Astro City Mail – April 2015

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Let’s see if we can get this lettercol up more or less on time. It’s mere minutes since I posted the last one, dinner’s not going to be ready for a little while, so let’s see if I can ride this letter-answering momentum into a shocking two columns in a row!

First off, here’s what the print lettercol had to say…

A hearty welcome to our latest guest artist, Jesús Merino! I’ve worked with Jesús before—he inked Carlos Pacheco on ARROWSMITH and AVENGERS FOREVER, and we did some SUPERMAN issues together, too. So I’m thrilled to have him join in on this issue and at least one more!

Brent’ll be back next month, but hey! Here’s this month’s letter!

Sergio Accioly

Let me tell you a conspiracy theory about ASTRO CITY that´s been cooking inside my head for far too long (note: I don´t claim rights to this theory. If it´s wrong but you like it, please feel free to use, no lawsuits will follow, only thank yous).

It’s about Crackerjack. Since “Reconnaissance,” way, way back in the first trade paperback, I’ve lived with this suspicion that Crackerjack is a) a more much likable guy than he lets on, and b) far more skilled than people give him credit for.

Too many of his stunts go just right for me to believe in blind luck. I’m always reminded of the Silver Age stories about Batman and Superman in their civilian identities using the “blind luck” and “I’m so clumsy” excuses to save the day without breaking cover. I think that the same principle applies to Crackerjack (implying that his superhero identity is a cover).

Circumstantial evidence for this is that he had a second secret ID ready to go when his first one was broken due to fire in his building, and that in “Confession,” he was the one that sprung the Astro City Irregulars.

That’s it for point B; for point A, I just point out that nice people, like he was described by his neighbors, can play the jerk role much more easily than an A-hole can pretend to be a nice person.

So, why does he play the incompetent, insufferable fool for the world at large? My guess is that he’s setting himself to be underestimated by his peers. If he’d been a villain, he’d try to be a charming fool, to gain their trust. An abrasive fool, on the other hand, would suit a man trying to uncover a dark secret in the superhuman community, gathering clues that nobody would give him credit to see, and generally paying him no mind.

So, how close to the mark did I come? The best answer, of course, would be an arc about him, telling his story. And if it wasn’t this the one you had planned but you like it, it would be my honor if you used it, free of charge (A thank you in the story would be enough—oh vanity).

That’s it. Sorry for the many disclaimers, but I always remember how Peter David used to get pissed when fans suggested storylines similar to the ones he’d planned, leading to all sorts of potential complications. I thought it would be better to cover these (very legitimate) concerns.

Finally, I do think that you still owe us some stories about the Gentleman. Please?

Crackerjack is (or was) certainly more skilled than most would guess, Sergio. But as for the rest, who knows? He doesn’t share much. I wouldn’t put much weight on his neighbors telling TV reporters he was nice after they knew he was a hero, though.

But he does seem to like playing roles. To what end? Time may (or may not) tell. Maybe he is the Gentleman!

Meanwhile, you wrote the Letter of the Month, so you get a signed copy of this issue. E-mail us your address and we’ll send it out. And there’s more lettercol online! Details below.

Details below? Heck, we’re online now—the whole rest of the lettercol is below!

And for our first online participant this go-round, here’s ANTONIO:

Throughout my time reading ASTRO CITY I’ve always been intrigued by all of these creative superheroes and super villians you have created. But, how is it that you come up with a new hero or villian each time. Do you build off of archetypes and themes or something else entirely.

Inspiration comes from many places, Antonio. Early on, we were consciously building characters on archetypes, like ‘savior’ or ‘trickster’ or even ‘scary nighttime vigilante.’ But as time goes on, the inspiration for characters can come from anywhere.

Actually, that’s true right from the beginning. When I had Samaritan fight Dr. Saturday’s robot for a panel or so in #1, that happened because I needed a quick action bit, and I figured some threat unleashed by a mad scientist would work. Trying to think of distinctive names, “Dr. Saturday” struck me as striking, memorable and slightly goofy, and it suggested that his tech would look like Saturday morning cartoons (which still existed back then). So for all the thought that went into cooking up Samaritan, Dr. Saturday and his robot were just a matter of grabbing at thoughts and images and making something vaguely logical out of them that moved the story along.

