Astro City Mail—November 2013


So here we are, another month gone by, and I haven’t made either of the announcements I said I was going to last time. I’ll get to them, I swear! Just been busy trying to get stuff written.

But the Red Sox won the World Series, so I’m sure you’re all happy about that.

What, not all of you? Unpossible!

Okay, okay, on to the mail. MATT was first through the door this time…

Fresh air bless you for this fourth issue: This—this is what I read ASTRO CITY for, what I hope for, what makes me laugh and grin and be glad again I read comics: a whole story about real people, specially endowed indeed, but non-caped and un-known ordinary folks, persons of interest, persons with their own interests. I’d like to meet a Martha Sullivan, not (just) for her special power, but because she is, in herself, interesting (cool job, cool attitude, very cool friends…).

You manage that old ‘bigger world beyond the pages’ Astro City trope here, too, with the page of glass-blowers, set designers, and all. And that, too, is indicative of the best in Astro City: evidence of genuine, concentrated Thinking behind the story. Really conveys the sense you worked to evoke what it could be like to be specially-powered, and choose beyond cape or scowl.

Brent (and Wendy!) does another excellent job (I do miss Ka-Zar, though, and await a story with a Ka-Zar like-a-look in a far off-jungle setting).

I very much enjoy/ed issue 4.

A jungle hero? In an ASTRO CITY story? Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.

Next up, ANDREW didn’t like it…

AC #4: Way too much dialog with way too little payoff! Course, the same could be said for almost Any KDB offering, honestly; even the Kang War was way too serious and story-driven (over character-driven). These slice of life issues/characters, I think I’ve seen enough of that. I’d much rather read about the heroes of Astro City!!! This isn’t POWERS, you know? Taking all this into account, I may even be done with AC! At least for a while. Also, you may want to experiment with other substitute artists (and letterers) once in a while.


I don’t mean to denigrate your opinion, Andrew—you like what you like, and I think that’s just fine—but I will admit, I laughed out loud at the line about POWERS. No, we’re not POWERS, we’re ASTRO CITY—we’ve been doing stories about ordinary people in a world of superheroes since 1995, and POWERS has been around since 2000. So if anyone’s got dibs, it’s us.

[I will admit, I don’t know how much POWERS has done with slice-of-life stuff, since I don’t read it. I think Brian and Mike are good guys and top-notch craftsmen, and I’ve liked what they’ve done elsewhere—I just tend to avoid series that strike me as similar in concept or approach to ASTRO CITY, because I don’t want to be influenced by them. So no knock against POWERS is meant, either.]

But while we do tell stories that focus on Astro City’s heroes from time to time (and we’ve got one of those starting next month), we’ve been all about a variety of perspectives right from the start, and that’ll include a lot of perspectives that aren’t superhuman. In these first six issues, we’ve had three narrated by superhumans, though of those, the Broken Man thinks of himself as a superhero and Mattie very much doesn’t. The other three have been narrated by superteam support staff and an organized crime figure, plus we’ve had spotlights on monster-hunters, an armored cult leader and a steampunk adventuress. That seems pretty varied to me.

If it turns out that ASTRO CITY isn’t for you, well, so be it. Not everything is for everybody. But if you want stories focusing on superheroes that aren’t talky and have more action, and are drawn and lettered by people who aren’t Brent or J.G., there are an awful lot of books out there that offer what you’re looking for. There aren’t a lot of books offering what we do, though, so we’ll keep at it, telling stories about heroes, villains, lunatics, bystanders and more, and we’ll hope that’s enough to keep an audience around, supporting the book enough to keep us going.

Short and sweet, here’s MIKE:

Kurt, I was wondering if there are any plans to re-issue the Confessions storyline in a hard cover collection? Thanks for your time.

Eventually, yes.

The plan is, once we get up and going with the book editions again (which starts up earlyish next year), that whenever DC runs out of copies of a TPB, we’ll go back to press on it not just as a TPB, but as a hardcover as well, and that way we’ll get a new print run of everything in hardcover. When that’ll happen for each volume depends partly on how much stock DC has of each book, and on the vagaries of fitting things into their production schedule. But we’ll get there.

