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Sunday Slugfest: Astro City: Dark Age Book Three #1

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009
By: Thom Young

Kurt Busiek
Brent Anderson
Wildstorm-DC Comics
“Into the Abyss”

Charles and Royal Williams are two brothers we first met in “Book One” as a cop and a criminal, but developing shades of gray are endless in this Dark Age. Charles was betrayed by his fellow cops, and Royal has gone undercover with the criminal organization known as PYRAMID to seek revenge for their murdered parents.

Shawn Hill The cover to the long-awaited Astro City: Dark Age Book Three #1 (I reviewed the last installment, Book Two #4, in Sept 2007) features the glorious debut of the costumed heroine Cleopatra, but she doesn't much factor into the story. Oh, Brent Anderson does wonders with her Promethea-esque costume, and the opening salvo of her transformation from victim to avenging angel taking out a satanic gang is inspiring.

However, she's one of those possessed heroes who gives up her identity when the hero takes over, and we don't get much time to meet the person behind the mask before she passes out from the effort.

Thom Young: Well, it’s just you and me for this week’s Sunday Slugfest, Shawn, so I’m going to have to interrupt you here for a moment for some clarification.

When you say this is the “debut” of Cleopatra, you’re correct in one way, but not in everyway--so I want to explain. This issue is set in 1982, and it features the “origin” of the African American version of Cleopatra, Sarah Brandeis--so we could say that the African American Cleopatra “debuted” in this issue (after all, that’s what one of the two narrators does say on page six).

However, the narrator also mentions that there was a 5’4” white Cleopatra with blonde hair before Sarah Brandeis became the All-New Cleopatra. That blonde Cleopatra first appeared in Astro City volume one #2 in 1995 in a flashback sequence set in 1959. However, an African American Cleopatra, whom I believe is probably meant to be the Sarah Brandeis version, appeared in the issue before that--Astro City volume one #1 in a scene set in 1995.

The Cleopatra costume in those two issues published in 1995 is essentially the same as the one we have here--and since Alan Moore’s Promethea didn’t debut until four years later in 1999, we might actually say that Promethea has a Cleopatra-esque costume. Regardless, though, both characters are obviously analogs of Wonder Woman.

One of the things that I’ve always liked about Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is the layers of tightly controlled history (continuity) that uses analogs of every superhero and associated comic book characters from the Golden Age to the present (mostly Golden and Silver Age, though). I remember when the first Astro City series debuted 14 years ago--one year after Busiek and Alex Ross did their groundbreaking series Marvels (Ross, of course, has been the cover artist for all 44 issues of Astro City that have appeared over the years).

I didn’t realize, though, that it has been more than a year and a half since the previous issue came out. I didn’t read any of the four issues in Dark Age Book Two (though I’ve been meaning to), and I was hoping that I could read this “first issue” without feeling too lost.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I was a bit lost in the plot--mainly because the last time I saw our two sibling narrators at the end of Dark Age Book One, they were on opposite ends of the law and the story was about how their lives had taken different paths after the deaths of their parents by Silver Agent (at least that’s what I remember, but it’s been nearly four years since I read those issues).

Shawn Hill: It's really the stories that go on behind all the masks that Busiek is interested in, and here the majority of the issue is devoted to Royal Williams, whom we find in the very odd conditions of a criminal training camp. Ever wonder where all those plotting bad guys get their armies of thugs? This is a rare chance to see their breeding ground, from "below the decks" as it were.

Morrison has touched on this theme (the life of an unimportant pawn for the more shiny ones) in a memorable The Invisibles issue, and DC's Manhunter series made humorous use of one of Luthor's minor cronies as a kind of clandestine Q for the title character's James Bond needs.

Here, however, in the interest of exploring the darker world of trickle-down 1980s economics, we see that the boot camp environment is a deadly one likened to the conscripted service of ancient gladiatorial slaves. These troops are regulated by drugged encouragement, pills for the day and hypnotic gasses at night. Training injuries are required and encouraged, and yet Royal makes friends among the all-too-human ranks, men left without options in the economy of the day.

All of this is more than Royal bargained for, but the Williams brothers, now allied against all forces legal and otherwise, are a formidable team aiming to strike a guerilla blow against the corruption that killed their parents.

