Hey! I should have gotten this up last night, but I was having some sort of pollen-assault so fierce I could barely see straight, and retired to my bed to take Benadryl and watch old episodes of BONES. One of which is, I’m assuming, a brain-tumor-triggered fantasy, but by that point I was so loopy on the Benadryl I couldn’t keep it all straight, and kept falling asleep besides.
Anyway, here I am today, I hope that’ll do. And we’ll kick off this month’s online lettercol with the Letter of the Month, which was severely edited for space in the print comic, but here, in the vastness of the internet, you get the whole thing.
Take it away, ERIC ENGELHARD:
I’ve just finished my epic re-read of ASTRO CITY, every issue in order in about 3 weeks. It’s a fantastic series, and its best issues are some of my favorite of all-time. I’ve been a fan of yours since MARVELS and your AVENGERS run is the franchise’s high water mark. However, after rereading ASTRO CITY I do have a few thoughts about things that bothered me that I wanted to bring up in a constructive manner.
1) While you’ve done a fantastic job creating a fully-formed fictional universe that operates under comic book rules, what I’ve found is that for me, at least, it isn’t very “sticky” in my mind. It’s hard to be a “casual” Astro City fan and know what’s going on in more than an issue-to-issue way. I’ve read and collected a lot of comics in the past 18 years, and while the tropes and situations here are keenly drawn and insightful, the specific characters don’t stick in the memory the same way. When you introduced a new character that wasn’t Samaritan or Jack-in-the-Box, I had no idea whether that character appeared before and had a history in the city or not.
Some things I had forgotten when I started reading the new series (which is great!):
• Samaritan and Winged Victory were starting a relationship 16 years ago
• We’d seen Mattie Sullivan and Ben Pullman before, but we hadn’t seen Thatcher Jerome or any of the other Sideliners.
• I was conflating Beautie and American Chibi in my head.
• I kept thinking Cleopatra and Winged Victory were the same character.
• I could have sworn that Wolfspider had an issue dedicated to him, but I must have been thinking of another company’s character.
• When I read the Silver Agent’s series, I had forgotten most of what was revealed in 2004 in the first Dark Age, 6 years earlier.
It’s hard to remember which characters are “new” and which have some history behind them. It led to some unease that I was missing part of the story (and in some ways, I was).
To solve this, I’d love to see a larger description, either in the inside cover or letter page. Could be small and in italics, and placed so as to not spoil any reveals in the issue. For the most recent issues, something like:
• Samaritan was featured in vol. 1 #1 and vol. 1 #6, collected in the LIFE IN THE BIG CITY tpb, and the Samaritan Special, collected in the SHINING STARS tpb.
• The story of the new Confessor is told in vol. 2 #4-9, collected in the CONFESSION tpb.
• Winged Victory has cameo’d many times but only been featured in vol. 1 #6. This is the first telling of her origin.
• Warmaiden, Healer Meg, Delphi and … are debuting in this arc.
As a long-time reader of ASTRO CITY, it would help to draw these kind of distinctions across 18 years of history. It’s a fine line you’re walking—you’re telling great stories that can appeal to anyone, but your bread and butter may be comic book readers who recognize and understand the tropes you’re working with and re-examining. But with such hidden, dispersed continuity, it leaves those readers lost, especially with the time delays. I reread the series to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and knew the background for this fantastic new series. I have always wanted to do so. But the impetus for me was really my feeling of being a little lost and feeling like I was missing something. Now that I have reread it, I see that you don’t really need much to follow the new series, a lot of it is new—but it still felt that way to me. And I bet a new reader would also feel like they were missing a lot without some reassurance that they’re really not, and this is new to all of us as well.