Here’s JAY:

Another solid issue of ASTRO CITY, although it really didn’t wow me.

I’m not sure I like the idea of there being so many powered folks in the AC universe, but if that’s a given, then it makes sense that there will be Sideliners. After all, for every ‘guitar god’ there are umpteen session or local band players that are as good but don’t want to go on the road. And people with a particular skill or talent tend to find and hang out with similarly talented folks.

Also, it makes sense for the Sideliners to have a bit of organization and contact with the “stars,” for the reasons shown in the story. Kurt, have you read Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” books? In those, there’s people with minor Talents that form a support/self-protection group that Dresden occasionally interacts with—the Sideliners reminded me of them.

The real problem for me was the villain. As presented, Majordomo is just too silly/stupid to be taken seriously. No self-respecting henchman would be working for him, and where did somebody that new get the money for that much tech and that many henchmen? Which makes me hope he has backers who needed a distraction…

And finally a meta-question. While Sully has been around since the Crimson Cougar story, were the rest of the Sideliners created just for this story, or have some of them been sitting around in one of your notebooks waiting for a story they would fit into?

Most of the Sideliners were created for the story, though I’ve known there are other superpowered people out there making a living without being part of the hero/villain game since before Sully showed up, and some of their talents had been jotted down in notebooks.

I like the Dresden Files books quite a bit, as it happens. Hadn’t connected them with the Sideliners, but I suppose you never know. I might have been influenced, might not have been.

And the Majordomo had bags and bags of money, and was willing to buy used. I’m not sure how “self-respecting” henchmen are, as a group, but they need work even when the credible threats are mostly in jail, so they sometimes have to take what gigs are available.

And sure, the Majordomo was a loser, but I think that’s part of the fun—just as not everyone’s interested in being a hero or a villain, not everyone who is interested is necessarily going to be good at it.

Here’s STEVEN, with the Letter of the Month (it was edited a little to fit into the print lettercol, so here it is at full length):

Once again, you’ve provided a story that wasn’t what I was expecting, which is one of the things I love about ASTRO CITY. This month, however, I had a new experience—it left me feeling a bit disappointed.

I loved the idea of a “super civilian” being kidnapped by a villain recruiting an army. I was totally convinced that Sully was despondent through it all—just look at her face as she sat, defeated, in her cell (another testament to the expression that Brent puts on characters’ faces). And she seemed so concerned that they caught Eddie.

I was ready for a great, character-defining struggle, and then…it was suddenly resolved with little drama or effort, thanks to a little deus ex machina named Magda. I felt let down.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that while this wasn’t the exciting story I was expecting, it was the better story. Showing the first time she was kidnapped would have been pretty interesting, but showing the nth time she has been kidnapped shows that you put a lot more thought into it. Instead of a character-defining moment, you gave us a very well-defined character who has been dealing with this for years—and by extension, showed that this has been happening to many others for decades. They’ve “been there, done that,” and chose not to buy the t-shirt.

And instead of leaving me to wonder how they would react if, for example, their community was threatened while all of the “real” heroes were occupied, you showed that they can and will step up if they need to (the Crimson Cougar story, helping Honor Guard)—but they choose not to if they can avoid it. On the cover, I thought that Sully’s “yeah, whatever” look was a passive one—but I later realized that she is likely using her powers to actively keep the chaos away.

I’m sure that Sully has Peter Parker rolling over in whatever limbo he’s stashed in. Yeah, great power brings great responsibility, but there are people with greater power, so let them have the greater responsibility, and leave me alone. We’ve seen different riffs on Peter’s mantra before (such as KINGDOM COME’s “if everybody has power, then nobody feels responsible”), but this is a new one.

Of course, the “not so great power” has been explored before—perhaps best in RISING STARS (alluded to with the “pyrokinetic on the run”), and to its extreme in LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES (Bouncing Boy!). But Sully and co. have some pretty great powers and are very skilled at using them. Not everybody has the personality to be a hero (firefighter, police officer, etc.), but everybody can find a way to use their gifts to contribute to society.

