Four-Color Frenzy 001
By David Binkley
Recently some colleagues of mine have started sharing on facebook some articles they've been writing for everyone's favorite local comic shop. Me being the type of person who hates being left out of the action when it comes to comic books and/or blurting out my own stupid, long-winded, rambling opinion regardless of whether or not anyone asked/cares, I've decided to try my hand at the same. Maybe if it goes well, it'll lead to a career in writing stupid, long-winded, unsolicited opinions just like every other annoying, semi-articulate 20-something out there with no real job skills. And then maybe I can quit my job as a gas station manager and spend all my time reading comics in my pajamas and blathering about them on the internet just like I did in my bachelor days. Indulgent mediocrity, here I come!
In case it wasn't obvious by the fact that I'm posting an article about comic books on a website for a comic book shop, I like comic books. I like them a lot, actually. Big shocker, I'm sure. Between trades and individual comics, I have somewhere in excess of (no exaggeration) 12,000 comic book issues. Yeah, that's a lot. So I like to think that that entitles me to a little bit of authority when voicing my opinions. I also like to think that hot dogs might be made of something of marginally nutritious value too, so I guess wish in one hand and do something significantly less pleasant in the other.
I've been collecting since I was 12, starting with Ninja Turtles and Sonic The Hedgehog but since back-issues of both were hard for me to come by, I had to branch out to other series to get my fix of panels and text-boxes.
My criteria for cool new titles has changed over the years. In the early days I was impressed by skulls and demons and undead freaks who would brood on rooftops while inarticulate narration clumsily soliloquizes about the tragic bloodlust they're cursed with. After that, it was whatever I could find at the library in trade with early issue numbers listed, because my meager allowance could only afford so many back-issues and since I was still learning most of these characters, I didn't want to jump into the middle of something I didn't quite understand. After that it was the classic, big-name characters, your essential Justice Leaguers and Avengers and anyone else with issues numbering in the 300's so I could prove my nerd-cred and could make smug remarks like, "Oh, you like Iron Man? Have you ever even READ an Iron Man comic?! Psh! I didn't think so!"
Nowadays I'm old enough to start noticing all those names being listed under the issue credits and have noticed some correlation between some of those names and most of my favorite stories. Moore, Ennis, Ellis, Morrison, Gaiman, O'Neil, Millar with an "a", Gerber, Dini, Miller with an "e" before he went bat$#!% (probably around the time of Sin City), Waid, Bennett, Ostrander, etc. I could spend all day making a list of all the best comic writers (you ever notice how internet articles are always lists anymore?) or I could cut to the chase and talk about one in particular, and that's Mr. Kurt Busiek.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Busiek is responsible for some award-winning runs on Iron Man and The Avengers in the late 90's to early 2000's, the highly collectable JLA/Avengers crossover series, and the complete run of 52 Weeks's sister series, Trinity. Additionally, Busiek wrote the 1993 epic Marvels, the story of average citizens in the Marvel Universe staring up in awe as their world suddenly becomes filled with superhuman champions. And when I say looking up in awe, I do mean the kind of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, imagination-capturing awe that only Alex Ross can produce (Alex Ross did the art for Marvels, in case that wasn't clear).
But the Busiek work I bring before you today (for the like, 7 people out there who read comics and who also read more than just the header for any given internet article that pops in their newsfeed), is Busiek's opus, Astro City (I knew I had a point I wanted to make eventually).
Astro City is an anthology series about a city (duh) not unlike Gotham or Metropolis that is filled to the gills with superhumans who are quite similar to all your beloved DC and Marvel classics. But more than that,Astro City is populated by a diverse citizenry of your average folks who live their lives in the benevolent shadows of their colorful saviors. And this is where the true beauty of the series shines through, when the superhuman meets the human and demonstrates how they're not mutually exclusive worlds.
