Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review -- "Astro City Vol. 1: Life in the Big City"

For my inaugural comic review (I haven't written one yet?! For shame!), I've chosen the first volume of Astro City entitled "Life in the Big City" by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross. It's an older title (the six issues or "chapters" comprising this collection were published almost 15 years ago), but the story and characters have a timeless quality that I believe will appeal to young and old comics readers alike.

Note -- If you're already fairly comics literate, then check out iFanboy's review that I embedded in a previous post. They do a great job of dissecting the work in terms of an accomplishment in the world of comics. I'll focus on why it would be appealing to middle and high school students, and how it might be used in the classroom. Now, on with the review...

The Characters
Simply put, "Life in the Big City" consists of six loosely-related stories of the superheroes and various inhabitants of Astro City, which could be modeled after any major metropolitan American city. As these characters are completely the creation of Busiek, Anderson, and Ross, there is no confusing character histories for the students to wade through, as is often the case with the Big Two's (DC's and Marvel's) heroes and villians. This is a major selling point for use of this collection in the classroom, as students have frequently called me to their desks while reading Spider-Man or Superman stories to have me clear up 40-80 years of confusing character continuity. Many students, however, will recognize these characters' archetypes, which could spark a great conversation/mini-lesson about the epic hero, mythology and fantasy literature in general.

The Stories
The first chapter of introduces students to The Samaritan, a Superman-like character, who narrates a tale of his struggle to find time for himself as a man defined by his duty to the people of Astro City. There's some fun baddy-punching and saving-the-day sprinkled throughout, but the core of the story is how difficult it is for people of great responsibility (read soldiers, firefighters, policemen, etc.) to take time for themselves to simply enjoy life. This chapter/issue humanizes The Samaritan, without falling into the trap of characterizing him as a tortured soul bent of avenging some great crime (e.g. Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, etc.).

Chapter Two focuses the lense on Elliot Mills, a reporter for Astro City's leading newspaper, The Rocket. While the newspaperman bent on exposing the truth behind superheroes' origins is also a common trope of supehero comics, Mills' story is anything but typical. Again, students will love the action of this chapter/issue, but the real conflict of the story here is that Mills, a witness to a giant battle and the reappearance of a long-forgotten hero, has trouble even writing his story. Being a rookie reporter, his work is edited and re-edited into a watered-down version of the events, which could undoubtedly spark a mini-lesson about journalistic integrity, the First Ammendment, and censorship.

"A Little Knowledge", Chapter Three of this volume, has at its center a dilemna faced by one of the street thugs of Astro City, the hapless Andrew "Eyes" Einstein. When Eyes stumbles upon the secret identity of superhero Jack-in-the-Box, he soon realizes that exploiting this knowledge for personal gain won't be as easy as he initially thought. Entrenched in the criminal underground, Eyes discovers that he can't trust anyone with the news of his discovery. A scene at the beginning of the chapter in which Eyes laments his former crime-riddled section of the city becoming more upscale could lead to a mini-lesson on gentrification and the changing nature of large urban areas. Eyes' eventual rejection of the city he seems to love so dearly could lead to a discussion of ethics as well as positive and negative choices.

Chapter Four, probably my least-favorite of the collection, centers around Marta, a junior clerk at an Astro City law firm. Entitled "Safeguards", this chapter has Marta weighing her responsibilities at home in a creepy neighborhood called Shadow Hill versus those of the heroes of Astro City. Initially entertaining ambitions of moving to the big city, Marta, of course, soon realizes that there is "no place like home", and decides that there is no need to exchange her problems at home for new problems in Astro City. A creative writing assignment about the value of home (The House on Mango Street, anyone?) could easily come out of this chapter.

The titular "Reconnaissance" in Chapter Five is performed by a bug-like alien in disguise, whose task it is to gather the information necessary for his home planet to launch a full-out attack on Earth. Long having gathered enough information, this 'villian' finds something in humankind that he admires through his observation of a cocky hero named Crackerjack. But when Crackerjack's identity is accidentally revealed to a group of gossiping old women, the alien quickly loses his faith. Discussion of the modern 'cult of celebrity' and the price of fame (possibly The Great Gatsby?) could easily follow this chapter.

"Dinner at Eight" takes a potentially cheesy precept -- superheroes on a date -- and again insightfully examines the choices forced upon those in positions of power. The Samaritan, last seen in the first chapter, is confused by superheroine Winged Victory's conscious focus of aiding women in distress. Feminism, as well as the governments' allocation of taxpayers' money, could be topics to spring out of this chapter.

The Art
With panel layouts that are easy to follow, clearly defined heroes and villians, and full of colorful action scenes, "Life in the Big City" should be a pleasure for students and experienced comics readers. As with nearly all comics stories, the visual nature of the comics medium helps students to instantaneously analyze the setting of the story as well as the characters' roles within the setting, and the action is detailed much more effectively through art than it would be with dopey dialogue like, "He punched the bad guy. Then the bad guy punched back."

"Life in the Big City" could be a welcome addition to a classroom or school library. Fun, smart, and inventive, it's a superhero tale for the ages.


  1. >> Marta, of course, soon realizes that there is "no place like home", and decides that there is no need to exchange her problems at home for new problems in Astro City.>>

    Another way to look at that issue is that Marta chooses to live in the place where she has the knowledge and skill to safeguard herself, rather than depend on others, however heroic, to do so.

    That was my initial intent, at least, and some readers read it that way and others read it as Marta retreating to the bosom of her family (even though she moves out of the family home). It made for an interesting debate, and people on both sides of the question seemed to like this issue. It won an Eisner award for Best Single Issue of the year, si maybe we did something right.

    Personally, I think the mixed interpretations the story got have something to do with the American frontier myth -- in the US, once a character leaves home and hearth, they have to conquer the new territory or it's seen as a retreat. So while I saw it as a story about Marta finding out where she has the most power over her own destiny, others saw it as a story where she was defeated by the new territory she'd ventured into.

    Both interpretations can be supported by the text, so it might make for interesting class discussion on those terms.

    Glad you find the book useful, in any case!

  2. "Both interpretations can be supported by the text, so it might make for interesting class discussion on those terms."

    Great point, Kurt. I'm sure as a creator it can be extremely frustrating at times as well as rewarding to read/hear different opinions about your own creations. I'm of the belief that discussion like this are often unfairly reserved for the college classroom, so the opportunity that you suggest is particularly appealing to me as a junior high teacher.

    Thanks so much for reading! I'm truly a fan!


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