2) One thing missing from Astro City is strong villains. You’ve introduced hundreds of villains in cameo roles, mostly as window dressing or name-dropping in a hero’s story. But apart from Infidel and Junkman (two of my favorite issues), you’ve done almost zero development of any non-heroic characters. I know, you just have so many interesting stories to tell about the heroes, but without a strong villain to contrast them with, it makes the universe feel a little less fully formed. There doesn’t seem to be a Dr. Doom or a Dr. Octopus or a Joker. The Deacon is a Kingpin-type but we still don’t know much about him—we know how he rose to power, but not what drove him to do so. The heroes seem to be lacking “primary” iconic villains. I appreciate the imagination and breadth of the villains and their names, but I’d really like more depth. I think the stories of how and why “they went bad” are even more interesting than why someone decided to fight crime. I have to say that the Steeljack arc was disappointing in this regard, as he started out basically heroic from the beginning, and didn’t really have much to overcome internally to do the right thing except perhaps a lack of confidence. You never had a moment where I as a reader thought “Oh, is he going to revert to his old ways?”
Is the Brass Monkey meant to be an iconic villain? He doesn’t seem strong enough as a character to do so. Is Madame Majestrix meant to be iconic? The Silver Brain? Living Nightmare? They don’t seem up to the task either, at least from what we’ve seen of them. Thatcher Jerome is a great new character (second only to Marella in the new series) and I hope we see more of him. But he’s not exactly a primary, iconic type of villain.
3) The Dark Age just didn’t work. Part of that, to be sure, is that it was part of a 10-year interruption in the normal flow of the series. But particularly with Book 3 and Book 4, it just didn’t hold any emotional resonance for me. Your best stories reveal truths and touch on some deep subjects in interesting ways. Apart from “comics got gritty for a while,” to be honest, I don’t know what you were trying to say with those two series. As the brothers’ story got less and less grounded, my interest waned. It seemed like one of the “better” stories actually from that era, but I’m not sure that’s much of a compliment. It didn’t really rise above what it was trying to examine.
I think part of it is that it just didn’t work as well as MARVELS II would have worked. You had to introduce and make us care about these hero characters in the same arc that you wanted them to become major events in Astro City’s history, but we couldn’t get inside their heads because we had the brothers’ perspective. There just wasn’t enough to build up the kind of resonance and history that these events have in the Marvel universe and continue to tell the brothers’ story. You had to keep a grounded viewpoint, but also make us care about the large events that Marvel would have gotten for free, more or less. Apart from the Silver Agent’s death, the “major” events at the end of each arc just didn’t work for me. Black Velvet was no Dark Phoenix. The Incarnate/Cosmic guy didn’t get a great explanation as for why it was happening. Aubrey and the weird horse guy never got any development beyond “generic bad guy/generic vigilante.” It was hard to both introduce and make these events seem epic at the same time and also get an emotional connection and also show things from such a limited perspective. MARVELS II would have had a much easier time due to the history of their large events being fairly well-established.
Strangely, I also think “timing” issues beyond the 10-year interruption made it harder for me to get into it. I love love love that you have Samaritan debuting on January 28, 1986 (my 8th birthday) to save the Challenger. But it’s hard to argue that comics didn’t hit their nadir of storytelling in the 1991-1995 era. That was really the era that Book 4 was really speaking to, so setting it 10 years earlier in 1984 when the grit was largely absent from most of the comics (Marvel was still publishing SPIDEY SUPER STORIES!) just didn’t work for me. I mean, sure Astro City’s history can be different, but now there’s a weird missing era between 1984 and 1996 (that I and others would term the Copper Age) that just doesn’t exist in Astro City’s history. I mean, stretching the brother’s story out 20 years instead of 10 was probably also going to be problematic. But ASTRO CITY itself, when it debuted in 1996, was one of the shining beacons that led us to an end of the 90s grittiness and a return to solid storytelling. As much as I love the Challenger connection, I personally think it would have been more relevant and sensible to have Samaritan’s debut closer to 1996, when ASTRO CITY actually did help end the “dark age” of comics. Probably just me, but it bothered me a bit that you didn’t really cover the main era of darkness in comics history. Seemed a little like the 80s was taking the rap for the 90s excesses.
