Astro City Mail – March 2015

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So, when last we met, weeks ago, I said this lettercolumn would be up by the weekend. It wasn’t. Since that time, I’ve been scrambling to get things done, or ill, or in Los Angeles for meetings, or in Seattle for a convention, and so forth and so on. But now, with a new issue hitting the stands tomorrow, I really should get last month’s lettercol done. If I have enough energy, maybe I’ll get this month’s done, too!

But let’s got get ahead of ourselves.

Let me start off with the text from the printed issue…

And here we are at the end of the story. An end, and a beginning..of a few things. Or as Crackerjack would put it, “There used to be flying dogs in this town, y’know? There used to be flying dogs.”

But as we’re here at the end of the trail, or mail is in the middle of it, with comments about #19. So let’s take a look at the Letter of the Month for this go-round:

Kevin Street

“Oh, go deliver some damn mail!”

Yikes.

It’s the fashion these days for every hero to have a tragic backstory, to make them more…important seeming, I suppose. You can’t just be a rich guy who loves boxing glove arrows and feathered caps anymore. Instead you’ve got to rise up from a hellish ordeal that makes you super. Like a crucible.

Is Quarrel’s story a tragic one? It’s hard to say. There’s definitely some tragedy there, and a betrayal that marked her for life. But look what she did with it. Everything she’s done since she put on her father’s supersuit has been a steady climb to the peak of human achievement. As she might say, it pushed her. By pushing back she freed herself and her family from poverty. Maybe the real tragedy would have been if nothing happened and all her potential stayed unused.

The relationship with Crackerjack is similar. It could have gone to the creepy side so very easily, but she never let that happen. Her sense of identity is too strong to become submerged within someone else’s expectations, even when that someone else is almost perfectly suited to fit her needs. She’ll never just be a Mrs. Crackerjack, so instead of being creepy, the relationship became an expression of genuine love and a positive thing for both of them.

Quarrel is such a fascinating character! Thank you for telling her story.

I’ve been telling people for years that Quarrel’s my favorite ASTRO CITY character, and I was looking forward to finally getting to show people why. It’s not precisely true, I can’t really play favorites—I like whoever I’m writing while writing about them, because I’m in their headspace and their life and all that they deal with—but I have been itching to get Quarrel into the spotlight, because she fascinates me. She just wouldn’t make conventional choices, but built a life that worked for her anyway. So I wanted to get into her head and show off her background and impulses and contradictions and drives and triumphs and all that.

What I didn’t expect was how much I’d like getting into Crackerjack, too, into his secrets and dickery and loyalty and drive and charm and, ultimately, desperation, as what had worked for him for so long just didn’t work any more.

So I’m glad you’ve liked Quarrel’s story, and all the places her drive took her. And I’m thrilled to have had the chance to write such an unconventional romance. I don’t know for sure yet how much we’ll see of either of them in the future, but their stories may not be over, not yet—and even so, there’s always the past. Why, you don’t even know Jack’s real name! So who knows what may come?

Well, we know this, at least: You wrote the Letter of the Month, Kevin, so you get a signed copy of this issue. E-mail us your address and we’ll fire it off to you.

So. That’s Kevin. What else we got?

Here’s a note from FRASER:

Due to my comic shop stocking the book erratically recently, I only finally got up to issue 17, so this may be late.

First, I really enjoyed it, including the reference to the Honor Guard’s old mountain HQ (I’m old enough to remember those JLA days). But I was wondering, was the villain inspired by Marv Wolfman’s Sphinx? I’ve been rereading the original Nova and Krigari has some similarities: power from a super-gemstone, guided by a mysterious seer, determined to destroy a hero he believes stands in his path (although the story setting seemed more Kirby SF in style). The story worked fine either way, but I’ll be delighted if Nova’s getting a little hat-tip.

Second, the Derelikt. He fought the First Family, he’s allied with Krigari against Honor Guard—is he a villain who happened to have a common enemy, or an antihero in the Namor mode or something else?

Third, do you have a complete list of Honor Guard members or do you make up new ones as needed? More generally, do you have a big Astro City Bible somewhere or do you figure it all out as you go (which is certainly a long comics tradition).

Fourth, have you stated which part of the country Astro City is in? I’ve always assumed it’s in the same area of the Northeast as Metropolis and Gotham (so to speak) but I’m not sure that’s canon.

Answering your questions in reverse order:

4. We’ve never stated exactly where Astro City is (and since it involves fictional geography, “exactly” is something of an impossibility anyway), but there’ve been clues in the stories themselves that clearly place the city somewhere west of the Mississippi (the TV and radio station call letters, the cities and highways mentioned as characters approach or leave the city), and the historical article in the VISITOR’S GUIDE, recently collected in ASTRO CITY: VICTORY, make it pretty clear that it’s somewhere on the eastern edge of the Rockies, on a route the émigrés to California took via covered wagon. I think that’s specific enough…

3. We add to Honor Guard’s historical roster as needed—we know the major players, but members come and go, and there’s always room to slip someone in if we want to. That’s how we generally handle the world-building in the book from history to geography and more. We know the shape of the big picture, but we can interpolate new details as needed, building it all fractally. As long as the new stuff doesn’t contradict the big picture, it all works out.

