Astro City is one of those special titles that, after binge reading through the 60 issues now bound in beautiful volumes, you relentlessly foist upon disinterested friends and loved ones. Although Astro City features all the hallmarks of a superhero comic series, the depth and tone of Kurt Busiek’s writing makes the title impossible to pigeonhole. Yes, there are recurring superheroes and villains. Yes, there are epic battles between caped vigilantes and ludicrously attired baddies who spout their hackneyed dreams of world domination. But how many superhero comics devote an entire story arc to a children’s cartoon character named Looney Leo that, after inexplicably coming to life in the real world, struggles with fame, alcoholism and obsolescence? Or a retired, middle-aged super villain whose main concerns are making rent and keeping his parole officer off his back? So, while Vertigo has traditionally shied away from “capes,” the publisher is a perfect fit for this weirdly inspired masterpiece.
Astro City #1 might not be an explosive reintroduction to the titular city and its inhabitants, but it certainly serves up the surrealism the title is known for. In the first page we are met by The Broken Man, a new character, who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader. “Hey, hey you. Hey-hey. Yes, you. Out there. You with the face,” says the purple-skinned man with the blond 1980s mullet. “No. closer. Closer! You never know if it’s listening, somehow!”
And, with spooky dialog that only becomes more cryptic, the levitating Broken Man becomes our guide through the first issue. Aside from acquainting us with the people—super and mundane—that appear in issue #1, The Broken Man has his own agenda and, on the final page, an incredibly intriguing twist…beginning (just read it, okay?).
The next person we meet, though “person” is a dubious distinction in this case, is American Chibi—a living Anime caricature in American flag spandex. American Chibi is another new character in the series, and the possibilities for her past and future development at the hands of Busiek are limitless.
Longstanding fans of the series don’t need to wait long before old favorites show up. Samaritan, Winged Victory, The Confessor and others make appearances early in the issue. But the true star of #1 is Ben Pullam, a normal schmoe who moved to Astro City with his daughters 17 years previously. Ben served as a great device in his first (and, until now only) appearance, as we got to see the strange city through a newcomer’s eyes. This time, Ben is back to show us the city again, though this time through the eyes of a hardened Astro City veteran. In the intervening years, Ben has secured a comfortable job at an insurance company and developed a smartphone app that allows commuters to plan their travel around the super-brawls that regularly disrupt Astro City’s traffic. Such a delightful detail!
As was the case before Astro City’s hiatus, the city and characters are brought to life by the gorgeous and thoughtful art of Brent Anderson. Anderson, cover artist Alex Ross and Busiek are known for putting an enormous amount of time and consideration into character design, and their work together shines through in Astro City #1. The faces are expressive, the world is rich and detailed, and the action is kinetic.
The layout design in this issue is spectacular. Characters explode out of the confines of their panels, nearly flying off the page. The story and art flow beautifully from page to page, with innovative and refreshing arrangement.
While Busiek is a genius world-creator and storyteller, he hasn’t had a chance to fully flex his editorial muscles this early in the series. While compelling, the majority of issue #1’s dialog reads as conventional and prosaic. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s quite good—especially The Broken Man’s rambling, enigmatic address to the audience. But, like a parasitic infant that has been denied the breast too long, I want more!
Buy this book immediately. Leave your work unattended. Leave your children unminded. Leave the stove on and the pot boiling. Get in your car, drive to your nearest comic book store and buy what is possibly the best issue you will read all summer. Astro City has, at long last, found its home at Vertigo.