Astro City Vol. 1: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Astro City captures the sort of awe this superhero fiction lover has felt since being a young kid and watching shows and movies about superheroes. I grew up in the 80s and we had the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, which were huge for that time period. I watched them again a couple of months ago, and while some aspects are a bit cheesy and dated, the essence is pure and still meaningful, and will bring me back to watch those movies again and again. Having said that, I've never been as huge a fan of Superman as Batman, honestly. Mainly because I sense a dark pain (and emotional conflicts) in Batman that feels more vivid to me and draws me deeper into his story. However, recently, my feelings have evolved to see Superman in a more elemental way. Superman has his own share of angst to carry around. He's alone amongst a crowd--the only one of his kind (at least early on). His powers cause him to always be abnormal, despite the facade he wears as Clark Kent. He chooses to stand up for good and right. And Lord knows that can be very hard to do. Right there is plenty of pathos, and I don't need an uber-dark storyline to get it. So I think that was I in the right mindset for this graphic novel.
In the introduction of this graphic novel collection, Kurt Busiek talks about how he didn't want to deconstruct superheroes because it's been done so much. I can understand that. Lately, we look at the dark side of superheroes because the so-called innocence of our Millennial world has been lost, and now we need icons who are in the dark along with the rest of us so we can relate. However, I think it's good to go back to basics and look at things for what they are, the potential that's never left behind with this subject matter, looking at the superhero archetype in its essential form. Having said that, there is still an 'authenticity' here. You have superheroes who not only deal with the ins and outs of saving the world, but also have to integrate their superhero-ness into a normal life.
One such hero has a day that is crammed full of tasks (and fortunately is able to use a quirk of his brain anatomy to do his work while he's in and out of the office, attending to his work as a caped crusader). He accomplishes so much every day, but few know just how much. At night, when he gets much-needed rest, he dreams of just flying with no particular goal, just because. I can relate to him in that I know I've felt my days were crammed chock-full, and there was no time to stop and smell the roses. I wonder where all that time went? But that's my life, so needs must.
How about how others perceive superheroes? This book covers this concept as well. A woman whose daily outlook is colored by the rituals that define her faith and culture looks at superheroes as special, until she realizes that they too adhere to particular rituals to make their world safe (and others with it). It gives her the strength to break out of a mold that is causing her to die a little every day on the inside. She draws courage from knowing that the superheroes aren't that different from her in the most essential ways.
How does one make sense of a world in which so much craziness goes on before one's eyes? That a reporter is an eyewitness and tries to write about the incredible things he's seen, no one will believe him? Even in Astro City, where the abnormal is normal, people don't see unless they believe it (or vice versa), and not even then.
You have the jaded view of superheroes by an extra-terrestrial observer. He sees them as just another part of what is wrong with earthlings, until he meets a very flawed superhero who makes him realize that even in their most flawed states, at least humans do try to excel for something more. Isn't a superhero just a glamorized example of that?
Lastly, can superheroes take the time to date, and another superhero in particular, who has their own set of enormous hangups and a world to save? Can they find a meeting of minds, once they take the chance to just be themselves for a night?
Astro City is a place, but it's also a concept. A way of looking at the superhero genre, at the micro and macro level. Even with more than 70 years (at least the early 20th century) under its belt, this genre still has a lot to say to a reader.
Astro City is sort of an example of just how diverse the superhero theme can be for a lens through which to examine the lives of characters. We see that being a superhero comes with its own set of problems. It's an avocation, and like any, that means sacrifices. Others may look in from the outside and see only the advantages, or even stereotype superheroes as all being the same, but each one is unique with their own story to tell, and the challenges that go along with it.
Visiting Astro City was an enjoyable jaunt. I have to come back through town again and meet a few more of its inhabitants in the near future. I will definitely follow this series, and hopefully I can write a better review about the next volume.
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