4) There’s just not enough issues published to follow up on anything. I’m very sorry about your health problems (it was actually pretty interesting to read about your evolving diagnosis over 10 years via the letter page) and hope you’re feeling well! I know that you’ve devoted as much time as you can to this series, but I think that a lot of the issues I noticed above probably fundamentally stem from the fact that we only have ~65 issues across 18 years, and this is the kind of series that really, really wants a lot of issues to be published. Especially since you also want them to “age in real time.” That’s a tall order for any fictional universe, including ones with multiple solo series for their characters, and when you only get 22 pages every 3 months (on average) with as many characters as you have and new ones all the time, it becomes very problematic. Quarrel and Crackerjack have been “dating” for 15 years or so, and she can’t really be the young inexperienced hero anymore, and we’ve never seen her story. I want to check in on Flying Fox and Simon Magus, but they don’t have a solo series to read. There’s just the one comic, and it hints at so much. That’s one reason I’m really excited to see the new series on track and producing great content every month. I want more! And thank you—you’re delivering.
Thank you again for a fantastic series. I’ll keep buying it every month you’re producing it. It’s one of my favorites. And it’s amazing that you’ve kept the team going and together for 18 years—Brent and Alex do fantastic work as well. But praise is easy, even when well-deserved. After finishing the full re-read, I wanted to share the few things above that did bug me in hopes of providing some constructive criticism.
Interesting thoughts, Eric, and for writing the Letter of the Month, you get a copy of the issue itself, signed by me. Shoot off an e-mail with your address and we’ll send it out.
And to provide a few responses to your suggestions:
1) I have to admit, your suggestion here might make my publishers happy, or they might think it was off-putting to have a regular feature explaining to new readers that there’s continuity they missed, which implies that they probably need to know it to understand the comic at hand. We certainly got both praise and pushback when I did that sort of thing in POWER COMPANY or AVENGERS FOREVER, with some readers delighted to have the continuity references all lined up for them, and some readers left with the impression that the books were ONLY for readers who love continuity.
My feeling, aside from the fact that I don’t want to clutter up the lettercol (and don’t have the option of putting anything on the inside cover any more besides), is that I don’t think readers, longtime or casual, need that information. As you discovered yourself, when you dug back into the earlier comics, you really didn’t need much—and hopefully, what you do need, we’re putting into each issue.
I also don’t much want to announce who’s a longtime character and who’s new, any more than if you’re reading a series of crime novels, you get notes on which characters are appearing for the first time. I want it to feel immersive—that you’re experiencing a story, and you’ll meet whatever characters are important to that story and not have to worry about whether this is their first appearance or their fortieth. The story at hand is what matters, and the larger tapestry is for the curious.
In short, I don’t think it should matter to readers whether you’ve met Martha Sullivan before, but not Thatcher Jerome. Either way, you should know enough in that issue to understand and enjoy the story in front of you. I don’t think we should need to tell readers that a black woman and a white woman with wings are different people, or that an anime-character come to life is different from a life-size, intelligent fashion doll. I think that sort of thing is distracting from what I’m trying to do, though I know there are readers that disagree.
On that front, though, I can say that probably your best source for this sort of information is Herocopia.com, which turned up in the LOCAL HEROES mini (in the Roustabout issue) and was since turned into a reality by longtime reader and friend of the book John Bacon, along with friends of his own. It pulls together lots of information about the heroes and other characters of ASTRO CITY, and since it’s a wiki, it can be regularly added to and expanded by any interested reader as the book continues.
Check it out, and see if it suits your needs. Or if it can be customized to.
2) I think it may be a near-inevitability of a series that chooses not to focus on the big adventures and splashy battles of superhero fiction that we’ll at least see less of the big major-villain types—we’re focusing on a different kind of conflict, so the usual context in which those guys shine gets diminished.
We know they’re out there, but while we see glimpses of Praetor or Lord Volcanus or the Deacon or Madame Majestrix (and I think it’s clear that all of them are the kind of major, recurring villain that’d be getting a lot of stage time in a different kind of comic), we’re telling different kinds of stories.
That doesn’t mean we can’t dip into those characters’ heads here and there, when there’s a story to tell, as we did with the Junkman or Steeljack. I’ll admit, I have a softer spot for more human-level guys (as you’ll see next month!), but I do have a story or two planned that involves life among the major-villain set, and I’ll think about what else we can do.
