Sunday, April 16, 2006

Astro City: The Tarnished Angel

by Kurt Busiek

So after reading five volumes of Astro City I think I've finally clicked to the concept behind it, courtesy mainly of Frank Miller's introduction to The Tarnished Angel. The other week I mentioned Alan Moore's Watchmen; at about the same time as that series came out Miller produced The Dark Knight Returns (which I regretfully still haven't read), and while Moore's book took original characters and used them to rethink the superhero genre with a cynical, unsympathetic eye, The Dark Knight Returns did the same thing, only Miller got to use Batman and Superman to mock and destroy the genre they represent. The long term effect of these two releases was to ensure that straight up superhero comics, already regarded mostly as juvenile rubbish (not a totally unfair assertion), could never be looked at seriously again. What Busiek is doing is trying to restore a bit dignity to the genre, by keeping Moore and Miller's mature outlook but treating the superheroes as human beings instead of as allegorical stand ins for arrogant, self-righteous politicians.

This collection is one long story arc, featuring a second rate supervillian who has been given the name Steeljack, on account of his being made out of steel. As the story begins he is just being released from a long stay in prison, and being old and tired decides to go straight. In the end it's a relatively straight superhero story, but of course it's the details that matter. Not many other superhero comics go to the trouble of considering how one goes about having a shower with metal skin, or what the families of deceased supervillians thought of them, or the private insecurities of second rate Justice League members (guys like Aquaman or El Dorado).

A little bit of the old Miller/Moore cynicism shines through in the Honour Guard's (Busiek's analog to the Justice League) attitude towards a shifty old crim like Steeljack, but by and large Busiek is trying to make a mature superhero story without the grimness. He does a pretty good job, and the series is quite enjoyable, one of the few superhero series that aren't embarrassing to admit that you read.

See also:

Local Heroes and Life in the Big City

Family Album


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