Astro City: Local Heroes
The Astro City stories seem to have lost the magic they once had — or perhaps, like most fans, I’ve gotten spoiled and am expecting more and better now that it’s no longer new, and pure consistency isn’t good enough — but the production design on Local Heroes is absolutely astounding.
The cover is a faux newspaper, an image that perfectly captures the premise of the series, a “real world”-style look at superheroes. The back cover continues the approach, with an article that includes the history of the series, the creators’ names, recommendations, and all the usual back cover content. It’s written by Kurt Busiek; drawn by Brent Anderson; and inked by Will Blyberg.
The back cover also adds the motif of a refrigerator door, covered with magnets holding various bits of ephemera, a look that continues inside the book. The magnets are three-dimensional versions of various logos associated with the series — the Astro City rocket, WildStorm — and those plastic letters anyone near kids has seen. They spell out the title and pin up business cards for the creators, incorporating a bunch of additional information economically.
But wait, it gets better. The heavy DC masthead, with all its names, becomes movie listings for the DC Megaplex 18, “a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company”. The dedications are post-it notes. The table of contents, a shopping list. James Robinson’s introduction, an article clipping. The detail here is amazing, with so much worked in cleverly.
The motif continues throughout the book on the pages introducing the various stories. They’re reprinted from issues #21, 22, and the Local Heroes miniseries, plus “Since the Fire” from the 9-11 benefit collection is included.
The first three stories are somewhat self-referential. The first serves as a re-introduction to the series, with a doorman telling why he stays in Astro City while directing a visiting family around. The second focuses on a comic book writer working for a gung-ho old-style editor in an odd story with a rather downbeat message about the risks of making comics. The third ponders the nature of fame as a stuntman who plays a hero becomes a real one, temporarily.
About then, I found myself wondering where the stories about the actual heroes were. My best-remembered AC stories were the two about Samaritan from the first miniseries, the ones that explored what his life was like. I know there have been plenty of stories about “regular folks” reacting to the heroes in the series, but I remember just as many stories about the heroes’ lives: the First Family, the whole Confessor storyline…
The next story in the book is a take on the Silver Age Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, where she kept trying to prove Clark was Superman and he kept tricking and playing cruel pranks on her. Busiek tries to come up with a plausible reason for all of it, but it still comes off as disturbingly pitiful.
That’s followed by the story of a country hero and a city girl forced to spend her summer on the farm. Then a two-parter has a lawyer questioning the justice system in a world of evil twins and resurrections and shape-changers. It’s the story that best sums up for me the change in the tone of the series, since it moves Astro City into the 70s, with all the questioning of authority and loss of belief in institutions that entails.
After one about “old foes meeting up again” and the 9-11 piece that says firefighters are the real heroes, there’s a sketchbook and cover gallery.
Overall, this volume, especially those last few stories, could serve as an argument for how uncomfortably superheroes fit into our society these days. I think that’s why the older AC stories work best for me. I don’t want to read about a “realistic” take on heroes in a more recent setting because the ultimate conclusion is that they don’t make sense, that they don’t have much to say that can speak to our real concerns, that trying to seriously explore their underpinnings results in cruelty (the Lois Lane story) or injustice (the legal system one) or irrelevance (the 9-11 piece).