Sometimes I want a type—Gundog happened because I wanted a smartass criminal who was all about skill and weaponry, not super powers, since I knew he was going to be tired of it and quit by the end of the issue. The name “Gundog” both focused on the weapons and gave him a name that suggested a guy who works like a dog, and might be a bit of a rogue…it all fit together, and Brent and Alex made him look great. The Black Lab was a play on words that appealed to me. Starbright, as has been mentioned, started out life as Superboy in an unused script, and in changing him to someone else, I wanted to keep that sense of positivity and hope that Superboy always had. “Starbright” is a name that echoes a wish upon a star, and the rest of the character—his powers, his secret identity, and so on—came from the name and the needs of the story.

I occasionally think of a character idea and jot it down, so I’ll have it to use later. A few days ago, I saw a typo in an internet post, and thought, “That’d make a cool superhero name,” so I wrote it down. This morning, I was playing with villain ideas suggested by a song I couldn’t get out of my head. The Dancing Master was a deliberate echo of the fictional pantheons Lord Dunsany invented in his pre-Tolkien fantasy stories. And so forth and so on.

Ultimately, the long and short of it is that I’ve been doing this professionally for over 30 years, Brent for even longer and Alex for over 25. When you do anything often enough, you exercise the muscles that help you do it. We’ve had a lot of practice making up superheroes and super villains, and that makes it easier to build them, to recognize an idea when it flits past, and to shape it into something that’ll serve the stories we’re telling.

So there’s no formula to it, just a lot of practice.

On to ROBERT:

I am enjoying the saga of Quarrel and had planned on writing once this arc wrapped up, but the last two issues had some nice touches that warranted early thanks.

I have written in the past asking if you might consider a story focusing on the Unholy Alliance, especially Spice. I was quite pleased that the Alliance made a cameo appearance in issue 19 along with a bit of helpful information. Even better, not only did Spice turn up in issue 20, but I was treated to the first look at her late partner Sugar and while it is hard to make judgements from just one panel, there was something about it that suggested those two must have had an interesting relationship. One question: given her outfit, just how did Sugar lug around those ether-meringue pies of hers?

Whether or not my past letters inspired these inclusions, I do want to say that they were very appreciated and made a nice bonus to a terrific story.

I think it’s entirely possible, Robert, that your questions about Spice made me think, “Hey, this story’s set in the past, before Sugar died! Why don’t we show her?” I can’t remember for sure, but maybe.

As to where she keeps the pies, well, a lady never tells. But technology makes many a thing possible, and who knows what stories the future may bring?

On to JOHN BACON, who heads up Herocopia.com, with some thoughts I found interesting:

This four issue, in-depth expose on Quarrel and Crackerjack is not playing out exactly as I expected it to. Then again, I didn’t expect it to play out as I expected it to, at least not exactly. Oh the theme, the overarching structure and directions of the plot, with these characters, at this time-frame in their lives, that’s moving along as I conjectured (and expected), for the most part. There is retirement and careers peaking, even fading. It’s a rare theme to see played out for keeps in a superhero landscape. This is a delight to witness and it is going along smoothly. Based on the preview release and sequence of the first three covers though, I expected it to be Crackerjack seriously contemplating the retiring bit. A sort of frustrated with life kind of move to exit the superhero business, with Q then following suit, but in a deeper, more introspective set of motivations. It was a nice extra touch to see the Black Rapier play this role, putting down his gauntlet in a direct fashion for his peers (and readers) to experience. It also had the added benefit of adding some fresh twists to the plot with that serum.

But back to Crackerjack. Prior to issue #18’s release I did a quick update for Crackerjack’s entry on Herocopia, and added a Feature-entry for him on the main page. It expresses my overall questioning about this character’s motivations.