As usual, there were plenty of nice little touches I loved. I already mentioned Brent’s amazing work with facial expressions, and it was fun to see Boris Karloff make an appearance. I really appreciate seeing people of all body types and clothing styles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “hoary” in a comic with out “hosts of Hoggoth” attached, and learned about its pejorative meaning (“stale”). Somebody complained that you didn’t name all of the heroes who appeared in a previous issue, but the world feels more real when it’s full of extra details that aren’t crucial to the story.(What are Eddie’s powers? Jen is off in Italy, but who is she?) And I loved Sully’s slam on stupid code names.

So while the story wasn’t as exciting as I expected, it was much better. Even a “disappointing” story from ASTRO CITY is an excellent read, and I’ll gladly read it again and again. I can’t wait until next month!

Thanks, Steven. As we note in the print lettercol, Steven gets an autographed copy of the issue for being chosen as the Letter of the Month, and we’re not above pointing out that the rest of you reading this should write every month, and see if you can score one of these scrawled-upon treasures yourself. Hint, hint!

And now, BRYAN:

Hi Kurt, I used to be an avid comic reader and big fan of yours, but stopped reading comics altogether several years back due to a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with. ASTRO CITY was one of my favorite titles, but at the time I stopped reading it had been on hiatus for awhile and as far as I knew wasn’t coming back. It’s recently come to my attention that it did indeed return and there appears to have been quite a few issues published in my absence. I’d like to get caught up now, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find a complete list anywhere of what issues I missed. I’ve googled everything I can think of in search of it but everything I find seems to be out of date or incomplete. Can you provide or point me towards a complete list of the ASTRO CITY comics in existence so I can figure out exactly what I’m missing?

Lemme see if I can do this from memory:

KUST BUSIEK’S ASTRO CITY 3-D SPECIAL (reprints vol. 2 #1 in 3-D)
ASTRO CITY (current series) #1-6, with more on the way…
There was also a short Astro City comics story in the anthology 9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember and a very short prose story that appeared as a Wildstorm editorial.

I think that’s everything. And it’s been collected in 8 volumes so far:

1. ASTRO CITY: LIFE IN THE BIG CITY (all of vol. 1)
2. ASTRO CITY: CONFESSION (vol. 2 #4-9 and the #1/2 issue)
3. ASTRO CITY: FAMILY ALBUM (vol. 2 #1-3, 10-13)
5. ASTRO CITY: LOCAL HEROES (vol. 2 #21-22, the Local Heroes mini, the Supersonic special, the 9/11 short story and the text short-short)
6. ASTRO CITY – THE DARK AGE 1: BROTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS (the Flip Book story and Dark Age books 1 and 2)
7. ASTRO CITY – THE DARK AGE 2: BROTHERS IN ARMS (Dark Age books 3 and 4)
8. ASTRO CITY: SHINING STARS (the Samaritan, Beautie, Astra and Silver Agent issues)

That collects everything but the new series (which starts getting collected next year) and the Visitor’s Guide (which will finally be collected in one of the new volumes). Oh, and the 3-D issue hasn’t been reprinted in 3-d, just in its normal version.

Hope that helps!

Then there’s MICHAEL:

Finished reading ASTRO CITY #4 and I loved seeing your exploration of this little-known subculture of superhuman artists and builders. While Mattie and the rest of the “Sideliners” might sometimes feel guilty about not doing “more” with their powers, to me they’re offering the world a lot more by using their powers to do something other than punching out a super villain.

Too often (in both Astro City and our “real world”) people get pigeonholed by outside expectations and end up using their gifts in very limited ways. It doesn’t matter if these gifts come from physical ability, a high IQ, a trust fund, or super powers—inevitably many of these people feel pressured to enter a line of work that they may be capable of doing but don’t derive any real satisfaction from.

What you showed with Mattie and the rest of the “Sideliners” is that having super powers (or any special skill) doesn’t have to put you in an “either-or” situation. You can use your abilities to become something other than a hero or villain—and even profit from them ethically—if you’re willing to exercise some creativity and see your gifts as something other than a potential weapon.

