Welcome (back) to Astro City!
Almost 20 years ago, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson debuted Astro City at Image Comics. About a year later, it left Image to go to Homage Comics (an imprint of WildStorm). Astro City then followed Homage/WildStorm to DC. After a three years hiatus following 2010, it’s found a new home at Vertigo, where it has found continued success as well as recent Eisner nominations last week.
Newsarama caught up with Busiek, who gave us a quick rundown on the series as well as his thoughts on his recent nominations and the possibility of an endgame in the next few years. Busiek also supplied a cover to upcoming issues as well as some interior pages to show fans and new readers alike what they can still expect from the Astro City name.
Newsarama: So Kurt, Astro City has been at Vertigo for almost two years now with its relaunch so congrats on that, and also, how are you feeling these days?
Busiek: Thanks. I’m doing okay — not as healthy as I’d like to be, but, well, stumbling in the right direction. Slowly getting better, but unevenly, but we’ve been managing to get the book out regularly, so that’s good!
Nrama: Now this is continuing from the old canon as it's not a reboot. Did you face any challenges when trying to make it accessible for old fans as well as new?
Busiek: Not anything new, I’d say. We’ve always tried to make it accessible for both new and old readers, by making sure every issue has all you need to understand the story, without hitting you over the head with big blocks of repetitive exposition. So if you’re new to the book we’ll introduce you to everything, and if you’re not you may not notice the reintro stuff — or if you do, it breezes by lightly.
I started reading comics regularly in the 1960s, and it used to be that all comics were done that way. Maybe not terribly elegantly, but they were always aware that each issue might be someone’s first, so it had better be understandable. And along the way, I’ve learned from reading other writers who do it well, from Neil Gaiman to Leonard Starr, how to remind people of what they need to know without being hugely blatant about it.
It’s just craft, and I take some pride in doing it well.
Nrama: Do you think a place like Vertigo feels like a good home for the series?
Busiek: Sure. Aside from the obvious, like Vertigo being both DC’s current home for creator-owned books and being a long-established place for sophisticated books — a couple of categories I hope we fit into well! — it’s a pleasure to be in the catalog next to Fables and American Vampire and suchlike, and to be in the backlist alongside Sandman, Y The Last Man, Scalped, Preacher, and more.
I think Vertigo’s offering smart books for readers who want something a little deeper than straightforward genre fun, in all kinds of different genres and styles, so I think Astro City fits into that pretty well.
Nrama: So tell us about some of the new characters here. Obviously you have Samaritan and Crackerjack still floating around, but there's a plethora of the new guard flying around as well.
Busiek: Since we explore what it’s like to live in a world of superheroes from a variety of different perspectives, we’re making up new characters all the time, whether they’re stars of a story who’ll get a lot of time and attention, or background characters like Starpower, who’s only shown up in a single panel so far — but who had to be thought out and designed even for that cameo.
And of course, the lead characters may not be superheroes at all, if we’re telling a story from the perspective of someone who isn’t one of the heroes. So unlike most books, we’re not mainly in the business of telling stories about superheroes; we have a lot of them but they’re just as often background characters as they are the main players.
That said, some of the characters we’ve introduced recently: we gave Starfighter, one of our cosmic heroes, a family — an alien empress wife named Illula and their kids Trill and Artie, along the way of learning about his origin and career. And we finally met his ex-sidekick Quark, and learned why that didn’t work out.
We’ve seen new villains, like the computer-consciousness Gormenghast and the Black Lap, alien invader Imperion and street thugs like the Mime Gang. We’ve established a whole nesting set of microscopic universes, home to villains like Krigari Ironhand and alien races like the Qui-quia. We met the teenage hero Starbright and his archenemy, who may just be his successor. A plethora of robots from Mechizmo to the Ballbearians, and robot-master Vivi Viktor. Plus we’d established a team of young heroes named Reflex 6 a while back, and we met Jimmy Shade and Gorgona, the two of them we hadn’t seen previously. We had a story about the Silver Adept, the premier sorcerous hero in the world. We met a villain named Gundog who was tired of being a villain, and the Dancing Master, an ancient and comic avatar of love. We briefly met a werecat named Stray, who seems to be on the side of the heroes without being terribly nice herself.
And that’s all in the last year or so.
Upcoming, you’re going to meet Sticks, a talking gorilla with dreams of being a drummer, the Recovery Squad, the alien mob behind a nightclub called a Freakeasy, a hidden civilization with its own pantheon of gods, and more.
