Visit Beautiful Astro City!

In creating the comic book Astro City, writer Kurt Busiek has squeezed the main themes of his industry over the past 80 years into one rich setting, the eponymous metropolis, which is overrun of heroes and villains, weirdness and tragedy. The aw-shucks do-gooderism of Superman is expressed in the Samaritan while the all-in-the-family futurism of the Fantastic Four can be seen in the First Family. The mythical superwoman Winged Victory is a Wonder Woman embodiment with a feminist twist, the flamboyance of Spider-Man is mirrored by the pogoing Jack-in-the-Box, and the gods-on-Earth majesty of the Justice League of America has its stand-in with the city’s Honor Guard.

These characters, and more, retain the epic aspects of their famous counterparts even as Busiek updates them, making them accessible by shedding the complex back stories that often saddle legacy characters. By populating his own world with representatives of comic-book eras from the pulps to the present, he allows himself to play with the conventions (as well as our expectations) of each.

The current ongoing series, Astro City: The Dark Age, is set in the 1970s and plays into the disillusionment of the decade. A murderous vigilante, the Blue Mask, is gunning down the city’s criminals. His executioner’s role—one shared by the Punisher, who was created during this same era—is opposed by conventional heroes, but embraced by a terrorized populace seeking a tough-on-crime savior. The cynicism spawned by Watergate is evoked by the Old Soldier, an Uncle Sam stand-in found fighting on the side of the Vietnamese, and the Silver Agent, a Captain America analog framed for murder and executed by the state. The loss of faith in authority leads to a backlash against the First Family and the Apollo Eleven, a group of benevolent aliens. Their exoticism is recast as un-American, a threat, as people seek to moor themselves with the comforts of conventionality.

The parallels are all created with a light touch, one placing sound story-telling and even conventional superheroics at the forefront. But Busiek is always at play with the concepts, seeking to illuminate how the comic-book trends of each era reflect the national uncertainties behind them.

While the Dark Age is, appropriately, a grim story, other arcs of Astro City highlight a sense of play. The most recent collected edition, Local Heroes, is imbued with the see-what-you-can-get-away-with wonder of the medium at its best. The volume’s design incorporates bits and pieces of Astro City lore—newsclippings and advertisements—as the stories alight on a variety of themes. A comic book company—they exist in this world too—invites the wrath of unknowable entities through some cosmic form of slander. A TV superhero lucks into real-life heroics, then has to find a way to abandon the costume before it kills him. A city teen spends the summer on the farm with her cousins, realizing that the intimacy of local heroes can match the grandeur of big-city ones. An enterprising lawyer relies on comic-book idiosyncrasies—clones, mind control, and resurrection—to spring a guilty client. A classic Lois Lane–Superman battle of the wits is captured from another angle, turning it into a study of cruelty.

Each of the stories is a blast to read. Each embodies Busiek’s mastery of the form, his ability to use the medium to comment on itself and remind readers why they love it, one issue at a time.

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