Astro City Mail – December 2014

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So, we’ll start off with the print lettercol:

When last I lettercoled, we were trying to get ASTRO CITY 17 out. As I write this, it’s the Monday before it should have come out, but didn’t. I think it’ll be only a week late, but I don’t know for sure. [Online Note: Yep. It was.] So I’m on tenterhooks all over again. But you’re not, because it’s old news for you by now.

Anyway. Sorry about that. We’ll try real hard not to make a habit of it.

Meanwhile, we have for you a fine, fresh, crispy Letter of the Month:

From MICHAEL A. BURSTEIN:

Regarding “Wish I May…” let me first start by saying that I did not see at all where it was going at the end. Major kudos for introducing the characters of this story and giving us a trans villain-turned hero. I honestly can’t think of any other trans characters from superhero comics, and I’m wondering if this is the first one.

I did have two other thoughts about the issue I’d like to share.

My first thought is that one of the audiences for this story who would really appreciate it—that is, of course, the trans community—might not know to look for this story unless it’s spoiled for them. If I know a trans friend who would get a lot of seeing someone like themselves as a superhero, I’d have to tell them that they should read this comic but I can’t tell them why. That might work with a fellow comic book reader and superhero fan, but it might not work with someone who doesn’t read in the form or the genre.

My second thought is that although this isn’t Chet Markham’s story, I really want to know more about him and his own motivations. The fact that Simon/Sarah/Starbright learns that Chet wasn’t a jerk is an excellent twist in the story, but I do wish we knew more about how this straight white boy, the “star quarterback” and “scion of the richest family in town,” as Simon puts it, came to embrace wanting to reach Simon Says. I suspect there’s a possibility of an interesting backstory there.

Then again, perhaps we don’t need another story about a white male superhero. 🙂

Thanks, Michael.

There’ve been trans characters in superhero comics before, from the Defenders’ Cloud to the Legion’s Shvaughn Erin to Batgirl’s roommate Alysia Yeoh. But glad you liked Simon, whatever her name turns out to be.

Originally, Simon was simply going to become a (male) hero, but as I developed the story, I realized it was a story about transformations, and people who aren’t what the world expects them to be. I broached the idea that Simon was trans to Alex, who thought it fit the rest of the story perfectly. So did the others. So I reworked the story—and I’ve got to thank Elle Collins, who gave me useful advice on presenting a trans woman with honesty and respect. Anything I got right is due to her assistance, mistakes are my own.

And sure, it may be hard to explain to readers (trans or cis) who might like the issue why they should give it a try without spoilers, but at that point, what’s a spoiler going to hurt? Revealing a surprise that otherwise, that reader wouldn’t even experience? I think you can go ahead and spoil, if you really want to recommend the issue to someone.

As for Chet, well, we can always see him again, and learn more about him. You never know, with this book.

Letter of the Month rules: E-mail us your address, Michael, and we’ll send you off a signed copy of this issue. Plus: More letters (and answers) await everyone at the online lettercol.

…and that’s our cue to begin the online additions!

Let’s start with a letter from ANTONIO:

Usually I would ask you an overly long question about various aspects of Astro City, but this time I just wanted to know 2 things.

1. During the 80s to 90 when you were probably planning out AC, who was the first hero you, Alex, and possibly Brent came up with?

2. Are you ever going to have a cameo in the comic, like that group of three guys I heard were supposed to be allusions to you and Alex and Brent that were found in a sewer grate by Confessor?

Thanks for spending a few minutes to read this.

Thanks for writing it! To answer:

1. I think there’ve been heroes in ASTRO CITY who I created back in high school or earlier, but the first one consciously created for ASTRO CITY was Samaritan. I’d come up with the basic story earlier, as an idea for a 24-Hour Comic by pal Scott McCloud was bugging me to do, but I’d never named the hero. When I started thinking about doing ASTRO CITY, I knew that was going to be the first story, and unless I’m remembering it wrong, Samaritan was the first hero named and designed. Followed swiftly by Winged Victory, Jack In The Box, and the First Family. The Confessor was among the first characters conceived (he’s an idea, at least, that goes back to junior high) but his name took a long time to figure out.

2. Uh, that was a cameo. So, yes, we already did it. The kid on the cover of ASTRO CITY: LOCAL HEROES 1 is also a cameo by me, albeit a much younger me.

Here’s BYRON:

Thank you so much for ASTRO CITY 16.

