Chances are you’re a fan of “Astro City,” but if not, you’re really out of excuses. The Kurt Busiek series has since its inception in 1995 been the premiere destination for consistently outstanding superhero fiction. Employing his trademark method of exploring super-powered beings and events from the personal point of views of people both ordinary and extra, Busiek and his collaborators Brent Anderson, Alex Ross, Alex Sinclair and Comicraft have earned numerous Harvey and Eisner awards for their work on “Astro City.” Each arc – all of which are collected in trade paperbacks from DC/Wildstorm – is designed to stand on its own, making any given “Astro City” story accessible to new readers, while still cleverly adding to the series’ internal mythology for those who’ve been following story threads since the beginning.
Last summer, ten years out from “Astro City” Vol. 1, issue #1, Busiek and his team released the first part of their most ambitious arc yet, the multi-volume “The Dark Age.” CBR News sat down with writer Kurt Busiek to talk about the events in “Book 1,” and to get a preview of things to come in “Book 2,” #1 of which is shipping next month.
“The Dark Age: Book 1” proved to be heavy with complex ideas about right and wrong, ugly familial conflicts, and heated political controversy, making it the most intense “Astro City” story ever. Set in the early part of a turbulent 1970s that reflects that of our own, the story of the four issue “The Dark Age: Book 1” revealed finally to readers a secret kept from them for ten years: the fate of Astro City’s mysterious and much mourned Silver Agent.
“Pretty satisfying,” Busiek told CBR News, when asked how it felt to finally write the most anticipated story in his series’ history. “Though even that story’s not over….”
All the featured characters of “Astro City,” whether super-powered or pedestrian, have been people who wrestle with assorted conflicts in their lives. “The Dark Age” is perhaps a story about conflict itself, in virtually every fact of life. In “Book 1,” we are introduced to Charles and Royal Williams, two of Busiek’s most deeply authentic characters yet. The brothers are virtually estranged, one a cop and one a criminal. They collide over philosophy, women, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of their parents, and the out of control super-powered beings and events that surround them and affect their world. Events such as entire populations experiencing superpowered hallucinations, giant spiders, devastating battles in the streets, and America’s most honored superhero being arrested for the assassination of a villainous foreign leader. Also, the Vietnam War is going on.
As I said, you can’t spell “The Dark Age” without “conflict.”
“Ultimately,” explained Busiek, “‘The Dark Age’ is about family and obsession. That gets filtered out through politics and war and such because they’re part of the landscape in the early 1970s, when the story is set, but it’s not a political manifesto, and neither of the Williams brothers really cares much about national politics.”
Whether or not the Williams brothers pay attention, politics abound. Originally conceived as “Marvels II,” the “Dark Age: Book 1” is remarkably relevant for a tale set in the 1970s and created in the 1990s. “Astro City’s” Silver Agent is, as many of the book’s characters are, a pastiche of established genre archetypes and concepts, most obviously Captain America. In “The Dark Age,” the world witnesses the unprovoked Agent assassinate a Mid-East-Asian political tyrant known by many as “the Mad Maharajah.” Though he’d clashed with the Silver Agent before, the Maharajah was at the time of his death meeting with other world leaders to broker peace talks in the Vietnam conflict, igniting international outrage and claims of American misconduct.
For some readers, it appeared that with the Silver Agent –or, if you like, Captain America– the United States had disposed of an anti-American foreign leader in a profoundly unlawful way, echoing numerous real-life controversies of this kind from not just the 1970s, but as recent as, well, maybe even yesterday.
“…it’s satisfying the way things work in context,” said Busiek, who did not intend to draw parallels of this kind when he wrote the story. “To get all stupid-metaphysical for a moment, it’s like a story is a rock dropped in a pond. It sends out ripples. But every reader is a different pond (see? I said ‘stupid-metaphorical’!) and the ripples are going to be different for everyone. If the story’s honest, it’ll click with people.
“On the other hand,” Busiek adds, “I think it’s possible to read too much into things.”
Indeed, as it is tragically revealed that the Silver Agent was acting under mind-control as part of an elaborate frame job created by the Maharajah himself, who turned out not to be dead after all. The scenario is a riff on the framing of Captain America by the Secret Empire, in a story written by Steve Englehart in the 1970s.
Still, for some readers unfamiliar with the classic story, it may seem that in revealing the entire Silver Agent incident to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the “Mad Maharajah,” Busiek was making a different comment about our real-world political landscape; suggesting that America is just an innocent victim, duped and manipulated by flamboyant, psychotic tyrants in the east.
Busiek responded, “‘Astro City’ isn’t an argument about real-world events at all – the Vietnam peace talks [in “The Dark Age”] represent the [real life] Vietnam Peace Talks, not Iraq or Afghanistan. And the Mad Maharajah isn’t there to make a point about how Saddam Hussein is tricking us into executing our superheroes, he’s there because my mother used to like to sing an old Vaughn Monroe Band number called ‘The Rich Maharajah of Magador,’ and when I needed a foreign potentate in the Fu Manchu mold, I remembered that song. If she’d sung Sinatra’s ‘They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil,’ the Silver Agent might have gotten tangled up with El Presidente, or something like that.”
However, despite the actual origins of Busiek’s ideas and his literary intentions, he encourages readers to interpret “Astro City” as they will, saying, “if you see resonances with real-world events, then I’m glad of it and I hope it made the story more powerful for you.”
The writer also remarked, “…as long as I write honestly and try to make the characters ring true emotionally, they do seem to strike chords with the readers, whether these chords were intended or not. Everyone brings their own experiences to what they read, so if the core of the conflicts resonates, they’ll see echoes of those experiences, even if I was working off of something completely different when I wrote it.”
The tragic conclusion of “The Dark Age: Book 1” illuminated the answer to the mystery of the Silver Agent memorial statue seen all the way back in “Astro City’s” run at Wildstorm’s Homage Comics imprint. “To Our Eternal Shame” read the plaque on the statue, and America executing one of their greatest heroes for a crime he didn’t really commit is shameful indeed. But there are still unanswered questions, even more than before. How did the Agent suddenly appear in the streets of Astro City, at the end of “Book 1,” to defeat an enemy even though he’d been executed two minutes earlier? For that matter, why was he giant-sized? Why was his costume damaged when he appeared? Did he time travel? How?
“Those questions will be addressed,” Busiek assured. “Not all of them in ‘The Dark Age,’ though. ‘The Dark Age,’ ultimately, is about Charles’ and Royal’s story, and there’s stuff that happens around them that they never know [about].
“We’ll learn more about the Silver Agent, but I rarely if ever tell the story about any of the Astro City heroes. If you want a story that’s a straight-on spotlight on a superhero, there are lots and lots of other books that do that. ‘Astro City’ tells stories involving superheroes, but even, say, #1 is a story about Samaritan dealing with one aspect of his life, not the story of Samaritan.”
The future of “Astro City” is mainly dark, but in the best possible way. The trials and tribulations of the fascinating Williams’ brothers and the chaotic Astro City of the 1970s and 1980s continue on into books 2, 3, and 4 over the next couple of years. “Astro City in the mid-to-late seventies gets kind of trippy, as Alex’s covers show, ” Busiek said. “The story’s still about the Williams brothers, but it involves a gang war among a variety of weird-ass crime bosses, celestial events, outsider heroes on the run, the appearance of the Envoy, the Innocent Gun, space babies, sorcerous prophecies and more including love, revenge, corruption, opportunism, murder and despair.
“And keep an eye on Black Velvet…”