“Saturday Night Fever”
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Brent Anderson
Publisher: DC / Wildstorm
Plot: Charles and Royal Williams, a cop and a criminal, two brothers, struggle to survive in a city gone mad. Both are in over their heads with super-criminals, who connive and murder for control of the illicit trade of Astro City.
Comments: Nothing that happens in this issue is shockingly new. A wronged woman on a mission of vengeance loses control of her powers, and endangers an entire populace. A hero from the past arrives to set things straight. A cop is wounded in the line of duty, and his black sheep brother risks his own safety to help him, ironically utilizing his criminal connections to do so.
It’s not the plot points that are novel, it’s the way Busiek combines them. Astro City is a rich and ever-expanding tapestry, and though the heroes and villains are often quite familiar, they have a real sense of history that grounds them as it entertains. There is a resonance to their dilemmas that has largely been lost in the current versions of his actual source material. Astro City is always nostalgic, frequently tragic, but usually rewarding as well.
The whole project has been a postmodern gloss on the idea of superheroes, the ones we know really well, but Busiek has taken the time to ponder pertinent questions about each one. Astro City is a “what if ?” riff on Marvel and DC, but one that doesn’t always end in apocalypse. Instead the stories rely on heartfelt emotion and nitty gritty interactions of character.
Underlying this story, set somewhere in the 1970s Bronze Age, are the drugs and violence of a Blaxploitation movie. The sixties die a bitter, racially diverse and contentious death in this story of disillusionment and disaster. But Busiek is never all doom and gloom, and even in a chaotic riot he manages to center on moments of hope and inspiration.
Black Velvet is initially on a rampage to destroy the men who made her a monster (a “white-black girl,” as her nemesis Jitterjack dubs her before their brutal battle), and when injured her rage spreads to the populace at large. It’s up to another man, the Silver Agent, to offer her absolution and peace, and if Black Velvet is a more tortured Black Orchid, then Silver Agent is an impossibly nobler, shinier Captain America.
Brent Anderson outdoes himself in the beautiful sequence where the two meta-humans form a willing gestalt of their powerful energies. This splash page mixes the Agent’s flickering electricity with Velvet’s seeking dark tendrils, but finds in their unity a crucifix-like nexus of both hope and sacrifice.
Anderson also turns in his usual affecting job on the ground level. His characters brim with emotion, wear appropriate costuming, and find their moods reflected in their postures along with (this being a pulp comic) their deformities and cartoonish exaggerations. What makes it all work is the series of small moments that Busiek orchestrates (featuring brief but powerful glimpses of Hellhound, Tommy Gunn, the Platypus, The Incarnate, the Irregulars, the Jade Dragons – an abundance of richly colorful street fighters to fill out the gritty urban milieu) into a remembrance of things past, and times bygone. One gets the feeling he could keep doing this forever, and in fact there are two more Books planned. The only drawback I can think of is the infrequency of the issue. But that’s because they’re always, like this one, worth the wait.
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