This is the first I’ve ever written anyone about a comic book. For years, ASTRO CITY has been my favourite comic to hit the stands. I’m actually struggling with the words to say thank you. I work with LGBT youth here in Chicago. It’s hard to refer to them to material that addresses transgender. Especially kids. Youth that age is so impressionable. I don’t think I’ve ever become emotional over a book before. It just really hits home for me personally, I am queer so first off it is nice to actually see us represented in books and it also means a lot to younger kids as well so I can be like “Yes, there are some great books. Here, read this” and it’s just wonderful and uplifting and powerful. Thank you again.

Our sincere pleasure, sir.

Next up is NATHAN:

So Astro City is branching out to other corners of Earth. Pretty nifty. I can’t say I was stunned by ASTRO CITY #14-15, because I was expecting something this good. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. ASTRO CITY is shaping up nicely as a series. It currently ranks in my estimation with X-MEN, IRON MAN, DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU, DAREDEVIL and CAPTAIN MARVEL as one of comics’ top titles.

Nifty things this issue: The cover was gorgeous! It was good to see Mechizmo upside down. It heightened the idea of him and Ball-Bearian as robots. They’re two of the most robotic robots I’ve seen, without their being clunky. The first shots of the museum were great. I’ve never seen such an impressive set of backyard furniture. Fred, the cocky nephew, was also great.

NO-NOs this issue: Tom Orzechowski didn’t letter it. The Microverse looks small…the buildings, the ships, they look like toys, and there’s no reason they should. Oh, sorry. Talking about another comic there for a second.

But the nifties outnumber the non-nos by far, so you can sure be proud of yourselves.

Confused? I’m going on memory, but I believe Nathan’s taken an old fan letter of mind, when I was a mere sprat, and rewritten it to be about ASTRO CITY…at least until it got away from him.

In a PS, he adds:

A little tribute and nod to the olden days for you, all in good fun. I actually read ASTRO CITY 16 today and loved it so much. This whole series is just nifty without any no-nos! Thanks so much for putting it out. Cheers!

Now I want a nice oversized hardcover of MICRONAUTS 1-12. See what you’ve done, Nathan?

Let’s hear from MARC:

I just read the ASTRO CITY story involving Simon Says and almost started weeping. I’m a straight, married father of two girls but the story was so powerful and moving that I wanted to commend your skill and your courage.

Thanks, Marc. It didn’t take much courage, since everyone involved was wholly supportive, but I appreciate the thanks. You’re welcome, from one straight, married father of two girls to another.

On to DINA:

There was some stuff in this latest issue I found questionable and basically conservative (I was really confused at some of the implications you were using in the Winged Victory story, for instance): still, I don’t think I ever hugged a comic after I was finished reading it before.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a comic of mine hugged before either, Dina (or at least hadn’t heard about it), so I think we’re even on that score. Glad you liked it despite whatever faults it may have had.

With some thoughts on an earlier issue, here’s STEVEN:

I finally had a chance to re-read “Waltz of the Hours” (#13) on a flight last week—once as printed, and once in chronological order. Afterwards, I picked up my hotel copy of USA TODAY to do the puzzles. The “Don’t Quote Me” (in which you use words from a list to fill in the blanks in a quote) had this gem from Maya Angelou: “Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances.” Very appropriate, wouldn’t you say?

Reading the issue chronologically helped me make some connections and understand a couple of things better, but I thought that reading it as printed (confusion and all) was much more fun!

Re-reading it, I was impressed by the plethora of names and the deep mythology you alluded to for the Dancing Master and the Hanged Man. And I still think “veli-bugs on rotten moonfruit” is hilarious for reasons I can’t understand—that’s an image that may come to mind the next time I make the mistake of going to CostCo on a Friday.

I also love the subtle nods to other things, and feel like I need to start doing a Google search on every unusual word or name you use. I assume that “Ryman sphere” was inspired by a Riemann sphere (who’s the mathematician?”, and I’m sure that N.R. Gistics’s founder, Davison Royce, is a nod to Robert Noyce (co-creator of the first integrated circuit), and I’m sure that Ed Nicholls is an allusion to somebody else, though it’s eluding me right now.

The first time I read through, for some reason I was thrown off by Zvi’s name (Sleep deprivation with a new baby? Not enough Jewish friends?), so when I re-read the issue and saw the name “Heraclio”, I Googled it, and found Heraclio Bernal, a 19th-century bandit from Mexico known as the “Thunderbolt of Sinaloa.” Was this a sneaky nod to your stint on THUNDERBOLTS, or a hint at Tom Grummett’s upcoming issue, or a happy accident?

And I finally figured out what bothered me about the issue. Assuming my letter shows up in your letter column at all, I’ll understand if you choose to leave this part out (or heavily edit it) if it will risk turning into a religious debate or otherwise dominating or derailing the discussion about the comic.

