When Astro City launched 20 years ago this month, readers were introduced to a new type of superhero comic book — one that explored what it's like to live in a mecca for powered beings, with stories told from the viewpoint of residents both with and without powers.
This week, Astro City #26 marks the 20th anniversary of the comic by returning to the focus of issue #1 back in 1995 — the thoughts and dreams of the beloved hero Samaritan. And according to the creators, the way Samaritan's dreams have changed over the last 20 years reflects the changes in the real world occupied by the creators themselves.
Written by Kurt Busiek and co-created by artists Alex Ross and Brent Anderson, the comic is published by DC Entertainment after being relaunched as part of its Vertigo imprint in 2013.
With issue #26 coming out this week, Newsarama talked to Busiek and Anderson about how the book has changed over the years and what's coming up next.
Newsarama: Kurt and Brent, I was surprised to realize it's been 20 years since you started Astro City. I can't believe that.
Brent Anderson: Me neither!
Kurt Busiek: Tell us about it.
Nrama: How does this week's issue mark that 20th anniversary?
Busiek: This was something of a struggle conceptually, because it's issue #26 of the current series — it's not a super-cool round number or anything — and frankly, we don't have the time in our schedule to say, oh, we're going to do a fancy double-sized issue.
So it had to be just a story. And how do we mark 20 years with a story?
I was talking to Alex about cover ideas and just this and that, and during that conversation, the idea came up of, that first story was about what's Samaritan dream about?
It's 20 years later. What's he dream about now?
And that was all I needed to know to go, OK, yeah, that's a 20th anniversary story. There's weight there. I didn't know what the story was yet, but I knew that was something I could build on and we can turn into a story that will call back to the original, look forward to the future, be an Astro City story in that it combines superhero concerns with character concerns — and just from that idea, I knew we'd find what we need.
Nrama: I assume his dreams are different 20 years later, much as Astro City itself has evolved. When Astro City began, it was a different look at the superhero genre. Is the superhero genre different now, and has that influenced Astro City, or is it more about the real world being different now, and that contributing to the way the story has evolved?
Busiek: I think both of those. But we as creators are also different. I mean, we're 20 years older. When this first started, we were both married and childless.
It's funny — I wrote two stories about a father with two daughters about a year and a half or so apart, and then I had two daughters a year and a half apart. I'm not sure if reality was reacting to my fiction, or I just had things chronologically backwards.
But the stuff that we've gone through over that time — Brent was a solidly established creator, but he was kind of getting back into the business, and I was a writer who'd had a few years of success, and now, we're the old guys. We've been in this a long time, and we're a lot more comfortable knowing we can do what we intend to do.
At the same time, the industry has changed. Possibly because of the influence of Astro City and other books along those lines, the superhero genre has become a more reflective genre in a lot of ways. And so we're operating in a different context, one where we're not as completely out of left field as we were when we first started out, and that makes a difference.
Anderson: Twenty years ago, Astro City was a new and different look at superheroes and superhero genre. Twenty years later, people still like it, but because it's old school.
So in 20 years, I went from being innovative and new and different to being old school. But the fans are still there, the people are still there, they still like the series, so I can't complain.
Nrama: Does that offer a bit of a challenge, to make sure you're still being relevant in today's culture? Maybe push the envelope a little?
Busiek: I try to ignore the idea that there is an envelope. The analogy that I used to talk over with Scott McCloud long, long ago was that comics, and particularly mainstream comics, are like the state of Wyoming. Everybody lives in Cheyenne. Everybody is clustered around the same thing. And somebody like Frank Miller, or before him Chris Claremont, comes along and goes off in a new direction and says, we don't have to be stuck in this city; we can go this way and do these things. And everybody goes, "Oh look! A new road! And they follow down that road."
What I take from that is not, "Oh, Frank Miller did Daredevil and Dark Knight; now we can all do Daredevil and Dark Knight." It's that Frank Miller went off in his own direction, so we can all go off in our own direction and explore the entire state of Wyoming, metaphor that it is, rather than following the footsteps of whoever the latest pioneer is.
So I'm still messing with the original idea for Astro City, which was "What's it like to live in a world like this, and what does that say about people in the real world?" And I want to do that as well as I can. And I want to explore new things rather than with the kind of story I was telling 20 years ago.