Now to anyone whose perception of superheroes is more evolved than memories of the Adam West Batman show, this isn't exactly a new concept. "Surely" you say "the most intriguing part about Batman or Spider-man or Hulk is how flawed and fragile and relatable they are in addition to being able to do push-ups with a busload of school children parked on their back, except for Batman who deduces that said busload of school children is some part of an overly-elaborate scheme thought up by a blood-thirsty psychopath in a custom three-piece suit."
"No doubt," I would respond. "But! What if I told you Astro City could make you feel bad for Superman because... he can't fly."
"Poppycock! Preposterous! Balderdash!" you exclaim, here employing the vocabulary of an old-timey, mustachioed gentlemen who peers at me disbelieving through a monocle, as I'm sure you so frequently do. "Superman is perhaps the least challenging or relatable of all the superheroes! And to pity him because he can't fly?! Ridiculous! Everyone knows that Superman can fly! To pity him for his inability to do so is like feeling bad for a fish because he can't swim or sympathizing with one of those disgusting Kardashian/Jenner women because she's not fabulously wealthy despite having no practical talent or redeeming human qualities whatsoever!"
And yet, the very first issue of Astro City accomplishes such with a mere 22 pages. The main character, a superhero who goes by "The Samaritan" dreams every night of being able to fly free and unfettered from the world around him. Laughing and shouting he climbs and glides and dives and weaves as carefree as a bird until his emergency alert system wakes him up a full two hour before his alarm clock and he must spring into his daily routine of saving the world, maintaining his civilian identity, working with his super team, and doing all the other things that Superman does on your typical, mundane, weekday in between the really exciting adventures chronicled in his comics.
Being a superhero is a day-job, and it's a day-job he's working on top of his actual day-job. And he doesn't resent it. He doesn't do it begrudgingly. But at the end of a long day of speeding from one crisis to another, he's accumulated barely a minute's worth of air-time. Great power and great responsibility don't sound so bad until you realize just how great your responsibility is. Like I said, I'm the manager of a gas station with a staff of eight and even I can barely get through the day without 4 or 5 off-the-clock phones calls about problems that I need to sort out. Imagine if I was getting phone calls from all over the world about people whose lives are in danger rather than knuckleheads who are confused about the sale price of soft drinks. Maybe Superman's not so boring after all, if he's putting up with everyone's stupid problems without tearing his hair out and rolling his eyes at every idiot question he gets.
Between superheroes, sidekicks, villains, side-characters, kid-reporters, spouses, siblings, parents, and citizens, every facet of a superhero's world is explored in intimate detail that has every opportunity to be cynical about the superhero genre, but never fails to portray it in genuine admiration and sincere optimism. And that's a rarity today with all your modern superheroes getting in drunken bar fights over real-world politics, or arguing over who among them is displaying slightly less psychotic, amoral tendencies when beating up bad guys, or brooding over whether or not that have any business meddling in affairs that don't concern them in the first place. Every one of your favorite characters has an Astro City counterpart, from the Fantastic Four to Wonder Woman, Captain America to Green Arrow, Punisher to Adam Strange. And with the exception of the Dark Age arc, every story arc is neatly contained in it's entirety in any of the trade volumes and you could literally start anywhere.
Also, on the off-chance anyone reading this is familiar with either Marvel Civil War or a little film that goes by the name of The Incredibles, check out Volumes 2 and/or 4 and see the genius who had those ideas long before Pixar or Mark Millar with an "a" ever did.
The series has been published off and on since 1996 without about 80 or 90 issues to date collected in 14 volumes thus far. The current on-going series is being published by Vertigo (DC's artsy and experimental son, for those not in the know) and reprints of the earlier volumes are available so ask your local retailer to order some if they're not in stock (Hint, hint).
If you love superheroes, but are bottomlessly cynical (like myself), or if you know someone who doesn't like superheroes and you want to fix that debilitating character flaw, or even if you or a loved one just like cool things, regardless of your possible ability/inability to see the flaws in everything around you, check out Astro City.
And if you liked my long, digression-filled musings, look for further installments of Four-Colored Frenzy hopefully* occurring weekly! *(Don't hold me to that, I've got a lot of things on my schedule)