When you think about it, the Sideliners represent the type of society that superheroes are fighting for—a world where people don’t need to be soldiers but can use their gifts to create art and build something for others. (Incidentally, I find it extremely gratifying to hear that someone who could probably “bench press Mount Shasta” prefers doing construction work rather than getting involved in super fights and knocking down buildings). Personally, I’d love to see more stories about other “Sideliners”—their unconventional lifestyles make them the perfect bridge between traditional superheroes and common working men.

Looking forward to ASTRO CITY #5…

Very glad you liked it, sir. It’s entirely possible we might see more of the Sideliners in the future, or other super humans who’ve chosen a non-traditional path.

Another MICHAEL:

“On the Sidelines” is another one of those stories that I considered to be quintessentially ASTRO CITY. As usual, the issue focuses on a regular, ordinary person…only this case, the ordinary person is someone with superpowers.

What makes it quintessential? Well, let’s see:

• The main character of the story, Martha “Sully” Sullivan, is someone we met once before, as a side character in a previous issue. This helps remind us that every story we read in ASTRO CITY is connected.

• We learn about Sully’s background and life history in great depth, through first-person narration. We also find out how she came to decide on the life she leads.

• We meet a new character (in this case, the Majordomo) who might show up again later.

Hm. Maybe I better stop before it sounds like I’m accusing you of being formulaic. I’m really not!

I did like the way Samaritan stopped by to talk with Sully briefly at the end. How rushed he is hearkens back to the very first ASTRO CITY story. It’s nice to get the feeling that even the superpowered people are ordinary people, just doing what they do best.

By the way, have you ever read the PS238 series by Aaron Williams? He posits a school program that teaches superpowered kids the skills they might need to use their powers in non-traditional, non-heroic ways. It makes sense, as 1) not every power lends itself to standard superhero/supervillain fighting, and b) as your story already pointed out, not every person with powers might want to take on the role of superhero or supervillain.

I’ve never gotten around to PS238, actually. Partly because I suspect it might be on my “don’t want to be influenced by that” list, like POWERS. But I’ve heard good things about it.

Here’s PAUL:

I began reading KBAC just early this year, so I guess it’s great timing for this new volume to come out now. Although I was skeptical as to the quality (I wasn’t a fan of the later miniseries TBH), my fears have been assuaged.

It’s getting better by the issue. It feels like I’m in the middle of ‘Confession’ and ‘Tarnished Angel,’ the two best KBAC storylines yet IMO. Reading the Humanoglobal and Sideliners stories gives that feeling of amazement that these issues have never been tackled before.

If this keeps up for just another dozen issues, I’d be perfectly happy.

And thanks for not abusing the Vertigo-ness of the comic by showing all sorts of nudity and blood splattering.

I’m really not a blood-splatter guy, I’ll admit, and neither are Brent and Alex. Though nudity—we did start this series off, back in 1995, with a bare-ass guy flying around in the sky, and next issue you’ll see a callback of sorts to that. Though this time, we had DC lawyers looking over our shoulders, saying, “More shadows! Make the shadows darker!” For all that we’re a Vertigo book, we’re still what I consider fine for any reader who’s actually interested in the kind of stories we tell (which DC translates to “T for Teen,” but I’m happy with 12 year olds reading the book, 10 year olds, whoever wants to come to the party).

Of the stories you’ve read so far, though, only one (#5) was written after we knew we’d be a Vertigo book, and I think the next one written after we came over to Vertigo territory is #12. But I wouldn’t expect us to bust out with salty language or explicit nudity or gore, even then…

Next up, STEVE:

I wrote up a review of ASTRO CITY #4, which I admit includes a lot of personal stuff, but I thought I’d send the text to you (I don’t want you to think I’m trying to trick you into visiting my blog.)

Thanks for the great book!

