The smallest week in recent memory:
- Tangent: Superman’s Reign #5 of 12, by Dan Jurgen, Jamal Ingle & Robin Riggs, and Ron Marz, Fernando Pasarin & Matt Banning (DC)
- Astro City: The Dark Age book 1 HC, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
- The Perhapanauts #3, by Todd Dezago & Craig Rousseau (Image)
On the bright side, the week did deliver the hardcover collection of Astro City: The Dark Age book 1, collecting the first half of this longest of Astro City stories.
I won’t go into detail about what Astro City is about (after all, you can read about it yourself), but as for this volume: The story covers the 1970s, a period of Astro City largely skipped over by earlier stories, except for the hint of the hero the Silver Agent, a sort of Captain America figure who is featured on a monument in the city dedicated to “our eternal shame”. This story fills in some of the blanks in the Agent’s story, while raising new questions.
The prologue takes place in 1959, when the brothers Charles and Royal Williams witness a fight between the Honor Guard (Astro City’s equivalent of the Justice League or Avengers) and a crop of villains. We later learn that disaster befell the Williams family that evening. Jumping forward to 1972, Charles has become a cop who’s suspicious of the heroes, while Royal has become a small-time crook, and the two have a strained relationship. The book is nominally their story, although there’s so much more going on that they simply get more pages than any other set of characters, plus they narrate the tale, but it’s not entirely their story. They follow the tragedy which befalls the Silver Agent, and Charles gets wrapped up in a police corruption ring while Royal hooks up with one of the city’s crime lords. The second half of the volume grows increasingly complex with threats to the city and the world, mysterious figures pursuing strange agendas, and the big mystery of the Agent. This volume ends in 1977, and the second volume will likely cover the next 5 years.
Astro City has long been a favorite of mine, and it’s fair to say I think it’s the best superhero comic of the last 15 years. But The Dark Age isn’t the book at its best. There’s too much going on, and with tantalizing glimpses of neat stuff going on, but not a feel of a whole lot of progress. A big part of the problem is that neither of the Williams brothers are very compelling as characters, certainly nowhere near the protagonists of the two earlier long-form stories, Confession (my favorite volume in the series) or The Tarnished Angel. They’re realistic and sympathetic, but the story goes for scale and intricacy rather than depth and character, and that doesn’t play to the series’ strength. Indeed, the series has often used the feeling of scale and depth of “real” superhero stories as a mere springboard for a moving character piece, so turning the series’ formula on its head just makes it feel a little less special. And the intricacy probably makes it a lot less accessible to new readers.
All that said, there’s still a lot here to delight the regular readers of Astro City, as mysteries of the city’s past are brought to light. And the book reads much better in a single shot than as a serial, especially given how slowly the series has come out in recent years. Brent Anderson’s art is stylish and dynamic as always, chock-full of fun character designs and settings (by Anderson and Alex Ross) and a terrific coloring job.
I guess The Dark Age is only disappointing by comparison with earlier Astro City volumes, which frankly were often just plain amazing. It’s still pretty good and rewards re-reading. And as this is only the first half of the story, I have to allow for the chance that there will be a great payoff to all this set-up in the end. Meanwhile, this is all we’ve got, and with the series’ erratic schedule we can’t know when we’ll see the next set of issues in the series.
Hopefully it won’t be too long.