3) Sorry the Dark Age didn’t work for you, of course. But even if it had been MARVELS II, as originally planned, it still wouldn’t have reached the 1991-1994 era. The story was never meant to be an essay about or indictment of any sort of “nadir of storytelling” for comics, and would always have been about stuff that happened in the 1970s and 1980s, so any excesses it was targeting (and honestly, they were the context, not the story) came from there. That was, after all, the era when the term “grim & gritty” first arose (and even then, the crime comics heyday of the Fifties probably has equal claim on being a “dark age”). That Marvel was still publishing SPIDEY SUPER STORIES doesn’t mean they weren’t also discovering new territory with Wolverine and the Punisher and Elektra—it may seem to readers who were most heavily impacted by the 1990s that it was all sunnier before then, but there are multiple sea changes in comics history, and this was exploring (to the extent it was) a different one. Black Velvet wasn’t meant to be anything like Dark Phoenix, either—and it’s not possible for Samaritan to have debuted in 1996, when he was an established hero in 1995 (and established to have debuted by saving the Challenger, no less, so that wasn’t anything THE DARK AGE could change).
So does this mean there’s a “missing era” in Astro City history, or merely stories you haven’t seen, that apparently produced characters like Mordecai Chalk? I tend to think it’s the latter—but I also think that, just as ASTRO CITY didn’t follow the same course as other superhero comics from the time it debuted, not every beat of the fictional history mirrors something in the past. There may be general responses to similar influences, but I’m more interested in exploring the genre than I am in making specific comment on what Marvel and DC have done, so while there are certainly resonances, they’re not necessarily the point of telling the stories. THE DARK AGE, by nature of being originally outlined as a Marvel-based story, had more points of similarity than most, but even there we pulled it apart and put it together again differently, changing characters, themes, the order of events and more in order to make it its own thing and not merely Marvel history in different fancy-dress.
Still, none of that is to argue that you should have liked it more—if you didn’t, you didn’t, and that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction.
4) On the one hand, I can sympathize with the wish for ASTRO CITY to be as broad and full of incident as any other superhero universe, so that you could “follow up” on things—it means that we’re being intriguing enough and convincing enough that readers wish there was more. And certainly I wish we’d been a lot closer to monthly over the years. But what we want, more than anything else, is for it to feel like those follow-ups and breadth and complexity and incident is out there, but not to actually detail it all. If we did, we wouldn’t have time for all the stories we do want to tell. So for me, it’s enough if the reader feels like the Flying Fox is out there having adventures, even if they don’t get detailed. Again, much like in a series of crime novels, we need to feel like there are other crimes and other cops and detectives and international operatives and whatnot, or that in a big sprawling high-fantasy epic, that there’s history and struggle and eventful doings in other kingdoms or with other wars. That sense that things are going on off-stage is crucial to the credibility of the stuff we do see, but detailing it all isn’t anything we really want to do—it’s context, it’s set dressing, but if I had been healthier and you had twice as many issues of ASTRO CITY on the shelf, they’d be full of more stories about the human experience of a superhuman world, and feature even more references to adventures you never saw or characters who feel like they could have their own books, but not lots of follow-up on those things. There are lots of books that feature that sort of thing, but (I hope) not many that do what we do.
Plus, we do have the advantage that we can drop back in time and show you any “follow-up” we want to, regardless of the passage of time, as long as we’ve got a good human story to tell.
Still, interesting comments, and some of them definitely have me thinking about new stories and new angles to things, even if they may not be quite what you’d do in my shoes. I hope you’ll like what’s coming!
So who’s up next? How about JAMES:
Hi, Kurt. I hope all is well with you and your team. I am just writing to say how much I am enjoying the latest run of ASTRO CITY. I came to the series fairly late (about issue 20 of the series). Fortunately, it has been easy to catch up in the trades.
I met you very briefly years ago when you attended a convention here in England. You kindly signed my MARVELS #1. Whilst I enjoyed MARVELS, this series has more depth and room to explore that particular concept. The benefit being, of course, that these are your characters and so you are not restricted by having to ‘play with other people’s toys,’ so to speak.