We’ve got a whole city for our main stage, and we spill out into the wider world a lot — and we don’t have any restrictions on whether we tell stories set in the present, past, future or wherever. And while lots of characters recur, none of them appear every single issue. So we regularly have lots of new characters turning up. That’s not going to slow down anytime soon.
Nrama: You have some issues focusing on the citizens as well as the heroes, running home the notion that the city itself is the star of the show. Why is that important to you as a storyteller?
Busiek: Well, as I mentioned before, the concept of the book is that we’re exploring what it’s like to live in a world where all this bizarre superhero stuff happens, and telling stories about what it’s like to live there. So it’s not just about the heroes, and it’s not even all that much about what the heroes do when they’re out being heroes. It’s about life, about what it’s like to live under stress, with big stuff happening around you, whether you’re a hero, a bystander, an alien spy, a talking gorilla…we want to see all kinds of people and learn all kinds of things about their experiences. Seeing this world through many eyes.
As such, we tell stories about ordinary humans or the superhero-adjacent at least as often as we tell stories about the heroes themselves, maybe more so. In the current run, we’ve told stories about a man who raised his daughters in Astro City and is now wondering what to do with his life; a young woman who gets a job answering phones at the crisis hotline for Honor Guard, the world’s most prominent superhero team; a telekinetic who, rather than be a superhero, uses her powers to create special effects for movies and TV; a government agent investigating occult horrors; the personal assistant to that sorceress I mentioned earlier; a former costumed villain trying to stay out of trouble; an old lady who runs a roadside museum, and more.
One thing we’re not going to do in Astro City is tell you the same old story. We want to see what else happens in a world like this, and we’ll do it through any character who can show us something new.
Nrama: Astro City has won numerous awards including Eisners for Best New Series and Best Continuing Series almost 20 years ago and now it was recently nominated again. I know you don't work or create something purely for the awards, but how do you feel when something like that happens, especially considering that the Eisners are voted on by your peers?
Busiek: It’s very flattering. I figured we were too old and familiar to be nominated — kind of like when Gene Colan was on Daredevil for years and years, and it always looked great, but it was just seen as “normal” because readers got used to it. We always got nice reaction — “oh, here’s more Astro City, it’s still good, how nice” — but I figured readers were used to us and had gotten comfortable with the book, so it wasn’t surprising any more.
Getting nominated, that’s a very nice way of being told, “Hey, no, you’re still doing good work and we like it!” So that’s great. And getting nominated for #16, a story I built out of a script I wrote before I’d sold anything at all in this industry, that was even nicer. I’m very pleased, and I think the whole team would say the same.
I don’t expect we’re going to win anything — but I think it’s a very strong ballot this year, with tons of great stuff on it. It’s a cliche to say it, but I’m honored just to be listed among these other books. There’s a lot of talent out there.
Nrama: Now, Astro City is your own take on superheroes and this unique world, but you've obviously contributed a lot to both Marvel and DC over the years. I'm curious on what you think of big events like Secret Wars and Convergence as you've stayed away from that sort of thing in Astro City.
Busiek: We do, certainly, have “big events” in Astro City. But since our whole universe takes place in one book, when there’s a story where Honor Guard, the First Family, the Omega Rangers and others team up because the Silver Agent has returned from the dead (just to pick one), it doesn’t get treated as a crossover, because it’s just part of whatever story we’re telling that month.
That said, I’m not planning to read Secret Wars, and I’ve only read a few bits of Convergence, mainly due to friends of mine writing a mini or artists I like drawing one. I’m not the target audience for these big sprawling crossovers any more, and have skipped them for years. So I can’t really comment — maybe they’re great stories, and if they’re reaching an audience that loves ‘em, that it doesn’t matter that they’re not reaching a fifty-something guy like me who’s been reading comics regularly since 1974.
They really don’t need to aim those books at me — and I’ve got a ton of other stuff to read. So I wish ‘em success, and I’ll just read other stuff.
Nrama: You've been writing Astro City for so long, has an endgame for it ever crossed your mind?
Busiek: Used to be, I’d say no — but we’re actually steering slowly toward something that could be an endgame. It’ll take a few years, maybe more, to get there, so we’ve got lots of time to decide whether it’s truly something that would serve as a finale to the series or not.
But as slow as I’ve gotten, I have lots of things I want to do — as does Brent, as does Alex — and at some point we’ll want to use the time that currently goes into Astro City to do some of those other things, separately, together, or who knows. So yeah, we’re steering toward something, but not anything imminent. And we’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.