And since Steve sent along the whole review, here it is:

Let me start by saying a few things in general about Kurt Busiek’s ASTRO CITY. ASTRO CITY is a special comic series to me because it affected the way I thought about superhero comics. Many years ago I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do artistically. I realized I wasn’t going to jump into a job at a large comic book company. But that was okay, because I really enjoy teaching and I’m proud that education is my profession. But I still wanted to do something artistic, if only for fun. I wanted to make a comic book of my own. So I had to figure out what to do a comic about. I thought about comedy, sci-fi, and fantasy ideas. Anything but superheroes. Superheroes just seemed like an idea that had been destroyed by the bad decisions of the major comic companies. I didn’t think there was any way to do a superhero book that wasn’t a retread or a parody. But then I read some superhero comics that were original creations, not parts of the major comics companies. And these comics renewed my faith in superheroes as a genre. The comic that affected me the most in this way was ASTRO CITY. ASTRO CITY proves that superheroes are interesting and cool. There’s nothing lame, condescending, or apologetic about the characters and situations that Kurt Busiek and company create in their world. Superheroes in the Astro City universe are the most perfectly normal occurrence. I’d even say ASTRO CITY proves that if super-powers existed in the real world, we would have costumed heroes fighting for truth and justice. The idea doesn’t seem goofy, it seems…right.

ASTRO CITY’s current run has reached issue #4, and it’s a good point for me to write a review. Issue four, titled “On the Sidelines,” tells the tale of Martha Sullivan, a telekinetic who lives in Astro City among all the costumed super-folk but has no desire to become a crimefighter. She uses her powers to earn an honest living working in film. There have been other comics I’ve read of super-powered people with no desire to use their powers (The magnetically powered character in NEW TEEN TITANS comes to mind) but Kurt makes the best case for someone not wanting to be involved I’ve ever seen. The flashbacks to her early use of her powers and her path to her current status are excellent. But this is standard fare for ASTRO CITY. Kurt doesn’t just tell about someone with powers, he lets you really get to know the character so you understand and care about her. Martha isn’t perfect, but she’s competent. I should add that I loved that she doesn’t have the “super hero physique.” She looks and acts like a real person…who is a telekinetic. I worried for her and I felt joy and sadness when things went well or badly for her. The cameo by Samaritan was very well done, also, showcasing the differences yet sameness of the two characters. One last comment: the art is top-notch. Perfect mood and action inside and an excellent cover.

I eagerly await more!

Thanks, Steve. Brent is very conscientious about making sure Astro City is populated by a wide range of people, and I’m glad that comes through.

And to wrap up, with a view echoing Andrew’s, up top, here’s JON:

I think you made a mistake by opening your new series on two dreary civilians (Marella and Ben).

It took until issue 4 for the “return” of the classic ASTRO CITY USP—the “human-behind-the-superpower” concept.

But that’s the thing. Issue 4 should’ve been issue 1! Stories showcasing the ASTRO CITY USP should’ve come first! Because that’s the “thing” that makes ASTRO CITY different to other superhero books. New people need to know this.

Instead, you gave us stories that did nothing to sell ASTRO CITY to newcomers (like Vertigo readers) or remind long-time readers why they’d been following. You gave us tired, dated-looking stories, filled with tired, dumpy, pointless characters. Who wants to read stuff like that?

I’m curious if the last 4 issues were written intentionally with a brand new volume in mind, or just as continuing chapters of the previous WildStorm run.

I get the impression it’s the latter. And if that’s the case, that’s a shame. Three-year gap or not, I think it was lazy to start a new run with leftovers. It’s disappointing.

Anyway, Kurt—if you’ve got more non-powered civilian stories in store, please reread the Marta/Shadow Hill story and take notes.

Otherwise, if you’re planning future stories with dullards who think temping is the height of cool (Marella), well, see ya. Not worth the $3.99 price tag anymore.

And Jon sent along a PS:

If you do decide to publish my email (which I doubt, because it’s a complaint), you don’t have my permission to publish my email address. My name only, if that’s alright.

No sweat, Jon. We don’t publish e-mail addresses in the online lettercol anyway. And as of this issue, we’re not including them in the print version either, since DC Legal got skittish about it and we didn’t have any strong reason to include them, other than that addresses were a normal part of lettercols when I was writing i to them and I made some good friends due to the correspondence that came out of that, but hey, the world moves on. I’m a little surprised that you think we wouldn’t print criticism, since we already have. I’ll print just about anything, as long as it’s not outright abusive or obscene—I’ve got no real space limitations here, and I’d like to make this a column to show of the varied reactions we get, not just one flavor. I like variety.