The first mini-series was interesting and well structured. I was hooked from the very start with the Samaritan story, and progressed from there. The beauty is that you can approach things from so many different viewpoints (heroes, villains, families, actors and so on). It is what I believe has kept the series fresh.
Storywise, ‘The Nearness of You’ is a particular favourite of mine. The great irony to me is that despite (or maybe because) it is a small self contained tale, it is a better crossover or ‘event’ story than anything the major publishing houses have come up with in recent years. It tells its story well and has a bittersweet quality to it. I don’t believe anyone has actually approached this particular aspect of comics from just a single POV before, and I believe it is such a good story because of this. Rather than the usual overblown ‘world-shaking’ nonsense, at the end of the day, it is a story of love, loss and moving on.
The current run is maintaining the high quality of the series. The Winged Victory story is living up to expectations. She appears to be someone whose heart is genuinely in the right place,and wants to help and empower women (and young men, in this case) who have had difficult lives and need help. The public and society seem to be just waiting to tear her down. Of course. this is just a fiction and this public reaction would never happen in our ‘real’ world…
Anyway, keep up the good work and if I can end with the obligatory ‘fan question’ please? Will you ever be telling a tale featuring fully, or the backstory/origin of the ‘Hanged Man’? Always been drawn to the character.
Glad you’re liking it, James—and funny that you should ask about the Hanged Man, since I wound up asking the readership for feedback on that very issue last month, and you’ll see the results we got next month! And at this point, who am I to spoil the suspense…?
So let’s go on to RICK:
As much as I love the one-off stories, multi-issue stories are more my cup of tea because it gives you room to explore and expound on this terrific universe you’ve created. Somehow they don’t feel rushed.
The current arc involving Winged Victory—”The View…” has been truly enjoyable as it brings together some of my favorite characters from Vic to Samaritan to The Confessor.
What I enjoy most about ASTRO CITY is those constant curve balls in the story. You can never tell where it’s going. From the man on the street views, we’ve also been treated to the point of view of the heroes. This ‘whodunit’ story arc also shows the vulnerability of the heroes something we’ve all known from the start of ASTRO CITY.
It’s certainly going to be interesting how you wrap this up, because this problem of Vic’s will surely give cause for every hero and heroine in Astro City pause to reflect on the whys and wherefores and the possibilities.
The view from my side of the world of ASTRO CITY has never been so good.
Thanks. Hope you liked the wrap-up.
I had been looking forward to the revival of ASTRO CITY under the Vertigo imprint and had resolved not to write you until I had read the first 10 or 12 new issues. But having just finished reading issue #8, I decided to write you a quick note of appreciation a few months early. I’ve been buying ASTRO CITY since the end of the original limited series, published almost 20 years ago now. What I’ve come to appreciate most about the series, perhaps, is that the creative team has remained intact over all that time (despite multiple, extended publishing hiatuses). I haven’t bought comic books regularly for more than 15 years now. But I’ve made a point from time-to-time over the years to buy any new issues of ASTRO CITY that’ve been published. Because the creative team has remained the same, the experience of reading new issues is, for me, a comfortingly, reliably consistent one, almost like catching up with an old friend after a long while. Because the publishing history of the series spans substantially all of my adult life, reading new issues that feature recurring characters also brings back memories from my personal life, because many times I can remember where I was in life when I bought and read certain story arcs. I can remember buying issues of ASTRO CITY in Palo Alto, New York City, London, and Hong Kong, among other places. (I even remember buying the ASTRO CITY VISITOR’S GUIDE in a Japanese bookstore in Singapore. As an American, that was a truly multi-national, multi-cultural moment in time; one that also left my (then new) wife wondering what in the world I was purchasing.) I’m writing now, as you may’ve already presaged, because seeing Winged Victory, the Samaritan, and (a new version of) the Confessor featured again brought back all of these emotions and memories, very pleasantly.
Glad to hear it, sir.