We want, you know, Brent, Alex, Alex Sinclair, J.D. — everybody who works on the book wants to be on top of our game. And we want to play that game better than we did last issue, more than wanting to make sure nobody's going to confuse us with Avengers. I don't think anybody's going to confuse us with Avengers. I think that if we do what we're doing as well as we possibly can, that will make us different and distinctive.
And we change over time because our view as artists and creators changes as we age and as we have experiences and as we have influence and things like that.
So it naturally grows and changes that way.
Nrama: We've seen a lot of new characters since the book's been back. Is that going to continue?
Anderson: Always lots of new characters coming. We're right now working on a two-parter where Kurt and I are creating an alien world with a culture and a belief system, and individual characters within that belief system and in that world, that we're implying always existed in the Astro City Universe over the last 20 years and before.
So yes. We're always creating new characters.
Busiek: The question about new characters is often in terms of new superheroes with costumes. But that's not really how we approach the book. When we create a new character, it's often someone without powers, and that person is as much a new character as someone wearing a costume with a code name.
Since our focus is often shifted around, and we look at different people, sometimes superheroes and sometimes not, we're constantly going to be creating new characters. There are new characters in the works, there are changes to characters that have been around for 20 years in the works.
The first, what I think of as "era" of the story, started with#1 and ended with "The Dark Age." We're currently in the midst of another arc that's at least that big and expansive. That's why we've been telling stories about characters being replaced, and that feeds into the 20th anniversary issue, because that's some of the stuff Samaritan's thinking.
And what they're going to do as a result of the stuff he's wrestling with now is a background thread that's going to run through some of these stories.
It could conceivably lead to a conclusion for the series, or possibly a conclusion for that arc — we'll find out as we get closer.
But yeah, we're dealing with something that many comic book universes haven't ever dealt with before, which is that all the characters they started out with are 20 years older. Exploring the changes in these characters and the changes in the world around them and how they cope with it is a way of exploring larger issues about humanity and how we age and what we think about and how we respond to crisis, from a position of, is this generation becoming irrelevant as the next generation's taking over? What's going on?
It's a bunch of new questions to wrestle with that a superhero universe rarely gets to wrestle with at all.
And you know, Brent is carrying a lot of weight on this, because he's having to age the characters. He has to make characters that were young look like they're pushing 50, but still fit and capable as heroes.
The idea of seeing a character change and get older over a long period of time, it's hard to do that in a comic book format. But Brent is able to do it. He can make a 45-year-old character look different from a 38-year-old character look different from a 29-year-old character.
Anderson: I have to throw in here too, it's been an amazing experience over the last 20 years collaborating with Kurt and developing these characters, because he provides me again and again the opportunities to fall in love — literally fall in love — with every single character we've ever explored in any kind of depth.
That's true of all the characters. Like Winged Victory, who was, you know, just kind of a fly-on Wonder Woman character/archetype, who served this purpose and that purpose, but we didn't actually get her story. When we got her story, I fell in love with her.
Astra from the First Family, I drew her first when she was a little girl, and that was fun. But then we did the story where she graduates from college, and you find out who she is. But I'd already fallen in love with her as a little girl, and I got to see her grow up. And it was kind of like a parent seeing a child grow up.
Anyway, thanks Kurt.
Busiek: Thanks for all the designs, man.
Nrama: To finish up, Kurt, are there any updates on a film adaptation? There had been some announcements about a version being developed in the past, but is that dead?
Busiek: That particular one that had been announced — that is completely dead. The producer who we were working with on it had some pretty serious health issues, and he was not able to continue with all the projects he wanted to do.
But there have been interest in Astro City since very early on, and as things like the Marvel movies and DC TV shows have been a success, that interest has only increased. But the deal-making in Hollywood is like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill, except that in Hollywood sometimes Sisyphus actually makes it to the top.
So when that deal fell apart, there was someone else interested for awhile, but then that deal fell apart. And then it was somebody else, and we worked with them for awhile, and that fell apart. And now we're working with someone else.
I can't give a lot of specifics because there are — it's all like a walk through a jungle, and at any time, you can discover that, oh, things have blown up again and we have to start over. But the interest is always out there and it's been made very clear that even if the current deal were not to happen, there are some very excited people, multiples of them, who would be instantly next in line to say, "No, no, talk to us about it; let's do something."
There's a lot of stuff going on, but none of it is ready to be publicized yet.