Somewhere in a letter column or interview (that I can’t find), you mentioned that whenever you wrote a comic that dealt with issues like feminism, you would inevitably get criticism about some aspect of the way you handled it. So I wondered what complaints you would get about your portrayal of gay relationships in the story. At the very least, I expected a complaint or two that it was in there at all (and from the online letter column, it looks like I was right), and maybe a complaint that you used Zvi and Dennis’s relationship as a bit of a twist ending (with Laura used as a red herring). So what complaints have you seen?

Regarding Yaakov’s letter in the online letter column (which I think you responded to wonderfully), complaining that you portrayed “them as being in a normal relationship,” my first reaction is that there’s no such thing as a “normal” relationship—every relationship is weird in its own way!

But more seriously, I think he’s missing one of the key points of ASTRO CITY that I (and many others) love so much—that everybody is a “normal” person (as much as there is such a thing as “normal”)—from the bellhops and bystanders to the heroes and villains, despite their extraordinary circumstances, every one is a normal person with hopes, dreams, fears, weaknesses, quirks, problems, challenges, and everything else that is part of being human.

The series has portrayed plenty of other characters doing things that you or I or most other people wouldn’t approve of—from stealing, killing, and attempts at world domination (have there been any issues of ASTRO CITY that didn’t include a “normal” person engaging in objectionable criminal disclosure? Here’s a challenge: make a single interesting story, much less a whole ongoing series, under those constraints), to things that most people would object to, but which I and others would disapprove of for religious reasons, such as drinking alcohol and coffee, smoking, cursing, and Samaritan and Winged Victory’s fornication (per the Bible, I believe that they are also eligible for death by stoning), to more mundane things based on personal preference, such as using guns (have you shown anybody watching reality TV or eating sushi?). Yaakov, do you object to those people being shown as normal?

And guess what? The real world is the same way—it’s filled with billions of people who will do things you don’t agree with and view as sinful. But they’re still normal people. Perhaps it would be wonderful if everybody could agree on the same set of religious and moral beliefs—but there are plenty of villains, both imaginary (Doctor Doom, Karnazon) and real (ISIS) who do horrible things while trying to force their preferences on others, and it only leads to tragedy.

And even in more mundane things, if everybody was the same, the world would be a boring place, and probably difficult. What if everybody in the world only wanted to be a comic book writer? We’d be in trouble without doctors, teachers, engineers, and most other professions. What if the only fruit everybody liked was peaches? Their price would skyrocket! What if all of the men in the world had the exact same taste in women? A few ladies would be fought over, and all the rest would feel very left out.

Yes, Kurt could have told the story with a heterosexual couple, perhaps making them inter-racial, or making one of them an extraterrestrial, without changing the story too much (except perhaps losing the “twist” surprise as I mentioned above). And if it helps you, go ahead and think of them as the issue’s villains, or draw a wig on one of them, or whatever. But I think the world would be better off if everybody could see those around them, even those who do things they don’t approve of, as “normal.”

Yes, there are some horrible actions, such as murder, that we need to stand against, but for the most part, we need to let people make their own choices. Deuteronomy 32:35-36 say that vengeance and judgment belong to the Lord, so leave those jobs to him.

I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a “Mormon”, as some might gather from my comments about coffee and smoking), which, for reasons far too lengthy (and off-topic) to go into here, disapproves of same-gender sexual relationships. A couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine called late at night, obviously drunk, and came out of the closet to me. And then he said he was going to kill himself because I was going to reject him and hate him.

Admittedly, I probably didn’t react as well as I should have. But I told him that over the years, he (and many other people I love) has done many things that I wouldn’t approve of. But I didn’t hate him for drinking (and being an alcoholic), or for smoking, or for the other things he did—and neither did I hate him for being gay. I might not approve of some of the things he does in his life, but I love him just the same. It took a few hours on the phone (and, incidentally, a quote from ASTRO CITY) to convince him that this didn’t change anything, and I still expected him to be just as much a part of my life.

I grew a lot that night and since, and I still struggle with the balance between standing up against things I believe to be wrong and allowing people and society to make their own choices. I think it would be great if everybody in the world decided to give up alcohol, tobacco, and reality TV, but I wouldn’t force them to against their will even if I could. I know many Mormons who choose to indulge in those things, even though they go against the doctrine of the church, but that’s their choice. And when I see people doing things I don’t like, such as the way they choose to discipline their children or what they let them watch on TV, I try not to judge, and let them be “normal.” Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable.

