By Kurt Busiek, Jospeh M. Infurnari, & Alex Sinclair
One of the strangest eras in comic book history is easily the bizarre boom years of the 1990s. Due to a number of major factors, the ‘90s were a massive time for comic book sales and, while most geeks are loath to admit it, a major period of great comic work. That last part is a bit of a clue to the strangeness of the era, that despite the slurry of truly excellent comic work to come out of that decade most of the ‘90s remains locked away within the geek memory hole alongside such uncomfortable truths as Batman’s silver age career or most of Spider-Man’s more embarrassing stories. As a result, most of the major works of the ‘90s today are either propped up as exceptions that prove the rule like Sandman or Starman or they’re torn down as outdated and unnecessary like Spawn or Bloodstrike. There is however, a very small third faction of ‘90s comics that remain as vanguards of the origins of the indie comic scene, as well respected today as they were 20 years ago. This bizarre subsection of comic book lore is where Astro City can be found.
Even within the realms of its unique slice of comic book history Astro City is the odd man out. Other ‘90s grandees like Hellboy or Savage Dragon remain relevant now because they legitimately found mass appeal in some form, but Astro City has never really found an audience outside of the devoted comic reading public. The central reason for that is baked right into the core thesis and ideology of Astro City and its similarities to the often unfairly overlooked Supreme comic by Alan Moore.
At the time of Astro City’s inception for Image Comics a lot of their books were essentially flooded with transparent take-offs of characters from DC and Marvel. This goes right down to their premiere team at the time,Youngblood, who were conceived of to fill the shoes of the Teen Titans after creator Rob Liefeld’s pitch to DC went south. So, when comic legends Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross came to Image fresh off their critically acclaimed Marvels series they put together a unique pitch; to embrace the transparent homage stylings of Image Comics to re-imagine the weirdness of the silver age if it happened to well realized and fully fleshed out characters. That’s why Astro City is so beloved within the comic sphere but not outside of it; it’s unique blend of diving deep into the out-there weirdness of the silver age and blending it together with compelling and well written characters.
Understanding this core truth is key to understanding the appeal of Astro City and whether or not you’ll enjoy reading it as even though the series has moved to DC’s Vertigo imprint it hasn’t changed up its formula at all. In a way, the consistency is actually supremely impressive given the series turned 20 last year but still feels as fresh and engaging as ever. This latest issue is a very well realized tribute to the unique silver age mechanic of fiction across multiple Earths. It’s not really talked about now, save for in the pages of Multiversity, but during the silver and bronze age of comics part of the core concept inherent to DC’s multiverse was that the different Earths were represented to each other as comic books, like how Jay Garrick of Earth-2 was just a comic book character on Earth-1. Astro City #27 takes that same idea and plays it with a modern twist, expanding the idea to video games rather than comic books. It’s a fun story that makes great use of the visual tropes of video games while also digging deep into the character of creators, specifically the woman whose video game turned out to be a conduit to an otherworldly dimension.
The only major flaw in Astro City #27 is the artwork by Jospeh M. Infurnari. There’s actually a very clever idea on display, which is that the artwork changes style between the “real” world and the video game world, it’s just that the drab darkness of the real world art does its job far too well. The “real” world sequences are far too grainy and washed out with a serious overuse of shading and pencil lines. Part of the fault also lies with colorist Alex Sinclair with the washed out colors clashing against the hatchwork and heavy inking, but the lack of backgrounds and stable geography doesn’t help either. However, the pair really make up for this once they enter the video game world. Chibi superheroes isn’t exactly anything new, but both creators go at it with serious gusto and energy that’s very enjoyable. A lot of the video game antagonists they go up against have fun designs as well with an interesting blend of App game absurdism with a silver age twist, like if Otto Binder had created Angry Birds.
As stated the key to whether or not you’ll enjoy your visit to Astro City is how much affection you have for the silver age of comics. As great as the series is, it’s not surprising that stuff that actively critiqued the silver age like Watchmen are what got popular in the mainstream. On the other hand, injecting modern writing standards into the most exuberant and innocent age of comics usually ends with a realization of the monstrousness of silver age concepts, even Grant Morrison, one of the biggest silver age comic nerds there is, fell into that trap a few times so it’s nice that Astro City has actively resisted that path for so long, even if it’s kept the comic relegated to the upper echelons of the comics world and not much else. Still, not everything needs to be a TV show or a movie or even a New York Times bestseller, some things can just be for comic nerds, and that’s Astro City.