Thom Young: As I mentioned, I was a bit lost in this issue since I’ve missed at least the four issues of Book Two (and perhaps even the final issue of Book One)--plus, I don’t recall all the details of the issues I read more than ten years ago. However, I was under the impression that PYRAMID, the group training Royal, was a government operation--akin to Marvel’s SHIELD--and that EAGLE (the group to which Charles belongs) is a separate government organization.

Now I see, though, that you’re probably right. Charles and Royal were on opposite sides of the law, so Charles belongs to the SHIELD analog (EAGLE) and Royal belongs to the HYDRA analog (PYRAMID). The one thing I did notice, though, is that the sleep-teaching methods are derived from the hypnopaedia concept in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I only wish it seemed like Busiek was going to get around to making the Astro City story be a commentary on our society rather than just be a commentary on the changing nature of superhero stories from the Golden Age to the “Dark Age” of comics that began in the mid 1980s.

If I can be a Modernist for a moment (rather than a Postmodernist), I think the change in superhero comics is itself a reflection of the changes in our society from the late 1930s to the present, but Busiek seems to be exploring the changes in the medium and then having his Astro City society be a reflection of the changes in the superhero.

It’s interesting, and I should really get back to re-reading (and just reading) the entire 44 issues to date, but I’m not certain that this series is being all that it could be.

Shawn Hill: The dialogue and narration call up the mood of a dark world pretending things were better than they were, and Busiek's encouraging letters page promises regular delivery for the next three issues, which Anderson has already completed. Extended delay or not, there's been no drop-off in quality or inspiration for this nostalgic, revelatory title.

Thom Young: And I’m just not feeling the magic in this series the way I felt it in 1995 when Astro City debuted as a miniseries and then moved on to an ongoing series. Back then, it seemed that comics had turned a corner and that the best comics were riding the wave started by Alan Moore’s work in the 1980s--Marvelman, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen.

The sense of more verisimilitude in comics may have started with the Silver Age Marvel comics of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee (and continued with some of Kirby’s stories for DC in his Fourth World Saga), but it really came to fruition under Moore with Marvelman, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen. Obviously, they were still fantasy stories, but more consideration was given to how these concepts would be shaped if they were “real” rather than just fantasies.

I thought it was the permanent new direction of comics, and it certainly inspired the creation of such things as Jim Shooter’s New Universe at Marvel, Busiek and Ross’s Marvels, Busiek’s Astro City, and perhaps all of Warren Ellis’s work from the mid 1990s to the present.

For whatever reason (and there are a few possibilities), it just seems that Busiek isn’t quite achieving that level of verisimilitude any more. Instead of getting a superhero verity of Astro City’s Dark Age told by a “real” person (such as Phil Sheldon in Marvels, Elliot Mills in Astro City volume one #2, or Marta (no surname as far as I know) in Astro City volume one #4, we get a this extended dual narration arc by the Williams Brothers.

While I realize Busiek’s intent is to have Royal and Charles work as a continuation of the verity narrative method he has used throughout Astro City, they just don’t come across as authentic to me. However, I’ll also admit that I should probably just start over from the beginning to get a sense of how everything either flows together or has become disjointed during the last 14 years of the on-again, off-again publication of Astro City.

In the end, though, I’ll just say that while this issue has good dialog and illustrations, it’s really not “new user friendly” despite the #1 on its cover. Hell, it’s not even “old user friendly” for that matter.

Shawn Hill: Isn't that the joy of comics like this, and of the sort you describe above? Reflective as they are of antecedents, tropes, and time periods seen through eyes either contextually clear or nostalgically misty, don't you want to find enough there (including enough mystery, even confusion) to pour over them again and again and find more every time you re-read an issue?

The tiny blurb on the cover verso gives you the names and basic situation, if rather tersely, and then we're off into the evocation of the era. I do feel that Busiek captures the feel of the time (the Regan era) in the real world as well as the feel of the comics of that decade, but I don't think we need a non-super narrator to ground us. It's not Marvels, after all (which is a concept that never appealed to me, precisely because of the implication of the photo-realistic art trained on our four-colored fantasies).

Thom Young: Well, it’s not that I’m looking for this to be another Marvels exactly. However, that was definitely the direct precursor to Busiek’s creation of this series. Over the course of the 44 issues to date, Busiek has consistently used the point of view of the “common person” in a world of superheroes in this series. There are issues that have been an exception to that--such as the very first issue, which was from the point of view of Samaritan (Astro City’s Superman analog)--but even then there has been a sense of “superhero verity” in those issues narrated by one of the super-powered characters.