Though the people around me don’t have superpowers or have to deal with extraterrestrial invaders, they’re just as “normal” as the people in Astro City—and just as varied in every way and behavior imaginable. I think that the world would be a much better place if everybody—from me and Yaakov, to gang-bangers and ISIS—would do a better job of recognizing and accepting the “normal” in those around them.

I look forward to seeing many more unusual, flawed, “normal” people for years to come. Maybe some day you’ll even come up with something interesting to say about a “normal” Mormon character. Keep up the good work.

Thanks for such a lengthy and heartfelt letter, Steven.

I’m sure there are Mormons in Astro City, and sure, someday we may well meet one (or find out that someone we’ve already met is Mormon). And just to be complete: We’ve certainly shown people watching reality TV, as long as you count the 80s-style reality TV we saw in THE DARK AGE. And while I don’t think we’ve shown anyone actually eating sushi, we have had characters talk about it. The Silver Adept and Raitha certainly like it.

To address your other questions: Not everything in ASTRO CITY is a reference. Ed Nicholls and Davison Royce were named that just so their company could oneday be called N.R.Gistics, with an “NRG” in it. And to provide a reason the N-Forcer’s energy is called what it is. “Ryman sphere” may have been subconsciously inspired by Riemann, but was more properly a reaction to Dyson spheres—I wanted something that sounded like that but which (clearly) had different properties.

And Heraclio’s just a guy named Heraclio. Since I’ve never actually run across references to Heraclio Bernal, he’s probably more likely to have been named due to Heraclio from Gilbert Hernandez’s great “Palomar” stories, or some other use of the name I’d seen.

Carlsbank, though, was named for Carl Barks, creator of Uncle $crooge, Kremer Street for Warren Kremer, co-creator of Richie Rich, and the Plunkett-Winsor Facility for Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett and Winsor McCay, respectively the fantasy writer better known as Lord Dunsany (who influenced a lot of that mythic background you liked) and the cartoonist best known for LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. [Place names are more often references, in this book, than character names.]

And as far as I can recall, we didn’t get any complaints about the gay characters in #13, other than from Yaakov.

So who’s next? How about JEROEN:

This story is really filled with elements that I love. It touches on so many subjects and does so in such a wonderful way, it is hard to believe this story is only one issue long.

One of the strong points is how you treat the subject of transsexualism here. Even though you flag it rather early in the story, you refrain from making Simon or other characters talk (or think aloud) about it all the time. Instead you have it inform the entire plot without making it too overtly present. It is the unseen foundation of everything that happens to Simon. Well, unseen by Simon at least. He is an outcast among outsiders and for a long time he can’t put his finger on the reason why. Until Starbright sort of spells it out for him. The artwork reflected this very well by not showing us the new Starbright in full body view until the end of the story. We only see closeups of her masked face until the moment when Simon in the flashbacks comes to realize he should have been born a woman. That is a nice symbiosis of words and pictures. I think you treat the subject very well. I am very interested in seeing what the fan and critical response to this story element will be.

Secondly, it is a story that focuses on the villain. I really enjoy those, when done well as is the case here. By letting her narrate the story in a very pleasant and not-maniacal-at-all voice, you manage to give her a lot of depth and make her a very sympathetic person. And she has a very respectful, almost warm, relationship with her enemy. When they are talking one can almost confuse them with two bickering friends. They have a lot of respect and admiration for one another that I really hoped this story would end with Simon Says and Starbright becoming actual friends. But the ending you had in mind is probably even more powerful. The villain chooses to redeem herself by stepping into the footsteps of her former enemy. I think there are few greater victories to be had than that. Starbright has gotten his enemy to live up to the potential he always saw in him. It is a shame he isn’t around to see it though. As a sidenote, I appreciate the fact that Starbright got killed in a totally unrelated case. It makes Simon’s redemption much more acceptable than if he had been the one to kill Starbright.

The aspect that surprised me most was the impact that finding out Starbright’s secret identity had on Simon Says. Seeing that his respected enemy was “one of the jocks” totally changed his outlook on people. He realized that people aren’t always who we think they are and that the assumptions we have of them can be totally wrong. Simon, who probably always felt misunderstood by the people around him, found out he also misunderstood his enemy. He had created an image of Starbright in his head that was proven false. And the wonderful thing is that this realization made Simon respect Starbright even more and paved the way for his road to redemption as Chet’s successor. This is a great twist to the story. I don’t think I have ever seen stories where revealing the superhero’s secret identity had such positive consequences. It’s really fascinating how you use the cliche of secret identity as a vehicle for a storyline about how we (yeah, probably everyone) tend to put labels on other people that are often incorrect. And you show us the wonders we miss out on by not looking past our assumptions of who people are.