2. I wouldn’t assume that Derelikt was allied with Krigari based on what was said in #17—all we know is that Honor Guard would have died in the Catacombs of Uta-Long, if not for Derelikt’s intervention. That doesn’t sound like he was on Krigari’s side, but he may not have been on Honor Guard’s, either. He may have just stumbled into things at a fortuitous time. As to what he is, well, time may tell, but for the present he’s a mystery. I like mysteries.

1. The Sphinx (along with Sage, I think his name was) was definitely one of the inspirations for Krigari, along with, obviously, Thanos, Baron Karza, Kang and other conquery types. But way back when NOVA was still coming out, I formed my own theories about what Sage might be doing and why, and thought it’d be fun to build new stuff around those theories. Fair warning: I also had theories about who Crime-Buster really was that turned out not to be true, and maybe someday I’ll build an ASTRO CITY story out of that…!

In any case, very glad you liked it!

And now, with a question about the THROUGH OPEN DOORS book edition, here’s JARED:

Kurt, I’m a trade reader, so I am behind, but let me say first how glad I am to have ASTRO CITY back. I really loved all the stories in this collection, but I did have one question about the trade. I’m interested in the decisions made in how collections are put together. On simply a physical level, I’ve always appreciated how an ASTRO CITY trade feels, not cheap like some of the trades Marvel has been putting out of their newer material lately. That said, THROUGH OPEN DOORS feels more… flimsy? than the other ASTRO CITY collections, and didn’t have an introduction. Has there been a production change, lower paper stock or something? Can you talk about the thinking behind the decision making process here? Is this simply the cost of pricing the trade at $16? It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, it’s just something that I noticed as I was reading it.

Dropping the introductions was something we did in order to make putting the collections together less of a hassle, to be honest. They were an additional expense (I offered those who wrote them either $500 or a $1000 donation in their name to the CBLDF, and while some writers picked a different charity, no one chose to keep the money themselves), they involved extra work (it’ll come as no surprise that as the deadlines approached, I often had to bug the intro writers, and at least once we had the whole book ready to go with a gap in the front to stick the intro into as soon as it showed up), and so forth and so on. It’d all have been worth it, but no one commented on the intros—we didn’t get any feedback on them, positive or negative. They’ve occasionally been quoted elsewhere (usually mine or Neil’s), but for the most part they felt like extra work that didn’t get any reaction.

So while I’m delighted to have gotten great intros from many of my favorite writers, when we decided to get the book coming out monthly, one of the first decisions I made was that if we were going to be producing enough stuff for two collections a year, I had to stop with the intros. Better to put that time and effort into getting scripts done.

Other things we changed: I stopped writing flap copy for the hardcovers (it always seemed a bit odd to write flap copy for a book that would be sold shrink-wrapped, almost entirely to people who didn’t need to be talked into trying it), I stopped writing new bio paragraphs for the whole team that were thematically connected to the contents or title (another bit that no one ever commented on), we stopped running dedications and acknowledgments (more deadline fun, as I chased Alex and Brent to write book copy instead of draw and paint), and most noticeably, we put together a new package design we could use on both the HCs and TPBs, so we wouldn’t have to do so much redesign at the TPB stage, and so we could have a nice consistent look to the books.

We also, at Alex’s suggestion, eliminated the “cover gallery” sections and put the cover art into the chapter dividers, connecting them to the stories they were created to illustrated, which made the books a little thinner. And we’ve always been printed on a standard DC paper (well, standard Image paper to start, then standard DC papers) for book collections, and DC has, several times, found thinner paper stock they feel does a good job in terms or reproducing the art, while resulting in a lighter book that saves publisher and retailer on shipping costs. Just compare different editions of the LIFE IN THE BIG CITY TPB to see this in action; they’re all the same number of pages, but the difference in the book’s thickness is very noticeable.

I’m not convinced this is the best way to go. For my part, I like a book that feels hefty—just compare the Wildstorm printing of THE WIZARD’S TALE with the IDW printing, and you’ll feel the difference. One feels like it’s 144 pages long, the other feels like maybe 48 or 64 pages. I think the one on “fatter” paper also looks better and is a more rewarding reading experience. [And due to changes in the industry, it cost less, too, but that’s neither here nor there.]

Still, I think the paper DC uses does the job, and while I’m protective as hell of what we do in the stories and art for this book, I prefer to let DC make publishing decisions like cover price and paper stock and so on. I’m sure it’s part of the reason the books are less expensive, and they do look good.