Here’s the Feature Entry:

crackerjackFeature

…and here’s the link to see it live on the wide world of the web.
http://herocopia.com/Template:Feature_Crackerjack

Beyond what I mention there, and based on the framework of their early appearances, there are differences being exposed about him that I didn’t expect. For one, I thought he was younger than Quarrel, and that Quarrel, having been trained and mentored by Street Angel, was now being the guidance and mentor for Crackerjack. It’s interesting the way this is playing out, but still a bit jarring based on my conjectures of how I was seeing both of these characters performing in the past. This isn’t out of character by any means, not even his ability to penetrate into Honor Guard headquarters. That’s explainable given his opportunistic ways of handling situations, and the surprising amount of discipline riding in the undercurrents of his otherwise boisterous, carefree and borderline careless demeanor. I mean, he’s been in top physical shape all his adult life, and I am estimating he is now over fifty. I should point out that the cover to issue #18 suggested traces of extra poundage on his frame, which again leads me to thinking a touch of carelessness physically also translated into careless mental motivations as well. I will be blunt here. As a person, I don’t really like Crackerjack. You can probably sense that in my write up. Even though he has acting experience, he is not the kind of actor I ever really liked working with. Too much ego, too much “just getting by” instead of applying himself to his craft(s).

Which is why I felt, somewhere in the past, Quarrel took him under her wing instead of it playing out just the opposite. I truly though that during the Enelsian story arc, Crackerjack was very much an amateur, just getting started as a super-hero. Still in his early years, and needing someone like Quarrel to smooth out the rough spots. Like M.P.H. I never could figure out why women (especially some that I personally was found of) would be attracted to men like Crackerjack. Men that I see as being parasites on a relationship. The comments that Quarrel uses to explain why they are still a couple despite the on and off, hot/cold history was insightful for me. It was more than just feeling they could fix the guy, they also preferred the freedom and the drama.

But even with the extra insights provided so far, I still don’t get Crackerjack’s career motivations. Maybe it’s like his relationship with Quarrel. It provides an excitement, a rush and a lot of extra drama. It comes easy enough, even with all the time spent exercising and training. Maybe it’s a cavalier enjoyment of life, similar to Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon compared to the Patriots’ Jim Brady. Be good enough to feel fine about what you do and can accomplish, but don’t grind on it in a manner that makes it hard, boring work when it should be light, fun and exciting.

That almost seems to fit. But I don’t know. I still feel there should be something more to it somehow. I can’t put my finger on it, exactly. But it sure seems like there is more to understand about this character. Maybe the final chapter will give me that last bit of insight.

P.S. I meant to talk more about Quarrel in this letter as well. But it is getting late, and somehow, even though I don’t really like him, Crackerjack somehow stole the limelight. Not exactly surprising there either.

I’m not sure you meant this for publication, John, but it was such a fascinating probe into Crackerjack’s history and character that I couldn’t resist. Hope you don’t mind—and also that it gets more ASTRO CITY readers headed over to check out Herocopia.

For the record, neither Quarrel nor Crackerjack are 50, yet, but they’re close (I worked out their ages, and without doing it again, my memory is that she’s 47 with him somewhere close to that). And I didn’t want either of them to be the other’s mentor—I wanted a straight-up partnership, without one being the leader and the other a sidekick. Quarrel’s had the longer career as a costumed hero, but she started younger. And even if she could mentor him, he wouldn’t listen.

I asked Crackerjack why he does what he does, and he said that when you grew up as one of King Louis’s Musketeers, learning ideals and comportment from the best, it sticks with you even when you’re time-displaced into the modern day. But I’m not sure he can be trusted on that. Maybe time will tell.

Hope the wrap-up worked for you!

