Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

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I’d always felt ashamed that I’d never read Astro City.

I knew of it, certainly. I could speak in broad terms about how it was an anthology series set in a fictional metropolis full of superheroes. I could describe how it is regarded today as the first major artistic rebuttal to the ethos of The Dark Age that dominated American comics in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I could even rattle off facts like an encyclopedia about how it started out at Image Comics in 1995, before moving to the Homage imprint under Wildstorm Comics and lay dormant for a time before being revived in 2013 at Vertigo Comics.

Yes, I could tell you all of that and more. But for many years I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what Astro City was truly about because I’d somehow never gotten around to reading the whole series. I did read the first issue of the new Vertigo series when it came out and moved on to read the very first issue—the one which won The Harvey Award for Best Single Issue in 1996—as a freebie on Comixology. Apart from that, I was living proof of the Mark Twain truism that defined a literary classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read.”

Thankfully, I recently had a chance to work down the list most readers have of “great books I will read someday when I have time” and managed to read the first thirteen Astro City volumes. And now I can now vouch for it’s well-deserved reputation.

What’s it about?

It would be glib to say that Astro City is about a city full of superheroes. It would also be accurate but unhelpful. Unlike most superhero comics, Astro City does not base itself around any one character or group, focusing instead upon a single city and the lives of the people within it. There’s no singular protagonist—no narrator who opens each chapter saying “There are eight million stories in Astro City. This is one of them.”

The heart and soul of Astro City lies in this secret—it’s about people, not superheroes. Yes, some of its stories are about superheroes and some of the stories explore how superpowers would alter the functionalities of a society much like ours. Boiled down to its thematic essence, however, Astro City is about our common humanity in the face of uncommon circumstances.

Notable notes

Astro City is notable for many reasons, but I’ve chosen to focus on three of them—the creative team, the aesthetics and the continuing theme of humanity pulling-through in times of adversity.

It is a rare thing these days for a creative team to stick with a comic book title for any length of time. For that reason alone is Astro City notable for having retained the same writer and artists for over twenty years worth of stories. What is truly astonishing, however, is the collective résumés of Astro City’s creators.

Writer Kurt Busiek is notable for many accomplishments, including a four-year run on The Avengers and reviving Robert E. Howard’s Conan for Dark Horse Comics. Artist Brent Anderson has an equally acclaimed career and is best known for providing the artwork for God Loves, Man Kills—believed by some to be the greatest X-Men story of all time. Cover artist Alex Ross is considered by many to be the greatest painter to ever work in the comics medium, first achieving prominence on the mini-series Marvels (co-created with Busiek) before moving on to co-create Kingdom Come and the 2005 mini-series Justice.

There is a timeless quality to the aesthetics of Astro City. A feeling that seems evocative of a simpler time yet is simultaneously tinged with the hope of a better future. It is the same feeling inspired by Atomic Age science-fiction, showcasing the horrors of the world of tomorrow while simultaneously assuring us that our best days were ahead of us thanks to good, decent people.

It would be easy to dismiss this feeling as the pinings of nostalgia and Astro City itself as a derivative tribute book. Samaritan is an off-brand Superman. The Confessor and Altar Boy are Batman and Robin with a Christian motif. The family of scientific explorers known as The First Family are clearly The Fantastic Four with the serial numbers filed off. (Their home base is on Mount Kirby, for cryin’ out loud!) Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find something far deeper than any expy-driven fan-fiction telling the stories Marvel Comics and DC Comics would never publish in a million years.

Most of the stories in Astro City’s volumes are brief things—no more than one or two issues, at most. Like the classic Marvel Comics of The Silver Age, some stories focus upon the problems posed by balancing extraordinary powers with an ordinary life. A fine example of this is the two-parter Everyday Life and Adventures In Other Worlds (collected in Astro City, vol. 3: Family Album) in which super-powered tween Astra Furst runs away from home seeking someone who can teach her how to play hopscotch. Her quest to beat a bully at her own game while continuing the masquerade of being an ordinary girl proves more thrilling than the reality-hopping adventures undertaken by her family, who are convinced that Astra was abducted by one of their many enemies.

Much as Terry Pratchett used the trappings and tropes of fantasy literature to show that people are people even if they’re dwarves and trolls, so does writer Kurt Busiek take the common mythology of American superheroes and use it as a mirror to reflect upon humanity. The action of the Astro City comics always remains a secondary consideration to the emotional power of the people involved, be they a petty thug whose life becomes more complicated after learning a hero’s secret identity or a hotel doorman who commits a quiet act of heroism in the middle of a disaster.