But I’m amused, a bit, that the first time we got any comment on the intros it was when we dropped them…Joni Mitchell is proved right again!

Anyway. Here’s another comment on #19, from MEI-YI:

I’ve been reading ASTRO CITY since the first #1 and consider CONFESSION and “The Nearness Of You” to be some of the finest stories in comics. With ASTRO CITY #19, I am sensing similar levels of excellence in the in-progress Quarrel story arc. It’s refreshing to see older superheroes dealing with aging in a manner that does not veer completely into either melodramatic tragedy or over-the-top comedy. This goes for the art as well with Quarrel and Crackerjack depicted with physiques somewhere between unchanging peak supermodel superhero bodies and completely out-of-shape decrepit husks. The juxtaposition of Quarrel’s past with her present creates a great feeling of poignancy and increased anticipation to see how the two time periods converge (in a dramatic sense if not in a literal sense).

I found Alex Ross’s cover to #19, featuring the exuberance and sheer joy shown in Quarrel’s face, to be especially powerful, fitting because that’s how I image my face looking when I was reading the contents of this issue.

Thanks! I hope the wrap-up worked for you as well!

Here’s RICK:

For me, the beauty of ASTRO CITY, other than the locales and the people we meet, is the stories that hit home. In a few years’ time I will be hitting the big 5-Oh. Obviously, I can’t play basketball like I used to. In some aspects of my work, I feel myself being pushed out in favor of the cheaper and younger dudes. At times, there’s some anger but I have always dealt with these changes in a professional manner and hunkered down and did a whole lot better.

The last two issues of ASTRO CITY, #18 and #19, have hit home for the same reasons. Crackerjack and Quarrel have always been some of my favorite characters in ASTRO CITY and reading how Jess is coping with not only trying to redeem her father’s name but also dealing with the changes in her life is an inspiration. Her life isn’t peachy keen but whose life is? Jess doesn’t always make the right decisions and she gets hurt. It’s a complex relationship she has with Crackerjack but it’s one of the few she has. And like us in real life, the people we have relationships with are also flawed. Sometimes they may anger us but we also lean on them for support.

I was reading an article in the NEW YORK TIMES just the other day about writing the great American novel and how works of fiction were postulated to draw inspiration from everyday life. Add these last two issues of ASTRO CITY to the mix and it’s perfect symmetry.

Kurt, this was a good visit to Astro City. Like every other time, I come away with good memories, but this was one of the best. Looking forward to my next trip with issue #20.

Thanks very much, Rick.

A suggestion from BEN:

Dear Mr. Busiek, hello. Well, okay, my Subject line says it all, more or less. [Note: His subject line was “Richard Howell should draw ASTRO CITY.”] I understand that Brent Anderson is the artist on ASTRO CITY. But since there was recently an issue pencilled by Tom Grummett, well, the precedent has now been set to have other artists work on the series. I would love to see you and Richard Howell work together again, especially on ASTRO CITY. I hope that it happens one day.

An interesting suggestion, Ben. I always enjoy working with Richard, and we’ve talked about doing a series together when our schedules allow. It wouldn’t be ASTRO CITY—it’d be a new creation designed specifically to harness ideas, story material, character types and other stuff (including recurring jokes) we keep coming back to over and over again, stuff we’ve tried to get into earlier work but for one reason or another never quite managed. So hopefully that’ll become a reality at some point, and you’ll get to see a whole major project from us.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll like the work of Jesús Merino, and other artists we’ve got in mind for upcoming guest turns.

And here’s another BEN:

ASTRO CITY 18 and 19 really struck a chord with me. I haven’t quite been reading AC since the beginning, but somewhere close to it, and I must have been about 21 or 22 when I first picked up an issue. In the years since then I’ve achieved some pretty cool things that I’m probably not going to achieve again, I recently realised with a shudder that I’ll be turning 39 this year, and I was delighted to find Quarrel going through the same thought processes! Finally a hero who grows old like I have!

I can’t really think how I want the story to end now—a final blaze of glory, a fountain of youth, a lesson about growing old gracefully? Still, I can’t wait to see it. Thanks for the twenty years in the lives of our heroes, and if you ever get hold of the Black Rapier’s serum, spare a drop or two for the aging fans?

Alas, it wouldn’t work. Unless the Black Lab has managed to hang onto samples, and has some success cracking the formula. In which case, I have to admit, I’m first in line. I could use some of the kind of stamina I had when I was writing 5 books a month…!

And that’s all we’ve got this month. Check back with us in our next exciting online lettercol, going up as soon as I get it written. Who knows, maybe it’ll be later tonight!

In the meantime, don’t be a stranger. Let us know what you thought of the latest issue!

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