Here’s STEVEN:

I last wrote to you on Christmas Eve, when I was spending the night on the couch, coughing my lungs out with a head cold. Three weeks later, I was starting a week on the couch, first with the flu, then a different head cold that had me coughing my lungs out and sounding like Harvey Fierstein for a week. But hey, if I can’t sleep, at least I can catch up on my reading, right? Then it only took me a month to get around to writing…

I loved “Sorrowsday” (#17), and as far as I’m concerned, Tom Grummett can come back to visit any time help is needed (seldom I hope), with or without his posse of assistants. No offense to Graham Nolan, but I thought that this art was a much better fit for ASTRO CITY. The character design and facial expressions on Eth, Krigari, and Druin were fantastic (not to mention the myriad sub-atomic creatures), and the page of Eth with his sprouts really got to me (being a father of four, including an 8-month-old, has made me even more of a softie than I was before). The gag about the RGB and the CMYK gave me a good chuckle, but those last few pages had me struggling not to cry, probably more than any comic since “The Nearness of You.” Thank you all for a fantastic comic!

I only have one question—who was that with Quarrel, Black Rapier, Stormhawk, and Living Nightmare as they raided Krigari’s flagship?

How could you possibly follow that act? With something completely different, of course. I’ve quite enjoyed the first three parts of the Quarrel/Crackerjack saga (though I’ll have to wait until my kids are quite a bit older to share it with them than many other issues), from Jack’s stunning suit (he looks like an oversized mint Hershey kiss) and his rants about young whippersnappers and themeless villains, to the very human look at Jess’s past and her wondering about the future.

Like many others, I’d wondered why Quarrel would put up with such an obnoxious egomaniac, but before the end of part one, I was pretty sure I’d already figured it out—because he reminds her of her father, always pushing her to do more, and she felt like she was always trying to prove herself better than him. (And I thought, “Thank goodness this isn’t ULTIMATE ASTRO CITY, or it would turn out that he was her father, with help from time travel and Vivi Viktor’s youth ray. She is from Kentucky, after all…) And judging by the end of part two, it looks like I was right.

As always, there were some great bits of dialogue worth remembering. Street Angel’s bit on time travel was perfect, and Dickie’s line about his schoolbooks made me smile, but I think my favorite gag was the name of the country the Unholy Alliance was working for, which I totally glossed over the first two times I read the issue.

MPH’s line about keeping score reminded me of previous times we’d seen what a great guy he is (e.g., the Beautie special), and I enjoyed learning a little more about him, but Quarrel’s inability to stay in a positive relationship me feel even more sorry for her. And what’s this? Both Assemblyman (#17) and MPH (#20) are named Mike? (Not two Jacks, in Crackerjack and Jack-in-the-Box.) I think there’s a “rule” in TV that you can’t have two main characters with the same name—so it’s a good thing ASTRO CITY doesn’t have any “main” characters, isn’t it?

I admit, I didn’t see Jack’s idiocy at the end of #20 coming, though upon re-reading, I should have. I didn’t have much sympathy for Jack at first, even after being thrashed by Demonhead, but now I wonder what he was always trying to prove. Perhaps we’ll find out a little bit in what looks like it will be a tragic conclusion, which I await with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. But if it turns out he was trying to prove himself to a girl from Kentucky, with the help of time travel and Vivi Viktor’s youth ray, then it’s time for me to retire from comic book adventures!

Hey, I see that Brent will be at the Big Wow ComicFest in San Jose in April—any chance I can talk you into coming, too?

Not this time, alas, but I’d like to get down there one of these years.

I believe the character you’re asking about from #17, is Greymalkin, who was a founding member of Honor Guard back when she was Kitkat. She gained some other abilities over time, and has popped up here and there, though her costume’s been colored a number of different ways, and she may not have been as recognizable as we hoped.

I don’t think I’d agree that Quarrel is attracted to Crackerjack because he reminds her of her father (there was certainly a moment there that she made a connection, but it wasn’t a moment of attraction), nor that her dad pushed her to do more. He didn’t stop her from doing more, but she did most of the pushing herself. Much of that was because someone had to step up, since he wasn’t a very good father, but that’s not something he should really get credit for, I think.