Significance

While there’s some debate as to when precisely The Dark Age Of Comics ended (or if it ended at all!), it cannot be denied that Astro City was one of the opening salvos in the battle to take back the comics industry from a movement that promoted quantity over quality and reconstruct the idea of the superhero after Alan Moore and Frank Miller had deconstructed it with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, Kurt Busiek said as much in an interview with Pop Matters regarding the purpose of Astro City.

Everybody was concerned with pulling apart the superhero, its absurdities and its insanities. And, to my mind, to deconstruct something is to take it apart to see how it works so that you can put it back together again—and then take it out on the highway and see what you can do with it… seeing how to make it run even better.“

Astro City is also significant as one of the most critically acclaimed comic series of all time. It won both The Harvey and The Eisner for Best New Series in 1996. That same year, the first and fourth issues won The Harvey and The Eisner for Best Single Issue respectively. Throughout the nineties the series won more Eisners and Harveys for Best Continuing Series, Kurt Busiek won The Harvey and The Eisner for Best Writer, and Alex Ross also won The Harvey and The Eisner Awards for Best Cover Artist for his work on the series. Several stories also won Comics Buyer’s Guide Fan Awards for Favorite Story Of The Year.

Appeal

Astro City should appeal to a wide variety of readers. Superhero fans will appreciate the novel twists on classic formulas and tropes. Comic history buffs will enjoy picking the stories apart for the countless in-jokes. (Fun Fact: Julius Furst, of The First Family, is modeled on DC Comics’ Editor Julius Schwartz) And individual stories can be shown to those Doubting Thomases who still can’t believe that a comic book can tell a complex and emotionally engaging story for adults. I personally recommend The Nearness Of You (from Astro City, vol. 2: Confession) for such purposes. It’s a sweet, romantic story about a man tormented by dreams of a woman he doesn’t recognize but can’t shake the feeling is important somehow.

Talking of comics for adults, I should note my personal belief that Astro City should be kept in the adult sections of any library. There’s nothing truly objectionable in any of the stories—no excessive violence or gratuitous sexual content. Yet most of the stories require a worldliness and familiarity with classic comics that may prove to be beyond most teen audiences, though the language and content should give them little trouble.

Why should you own this?

Historically, Astro City holds an important role as one of the first books to reconstruct the idea of the superhero in the post-modern era. Artistically, it’s notable for its numerous awards and its status as a long-running project by three of the industry’s greatest creators working together for over two decades. Most importantly, it’s a fantastic series with amazing writing and gorgeous artwork.

Astro City, vol. 1: Life in the Big City (ISBN: 156389551X)
Astro City, vol. 2: Confession (ISBN: 1563895501)
Astro City, vol. 3: Family Album (ISBN: 1563895528)
Astro City, vol. 4: Tarnished Angel (ISBN: 156389663X)
Astro City, vol. 5: Local Heroes (ISBN: 1401202845)
Astro City, vol. 6: The Dark Age Book One: Brothers and Other Strangers (ISBN: 9781401220778)
Astro City, vol. 7: The Dark Age Book Two: Brothers in Arms (ISBN: 9781401228437)
Astro City, vol. 8: Shining Stars (ISBN: 9781401229849)
Astro City, vol. 9: Through Open Doors (ISBN:   9781401247522)
Astro City, vol. 10: Victory (ISBN: 9781401250577)
Astro City, vol. 11: Private Lives (ISBN: 9781401254599)
Astro City, vol. 12: Lovers Quarrel (ISBN: 9781401258252)
Astro City, vol. 13: Honor Guard (ISBN: 9781401263874)
Astro City, vol. 14: Reflections (ISBN: 9781401268299)

  • Matt

    | He/Him Librarian

    Reviewer

    A librarian with over 10 years experience in public and academic settings, Matthew Morrison has been blogging about comic books for nearly as long as they’ve had a word for it.  Over the past two decades, he has written regular columns, commentary, parodies and reviews for such websites and blogs as Fanzing, 411 Mania, Screen Rant and Comics Nexus.  He has served as an Expert in Residence for a seminar on Graphic Novels and Comics for Youth and Adults at the University of North Texas and has given several lectures on the history of comics, manga and cosplay culture at libraries and comic conventions around the country. In addition to his work for No Flying No Tights, he is the Contributing Editor of Kabooooom.com and maintains a personal blog at MyGeekyGeekyWays.com.

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