Of course, I enjoy the continuation of the superhero verity that Busiek is still using in Dark Age, and I appreciate the elaborate history/continuity of Busiek’s characters as analogs of all the characters ever to populate superhero universes from the Golden Age to the present. My problem, though, is that I’m not feeling the “verity” that much in this current arc even though its being narrated by the two “common man” brothers.

Also, I’m just not getting that sense that Busiek is commenting on our society as much as he’s commenting on the depictions of our society in comic books from the 1980s. It might be a fine distinction, but it’s the sense I’m getting.

As for the illustrations, I know you don’t care for Ross’s superhero verity images and that Anderson is more suited to your tastes, and that’s fine. I don’t usually have a problem with Anderson’s work. I’ve been following him at least as far back as the X-Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills in 1982.

However, I really hate the one image he has in this issue of The All-New Cleopatra--though a lot of that would seem to be the fault of the colorist who makes her face of a darker pigment than the rest of her body.

Shawn Hill: With Anderson, we have something of a compromise: he's a realistically inclined artist and a master of anatomy, in the mold of Steve Epting and Jerry Ordway. He even channels a bit of the lost flavor of John Buscema to my eyes, but he's also a gestural one (especially with his inking) who doesn't try to fool you into thinking the pages are fumetti.

Thom Young: However, fumetti isn’t actually what Ross does at all. His painted images have always looked like paintings rather than photographs--but they look like paintings of photographs. Obviously, as we’ve come to learn, that’s essentially how Ross works: He has models who pose for him in makeshift costumes, and he usually photographs them and then paints the photographed image.

I picked up the collected edition of Marvels during Free Comic Book Day last week (the store was offering a 20% discount on all graphic novels), and I was surprised to see that Ross’s work in there is not as photorealistic as I recalled it being. Of course, it really isn’t photo realism at all--which, as you know, is the ability to make an airbrushed painting look indistinguishable from a photograph.

Shawn Hill:Well, as I think of photorealism these days, it can be any painted work (even sculpture) that has a level of detail and accuracy that mimics that of the photographic lens. So it can even look painted, with brushstrokes, and still have that quality. I even occasionally like some artists I put in this category, like Mark Mayhew (but not other users of photo sources like Greg Land and Greg Horn).

Thom Young: As with most things anymore, I find I’m really “Old School”--as in my definition of photorealism. I completely forgot that there’s the entirely new realm of “digital painting” that would allow photorealistic paintings to be created on the computer rather than with an airbrush. Still, I don’t get my sense of photorealism in the work of Alex Ross.

I recall reading Marvels in 1994 and thinking that the image of Giant Man towering over the city’s buildings looked exactly like it would if I was in New York and really saw Giant Man striding through the streets of Manhattan. I was surprised to discover last week that the actual panel is not as “realistic” as I thought it was 15 years ago.

I would say, though, that Ross has probably gotten more “realistic” in his paintings of photographed images during the past 15 years, and I understand your reaction against that trend. I had much the same reaction against literary Realism and Naturalism when I was a Romantic. Since you still are a Romantic, you would (and should) have a reaction against that aesthetic.

In fact, the idea I have that Astro City isn’t quite as “superhero verity” as it was 14 years ago might also explain why you have such a positive reaction to it now--though you would know that better than I would, naturally.

Shawn Hill: I think that kind of "compromise" is also what we get in the writing. Astro City is a format that allows Busiek to comment on the heroes of bygone eras, and through them he also comments (if sometimes very indirectly or superficially) on the social mores and values of those times as well. He's having his cake and eating it too, but I don't think I'd be as interested if it wasn't also a traditional superhero tale on one level.

Thom Young: Yeah, I know. I think that’s the Romantic in you, Shawn.

Shawn Hill: And the lover of escapist fantasy in me as well. I still thrill to the power fantasies comics offer--even in a book like this one that shows the dire consequences of some of those powers.

Thom Young: Well, of course. While the Romantics didn’t invent escapist fantasy, they certainly adopted it and cultured it. We wouldn’t have superheroes, western heroes, Sherlock Holmes, or hardboiled detectives if it wasn’t for Romanticism. I love all those things, too, but I just get a feeling that Busiek is no longer building on the foundation he set down in the mid 1990s--but, as I mentioned, it could be that I just need to read the entire Astro City canon in one run rather than in the scattershot method that I have lately.

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