much more than Superman.  Superman has no real purpose or meaning without the Jimmie Olson's to save.  Astro City is constructed in such a way that it can't forget that.  Ever.

So while Superman gets a requisite amount of panel time, (he's The Samaritan in Astro City, and Busiek plays him perfectly) three of the six issues in this paperback feature characters with no super powers at all.  The longest running plot in the arc consist of two issues spotlighting a call-center employee who feels she needs to atone for a call-routing mistake.

Your typical comic would flip Busiek's script and deal mostly with the Honor Guard mixing it up with the Skullcrushers.  The tip that brought them to the enemy base may not even get a mention.  Perhaps the call-center employee would receive a pat on the head for a panel.  In Astro City, the meat of the issue are a couple of victims of the Skullcrusher's violence and the call-center employee who feels responsible for their suffering.

Astro City exposes the "weakness" of most superhero comics by offering the reader more layers of the action.  The Big Two superhero books carve out the frosting off the cake, and it is sweet, to be sure.  Astro City lays out the full spread, and then holds the camera on the table until everyone is done eating and reminds you that somebody has to clean the table when the patrons are done.  Then it takes the camera back into the kitchen and shows you the cooks.

That's a different kind of storytelling.  You might be wondering if Astro City turns this back in on itself and becomes banal and dull.  Not at all

Astro City is Also a Mystery Cult

The A plot of the book is centered upon a set of doors in the sky hovering above the city.  Eventually a Celestial-type pops out of the doors and requests a liaison from the regular populace to teach him about the culture. Once the liaison gets the Celestial up to speed, more contact, sharing, and negotiating should follow.

Nobody is quite sure what to make of the situation, including the reader.  Not even the Samaritan seems to be a threat to the new Visitor, and that's a bit scary.  On the other hand, when he first appears the Celestial gets his volume wrong and has to fiddle with his Mother Box before continuing his speech.  So clearly this guy is not omnipotent!

These are the fun little touches that define a good or great series - the devil is always in the details.  This guy's power is not in question, so adding the foibles adds depth.  That character is very hard to pin down.  He seems mostly benevolent, but we never really have access to any conversations with his liason, (more on that situation in a bit) so its impossible right now to say what his intentions really are.  We have no clue what info he's actually getting from his assistant, or what the objectives are.

In the sixth issue, an Astro City mobster also negotiates his way behind those doors, and steals a Macguffin with potentially disastrous consequences.  It's hard to know how to interpret the Celestial's response to that development.  He may have set the whole thing up as a test, and it's a little creepy.  Who is this guy? What's the game plan?  What's he doing behind those doors with the liaison?  We don't know.  Yet.

But somebody might!  I haven't talked about the Broken Man yet, and he's integral.  Every now and again a purple-skinned man appears and talks directly to you.  He tells you what you're are and are not supposed to read and investigate in Astro City.  He tells you that there is something out there called an Oubor, and that he wants NO PART of it.  He chastises you for getting too nosey and potentially drawing the Oubor's gaze.  It's kinda trippy.

This purple person calls himself the Broken Man.  We learn some things about him (against his protestations) that make him a bit of an unreliable source.  And yet...maybe he knows more than anybody about what's going on.  The Broken Man appears to have psychically nudged Ben Pullam to volunteer to act as the Celestials liaison.  Possible so that the Oubur couldn't see him behind those doors.

The Broken Man seems to be the one choosing for us what elements of Astro City we are exposed to, all in a labyrinthine plot to....I don't Astro City from the Oubur?  The vignettes seem random, but Busiek and the Broken Man are promising that these things are all folding in on each other.

The good news is that the "slice of life" stuff is so good, it almost doesn't matter if the Mystery Cult stuff pays off or not.  If it does pay off....this comic could enter legendary status.

Astro City Has a Ton of Great Characters

Astro City # 4 is one of the finest issues of a comic I've read this year.  Martha Sullivan was born a telekinetic, but she just doesn't have the will or temperament to be a crime-fighter.  In the space of a single issue, Busiek walks us through Sully's development as a person, and what life for a regular folk with super-powers might look like, including all the perks and dangers.

It really is remarkable how much character track gets laid in this one issue, and this is also probably a good entry-point to talk about Brent Anderson's art.  Astro City is built on wondering how the superhero phenomenon would operate in real life.  How would a JLA call center actually work?  What would a world of intermingling gods look like?  And the answer is that it would probably look exactly like Brent Anderson draws it.

Not every person with super powers would look like a model.  I think that the design and rendering Anderson creates is critical to buying into the world.  The Brent Anderson Martha Sullivan allows me to just fall in, because I feel like I know who that woman is, and it's pitch perfect.  That's a no-nonsense woman who has lived some life and has some Kathy Bates in her.  If you have to fight your way into believing in her, Busiek can't get where he wants to go.  So I think a good portion of the verisimilitude I attribute to Busiek is actually Anderson, and I just don't have the tools to consciously recognize that.

Anywho.  In the Astro City tradition, Martha gets a full back story, a chance to grow, and a resolution to her plot in the same issue.  You've got your steampunky Dame Progress, and the Cake Walker, who by all rights should be stupid and instantly rejected, but you can't.  Because somehow this creative team makes you believe it fits in this world, and it all just works.

Astro City is unapologetically a super hero comic, but it's an exceptionally layered and sophisticated one.  For those of you pining for something like James Robinson's Starman book, this is an excellent tonic.  I'm giving Astro City a strong recommendation.


Web Wreckage Stephen said...

Hey Ryan,thanks for this. I am one of those that, like yourself, has always been aware of the series as being highly regarded but never really gave it a try and dived in. Your synopsis and recommendation now has me giving it another thought.(I think I even have a few of the single issues lying around somewhere from a cheapie box that I never read and would be a decent place to start)

DeWayne Feenstra said...

Glad you finally found your way to Astro City. This has been by far my favorite comic series and I reread the collections annually. I love Busiek will drop a small line or person in a panel and the payoff comes years later.