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Kurt Busiek, Astro City and the White Man's Burden
By Kristy Valenti
Tuesday April 17, 2012 09:00:00 pm
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Astro City, written by Kurt Busiek, proves him to be one of the most conservative writers of superhero comics today, despite its postmodern metatextuality, in terms of aesthetics, craft and, most importantly, values. Over the last six years, however, I've noticed an element creeping into the series, especially in its treatment of female characters; a sort of watered-down White Man's Burden. (Others have perceived this, too: some "Conservatives" are put off because they expect the Norman Rockwell-like art and subject matter — an inquiry into what makes a hero into a hero — will match their politics, and that's far from the case.)

A lot of ink and bytes have been spilled about Astro City and Superhero Reconstruction; I won't go into that, other that to summarize that Astro City is a big city that mirrors Metropolis and/or Gotham. Chock full of superhero analogs, it's a fan-tasia, with its topography named after famous-and-not-so-famous comics creators/businessmen (such as Harry "A" Chesler): as it goes through each decade, the characters and its tone shifts and comments on that period. Much has been written about Alex Ross' covers (he does the covers for the series); a little less so about Brent Anderson's realistic interior art. Brent Anderson is an "Old Boy" artist; what he draws best, and therefore, what I imagine he loves to draw the most, are older, paunchy men who have been ravaged by hard experiences.

Ross is inherently romantic; even when he depicts chubby, older men, they always have a carefully made-up, well-lit Hollywood sheen to them; he is all about mise en place — even his Robert Mitchum lookalike, Steeljack, is a pro at catching his light. Anderson is more like Dave Gibbons in that he's more interested in mise en scène; his characters are often frumpy (Anderson's costuming is skillfully bland; clothes just sell the characters, and never draw attention away from them), and I imagine smooth surfaces and perfection bore him. Even his supposedly young, beautiful female figures, like Astra and Beautie, look stolid, due to his crosshatching. (A bit of an exception are children: Anderson drew Power Pack in '80s, and he obviously relishes the playfulness of li'l Astra, a Julie Power stand-in.) In Astro City, superheroes are like presidents; responsibility weighs them down, and they look about 20 years older than they are.

Busiek's and Anderson's sensibilities mesh, since Busiek adamantly and publically honors his "elders" (the comics creators that have come before him). But Busiek wants to do more than slavish homages to Jack Kirby and Gil Kane — he is doing his best to update and be more inclusive of black, LGBTQ, female, etc. characters whose stories have traditionally been elided in classic superhero comics. While this is certainly commendable, his comics can occasionally take on something of an apologetic, even hectoring tone, to the point where it can undermine his own good intentions. It may be the result of the forum-ization of comics. Busiek is active in comic-book forums, often attempting to combat with racism/homophobia/misogyny, and some of that register seems to be seeping into his fiction.

As of late, his patented switching-the-first-person-point-of-view has begun to seem more like setting up an argument, a technique that's more effective when he's writing for black characters. In "The Eagle and the Mountain," which focuses on the relationship between the supervillain Infidel and the superhero Samaritan and comparing and contrasting their worldviews, the broadness of Infidel, a black slave-turned-sorcerer, plays well against the doofy, archetypal Superman/Samaritan.

The "argument" structure becomes more nuanced in the Dark Ages graphic novels, which alternates narration between two black brothers, Charles and Royal, experiencing the social upheaval of the '70s and early '80s in a comic-book universe as a low-level cop and a low-level crook, respectively. Because the brothers share the narration, Busiek is able to couch the argument — ultimately, how far one should go for vengeance — inside a sibling dynamic. Unfortunately, Busiek can't help but get bogged down with cosmic energies, crappy clones, elaborate organizations, overlong arcs and drawn-out fights, etc. (Because this is all metacommentary on the Bronze Age, basically, the characters themselves observe this. Charles: There was something out there. Something more than just us. Royal: But it was reachin' out — changing us. Makin' things darker. Makin' everyone angrier? Was it changing us? Or were we feeding it?)

I can't speak for black readers (and I'd be curious to see what kinds of things they had to say about it), but it seems to me that brothers do more than just represent; they have moral dilemmas to ponder, love lives to navigate, and jobs to do.

Where Busiek seems most likely to tip over into preachiness is in his one-shots that focus on female characters. While the rack focus of his "Lois Lane" story, "Shining Armor," packs a good punch — the "girl reporter" sees herself as a Howard Hawks type, while the object of her affection/contention interprets her behavior quite differently — a weepy coda, where it's explicitly stated that, due to social mores, she was forced to channel all of her ambitions into a man, does a disservice to the reader. "Beautie: Her Dark Plastic Roots," too, has another one of these sequences, in which it's made plain that a woman's thwarted ambition and lack of male approval ruined lives. (There is a scene in which a man is lecturing a woman, a sort of female Dr. Frankenstein; however, there's also an uncomfortable sense that's she's being castigated for giving up a "child" she was too young to have.) Cue: crying.

While many of Busiek's points are valid — attempting to repress or silence people ultimately hurts everyone, everyone needs to feel accepted, superhero comics done effed up, etc. — it seems to me that so adroit a storyteller, especially one who's somewhat subversive, could perhaps deliver them in a method other than a lecture. Especially since Astro City is essentially an "artisan" superhero comic, created and owned by the same small team, released sporadically. Though there are ventures out to the country and outer space and whatnot, Astro City is local and organic. (Though I'm not sure what DC is going to do with it, now that their non-Vertigo imprint for creator-owned material, WildStorm, is gone.)

In the Astro City universe, the greatest, most chivalric value is self-sacrifice, something that both men and women are capable of, on both small and large scales. In fact, much is made of a time-traveling superhero that allows himself to be martyred. Unfortunately, from there it's a short leap into martyr complex territory. Busiek may wish to absolve himself of the sins of his fathers, for the greater good of his characters (and his readers), if for no other reason than he has the freedom to "stay small." Busiek, despite his best efforts, isn't going to be able to resolve all of the problematic racist/sexist/homophobic issues that plague superhero comics. Mind: I'm not suggesting that he stop trying to include diverse characters; rather, I hope that they get Busiek at his best: when he keeps his goals modest, in high-quality stories and arcs.
Images © Juke Box Publications

Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010



SGUINE (1 year ago)
Is it preachy, or as I think, readers like you are uncomfortable with the message?
squidbot (1 year ago)
If Busiek has a message he'd like to impart with his work, communicating that message, unfortunately, takes a different approach to reach different people. While some readers might "get him" from a subtle between the panels insight, many more won't hear a thing if its not put into direct text. The fact that so many people, I'd venture the majority of us, don't hear what isn't said (and who can blame us for that?) may be a reason for a creator to become more direct with their explorations of the human condition. "The moral of the story..." is an almost necessary sentence.

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