Astro City #39
I normally don’t care much for the supernatural-focused stories of Astro City. Although there’s a long tradition of the combination in Bronze Age comics, I’ve never liked the way magic mixes with the more science-fiction-y superheroes. So I was surprised at just how much I liked this issue of the long-running series by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by guest artist Carmen Carnero.
It begins with the origin of the Hanged Man. Think the Spectre mixed with the Watcher, an ominous ghostly presence that floats through disturbing events.
But the story is really about Marta, a successful accountant and mentor to younger employees. She lives in Shadow Hill, the mystical area of Astro City, where magic works and the people there tend to have more old-country family connections. That’s the Hanged Man’s domain. Which is how her mother can keep interacting with her the same way she always has, even though mom is dead.
Although the story is about what it means when the Hanged Man looks at Marta, what I loved about it is how authentic this portrait of an adult woman is. She’s a type mostly ignored in comics, restricted to parent or wife, but Marta has emotions and abilities and a realistic resignation to and comfort with her life. Instead of excitement and adventure, this comic is about patience and discovery and caring for others. She is part of a network of connections, of friends and co-workers and people she knows and those she helps and those who help her. That’s mimicked in the powered part of the story as well.
This is part one of two, so I’m not sure how this story will conclude, but I’ve enjoyed the time I spent with Marta. She realizes that you can’t have it all, but she makes the best of what she has, and she’s an inspiration for doing so.
I wracked my brain trying to remember where I’d seen Marta before; I wouldn’t have realized I was supposed to recognize her at all if not for her line about the last time the Hanged Man looked at her, twenty years ago. (A quick search says she was in #4 of the original miniseries. I may have to pull Life in the Big City off the shelf and reread it.)
But that’s the kind of book it is: as much history as it’s built up, each story is still self-contained. (Perhaps a little less so on, say, the Steeljack and Jack-in-the-Box stories. But even those did a pretty good job of standing on their own.)
I seem to remember Busiek saying, some time ago, that he had an origin story for the Hanged Man but wasn’t sure if he’d ever reveal it, that it might be better just to leave him as an enigma. I definitely see how there’s a risk there (when he finally told the Silver Agent’s story, it ended up being a little underwhelming), but I think he did a good job of squaring the circle here, telling us enough about the Hanged Man’s past to get some idea of who he is, without demystifying him completely.
Wow, neat mention of the history. Thanks for adding that.