The country the Unholy Alliance was working for probably isn’t named Tzatzikistan—Quarrel refers to it as “Tzatzikistan or something,” which I would assume means she can’t remember the real name. Sorry about that. And yeah, either the Assemblyman and MPH are both named Mike, or the Assemblyman’s named something else that could result in that nickname and Hummingbird’s trying it out. Who knows?

And to wrap up, here’s DAVID:

I’ve really been enjoying the Quarrel spotlight arc. The foreshadowing in 19 with Quarrel and MPH looking at each other while Crackerjack holds up bunny-ears is great. But I’m not sure, is the picture before or after their relationship. In other words, is it “Why do you go out with this guy?” or “You gave me up for that, really?” Inquiring minds want to know, Kurt.

Quarrel not being the stereotypical “all she wants is marriage” female is also refreshing. She recognizes the full commitment relationship is not for her. You show Quarrel’s attitude does not stem from irresponsibility because she clearly takes responsibility for her brothers’ upbringing. Instead, she prioritizes being a superhero. She correctly realizes she can’t have both without putting herself and others in danger.

She knew she was in trouble when she’s beaten by Sugar in her frosting bikini. I miss the deceased Sugar and her partner Spice. Kurt, the mantle must be picked up, ASTRO CITY needs a new Sugar and Spice, which of course won’t go down well with the surviving Spice. C’mon, this has classic written all over it.

Of course, her attitude does not make nice guy MPH’s reaction of “What did I do?” any less comical. Poor guy just looking for love in the wrong places.

Brent’s art does a great job highlighting the age differences between flashback-Quarrel and current-Quarrel. So often, older characters look too young. Here, you see the test of time on Quarrel’s face and body.

I also thought the colors really popped off the page on #20. From the abandoned Kree…I mean…Khyborg Imperion and his chariot, to the shadowy sunset and courtship flowers sequences with MPH, to the Beefy Bob shirt and Honor Guard meeting room. Also, Brent and Alex S. did a terrific job on Kirbyesque Gormenghast. Thanks to the design and colors, his introduction takes over that page.

Requests: A Gentleman/Samaritan story; love to see your take on their interaction. A Cleopatra story featuring her interaction with some of the “mortals” in Astro City.

I honestly don’t know when that picture was taken, David, so I suppose that expression could be read either way.

And yeah, Sinc (and Wendy!) both do a terrific job with the colors, and we’re lucky to have had such wonderful work all these years.

A new Sugar & Spice? Gentleman/Samaritan? Cleopatra? You never know…

That brings us to the end of the column, which means I’m actually caught up, however briefly. If you’re wondering why there are only six letters (including John’s, which probably wasn’t even meant to be included), well, that’s all we got. We’ve got six letters for next time, too. This is why I occasionally stump for more letters—if the letters don’t come, there won’t be a lettercolumn. People ask me not to drop it, and I don’t have any intention of doing so—unlike nagging people for introductions and rewriting bios, doing lettercols is fun. But it’s not entirely up to me. The column is very much driven by you—if you want a lettercol, join in.

And with that, I’m outta here ’til next time. Catch you then!

2 thoughts on “Astro City Mail – April 2015

  1. Anything I send you is game for you to use as you see fit sir, unless I explicitly say differently. This one, while designed as an extension of working on Herocopia, was especially meant to be shared beyond that platform. For me, being able to probe into these characters is one of the things I really enjoy about the Herocopia site. It provides a nice outlet for my theater blood to get some exercise, and to somewhat appease my early desires to be a comical book creator when I was a kid.

    I have outlines for two follow-up letters,one before and after the wrap up chapter. I am running massively behind schedule, but I will try to polish them up and get them to you soon.

    And yea, everybody feel free to come visit (and add some content) to Herocopia. We’re having a hard time keeping up with all these new characters Kurt and company are bestowing upon us.

  2. For me, being able to probe into these characters is one of the things I really enjoy about the Herocopia site. It provides a nice outlet for my theater blood to get some exercise, and to somewhat appease my early desires to be a comical book creator when I was a kid.
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