Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Astro City: Local Heroes #2

Astro City: Local Heroes #2 (excerpt from Astro City: Local Heroes trade paperback), Homage Comics
writer: Kurt Busiek
artist: Brent Anderson
letterer: J.G. Roshell
colorist: Alex Sinclair

When I went to the library this morning to pick a selection for today’s review, my eyes were drawn to the Astro City: Local Heroes hardcover collection, in part because I hadn’t noticed it before, but mostly because of its dominating presence on the shelf. Similar in size to the Invincible collection that I perused last month, Local Heroes has an attractive dust jacket by Alex Ross, and its interior design is an eclectic montage of Astro City memorabilia, from newspaper clippings to restaurant advertisement to lapel pins. Above all else, Astro City is a book that radiates ambiance; Busiek, Anderson, and company literally invite the reader into their world, where superheroes and common folk dwell together, and where the city itself is perhaps the most compelling character of all.

Confronted with this monstrosity of a trade, I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t want to dive into the entire collection, but I didn’t want to open the book blindly and select a random issue, either, in fear that my confusion with the samplings continuity would sour my impression altogether, which is what happened in my experience with The Nevermen. Fortunately, the inside front cover led me to issue #2, “Shining Armor,” dubbed as a Harvey Award nominee, presumably for best single story. “We’ll see about that,” I thought defiantly, flipping to the chapter excitedly. From page one, I sensed a warmth about the story, a quiet tragedy that demanded sympathy for the characters and the integrity of the author. “Damn,” I mused, humbly satisfied, and read on.

“Shining Armor” is about Irene, a young woman seeking to establish a professional identity for herself in the otherwise cook-the-dinner-raise-the-kids era of the 1950s. Volunteering for a successful local political campaign, Irene makes a name for herself, and as a mayoral aide, finds herself in a vulnerable position when supervillains take over City Hall. Fortunately, the new mysterious hero Atomicus comes to her rescue, and Irene shamelessly asks him to see her again. Their relationship is one part crime-fighting partnership, one part romance, and when Atomicus shares his fears about taking it to the next level, Irene interprets his reservations as a challenge. In fact, when the timid Adam begins working in her office, Irene is determined to reveal that he is truly Atomicus, daring her to show off her chops by exposing her identity. In the end, yes, Adam is Atomicus, but the hero reveals that his secret identity was an attempt to better understand humanity, so he could be a better mate. Alas, Irene’s persistence shuns Atomicus from Earth, and although Irene rises above the public outcry against her “driving away a hero,” she weds, bears a daughter, and tells her (and consequently, us) this bittersweet story.

Obviously, Busiek uses this romantic tragedy to explore the real world consequence of Lois Lane’s campy obsession in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Initially, I was frustrated with Busiek’s seemingly bipolar characterization of Irene; on one hand, she is capable of conquering America’s domestic stereotypes to become a successful career-oriented woman, but on the other, she’s a short-sighted blunderer whose exploits threaten the safety of everyone around her. (In one instance, she dons a radiation-absorbing glove in the hopes that a weakened Adam would expose himself as Atomicus, and if harming the love of her life in this way wasn’t bad enough, the glove also absorbs brainwaves and paralyzes her coworkers, too!) However, in retrospect, Busiek’s deconstruction is spot on. Irene and Lois Lane were stereotype-breaking women, and in their worlds, they are depicted as the most assertive figures in their respective spheres of influence. Enter a man whose sheer good will is stronger than theirs, and of course they overcompensate, fueled by their love, to prove themselves the better. In this case, Atomicus wasn’t as patient as Superman. Atomicus split. Irene may have had a stronger will, but in the end, she was simply left alone with it.

Interestingly, Busiek injects another element into this story, one that has left me wondering, as well. “Shining Armor” begins with Irene telling this cautionary tale to her grand daughter, a confessed and comfortable lesbian, in the hopes that she will learn from past mistakes and find a Mr. Right with whom to start a family. At the end of the story, when Irene falls asleep, her grand daughter confesses an admiration for Irene, but laments at the old woman’s inability to understand that Atomicus left her, that she didn’t really drive him away if he wasn’t so apt to leave. Did Busiek establish that the grand daughter, later revealed to be a superhero herself, is a lesbian so that this worldview would make more sense? Or, so that her lesbianism would be easier to understand? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Still, with a creative so detail-oriented, I venture I’m getting close to Busiek’s commentary on feminism in this story.

Comic books that examine other comic books are often too derivative to exist as stories by themselves. They’re usually just satire. However, in the tapestry of Astro City, “Shining Armor” is an experience in itself. In fact, with its dramatic perspective of an admittedly old concept, “Shining Armor” infuses those old Lois Lane stories with a new dimension, a “what if” reality that could’ve come to pass had Superman ever awoken on the wrong side of the bed, or come into contact with the wrong colored Kryptonite. With so much history behind those iconic characters, a bold move like that simply wouldn’t be possible without destroying the dynamic of a modern mythology. Thank goodness, that’s what Astro City is for. Like its hardcover edition, Astro City is becoming a presence in comicdom, so much so that it’s changing the way we look at the heroes we thought we always knew.

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