Anyway, on to the meat of your letter:

I used to know what USP meant back when I was a marketer, but had to look it up for a reminder—it’s “unique selling proposition.” But the thing is, I don’t think ASTRO CITY’s unique selling proposition is “human-behind-the-superpower.” I think it’s something close to “humanity-amid-the-superpowers”—we’ve never focused strictly on people with powers, after all, and have been telling non-powered civilian stories, often, going back to our second issue. We’re definitely going to do more of them. Today’s issue is one, #11 is one, #12, well, it’s hard to say, since there are multiple leads in that one. #13 is about a guy with no powers, but he’s hardly a civilian, so that (along with #7-10) may be more to your liking.

But I don’t think Marella and Ben are dreary at all, and I don’t think we should have started with #4. #1-3 were written to be the first three issues of our new monthly series to follow up the DARK AGE epic and the SILVER AGENT two-parter, and while it took us a long time to get it going, they were still designed and written to be the opening issues of a new series, to serve as an introduction to the city and the kind of story we feature here. I’m also not sure how new, never-published scripts could be “leftovers,” as if they were pieces of old stories that didn’t get consumed with earlier issues. We did shuffle around the material when we got ready to release the new series, to make sure they broke down into arcs (even arcs of short stories) pleasingly and would collect nicely in book form, but those first three issues were always planned as the first three issues of our return to monthly publication.

So they very much were intended to show newcomers what we do and welcome old readers back. Hopefully, a lot of readers will want to read stuff like that, and judging from the feedback we’ve gotten so far, more of those who’ve written in like those stories than don’t.

Sorry you haven’t liked ’em, but I have to say, think they show off our USP quite clearly. It includes stories about heroes, but it also includes stories about people living among the heroes and coping with what the world throws at them as a result. And Marella a temp? She’s hoping not, because she really liked the job…!

Anyway. If the stories we’re telling aren’t to your taste, that’s cool. Maybe later ones will be. Or maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for in other books. As long as you find good stuff to read somewhere, it’s all good.

And with that, we’re at the end of another column. See you (or most of you, I hope!) next time, as we kick off a 4-part hero-focused story (starting with a scene featuring a non-powered civilian, go figure). Plus, we’ll have another mess of letters. So write in, and let us know what you thought of Thatcher Jerome!

2 thoughts on “Astro City Mail—November 2013

  1. Woohoo! Letter of the month! Drat, didn’t make it to the comic shop today to see it in person yet…

    Michael’s comment about people being pigeonholed into a job based on expectations reminded me of an excellent class I took called “Social Styles”, which is intended to help students learn to communicate better with people based on the other person’s preferred communication style. People fit along a two-dimensional continuum that forms four general quadrants (expressive, driver, analytic, and amiable), with different degrees and sub-shades within those four.

    One of the things I found most interesting about the class was learning the breakdown of each of those styles in different professions. I thought that a science lab would be something like 70% analytics, right? Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that in almost any profession, no single style exceeds 30-35%. (A major example being startups, which are almost exclusively drivers and analytics; the addition of the other two is supposedly a reliable sign that the company is succeeding and growing).

    So just because somebody is an expressive (like me) doesn’t mean that they should be an actor (I’m an engineer, but do like to act). And just because somebody has special abilities doesn’t mean they have to be a superhero or villain. I consider myself patriotic and support our military, but absolutely don’t have the type of personality (or body) to join the armed forces, so I use my skills to help our country in other ways. Likewise, even if somebody with superpower wants to use their skills for the common good doesn’t mean that the life of a superhero is right for them, so they’ll find other ways to help other people.

    (This reminds me of a story I heard recently on NPR, asking people if they’d prefer invisibility or flight, and what they would do with either power. Nobody said they’d fight crime, because neither, by itself, is sufficient. And people just wanted to steal fancy purses or have a faster commute. Sorry, can’t find the link…).

  2. Seems to me as if Powers and Astro City are two somewhat different things within the larger super-hero branch of spec-fic: the former is “police procedural/noir” while yours is indeed more “slice of daily life”. Frankly, I find Astro City more to my taste, and have done from the beginning.

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