I’ve been delighted that we’ve kept the creative team together all this time, too—that we’ve been able to assemble a team that WANTS to stick around, even through the bumps and detours. It hasn’t been entirely the same—we started out with Steve Buccellato doing the colors, and have had a few different inkers and finishers helping Brent out here and there. And of course, we’ve added to the team, bringing in Jimmy Betancourt and Wendy Broome to help out and backstop John Roshell and Alex Sinclair as needed.
And next issue we have our very first issue drawn by someone other than Brent—the closest we’d come to that before was in the VISITOR’S GUIDE, where Ben Oliver did finished art from Brent’s layouts, and of course we had pinups by a host of terrific artists. But until now, every panel has at least been started out under Brent’s pencil (or computer stylus, these days), so it’s a big change for us.
Brent was still involved, offering comments and feedback, and designing one of the new characters who debuts next issue, so it’s not as if he’s gone. But Graham Nolan’s the man with the pencil and brush, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how it goes over. As I write this, I’ve been just going over letters and final colors on the issue, and I think it worked out very well indeed. But the readers, as always, get to be the final judges.
On to ELAINE:
I wanted to write a thank you for the Winged Victory story arc that you are writing. I especially love the nature of her relationship with Samaritan. So much about women’s rights has to be changing a man’s heart as well. And I really like the way Samaritan is with her. He’s caring but non-controlling. And he respects her. So many of the romances now are not about that. This is a lovely partnership. I hope it has a happy ending, because it will prove that a relationship between a strong man and an equally strong woman can work out. Thanks again. I rarely read romances like this one. It is without question, one of my favourite ships.
I’m delighted it’s working for you. I do have an advantage, in that I’m writing about characters who’ve know each other for almost 20 years now, and most comics romances in which the characters don’t age (or age slowly) don’t have that length of experience. So I figure Winged Victory and Samaritan have had time to get to know each other well, and aren’t going to fly off the handle or make the kind of dumb assumptions that new romances might feature.
Then again, Crackerjack and Quarrel have known each other longer, and they’re still setting off indoor fireworks. But they’re different characters. Sam and Vic wouldn’t still be together after all this time if they hadn’t found a way to be supportive and considerate, whatever the circumstances.
And now here’s LOUIS, with a look back:
I just got done reading Steeljack’s arc. Up ‘til then I thought ASTRO CITY was a little boring with exceptional moments, like “The Nearness of You.” Heroes like the Samaritan or Jack-in-the-Box don’t connect to me, because I can’t really relate to them; their problems are the results of what they choose to do, and if they decided to change their lives (like Jack did and Samaritan so far refused to do) they’d have something amazing. Steeljack isn’t just up shit creek but his boat is falling apart and the people on the banks are laughing at him. He has to deal with society to survive, but they really don’t care. Even the people who are supposed to look after him don’t give a damn. Most people show up in his life when he can do something for them, or to show up and tell him to fuck off in case he even thinks about getting in their way. Thanks for writing a story about someone like that. It’s good to know that someone knows people who are completely unwanted and forgotten exist.
I love writing about characters like Steeljack, Louis. I could probably write a book about nothing but villains and never run out of ideas. Then again, as the creator of THUNDERBOLTS, that’s not really a surprise, is it?
And to wrap up, a question from BLAIR:
I’ve enjoyed reading your ASTRO CITY series on and off over the years. What are the chance they the might collected in a DC Absolute Edition, or at least some hardcovers with bonus material? It seems that just paperback collections don’t serve your work as well as it should be.
ASTRO CITY has regularly been collected in hardcovers with bonus material, right from the start. The latest volume, THROUGH OPEN DOORS, came out in comics shops today and collects the current Vertigo series, #1-6, plus sketchbook material. So they’re out there—they’re not always easy to find, but they’re there.
As for an Absolute Edition, that’s DC’s call to make, as would be an Omnibus or some other such fancy-shmancy package. We’ve talked about them over the years, and I assume we’ll talk more as the new series continues. For the moment, though, I’m more focused on getting all the previous book collections available again, in both HC and TPB. But once we’re done with that, fancier editions would be a lot of fun.
That’s it for this month. Let us know what you think about Raitha, the Silver Adept, Orn and crew, and we’ll see you back here next month!