And all this philosophy and character development is wrapped in a story that when summarized sounds like a rather silly episode of SUPER FRIENDS. After all, “villain helps his archenemy fight crime in order to convince him to organize a birthday party for his 16th birthday” sounds rather goofy, doesn’t it? But you make it work and turn this issue into a winner.

We’re all very glad you liked it, Jeroen.

And on a lighter note, here’s a question from GARY:

Dear Kurt,

Last week I read the ASTRO CITY story ‘Adventures in Other Worlds.’ On page 16, Astra mentions the television show TOOTH & CLAW.

TOOTH & CLAW is also the name of your new creator-owned book.

Is this the same TOOTH & CLAW?

Good eye, Gary!

Actually, it’s not. The TV show Astra likes was mentioned elsewhere, though, in a story I wrote for an issue of CREEPY. There, TOOTH & CLAW, also known as THIRST & HOWL (sorry, Jim Backus fans), was a show about a vampire and a werewolf who fight crime.

My new TOOTH & CLAW (now called THE AUTUMNLANDS: TOOTH & CLAW) is, well, something rather different. And I hope all of you are checking it out!

On to PHILLIP:

Simon Says…

…thank you. Thank you so much. I just finished reading this issue twice over now. There was a throwaway line you made about American Chibi (about ‘some middle-aged guy who got his fantasy’) that made me cringe a little when I read it, but then you go and give us this story about someone driven to a lonely place because they feel like the world will never understand, only to be drawn back by the shame of realizing that someone did.

I look forward to more of her adventures, whatever name she chooses.

And we will indeed be getting back to her, as the Broken Man indicates.

Here’s JIM:

I was just wondering who was responsible for the gag with the holder’s name at the high school football game, you or Brent.

Brent. All Brent.

Or perhaps I should say mostly Brent. He put it in as a gag, expecting it to be taken out, and everyone else insisted we keep it. So keep it we did!

Next in the stack, ANTONIO:

Finally got to read issue 16, and I just want to say thanks. Back in June I was amazed to see my first letter answered, and one of my questions was about Connecticut. You said an issue would take place around the east, near Maine, and you said the story could be in Connecticut. This issue really made me feel enjoyment because it felt like you thought about using Connecticut.

Finally, the name of the mountain where Simon and Starbright met also was an added bonus because It’s the name of the lake in my town. Great issue.

Since I’m both a Stephen King fan and a Pat Conroy fan, it probably would have been set in Maine, or maybe the Carolinas, if you hadn’t suggested Connecticut, Antonio. I figured, “Why not?” All I knew for sure going in was that it was a coastal town, to differentiate it from Smallville, and Connecticut’s got plenty of those.

Glad you liked it.

Onward to JOHN:

I would just like to say first off that I am a huge fan. LIFE IN THE BIG CITY was my first look at Astro City, and I have been a fan ever since. I applaud you for revolutionizing the nature of comics and for making great characters that are somewhat familiar and at the same time their own people.

I have a question: Is it possible to see the origin of Quarrel or at least a day in her life? I have always been a bit fascinated by her and would like to get a look inside her head. Like what she sees in a gloryhound like Crackerjack.

I also would like to know if Steeljack will be making a return. I know that his story has been told and it was a very satisfying conclusion, but I’ve just been wondering if it would be cool to check on the old guy, see how he’s doing.

Also, I enjoyed the conclusion to Winged Victory’s story arc. It was a very heartwarming story and I enjoyed the return of the Confessor.

Keep on writing.

I certainly will. And I hope you’re enjoying the current story, which will pretty much fill all your requests about Quarrel.

We do have plans to check in again on Steeljack, but I’m not sure how soon we’ll get to them. In time, though, you bet.

And to wrap up, here’s ILYA:

Hello Mr. Busiek, I wanted to ask you DC has any plans on Astro City Omnibus, or I’ll never collect whole Astro City story? =)

No current plans for an omnibus (though you never know what’ll get decided in the future), but we are going to be getting all the TPBs back in print (and even a new hardcover of CONFESSION, for those readers who’ve been patiently awaiting one), so it’ll certainly be possible to collect the whole story even without an omnibus edition.

Heck, it’s possible to collect it all now digitally, as well, via Comixology, for those who like that approach.

And that’s it for another online lettercol. Sorry it was a few days late, but we made it half-price to make up for it. Hope to see you next time, when we start answering the question of why Quarrel hangs out with a guy like Crackerjack. Until then…

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